Following the example of Thomas Sowell, I have labelled these assumptions fallacies. Awareness of these fallacies can help us to better deconstruct some of the assumptions that shape education policy design, and which often trap unwary educators, and others, because of their appeal to social justice.
These ideas are not entirely new ideas, and nor are they confined to education. What should surprise us is that these assumptions persist, in spite of clear evidence that they often make things worse. These ideas include the concept that education policy changes are a zero-sum game, that changes made to benefit one group will ultimately benefit all, and that you can play with the rules of the game (i.e. that you can experiment with educational policy, almost endlessly) without doing damage.
In my view, these fallacies lie at the very heart of why things are getting worse, and they also explain why change is often made with reckless disregard to prior experience, and simple common sense. I will now endeavour to say why I have called these assumptions fallacies.
1. The concept of a zero-sum game assumes that
shifting resources (or investment) from one part of the system to another has
no significant negative effect on the efficacy of the wider system. Thus the
zero-sum assumption maintains that overall outcomes will remain broadly similar
when investment moves from areas of comparatively good performance, to areas of
comparatively poor performance, with longer-term benefits accruing from a more
equitable dispersion of opportunity. In reality, this often proves not to be
the case. Systems are generally much more complex than is realised, and there
are frequently unanticipated downsides when policymakers play with things.
People, institutions, and ideas, add or subtract, value in myriad ways from
every system. Mechanisms of added value are very difficult to identify,
anticipate or replicate, and they are embedded in complex feedback loops. For
example, costly initiatives to meet the needs of underachieving children are
assumed to automatically yield benefits for all children, and for society at
large. While such initiatives have obvious appeal, there is little evidence to
support this hypothesis. Often huge investments in education, frequently
enabled by disinvestment elsewhere, show no gains whatsoever for target groups,
and contribute to a decline in educational standards overall.
2. Equally fallacious is the idea that policy initiatives
are always “worth a shot”, even when there is little prior evidence that they
will work. The reluctance of policymakers to trial these initiatives
first, to examine what has happened in other jurisdictions, to stage implementation,
and to study and to tweak where necessary, tends to suggest that
motivations are often more philosophically grounded than evidentially based.
Initiatives to improve outcomes in underachieving cohorts are often very short
on delivery, as evident in the tendency to keep adjusting, and fudging, the
actual outcomes themselves to cover obvious policy failures.
3. The third fallacy follows from the first two, that you
can play with things without any significant risk of damage to the wider
system. In reality, the zero-sum approach is anything but zero-sum, and
invariably results in reduced motivation, innovation, creativity, and
productivity within the wider system.
By way of example, early last year the media were falling
over themselves to report on "findings" that educational streaming
was racist, and should be abandoned without delay. While it might
well be argued that streaming contributes to differential educational
outcomes, which is why I assume it has been labelled racist, it is far from
clear what the overall results of abolishing streaming would be for the
wider system, and for educational achievement as a whole. We also do not
know how significant streaming is alongside a myriad of other factors
influencing educational outcomes. For example, in the United States data
seems to show that absent fathers are a much greater determinant of educational
underachievement (and life success) than streaming, and it seems reasonable
to assume that this may be the case in New Zealand also, and this is just to
name one variable. Correlation and causality are not the same thing.
Because streaming exists alongside poor educational outcomes, does not
make it the cause of these outcomes, much less the primary
That the motivation for the abandonment of streaming may be
more philosophical than empirical is evident in just how quickly the argument
was broadened to include differential grouping of students in primary and
intermediate schools. Differential grouping allows teachers to manage
multiple groups of learners concurrently, ensuring that students get material
and instruction commensurate with their ability or readiness.
Differentiated instruction was one of the reasons why New Zealand was once
near the top of the OECD educationally, and why teachers from other countries
came to study the New Zealand education system. Now, this, too, is
considered racist, and schools are being invited, if not strongly
encouraged, to dispense with differential groupings in favour of
whole-class or mixed ability groupings. I know of no multivariate,
multidisciplinary and peer-reviewed research which would support such a
move. The fact that a growing number of schools are abandoning streaming
and differentiated grouping, and are enjoying the experience, doesn't cut the
evidential mustard. That we can throw away a proven educational
model with such abandon is a concern.
Tragically, policy failure often lags the implementation of
the policy by such a large margin that those who implemented these policies
never come to see, and doggedly deny, that these changes were a bad idea in the
first place, often saying that the problem was that they were implemented too
early or too late, too fast or too slow, or that an adjustment here or there
might have made the difference. No one is accountable for the outcomes of
these policies. There seems little that educators, wise to what is really
going on, can do in the face of a plethora of damaging policy initiatives,
other than to brace themselves for the inevitable, and to hold on to what
they know from experience works. Until we are brave enough to
face the real causes of underachievement, we are in for more of the same
and the highest price will be paid by those at the bottom.
And the solution... while systems are complex, these
systems are generally able to adjust themselves if they are left alone, a
process called homeostasis. Not all of the philosophical and ideological
justifications in the world can compensate for a lack of clear empirical
evidence. Governments can be bought, and policy design in New Zealand is often
reckless, and hopelessly ideological. Poor outcomes are inevitable when
policy-making is done this way, and we seem incapable of learning from our
mistakes. Our obsession with ideological causes, in the absence of
clear supporting (multivariate - and multidisciplinary) evidence, and our
willingness to sacrifice the needs of higher achievers in order to equalize
educational outcomes, guarantee the progressive erosion of educational
standards... if you cannot lift achievement at the bottom, then lower it
at the top. The deleterious effect of this on higher achieving students,
on education at large, and its ultimate effect on our economy, are considered
worthy sacrifices if greater social cohesion is the end result. The fact that
it makes us all materially poorer seems of little consequence. Social
cohesion remains elusive due to systemic denial of the real causes of social
breakdown and dysfunction.
Caleb Anderson, a graduate history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal.