A number of core assumptions significantly impact policy design in education, and elsewhere, and it is helpful to know what these are. Following the example of Thomas Sowell, I have labeled these assumptions fallacies. Awareness of these fallacies can help us to better deconstruct the prevailing policy design mindset, and help us understand why this mindset persists, in spite of clear evidence that it likely makes things worse. These fallacies will likely be significant in shaping the much-heralded curriculum re-set, and forewarn us of the potential for further entrenchment of the very things that are contributing to the rapid decline in New Zealand's educational standards.
These ideas include ...
1. The concept that education policy changes are a zero-sum game
2. That changes made to benefit one group will ultimately benefit all
3. That you can play with the rules of the game (i.e. that you can experiment with educational policy, almost endlessly) without doing damage
4. That it is imperative that educational outcomes (as opposed to opportunities) are equalized
In my view, these fallacies, in spite of their alluring appeal to social justice, lie at the very heart of why things are getting worse, and they also explain why change is often made with reckless disregard for prior experience and simple common sense.
I will now spend a brief moment unpacking these 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 realized, 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.
4. The fourth fallacy asserts that when certain students excel, particularly if these students represent an identifiable cohort, this is likely the result of systemic advantage. When specific cohorts perform poorly, this is likely the result of systemic disadvantage. The argument goes, then, that system "adjustment" must be undertaken (endlessly) until outcomes are equalized. Other causative factors are eliminated from the equation.
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 labeled 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 also be the case in New Zealand. It seems also reasonable to conclude that New Zealand's appalling truancy rates are increasingly feeding into educational underachievement. And this is just to name two variables. 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 cause.
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 the 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 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.
Ministry documents often couple equity and excellence as the prime policy drivers. But these are far from equal drivers. There is growing evidence that, when push comes to shove, the former (equity) trumps the latter (excellence). There seems little that educators, wise to what is really going on, can do in the face of near-universal buy-in from education sector groups, and 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.
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, arising from the flattening out of educational outcomes, is the end result. The long-heralded "Curriculum Re-set" could well be shaped by a near obsession with equalizing outcomes, rather than a balanced analysis of the complexities of educational disparity. The public and the media need to keep a close eye on how this policy work is unfolding.
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. 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.
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.
And the solution ... Governments can be bought, and policy design in New Zealand is often reckless, and hopelessly ideological. We need to insist that the curriculum re-set is pragmatic and evidence-based more than it is ideologically driven. While systems are complex, these systems are generally able to adjust themselves, if they are left alone.
Content needs to be put back into the curriculum, excellence should be given priority over equity, measures of educational performance need to be enacted, parents need to be given clear choices, and political interference needs to be removed from the system. This will not remove all the problems, it will not address all the equity issues, at least in the short term, but it will at least save the system from imminent collapse.
None of this will be possible without a seismic shift in the mindset of those who currently dominate in our education landscape. And the left will erect their metaphorical barricades and fight to the bitter end.
Caleb Anderson, a graduate history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal.