Issue 29/2013 - 9 August 2013

In this issue:

Reading into reading recovery

Rose Patterson | Research Fellow |

This week, Massey University Professors James Chapman and Bill Turner released a highly critical report of the Ministry of Education’s strategy for improving children’s literacy.

In essence, they argue that the strategy has failed. Data from the Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) showed no improvements in literacy rates from 2001 to 2011, nor a narrowing of the wide gap in reading ability between Pākehā children and Māori/Pasifika children.

Even more bravely, the professors criticise New Zealand’s much-loved Reading Recovery programme, going completely against the grain of mainstream commentary and research on the Reading Recovery brand that is a source of pride for many New Zealanders.

Every year, around 10,000 6-year-olds are pulled out of class each day for one-on-one reading sessions with specialised Reading Recovery teachers. Designed by Dame Marie Clay in the 1970s, Reading Recovery is now used in parts of Europe, North America, and Australia, and is well supported by international evidence.

But as Professors Chapman and Turner point out, while the programme does help struggling readers, it may not help those who need it the most.  They go as far to argue that the approach to teaching reading that underpins both the Reading Recovery programme and general teaching of reading causes Matthew effects (rich-get-richer and poor-get poorer).

How so? To start with, the playing field is uneven from the beginning of school, as children’s experiences with picture books, games that encourage literacy, rhymes and talking, differ greatly. The report points out evidence to show that children who start on the back foot may benefit more from a heavier emphasis on back-to-basics approaches. As far back as 1999, a Literacy Expert Group advised that the Reading Recovery programme should put more emphasis on these approaches.

The advice was ignored. The Reading Recovery is trademarked and copyrighted, meaning that changes cannot be made without approval. The problem with this, as noted by researcher John Church in 2005, is that Reading Recovery ‘was designed in the 1970s prior to most of the modern research into how children learn to read. Not surprisingly, therefore, it lacks a number of elements which have been found by research to be essential in teaching low-achieving children to read’.

Reading Recovery is dear to kiwi hearts. But perhaps what should be held dearer is an openness to constructively criticise and adapt programmes so that they are more effective for those they aim to benefit. This is essential if New Zealand is serious about narrowing gaps in educational achievement.

Size is not the same as efficiency

Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director | 

Ever since the creation of the Auckland super city, murmurings have surfaced in Wellington about a greater Wellington council to include the Hutt Valley, Wairarapa and Kapiti. Intuitively, large councils seem undesirable; why take local governance further away from locals? Now a report into the proposed amalgamation has shown intuition is backed up by fact.

The report, Governance options for the Wellington, Wairarapa Regions: An Economic and Financial Assessment by TDB Advisory, is an excellent read. It weighs up the benefits or losses that might accrue to each council in the wider Wellington region. It also considers possible new rates structures, debt burdens, service provisions and which ex-council areas might be better or worse off out of a single unitary authority.

In a substantial survey of the international literature, TDB finds that there is basically no agreement on an optimal size of local government. However, it also finds that both internationally and in New Zealand, efficiency gains from amalgamations only apply to mergers leading to a combined population of approximately 50,000 people. In this sense, the report suggests the amalgamation of Wairarapa councils might make sense, but across the whole of Wellington, Wairarapa and Kapiti, it does not.

Further, the report notes that areas in which the councils might realise some efficiency gains are in network services, for example a regional authority approach to water and road infrastructure. This seems like a good idea, as it is difficult to see where local political involvement in the technical delivery of these services adds any value.

Additionally, the maximum efficiency gains of any merger are estimated at a paltry 3%. This is primarily because many of the infrastructure services provided by councils are labour intensive, which makes the scope for gains severely limited. The TDB report also echoes the Productivity Commission's report into local government regulation that suggested there is a far greater link between best practice and efficiency, rather than size of council.

On top of this, there is the sheer cost of an amalgamation. The costs of these rearrangements tend to be regularly understated, and rather high. If the efficiency gains are dubious, which they are, the case for a ‘super Wellington’ seems rather thin indeed.

Many Wellington local politicians are pushing this ‘super city’ idea, but is it really good for local government? Or is it simply the tempting, less democratic prospect of being the mayor or councillor of an engorged Wellington?

More RMA stupidity

Dr Bryce Wilkinson | Senior Fellow |

On 25 July, a Dominion Post article (Consent proposals upset rural residents) asserted that, under a proposed district plan, rural landowners might face new requirements if their property includes dominant dune ridge lines, outstanding landscapes, amenity landscapes or ecological and geological sites.

Owners in possession of such land may now require a resource consent to work on farm fences, culverts and farm tracks.

One sixth generation landowner said that any activity on her land would require a resource consent.  As a result, trees planted 30 years ago might not be harvestable.

Another landowner of 20 years’ standing said he would not be able to maintain goat or possum traps under the proposed rules.  He said he could not afford a resource consent for every little change and that, ‘there needs to be a good reason for taking away people’s property rights’.

Indeed. No one can be safe in their person if they are not safe in their property.

So how might we expect the Kapiti Coast District Council (KCDC) to justify a district plan that long-standing ratepayers’ fear, rightly or wrongly, will have flow-on effects such as undermining pest control, efficient farming and forestry practices?

The KCDC is required to publish its reasons for proposed plan policies and rules under section 32 of the Resource Management Act (RMA). It has done so. Its Summary Report Rural Environment lists four major policy objectives regarding the rural environment.  These are supported by 24 markedly restrictive policies, particularly relating to rural subdivision.

Under the RMA, those policies must be the most appropriate way of achieving the plan’s objectives of efficiency and effectiveness, and taking their benefits and costs into account. 

The plan’s objectives must, in turn, be the most appropriate way to achieve the RMA’s (ambiguous) purpose.

On examination, the KCDC’s section 32 summary report:

  • fails to identify what problems with long-standing private arrangements justify the proposed restrictions;
  • fails to articulate alternative courses of action.  (As a result there is no benchmark for assessing costs and benefits); 
  • makes no attempt to quantify any costs or benefits; yet
  • boldly asserts (three times), without a shred of supporting evidence, that the enumerated benefits exceed the costs.
This public policy farce provides no good reason for restricting private property rights. 

The RMA bears a lot of the blame. It’s central purpose of ‘sustainable management’ fails to identify what problems with private arrangements justify its existence.

All things considered ...

  • Graph of the week: Graph of the Week: Courtesy of Capital Economics Ltd and Demographia. We are always hearing about Auckland’s appalling urban sprawl, but is it true? We ask because, by comparison to other new world cities, Auckland looks rather dense indeed!
  • And they’re off! The Australian election gets going. Given Australia’s importance to New Zealand, we should all be watching with interest. 
  • After the Australian Election Kevin Rudd may or may not be Prime Minister. But this interview demonstrates one thing is for sure, he has a remarkable talent for combining passive aggression and indecipherable bureaucratese. 
  • As Britain faces lawsuits from former slaves, The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes about new research into Whigs and slavery. The common narrative of early liberalism’s support for slavery is not correct. 
  • Speaking of redress of past injustice, a Kenyan lawyer is taking the Government of Israel and Italy to court over the historic matter of Jesus’s death. Yes, really. 
  • When Angela Merkel is asked to describe Germany she ‘think[s] of well sealed windows! No other country can make such well-sealed and nice windows.’ But the inspirational nature of Teutonic window joinery aside, modern Germany faces some pretty serious challenges. 
  • He’s a teacher, he’s Korean, and he makes $US4 million a year because he’s good. Maybe New Zealand needs to work out how to remunerate performing teachers as substantially. 
  • What is the future of feminism? Is it a movement that is suffering from post-modern inertia, or just an idea which has simply run its natural course in the West? 
  • The Spectator’s James Forsyth reckons that we in the colonies are mounting a reverse takeover of the United Kingdom. After all, we’ve kept some of the best of British institutions, while Britain has become scared of its own shadow.
  • And finally, meet Colonel Sibthorp, the super conservative, uber-Tory Victorian-era member of the Commons. The patron saint of small government apparently. 

On the record

Nick Cater on social media (TVNZ Q+A)

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Nick Cater - The Lucky Culture (Christchurch)

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Dr Oliver Hartwich (TVNZ Q+A)

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