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Insights 46: 6 December 2019
Submission - Designing a Fair Pay Agreements System Discussion Paper.
Eric Crampton in Newsroom on how NZ can learn from the US response to the "heckler's veto".
Research Note - Ignorance is not bliss: Why knowledge matters.

PISA backs teacher (over student)-led learning
Briar Lipson | Research Fellow |
Confirmation came this week that New Zealand’s once world-leading school system continues its steady decline.
Ever since the OECD began testing the educational performance of 15-year olds in the early 2000s, New Zealand students have performed progressively worse in all three assessed areas of reading, maths and science. We also learned this week that our children encounter more bullying, more noise and disorder in classrooms, truant more often and feel less sense of belonging.
And yet, the most concerning aspect of this week’s news has not been the results – disappointing though they are. Rather, it has been the abysmal quantity and quality of coverage, comment and critical thinking the results have managed to create.
In most countries, a prolonged slide such as we’ve seen, which has left average 15-year-olds performing anywhere between two thirds and well over a year behind their counterparts less than two decades previously, would spark serious soul-searching, analysis and debate.
Instead, in New Zealand, the results have variously been dismissed as mere confirmation that national standards were a failure (even though they could only have affected 2015 and 2018 results); because poverty causes underachievement (despite Estonia’s meteoric rise); and on the basis they are a “very white, middle-classed values-based test” (even though the idea that reading, maths and science are not appropriate or valuable for Maori children is about as racist as any statement gets).
At the Initiative, we focus on evidence of what elevates academic outcomes for all. Helpfully, in the lead-up to the data-release this week Andreas Schleicher, who directs the OECD’s education programme, published a blog encouraging readers to do the same.
Schleicher’s blog was inspired by a visit to the remarkable Michaela Community School in London. Michaela is run by the Kiwi-born headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh, whom the Initiative brought to New Zealand last year.
It opens by reminding readers that PISA consistently finds teacher-led approaches (like Katharine’s) to be more predictive of success than student-led approaches (like New Zealand’s). He then systematically slays all the common objections.
Later, Schleicher describes Michaela’s structured disciplinary climate, which leaves students feeling happy, ambitious and confident. In his words “Coming from very different ethnic and social backgrounds, they shared an identity about learning and they were very proud of their school.”
A blog can be a small thing, but New Zealand’s impoverished debate has exposed a vacuum. We must hope Schleicher’s musings and evidence-based message will finally be welcomed in.

Standing up for freedom of speech
Roger Partridge | Chairman |
It can take courage to champion what you believe in. Especially when your views are at odds with those of the crowd. And more especially today, when social media’s cauldron of hate can quickly vilify anyone speaking out against politically correct ‘wisdom.’

Yet, in the past week a group of academics, led by Dr Michael Johnston from the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington, has taken a stand for something they hold dear. Concerned about the growing tendency for New Zealand’s universities to shy away from debate on sensitive subjects, the academics have written an open letter to New Zealand’s eight universities challenging them to affirm their commitment to freedom of speech on campus.

Two recent incidents at Massey University triggered their letter. The first concerned the cancellation of the Speak up for Women ‘Feminist 2020’ event on alleged ‘health and safety’ grounds. The second involved the university removing posters supporting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Both incidents follow Massey’s widely publicised de-platforming of Don Brash in 2018.

‘Cancel culture’ has become commonplace on American campuses. The academics are alarmed it may be taking hold in New Zealand.

They claim the mission of universities to foster free expression and debate has two consequences of inestimable value. First, when theories and ideas are winnowed and refined on campus this has a moderating effect on public discourse beyond the universities. Second, there is a benefit to students. “[T]hrough exposure to ideas that challenge and sometimes disturb them, [students] become more intellectually robust,” the academics claim.

The academics challenge universities not to crumple in the face of protests and cite ‘safety’ as a reason for de-platforming controversial speakers. As they rightly observe, this is a “thug’s charter.”

In response to campus cancel culture in America, the University of Chicago has championed the “Chicago Statement.” This statement restricts expression that violates the law, or which is defamatory, but otherwise prevents university staff or students from “obstructing or interfering with the freedom of speakers to express views that others may disagree with or even loathe.” The statement has now been adopted or endorsed by more than 70 American universities.

Earlier this year the University of Western Australia became the first academy across the ditch to adopt a similar free speech code drawn up by former Australian High Court judge, Robert French.

Anyone interested in protecting freedom and democracy in New Zealand should get behind the academics’ campaign to have our universities do the same.

Scientific Literacy and PISA
Dr Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
One of the underappreciated joys of parenthood is lying to your children.

Children are full of questions. Sometimes, questions deserve straight answers. But not always.

If the kid is just too lazy to think through something, or if you really don’t know the real answer, it can be great fun to invent an absurd explanation and see how long it takes for the child to notice. It’s fun for the parent, and it helps the child learn how to detect … well, the right word wouldn’t make it through email filters. Let’s go with horsehockey.

That experience makes me just a bit suspicious about the explanations we’re getting for New Zealand’s continued declining PISA scores. A lot of the answers sound like the kinds of horsehockey I’ll sometimes invent at home.

The Ministry of Education’s Craig Jones, according to Stuff, pointed to technology “as a notable 21st-century distraction” that might explain drops in interest in reading – a potential explanation for falling test scores.

If I tried that one on with my kids, I’d really hope that they might prod me a little. It isn’t just New Zealand’s overall score that dropped; New Zealand’s ranking also dropped. And technology is a notable distraction everywhere. You can’t use something that affects all countries to explain a change in one country’s ranking. Kids everywhere play Fortnite.

Dr Jones did make pretty clear it is hard to tell why New Zealand’s results keep sliding. It might be important that we figure this one out; I’m confident that Dr Jones cares about getting the right answer.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the PISA results demonstrated the failure of national standards. But you can’t trick us that easily, Minister Hipkins! National standards were introduced for children aged 5-12 at the beginning of the 2010 school year. PISA tests 15-year-olds. And the biggest decline in New Zealand’s PISA ranking happened between 2009 and 2012, with a steady but slower decline since. Maybe the decline would have been even worse without national standards; the PISA results alone can’t tell us.

So I wonder whether official responses to the PISA results are a test of the broader public’s scientific literacy. We should be able to recognise the answers so far as horsehockey.

Making up stories is fun with the kids. But getting to the truth about our failing education system matters. Not sorting it out – that really would be horsehockey.

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