The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of beijingkids or True Run Media.
Our recent post about the standing of Beijing’s international schools in the Hurun Education Top 100 is one of our most-read ever, having attracted thousands of views online and via WeChat in the space of three days. However, it has also prompted debate about the meaning and value of such school rankings.
On the face of it, it’s good news for Beijing education, with 26 local schools in the Top 100, and half the top 10 based in the capital. But it’s easy to see how such league tables cause more angst than celebration. If you’re number two, should you worry why you’re not number one?
Such concerns are compounded by the methodology used. The Hurun list is entirely subjective, based on votes from 330 experts. This might be justified by appeal to “the wisdom of the crowd”, but is 330 a big enough sample? Who selected them, and on what basis? Where are they based geographically, and how might this have influenced their idea of which the “best” schools are? It’s notable that, while there are K-12 schools on the list, there are none without a high school element; in other words, this is assessing education as a route to college. There may be extraordinary, innovative, transformative work going on at kindergarten and elementary level, which is not recognized here.
Even if a more rigorous method is used though, league tables for schools remain controversial. Educators complain that they result in “teaching to the test”, skewing practice toward pushing the school up the table instead of treating children as unique individuals. There are allegations that schools “manage out” lower-achieving students so that they don’t drag down their results, or simply don’t allow them to sit exams. And then there is the “Matthew Effect,” so named for a quote from the eponymous Gospel: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” High-ranking schools attract more funding, better teachers, and more pushy, ambitious parents, so that the tables become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Supporters of league tables point to an interesting real-world experiment which appears to vindicate their use. England and Wales began ranking schools in 1988, but in 2001, the regional government in Wales voted to abolish them. In virtually every other respect, the systems remained identical but researchers discovered a subsequent decline in standards in Welsh schools. “We find significant and robust evidence that this reform markedly reduced school effectiveness in Wales,” they reported.
However, the researchers measured “school effectiveness” by the same measure that the league tables use: passing exams. There is no doubt that achieving qualifications is important, but it is not the most significant contributor to our children’s future prosperity and happiness. The problem with league tables is that children are individuals and averages.
For our recent School Choice Guide, we spoke in confidence to numerous parents about their experience of Beijing’s international schools. Some had horror stories to tell about their experiences, but other parents would praise enthusiastically the very same school. We concluded, in the words we used as the theme for the Jingkids International School Expo 2019, that “One Size Does Not Fit All.” There is no “best” school – just the best school for your child, right now.
When it comes to choosing a school, I would argue that league tables are a much less useful indicator than visiting a school, talking to staff and parents, getting a “feel” for it and trusting your instincts; that a school’s ethos and culture, and how they align with your own family’s values, are vastly more important than the fraction of a percentage point which might separate first from second on a league table, or even first from tenth.