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Month: August 2010

ThinkEd: Counting the education beans

Stuart Middleton


27 August 2010

Knowing what is happening in education requires us to “tell the story” with some accuracy. But that is not easy. We end up having to apply statistics and measures and known performance measures at different point. This shows us the trend and the pattern but it is also something of a fiction because of our inability to actually talk about what happens to real people as they progress through.

The development of the unique student identifier, a number given to a student on entry into ther education system that they carry with them right through their schooling and even into the post-school education and training will be an enormous help. For it will enable cohort stories to develop. What happens to 100 real children who enter the education system?

Many of the current measures probably overstate success. It happens like this. One hundred students start school. Let’s say that 70% get NCEA Level 2 – this is probably too high but will serve this example. We then go on to talk about completion rates in tertiary and perhaps they are reported as 75%. This is probably too high and it is important to know what completion means – course completion or qualification completion.

The 75% tertiary figure is actually 75% of the 70% who succeeded at school and went on to study further. Of the young people who started school this means that 53% were successful. True reporting od educational success should be on a system basis not on parts of it. It gets back to the dis-integration of the education system into sectors. The true story would be the whole story.

The issue of course completion against qualification completion is also an interesting issue. New Zealand has a large number of people who at tertiary are successful in passing courses but who never complete qualifications. We seek comfort by claiming that “they” don’t want the qualification or that “they” only come for specific purposes. These are simply untested assumptions. I cannot for the life of me see why someone would set out to get an incomplete qualification.

There could be other explanations of the incomplete qualification phenomenon. Perhaps the length of programmes is simply too long and students, particularly part-time students, have to get on with other things in their lives. Perhaps it is students in employment who are disproportionately represented in this group. What is the gender split of this group? The ethnic split? We simply don’t know. The untested assumptions that we use tend to be ones which seek explanations not on what we do but what “they” do.

For my money, qualification completion trumps everything else.

It also seems to me that our method of collecting information about the life-long impact of education is also self-serving. For instance, take the Bachelor of Business as a qualification. Again using fictitious numbers – 100 students enrol in the Bachelor of Business degree programme and about 60 complete it. Do we know the proportion of successful graduates who are able to make appropriate use of this qualification by entering qualification related employment? No. Do we measure the worth of a B.Bus. across the entire graduating class of 60? No. We look at the returns to people working in the sorts of jobs that some of the 60 will do.

This is because we have no mechanism for matching the graduating student to the earnings performance of workers in employment. We could do this if we would need to have a unique student identifier that also became a unique worker identifier. Well, we already have such a number, the IRD Number. Think of what we would actually know about education and its value of students were given their IRD number at birth and this was used to track performance both of the individual and the education system.

We would know a lot more about access and equity for a start. We would know about performance of cohorts of various kinds. We would know about the return on investment of different qualifications much more precisely. We would know more about the career and education trajectory of different qualifications. In other words we wouldn’t have to rely on untested assumptions and guesses.

Already I hear the sounds of protests developing – human rights, the invasive state, the “they already know too much” brigade gathers. I have never quite understood such protests. Knowledge of these things would be able to encourage performance of systems that are resource hungry and which seem to never quite satisfy. There is simply too much nystery about what is happening.

Years ago I knew a fellow who had an intriguing approach to identity. If I phoned him at home I used what I believed to be his real name – “Is Tom there please?” – a name that also reached him at one of his jobs. But he had two jobs and at the other one I had to say – “Is Harry there please?”  To this day I am not sure whether either of the names was his birth name.

 Tom / Harry would not have wanted a robust unique student or worker indentifier.


ThinkEd: A pattern of simplicity thwarted

Stuart Middleton


14 August 2010

 What’s wrong with simple?

When the Little-Ones start school the parents / caregivers know exactly why they are going. They are going to learn to read and write and to do maths. They hope they have some fun as well. They will get to know other children and perhaps make friends some of whom might well last for a long time. In order to achieve they will need to take their lunch each day, go to school except for days when they are sick and do their home work every night.

What’s wrong with simple?

When the government says that there are going to be national standards the parents / caregivers know exactly what they are and why they are being introduced. Well, actually the polls say that parents / caregivers don’t know exactly what they are but we are also assured that they don’t mind this too much. They like the idea. They are more confident in knowing why they are being introduced – they are some sort of guarantee that parents / caregivers will get information about the progress that their Little-Ones are making in reading, writing and maths and give them an idea of how they are going when compared to the Little-Ones of others.

What’s wrong with simple?

When the Now-Larger-Ones go on the secondary school the parents / caregivers know what to expect – that their Now-Larger-Ones will build on the basic skills of reading writing and maths and start to use them in traditional subjects (English, History, Physics and so on) in order to prepare themselves for further and higher education, training and employment. Graduation is nice too!

What’s wrong with simple?

When the Now-Quite-Big ones enter Year 11 the parents / caregivers know what the goal is – to get their NCEA. They might even hazard a description that it is a qualification in which credit is given for what the Now-quite-Big-Ones know and can do. It’s a sort of package that takes the place of School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate, University Entrance and University Bursary.

What’s wrong with simple?

When the Now-As-Big-As-They’ll-Get-Ones go on to a postsecondary course the parents-caregivers who are still paying the bills know that they can expect that if their Now-As-Big-As-They’ll-Get-Ones work hard and do what is asked of them then they will be set up for life – a job, the skills to get other qualifications and they will soon leave home!

Oh yes, parents – caregivers know that education is a relatively simple matter.

So when teachers say that they will boycott National Standards training parents – caregivers wonder what on earth is going on. Wait a minute! Surely it is responsibility of an employer to give training to staff? Surely when something new is introduced, training is thought to be a prudent activity? Why would professionals turn down training? Especially when it is about this simple activity called education? And when it is about something being introduced to help parents?  And does this mean that we as parents will not be getting information about how our Little-Ones are doing?

The community, rather than being engaged by explanation they can understand is envoled in a fog of educational discourse that might or might not mean something.

And that is exactly the issue that we constantly face in education. We turn something that to others seems quite easy into a complex mystery slightly more complex than the physics required in putting a manned spaceship on Mars. The education profession must head towards simplicity not complexity in its communications with its communities. Researchers communicating to practitioners, principals communicating with teachers, schools communicating with communities, all of these interfaces are bedeviled by turgidity, unnecessary complexity and perhaps even obfuscation.

So, when the suggestion is made that it is time to have a really good look at the system we have to ask by whom? This suggestion has been made in response to the National Standards Stand-off. If it is the profession will it simply be more gobbledygook which sets out to socialize change into the system so that it ends up as the change you have when you want things to stay the same?

The only way in which a clear analysis can be made of the education system is through the establishment of a Royal Commission. Well led, such a device could make a clear statement that can be understood by the widest community and set out a direction for us to move forward. This going round in circles makes us dizzy!

In making the call to take a look at the system, we were reminded that it was twenty years since this was done. I presume they meant thirty years and it was the trio of reforms which was comprised of a) administrative reforms – Picot and all that, b) curriculum reforms – Merv and Lockwood and a cast of thousands and 3) the qualifications shake up. Well all that constitutes a sad collection of situations, dropped proposals, the pleasing of each and every pressure group and, most importantly, the socialization of the reforms into the education system so that change was minimal.

I support the call for a Royal Commission into Education in New Zealand. and the clear report that will probably follow.

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ThinkEd: “Strewth! She’s a funny place mate!”

Stuart Middleton


3 August 2010

I have been in Australia a bit lately, conferences and a holiday.

The issue of relations between our respective governments and our respective tangata whenua has been not only something that New Zealand and Australia share but also a key point of difference. While New Zealand in recent decades has got on with washing up the dishes after the colonial party by addressing historic grievances, making settlements not only in the form of the return of land but also through the payment of considerable sums of money in compensation for the wrongs now clearly and unequivocally accepted, Currently a party representing many Maori plays a constructive part in the government.

Meanwhile Australia has seemed to struggle at pretty well every point in its history, only recently bringing itself to a “sorry” from the now deposed Kevin Rudd.

This is not to say that there has not been some progress. Over the past twenty years, attending Australian education conferences has been a barometer for me of the changing attitudes in Australia. This has seen such events move from the point where there was a complete failure to acknowledge the first peoples of Australia, through the varying degrees of attempting an acknowledgement that was sometimes excruciatingly awkward and at others as offensive as the previous omissions, to a confidence in giving space for acknowledgement of the people of the land. There have been some gracious and moving openings to recent conferences I have attended.

We are richly blessed in New Zealand to not only have representatives of our tangata whenua community present in most gatherings but also to have access to a shared indigenous language and format for greeting visitors and paying respects to those who have gone before. This is matched by a willingness to do these things. They are important and no longer give cause for comment or for awkwardness. Especially among the young.

It has been a great thrill for me to experience the growing confidence of Australians in similarly recognizing the people of the land and in so doing making visitors feel so welcome and comfortable. On my last conference trip to Australia, imagine my surprise when at the start of the State of Origin rugby league match (which I was watching on television) we were treated to a version of the Australian national anthem sung in one of the indigenous languages followed by it being sung in English. That seemed to me to be a milestone in a country that struggled to get to sorry, a move forward that pleased many Australians I was with.

Just as it has become de rigueur  to sing the New Zealand national anthem in Maori first and then in English – that’s how it is done and everyone is generally now able to do it justice – especially the younger ones. This is not an amazing feat when you consider the gusto with which South Africans sing their national anthem in three languages.

But it was during a period when I was a tourist that I was reminded how fragile advances can be. When you are a tourist you go on little trips, sometimes in buses with guides. It was on one of these that it became clear that under the outward progress being made by governments and in public there lay another challenge – the “secret courts of men’s hearts” as Harper Lee put it.

It started with a considerable amount of patronising talk from a tour guide on a long bus trip who got onto the topic of Aboriginals – “they are pretty good sorts” sort of talk through to, yes, “some of my friends are….” But the piece de resistance was a lecture delivered to an unsuspecting and captured audience who had done no more than want to see Australia and its special physical and cultural treasures. This harangue addressed the issue of the government intervention in the north. Alcohol and gambling were no worse here than in other communities we were told – the only difference was that “we” did it in our homes behind closed doors and “they” did it under trees out in the open. Then the issue of sexual abuse was addressed – again the behind closed doors and under the trees analysis was expounded. Finally, an exceptional cave painting of a key mythical figure was deconstructed as meaning no more than telling young ones about “stranger danger”.

What you do to your tourists is a pretty powerful lens through which another country , in this case Australia, is judged and the advances being made at conferences and suchlike count for little when out on the streets the frontline troops are letting you down.

But it’s not all bad news. Another little bus tour I went on, Darwin this time, has as one of its stops the first QANTAS hanger in Australia. Now as a New Zealander I had known through general knowledge tests drummed into us in school that QANTAS was an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Air Services – so as hangars go this was going to be a pretty important building.

Well it turned out to be in a poor state of repair and was filled with old classic cars and bit and pieces of machinery. The little tour bus roared into the site, a couple a characters from a  Baz Luhrmann film stuck their heads out from under a car bonnet to see it head straight into the hangar, the guide shouted out that “Those marks up there are where she was strafed during the war but you won’t be wanting to linger any longer here!”, stuck the bus into reverse and roared off ina cloud of dust. It was in the best tradition of those splendid Australian comedies such as “The Castle”.

Australia sure is an interesting country! Perhaps we are too.

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