The 1% Tells Us About the 20%

WARNING: may contain lengthy discussions about numbers and statistics.

Welcome to another dissection of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and how it is slowly sinking its talons into meaty underflesh of the New Zealand school system.

Last time I talked about our neoliberal overlords the ACT Party. If you are reading this in the United States, they are the equivalent to your Republicans – not quite Tea Party material but borderline alternate reality. They stand for individual liberty, freedom of choice, and letting the market provide (allegedly – see last post).

Here is the ACT Party education policy quoted directly from their own website:

After 70 years of state controlled and mandated education, we have a situation where around 20% of our children left school last year unable to read or write sufficiently to fill out a job application.

That’s their opening. 70 years of state-run education has led to one fifth of New Zealanders being illiterate and innumerate. Their solution? Open up the public education pie to privatisation. That is, schools managed by private organisations such as charities and businesses, but not funded privately. Oh no, they still want public money to do it.

So their motivations lie within the illiterate/innumerate 20% – I’m paraphrasing of course. I say illiterate/innumerate; they say, “unable to fill out a job application,” but we know what they really mean… stupid.

I can hear the random neoliberal who has stumbled across this blog will instantly begin rallying against me questioning my use of the word illiterate. But it’s not just me. The mainstream media love this figure because they know everyone knows that 20% is the same as one fifth. None of us are too innumerate to work that fraction out.

One in five students is leaving school without qualifications. Some struggle so badly they cannot fill out the unemployment benefit form. Writing on the wall for illiterate Kiwis – MARIKA HILL:, June 24, 2012.

More of a surprise is that 20% of children leaving school do so without numeracy or literacy skills. Political meddling sinks three Rs – Jacqueline Rowarth: NBR, April 13, 2012.

These are both fairly benign. The quote, like the ACT policy quote from above, gives an example. The NBR quote is heading down a certain path and it’s not the yellow brick road. Here’s my final quote – from another Fairfax (stuff) newspaper the Dominion Post.

However, used sensibly, standards will help identify the 20 per cent of pupils who never learn to read and write, many of whom wind up in prison. Editorial: Stop shouting and start talking – Dominion Post, June 22, 2012.

WHAT????!!!?!?! Suddenly we’ve gone from not being able to fill out a form to ending up in prison? Holy shitballs. We are in a bad way.

Or are we? This 20% number has been floating about for a while. The National Party were using it in 2008 as this quote from current cabinet minister Nathan Guy shows:

Our future lies in education. Therefore, it should be a worry to us all that our education system is currently failing one in five children, with 20% of students leaving school unable to read and write. We can’t afford to continue to let this happen. – Nathan Guy’s website archive, June 2008.

And again, back in 2006, our lord god Dr Don Brash, king of the neoliberal party hoppers said this:

…and 20%, yes 20%, of New Zealand children will still be coming out of primary school unable to read or write. National Party Conference speech: Don Brash – July 23, 2006.

Apart from losing the leadership of the party, then leaving parliament, then taking over the leadership of another party and taking that party from 5%-ish in the polls to less than 1%, Brash has not contributed much to the New Zealand political landscape since 2006.

But I digress. All the above quotes feature the same 20% figure. One fifth. For every five people who leave school, one will not be able to read or write. Or fill out a dole form. Or have appropriate literacy and numeracy skills. Or something. Who knows?

None of these stories or articles feature any links to any research, journal entry or data proving this figure to be correct. 

So I went looking for myself. Thank you Professor Google.

Below are figures I obtained from the Ministry of Education website Education Counts. The particular data set I am using comes from the report into the Literacy and Numeracy Requirements to sit NCEA – our secondary school qualification. There are a range of tables on the webpage. I have chosen to use the table of data relating to gender. It is the closest I could find in the time available that most closely links to the 20% claim. I’m making the assumption that if you are unable to meet the literacy and numeracy requirements for NCEA level 1 by the end of year 11 then it’s possible you might fall into the mystical 20% they seem to be mentioning all the time.

Screen shot 2013-03-17 at 1.06.18 PM

There are a number of things of interest about this data:

  1. The students who have met the requirement for literacy and numeracy is taken as a percentage of the total number of students and not as a percentage of the total number of candidates – those sitting the exam. This means the data includes all those students who never finished as well as those who failed to meet the requirements. Or left school. Or were expelled etc.
  2. The table also includes a breakdown of just the literacy figures and just the numeracy figures for the genders. I hid these columns because it’s the combined (those both illiterate and innumerate) 20% that we are looking at.

You must notice the change from 2004 through to 2011. In 2004, by my calculations, 39 910 students out of 60 378 (66%) made the grade – 34% do not. Much more than the 20% mentioned above.

The 2011 (provisional) figures show that same figure has gone to 78%. Turn it around and you get the 20%.

In 2006 when Don Brash started on about it the figure there is around 70% making the grade – 30% not.

So what is my point? These figures mean nothing. I suppose you could say that. I’m going to use the Ministry of Education’s own PR go-to of accentuating the positive.

  1. More kids stayed in school in 2011 (nearly 50 000) compared with 2004 (nearly 40 000).
  2. More 2011 kids have the right equipment to sit NCEA level 1 – 66% in 2004 opposed to 78% in 2011.
  3. Of the 34% who didn’t make it in 2004, 73% of those 34%, or 25% ended up either in prison, in the navy or currently indisposed.
  4. The 20% definitely didn’t come from this set of data.
  5. Something good must be happening in our schools if we have boosted both of these figures.
  6. At the rate of increase suggested , in just 25 years, over 110% of Kiwi kids will be able to fill out their benefit forms.
  7. I don’t know what I’m talking about. All these numbers are making me feel innumerate.

My point is: you can use numbers to say whatever you want. I don’t know where the 20% came from, but it is now a figure that is unquestioned by the media, politicians and the bloggers who are constantly repeating it.

If you are a media, the next time someone parrots the 20% at you ask them this: where does your data come from? Who measured it? Where was the research paper published and who were the authors.

And don’t accept the answer: well I don’t have that information on me at the moment… blah blah… proper advice… blah blah… unable to comment… blah blah blah

Mr B



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