Teacher! Measure thyself!

March 22, 2007

Why is our public education system in such dire straits? Is it a lack of funding? Is it the poor standard of teachers? Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop has a remedy for both: funding contingent on performance based salaries.

To be clear, I am not against performance based criteria for pay increase (although I do think that there are other criteria which should be taken into account, and length of tenure one of them). That is generally how it is done in private industry, and provides incentive and rewards for excellence in the field.

However, what I do object to most strongly is that:

  1. Any such criteria be set by the government rather than the individual schools
  2. Such an enormous amount of funding should be contingent on compliance, despite a complete lack of evidence that the proposed changes are needed or will have an effect sufficient to justify the expenditure.

Federal funding is provided to the schools, and it is the schools themselves who contract and hire the teachers to meet their individual requirements. As such, if anyone should be setting performance criteria surely it is the schools themselves? Why should the government be able to specify standard criteria? And would such standard criteria also apply to private schools who receive government funding?

And look at the proposals:

At an education ministers’ meeting next month, Ms Bishop will ask the states to consider three performance-based pay models. The first would assess teachers by how much their students improve academically;

Based on improvement or overall academic standing? Because there is an upper limit on academic achievement – how do you improve past a certain point? Are academic results the best metric of student development at all stages of the education process? Is this providing teachers incentive to lower their standards or finesse student development to maximise their earning potential?

the second would rank teachers according to the views of their peers, principals, parents and teachers;

I love peer review. Peer review is just great. Peer review is just about the best thing ever. But parents? How are they qualified to make objective assessment of a teachers performance? Probably about as qualified as teachers are to assess parental performance.

and the third would allow bonuses through a merit pool.

I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean.

So. No support from ministers, no support from the industry and no evidence to suggest that the proposal offers a solution to a problem which has not itself been demonstrated to exist, let alone justify such a huge outlay of tax dollars. Brilliant.

Imagine running a business like that. Or rather, imagine raising your children like that – because that’s what this will be.

A couple of articles today here and here regarding privacy concerns with the proposed new health and welfare smartcard.

If you’re not in Australia, there is a bit of controversy at present over the Goverment’s desire to replace several different health and welfare service cards with a single smartcard – with a strong concern that the card might come to be used as a defacto national ID , a la the much maligned Australia Card.

Lets ignore for a moment the whole idea of the effectiveness of Security by Identification that underlies a national identification system (by the way, I agree with Bruce Schneier on this, it’s bogus) and focus on the issues raised by a cross party senate committee looking into the legislation. One article states that the report declares:

“Imprecise wording of key items in the bill raised … concerns that there are inadequate constraints to prevent the Access Card becoming an ID card.”

Which is not entirely unexpected. Frightening “anti-terror” (and I cringe as I use the term) legislation passed following the New York World Trade Center attacks and the bombings in Bali was also reported at the time as being poorly specified, and as such open to both misinterpretation and abuse. We don’t have a Bill of Rights as a safety net in this country, and accordingly I would think that is it not too much to ask to be clear and precise when specifying laws that touch on our civil rights and liberties.

But wait! There’s more:

Other concerns raised in the report include:

Biometric photographs on the surface of the card could turn it into a defacto ID card.The card and the supporting database could be used for unintended purposes.

Well, I’ve never heard of a “Biometric photograph” before, but mangled English and buzz words aside the point remains the same. A requirement for identity documents is a reasonably current photograph, and I can’t think of any of the current health/welfare cards being replaced that currently have such a requirement – so why is this necessary?
As to the use of any associated database for unintended purposes? Well, I think that’s going to be a given without specific legislation regarding secondary uses and data persistence.

The card database could be linked with other databases to compile extensive information on individuals.

Well, duh.
As above – without specific guidelines, I think that this is not only inevitable, but probably a major rationale for the card change – that a variety of services for which the government pays out money will now be easily cross referential via a single unique number that identifies the card. In this, the card is all about fraud prevention, not convenience for the user.

The Australian Federal Police and ASIO could get information from the database without a warrant and without the knowledge of the Parliament.

This problem came to light when the aforementioned “anti-terror” laws were passed – giving law enforcement and security agencies the ability to bypass legislative checks and balances. There’s a reason that these checks exist in the first place – to prevent abuse of power – and even if such abuse is not taking place now, poorly defined laws leave a gaping hole of opportunity. Just because you trust John Howard (although I can’t imagine why you would) to use these laws and systems fairly, doesn’t mean you can trust the next guy (I of course use guy in a non gender specific sense) or the guy after that. Or the guy a hundred years down the line for that matter.

“The committee is being asked to approve the implementation of the Access Card on blind faith without full knowledge of the details of the program,” the report says. “This is inimical to good law-making.”

On that point, I couldn’t agree with them more.

Okay, now this is just ridiculous. Pope Benedict XVI, in his position as God’s proxy server to the catholic church, has issued an apostolic exhortation – apparently the second toughest encyclical note issued by his office:

Pope Benedict XVI strongly reasserted Tuesday the church’s opposition to abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage, saying that Catholic politicians were “especially” obligated to defend the church’s stance in their public duties.

“These values are non-negotiable,” the pope wrote in a 130-page “apostolic exhortation” issued in Rome, forming a distillation of opinion from a worldwide meeting of bishops at the Vatican in 2005.

Now I don’t want to get into an argument over the morality of abortion or euthanasia. They are incredibly emotionally charged issues that challenge notions of morality and legal frameworks of society irrespective of religious belief – or lack thereof. But I couldn’t help but notice that gay marriage got slipped in there. How does that work? As far as I can see the only moral objection that the church has to same sex marriage is a dogmatic one, and as such puts it in a very different category to the other two. Attempted guilt by association? Or perhaps it is just that the dogmatic reasons are the most important ones to this papacy?

And “not negotiable”? Says who, and by what criteria? How can you arbitrarily pick and choose which parts of the Bible should be taken literally and which should not?

Such cherry picking is intolerant and discriminatory sure, but not really a surprise – here however is something interesting:

Consequently, Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility before society, must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce laws inspired by values grounded in human nature.

And there we have it.

To put it another way, catholic legislators should feel obliged to ignore that silly old secular church-state separation thingamy, and lobby for religious dogma to be enshrined in law. Is he actually allowed to call for that?

Sure, you can get away with that sort of thing here in Australia, but what about a country like the US where, despite a powerful Christian lobby, church-state separation has constitutional protections?

And finally:

In the document, the pope also repeated that celibacy remains “obligatory” for Catholic priests.

Fine by me. They have chosen to take his orders, and can opt out if they disagree. It’s just a shame that with the Pope’s call to legislators, we could lose the same chance.

Just in case anybody noticed I’ve been missing for the last fortnight, buried under an avalanche of coding at work and I haven’t been able to find the time to scratch myself let alone be caustically smug and superior about anything. Things have evened out a little now so I’ll try and the get back to posting a bit more regularly.

In the interim, have a look at this, um, “article” on the Death of Computer Science.

I found it an odd piece of writing. It seems to find evidence supporting a number of contradictory points, and then just stops – leaving me wondering just what the point the writer was trying to make was.

Oh well, at least if Computer Science dies I won’t have so much work to do.