Zoning in on teaching
Fri 25 Oct 2013 by David Grimmond in Labour marketSkills

I am not a fan of school zoning.  Its main outcome is to reduce school choices for poorer families.  Although the intentions underpinning the policy are probably noble, it has unintended consequences which on the whole harm the prospects of children from poorer households. 

I presume that the key purpose of zoning is to ensure that people living locally have access to their local school.  This seems a reasonable aim as it would seem unfair if locals were somehow unable to send their children to nearby schools.  In practice zoning does not necessarily guarantee this; out-of-zone Newtown boys who could walk to Wellington College, must travel further afield to school so that boys from Karori are not deprived of the right of attending their “local” school.

This practice leads to another source of potential inequity that is illustrated by the experience of a former boss of mine.  He did not want to send his children to the local high school so his choices were either to move into the zone of a preferable school or send his children to a private school.  In the end he went with the private school option, but this example raises the point that for many neither option is available; they can neither afford a house in a “good” school zone nor pay the fees for sending their children to a private school.  Hence my view that by inducing a house price premium, school zoning acts as a mechanism for reducing education choice for poorer families.

It is by extending education options for children from poorer families that the Government’s charter school initiative could potentially add value.  International education studies imply that the school system in New Zealand is generally very good, but this does not mean that it is a perfect fit for everyone.  For example, despite the strong performance of our public schools, there has also been a growing demand for privates schooling.  In 2000 13.5% of school students were enrolled in private or integrated schools.  This percentage had increased to 15.2% by 2012. 

What charter schools potentially offer is an alternative to the public system for those who do not have the option of going to a private or integrated school.  The philosophy underpinning this perspective is that a wider range of choice increases the probability that one can get the right match between pupils and the teaching that enhances their learning. 

But it is not obvious that a greater choice of schools, in and of itself, makes a material impact on education outcomes.  US evidence quoted in a recent Economist article indicates that exposure to better teachers is associated with an increased probability of attending university, of attending better universities, and higher later life earnings.  However, although teachers matter, there appears to be more diversity in the quality of teachers within schools, than between schools.  This seems to accord with common sense as well as my recollection from school.  I was lucky to have some excellent teachers, but I also had some fairly ordinary and some quite hopeless teachers.  I am sure that the story is fairly similar for most people, irrespective of the school they went to. 

The biggest gains to improving education outcomes is likely to come from raising the quality of teaching within schools than about addressing differences between schools.  Some of this benefit might come from simply reorganising the teaching roster.  The norm is typically for the best teachers to teach the best students, which simply serves to expand the gap in education achievement.  As noted in the Economist, making the best teachers work with the worst pupils could help to reduce the gap in education attainment.   This and their other suggestion to replace less effective teachers are unlikely to be popular with the teaching profession.  But if we are seriously interested in improving education outcomes (and hence reduce the gaps in the lifetime prospects of students) we need to encourage an education system that exposes teachers to rigorous assessment.

In this regard a couple of recent papers investigating the performance of charter schools in the US demonstrated that high performance tended to be related to pedagogical practices rather than inputs or their charter school status.  For example (Angrist, Pathak, & Walters, 2013) found a divergence in outcomes between different charter schools, with better performing schools emphasising student discipline and teacher observation (eg videoing classes for teacher feedback and training).  In another study (Dobbie & Jr, 2013) found that while input measures such as class size, per-pupil expenditure, teacher certification, and teacher training were not correlated with school effectiveness, pedagogical factors such as teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations explained 45% of the variation in school effectiveness.    

It is too simplistic to presume that alternatives to the public system will be sufficient to generate education improvements.  Indeed, the US experience demonstrates that there is a mix of outcomes from charter schools.  But what the US experience with charter schools has provided is the opportunity to learn from their experimentation.  My reading of this evidence is that there are at least three areas that schools can focus on to improve education outcomes:

  • Ensuring that the school maintains standards about expected student behaviour
  • Openly assessing, reviewing, and improving teaching methods
  • Directing better teachers towards students who have the greatest need for improved education outcomes.


Angrist, J. D., Pathak, P. A., & Walters, C. R. (2013). Explaining Charter School Effectiveness. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 5(4), 1-27.

Dobbie, W., & Jr, R. G. (2013). Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City. American Journal: Applied Economics, 5(4), 28-60.

The Economist, “Knowledge for earnings’ sake” (2013), October 12, p82,

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