Thursday, 5 November 2009

NOT PJ: A Pack of Rankers

This week Bernard Darnton examines education’s standards.

_BernardDarnton There’s been screeching recently from people opposed to new national standards in education. Apparently measuring how poorly children perform in maths will create an “education underclass.” And bathroom scales are responsible for the obesity epidemic.

(By the way, that was just the most obvious example that came to mind. All talk of an obesity epidemic and, worse, the idea that “something should be done” is, of course, a load of crap.)

Unnamed “experts” are concerned that having schools concentrating on literacy and numeracy will lead to a narrowing of the curriculum. The purveyors of Dolphin Studies textbooks are said to be mortified.

Teachers unions are terrified of national standards because they encourage the idea that some schools might be better than others. There’s nothing like a complete denial of reality to promote faith in the quality of primary school teachers.

To get the unions on side, or at least to become less obstreperous, Education Minister Anne Tolley claims to have cooked up some arrangement whereby parents will get the performance data but media won’t. As long as no journalists ever procreate that should work a charm. I can only assume that the Minister hasn’t reached the national standard in rational thinking. Or perhaps, far more terrifying, she has.

The other possibility is that Tolley knows perfectly well that her plan is as viable as the Elephant Man’s bid to be America’s next top model but that the New Zealand Educational Institute has been bluffed into submission. The union representatives may not be the sharpest knives in the drawer.

It’s well known that a teachers college education isn’t what it used to be. Learning to count to five in Māori and to play three guitar chords doesn’t cut it in today’s complex world. The quality of the raw material has been declining too.

Economist Steven Levitt suggests that primary teacher standards have dropped because of feminism. In the bad old days the only job open to women that didn’t involve domestic drudgery was teaching. Now that women can become doctors, lawyers, and cabinet ministers the fraction of teachers in the top quintile for IQ has halved and the fraction in the bottom quintile has doubled. If you’re after a smile, the rest is in the recently released SuperFreakonomics, in the chapter on prostitution. (Don’t ask.)

National standards may be even more important if the standard of female teachers is slipping. (There have been no male primary school teachers since Peter Ellis’s 1993 conviction for walking a bit funny.)

An outfit called Parents Against Labelling has been set up to oppose these new standards. Whether this is a genuine grass roots organisation or a front for someone else, I don’t know. They do have a point though. Parents should be able to choose the sort of education their children get, whether it involves the three Rs, thirty hours a week of Dolphin Studies, or just the obedience training and baby-sitting service that too many schools offer.

I think national standards are better than having no standards at all. A whole lot of parents disagree.

As usual, the problem is the state’s one-size-fits-all education system. A bunch of policy analysts in the shambolic Ministry of Education gets to decide how all the country’s children are miseducated. Instead of choosing better schools parents have to form lobby groups and nag, quite likely in futility, for what they believe would be better schools. Rather than trust this crowd to set national standards, why not free the education system and let parents set personal standards?

* * Read Bernard Darnton’s column every Thursday here at NOT PC * *


  1. Your last paragraph is good, but I think the concept of national standards as proposed is seriously flawed.

    What happens when you have a group of people setting these standards who are also under political pressure to ensure a high passrate? The standards become lower and lower until the government can point to the high pass rate and say "look what a great job we are doing!".

    Have standards by all means, but have them set and measured objectively by a body not under any form of government control or duress - like a private metrics company.

  2. "...the concept of national standards as proposed is seriously flawed..."


    The idea of nationally imposed standards for the state's factory schools makes as much sense as nationally imposed quotas for Soviet tractor factories -- the appearance of performance becomes more important than actual performance.

    (When Soviet tractor factories had production quotas expressed in numbers of tractors leaving the factory, then spare parts to keep them going weren't made. When production quotas were made for numbers of spare parts, then tractor parts were made smaller. When quotas were then expressed in weight, the parts were made as heavy as possible.)

    "Rather than trust this crowd to set national standards, why not free the education system and let parents set personal standards?"

    Exactly right.

  3. On national standards etc., here's the article I was looking for: David Osterfeld on 'The Bureaucracy Problem'.

    Essentially, planning can either take place by the entrepreneurial process of the market, i.e., by people choosing what they want and entrepreneurs trying to meet those demands and make profits -- or else by bureaucratic "planning" that imposes one-size-fits-all straitjackets across whole "sectors."

    That's Ludwig Von Mises's' point in his book 'Bureaucracy.'

    And since NZ education is delivered on the socialist model . . . we get what socialism always delivers.

    Says David Osterfeld in 'The Bureaucracy Problem':
    "Since socialism entails the elimination of the market, there is no mechanism [under socialist planning] by which priorities are established without conscious direction and control. Thus it is precisely socialism that cannot function without a burgeoning bureaucracy."

    A burgeoning bureaucracy that seeks to impose whichever standards and whatever production quotas are fashionable this week, no matter how flawed either the process or the standards.

    For example, under Soviet planning:

    "When quotas for the shoe and nail industries were set according to quantity, for example, production managers in the nail industry found that it was easiest to meet their quotas by producing only small nails, while those in the shoe industry made only small shoes. This meant gluts of small nails and children's shoes and shortages of large nails and adults' shoes. But setting quotas by weight meant the opposite: gluts of large fat nails and adults' shoes. Similarly, since dress-makers don't have to sell their products they don't have to worry about style preferences. The result is periodic warehouses full of unwanted dresses. And at another time the Soviet Union found itself in the embarrassing position of having only one size of men's underwear and that only in blue."

  4. Bernard,

    I have an observation that I want to bring it up here, so others can see if there is a connection.

    There is no doubt that technological advancement of today is growing at a faster rate compared to 100 hundred years ago.

    About a hundred years ago (time-frame is arbitrary here so as to make the point clear), scientists discovered & discovered new ideas/concepts at very young age (in comparison to the age of inventors of today).

    Einstein was about 20 or 21 when he first started working on revolutionary new ideas on special-relativity, brownian motion (ie, atomic theory) and photo-electric effect (energy quantization). It was around 1900 that he started.He won a Nobel Prize for the photo-electric effect (years later - 1922), after he published his 3 famous papers in 1905, which he was only 26 at that time (ie, time when his papers were submitted).

    It wasn't only Einstein who came up with new revolutionary ideas at young age but a whole lot of them from Physics and I am sure that parallel developments was taking place in other scientific disciplines (biology/medicine, chemistry). Here some of those influential young inventors, when they first came up with their revolutionary ideas:

    - Dirac, age 26
    - Pauli, age 25
    - Heisenberg, age 24
    - Jordan, age 23
    - Bohr, age 27
    - Feynman, age 24
    - von Neumann, age 25
    - de Broglie, age 29
    - ... others

    In comparison to today, it is very hard to find such monumental discoveries happening at such young age despite our technological superiority, as we have computers at our fingertips, where one can instantly plot a physics 3D equation on screen and examine the properties of the surface curve to deduce important physical characteristics, etc,... In those days, they did everything by hand and it was time-consuming & laborious.

    There are 2 things that comes to mind:

    #1) It may be that all or most of the hidden laws in the Universe (either natural or biological) had already been discovered by inventors of the past 100 years that there are not many left for today's generations to discover and this explains why inventors are older today and also the frequencies of new/groundbreaking discoveries are low.


    #2) Our factory education system of today (worldwide) encourages laziness & spoon-feeding students that students' brain become just thick/dumb. They rely too much on computers without thinking. Calculus equations are being solved on screen using CAS (computer algebra system) packages as Maple and Mathematica, etc..., without students understanding the equation is supposed to solve, since the computer just spits out the answer? Is our education system of today is just bogged down on too many rankings, too many recommendations from experts, that those who are running the education system are confused which also reflected in the students' capability to learn?

    I don't know if there is a connection here. Either my point #1 is the reason otherwise point #2 is.

    Here is the fact. There is a negative correlation between the frequency & inventors'-age of new discoveries to number of years we have progressed (from say 300 years ago as a reference starting point). Frequency is getting lower and the inventors age is getting older.

    What others think about my observation?

  5. @ FF: These days, if you're smart, you do a MBA.

  6. That's the trouble isn't it Monsieur? NZ's richest man left school at 15 - what does that tell you? The current system definitely stifles lateral and original thought.

    Govt needs to get out of education for another reason too - poor pay for good teachers.

  7. It's interesting to look at the education systems of the countries that consistently rank highly in the OECD: PISA Programme
    - South Korea (originally based on the American sytem).
    - Hong Kong (originally based on the UK sytem)
    - Finland (originally based on the German System)
    In summary: All three countries have a cultural esteem for education and invest a large amount of resources, whether public or private, into it.

  8. Monsieur

    An MBA? Spend upwards of $30k for what exactly? It's an academic con job.

    The way to do business isn't to study, it's to do business. That doesn't require an MBA. It requires application. Get out there and try.

    There is too much "education" and academic "qualification" going on these days. As a matter of fact the vast majority of it is purile useless bullshit. It is costly and generally non-productive.


  9. Bernard - parents in NZ can in fact choose how to educate their kids, and indeed those few who actually love their children do make a positive choice for private education

    That's not the problem. The problem is the existence of Labour Party (aka "state") schools, and that the productive 10% of the country pay for - as well as paying for their own kids education. The solution to the problem is the elimination - or immediate and total "privatisation" of those Labour Party schools (and the Labour Party too).


  10. There is no doubt that technological advancement of today is growing at a faster rate compared to 100 hundred years ago.

    Utter and total crap. Sorry but the invention of Windows 7 or Fuckbook simply doesn't compare with the introduction, say, of commercial refrigeration, domestic electricity, the telegraph, or the radio.

  11. It's interesting to look at the education systems of the countries that consistently rank highly in the

    Yep. sure the fuck is. None of those countries rate highly in either economic growth or freedom for productive members of society.

    There is a bunch of great reports by Phil Rennie of the CIS who has the stats that NZ"s problem is far too much schooling (and Labour Party "schooling" at that). Basically, only 5% of society - the productive - need "education" - NZs problem is it has far to many unless policy analysis, accountants, and lawyers, and not enough builders and cleaners.

    Labour party "schools" and "universities" are the problem, not the solution. Abolishing them would be an easy way to improve both NZ's freedom and it's economic performance!

  12. Finland had strict standards for becoming teachers, larger class sizes and pays teachers very well.

    It seems to get results too.

  13. Sinner said...
    Utter and total crap. Sorry but the invention of Windows 7 or Fuckbook simply doesn't compare with the introduction, say, of commercial refrigeration, domestic electricity, the telegraph, or the radio.

    Sinner, you seem to be all about shooting labour supporters and nothing else in your posts here about anything else.

    Can you remind me again of what revolutionary invention is facebook, or windows 7? What laws of nature that the development of these applications were invented? Was facebook or windows 7 invented under the framework of QED? Nope! In fact, they're not inventions at all. That's progression, and in fact , the very existence of digital computers (where you can load windows 7 into it) can be traced-back to inventions of Quantum Mechanics. ICs (integrated circuits) & semiconductors are designed using QM. Before QM, engineers built & designed them using the Maxwell laws, but even Maxwell laws were revolutionary inventions, and there is nothing here to compare Maxwell laws to the development of facebook & windows 7? Do you see what I mean Sinner? If you stop your piss take meaningless posts about shooting labour supporters and try to think a bit more deeper in your reply to others posts, then I think you could have understood their points.

    By the way, you repeated in your post some consequences of revolutionary inventions, without you realising them. Things like refrigeration, domestic electricity & telegraph, were developed & enhanced using Maxwell laws (the latter 2) and refrigeration was a result of thermodynamic laws? Without those revolutionary invented theoretical framework, then those very things wouldn't have advanced further past the stage of coincident discovery or flukes?

    Can you provide us with some reasonable & meaningful discussions rather than your usual one-liner, shoot all labor supporters?

  14. Finland had strict standards for becoming teachers, larger class sizes and pays teachers very well.

    Remember when "Finlandisation" was a verb?

    Remember what it meant?

    East Germany had strict standards, and great outcomes in reading and maths too.

  15. @ Sinner: "Remember when "Finlandisation" was a verb?"
    I doubt many people do.

    Finland tops the Legatum Prosperity Index, so things there might not be as bad as you imagine.
    If they didn't have a good education system, Nokia wouldn't be making all those phones.

  16. Just for clarity - admission to Executive MBA courses requires significant business experience for entry. And upwards of $30k. The US fortune 500 companies are well endowed with eMBA's. Those companies generate serious wealth - wealth such as we simply don't see in NZ. We have Fonterra - a cooperative horsefly relatively speaking, and Telecom - with its monopoly. We have such economic potential in NZ. Anyway, lets just stick to our collective knitting and she be right.

  17. Shane

    It depends what is meant by "significant" business experience.

    As far as US companies are concerned there is strong argument that the rise of MBA qualified executives within these organisations coincided with loss of wealth, loss of productivity, loss of capability, loss of customer base and loss of industry leadership.

    There is more than a casual link.


  18. LGM

    Fair comment - & while I am inclined to say that the 'hollowing out" of some US capability may be attributable to dogmatic application of research from business schools, it is just as easy to attribute the RISE of those companies to that same application... :-)

    Recently, god help us, business schools have even been teaching ETHICS.

    And do you mean causal link?

    Most good business schools really do require significant experience in business at an executive level. An issue n New Zealand, as there are so few real corporations.

    MBA's are an easy beat up. Kiwi companies generally have no concept of the capability that the synthesis at whole organisation level can bring - their eyes glaze over and they go back to designing the colour of their new logo.
    Hence, I would cautiously venture, ongoing mediocrity.
    I did BComm and MBA. BComm is pathetic in comparison to the genuine boot camp that is Master By Attendance.

    Sorry PC - I have crapped your thread yet again in pursuit of my own self importance.

  19. Hi Shane

    Thanks for your comments.

    I meant "casual", not "causal".

    I taught portions of a leading MBA course at a well known o/seas university. Most of the candidates shouldn't have been there. Either they were not able to understand the material, or they were not in the position to employ it constructively (and wouldn't ever be). The rest of the class was hindered by the presence of those guys.

    Ethics! I heard about that. Hilarious. Can you imagine the shit they'd have been taught?

    On that thought, have a good weekend!



  20. Finland tops the Legatum Prosperity Index, so things there might not be as bad as you imagine.

    which has NZ at #10. Not a list I believe.

  21. As some one who is definitely not a teacher, but would quite like some more good teachers for his kids. I think the main solution is to pay the teachers better (and maybe have tighter standards for qualifying). That way it might be an attractive career for people to go into.

    Who cares if it is what they do in Finland (which is a very nice country to visit and seems to churn out its fair share of top class people).

    It quite frankly scared me at the end of 7th form to look at the people in my class who were applying to go to teachers college.

    And who should set the standards for what we should teach children... look at the troubles in the US where school boards want to teach fairy stories to children as science, clearly we can not leave it to the lowest common denominator.

  22. Parents Against Labelling is indeed grass roots. I'm a mum from Rangiora and your welcome to give me a call sometime if you would like to know more about our group. I never meant to set up anything but upon ringing someone for more information to share with friends, before I knew it, a group had been started. It is not my idea of fun. Someone has to offer information for parents by parents because Anne Tolley certainly isn't giving us anything to make an informed decision on.

    I still have one child at primary school so the implementation of national standards has the potential to impact on her. Needless to say it is the 'tail' (what an awful label) who is most at risk given that the Ministry of Education has stated to me that national standards itself will not raise standards.

    You are welcome to check out my websites.
    I have posted many respected research documents and information from education experts within and outside of New Zealand that feel this is not the way to go to support our most vulnerable children. I have tried to get research and evidence from Anne Tolley that backs national standards as a way to raise learning outcomes. I have received nothing to date except references to people such as Lester Flockton and John Hattie (who have sent an open letter to Anne Tolley, alongside a couple of other academics, warning of the dangers of this policy as it now stands).

    If you agree with me or not, this is too important to leave up to someone else.

    Be aware that statistics can and have been taken out of context and quoted in part (often times the wrong part) to sooth us into thinking that this is a must because our education system is failing our children.

    Don't be too sure about this, look into the information yourself and make your own mind up.

    Many thanks
    Dellis Hunt
    PAL-Parents Against Labelling


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