When People Tell Me That Too Many Students Are Below Average, I Know We Have A Big Problem!

Posted: December 4, 2013 in Education, Politics, society
Tags: , , ,

The trouble with numbers is that most people don’t really think about them.

For example,  Twelve Year Old Reveals All The American Presidents Are Direct Descendants of King John.

This is not as amazing as it sounds. By direct, they don’t mean from the male line, as in the first born son; it just means that King John is somewhere in the family tree. As one traces any family tree backwards, there are so many people in it, that there’s a good chance that any two people will have a common ancestor. It just seems more remarkable when the common ancestor is someone famous like the King of England.In fact, so long as you have at least one English ancestor, there’s a good chance that you’d find King John somewhere in your family tree given how long ago he lived. To do some simple maths, by the time one goes back just twenty generations, you have over a million people in your family tree. Given that all the presidents would have had a least one person with an English ancestor, by the time you go back to the 11th Century, there wouldn’t be enough people in England to have all the members of a family tree without some of them appearing multiple times.

Measure the height of all the basketball players in the NBL. Find out the average. How many players will be below the average height for a NBL? Probably around half. Does that mean that they’re short? Hardly.

Averages, by themselves, don’t tell us much. For some things, the median will be a much better measure. But, when we talk about education, the issue is not a student’s ranking, but what they’re actually capable of doing. When we look at the ranking, people have very little idea what the numbers mean in terms of what the students can actually do. It’s like the basketball players height – it’s no real concern if a player moves from the 12th tallest to the 16th because someone else grew, but it is a concern if the poor guy has started shrinking!

And, unfortunately, people often have a problem with cause and effect.

Let’s take, as an example the number of people going to hospital. I don’t have any figures on this, but I’m pretty sure that if we did a study the mortality rate of people going to hospital in an ambulance would be significantly higher than those who drove themselves. Most of you will immediately see that as self-evident. None of you will argue, when Barry has collapsed at work, “No, don’t get an ambulance – his chances of survival are much better if we leave him there until he’s well enough to drive himself!”

Yet that is precisely what happens in many other areas. People will look at statistics and confuse cause and effect. It’s not always as clear as in the ambulance example, of course, but sometimes one needs to take a step back and think. As I’ve written before, there is a strong correlation between a student’s postcode and their academic achievement. It doesn’t mean that changing the postcode in the poor performing suburb so that it matches the one in the better performing suburb will help. Neither does it mean that simply transporting some of the students from the poorer suburb to the other one will ensure success, although, at least, that might have some effect.

And so we get the latest PISA results for Australia, and we’ve slipped! And suddenly we hear: “Look, all this throwing money at Education hasn’t led to any significant improvement. Throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution! It’s all about teacher quality!”

Well, of course not. “Throwing money at something” would rarely solve anything. Money needs to be put into the right areas and targetted carefully. And one of the areas would be improving teacher quality? The question is how do you it?

Some will argue that a “back to basics” approach is needed, and that if just go back to teaching the way it’s always been done, then it’ll all be ok. A third of our students are practically illiterate we’re told. I wonder at their definition of illiteracy. Do they mean unable to communicate at all, or are they including some kids who are using txt msg lingo 2 write? If we go back to rote learning “My Country” will spelling suddenly improve. This debate has been going on for years, with very little detail from many of the “back to basics” proponents, apart from the fact that students were always taught better in some halcyon days when no-one finished at the bottom of the class and everyone did their homework, brushed their teeth, loved God and their country and cheerfully obeyed the law.

But to me the fundamental thing about the PISA results is that nobody is actually really looking at the numbers that closely. Has anyone in the media been asking how significant a drop from 533 to 504 in the ten years actually is? It’s a decline in the score of about 5%. Is that significant? What are the possible reasons for it? Has it been arrested – for example was the decline bigger in the first five years or the second? Or could the shocking results have anything to do with the fact that “more than 20 per cent of Australian students felt they did not belong, were not happy or were unsatisfied at school”? No, let’s not spend any time on that one.

Out of 65 OECD countries it was also reported:

“The raw mean scores showed Australia was equal 16th in science and equal 13th in reading.”

So in other words, we’re a lot closer to the top than the bottom, but let’s not let that get in the way of headlines about how disastrous everything is.

I’m not for a moment denying that education could be improved or that there aren’t many things that we could do better, but simplistic slogans and solutions won’t do anything. We need intelligent people to look at the problem, to talk to all the stakeholders and to come up with a solution.

Sort of like they did with the Gonski Report!

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Comments
    • Di Pearton says:

      What a great response to the simplistic reporting of the latest PISA results. I love your conclusion that we must talk to all the stakeholders. This is where successive governments of all stripes have failed our children and young adults miserably. And I mean failed.

      My husband has been a primary school teacher for thirty five years, and I have been president or secretary of various P&Cs during the schooling of our four children. During this time, only one Education Minister has been on the side of the angels. One.

      Teachers have dealt with hostility from their State government employer, whilst campaigning for better conditions for students, and incorporated every new and ill-advised government plan with goodwill and enthusiasm. Their professional body, the Teachers Federation is never consulted, always abused.

      The standout Education Minister? Carmel Tebutt.

  1. hilderombout says:

    Thank you Ross for some sanity in this debate. Having worked as a teacher, mainly overseas, with a lot of migrant children, our school was always on the bottom rung of the national grades. Bashing teachers is such an easy way out. One does not have to take the – dare i use the word?- calibre and the social circumstances of the child into account. This kind of sloganeering sees students as a homogenous group and that is quite deceitful. I am at a loss how the current government can justify their position on education. Not only come the children with different domestic, social and economic “packages”, they also come with different aptitudes – and these aptitudes can be and often are different within the same family. Also children learn differently. For some, though quite intelligent, the way in which the curriculum is presented to them might not make any sense at all. That’s why Gonski was so important, not just for the distribution of funds, but also taking into account the different backgrounds of students. I hope Chrissy Pyne will see sense but i do not hold my breath.

  2. Neil says:

    49 % are below average quite frequently!

  3. cassilva48 says:

    Can anyone enlighten me on how much money the Labor Party has put into education since 2008?
    Cass

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