Archive for the 'General' Category
Saturday, January 21st, 2017
As has been pointed out in several earlier posts and essays on this website, education policy in the last 40 or so years, in a number of western countries though not to the same extent in much of Europe and Asia, has increasingly focused on the school years, emphasised parent choice as to the school the child attends, demands accountability in the form of standardised tests on a few core subjects, tends, in a few countries, to favour independent schools rather than public or government schools and seeks to hold teachers to account for the achievement of the students.
The high quality research on the other hand reveals early childhood as critical in terms of brain development and cognitive gain and recognises socioeconomic status of the family to play a major role in the early years which follows through to later experience. The reason is to be found in the very different advantage enjoyed by high socio-economic level families, the greater variety of experiences and much higher level of support of the growing child. Just like health, as Boyer lecturer Michael Marmot so lucidly explains.
As to school, substantial research shows that, by controlling for socioeconomic background, independent schools return no greater student performance than do public schools. It is the value added and the fact that school is by no means the only influence: there are also peers and out of school informal learning experiences. Teacher competence is vital, greatest successes being achieved when entry standards for teachers are high, teaching is recognised as important, teachers trusted and school leadership focuses on supporting the role of teachers in learning and encourages cooperation, preferably among schools, not just within each one.
It is not schools that make the difference but teachers. Competition among schools hinders cooperation which New Zealand found in its 1990 reforms. And parents don’t choose schools only on the basis of academic performance: the background of other students enrolled, something more amenable to parental investigation than learning achievement relative to that at other schools, may be very important. So what is the point?
In a number of countries debate focuses nearly exclusively on the release of results from standardised tests and media commentary attends hardly at all to agreed understandings from research as to what makes a difference: there is an obsession with school average scores and rank, and in international tests with country rank and trend across test years of the individual country. In the US, the UK and Australia this is especially so.
Important results of tests were released in the last two months of 2016 and debate followed the usual course. But extremely important research and commentary also appeared: the research was not of much interest to media or politicians in Australia. Social determinants of education were not exactly ignored in Australia but the strong position of non-government schools achieved very much as a result of increased funding by the Australian government from the time of the Howard government made consideration of inequality much less of an issue than it should be: some commentators ignored or denied the importance of such issues.
Inequality was a major feature of the very important report by the Panel chaired by David Gonski: the adoption of some of the recommendations led to legislation envisaging increased funding to address school need, something also addressed 40 years earlier by the Whitlam government. The government of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull refuse to recognise the importance of this and continually talk of substantially increased expenditure on schools that their government has provided, an increase which is illusory, and of course, the importance of quality teaching. Meaning what, exactly?
The latest national tests administered as part of the NAPLAN program in December produced the usual flurry. The fact is the program’s value is suspect and there is no evidence it has contributed to improved ahcviement, a point made already! Disability of various kinds, remoteness and indigeneity are revealed as negative contributors. One does not need standardised tests to reveal that.
Tests are summative and not accompanied by any real analysis of contributory factors. Minister Simon Birmingham, like his predecessor Christopher Pyne, intends to bring the tests on line and favours introducing the test to an even earlier school year than at present. Some people ridiculously obsessed with accountability in the name of finding out which students need special help, as if teachers do not know that already, want tests introduced to preschool kids. Creativity anyone? Is play irrelevant? Important research on formative evaluation, to which student self-assessment makes a vital contribution, is ignored in the government’s approach.
Some of the commentary in the context of the NAPLAN talkfest addressed the need to trust teachers and others asserted the Minister was wrong in his intention to not fund the reforms resulting from the Gonski Panel. Presumably the Coalition would have agreed. So it was interesting to find that Minister Birmingham raised the fact that a number of schools – specifically a large number of independent ones – were overfunded and presumably should lose money through redistribution. Researchers were able to identify the overfunding and its location. Next?
It is hard to go past the most recent claims by Senator Simon Birmingham’s recent claims about funding and achievement as an indication of the way in which the government continues to distort claims about school education. Birmingham continually claims huge increases in funding by government and points to poor results from the funding.
A recent “Education Brief” from Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools addresses the claim by the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, that a 50 per cent increase in Federal funding of schools since 2003 failed to improve student achievement is highly misleading in several ways. Cobbold’s research “Birmingham is Wrong Again on School Funding and Outcomes” of Sunday January 22, 2017 shows that “the increase in total government funding (from Commonwealth and state/territory sources) per student, adjusted for inflation, for the nine years from 2004-05 to 2013-14 was only 4.5 per cent”. Most of the increase in total funding per student favoured private schools (9.8 per cent) who enrol only a small proportion of disadvantaged students; for public schools it was only 3.3 per cent.”
Cobbold also pointed out that Minister Birmingham ignored “significant improvements in Year 12 outcomes that are in sharp contrast to the PISA results. The average retention rate to Year 12, the Year 12 completion rate, the proportion of students achieving an ATAR score of 50 or more, and the proportion of young adults with Year 12 or equivalent vocational qualification have all increased significantly over the past 10-15 years”.
Last, Cobbold again pointed out that the Minister ignored the many academic studies, “including five in the past year”, which showed that increased funding does improve school outcomes, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The shortfalls of NAPLAN are to a large extent offset in the OECD program PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) because its reports are not just lists of scores but includes substantial analysis of contributory factors, a fact generally ignored in commentary. PISA results largely confirm and amplify other research so when some in the US particularly seek to downplay the results because of behaviours in some countries such as intense after school coaching or because, non-random sampling to game the system – really? – it isn’t much of a contribution. Much of the analysis is ignored in a lot of the commentary though not by researchers, or the conclusions even contradicted.
Years ago, a leader of the ALP Opposition proposed that independent schools had too much money and should reallocate some of it to government schools. He was roundly condemned. Prime Minister Julia Gillard tried to avoid this outcome by having as one of the terms of reference for the Gonski Inquiry, which was to focus on school funding only, that no school would lose funds as a result of any reforms. The renewed debate forgot that small point and didn’t got to the fact that the Gillard Government in legislating recommendations from the Gonski Panel did not provide for an independent body to establish and monitor school need. Now the issue has resurfaced. Is inequality being kept to the fore? Problems do exist with the measure of socioeconomic background of the students at each school and that is not being addressed either.
There is a view that support for almost any approach to school education can be found in the PISA results; moreover, last year’s results are not the product of last year’s teaching but of the previous 10 years, based probably on policy formulated 10 years before that.
Two major contributions appeared but received not much attention. Both are among the most important of recent years. Distinguished researcher John Hattie of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education presented a special lecture reviewing the current situation, emphasising many of the most important features of successful schooling and teaching and learning and criticising some of the abject failures of the present system. Hattie’s research involves substantial meta-analysis. He called for a rebooting of school education and also lamented the presently inadequate attention to teacher training, explained the importance of classroom feedback to the teacher and the tragic neglect of early childhood.
A major study at the Mitchell Institute’s Centre for International Research on Education Systems by Professor Stephen Lamb and colleagues gathered data from many different sources to review educational opportunity, who succeeds and who misses out at important stages of life from early childhood through to the early years of adulthood after emergence from the formal education system. Very important commentary is contributed about the factors contributing to why some win and others loose.
Continue to the associated essay Educational Opportunity and Education Reform
One of the major areas of real concern is the achievement level in science and mathematics and related subjects. Substantial research in this area elucidates what is likely to lead to superior achievement through genuine engagement of students, schools working with students and portrayal of the scientific enterprise as conducted by real people struggling to understand, not a litany of facts. There are many examples of exciting success though they don’t necessarily end up on the front pages or Minister’s speeches, even when they are Prime Minister’s prizes. A recent post by Professor Russell Tytler of Deakin University merits attention.
Friday, March 11th, 2016
How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
“Blowin’ In The Wind”, Bob Dylan
“That Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land without benefit of treaty, agreement or compensation is generally known. But .. little known is the amount of brutality and bloodshed involved in enforcing .. [it]… people were deprived of their land and if they showed resistance they were summarily dealt with. The loss of land meant the destruction of the Aboriginal economy which everywhere was based upon hunting and foraging. And the land use adopted by the settlers drastically reduced the population of animals to be hunted and plants to be foraged. And the loss of the land threatened the Aboriginal culture which all over Australia was based upon land and relationship to the land. These were the most dramatic effects of European colonisation supplemented by the decimating effects of introduced disease to which the Aboriginal people had no resistance. These matters are understood to a very imperfect degree by non-Aboriginal society.
“But the facts of later policies and their effects are even less well known to the general population. Having reduced the original inhabitants to a condition, in many places, of abject dependency the colonial governments decided upon a policy of protection which had two main thrusts: Aboriginal people were swept up into reserves and missions where they were supervised as to every detail of their lives and there was a deliberate policy of undermining and destroying their spiritual and cultural beliefs.”
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991
“Ten years old. Think about that. Someone’s daughter. A child who came into the world with the joy of all newborns. A child who first smiled, who spoke her first words, who said “mum” and “dad”. A child who laughed her first laugh, who took her first step, who held the hands of her parents as babies do, tiny hands tightly gripping a finger. All of this potential, all of this love, all she could have brought to the world: all of it gone.
“I can’t speak to the specifics of this girl’s life or death, but I can say she was born into the sadness that too often is our world. She was born into the intergenerational trauma of so many black families. This was her inheritance. …
“Look to your children this day and think about that. Then ask: how we can possibly look away?
“I have spent these last weeks travelling Australia speaking to people about how we – Indigenous people – live with the weight of our history.
“We are connected directly to the darkness of our past. We are born out of the legacy of dispossession and suffering and injustice. The crippling malaise that sits at the heart of so many black communities and lives in this country is seeded in that still unresolved grievance that underpins the Australian settlement: Terra Nullius.
“Our land was deemed empty we as a people were denied the fundamental rights that pertain to all humanity. Those things that are self evident – equality and dignity.
“The high court may have ruled in favour of native title, but the original sin of dispossession and the subsequent despair and poverty casts a dark, menacing and long shadow.
“Our lives are shaped by the great forces of history as surely as the lives of peoples of other lands: those who live with the legacy of war in Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq, those hidden behind secrecy and propaganda in North Korea or those emerging from a fractious troubled century of humiliation to grasp the China dream.”
Stan Grant, “A 10-year-old girl has taken her own life. How can we possibly look away?” The Guardian 9 March 2016
“One in three deaths across the country among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 to 35 is a suicide and the rates of suicide for First Australians is twice that of other Australians”, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator the Hon Nigel Scullion.
“The suicide rate among Indigenous people in Australia is twice that for non-Indigenous people. In some areas, such as the Kimberley region in northern WA and far-north Queensland, the suicide rate is six or seven times that.
“One in four Indigenous suicides occurs in WA. Between 2004-2005 and 2012-2013, hospitalisation rates for self-harm among Indigenous people increased 48%. Hospitalisation rates for non-Indigenous people remained steady.”
Carla Wahlquist, “Critical response team to tackle ‘ongoing tragedy’ of Indigenous suicide”, The Guardian 18 January 2016
“A Select Committee on Aborigines reported in 1837 to the House of Commons that the state of Australian Aborigines was “barbarous” and “so entirely destitute … of the rudest forms of civil polity, that their claims, whether as sovereigns or proprietors of the soil, have been utterly disregarded” … The theory that the indigenous inhabitants of a “settled” colony had no proprietary interest in the land thus depended on a discriminatory denigration of indigenous inhabitants, their social organization and customs…
“As the Governments of the Australian Colonies and, latterly, the Governments of the Commonwealth, States and Territories have alienated or appropriated to their own purposes most of the land in this country during the last 200 years, the Australian Aboriginal peoples have been substantially dispossessed of their traditional lands. They were dispossessed by the Crown’s exercise of its sovereign powers to grant land to whom it chose and to appropriate to itself the beneficial ownership of parcels of land for the Crown’s purposes. Aboriginal rights and interests were not stripped away by operation of the common law on first settlement by British colonists, but by the exercise of a sovereign authority over land exercised recurrently by Governments. To treat the dispossession of the Australian Aborigines as the working out of the Crown’s acquisition of ownership of all land on first settlement is contrary to history. Aborigines were dispossessed of their land parcel by parcel, to make way for expanding colonial settlement. Their dispossession underwrote the development of the nation.”
High Court of Australia, Chief Justice Mason presiding, Mabo v Queensland (No 2) CLR 1 (3 June 1992): Opinion of Justice Brennan
Tuesday, December 1st, 2015
A year ago, I posted a long piece addressing the proposition that 2014 had been one of the most difficult years Australians had faced in peacetime, a year in which a government showed itself incapable of governing. I observed that the citizenry by and large made clear they were not prepared to be a party to an attack on the economy of those less advantaged, especially when they were told the policies would be fair.
In particular the anger by many in the community was triggered by the first Abbott/Hockey budget which clearly sought to withdraw funding from a wide range of programs critical to the less advantaged in the community. The commentary on that is substantial and does not need further elaboration here.
The consequence was continued low ratings for the Abbott government and eventually in the second half of 2015 a successful challenge for leadership of the Liberal Party and therefore the Prime Ministership by Malcolm Turnbull. Elaboration of that likewise does not need revisiting here. Except to say that it is yet to be seen as to whether critical elements of the Abbott government’s program – in health, education, climate change and in social programs generally as well as various areas of taxation – will in fact be overturned. One can say that the government is at least showing a more reserved and intelligent approach to many issues.
In this follow up post I address significant developments in the more important policy areas to which this previous essay was directed.
Continue to “Governments and Corporations – An Update”
Clearly the two most important events of the year 2015 have been the replacement of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister and (Joe Hockey as Treasurer) by Malcolm Turnbull (as I have said above) and the agreements reached at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP (Conference of the Parties) 21) in December. The continuing horror of conflict in Syria and the consequent exodus of millions from the horror as refugees and asylum seekers to Europe has consequences for Australia as an event of enormous significance for humanity and reactions to it and various terrorist attacks, especially in Paris, continued to fuel anti Islamic sentiment by those who cannot look beyond their petty prejudice and ignorance. The other major issue is the continued slow progress in recognising Indigenous Australians and according them the rights to which they are entitled, not least the right to self-determination.
Monday, November 30th, 2015
Martin Ford has recently written a piece on Linkedin Pulse pointing out that education is not an adequate defense against the rise of the robots. Ford is the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books), winner of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award 2015. He is the founder of a Silicon Valley–based software development firm and has over twenty-five years of experience in computer design and software development. His book, together with Jerry Kaplan’s Humans need not apply (Yale University Press) also on robots and future jobs were reviewed in The Guardian in October.
Ford observes, “The conventional wisdom has long been that the solution to technology-driven job losses is invariably more education and vocational training. As machines and smart software eat away at low-skill jobs, workers are urged to retool themselves and continuously climb the skills ladder, taking on roles that are beyond the reach of automation”. However, rather than college graduates being inundated with opportunity employment prospects are in collapse: incomes for young workers with bachelor’s degrees declined by 15 percent from 2000 through 2010, as many as half of new college graduates are in jobs which do not use their educational qualifications. A 2013 paper by University of British Columbia’s Paul Beaudry and colleagues found demand for skilled labor in the United States peaked in 2000 and has declined since.
One of the really critical points is that it is easier to automate information-based tasks held by white-collar workers than lower wage positions which require physical manipulation. And “only a minority of people have the cognitive capability and motivation necessary to excel in technical fields”.
Ford concludes, “The hard truth is that the traditional solution to unemployment and poverty—and the solution that nearly all analysts and policy makers continue to support—is not going to be sufficient in the robotic age. Education has incalculable value both on a personal level, and as a public good that benefits society as a whole. For those reasons, we should continue to strongly support it and invest in it. We should not, however, expect ever more schooling to assure workers a foothold in the future economy.”
Ford makes appropriate observations. But it should also be noted that the evidence, set out for instance by Michael Teitelbaum, is that underemployment of graduates is significantly influenced by the tendency of firms, in the US at least, to employ non-native graduates from run of the mill universities at low salaries in preference to American-born graduates of the top universities. This is insidious.
It is also important to note that the rising incomes of graduates reflect the fact that fewer young people are attending universities so that for certain jobs, firms are having to pay higher salaries; that is the well-known study by Goldin & Katz. The imposition of university fees is leaving graduates with debt that can never be repaid, rather like the stranded assets of energy companies.
An important point relevant to school education and the obsession with accountability is the fact that there is little correlation between test scores at school and future employment levels. University of Chicago’s James Heckman and colleagues have pointed out that rewarding teachers on the basis of their student’s test scores risks misallocation of resources
Recent reviews by Simon Marginson (in SRHE 50th Anniversary Colloquium, 26 June 2015 Valuing Research into Higher Education The Landscape of Higher Education Research 1965-2015: “Equality of Opportunity: The first fifty years”), now of University College London, and Director of American Studies at Columbia University Andrew Delbanco in the July 9 2015 issue of New York Review of Books, have recently pointed out, too often universities do not enrol students on merit but choose them from more prestigious colleges: access is decreasing as quality of teaching declines and fees increase.
The contribution of education to overcoming perceived problems is frequently overstated. Those committed to the market economic model and small government (“get the government out of the way and the economy will flourish”) favour this which in essence is an excuse since it relies on the proposition that the market will sort things out ignoring the tendency of larger firms to manipulate the market to favour themselves.
The last 40 years have seen not just a diminution in the valuing of education but a downsizing of any commitment to quality in government and business, the profits returned by downsizing employment and retrenchments in the public service accruing to the already advantaged whilst the general public are left floundering and the quality of governance declines to alarming levels, as the AFR’s Laura Tingle points out in her recent Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia How we forgot how to govern. Not only is there less skill brought to bear but few people remaining in employment in government can remember anything and the media which has such an influence on general public perception also lack memory: who was Bob Hawke?
The contribution of government to the community warrants substantial re-examination. In Governomics: can we afford small government Ian McAuley and Miriam Lyons (2015) write, “In the din of political slogans about the supposed need to cut public expenditure it is easy to lose sight of the sound economic reasons for investing in public education, for resisting the sell-off of public assets, for taking strong action on climate change, for public funding of health care, for regulating to protect safety standards, for providing decent support for aged pensioners and the unemployed, for allowing modest levels of public debt, and for collecting enough tax to fund these services.”
There needs to be much closer consideration of the nature of the jobs that would seem to qualify for improved efficiency through application of artificial intelligence to ensure quality is not lost. Major candidates are the health and education sectors. The error rate in illness diagnosis would seem to merit closer consideration and delivery of educational instruction through electronic media does not constitute learning. The proposition that journalism can get by with the application of algorithms is highly suspect. Most of the stuff produced is boring: compare the New Yorker, the NY Review of Books, the BBC and ABC with the daily trash coming from tabloid media, which are no more than vehicles to generate profits through advertising stuff no-one wants but believe they have to buy so they can impress people they don’t know.
The Australian Government policy on Innovation, announced 7 December 2015 by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne, included funding to train young students in coding. Is coding that important? Or is the really important skill we should concentrate on something else: the ability to think? Consider the huge but seldom explored area of cyber security. There are implications well beyond how to write computer programs which underlie what we really should be concerned about when we consider job futures, let alone the last 30 years of obsession with efficiency and accountability.
Consider this statement in the ABC RN Future Tense program on “the Wild West of online security” by one of the participants who, talking about software development, said: “the fact of it is just building an application that does what it’s meant to is difficult enough. Building it in a way that it’s not doing all the things that it shouldn’t do, as well as doing the things that it should do is even harder“. If the quality of education is assessed through standardised testing and whether frequently used words can be correctly spelled by teachers, something that gained a lot of media attention in early December 2015, we are simply not addressing the real problems of the future.
Oh and by the way, the decision to encourage private providers to offer vocational education courses has led to quite a large number of very dodgy persons employing other persons to go around offering great benefits to enroll in their courses if only they would sign up and get rewards like a free lap top computer. The ACCC is investigating them. Instead of closing them down, the government is formulating new rules. Doesn’t really get to the problem. Competition does not always improve quality and often leads to nothing more than rorts.
There is plenty of work but few jobs – writer Elizabeth Jolley pointed that out – because those with influence won’t pay the costs of the benefits which would accrue to the community and, in Australia certainly, politicians lack the ability to intellectually manage issues of debt, future benefit and risk. Governments are still hell-bent on selling off state assets so they can fund infrastructure developed by private interests at higher costs than would be incurred were governments themselves to undertake and fund the work. In most parts of Australia primary roads are hardly up to the standard of minor roads in western Europe.
Distinguished accountants such as the University of Sydney’s Bob Walker, economists such as Professor John Quiggin and economic journalists such as Tim Colebatch and Peter Martin have taken this issue up. But governments continue blindly on whilst proclaiming they are looking after the taxpayer’s money. Alan Kohler recently observed “Most of the transport challenges in Melbourne and Sydney have to do with compensating for the absence of adequate underground public transport, apart from a single loop in each city”. The relevance is that infrastructure projects contribute to productivity and to employment!
The quality of performance achieved by the more roboticised firms and other sectors including health and education is worse, not better. But hey, who cares! It’s the economy stupid!
These issues are taken up in a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales dealing with a recent “Four Academies Forum” with other learned societies on the future of jobs. Here it is: . ISSN 0035-9173/15/020166-10 166 “The Future of Jobs: Reflections on the Royal Society of New South Wales and Four Academies Forum” (Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, 2015, vol. 148, nos. 457 & 458, pp. 166-175)
Friday, August 7th, 2015
As one advances in years there is a tendency to more strongly believe the merit of what one has said in ealier years. I don’t see why I should be an exception.
Shortly after I became Director of the Australian Museum in Sydney in 1976, the Museum celebrated its 150th year or sesquicentennial. As is customary in such circumstances there were speeches, exhibitions and other celebratory events.
I gave my first invited public address as Director later that year. The most important point to make, looking back at that time, is not that many in the audience fell asleep, which is unsurprising considering the length of the talk and its didactic style. What is important is that I still hold to many of the same views I expressed then: a concern for the rights of those on the margin, especially indigenous peoples, a belief in the importance of the natural and human environment and a distrust of the actions of many of those in power.
President John F Kennedy, speaking in mid 1963 at the American University in Washington DC (where incidentally President Barrack Obama also chose to speak of the importance of the agreements reached with Iran concerning nuclear non-proliferation) expressed hope for a world where the powerful were just and the weak were safe. Kennedy’s hopes have not been realised.
Notwithstanding the horrors of the present day, the ongoing destruction of the natural environment, the increasing inequality as the powerful grab ever more benefits for themselves, often robbing the citizenry in the process, the refusal by those with major political power to accept the challenge of negotiating for a more just world, the intellectual laziness of many with influence, the persecution of those with different beliefs and backgrounds, I express those hopes also!
I celebrate the innate creativity of the young, the contribution of people in science and the arts and the many who make so many exciting intellectual contributions, those who, as the 2006 Nobel Prizewinner in economics Edmund Phelps says, seek to prosper through mastery of their abilities and those who flourish through their creativity, through fascinating journeys into the unknown. I especially celebrate the courage of those who do accept the challenge to make the world a better place, often by overcoming the terrible challenges which face them in their own lives or the situations they face. What other way is there?
Continue to the talk