Archive for February, 2012
It seems that I’m not the only one to notice the huge disparity in education outcomes between countries spending roughly the same amount of money on teachers’ salaries (amongst other things). Diane Ravitch has written a two-part essay in the New York Review of Books contrasting the which-achieving Finnish education system with the retrenched American one.
Her argument was compelling overall, although there were one or two things that I take issue with. I’ll start on a positive note:
In recent years, elected officials and policymakers … have agreed that there should be “no excuses” for schools with low test scores. The “no excuses” reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.
Nothing is said about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine such crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource allocation.
Much of her essay is on this theme: everyone in the US — Bush and Obama, State and Federal — are far too focussed on standardised test scores as a means of determining the proficiency of both students and teachers. Having suffered the NSW HSC, I can definitely relate to the problems created by forcing teachers to “teach to the test” with an extremely inflexible syllabus. As regular readers will know, I am also highly in favour of holding both district leadership and elected officials to account.
That said, Ravitch may be overlooking the most important distinction between the USA and Finland: culture. In fact, she actively argues against Finland’s homogeneous ethnicity being a determinative factor in its academic performance.
Detractors say that Finland performs well academically because it is ethnically homogeneous, but Sahlberg responds that “the same holds true for Japan, Shanghai or Korea,” which are admired by corporate reformers for their emphasis on testing. To detractors who say that Finland, with its population of 5.5 million people, is too small to serve as a model, Sahlberg responds that “about 30 states of the United States have a population close to or less than Finland.”
Firstly, Japan, Korea and Shanghai are not exactly struggling -– especially compared to where they used to be. Also, the ethnic homogeneity of Finland may have a lot to do with what Ravitch does identify as a very important factor in education outcomes: the esteem in which teachers are held.
Finland’s highly developed teacher preparation program is the centerpiece of its school reform strategy. Only eight universities are permitted to prepare teachers, and admission to these elite teacher education programs is highly competitive: only one of every ten applicants is accepted. There are no alternative ways to earn a teaching license. Those who are accepted have already taken required high school courses in physics, chemistry, philosophy, music, and at least two foreign languages. Future teachers have a strong academic education for three years, then enter a two-year master’s degree program…
In the second essay, Ravitch argues that were the US to impose similar standards on their teachers, this would improve the public image of teachers and so would improve the quality of applicants and the culture of teachers into one where teachers teach because of their “intrinsic motivation”:
Like other professionals, as Pasi Sahlberg shows in his book Finnish Lessons, Finnish teachers are driven by a sense of intrinsic motivation, not by the hope of a bonus or the fear of being fired. Intrinsic motivation is also what they seek to instill in their students. In the absence of standardized testing by which to compare their students and their schools, teachers must develop, appeal to, and rely on their students’ interest in learning.
It seems to me that Ravitch is confusing cause and effect. The ethnic and cultural homogeneity of Finland is a key factor as this is obviously a culture that takes great pride in education. I would hazard a guess that in a country like the USA that clearly does not do so overall, there are still areas and communities with a Finnish-like attitude to educating their children and these communities show disproportionately strong outcomes despite functioning in exactly the same system as everyone else. That is certainly true of the Jewish community in Australia.
She unwittingly presents more evidence in favour of this theory, both when arguing for more Union involvement in education and when arguing that education does not solve poverty:
Finland’s success confounds the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) theorists, because almost every teacher and principal in Finland belongs to the same union. The union works closely with the Ministry of Education to improve the quality of education, and it negotiates for better salaries, benefits, and working conditions for educators.
… Schools are crucial institutions in our society and teachers can make a huge difference in changing children’s lives, but schools and teachers alone cannot cure the ills of an unequal and stratified society. Every testing program—whether the SAT, the ACT, or state and national tests—demonstrates that low scores are strongly correlated to poverty.
The lesson from Finland’s union is not that Unions are necessarily beneficial for education, but that everyone in Finland is more or less of the same mindset. Similarly, the anti-education culture in impoverished communities could go a long way to explaining why children at the same school will have worse outcomes if they have impoverished parents. However, as I have often lamented, culture is off-limits for criticism.
The final point I will raise is on the subject of teacher conditions. Ravitch observes that there is a very high turnover in the teaching profession, leading to a lack of experienced teachers:
The teaching profession in the United States is a revolving door. It’s easy to enter, and many teachers leave—up to 40 to 50 percent—in their first five years as teachers. The turnover is highest in low-scoring urban districts. We do not support new teachers with appropriate training and mentoring, and we have a problem retaining teachers. No other profession in the United States has such a high rate of turnover.
… corporate reformers have shown no interest in raising standards for the teaching profession. They believe that entry-level requirements such as certification, master’s degrees, and other credentials are unrelated to “performance,” that is, student test scores. They also scorn seniority, experience, tenure, and other perquisites of the profession. Instead, they believe that a steady infusion of smart but barely trained novices will change the face of teaching.
Ironically, while Ravitch is condemning American “corporate reformers” (actually public servants pretending to take a corporate approach) and praising Finnish Unions, in this instance the Australian Unions have gone the way of the American pseudo-corporates:
Here, as elsewhere throughout the world, teacher unions wield enormous power … Their power has had three effects on education.
The first is the bulk of additional funding for education has gone into hiring more teachers instead of paying existing teachers more.
The second effect is that … in Australia the starting salary for teachers is relatively high by world standards, but salaries for experienced teachers relatively low.
The third effect of a heavily unionised workforce has been that up until the past few years there was minimal accountability and performance measurement of teachers.
Those first two points seem to be exactly what Ravitch is discouraging – incentives for young people to go into teaching for a few years and then leave to pursue other ends, meaning that smaller and smaller classes are being taught by increasingly poorly trained and inexperienced teachers.
Maybe Australia does need to take some lessons from Finland:
- Stop concentrating so hard on getting more teachers and focus on keeping the ones we have.
- Stop adding new education courses at uni and improve the ones we have.
- Start looking into ways to combat “tall-poppy syndrome” in schools. If there is one thing leading to underachievement in Australia, it’s this – can we at least talk about it?
- Throwing money at a problem does not solve it.
Don’t you love it when someone succinctly puts exactly what you feel? Gershon Baskin using the “both sides” equivalency, but being right:
Q: The Palestinians breached every agreement they ever signed with Israel, how can we trust them?
A: Israel and the PLO, representing the Palestinian people, signed five agreements. Every one of those agreements was breached by both sides. Neither side fulfilled its obligations, and the breaches were substantive in all of the agreements.
…Breaches upon breaches piled up and created a total breakdown. The failure of both sides to implement in good faith and to repair the damage in real time led to a total collapse of trust between the parties. The basic idea of an interim period (of five years) was to develop the trust that would be required to negotiate the main issues in conflict.
That trust never developed – quite the opposite. Today, objectively speaking, there is absolutely no reason why Israel and Palestine should trust each other – they have completely earned the mistrust that exists between them.
… There is no possibility for progress without negotiations, yet while both sides recognize this truth it seems that the complete absence of trust, what I call the “trust deficiency,” is more powerful than the desire to reach an agreement at this time. This is enhanced by the complete belief on both sides of the conflict that there is no partner for peace on the other side. Both sides say that they want peace, and both sides blame the other for lack of any progress.
Yup, that’s pretty much the situation. Abbas doesn’t trust Bibi; Bibi doesn’t trust Abbas; neither of them trust Obama; Obama is sick of them both; Obama, Abbas and Bibi all don’t trust Hamas and Hamas’ leaders don’t even trust each other, let alone anyone else.
The Israelis don’t trust the Palestinians because Israeli concessions are just met with violence and condemnations; the Palestinians don’t trust the Israelis because no one in Israel can agree on anything and the same government seems to have 5 different policies; the Palestinians don’t trust each other because every second person is an informant for Israel or secretly working for whichever of Hamas/Fatah the first person is worried about; the Jordanians don’t trust the Palestinians because Arafat tried to overthrow King Hussein in the ’70s; the secular Egyptians don’t trust the Palestinians because Hamas is too close to the Muslim Brotherhood; the Israelis don’t trust the Egyptians because they think they’re all Muslim Brotherhood; The Muslim Brotherhood don’t trust Fatah because they’re against Hamas…
I’m going to stop here, you get the picture. Anyone see a way out?
My little description on the right of the page mentions that I may blog about fashion, but I don’t find myself actually doing that so often. Well today may be that rare exception.
I recently came-across a guest post on Kill Your Darlings by fashion blogger and PhD student Rosie Findlay, who runs the aptly-named Fashademic. Findlay made her point very eloquently, so I will quote two paragraphs in full with some lines bolded and then comment after:
When we dress, we dress for pleasure, work, warmth, need or, as in my case today, because we feel a certain need to mirror our sensibility, and we reach for the garments that best encourage these aspects of our selves. Even those who reject fashion take part in its system. Fashion is a mode of visual communication that ‘speaks the self’ both externally, as it presents you as clothed and appropriate, and internally, as it resonates with you in the feel of fabric on your limbs, the pinching of shoes on toes, the rough itch of wool on skin, the desperate sweating underneath denim on an unexpectedly warm day. At an everyday level, clothing speaks to us, and helps us make sense of one another and of ourselves. In other words, what is superficial is not only superficial.
So here I am to state that it is not trivial to take an interest in clothing – to do so is to accept that there is pleasure to be found in dressing, in wearing, and in finding another way to express something of who you feel you are. I reject the notion that to do so is to imply that you are a superficial person or, in the words of English professor Emily Toth, that ‘if you look like you spend too much time on your clothes, there are people who will assume that you haven’t put enough energy into your mind’. I pitch my tent instead with Virginia Postrel, whose book The Substance of Style makes a compelling argument for the importance of aesthetics, writing that they are of fundamental value to human beings and a source of deep pleasure – not the most important thing, but still important. I find this stance incredibly liberating: it acknowledges that there is room to enjoy dressing and being dressed, while not elevating that practice to utmost importance. It means I can enjoy the interplay of these jeans, this shirt and these heavenly boots with my self, and appreciate how this process colours my day as I go forth into other considerations.
Most people with the same general interests as me would not care about fashion – in fact, I know more than one person who say they actively avoid it, generally accompanied with the sentiment that they “just wear whatever”.
This perspective saddens me. I feel it is based largely in the ideas that Findlay identified, that caring about our physical appearance is “superficial” and that it is a waste of time to worry about such superficial matters when there are more important issues out there. I also suspect that the attitude develops as a reaction to the types of people who become involved in fashion on the highschool playground; as any nerdy teenager would know, no one who wants to be seen as intelligent would associate with a culture dominated by air-headed Hollywood actors, vapid trust fund babies and ignorant musicians who just do what their management tells them.
The operative word in that sentence? They want to be seen as intelligent. The corrollary is that there is a way to look intelligent. If Emily Toth (above) thinks that spending too much time on clothes implies not spending enough time on mind, then she is clearly showing a value judgment based on appearance: fashionable means vacuous, those of us with substance are unfashionable. She is looking at the conscious choice that a person has made of how to dress and drawing conclusions from it. The “intelligent look” is one that does not require much time.
Ms Toth must spend some time on her clothes, but obviously minimises this to some extent in order to spend more time on her “mind”. She sees the amount of time she takes as sufficient to look acceptable and then any better than acceptable, she deems unnecessary. She is making a choice about how she looks. As she well knows, when we meet someone, their appearance is the first impression that we get. Other than their body language, everything that we notice is in their choice of fashion – what clothes they wear, how their hair is done, any makeup etc. By choosing to rush her wardrobe she is consciously projecting an image to the world, saying: “I am intelligent, I am a woman of substance, I don’t care about fashion.”
Her reasoning is flawed. She clearly cares about fashion, enough to let it influence her perspective of others and to at least be conscious of how it affects her image. In reality, fashion is not something that can be avoided. You care about fashion, everybody cares about fashion. If you choose to cover yourself with fading polyester shirts and shapeless jeans made from paper-thin denim fom KMart, you are revealing just as much about yourself as someone wearing a hand-tailored bespoke Italian suit. The difference is that the person in the Italian suit is conscious of this and has spent time thinking about what message they want to convey; I know which of these seems more intelligent to me.
When you get up in the morning and look through your clothes, the question you should ask yourself is not “how should I dress today?” but “what will I look like today?”. Why would anyone want to answer that with “cheap, lazy and uncoordinated” when they could choose “damn fine”?
I made a comment in a Facebook conversation that this Rudd saga is the political equivalent of Charlie Sheen being fired from Two and a Half Men. That inspired this picture.
As everyone living in the 21st Century should know by now, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has just resigned. This comes after months of speculation on his coming back to power, fuelled by and a massive media beat-up. The whole thing started when poll results started to show that more people favoured Rudd as Prime Minister than Julia Gillard. This is a meaningless exercise, asking someone that question when Gillard is the leader and Rudd is not is entirely different from asking when Rudd is the leader and is under the scrutiny that the position brings.
Nevertheless, the press seized the idea and constantly spoke about it, to the point where it seemed like Q and A panelists could discuss nothing else. Then, ABC’s Four Corners began 2012 with an episode on Rudd’s ousting by Gillard, revealing that *shock horror* Gillard had not just woken up that morning and challenged Rudd, but had planned the takeover. I suspect that they are currently investigating whether or not the Pope is indeed Catholic.
This piece of non-news was beaten-up to the point where all the media could talk about was a Rudd challenge. Columnists around Australia, from Fairfax to News Ltd to the ABC, all threw in their two cents on the matter. Some were more subtle than others; Andrew Bolt, not known for his subtlety, even seemed to be actively campaigning for Rudd.
This was all satirised brilliantly by Imre Saluszinsky this morning in The Australian.
IT appears a showdown between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd is inevitable.
Three things must now occur: Rudd must openly declare if he is challenging; Labor MPs must decide who they want to lead them; and, above all, another column on the Labor leadership must be written immediately. The thousands of previous opinion columns written on this issue have only skimmed the surface.
They have resolved nothing.
Leadership tensions have escalated to a point where no column, however flippant, can afford to ignore them.
A completely new column is needed.
It is understood this column could now occur “as early as next week”.
So, in what has been accurately dubbed a ‘soap opera’, Rudd has now stepped down from the Foreign Minister role. What does this mean? One of three things:
1. Rudd is going for Gillard
This is the media’s favourite outcome as everyone loves a good soap opera and because it vindicates all of their columns. It does seem like he has been deliberately encouraging this idea, which may be because he knew that doing so would make it more likely to eventuate.
I am skeptical about this. From what I gather, his internal support in Labor is not very strong and he would have little chance of actually winning. This seems especially true as some very high-profile MPs have been attacking him tonight. Wayne Swan, for instance:
Prime Minister Gillard and I and the overwhelming majority of our colleagues have been applyingour Labor values to the policy challenges in front of us and we’re succeeding despite tremendous political obstacles.
For the sake of the labour movement, the Government and the Australians which it represents, we have refrained from criticism to date. However for too long, Kevin Rudd has been putting his own self-interest ahead of the interests of the broader labour movement and the country as a whole, and that needs to stop.
The Party has given Kevin Rudd all the opportunities in the world and he wasted them with his dysfunctional decision making and his deeply demeaning attitude towards other people includingour caucus colleagues. He sought to tear down the 2010 campaign, deliberately risking an AbbottPrime Ministership, and now he undermines the Government at every turn.
He was the Party’s biggest beneficiary then its biggest critic; but never a loyal or selfless example of its values and objectives. For the interests of the labour movement and of working people, there is too much at stake in our economy and in the political debate for the interests of the labour movement and working people tobe damaged by somebody who does not hold any Labor values.
That last part is a little rich coming from Swan, an extremely mediocre Treasurer who rode Rudd’s coattails into power. It’s amazing that everyone seems to forget that Rudd defeated Howard and brought Labor into power in 2007 – and that was Rudd, not Labor. That election victory was almost entirely down to his personal popularity. Swan had nothing to do with it, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time – a skill that later won him accolades as Treasurer.
2. Rudd is doing the right thing
Could be that he saw the damage that all the leadership speculation was doing to the Labor party and he genuinely felt bad about the fact that his leadership status was distracting Australia from the important issues, so he decided to just end it all and disappear into obscurity for a while. This doesn’t seem like him, however – last time he did something like that he (allegedly) started leaking information to the press to damage Gillard’s campaign.
3. He’s giving Gillard one last “fuck you”
This seems like the more likely option to me. A lot of accusations are coming out that Gillard had grown sick of the leadership talk and was planning to fire Rudd next week anyway. It could be that Rudd knew this and decided to get in ahead and pre-emptively quit in a manner that would really stick it to Gillard, so he decided to:
- Call a press conference from Washington at 1:30am so that he would hit the peak social media time – just after work finishes – and be all over the evening news, without giving Gillard any time to respond before the newspapers go to print tonight.
- Dramatically hand his Foreign Minister duties at high-profile conferences over to some officials, making his resignation really look like an emergency.
- Give Gillard some time to sweat while he flies back to Australia without announcing what he intends to do.
All the while knowing that Labor can’t afford for him to resign from Parliament completely, as they would not only lose his seat but probably the current election in Queensland.
The data has it: Australia is falling behind. We are losing out in our children’s reading, maths and science scores, being beaten by most of East Asia, Canada and New Zealand — and we don’t like losing to New Zealand! So what are we doing about it? Apparently, commissioning a highly respected corporate director to write a 250-page report on how we can make our system better; well David Gonski came through and the results were released yesterday. Here, in his own words (published in the Fairfax papers), was the thrust of it:
On average, socio-economically advantaged students are achieving better outcomes than disadvantaged; metropolitan students are achieving better than rural and remote students; and disabled students are falling behind their peers. This is not acceptable in Australia, where we take pride in giving everyone a ”fair go”.
… The funding system that sustains our three school sectors – government, Catholic and independent – is complex, confusing, opaque and inconsistent across states and territories, and obscures educational goals and accountability.
… That’s why the review panel has proposed Australia adopt a Schooling Resource Standard that would have two elements: the amount of per-student investment required to provide a high-quality education, plus loadings targeting disadvantage.
The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised that the school funding system has become as bad as it is due to no planning and developing over time for less than ideal motives. However, Gonski’s recommendations are not politically viable at this time.
His review was asked to find a way to fix school funding, state and federal, which has grown piecemeal over decades into a Heath Robinson-like contraption – a fundamentally unfair one, a product of temporary fixes and vote-buying.
… Gonski was hamstrung from the start by the requirement that any change produce no losers. Inevitably, it had to recommend that the government spend a lot more on schools to bring the disadvantaged up to the level the privileged attained long ago. Given the tight federal budget and the promise of an early return to surplus, the government cannot contemplate Gonski’s recommended $5 billion-a-year funding boost … So like a child asking for the impossible, Gonski has been told: “We’ll see.”
Sister paper The Age agreed with the Herald, but spent a lot more time congratulating itself for being agreed with by Gonski and stressing the “inequality” in the system and less time on the realpolitik of the reform.
As usual, the most sophisticated analysis came from The Australian, which praised the more “clear and transparent” system that Gonski proposed, but also noted a few other factors:
As with the present system, parents of students in the wealthiest fee-paying schools would continue to carry a heavy burden — funding state schools through their taxes and paying the fees for their own children, who would receive only about 20 to 25 per cent of the “schooling resource standard” in government subsidies under the proposed model. Contrary to the claims of public sector teachers’ unions, non-government schools are excellent value for taxpayers.
Despite the intense interest in the Gonski report and governments’ responses, education authorities should focus on the need for reform in the selection, training, mentoring and career structures of teachers. Such improvements would create a far more significant education revolution than reorganising the funding system.
For the benefit of anyone who doesn’t understand the argument for Government subsidising private education, it’s really quite simple. Say it costs the Government $15k a year to publicly educate a child, it costs $30k at a private school and the parents can only afford to spend $25k. If the Government subsidises the child’s education by $5k, the child will go to the private school — which gives the child a better education and gives the Government $5k more to allocate to public education.
Also, the parents are paying taxes that go to the education system and, without subsidies, receiving no money back — so essentially, they are subsidising the education of other children while being forced to spend even more on their own child’s schooling, which hardly seems fair to them. To see this explained using a barbeque analogy, click here.
The limits of Gonski
I am not actually convinced that Gonski’s suggestions would improve the education system that radically. I will disclaim that I have not read the report, so please correct me if I’m wrong on any point.
The Australian and the Herald both cited the Rudd/Gillard ‘Building Education Revolution’ as a reason why the Gonski review may have trouble getting through Parliament, and with good reason. The BER was a very good example of how throwing money at something doesn’t make the problem go away.
In NSW at least, there are already a lot of different schemes that give extra funding to disadvantaged and Indigenous students and gives teachers incentives to work in them, yet this does not resolve the problem. Yes, these are poorly thought-out and haphazardly implemented, but the point remains. I have personally seen a school with only impoverished Indigenous students that had unbelievable facilities, including $10,000 basketball nets, yet had some of the lowest outcomes and highest drop-out rates in the state.
More important than how much money is given is how the existing money is spent, other factors also affect education. Here are a few other things we may need to think about:
Take this graph (via The Dish):
Ignore the diagonal line through the middle, that is what us mathematicians call a weak correlation and an example of how statistics are poorly used in policy debates. There is clearly something else going on given the number of outliers. In fact, we do very well on this scaled — Finland, Australia, the UK and the USA all spend around the same amount, yet there is a clear difference in outcomes and Australia seems to achieve very high outcomes relative to dollars spent.
This is something that money cannot really change and is, to a large extent, the elephant in the room. As much money as the Government may throw at disadvantaged children, if they are not interested in learning or if they are not given an environment in which they can learn, they will not learn. To give the example, again, of the school referenced above, the parents of those children had no interest in their being educated, meaning they only went to school if they genuinely wanted to be there (not many did). Add to that growing up in a house with no books, that does not have the newspaper delivered every morning and without any kind of informative dinner table discussion (or indeed, without a dinner table) and a few thousand dollars for the school makes little difference.
That is in extreme example, but I still have a point. To back that up with some actual (admittedly American) data, here’s Charles Murray:
The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children. Among college-bound seniors who took the SAT in 2010, 87 percent of the students with 700-plus scores in the math and verbal tests had at least one parent with a college degree. Fifty-six percent of them had a parent with a graduate degree. The children of the well educated and affluent get most of the top scores because they constitute most of the smartest kids. They are smart in large part because their parents are smart.
That brings us to the role of homogamy — interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics … homogamy has increased at both ends of the educational scale — college graduates grew more likely to marry college graduates and high school dropouts grew more likely to marry other high school dropouts. In 1960, just 3 percent of American couples both had a college degree. By 2010, that proportion stood at 25 percent.
… The bottom line is not subject to refutation: Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the upper-middle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite.
That said, there is a counter-argument that a more integrated education system pulls-up the scores of disadvantaged children while not significantly affecting the advantaged. See Andrew Sullivan (again) for a summary and follow the links to see an interesting discussion around this issue. I may look into this more at some point in the future to see how good the data actually is.
Meanwhile, if the key recommendation for fixing Australia’s education system relies on funding redistribution, I am not extremely hopeful. Having had the unfortunate experience of going through HSC in NSW, even in a well-funded school, I can say first hand that there is a lot more to address.