Monday, December 24

Another honour for Howard's 'history wars' victim

As my friends know, I've sometimes had to battle the urge to become a Howard hater – and never more so than when I remember his treatment of Dawn Casey (pictured).

So as John Howard heads for the golf course, surely now regretting the hubris which caused so much damage to the Liberal Party he professed to love, it's great to see one of the victims of his pogrom against political correctness go from strength to strength.

Dr Casey is to become the director of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum from next March. For the past three years she has been the highly regarded chief executive of another top Australian museum, the West Australian Museum.

But most of us remember the way Howard and his hard-right mates ousted Dr Casey as director of Canberra's new National Museum of Australia because they decided her exhibit labels failed to reflect their "three cheers" view of our history and our society.

One hopes it was not also a factor that Dr Casey is Aboriginal.

A little potted history to refresh our memories. Dr Casey, already highly regarded for her achievements in public administration, oversaw the construction and opening of the NMA, winning further acclaim for meeting a tight budget and tight timetable for the Centenary of Federation celebrations in 2001.

Most of the museum's council members found no fault with her work. But one did – David Barnett, a hard right conservative known best for an admiring authorised biography of Howard.

He compiled a dossier of thousands of museum labels he found objectionable. But with the Centenary deadline looming, council chairman Tony Staley – himself a former minister in the Fraser government, and Liberal Party president from 1993 to 1999 – was reluctant to act.

Staley turned to Geoffrey Blainey, the historian most admired by conservatives, who suggested Monash University history professor Graeme Davison review Barnett's allegations. Davison examined them in detail, checked them against historical sources, and said Barnett's criticisms were ill-founded.

Conservatives often rabbit on about accepting the umpire's decision. Hah! When Dr Casey's original term at the NMA expired in 2002, the government renewed her contract for just one year instead of the three or five years one would expect.

The hard-right commentariat had been frothing at the mouth. Miranda Devine saw "sneering ridicule for white Australia". Tedious as ever, Piers Ackerman said the museum suffered from political correctness. Pru Goward, head of the Office for the Status of Women (and wife of David Barnett), said it trivialised the contribution of women.

Keith Windschuttle, the Quadrant contributor (and now, new Quadrant editor) who has been unable to discover any evidence of massacres of Aborigines (apart from Myall Creek, which is so well documented in sworn court evidence it is undeniable) took up the campaign against Dr Casey.

Inside, on the museum's council, Christopher Pearson, a former Howard speechwriter, seized the cudgels too.

The council decided on an external review. The responsible Howard minister, Rod Kemp, chose as chairman John Carroll, a conservative with connections to the right-wing propaganda organisation (a.k.a. "think tank"), the Institute of Public Affairs. Other members included Philip Jones, a senior curator at the South Australian Museum who had won the conservatives' approval during the Hindmarsh Island affair. Balancing them were Sydney businessman Richard Longes and palaeobiologist Patricia Vickers-Rich.

One might ask: Where was the historian?

But despite the appearance of a stacked inquiry, the committee, against all expectations, reported there was no problem with political or cultural bias at the NMA.

Accept the umpire's decision? Get real. When Dr Casey's one-year contract extension expired in 2003, the government showed her out the door.

At the Powerhouse, Dr Casey faces problems from the start – because of NSW Government funding cuts, she must cut staffing by up to 10 per cent.

However, it's unlikely she will push out anyone because they don't share her political views.

Thursday, December 13

Something to brighten your day

It's not about Christmas, but this is so delightful it may well lift you into a Christmassy mood. Just click this link and turn up the sound.

When it's finished playing, you may like to click the link on the top left of your screen to go to Care2, a cornucopia of treats for people who like things green. It claims eight million members.

[Thanks to Suzanne, who passed this on in an email to friends.]

Saturday, December 8

Labor supporters cheer Bronwyn's return

Why do so many people take an instant dislike to Bronwyn Bishop?
Answer: Because it saves time

Well, blow me down and lock up the kerosene. Bronwyn's back, and in a shadow portfolio concerning the welfare of generally older people, Veterans Affairs.

I'm pretty sure the quip above came from then-Senator Gareth Evans, although a web search gives a few other, and probably incorrect, attributions -- just one of those problems you face when you seek information on the internet.

As a bit of a leftie, I should be rejoicing. Now I know there's little chance the Coalition will regain government in three years, and unless he stuffs up big-time, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd should last at least three terms while the Libs thrash about like a dying dinosaur in quicksand.

But as I've written to friends since Rudd's November 24 victory, I'm not rejoicing. Our system of parliamentary democracy requires a strong and credible Opposition. The Libs are going the wrong way.

This grumpy old fella probably won't be around to see it, but he can predict a time when Australian politics will be a tussle between the Labor Conservative Party (preferably without the compassion bypass one now needs to be a Lib) and the Greens on the progressive side.

Friday, December 7

Better education for Aboriginal kids

If you share the concern about the poor educational achievement of many Aboriginal children (featured in the following two blog posts), you will be interested in a speech by the Secretary of the Treasury, Ken Henry, calling for seven "platforms of development" to improve things.

Read it here, from this morning's Australian.

A closer look at our education report card

In our schools, Australia really is the land of the fair go. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds do reach higher educational standards than they would almost anywhere else in the world.

By world standards, Australia offers high quality education – and offers it more equitably than most other countries. But there are areas of concern, particularly with Aboriginal students' achievement and with remote schools.

I've followed up my previous blog post by going into the Australian Council for Educational Research website and downloading the executive summary of Australian results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The exec summary itself is a 14-page PDF file, while the full Australian report runs to almost 10 megabytes of PDF.

As the previous blog post noted, Australia is still up there with the better performers, but has slipped on some key measures.

And to my mind, the exec summary doesn't provide enough information to answer some key policy questions that should concern all Australians and their politicians. Answers which may show us the way to regain the lost ground, and more.

The summary says questions guiding the development of PISA are:

  • How well are young adults prepared to meet the challenges of the future? What skills do they possess that will facilitate their capacity to adapt to rapid societal change?

  • Are some ways of organising schools and school learning more effective than others?

  • What influence does the quality of school resources have on student outcomes?

  • What educational structures and practices maximise the opportunities of students from disadvantaged backgrounds? How equitable is education provision for students from all backgrounds?

Under the heading, Policy Issues, and looking at the new focus on science education, the summary notes that "Australia is well placed to continue its tradition of producing high quality scientists".

It also notes that "Analysis of Australia´s performance in terms of equity and achievement places us in the category of above-average level of student performance and below-average impact of socioeconomic background in scientific literacy; in other words, high quality and high equity".

Literacy in reading also shows a narrowing of the gap between well-off and poorer students, but the report notes this may result from declining achievement in the higher levels rather than improvement at the bottom end.

The report does point to worrying areas, two of which are:

The achievement of Australia´s Indigenous students continues to be a concern. Average scores for Indigenous students place them on a par with students in a low-performing country such as Chile, and two and a half years behind the average for their non-Indigenous contemporaries. While some individual Indigenous students performed very well on the PISA assessment many more performed extremely poorly. There is no doubt that many Indigenous students will continue to need extra support.

The relatively poor performance of students attending schools in remote areas is also evident from these analyses, and requires attention. Students attending schools in remote areas were found to be achieving at a level about a year and a half lower than their counterparts in metropolitan schools in all of the assessment areas. It is recognised that schools in remote areas face problems such as attracting and retaining qualified teachers, maintaining services and providing resources, and in their capacity to send staff to participate in professional development.

Despite its aims, the PISA study may not settle debate on questions such as Australia's mix of public and private education, and the way it is to be funded. We have just removed a Prime Minister who was ideologically unable to collaborate with the Labor-governed states, and who also wanted to impose his mid-20th Century mindset on our school curriculums.

Can we achieve more in education (and in health, and everything else) with "wall-to-wall Labor governments"? Perhaps, but there'll always be tensions between Federal and state responsibilities and funding.

Are we focusing too much on vocational preparation, and not enough on developing our children so they can live better lives in in our rapidly changing world? The PISA report suggests we are achieving a good balance, but we shouldn't take it for granted.

Can we improve the professionalism, the status and the remuneration of teachers? Will some have to put extra effort into professional development to cope with our changing, digital world?

Wednesday, December 5

Our report card: 'Has done better'

Australian students are beginning to fall behind the standard of overseas students in reading and mathematical skills – that's the finding of an OECD study released overnight. We're still ahead of most of the world, but we're slipping.

I picked up the story first from a brief report on Sky News Online early today, which also said:

It has been reported that the results were dragged down by poor performances by indigenous students and those from a low socio-economic background.

That set off two lines of thought. First, Sky needs a good old-fashioned sub-editor, who'd rewrite that passive voice into active, and who'd see the need for attribution. But old-style subs are an endangered species as more media companies see them as merely process workers shovelling “content” in between the ads.

Second, are inequities in our education systems worsening? The picture seems unclear. Further reading suggests we may be letting down our brightest students – and also that we're not achieving much-needed improvement in the educational development of many Aboriginal children, as well as others from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

A little more browsing on the web brought up this report by The Australian's education writer, Justine Ferrari, headed: “Brightest students falling behind world”.

Results from the latest Program for International Student Assessment, released yesterday by the OECD group of 30 developed nations, show that while Australian students still perform in the top 10 of the world in reading, maths and science and well above the OECD average, their ranking dropped.

The PISA test of 15-year-olds shows the reading scores of Australian students fell about 15 points over the past six years, with the decline caused by a fall among the highest-performing students.

"It is noteworthy that, among the countries with above-average performance levels, only Australia has seen a statistically significant decline in their students' reading performance," the report says.

In maths, Australia's mean score remained about the same, but this was due to an improvement among the weakest students that counteracted the fall in performance among top students.

The Australian Council for Educational Research conducts the PISA test on behalf of the OECD.

ACER chief executive Geoff Masters said fewer students were demonstrating skills at the highest levels, which involved sophisticated reading and understanding the nuance of language.
Students had to read complex and unfamiliar texts and find information that was not obvious.

Later, on ABC radio, he said a possible reason for the decline was that students today read fewer books and long texts.

Justine Ferrari also reported:

Researchers in gifted and talented education argue that Australian schools need to better provide for the academically gifted, in the same way that elite sports people are fostered, and encourage bright students to forge ahead at their own pace rather than tie them to the class rate.

The Sydney Morning Herald's education writer, Anna Patty, also covered the issue well, focusing on the slipping ability of our brightest 15-year-olds, and also noting a downturn in girls' maths skills. She also wrote:

. . . almost a quarter of the poorest students, 40 per cent of Aboriginal students and 27 per cent of those in remote schools performed below the OECD baseline at which students are considered to be at risk of serious disadvantage.

Your Grumpy Old Blogger thought this would be a quick and easy post. It's not. So I'm taking a break to think it over after reading the report and some summaries which can be downloaded from ACER's website.

Whatever, surely this rich nation should strive to deliver the best education and the best opportunities in life for every one of its children, whether bright or struggling, rich or poor, from the city or the bush.

Our report card now says: "Has done better – must try harder." And we really must. We owe it to our kids and our grandkids and our nation's future.

Tuesday, December 4

Pretty ornament, useless misinformation

It's no good whinging if you don't do something about it. After posting the previous item about the inaccuracy of iGoogle's weather forecasts, I went into the iGoogle site and found a lively debate among others leaving comments. I added mine:

The pictographs and forecasts are wildly inaccurate in Australia, too. For today, the government Bureau of Meteorology's latest, 45-minutes-old forecast for Sydney shows a maximum 27deg (like most of the modern world, Australia converted years ago to Celsius, aka Centigrade, temps) while iGoogle is showing a max/min range of 24/20deg.

This sort of wild error is common. iGoogle should find a gadget provider who reformats BoM forecasts, not wild guesses. Australia has a number of companies which repackage BoM info for graphical reproduction in newspapers and the internet. Tell your gadget provider to find out how they do it, and follow suit. Check for yourself, hit and compare with iGoogle's forecast for Sydney.

I love the iGoogle screen stuffed full of gadgets, but this needs fixing.

If my complaint – and those of many others posting to comments – leads to an improvement in iGoogle forecasts, I'll let readers know.

Meanwhile, I've been seduced by other information panels (iGoogle calls them gadgets) and I've added to my home screen:
  • Word of the Day
  • WordWebOnline dictionary/thesaurus
  • Spellcheck, which incorporates a dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopedia
  • Joke of the day (the nicer ones will be great fillers in a newsletter I produce)
  • This Day in History (at present, it's the Bhopal poison gas disaster of 1984)
  • Australian Stock Exchange – constantly updated All Ords and prices for the individual stocks in our pitifully small portfolio

A busy home page, and generally quite useful, but a great time-waster if you've work to do.

Sunday, December 2

Whether you can trust the weather . . .

Sunday. A lovely sunny day ahead of a forecast week of rain, humidity and possible thunderstorms. A good day to head north for lunch with some of the family at the Motor Yacht Club at Toronto.

But what to wear? What's the weather likely to be? That should be easy – I've set up an iGoogle home page which displays all sorts of information including weather forecasts.

I'm a news junkie, so it displays headlines from the ABC, other Aussie sources, BBC World Service, New Scientist, and a few others. Then there's the calendar, the clock and date display, world clocks, a currency converter, and a search box which takes you straight into Wikipedia. Even a memo pad where you can list your jobs, right in front of your eyes where it keeps nagging at you.

Really useful, and easy to set up, tailored to your individual interests. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Not so sure about the weather forecasts, however. I've set it up for Sydney, Newcastle and Perth, with current conditions as well as forecasts for today, tomorrow and the next day, each with a little pictograph and what I expect is a forecast temperature range.

For today in Newcastle, at 7.44am the iGoogle forecast showed a current 19°, already above the forecast 18°/15° range. The Bureau of Meteorology at 5.15am had issued a forecast of a 24° max.

For tomorrow, Monday, iGoogle shows a 21°/18° forecast for Newcastle, while the BoM predicts a 30° max.

From time to time, I've compared BoM and iGoogle forecasts, and this sort of discrepancy is not unusual. Perhaps it would be better to add , plus the bureau's relevant regional page, to the Favorites list in your internet browser.

Even the news headlines seem well behind – since 4am, at least, the ABC radio news has led on an al-Qaeda attack on an Iraq village which left 14 dead. But the only place it's to be found in the headlines on my home page is the BBC.

Perhaps that's not Google's fault. Perhaps the news organisations which provide headline feeds to iGoogle need to lift their game.