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Insights 9: 23 March 2018
Dr Oliver Hartwich on Not PC: Trump and other hypocrites
Latest report: Score! Transforming NCEA data
Jenesa Jeram on Government bias and retirement savings

A question of optics
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
Few countries run as much on informal relationships as New Zealand. It is both due to our small size and our aversion to hierarchies.

But that makes it even more important to adhere to good governance practices. Which is why Shane Jones’ spat with Air New Zealand is so damaging.

In any other country, a rogue Minister commenting on the board and management of the national airline would be a minor annoyance. In New Zealand, our small scale and informal nature can turn such comments into a sovereign risk issue.

As the Minister in charge of regional economic development, Jones will have views on Air New Zealand’s planned route closures. Frankly, if he did not he would not be doing his job. Party-political motivations may have played a role as well.

But as the Crown is the majority shareholder in the national flag carrier and its regulator, the Minister still must weigh his words more carefully. Calling for changes on the board and scolding its chief executive were steps too far, as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rightly clarified.

It was reassuring that Finance Minister Grant Robertson, who holds the Crown’s shares, was quick to intervene, too. When I interviewed him at the Russell Investments conference on Thursday he made it clear that Air New Zealand’s chair, board and management had his full trust and support.

But the damage had been done, and Jones even defied such public rebukes by continuing his campaign.

Incidentally, that did not stop him from enjoying the airline’s hospitality at the invite-only dinner with Barack Obama on Thursday (and, at least by my impression, he seemed to have a good evening).

Of course, Jones’ comments could only ever become such a big problem because of Air New Zealand’s mixed public-private ownership model. In today’s Herald, Matthew Hooton suggests removing the political interference from such companies by transferring their shares to the Super Fund. It is a proposal worth debating.

So at the end of this extraordinary week, international investors may look at New Zealand with more suspicion. Changes in foreign direct investment rules and immigration policy have caused some concern in the global investment business community. The last thing New Zealand needed was a question mark around government interference with listed companies.

The Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance found the right words in response to Minister Jones. Now they must stick to them. This is about New Zealand’s international reputation as a place to do business.

Dr Eric Crampton | Chief Economist |
Loyal readers of the Initiative’s work will know there are more than a few problems with New Zealand’s secondary school qualification.

As Briar Lipson’s report released earlier this month showed, the system makes it rather too easy for students to be directed through ‘safe’ pathways to qualifications of little quality.

Part of the problem is that the system has been geared toward producing NCEA Level 2 qualifications with too little thought about just what they involve. And the thousands of possible pathways to an NCEA diploma make comparing student performance difficult.

That is not just a problem for parents trying to figure out how well their own children are doing in secondary school – something that looms for me far sooner than seems reasonable. It is also a problem for the system if we care about figuring out what makes for an effective school.

The measure of a school’s performance is the education it provides its students – NCEA pass rates are not enough. A fair assessment should account for each student’s starting point, because what students bring with them to the classroom matters too.

This necessarily starts with a decent measure of each student’s performance.

In Score! Transforming NCEA Data, released last week, Martine Udahemuka and I show how to build a better measure of student performance out of the crooked timber of NCEA results. Most of the credit must go to our erstwhile colleague, Dr Rachel Hodder, who slogged through the data mines at Statistics New Zealand and built the measure.

We use our measure of student performance to check whether the teaching profession has been attracting stronger or weaker recruits. We find that while the average performance of students choosing to train as primary school teachers has been lower than the average performance of students choosing other tertiary fields on our NCEA measure, that gap has declined over time. That is encouraging because more modern methods of teaching maths require stronger teachers.

New Zealand can and should make far better use of the education data held in the Integrated Data Infrastructure. Better measures of student performance can lead to better measures of school performance. Better measures of school performance can lead to communities better empowered to make sure all schools deliver for their students.

Our report is a start, but there is a long road yet ahead.

21st century hogwash
Briar Lipson | Research Fellow |
Perhaps it is a product of New Zealand’s geographic isolation, which creates concern not to be left behind. But since moving here from England my education hogwash-o-meter has been reading unusually high.  

While the 21st century skills craze hit England, and fairly rapidly shuffled-on like a Furby in a Pokemon-hunt, in New Zealand there remains much excitement and unhelpful teacher-bashing in the name of educating for the future.

The argument goes something like this. The future is highly uncertain. Therefore, we must stop teaching students knowledge that might become outdated, and instead teach generic skills so they can adapt and survive.

The reality of course is that skills are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge stored in long-term memory. But knowledge is hard-work to learn, and some of it – like times tables, scales, rules of grammar and punctuation – can be a little bit boring, especially for children raised on a diet of burger rings and television.

So nowadays, thanks to the influence of the education futurologists, a teacher’s value lies not in their superior subject knowledge, or their passion and ability to impart the joys of factorising quadratics to unsuspecting teenagers. Rather, teaching today is all about developing whiz-bang 21st century skills, through a curriculum that’s personalised, relevant and engaging.

I don’t know about you, but when I was at school I found the debate over how long I could spend on the phone each evening highly relevant, and my older brothers’ friends oddly engaging. However, luckily for me, my teachers cared less for their students’ caprices, and instead got on with teaching their knowledge-rich subjects.

However nowadays, for a teacher to stay on top, it’s all aboard the 21st century skills express train! No matter that there is no evidence skills are transferable. No matter that cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham tells us “the ability to think critically …… depends on domain knowledge and practice.”

Because 21st century skills are engaging, future-focused and innovative. And innovation equals, of course, progress.

Finally, in case you’re wondering what is meant by 21st century skills, the list commonly covers all those skills in which most of you Insight readers are, by accident of age, so evidently deficient; things like the ability to think critically, to persevere, to solve problems and relate to others.

In all frankness, you and your generation are a write-off. But hooray for New Zealand’s innovative future, and all the un-evidenced hogwash it will bring.

On The Record
All Things Considered
  • Graphic of the week: In which year was a particular word first used?
  • Ask a kid to draw a scientist and they are more likely than ever to draw a woman.
  • Attitudes about free speech on campus are changing.
  • The energy glitch slowing Europe's clocks.
  • The decades-long battle to turn seawater into drinking water.
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