Saturday, 1 January 2011

Neither Hero nor Villain

One of my sons gave me a copy of David Hick's book - Guantanamo - My Story - for Christmas.

It's over 450 pages long, but I found it hard to put down, and read it in two days.

As a piece of literature, it's a well-written and compelling story. It's comprehensively footnoted, and compiled without the benefit of a ghost writer. Hicks certainly has a story to tell, and without making any moral judgement of his conduct, you'd have to be some kind of rabid denier of the fact not to admire his physical and mental toughness.

Many men would have been driven to gibbering insanity after the five years of what he went through after he was handed over to the Yanks for a bounty of $1000 US by the Northern Alliance.

So the simple task is reviewing the book. It's a good read, and an inspiring account of human endurance. Essentially it's a story about hope and devotion. The determination of Terry Hicks (David's father) and his Marine lawyer, Michael Mori, is amazing.

Both these individuals were driven by principle, not politics, and making a judgement about their conduct is simple as a result.

To make judgements of the other players, including the Bush administration, the Australian government, and those supporting Hicks at home, is not so simple. Their involvement especially that of the Howard government is driven by politics and it's abundantly clear that Hicks became a powerful symbol.

The fact that he was a human being, and an Australian citizen counted for nothing once the politics engaged.

The other complication is that the mainstream media, both here and in the US, took sides, rather than reporting the facts.

Miranda Devine's piece in the Herald Sun on October 21st 2010 is a good example. She is critical of Dick Smith for his financial support of Hick's defence. Her complete lack of research on Hick's conduct is evident when she claims Hicks was "in uniform".

One of the major points of the US indictment was that he wasn't in uniform, and was therefore an "unlawful combatant".

Miranda obviously hasn't done her homework - even the basics - such as reading his indictment.

This standard of reporting is indicative of the ignorance displayed by many journos writing about him, and this is demonstrated by both sides of the political divide.

There are some ironies throughout the narrative. At one point early in the piece, Hicks attempted to join the ADF because he wanted to go to Timor. He was refused on the basis of insufficient educational qualifications. Yet his motives to join up were the same as those that attracted him to Kosovo. In a strange twist, he was at that time, of a similar mindset as many young diggers serving now in Afghanistan. Strange but true.

The one element of this whole sorry scenario that sticks in my craw is the way in which he was abandoned by the Howard government. His Australian passport was worthless, and it doesn't fill me with any confidence in our national government (no matter what persuasion) looking after its citizens when they get into trouble overseas. To my way of thinking, even if you were Jack the Ripper, you are entitled to Australian consular support if you run foul of the authorities overseas. Australia was the only country that totally abandoned its citizen. The Brits (for example) got all their people out.

It seems that once international politics come into play, legal principles (including habeas corpus) are tossed out the window.

His treatment at Guantanamo could only be described as subhuman. He presented an affidavit to the International Red Cross through his lawyer Michael Mori describing what was done to him, so the Australian government was well aware of what was going on.

The fact that no action was taken at the time represents a surrender of our national sovereignty and still makes me ashamed to call myself Australian.

At least some of the senior military involved (including Major Mori) put duty before politics.

Colonel Moe Davis who was appointed to serve as the third Chief Prosecutor in  the Guantanamo military commissions resigned from the position and retired from active duty in October 2008 over political interference in his role.

Lieutenant Colonel Mori, now serving as a senior military judge, took the navy to court in September 2010, alleging that his 2009 promotion was delayed due to bias by the selection board.

Like Davis, Mori made the mistake of putting duty before politics.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Charter Schools

Today's Oz has a front page report that the Gillard government is planning to give schools more autonomy, particularly in regard to appointment and management of staff.

I've read elsewhere that Gillard herself developed an interest in the Charter School movement in the USA, and there is a body of opinion that she is influenced by this.

The model of Charter Schools used in the United States is based on primary or secondary schools that are publicly funded but are different from other public schools in that they are not subject to many of the rules, regulations, and statutes that usually apply in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, set forth in each school's Charter.  This freedom is primarily applied to recruitment and selection of staff.

They are an alternative to other public schools, are part of the public education system, and are not allowed to charge tuition. In the USA, enrolment in a charter school is allocated by lottery-based admissions are there are usually fewer places available than students wishing to attend.

The idea is that if schools are given more autonomy, they can improve the quality of staff and curriculum, and adapt better to local needs.

Sounds good - but I've always believed as an ex-principal that any fundamental change to the way schools are run needs to be based on sound research, rather that political whimsy.

So I decided to have a quick look at how the Charter School experiment in the USA has fared in regard to the results.

The most comprehensive review of performance of North American Charter Schools is contained in a study released in June 2009 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University.

CREDO partnered with 15 states and the District of Columbia to consolidate longitudinal student‐level achievement data for the purposes of creating a national pooled analysis of the impact of charter schooling on student learning gains. For each charter school student, a virtual twin was created based on students who matched the charter student’s demographics, English language proficiency and participation in special education or subsidized lunch programs. Virtual twins were developed for 84 percent of all the students in charter schools. The resulting matched longitudinal comparison was used to test whether students who attend charter schools fared better than if they had instead attended traditional public schools in their community. The outcome of interest is academic learning gains in reading and math, measured in standard deviation units.

The conclusions are interesting. To quote from the executive summary -

For what the Yanks call "Math" -

The Quality Curve results are sobering:
• Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
• Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant
amount account for 17 percent of the total.
• The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were
significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local
traditional public schools instead.

In other words, Charter schools generally perform about the same in this area as other public schools. Most are the same, some are better, and a large proportion (37%) are worse.

That went well, didn't it?

When Maths and Reading are considered together -

• Charter school students on average see a decrease in their academic growth in reading of .01 standard deviations compared to their traditional school peers. In math, their learning lags by .03 standard deviations on average. While the magnitude of these effects is small, they are both statistically significant.
• The effects for charter school students are consistent across the spectrum of starting positions. In reading, charter school learning gains are smaller for all students but those whose starting scores are in the lowest or highest deciles. For math, the effect is consistent across the entire range.
• Charter students in elementary and middle school grades have significantly higher rates of learning than their peers in traditional public schools, but students in charter high schools and charter multilevel schools have significantly worse results.
• Charter schools have different impacts on students based on their family backgrounds. For Blacks and Hispanics, their learning gains are significantly worse than that of their traditional school twins.

Again, the gains are patchy, and tend to be balanced by losses. Hardly a ringing endorsement - and this is to be the magic bullet that improves school performance?

The funny thing is, none of this is new, at least in Queensland.  

In 1996 - 97, the Leading Schools program to implement school based management was announced. The idea was essentially the same as that applying to Charter Schools. The initiative (introduced by a Coalition Government) asked schools to bid to enter the program. Being a consensus-based school leader at the time, I allowed my community (staff and Parents & Citizens) to vote on whether we joined the scheme. They rejected it by a small majority (60% against/40% in favour, as I remember). They told me that they were happy with the school the way it was managed.

My colleague in the other special school in town gave his community no choice, and volunteered his school without any debate.

In the wash-up, his school received some seeding money, but very little changed. When Labor was elected in June 1998, the scheme was dropped.

A few years later, a study commissioned by the Coalition when it was still in power and conducted by the University of Queensland (which was supposed to prove that school based management improved student outcomes) was quietly released.

It showed no statistically significant relationship between school management and results for kids - but a strong relationship between teacher competence and results. What a surprise!

Apart from the fact that the research shows that there is no connection between autonomy and results in schools, the unintended consequences of removing some of the checks and balances need to be considered.

I worked in Mt Isa in a regional management job in the mid nineties. One of the major challenges in that part of the world (including schools as isolated as Birdsville, Bedourie, Dajarra, Urandangie, etc) was recruiting teachers to work in these remote locations.

Imagine the principals of these schools competing with their colleagues in metropolitan areas to attract talented teachers without the backup of the regional infrastructure. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Believe me, this scenario will be one of many unintended consequences if we follow blindly down this track.


Wednesday, 29 December 2010


If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll remember this.

Apparently I'm not the only one.

Here's a riddle for you - What's the difference between a plaintiff lawyer and a multinational corporation?

Answer - Only one - plaintiff lawyers tend to work solo or in pairs - corporations hunt in organised packs, often involving hundreds of people called "staff".

Here's another one - What do they have in common?

Answer - They're both driven by the almighty dollar.

It's relevant to look at this again.

They deserve each other. The results will be entertaining.

Monday, 27 December 2010

It Can Be Done

BBQing in the rain that is.

The deluge we're going through at the moment reminds me of 1974.

For those of you devoid of wisdom as a consequence of lack of age, 1974 was the year when South East Queensland in general and Brisbane in particular was visited by catastrophic floods.

Back then the cyclone that did the business was called Wanda. The one meandering down the coast this time is Tasha. Perhaps two-syllable girls' names ending in "a" should be avoided by the boffins responsible for cyclone nomenclature.

So far, we haven't had a situation anything like 1974, mainly because this depression is taking a different track, but it's bloody wet.

There is a family tradition of inviting all my siblings (I'm the eldest of six) to a Boxing Day BBQ. It's grown out of a mixture of nostalgia (my parents, when they were alive originated the idea) and the necessity to create a bit of refrigerator space. The family fridges are crammed with Christmas Day leftovers, and the deal is - bring a selection of leftovers, steaks or snags for the BBQ, and your favourite tipple.

Given the dreaded breathalyser, the tipple has taken a bit of a hiding, unless those from afar crash overnight (not literally) or book a motel. There's always the "designated driver" deal which also works well once the short straw is drawn.

Over the years we've got it down to a fine art, even to the extent of designating different areas of the house for the different generations. Despite this segregation, the whole crew always get together when food is available.

It was our turn to host this year, and my bride and I got busy and set up a BBQ. Our four offspring, home for Christmas, were conscripted in roles as diverse as untangling party lights, buttering bread rolls, and removing their junk from public areas in the house.

Given the weather forecast, I took the precaution of setting the BBQ up under a very large outdoor umbrella, and I covered our Hills hoist and pergola with tarps. This would have worked had the rain been vertical, but it was, in fact, semi-horizontal, so in the end, the cars had to be banished, and the garage set up with TV (for the cricket), eskies, and party lights.

The MX5 sulked in the rain - it is always garaged. It's as well that the little Japanese assemblers in Hiroshima made such a good job of sealing the ragtop - not a drop got in after all day in a downpour.

We had a couple of no-shows as some roads were cut, but in the end it was a good day. I proved that you can BBQ in the rain. First the accumulated water on the hot plate had to be burnt off, but this was accomplished easily in clouds of steam.

After that, I needed an assistant to shuttle the cooked meat and sausages inside, and that assistant needed a second assistant with a brolly. Carrying a plate full of sausages one-handed and an umbrella cannot be achieved with stubby in hand. The assistant was OK - he had stubby in one hand and brolly in the other.

The rigged-up umbrella worked fine, and any drops were evaporated by the heat of the BBQ before they landed on the food.
After the first session of play, we stopped watching the cricket….

Now I have to drive to Brisbane this morning to return two offspring to the big smoke because they're going back to work - every dollar is precious to impecunious students.

I'm not looking forward to the journey. It's still raining cats and dogs.

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...