“Success Rates” – What is wrong with the NSW HSC and its media coverage

Do a google of the Sydney Morning Herald this morning and you’ll see this.

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Countless parents, students, school teachers, education bureaucrats, consultants, all poring over the “success rate” figures for students and schools in the HSC examination. Only a select few of those schools reach the “honour roll”.  Each year, at the very top of the pops, the same schools regularly appear.

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This is a gamed Top 30, with selective high schools routinely dominating that segment. They gathered the “talent” through their selective schools test. That’s how they obtained those students whose abilities to pump out high numbers were either natural, socio-economically produced or brought about by rigorous tutoring from the age of 10 and earlier. It’s good PR, though, as it provides the impression that public schools are able to “compete” with high fee Independent schools, whose students are socio-economically and culturally ready to pump out the “success”.

Meanwhile, your every day high school – the one most students are attending – are left on the fringes of the “Top 150”, dropping out, or climbing in, depending on a range of factors. I know, I have taught at schools that have been in and out of the Honour Roll.  And these aren’t all public schools going on the SMH Honour Roll rollercoaster. Catholic systemic schools and low fee outer suburban Independent schools go on that rollercoaster, and parents are watching for those stats like a hawk. So are teachers, Principals as well as education bureaucrats, knowing that parents are judging where they are sending – or, more importantly, where they are about to send – their students.

I don’t write this because my own students don’t reach these “honour rolls” and “success rates” lists.  They have, many times. So this post is not fuelled out of jealousy or self interest.  It’s out of frustration of how good teachers get punished for shallow journalism.  The day the HSC results come out – and, more crucially, when the SMH data crunching results are released – can be a brutal day for teachers. The thing is – there’s often little rhyme nor reason as to rises and falls.  I have seen many good schools go up and down from year to year – there’s no pattern, instead, it often depends on the quality of students in a particular cohort. However, this consideration counts for little in the often difficult aftermath of a “less successful” year in the charts – especially if the enrolment numbers at that school are threatened.

It is for these reasons HSC Honour Rolls represent so much that is wrong with the way we look at education.

For a start, the Herald definition of “success” is limited to an unhelpful amount. To be regarded a “success” in the HSC, students must achieve a result of 90 in a 2 Unit course, 45 in a 1 unit course – otherwise known as a Band 6 or Band E4.  Having taught students who have achieved these results, it is incredibly difficult to obtain them.  It requires a consistency across school based assessment and then in the external examination. There are often very different skills at play in both forms of assessment. While in English they may produce texts like speeches, feature articles, illuminated diagrams of key moments in a play for a school, the HSC examination is an old-fashioned set of handwritten 40 minute essays, a narrative and responses to unseen texts like poems and paintings.  In the essays, the Band 6 students are generally the ones who can pump out 9 – 12 pages of answers in each 40 minute segment. Students have to be good at both skills. And that’s just in English.

Yet the idea of “success” does not include, according to the Herald’s parameters, those who achieve a Band 5, or 80 and above in a 2 Unit course.  That is still an excellent result across the range of subjects offered in this state.  And if you study Standard English in NSW, it is almost the best result you can achieve. Routinely, less than 100 students in the entire course ever achieve a Band 6. Fewer than 1% of the candidates. I taught such a student, the only one (still) in the history of the school at which I taught (which, I will add, was a school which routinely has students who obtain Band 6s in Advanced English), and now I can imagine what it would be like to see a unicorn.  “Success” on the Herald scale is not something most Standard English students can achieve, even if they are very good students.  And Standard English is also not the only one in which it’s difficult for students to achieve a Band 6 – have a look at any course considered to be less than “elite” and you won’t see many Band 6s handed out.

If we have to judge schools via their HSC results (which is problematic in itself), it should be through its percentages of Band 5s that parents and the community can gain a more accurate idea of the “success rate” of a school. A solid range of Band 5s – especially if they are the higher end of the band – will gain students entry into most university courses. Schools with high percentages of students in that Band 5 category are teaching the bulk of their students well.  And yet, the Herald does not do this. That’s because the Herald seems to be more focused on an easy headline and easily crunched data than a detailed analysis of education.

It would be great if education reporting moved on from unrepresentative “success rates”, rather looking at how schools provide quality education that works to improve the skills of students they receive. This notion of “value adding” is not something seen in the Herald, but is seen through education management. If such value adding was the focus of media reporting, there might well be a different view being presented about selective high schools and high fee independents. More importantly, we might see a more realistic picture presented about the schools outside the inner ring of Sydney.

No wait, this is the Herald. Their editors and journalists don’t seem to care much about
“out there”. Looking through the stats on their site at schools from “out there”, they aren’t much of a “success” on their terrible, dangerous Herald scale.



Backdoors, Mobiles, Wedges and the AA Bill – Labor’s Core and Non Core Priorities

The Terrible AA Bill

In amongst the craziness of the final sitting week of Parliament, we had the rushing through of a bill designed to force tech companies to allow Government agencies to monitor communications via phones. The Coalition rushed the bill through, and Labor decided to vote for it, despite its flaws.  This by Paul Karp in the Guardian outlines exactly why the bill is bad and has many serious implications.  Labor has decided that this issue is for them a Non Core Issue and therefore they needed to neutralise it.

Cue Twitter outrage ever since. More specifically, cue outrage from tech experts, who know about the dangers of this ham fisted, clumsily assembled bill. It’s an understandable response.  This is, after all, a government that told us all to “wait until other nations act” about climate change – and then didn’t when those other nations did act. Yet on this bill, we are now a guinea pig in cracking encryption, a nation others are looking towards.   There’s no guarantee that our phones would be secure from attacks allowed by the forced creation of security backdoors.  A New Coalition motto could be – Hard on climate, soft on giving into law enforcement agencies with crazy ideas. But the main focus in the discourse afterwards has been on Labor’s capitulation, as captured so beautifully by Dave Pope.


Labor’s Sophie’s Choice and the Media

Yes, it was a craven crumbling in the face of a terrible policy – but the question remains – what choice did Labor have?

One thing that has been consistent since the Tampa incident in 2001 is that the Coalition have been very good at grasping the high road when it comes to triggering moral panic around the abstract concept of toughening “National Security”. That machine is well oiled, as even the mild mannered Christopher Pyne was keen to make this absurd suggestion, which was deleted afterwards, but still, the tactic is again revealed :


The reaction from tech experts Labor is vulnerable on this, especially if a random “terrorist” attack occurs over Christmas.  Mainstream media outlets – Channels 7 and 9, to a lesser extent 10, News Limited, Fairfax and even the ABC would be easily swayed by Coalition politicians and by various media commentators to connect such an attack to the “need” for ways of monitoring the communication tools used.

Imagine, in such a scenario, Bill Shorten having to explain to Kochie why it is Labor is opposed to “checking the phone of a terrorist”.

Not that this notion has much currency in the discourse on Twitter about this bill. The discussion has been surrounding the concept that people must not vote Labor first because of their capitulation, just as with offshore asylum seeker detention and the human tragedy that is ongoing on Nauru.   As such, there are some who claim that Labor would suffer a huge backlash. That might be too large a claim, however, because while this issue is big on Twitter and amongst tech experts, there’s little evidence of it hitting the mainstream – ie. popular commercial media – unless, as the last comment here suggests that iPhones and Facebook are directly affected.  Even then, there has been so much suspicion and dislike cast on Apple, Google and Facebook that perhaps it would be difficult to whip up sympathy for multi-billion dollar companies.

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Core and Non Core Priorities

The idea of voting Green or other parties that oppose ridiculous capitulations like this is a reasonable idea, but it’s not going to change Labor policy on things like this bill at this stage.  The reason it won’t is because Labor has shown over the years that they have core and non core priorities. Its core priorities have not changed much over the decades – workers’ rights, pay, providing public services such as transport, schools and hospitals. They are the Labor Party – their core is about people who work and providing a better life for them.  They have added some issues to their roster, such as marriage equality and injecting rooms  – but usually only due to pressure brought to bear by the Greens vote, such as in Melbourne.  Those policies, however, are only adopted when the electoral calculus shows that they won’t lose many votes, but would gain votes for taking such a stand.

There are, however, the Non Core issues where the ALP realise that they gain no votes by having an alternative policy to the Other Major Party – and would only lose votes. This is supported by multiple polls that show voters have been sucked in my mainstream (ie. widely read) media’s representations of National Security. That the two parties need to be in lockstep.  That the ALP must neutralise these Non Core issues, in order to have clear air on that same media in regards their Core issues.   We have seen that with asylum seekers, we have seen that in Victoria, where the Andrews Government is pretty “tough on crime”, as outlined in this pre-election piece.

The AA Bill, right now, seems to have deemed to be a Non Core Priority.  After all, Labor can afford to abandon those people who may now vote Green or Pirate due to such an action – but they know those people will most likely vote Labor via preferences anyway. 

To suggest that Labor abandon such a Core / Non Core approach to the next election is to deny the dangers that could occur if they do. Yes, the current Liberal Government is possibly in a death spiral and the last week, and the last week looked a mess to those who closely watch politics.  But to DIDO media users – those who dip in and dip out, stuff like that means little to them.  They may be confused as who the PM is, but by next year, the election will focus on jobs, the economy, infrastructure, hospitals, schools, like they always do.

The election next year may well be closer than people on Twitter may think. Labor can’t afford to take risks. It sucks, and their support on this issue is bad.  It’s difficult to see how we can get out of such a cycle.