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How To See Through Squid Ink

By Tim Wilson, Executive Director, Maxim Institute

The term “squid ink” describes when we deliberately confuse a situation for our own advantage. It’s based on what squid (and octopi) do when attacked, i.e. releasing ink into the water as a confusing blur.

A human example? Your boss calls you in to rinse you over your failure to make sufficient widgets on a daily basis. You blame this on a co-worker who keeps distracting you with gossip about … your boss. Clarity thus becomes confusion. Thank you, squid ink.

The phrase comes to mind watching a recent stoush between our universities and the Education Review Office (ERO). You see, ERO released data suggesting that 60 per cent of new teachers didn’t feel supported by the training they received. Since universities train about 90 per cent of our new primary and secondary school teachers (by one estimate), it’s no surprise that they took umbrage.

Then, the head of the ERO Evaluation Centre, Ruth Shinoda told a radio interview that, in fact, the non-universities were twice as effective at preparing new teachers than the universities.

Shinoda said, "Graduates from one education provider report being twice as prepared as graduates from another. We really need to reduce that variation and we really need to make sure they have more time to learn in a classroom."

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The salvo had been fired; the universities duly responded."We are concerned about ERO's use of a small-scale survey of less than 10 per cent of new teachers and 12 per cent of principals to make sweeping, system-level claims and to compare different education providers."

Squirt! Actually, ERO’s data was robust. Mmm, you might think, almost 10 per cent … that’s not many. Turns out it’s 751 teachers. Generally, a survey is considered statistically valid if you talk with more than 400 people. There’s more. ERO also interviewed 278 principals at schools that employ new teachers, 23 new teachers from schools in different settings, mentor teachers, and tapped data from the Ministry of Education, the Teacher’s Council and Stats NZ. Moreover, the Maxim Institute and the New Zealand Initiative have highlighted the deficits in university-based teacher training and how that affects students.

What you’re seeing isn’t a dispute between two groups with different views on the same situation, one of which hasn’t done enough homework. You’re seeing a turf war. Someone has something to lose, and they’re fighting to defend it.

Hence the “squid ink.” The phrase is useful when evaluating any current public debate. It might be unions weighing in on charter schools—ditto discussions of tax cuts, media disintegration, or law and order. Real squid ink, by the way, can be brownish, reddish, or dark blue, evoking some of the hues associated with the political spectrum. Remember: any party can produce the stuff.

So beware. When determining whether an utterance is squid ink, ask: Who has something to gain here? Who has the most to lose? Once you determine who the squid is, their ink becomes very legible indeed.

Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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