Imagine you are a parent and need to choose a secondary school for your child. Or, perhaps you are a business manager looking for interns and want to know where to find the most competent secondary students. How do you know which schools are providing the highest-quality education? Which school is best for your child? These questions can be difficult to answer. In fact, prior to 1997, access to specific data about school performance was very difficult to obtain in the Netherlands.
Enter Prof. Dr. Jaap Dronkers. In 1997, Dronkers was a Professor in Educational Sciences at the University of Amsterdam and is now Professor of International Comparative Research on Educational Performance and Social Inequality at Maastricht University School of Business and Economics. A sociologist, he has studied and written on education and society in the Netherlands and elsewhere for decades.
A risky legal battle
The Dutch Inspectorate of School Education has been collecting and storing performance data since the early 20th century. However, the Inspectorate was reluctant to release the data to the general public. In 1997, a Dutch journalist, Marjan Agerbeek, of the newspaper Trouw went to court to gain access to the data. At the time, there was no way for an average citizen to check a school’s exams scores, failure and dropout rates, and other key data.
In preparation for the court case, Agerbeek consulted Dronkers, on account of his already extensive contribution to the education debate in The Netherlands. (For a listing of Dronkers’ articles on the topic click here) Trouw eventually won the case but its journalists quickly realized that they could not effectively process the vast amount of data now available. Dronkers was again asked to assist. Their findings were so novel, so politically powerful, that the editors of Trouw were convinced to publish them. The resulting article was the first publicly available list of schools ranked according to student achievement.
In 2009, when Dronkers became an honorary professor at Maastricht University, the leadership at SBE and its Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA) knew about his school analysis work and encouraged him to continue. In fact, studying the differences between schools is an important topic in the sociology of education and forms the basis of Dronkers’ Chair at the university. Today, Dronkers continues to participate in the annual analysis, now published by Volkskrant, and considers it an “academic service to the general public and society at large.” In 2012 he enlisted two colleagues at Maastricht University to assist him and said he hopes they will continue the analysis long into the future.
What is school quality?
The study and its results are not without controversy. Dronkers believes that an important part of the debate about school rankings is the discussion about what exactly determines school quality and how it is measured.
The Dronkers List provides a school exam rating; a figure based on the average number of courses and core course final exams with failing scores (5.9 or below) at a school as reported by the school to the Education Inspectorate. Core courses are Dutch and Mathematics for VMBO schools and Dutch, English and Mathematics for higher VMBO, HAVO and VWO schools. The rating is then increased or decreased to produce a final rating depending on an “added value” score: an analysis of the effectiveness of the school based on the initial quality of the student population. For example, the “added value” score takes into account the percentage of students from poor neighborhoods, the socio-economic background of the students, and the number of students receiving learning support.
Initially, Dronkers’ analysis methodology focused on relative quality: How were schools performing in relation to each other? Over time, the Education Inspectorate also began to issue its own similar analysis, making the Trouw publication somewhat redundant. Thus, in 2008, Trouw asked Dronkers if there were ways to distinguish their work and he decided to also look at absolute quality: What is the best a school can do and how do Dutch schools measure up to that “best”? Currently, the analysis combines both relative and absolute quality in its final score.
There has been a great deal of discussion online and within newspaper editorial pages about the specifics of the study. Some believe that school success is much more than the results of exams, especially when one considers that the ranking only includes the results of the core courses noted above, not courses such as Science, History or Geography. Others have concerns with the actual mechanics of the computation. Additionally, some question whether the ranking should include means (teacher quality, parental/board participation) as well as goals/results (actual test scores). In any case, Dronkers believes that parents especially are pleased that this sort of clearly articulated, non-political ranking is produced each year. In fact, parental support for the annual study is one reason it has continued to this day.
There are now three additional sources of school ranking information in the Netherlands. Each source uses similar data from the Inspectorate but combines it differently to provide rankings based on different definitions of quality. The Dutch inspectorate issues a list of very weak schools; a second weekly magazine, Elsevier, issues another list with a slightly different focus; and the VO-raad (the Secondary School Council) issues indexes without any quality judgment.
Photo by Ianus Keller via Flickr, some rights reserved
Does the publication of the Dronkers List have an impact on school choice and school quality? According to Dronkers, the Dutch Education Minister denied that there were any low quality schools in the Netherlands in 1997. However, presumably in part due to the publication of the list, the government admitted in the early 2000s that low-quality schools do exist. These schools were then required to submit improvement plans to the Inspectorate. The Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, the most powerful Dutch think-tank based in The Hague, found that the ranking has changed the behavior of the general public. Dronkers also completed a study showing that the number of new students begins to decline at schools that consistently receive low Dronkers List rankings.
In conclusion, Dronkers welcomes the continued debate about how to best measure school quality. The Dronkers List has contributed greatly to this debate in a clear, easily accessible manner. Thus, if you are a parent or anyone else concerned with the quality of student education, you can now examine the most recent Dronkers List via the Volkskrant website.
For more specific information on how the ratings are calculated, see the website “Performance Rating Dutch Schools”.
By Leslie Sherriff
Leslie Sherriff studied international relations and economic development at the University of Southern California and the University of Pittsburgh in the United States. After 10 years of managing international relief and development projects in the US and the Balkans, she moved to Maastricht with her husband and son. She currently works as an independent consultant and writer for a variety of institutions.