Monday, March 19, 2012

Paul Sheehan, Tony Abbott, and forget the margins of error, just feel the fear ...

The war on public secular education continues - the pond likes to think of it as class, religious and cultural warfare - and as you'd expect right at the front of the ranks of the bigoted and ill-informed marches Paul Sheehan with The X factor that adds up to schooling success.

Early in the day there were people who warned that data arising from the MySchool website would be deployed in superficial, slick ways by people with agendas, and without any regard to statistical method.

And so it proves with Paul Sheehan, who on some idle whim gets to comparing a few Randwick schools, and then uses these idle comparisons to come up with cosmic conclusions.

Namely, to whit and to jot:

The MySchool data offers an overall conclusion: when private schools and public schools are handed a similar cohort of students and income, most private schools produce clearly better results.

Naturally there's a caveat:

For those with reservations about the MySchool rankings, I share those reservations.

But you only need a caveat for a craven moment to get back to doing the hard statistical yards:

However, this is transparency at work.

It's actually rampant statistical stupidity at work, with this observation only one highlight in a series of statistical stupidities:

The high percentage of non-English-speaking-background students at Randwick Boys would appear to account for the drag in the school's relative performance. But this in itself is not a marker of disadvantage. Many of the best schools in the state have very high percentages of such students.

Yes, why bother with statistics or data, when simple prejudice will do.

But enough already. Where are we heading?

This is a Julia Gillard-driven initiative that is designed to drive improvements in performances. Soon, the NSW government will introduce a momentous change, giving independence to public school principals.

Headmasters will have to spend a lot more time on management and budgets than they do now. But they will be largely liberated from the NSW Education Department. They will have the flexibility enjoyed by private school principals, and resources can be shifted from the bloated central bureaucracy to front-line schooling.

Add to this the Gonski report, with its call for another $5 billion a year for schools, mostly public schools, and we are witnessing an attack on Australia's school system devolving further into a class system.

What on earth does Sheehan mean? Does he think that Gonski and Gillard are conducting an attack on the school system to prevent it from devolving further into a class system? Or does he think that the school system devolving into private, religious schools, which provides allegedly superior results is a good thing, and Gillard and Gonski will ruin things? And does he really believe that the supposed Gonski cash is about to start flowing?

Any which way it's gibberish built on the shifting sands of a few rubbery figures and even rubberier conclusions ....

Here's hoping clear thinking and essay writing 101 and an understanding that interpretation of statistical data shouldn't be reduced to a couple of schools before pronouncing on education Australia-wide is on the syllabus in secondary schools.

The need to avoid bringing further Paul Sheehans into the world of journalism is pressing, as the only way to avoid commentariat attacks on everything in sight devolving further into class warfare ...

But, but you say, you haven't addressed Sheehan's arguments in detail, and it's true, already on a Monday, there's a shrug of tired ennui and utter boredom.

If you want to read sensible things about education, why not read Diane Ravitch in The New York Review of Books, in How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools (thankfully outside the paywall for the moment,and the second of her columns, following on from Schools We Can Envy, also outside the paywall).

And if you want thoughts on local issues. why not head off to Maralyn Parker's blog, perhaps the only sign of intelligent life at the Daily Terror. Here's what she had to say about the league tables used for point scoring by Sheehan:

League tables were published around the nation this week, ranking schools in various ways based on the latest national test scores published on the My School website. Every one of them is rubbish.

Don’t be stupid enough to believe any of them. The only place for them is the bin.

The league table writers have committed much bigger crimes than just using the results of a few small tests of only around 40 questions each to label schools.

The most dim-witted was to ignore the margin of error which is clearly published on the My School website for every single school result.

The reason the margin of error is published is because it is vital to whether you take the NAPLAN scores seriously or not. Every test result has a margin of error. (League tables based on NAPLAN are nonsense)

There are many other reasons to be cautious of course, but caution and Sheehan are like bats in day flight.

Margin of error? The only margin of error the pond admits to is the error involved in reading a Paul Sheehan column, and thinking any reader might emerge with a shred of enhanced understanding as opposed to a shedding of IQ points.

Enough already.

Let's look on the bright side, and Malcolm Farr gets the week underway by pinging Peter "the smirk" Costello in The taxing business of the politics of tax:

If you are confused by debate over company tax cuts don’t feel alone. The chap miffed he won’t be guardian-in-chief of the $73 billion Future Fund also is unsure of his way on the issue.

“Well look Chris, I’m in favour of lower company taxes … ” former Treasurer Peter Costello told Chris Uhlman on the ABC’s 7.30 last week.

“But the price … if the price of cutting taxes is to impose a carbon tax - in other words to impose a huge, mammoth new tax of which you give back a very small amount - frankly I’d rather they do nothing.” Familiar sentiment; wrong “tax”.

Yes, the smirk couldn't even get his script right about the mining tax, and there was no prompt hiding beneath the stage floor.

Meanwhile, speaking of tastelessness, Tony Abbott showed the sure instinct of a gutter fighter yet again, by using the death of Margaret Whitlam to lead with "There was a lot wrong with the Whitlam government but nevertheless ..." (Abbott accused of scoring cheap points in his tribute). As usual, Abbott shows he's got all the class of a clown doing a pratfall in the circus.

Truth to tell there's a lot wrong with Tony Abbott, and forget the nevertheless ....

Not so long ago, Jeb Bush - yes, don't faint, Jeb Bush - said:

“I used to be a conservative, and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, I don’t think I’ve changed, but it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective, and that’s kind of where we are.”

So what do we get in Australia courtesy of Tony Abbott?

Yep, never mind the state Liberal government or the NSW plodders and their taser-zapping ways, street crime in the state is all the fault of the Federal government.

More than a few people noted the fear-mongering, including Paul Daley with Be afraid of the fear bogy.

Well while on the subject of fear, here's a little more fear-mongering, from Geoff Kitney's Dr No Strategy reaches its use-by date:

The idea that the Liberal Party might repeat the mistakes of the Fraser years under Abbott is one senior Liberals genuinely fear.

It is a fear that is being fed by a growing assertiveness by the National Party, which is agitating for a return to the more nationalistic and protectionist policies which it so successfully pursued in the Fraser years.

This week in Canberra, as the opposition got itself into a tangle over its rejection of the government’s tax cuts for business and resorted to more grubby populism on border protection to divert attention, the unease that some Liberals still feel about Abbott’s prime ministerial potential was turned up a notch.

Yes, a repeat of the Fraser government might well be coming your way.

Feel the fear ... because Abbott is now mired so deep in fear and ideological fury, it's unclear how he could ever find his way back to a statesman-like position where he could make a simple, dignified statement about the death of Margaret Whitlam.

Relax, Paul Sheehan will be on hand with a statistical explanation of how things work. And never mind the margin for many kinds of error ...

(Below: now here's a handy mug for mugs).


  1. Has Penberthy ever published anything that's unfriendly toward Tony Abbott?
    I sent a comment to his "frat house" article on the Smith vs ADF dispute. It was short, suggesting there's a link in common with the Ormond College scandal of 1992, and Abbott thrust himself into the dispute primarily because of its roots in a sex scandal. I think I referred to the liberalisation of laws relating to sexuality & its consequences, initiated by Whitlam and why Abbott may see it as his divine prerogative to roll back those laws.

  2. Here's one Tony Abbott will not be asked about.
    He has nothing to say about bullying behaviour, sexual assault or educational standards.

  3. It took me a little while to catch up on this sorry record EA:

    As for the behaviour in determinedly macho male Catholics, how is it possible to write a lighthearted blog while in the grip of a retching fit?

    If this is Catholicism, maybe the push towards the FSM will gain traction ... Meanwhile, don't ya just love this spiel?

    Situated within the University of Sydney, the College has fostered the intellectual, spiritual, cultural, sporting and social pursuits of its student community since 1857. It is the oldest and most distinguished Australian University Catholic College.

    Our Community is proud of its Catholic Foundation and religious tolerance. As an inclusive community our College is greatly enriched by a collegial and socially diverse student community.

    Yeah, and getting pissed as a parrot and molesting women in the best Catholic tradition of religious tolerance ...


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