Wednesday, July 01, 2009

"League tables" and NSW school-reporting policy

Below is an article from Jennifer Buckingham of the Centre for Independent Studies. Her line is very much that of the teachers' unions. She supports the covering up of some kinds of information about schools: Very disappointing from a free-market think-tank. At the foot of the article I reproduce a letter from a teacher who is also surprised by her views

The Federal Government confirmed last year that it would be making good on its election promise to introduce transparency measures for all schools, including publicly reporting school-level performance in national tests, year 12 results, and a range of other information.

The main concern the critics of this policy have is the potential for media outlets to mine this information to create and publish "league tables" - lists of schools ranked from "best" to "worst" by a single performance indicator. This has been the experience in other countries, and fears that it may happen here were realised when a Tasmanian newspaper recently published school rankings of the newspaper's own creation.

It is important to make one thing clear: school-performance reporting and league tables are not the same thing. School-performance reporting, done properly, is a way to empower parents and make them informed participants in their child's education.

Under the new federal reporting protocols, people will be able to look up any school and see how it has performed in national tests and get information about teacher and student characteristics, among other things. They can see how that school's performance compares with the state average and "like schools". By looking up several schools they will be able to compare the schools in their area, but this comparison will not be provided to them as a list or ranking. It is up to people to compare individual schools and draw their own conclusions.

League tables, on the other hand, are lists or rankings of schools based on a single indicator, without reference to context or location. They are a potential by-product of providing parents and the public with information. They are often misleading, are not useful and can be harmful to the schools at the bottom of the rankings. Some schools may deserve to be there, but others will not.

Opponents of school-performance reporting have used the spectre of league tables to argue against it, but this did not stop the state and territory education ministers agreeing on the policy. To comply with this federal agreement, NSW had to amend legislation put in place in 1997 that prohibited the publication of information that allowed schools to be compared on academic performance. Last week a bill was passed in the NSW parliament to do just that. The amendment will allow a new national federal agency, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, to publish the academic outcomes of individual schools.

The Greens argued fervently against the amendment, but obviously had already seen the writing on the wall. Knowing that the amendment would pass, the Greens introduced a clause to the amendment in the last half hour of the debate, which they had previously drafted with the help of the Coalition. The clause attempts to prevent the publication of league tables in "a newspaper or other document that is publicly available in this state". The clause also prohibits the identification of schools "in a percentile of less than 90 per cent in relation to school results, except with the permission of the principal of the school".

The Labor MP Penny Sharpe put up little defence, saying the clause was "well-intentioned but utterly futile". Sharpe argued that it was questionable whether print media would comply, and there was no jurisdiction over the internet. She also raised the possibility that it might also have negative consequences for school systems and associations publishing their own comparisons or school profiles.

There was little debate about the clause and it passed with a majority of five votes. This anti-league table clause seems, on the surface, to have discarded the bath water while retaining the baby. It would be nice to think legislation could solve misuse of information, but it is doubtful. In this case the compromise position may be unacceptable. If the clause is ineffective, school league tables will be published anyway.

This will mean a missed opportunity to draft legislation that might have been more effective in protecting schools from spurious claims about their performance by over-zealous media outlets.

Alternatively, the clause may be too effective, preventing any comparative information being produced even for a small audience, undermining the positive effect of the school-reporting policy. If misleading league tables can be avoided they should be, but not at the expense of parents' right to know. Time will tell if, in its haste to pass the amendment, the NSW parliament has betrayed this principle.


A polite letter to Ms Buckingham from a reader

I read your article in the SMH Online website and I had to look twice to be sure it said you were from the CIS that I subscribe to.

Your point appears to be that while you don't oppose the release of information for parents, you do object to it's publication in newspapers on the basis the information might be presented in a simplistic way. Indeed you quote an example from Tasmania. In my experience of league tables - i.e. Times Education Supplement - such league tables attempt to apply all factors in a weighted manner. I haven't seen an example of a one factor league table although I don't deny that it can happen.

You appeared to be arguing for laws which attempt to legislate against the misuse of information. That would appear to be dangerous ground for a fellow at the CIS whose philosophy I would have thought was that freedom of information is more important than protecting the public from its misuse. Where information is misused it is easily refuted and the source so discredited, I might have thought.

When it comes to education, in my limited experience, parents often do not make rational decisions anyway, but the provision of information on the multilevel performance of schools I would have thought to be a useful anitdote the present atmosphere of enforced egalitarianism that forced me, in 1959, to attend a run-down, indequately set-up junior technical high school with its cadre of motivated and unmotived, professional and incompentant, but generally poorer teachers than the intermediate technical school or even higher level high school that my efforts might have deserved before before Harold Wyndham had his way.

Fortunately, many of my classmates, who will be marking the 50th anniversary of our entrance to Jannali Boys' High School this year, went on to make a mark on our society, despite the handicap.

Encouraging schools to lift their game by publishing outcomes, I believe, can only serve to ensure that there should be no gap between state and private schools, and that they, and their teachers thus deserve the increased funding coming their way in Rudd's Education Revolution. As a profession I believe teachers, of whom I am now one, should have an obligation to use one month of their generous annual leave for upgrading their professional skills in the same way other professional are. But that's another story!

Again thank you for your thoughts on this matter. But I do hope they don't represent the position of the CIS!

Destructive union boneheads are back in force

Australian cartoonist ZEG has an apt comment on this too

AUSTRALIANS may have voted out John Howard because they feared for their jobs under Work Choices, but they didn’t vote for Kevin Rudd out of a hankering for old-fashioned trade union wage campaigns.

Could there be anything more bone-headed than the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union vowing to set the pace for a national wage round of more than 4 per cent just as business is trying to avoid a wave of job layoffs that would push the unemployment rate above 8 per cent? Yes, this is the same metal workers union that destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs in the early 1980s, the last recession that followed a mining boom.

And 25 years of neoliberal reform has exposed the Australian economy, including the unions, to much more competitive discipline since then. But the Fair Work regime championed by the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, returns the old industrial relations institutions - unions, industrial tribunals and the award system - to centre stage.

They won’t be able to cause as much havoc as they did decades ago, but they will still cause damage because that’s what they know. The question you should be reading about now should not be how the metal workers union can make wage beachheads in its strongest shops, then call in the soon-to-be-established Fair Work Australia tribunal and a “modernised” award system to help spread this to the rest of the workforce.

The question should be how business and its workforces can find the best ways to share out their smaller order books to avoid retrenchments while searching for productivity gains that could help find new markets.

Remember that Gillard has claimed, heroically, that her reregulation of the job market will boost productivity through increased collective bargaining. More likely it will cost jobs by letting Australia’s industrial relations club back on the streets.

Malcolm Turnbull and business need to harp on this contradiction in Labor’s new Fair Work regime, and insist that it be pro-jobs and pro-productivity in practice.


More on boy's peanut death

It seems that the army has unfairly taken the rap for this. It was entirely a school responsibility. Apparently the boy's parents did the right thing but the school failed to pass on the info to the relevant staff. I would still call it "death by misadventure", though, and it may still motivate the army and others to ban peanut products across the board. South-East Asian cuisine (Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian) could be badly hit as they use peanuts in almost everything

The role of an elite private school in the death of a 13-year-old student on an army cadet camp should be examined by an inquest, a Federal Court judge has recommended.

Nathan Francis, a student at Melbourne's Scotch College, died on March 30, 2007, after suffering a severe allergic reaction to peanut butter, which was in a beef satay army meal supplied on the Australian Defence Force camp. The camp, in the Wombat State Forest in central Victoria, was run by staff and teachers at the school.

The school had told parents not to provide food as they were using ADF meals, but asked to be alerted to any food allergies. Nathan's mother, Jessica Francis, wrote that her son had a severe allergy, stating: "PEANUTS -- but all nuts must be avoided."

However, a list of students with food allergies did not reach the staff member who issued the meals and Nathan was given beef satay. After a mouthful, the boy was helped by a fellow student to the camp's headquarters and he died on the way to hospital.

"There has so far been no opportunity for the role of Scotch College in the death of Nathan to be examined in public," judge Tony North said. "The circumstances presented to this court raise a question whether Scotch College, through its teachers and staff, bear some responsibility."

His recommendation came as he passed judgment on civil action against the ADF and the chief of the army over the boy's death. Comcare, on behalf of Nathan, who was considered an employee of the ADF, had sued the commonwealth for breaching its duty of care. The commonwealth admitted liability and the ADF was fined $210,000.


Two Tamil Tigers caught in Sydney

Police have charged a 25-year-old man with attempted murder in relation to a violent attack on two Sri Lankan students in which they were splashed with acid and stabbed. A group of men allegedly forced their way into the students' Westmead home around midnight on May 17. Jayasri Watawala, 22, was seriously burned after the men allegedly threw acid at him. Chathurika Weerasinghe, 27, who was also burned with acid, was also stabbed in the stomach and broke his ankle. Two men were arrested after the attack.

The 25-year-old accused of attempted murder, from Girraween, was also charged with failure as an owner to disclose the identity of the driver or passenger of a vehicle. A Hebersham man, 26, was charged with concealing a serious offence.

Today's charge came after the 25-year-old presented himself to Merrylands police station - at the request of police - this morning. He was also charged with break and enter with intent to commit murder and maliciously casting or throwing corrosive fluid with intent to maim. Police will allege the man charged today is "one of the principal offenders'' in the home invasion, Detective Inspector Albert Joseph, from Strike Force Dorward, said. "There are a number of other offenders we are still looking for,'' he said.

He would not speculate on the alleged motive for the attack but said clashes between groups of Tamils and Singhalese in the lead up to the home invasion were looked at by investigators. "We are investigating a riot and affray that occurred some time before [the home invasion] and certainly there was some reporting at that particular time of [attacks] being racially motivated,'' he said.

Police have told both the victims of the home invasion about today's attempted murder charge, he said. "The rehab has been a slow and lengthy process for them ... it has been difficult but their health is improving,'' he said. A relative of Weerasinghe welcomed the news and said both students were still recovering.

The man left Merrylands police station about 12.30pm in an unmarked police car with his face covered by a white jacket. Detective Inspector Joseph said tensions in the community had subsided and he did not expect any further incidents.


Kevin Rudd doesn't understand Bastiat's "broken windows" fallacy

Not all work is equally worthwhile and bureaucratically-run work is routinely wasteful

It turns out that Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is going around town breaking windows by, well, demanding they be built. There are over 35,000 construction and maintenance projects planned across Australia over the next 12 months. This includes AU$49 (US$39.4) billion dedicated to "nation building infrastructure," or crudely AU$2,200 in taxes for every man, woman, and child residing in Australia.

Are such decisions financially wise during economic recessions? Let's put Keynesianism aside and instead rely on common sense. While on an individual level you might think saving would be a good idea, apparently governments just want to build stuff. "We can always figure out later what to do with it or even just employ people to knock it down and build it again" is the unspoken idea. When "full employment" is the goal almost any type of labor will do. PM Rudd's Labor party is thus aptly named; as they state, "jobs are in our DNA."

Bastiat's timeless lesson of the fallacy of the broken window, later popularized and widely applied by Henry Hazlitt, is a perfect analogy of economic ignorance and the power of the seen vis-à-vis the unseen. And PM Rudd is illustrating this analogy, going to great strides to point out the "seen" — pictures of hard hats and fluorescent yellow vests have abounded in parliamentary proceedings. Labor Minister for Employment Participation Mark Arbib also confirms that construction projects are visible: "People are going to see the construction sites all over the countryside. They are going to know people who are working on stimulus projects or who are supplying the projects."

How can the broken-window fallacy be so widespread? Henry Hazlitt explained: "[T]he broken-window fallacy, under a hundred disguises, is the most persistent in the history of economics. It is more rampant now than at any time in the past. It is solemnly reaffirmed every day by great captains of industry, by chambers of commerce, by labor union leaders, by editorial writers and newspaper columnists and radio commentators, by learned statisticians using the most refined techniques, by professors of economics in our best universities." (Economics in One Lesson, p. 13)

Hazlitt points out many fallacies in the belief that government-mandated construction projects can create jobs. One problem is the confusion between need and demand. Because a politician may deem a project necessary for whatever reason, this in no way, despite political rhetoric, creates demand ex nihilo — government fiat rarely works. In fact, if a project is truly necessary, there will be an opportunity for entrepreneurs to meet that demand. Many entrepreneurial opportunities are thus demolished by government rewarding some industries — in this case construction — at the expense of others.

Another fallacy comes from seeing government statistics. It is easy to see the "hard data" — that there are 35,000 construction projects, X number of workers, etc., and much more difficult to understand that those resources — land, labor, and capital — are being artificially shifted from more productive uses to more destructive ones. The capital being spent on government projects is taken from individual taxpayers; jobs are at best diverted, at worst taken from others.

Regarding such projects, we may ask the fundamentally important question, "Cui bono?"

In this case we find, not surprisingly, that it's the construction industry that benefits, and in numerous ways. For example, the Australian government introduced an AU$2 billion "First Home Owners Boost" that was, in PM Rudd's own words, "to support the housing and construction industry." In addition, there are over 20,000 new "social and defense homes," and installing ceiling insulation is "free" for around 2.9 million homes. Finally, construction companies are also building at every school in the country, the "largest school modernization in Australia's history." Libraries, school halls, classrooms, community centers, parks, etc. will be involved in one way or another with construction. Unfortunately, just as in Bastiat's analogy, everyone else loses; government devises at best a zero-sum game.

Government decisions, which perhaps seem to make sense on a macro level, are disastrous on a micro level, due to the nature of knowledge. Hayek explained this knowledge problem best: "The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus … a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality."

Hayek narrowed this down to one fundamental question: not if there will be planning but of who will do the planning — the central planner or the individual.

An excellent illustration of the inevitable unintended consequences that come from central government meddling is a local primary school in the area. In a recent "news bulletin" to parents they write the following: "We have now been advised that the Australian Government will be funding a new building for our school…. The old [building] … will be demolished as part of this project…. Because this is part of the government's Stimulus Package, construction must be completed by October 2010."

This is roughly the equivalent of digging holes and filling them. In fact, digging holes may be better since, in that case, only labor is wasted, for the most part, and not other natural resources. (Where are the environmentalist outcries over this destruction of resources in make-work construction projects?) Regardless, this is merely the broken-window fallacy in new clothes. The real gem, however, comes from later in the bulletin: "Council committees have met this week to consider a wide range of matters about our school. Major matters for discussion included possible uses of our new building."

In other words, the school will have a building demolished, a new one constructed, and still has little idea as to what the new building will be used for. Contrast this situation with that of the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur takes calculated risks, and typically "builds" using the carpenter's rule: measure twice, cut once. If it does not make financial sense to build, the entrepreneur will not do so. In addition, the entrepreneur would later know — through the profit-and-loss mechanism — whether such a decision was prudent or foolish.

PM Kevin Rudd and Minister Arbib believe government's construction efforts are working because they are seen. He has likened the government's massive spending program to "a war effort involving all levels of government." I think he about sums it up with that statement. War breaks windows, and sometimes, as Bastiat and Hazlitt taught, so does building them.


No comments: