Wednesday, February 03, 2010

"My School" brawl exposes teachers' culture of mediocrity

I myself received what I regard as an excellent education at a country State school. I still remember much of the German "Lieder" and Latin grammar I learnt there around 50 years ago. I even remember enough basic physics to know what a crock global warming is. And I sent my son to a State school for part of his education. So I have no great objection to State schools as such. But it is when discipline is abandoned and the curriculum is dumbed down to politically correct pap that an alternative is needed -- and it is often sorely needed these days-- JR

In the mid 1990s the teachers credit union Satisfac came up with a kindly and seemingly innocent idea to celebrate the excellent work of its teacher members. The credit union, which historically had served teachers but like many other institutions now has a wide customer base, decided that to recognise the role of the teaching profession in its own development it would establish an annual awards event called The Best Teacher Awards.

But when the awards were initially proposed the reaction from the teachers union was one of outrage and dismay. Satisfac was told in no uncertain terms to shelve the idea, with the union arguing it was the height of impertinence for a credit union – or anyone else for that matter – to declare that some teachers were better than others.

This quaint Marxist view of the world has been on full display this past week as teachers unions around the country descend into apoplexy over the Rudd Government’s apparently wicked policy of letting parents know how their kids’ school compares to other like schools.

The unspoken backdrop to the unions’ long-standing hostility to any form of comparative rankings is, obviously, industrial self-interest. The danger which a website such as MySchool presents to the union is that parents might start asking hard questions if they see that their school is performing well down the list of comparable schools. For the first time, this website provides the public with data that is so rich that it’s possible to discern a drop-off in certain years or certain subjects.

There could be several reasons for a decline in performance. It could be a funding shortfall, which can be sheeted home to the relevant state government or education department. It could be explained by a change in the profile of the students in a certain year. It could also be that one of the teachers is no good.

It’s this last point which the teaching unions object to the most. They have taken the all for one, one for all philosophy to such a ludicrous extent that they have made the profession less enticing for passionate people who might consider a career as an educator, if not for the fact that you will forever be held back in terms of both workload and remuneration by the non-performance of the minority of disengaged or dud teachers.

If the unions were intellectually honest, this website would be welcomed as a long-overdue vindication of the excellence of most public schools. As the proud graduate of a public school, I’ve taken a perverse delight in monitoring the non-performance of some of the toffiest schools in the land, seeing nuggetty little public schools kicking the stuffing out of joints that charge several thousand dollars a term with an unchallenged promise of a better level of learning.

My School has shown that many parents are effectively being fleeced by this empty promise. They might get one of those nice triangular stickers for the back of the Range Rover, and young Angus might end up rubbing shoulders with a future front rower for the Wallabies, but if it’s reading and writing you’re after, you might do better to skip down the road to the local public school.

My School is not without flaws – we spent a couple of hours on it the other night, our child’s school, in Sydney, was compared to a school in Ballina, which at 739km away is a heck of a commute. But the fixation on such glitches – which are inevitable and can be easily recognised by the average user anyway on a website of this size – is an obvious ploy by the teaching unions to undermine the credibility of the entire venture in a fruitless bid to shame the government into its withdrawal.

There’s one criticism levelled against the site which carries much more weight and which the Federal Government must take very seriously. Opposition education spokesman Chris Pyne is absolutely right when he says there is little point identifying systematic problems with the performance of a minority of teachers, without also giving principals the industrial power to act against them. And to anyone who would say this is a teacher bashing exercise, it is not. It’s the polar opposite of one.

In the new age of transparency created by My School, it is logical and right to shift next to a discussion of performance pay. And it should have less to do with punishing the minority of bad teachers than giving greater reward and opportunity to the enormous pool of dedicated and brilliant teachers.

Thinking back to my school days I can only remember a couple of teachers who were so bad that they should have been frogmarched off the school grounds. They really should have been. There was one guy who seemed to be motivated by nothing other than a pathological dislike of young people. He would habitually tell kids at this largely working class school that they were so dim that they would be better off leaving immediately and going for an apprenticeship popping rivets at the nearby Mitsubishi factory.

And then there were teachers such as Anna Polias, an English teacher who would habitually write 10 or even 15 A4 pages of comments on your essays, stay back after school to organise extra-curricular stuff such as cycling days, bookshop visits into the city, where she would take us out to coffee, talk about politics and travel and our futures. People such as Ms Polias represent the majority of teachers in the public system. She should have been paid half as much again as what she was earning; the fellow I mentioned before had no right to be in a schoolyard at all.

I suspect there are a lot of hard-working teachers who privately believe that things should change but are afraid to say so for being marginalised by the union crowd.

The most appropriate memento from my school days for illustrating this entrenched hostility towards assessment and ranking is the absurd trophy I “won” while playing Aussie Rules for the Under 13s. In keeping with the post-70s educational zeitgeist, it had been decreed that it was unfair to simply have a best and fairest and that, just like at the Easter Show, every player should win a prize. The humiliating gong I won read “Most Attentive at Training” but should really have been inscribed “Most Incompetent Back Pocket” or “Pea-hearted pretender who avoids the hard ball”. Rather than getting a pat on the head as a reward for my uselessness, the coach should have taken me aside and explained politely that I was to Aussie Rules what Gary Ablett was to romantic poetry, and pointed me in the direction of the library.

Pretending that everybody is doing quite well at almost everything is no way to prepare them for later life. And teaching is the one profession where the unions believe that this same bankrupt philosophy should apply to working adults.


Rudd's empty talk on productivity

Deregulation and cutting the bureaucracy would raise productivity but in true Leftist style, all Rudd can think of is spending ever more of taxpayers' money

To get themselves re-elected, governments have to demonstrate they've been working hard to solve the biggest problems facing the country and that they've got big plans for further advances in their next term. To this end, Kevin Rudd has been stumping the country early in this election year promising to avert the looming slowdown in our rate of economic growth caused by the ageing of the population by lifting the annual rate of improvement in the productivity of labour from its weak 1.4 per cent average in the noughties to the outstanding 2 per cent average we achieved in the 1990s.

Rudd says we "must take decisive action to drive productivity growth forward - to improve living standards, to deliver better services while keeping the budget on a sustainable footing, and to improve Australia's international competitiveness". But how does Rudd plan to achieve his productivity surge? By doing more of what he's already been doing, "investing in the key drivers of productivity".

"By investing in record levels of long-term nation-building economic infrastructure - more than $18 billion worth of investments, including in roads, rail and ports," he says.

"By implementing an education revolution, doubling the investment in Australian schools over the next five years, and increasing overall real investment in education by over 50 per cent.

"By investing in business innovation, including innovative manufacturing and helping businesses use technology to work smarter and faster wherever they are, through the high-speed national broadband network."

And "by implementing micro-economic reforms to cut red tape for business and build a seamless national economy".

Convinced? I'm not. Though most of the items on that list are worthy and their continuation and enhancement would make a positive contribution to productivity, they're most unlikely to be sufficient to lift labour productivity improvement to anything like as much as 2 per cent a year.

Remember, the 2 per cent annual improvement experienced during the '90s was exceptional. It's generally agreed by economists to have been caused by the sweeping micro-economic reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s: deregulation of the financial system, floating the dollar, phasing out tariff protection, tax reform, the move to enterprise bargaining and reform of government-owned utilities.

Even if Rudd had the courage - which he clearly doesn't - he couldn't put together a reform program of anything like the size and scope of the Hawke-Keating agenda. That was a once-only clean-out of the regulatory stables that yielded a once-only lift in the level of productivity. The present micro reforms Rudd refers to are pathetic by comparison, involving a move to uniform national rather than state-by-state regulation of a handful of industries. Worthy but no big deal. In any case, those reforms have got bogged in the bowels of the Council of Australian Governments.

As for all he's doing to "invest in business innovation", this is a reference to his neo-protectionist and inefficient government assistance to the vehicle and other industries. And it takes a lot of faith to believe his national broadband network will boost rather than knock a hole in national productivity.

Since Rudd clearly has no taste for the kind of controversial regulatory reforms that invariably arouse the ire of present holders of economic privilege, we're left with the category of measures that do good by spending money: building more economic infrastructure and investing in education.

It's not clear to what extent we face the "infrastructure backlog" Rudd talks about but, assuming we do, it's likely to require a lot more spending than he has presently committed. And his unqualified commitment to return the budget to surplus - drawing no distinction between capital and recurrent spending - leaves him little scope for additional infrastructure spending. Similarly, he has little scope for the greatly increased spending at all levels - early childhood, school, TAFE and university - needed to overcome the stinginess of the Howard years and affect a genuine "education revolution".

It became clear to me that Rudd wasn't fair dinkum in his commitment to an education revolution from the moment during the 2007 election campaign that he said "me too" to Peter Costello's three years of tax cuts. No, Rudd isn't sufficiently productive as a policy-maker - matching deeds to stated intentions - to bring about the marked improvement in national productivity he's promising.


The Queensland wallopers never change

Even putting a chief of police in jail has not slowed them down. Now it's drug trafficking. Good to see that the CMC have finally got off their fat behinds, though. Given the CMC track record, however, they could still go to water over this

THE biggest corruption scandal since the Fitzgerald inquiry, with claims of police in major drug trafficking, is set to rock the force. The allegations centre on the Gold Coast and are believed to concern some members of the Queensland Police Service, The Courier-Mail reports. The Crime and Misconduct Commission is tipped to call a public inquiry into allegations Gold Coast police have been involved with organised crime gangs, including outlaw bikies, importing drugs and dealing them through some of the Glitter Strip's nightclubs.

More than 20 officers are understood to have been hauled before secret CMC hearings to forcibly answer questions or give evidence against allegedly crooked colleagues. Phone taps, listening devices and covert surveillance are believed to have been used to gather evidence. "This will be the biggest corruption scandal since Fitzgerald," a senior police source said. "It will unfortunately drag down the reputation of the police service once again."

A multimillion-dollar cocaine bust on the Gold Coast last year is believed to have helped spark the CMC probe, which has been running for several months. The CMC is investigating allegations cocaine went missing from a Gold Coast police station. The Surfers Paradise police station was raided on Sunday, as well as another Coast station.

On Monday, in a separate incident, a Surfers Paradise constable was stood down on full pay pending an investigation after a drug bust in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley.

The scandal follows last year's Operation Capri which resulted in the damning CMC report Dangerous Liaisons. "This will make Capri look very small," the police source said. "We're talking about allegations of police involvement in importing drugs into Australia and distributing them through the Gold Coast nightclub scene. "Police on the Coast, by nature, work pretty closely with the seedier side of the tourism industry and it would seem some may have fallen for temptation and dragged the rest of their colleagues down with them."

Another source said drug dealers were blatantly plying their trade in nightclubs - with off-duty police present.

It is believed key players have not been questioned by the CMC, leading to speculation a public inquiry was imminent. Yesterday, the CMC said suggestions of a "major drug trafficking investigation" were "incorrect". But a spokeswoman said illegal drugs were part of an ongoing police misconduct probe, Operation Tesco, and would not rule out a public inquiry.


Rogue unions out of control under Rudd

SHIPPING company Total Marine Services has caved in to union threats of further strike action and agreed to wage and allowance increases of up to $50,000 over three years for workers servicing the lucrative oil and gas industry.

Together with an escalating dispute between Woodside Petroleum and its Pilbara workforce, the Total Marine deal confirms that Western Australia's minerals-rich north has become the front line in a new industrial push that employers warn could spread throughout the resources sector.

Employer groups have used the Total Marine agreement to attack the Rudd government's workplace laws, warning that the deal could flow across the shipping industry.

The Australian Mines and Metals Association said the deal contained no productivity offsets and was struck just two hours before workers were to embark on another 48-hour strike against the company. Steve Knott, the association's chief executive, said the dispute had been a "litmus test" for Labor's workplace laws, and the company had been forced into agreeing to the union claim. "The MUA (Maritime Union of Australia) took crippling strike action until vessel operators were no longer able to afford to withstand the action," Mr Knott said.

"This dispute has clearly demonstrated the Fair Work Act has made it easier for unions to initiate damaging strike activity and, as seen in the latest round of illegal stoppages in Western Australia, there seems to be little commitment from government to prevent such action."

The Australian Shipowners Association last night said Total Marine could only "resist repeated strike action for so long". Teresa Hatch, the association's executive director, said the wage rises could flow on to other shipping companies. But Paddy Crumlin, the union's national secretary, said the wage increases in the "historic" agreement were "reasonable".

The 30 per cent wage increase comprises 8.5 per cent back-dated to September last year; 3.5 per cent from this month; and three 6 per cent wage rises payable between July this year and July 2012. The union has also succeeded in winning a new construction allowance, which is believed to start at about $175 a day before increasing to $214 a day. The union said it was close to securing agreements with other vessel operators, including Farstad and Go Offshore.


Perth girl crowned Australia's brainiest student

Interesting that the winner is of Indian origin and the runner up is of Chinese origin

A 14-YEAR-OLD'S knowledge of neuroscience has led to her crowning as Australia's brainiest student. Uma Jha, from Perth's Shenton College, in inner-west Shenton Park, outsmarted more than 4000 national competitors to win the 2010 Australian Brain Bee Challenge.

The neuroscience competition tests high school students on a range of topics, including intelligence, memory, emotions, sleep, Alzheimer's disease and stroke. In front of a live audience in Sydney on Monday, Uma competed against other state winners in the national final of the competition, which included a brain-teasing anatomy exam, doctor-patient diagnosis and a neuroscience quiz.

"The competition was tied right up until the end and it was a really nerve-wracking finish," Uma said after the event. "I've never won a national science competition before, so it's amazing."

As the Australian Brain Bee Champion, she will travel to California for the International Brain Bee Challenge in August. Competition national organiser and Queensland Brain Institute professor Linda Richards said it would be a fantastic opportunity for Uma. "She has shown that she has a special talent and passion for neuroscience and we're very proud of her to be representing Australia at the international level," Prof Richards said.

The Australian runner-up was Andrew Li, from James Ruse Agricultural High School in New South Wales.


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