Sunday, 10 December 2017

Idiot Fails to Win Dux, Complains

In New Zealand the centrepiece of end of year prizegivings is, theoretically anyway, who gets to become Dux. The Dux is the best performing pupil in year thirteen (and also year eight) and how exactly schools determine this is unclear. Sometimes you get situations where it seems obvious that some "wuz robbed" but probably most of the time you nod your head along.* In fact, basically never does sour grapes ranting make the news.** But that's what has happened today. And good God the dude who wrote it is duummb. It's a bit mean to be insulting a 17 year old, but what one does is on one's head... and his steaming pile of crap ought to be placed there rapidly, with much fanfare.

What I'm going to do is the whole paragraph by paragraph response to the Filip Vachuda's vacuous drivel that you might remember from such classic posts as "Listen to the Axe Grind", "Blind Faith" or "Victoria or Victorian?". Vachuda's work belong in a similar context, i.e. as part of a wider discourse that people have been having for years. Indeed, I remember on an NCEA Memes page someone doing a "what really grinds my gears" post that was on pretty much this subject. But it is important to note that Vachuda doesn't situate anything he talks about within these older discussions. And his age isn't an excuse. I wrote the latter two of those posts I just linked to when I was in the same place as Vachuda. I feel that I placed things in their appropriate contexts just after I finished school and I think it is a key flaw with Vacuda's argument. But, before I begin looking at that, from NCEA memes 2013 (also, what happened to the NCEA memes industry? seemed to die quite rapidly after my cohort finished):

More generally, what Vachuda and these memes are part of is a discourse on hard versus soft subjects. To be honest, it's one of the ways people like to attack NCEA... because the whole point of NCEA was to bring everything under the same umbrella you have technical, academic and artistic subjects being evaluated against the same, as it were, measuring stick... and because NZQA is also broader than just school you also find seemingly random stuff like driving a car being incorporated. That everything is accommodated doesn't actually mean much. But Vachuda doesn't actually criticise NCEA, I include this because I take all opportunities to slag off NCEA's many critics. Reading Vachuda's piece suggests that he lacks an awareness of his position's lack of novelty. Anyway, enough with the ado, onto the problem...
I was Proxime Accessit this year at an NCEA school in Central Auckland.
Losing out on Dux was never really important to me. After all, winning would only result in my name being put up in the hall for kids to emptily stare at.
This is a mistake. I'm sure people would have complained if Vachuda presented himself as someone without a vested interest but by frontloading this stuff all he's really achieved is making us think, "So, why are you talking about this?" It would have been better, I think, to have used a disclaimer approach.
But while I had completed Level 3 English and a Scholarship exam in Year 12, and studied difficult subjects like physics or calculus, the Dux recipient had exempted herself from any math [sic], science, or indeed, scholarship exams and extra subjects.
This is just outright showing off. It's not relevant to the erstwhile point but it is useful information if you're trying to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the actual winner's victory... In other words, including this just reinforces the impression that it is sour grapes. Vachuda is meant to be defending academic subjects, not suggesting that the Dux ought to be the person who does the best whilst undertaking the most. Looking at this post on Onehunga High School's website, the winner of the Dux was one Rosie Hayden. Her decision to not take on any scholarship subjects, while not something I'd have advised back when I was there age (we got three for free) because they are intellectually rewarding, could come down to a great many different reasons. Ultimately Hayden has to do what was best for her, and it's not on for Vachuda to be attacking her for doing that... especially when it's irrelevant to the task at hand.
Our quantity and quality of attainment, all subjects being equal, were near-identical, but my minuscule credit deficit was all that mattered.
I couldn't help but wonder: why did my school not consider my more demanding curriculum?
Vachuda is kind of using this irrelevant information to introduce the subject at hand but even if we assume Vachuda actually knows how his school determines who is and is not to be Dux what he's really achieving is focussing the reader's attention on his personal story rather than the abstract point he's meant to be illustrating.
 Was it even appropriate, to begin with, saying certain courses were more rigorous than others?
My school's administration dismissed the concept of subject difficulty as merely an "artificial construct", and claimed such an attitude was "consistent" among the vast majority of NCEA schools.
The first paragraph means I was somewhat wrong before... Vachuda is alluding to a wider discourse, but his treatment of the notion of rigour is deeply flawed. For instance, notice the choice of language in the second paragraph. "Dismissed" is a dismissive word... the connotation is that the school's decision is based on whim rather than reason. What Vachuda takes "artificial construct" to mean (or, more importantly, the school's view of this) is not to be considered in this defence. What you have just read is all the effort Vachuda dedicates to the opposing view. All of it.

But subject hierarchies are by no means unprecedented. In the United States, rigour of coursework is a standard factor universities look at, and students have "weighted" grade point averages to reflect the difficulty of their classes.
Some New Zealand schools, such as King's College, also weight their courses in ranking students' performances.
What Vachuda isn't telling us here is that in the USA there is no national curriculum and even within states there is an enormous amount of variety. In New Zealand, in contrast, things are more centralised with more what we'd call quality controls across the entire country. In administrative terms or even on the level of what specifically is taught our schools are very independent, but they're all under the same, somewhat watchful, umbrella in terms of what they do.
I had thus initially thought, upon almost sparking "DuxGate", that my school's priorities were all warped, but I was wrong. The vast majority of our schools do not weight subjects; simply because New Zealand's university acceptance framework doesn't.
Nearly all high school subjects, whether calculus, printmaking, media or home economics, are "university approved", and in the vast majority our universities' admission cycles (excluding for engineering and certain University of Auckland courses), "university approved" subjects all have equal weight.
Firstly, this is all very misleading. The universities are not the drivers of the system and nor should they be. I personally hold that everyone should be able to go to uni but this doesn't mean that everyone should go to uni. Unis should be able to uni, and the Dux award is not made with them in mind.

Secondly, knowing what a subject is doesn't really tell you much about what the subject is about. For example, describing English as English is terribly misleading. Knowing that Drama involves acting doesn't mean that you can label the subject as acting. Even P.E. is more than just sport. The reason a great many subjects are approved for university entrance (and not necessarily all of the standards within it at that) is because they all require thinking about what you're doing. Either that or the way subjects are taught in year nine and ten doesn't provide any indications whatsoever for the way those subjects are in year eleven and so on exclusively for the ones I didn't continue with. That I can't believe.
Therefore, schools promote studying anything at all as an identical means to success, and the Dux, or "most successful", reflects this mindset.
It is easy to see why the NZQA and universities have adopted this approach. Everyone has different strengths and skill sets that contribute to a complete world. More "university approved" subjects enable further study in more fields.
But assigning acting, cooking or painting a similar academic status as calculus, science or history completely misses the mark. You can be illiterate and innumerate, yet an outstanding painter or actor, and excel in a multitude of relevant standards.
Yes, that is kind of true. However, you will never ever pass a single NCEA internal or external if you are illiterate. That's just completely wrong.
Moreover, in countries like the UK, where exams, unlike here, aren't graded on a curve, math [sic] and science students, for example, regularly underperform due to tougher tests.
NCEA exams aren't "graded on a curve". Our friend here is presumably misunderstanding the profiles of expected performance. These basically show how hard a given standard is meant to be. That's it. And it's why they are made public.
There will always be exceptions, but the overall trends in student achievement suggest that subject difficulty is not at all an "artificial construct" irrelevant to said achievement.
The reason why it is artificial is because it depends entirely on the perception of the observer. As I have said many times, the easiest NCEA internals I ever did were for level three calculus. For other people those internals might have been difficult. It might be true that a given standard trends to the difficult side (consider the PEPs) but we can't really understand this as indicating that the subject is actually harder than another. What it says is that more pupils find the subject harder, and that might simply be because they're taught it poorly... or it maybe it's because the subject is more difficult. But here's the kicker... when you're dealing with subjects like drama or calculus at level three people select themselves out... those who are left (generally) want to be there and have (usually) done well enough to be allowed to be there. How would Vachuda respond to this?

That's right... the vaunted academic subject is thought to be easier by NCEA. They expect more Excellences and fewer Not Achieveds! Now, it's probably fair to say that really this is just a case of variance. After all, NZQA can also be said to expect fewer NAs and more Es with the drama standard. But that's why you compare it to the history external (again level three). Notice that again drama trends "harder" in terms of the number of failures, although it's easier when you look at the range for Es. (Recall, percentages outside these bands are thought to be weird.)
As well as that, chances are more "difficult" subjects will get you further in life - the five highest-paying college majors in the US were all some form of engineering, while among the lowest-paying were social work, theology and ECE - subjects where emotional, not academic intelligence, is the key to success.
Um, why is he looking at US data? And why is this something that the Dux award should be considering?
In New Zealand, performing arts has been the lowest-paid college [sic] degree for years.
By no coincidence, disparities of difficulty and future success, between classically academic subjects (sciences, law) and other fields correlate significantly.
We've just demonstrated that "performing arts" at school is not on the easy side... by the logic that Vachuda believes in.
Knowing this, it is great that we value everyone's potential, but shouldn't we, in determining our top academic performers, recognise certain pathways as more challenging and likely to be rewarding?
"Rewarding" being framed entirely in terms of financial return. Here's something prospective law students pass around among themselves for a more measured perspective on what rewarding really means. You have to do, what's right for you.
We should be encouraging our young people to embark on the most fulfilling, but
also fruitful, careers possible, but NCEA's system, which seems to have rubbed off on to universities, does not encourage that at all. Students studying easier and tougher subjects compete on a forcibly equal footing, and the latter are unjustly rendered inferior.
We have seen that the case isn't data driven, indeed it's contradicted by some data. So the logic here really collapses and never gets going. And we see, again, the screwball idea of reward being perpetuated through.
Furthermore, even if all data supporting disparities is negated, surely any school that bills its Dux as the "top academic achiever" has a duty to emphasise, well, academic subjects - subjects that, by common consensus, are ones that can be constantly improved upon through further study.
I am inclined to agree... except with that definition of academic. That definition of academic? Well, it... I'm not sure what it would exclude from the club.
An additional major shortcoming of our system is that according to university criteria, only your best five subjects are ever relevant. I lost Dux despite studying six subjects, one more than my competition, because not all were counted. My Scholarship exam was also completely ignored.
Which matters why? Why is it a bad thing that only five subjects are counted? And, of course, it'd be your best five that are counted too... Obviously it seems perverse to have a system that you can game by doing more work at a typically lower standard and be categorised as "better" for it. Work smarter, not harder, right?
Most perplexedly, at that same awards ceremony, a Year 12 girl who had decided to study all Level 3 subjects, yet still performed to an outstanding standard, lost the Year 12 Merit Cup to someone with a marginally higher grade point average, but with all his credits at Level 2 - a full curriculum level lower.
This is harder to call. On one hand, that girl chose to study at level three. And yeah she's been assessed at that standard, but she's also been taught at that standard. Should we punish someone for doing better at the standard they've been taught at by ranking someone who did slightly worse at the standard they were taught at ahead? That's not really fair. And if you did it the other way round, because level three is definitely harder, at which point does 100% Es at L2 stop being better than some level of performance at L3? I sympathise with the girl but there's no reward without risk, and the situation is really rather impossible when you stop to think about it for a moment. If you want to acknowledge individuality, you have to acknowledge it and this can and does lead to contradictory outcomes.
This all begs another question: why is it ever appropriate to outright ignore certain student achievement, as my school did? Accomplishments beyond the needed or expected framework, though less relevant to university admissions, are no less impressive or valuable to one's intellectual growth, and should not be any less worthy of recognition.
Firstly, no way does this guy know whether or not he passed however many scholarship papers he did. Secondly, yes, as it were, formative work is just as personally meaningful as summative work. Thirdly, Vachuda is ignoring how this would actually work in practice. Fourthly, the logic that is being used here not only doesn't differentiate between hard and soft subjects but outright rejects that paradigm.
We must be careful we aren't failing our next generation by teaching them to only value the bare minimum for success (what happened to "the sky's the limit"?). It almost seems like we don't have faith in our education system if we encourage students to put in as little effort as necessary.
Let's use a though experiment here. That Vachuda decides to clean his sister's bedroom as well as his own, doesn't say anything about the amount of effort that Hayden put into cleaning her (but only her) bedroom. I mean, they could both have bedrooms that consist of literally nothing a bed and a floor with papers two centimetres deep covering up all of that floor. These rooms would be considered tidy if all those papers were put in magazine files or recycled or whatever. That's minimum effort stuff. But what we're really saying is that Hayden went through and tidied up properly. She sorted out one class of paper from another, decided what was worth keeping and what wasn't and then went out and put in a proper filing system with an Excel document telling her where what was. Vachuda does all this too except that last bit with the Excel document. He's done more, yeah, but Hayden's effort is still way above the minimum... it was actually better than his, just spread over less stuff.
Now, you could undoubtedly call me a bad sport. Though I feel one aspect of good
sportsmanship almost never mentioned is questioning decisions you perceive as incorrect.
Challenging dubious outcomes, after all, is simply in pursuit of fair play.
This is a grey area. I think he's probably wrong, though. The good sport rejects a system that benefits them and if they choose to criticise a system that harms them, doesn't then go on to say...
I have realised from this (albeit non-sporting) exercise that I cannot assign my award legitimacy. The young woman who beat me was spectacular at what she did. She rightfully deserved all her prizes in drama, media, sustainability - and I must mention, as I outperformed her in English, she outperformed me in history.
Vachuda has declared the outcome fake. The good sport accepts that they lost by the rules at the time, and separates that loss out from any advocacy for new rules.***
But forgoing math [sic], science and extension beyond the base curriculum in favour of less academic subjects should not add up to being declared the best, all-round, academic achiever.
The base curriculum? What is that? Well, it's probably similar to what you get at year nine... which for me was (generalised) science, maths, English, (generalised) social studies, an additional language and finally two technology and two arts subjects (each for two terms). Oh, bother, I guess art has more claim to the base curriculum than biology and physics do. And the importance of different arts is only going to be more emphasised the younger we look.
There are no benchmarks in NCEA beyond achievement at your chosen level - and
we have become so reluctant to assign greater value to certain endeavours that performing an entire curriculum level above expectations won't impact one's relative success.
I'm not suggesting that the state immediately starts ranking subjects, but we need to consider whether this egalitarian narrative is misleading our students.
The US model of "weighted" classes and grade point averages is determined by schools - who may very well get their calculations wrong. But instituting a similar culture in New Zealand will at least address that not all achievement is, and I stress, in the world of academics and future opportunities, created equal.
Yes, clearly, all the evidence we have seen by Vachuda's logic suggests that the gap between art-phobic Vachuda (in the blue corner, taking the easier subjects) should have fallen further behind Hayden (in the red corner, taking the harder subjects). Not that I very exhaustive search of PEPs and not that I think doing so really adds much to this discussion seeing as how I disagree with Vachuda's logic.
Different course choices may lead to unequal outcomes in life, but all need not be turned on its head. NCEA's sentiment towards absolute subject equality is as unrealistic as it is a heart-warming gesture, and something needs to change.
Until then, I shall advise my sister, who has just finished Year 11 with the Girls' Merit Cup under her belt, to load up on her photography, P.E. and Polynesian dance if she wishes to continue being a top scholar.
Vachuda clearly has no idea what these subjects actually involve so if you're reading this Vachuda's sister (presumably your name is Karolina Vachudova) please don't listen to your older brother's advice. He would have you spend months working on projects and enormous hours explaining what exactly your projects mean and are doing. A full load of arts subjects is the best way of ensuring 0 free time.

*There was a minor upset in year thirteen at my school... the prize was shared. I'm not sure how that happened when the favourite was so very obviously so but it did. In year eight the Dux went to someone other than who I'd thought it would go to. That call never made any sense to me. At least my "robbed" friend went on to get Dux at his college, but still.

**Hell, you don't even hear me going on about how I never got the top drama prize in year eleven even though I know for a fact I had the best marks (er, until now). I think they decided that the formative assessment where I got a merit and the winner got an excellence mattered more but I had excellences in both mock exams and all the other standards I remember having the same marks for but whatever. Having checked, there was one performance internal where I got Merit but this is the response I had at the time. The point is that I am not attacking the validity of the apparent system.

***I should point out that I am very keen on challenging things I disagree with... this should be clear from this post, but it's also true in sporting contexts. Playing handball at college was always a very interesting experience because, damn, you argue everything. 

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