Thursday, 6 October 2016

Does Assessment Reveal Outcomes or Create them?

Newton measured the Heavens and they ignored him and all his successors until they reached a level of knowledge and skill that took away this long-held objectivity. When dealing with the very small, it turns out, measuring changes that which is measured. Which of these cases applies to measurement in Education? When we assign a grade to children’s knowledge are we acting in a classical framework, revealing but not altering, underlying facts? Or do quantum rules apply and as we measure, we change?

The case, as best I can tell, for summative assessment as revealer of outcomes is this. Teachers teach, students learn then summative assessment takes place. It is diagnostic and while it may inform future practice it cannot, logically, change something that preceded it.
The assumption that assessment measures and does not change is built into our model for judging the performance of schools. We look at the grades children had on entry, the grades they got at the end and whether their families are below a certain poverty threshold. In this view Education is an operation performed on children, by schools. Children are of a measurable quality and their results show how well or badly this raw material was processed.

When you think about school on a day to day basis though the idea of students as the inert objects of teaching does not reflect reality. Students have agency and even if their choices are limited by strict behaviour policies to collaborating with their teachers and learning what they can, or resisting attempts to teach them and refusing to learn, they always have at least those two choices. A satisfactory answer to the question of whether outcomes are affected by assessment needs to account for why students might choose the latter.

To do this let's examine the experience of school from a child's perspective. Say there was a boy called Ricky, whose parents are not neglectful or abusive but neither are they bookish or preoccupied with toddler Ricky's language acquisition.  Aged seven, something Ricky has long suspected is confirmed, his level, his attainment, is below the expected standard, below that of his classmates. This experience will be repeated again and again, with increasing frequency as Ricky’s education continues. Does that one-note tune, you’re worse than the other children Ricky, not affect Ricky’s motivation to try his best?

Perhaps it does but it shouldn’t. Ricky shouldn’t compare himself to others, he should focus on his own learning. After all, most tennis players are better than me but I don’t let that stop me playing tennis. The problem with this argument is that my income and social status are not dependent on my tennis ability, whereas they are intimately bound up with my academic performance as a child. We remind kids of this all time, we tell them you need good grades so you can go to university and get a good a job, but though we always state the case in the positive, the negative is just as clearly true, if you get bad grades you won’t go to university and you’ll get a bad job. Asking Ricky, a sophisticated primate but a primate nonetheless, not to care about his low position in our social hierarchy is like asking him to not be human.

The people who make decisions about Education come from all kinds of backgrounds but they invariably share the fact that they themselves did well at school. It’s easier for them to relate to the children who are succeeding as they as they succeeded and are positive about school as they were. Add in the fact that the children told they are failures are often disobedient and rude and the empathy gap grows. The former group, whose grades prove to the world they are the best, are motivated and work hard; the latter, whose grades prove they are the worst, are disaffected and defiant. That’s not a coincidence.


Sunday, 18 September 2016

What's so special about The War?

An Australian friend said to me recently that it’s weird how much we in England talk about the Second World War. It struck me not only because we do really like talking, commemorating and making TV programmes about WWII but also because I’d never thought it was strange before. It seems obvious that we would do that, but stopping to think about it, not at all obvious why.



Maybe it’s because we won. But we won the First World War and the Falklands War and Imperialism, while it was a thing, and we’ve happily accepted and moved on from all of those. OK, so maybe it’s because we won and it was just, we defeated an evil regime and the world was better for it. But we did that in the Falklands in the eighties, Bosnia in the early nineties, Kosovo in the late nineties and in Sierra Leone in the early oughts. None of those received even a crumb of the memorialising we continue to heap upon the war that ended over seventy years ago and is still referred to simply as ‘The War’.

The special place we afford ‘The War’ is not to do with geopolitics but rather the effect it had on the people who fought it. WWII is unique in the degree to which its dangers and struggles were felt as much by those who remained at home as the armed forces and merchant seamen serving abroad. Tens of thousands were killed or made homeless by aerial bombing and everyone was engaged together in the war effort, through acts great and small, from working in protected occupations to digging for victory. This great shared endeavour was also an unprecedented social leveller. Rationing applied to rich and poor alike, the bombs fell on Buckingham Palace just as they did on the East End.

The people who went through this traumatic and powerful bonding experience rebuilt our society in a radically different form. Wages grew fastest for the poorest, reducing inequality; healthcare, secondary education and decent housing were all redefined as rights, not privileges. These changes were made possible by an unspoken pact whereby powerful trade unions made moderate wage demands, while the rich consented to tax rates that are absurdly high by modern standards (in 1971 the top rate of income tax was 75%, for investment income it was 90%).

The children of the generation that fought the war did not share the bonds that made this consensus possible and so they tore it apart. Unions flexed their muscles and the rich baulked at giving so large a share of their wealth to the common fund. They still framed these decisions as the common good, as class struggle or rational economic policy, but the size of that commons had shrunk from all of us to only some. Some gained more than others materially from the death of the postwar consensus but there was an equal and universal spiritual loss. Feeling this, and casting about in our longing for a time of togetherness, we found the majestic ruin of one nation, all in it together, during ‘The War’.

There’s a way to rediscover that oneness without horror and bloodshed. It involves a rethinking one of the few places where people from different backgrounds interact with each other on a sustained basis: school. It requires that school changes from a competition between individuals to see who’s top and bottom, to a collaborative enterprise where those individuals’ different rates of progress are not stratified into markers of social status. It requires that building a sense of community be a core aim of schooling not a hoped-for by product and that parents and local people are involved in the work of the school beyond being told if the children there do well or badly. This approach means giving up something too. It means giving up the notion of work as a vehicle for proving we’re a cut above the rest. Maybe the lure of the jungle is too strong for us to for do that; our tendency to binge on Blitz spirit suggests maybe not.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The History Deficit

To explain Jeremy Corbyn you might say he’s a cross between Citizen Smith and your second favourite woodwork teacher. Baseball, to those of you who’ve not had the pleasure, is rounders on steroids. We make sense of the unfamiliar by comparing it to what we know. When it comes understanding our society and its politics we understand it by comparing it to the past. For most of us in Britain that means searching for analogies only in the twentieth century and especially in Nazi Germany because that’s just about all the history we are taught at school. This is a problem because it leaves us with a limited set of mental tools with which to grasp what’s going on.

Donald Trump’s candidacy is good example of this. Because of his racism and authoritarian leanings we compare him to Hitler, but Hitler was committed to an evil ideology and a radically different form of government, while Trump isn’t clearly committed to anything. We know that Trump is not another Hitler but we’re left with a nagging sense that he represents a novel threat to our political order, while not being able to explain why. The riots in England in 2011 were checked against our understanding of class conflict drawn from the twentieth century and it was concluded that as the rioters weren’t sworn to a particular ideology their actions could be dismissed as mere criminality, as if the willingness of so many to attack and pillage their fellow citizens, absent political theory, does not register as a threat to the stability of society.

The fall of the Roman Republic offers a different perspective on how a democracy, accustomed to peaceful transfers of power and the rule of law can devolve into tyranny. Rome in the late second century BC was rapidly expanding its dominion over the Mediterranean. Service in the legions, which had once been the patriotic duty of property holders defending their homeland, had become something more like a public-private partnership. Now the legionaries were the poorest romans, not the richest, and they fought in wars of conquest, their allegiance bought by the generals who won them plunder and spoils.

The wealth of conquest was accrued by a tiny elite who used it to swallow up smaller estates and freeholdings, the Italians who once worked those lands were replaced by slaves, and the reductions in labour costs made the rich more richer still. The tides of money flowing to the political elite who appointed generals and provincial governors, made political office a requirement for roman nobles who wished to retain their elite status and with the stakes thus raised, bribery of electors reached unprecedented levels.

Meanwhile, the now landless poor, displaced from the workforce by the expansion of slavery, flooded into Rome, helping to create an atmosphere of unrest such that the elites, who had never been so rich, had also never been so fearful. The Gracchi brothers were the first to harness this mob anger to a political project. They were both killed by conservatives, but a generation later Marius would emulate their methods, using a network of partisans to kill and intimidate his opponents. Once of those opponents, Sulla, raised the stakes further by marching his legions on Rome, prosecuting a bloody purge of Marius’ supporters and having himself proclaimed dictator for life. Sulla was a conservative, who thought he was protecting republican institutions against Marius’ use of popular anger to gain political power, but of course he was merely demonstrating the fragile nature of those institutions in the face of men with swords.

As the Republic hastened towards its demise any attempt to address the very real material grievances of Rome’s poor were viewed as the wielding of mob anger as a weapon against the property rights of noble romans. Thus Caesar’s attempts at land redistribution provoked fear amongst his fellow senators. When as proconsul Caesar conquered Gaul, making himself rich, glorious and beloved by thousands of soldiers, that fear turned to terror. Caesar wanted immunity from prosecution on his return to Rome, immunity he needed because like every other consul in recent history he was flagrantly guilty of electoral fraud. The senate refused, determined to stop the man who had matched their lust for power.

Caesar crossed the Rubicon with a single legion, about five thousand men. It was a gamble that there was so little support for the corrupt oligarchy amongst the people they pretended to serve that he could sweep them aside. It paid off.


We can only understand the present by comparing it to the past. The fall of the Roman Republic did not come about because of autocratic ideology, nor was it a ‘class struggle’ in the sense of pitting rich against poor. It was a fight between members of an elite who wielded popular anger as a weapon in their quests for personal gain. Its institutions were swept aside not because of revulsion at their corruption but because not enough people cared enough to defend them. It’s a reminder that while we’re scouring the gutter for fascist bogeymen, we should keep a look out for ten ton trucks of inequality, alienation and sleaze.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

What Labour plotters could learn from Brutus and Cassius


Julius Caesar was not killed because his policies spelled disaster for Rome. His reforms to the governance of the provinces went more or less unchanged for the next five hundred years and his rise to the dictatorship did not see the bloody purges that marked the reign of his predecessor, Sulla. No, Caesar’s fatal crime was his dismissive attitude to his fellow senators and his appeals over their heads to the people of Rome. By some accounts the final straw came when a group of senators called at his house and he did not stand to greet them. While it is unfair to compare Jeremy Corbyn to Caesar, a charismatic leader and brilliant politician, the plotters in Labour’s parliamentary ranks would do well to study the assassination that plunged Rome into civil war and led to the destruction of the ruling institutions of the Republic.

In his excellent History of Rome Podcast Mike Duncan states that Caesar’s assassins made three related mistakes. First and foremost they had no plan for what they would do next. So fixated were they on killing the tyrant, that they failed to consider what would happen after he was dead. Secondly, was the exclusive focus on Caesar and not his supporters. Mark Antony was in the senate and watched his mentor be killed but was able to slip away and plan revenge. Finally, Cassius, Brutus and the other conspirators, all senators, fatally misjudged the attitude of the common people of Rome. Because Caesar disparaged the senatorial class, because he did not believe their wealth and status automatically granted them the right to rule, they assumed that the average Roman shared their view that Caesar was a despicable tyrant and they were the ‘liberators’ freeing Rome from a scourge. But the masses hated the wealthy and arrogant senators and while they may not have loved Caesar they at least saw in him a man who looked beyond the interests of his own class and cared about making their lives better.

The Labour plotters trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn are making all three of these mistakes. In their view, Corbyn alone is the problem, rather than the vacuum of ideas and inspiration in the party’s centre-left that led to his election in the first place. Should they succeed in knifing their nemesis what banner would they hoist over his corpse? Slightly fairer cuts?

Their attitude to Corbyn’s supporters is as misguided as the senators’ were to Mark Antony and the literal legions Caesar commanded. Members of Momentum have been tarred en masse as entryist thugs who nonetheless are expected to go away or fall in line the moment the man who inspired them to form their organisation is deposed. Scant attempts have been made to recognise that these are overwhelmingly decent people who are motivated to make society better and to persuade them that better leadership could better advance their goal.

The assumption that because Corbyn is unacceptable to those in Westminster he is unacceptable as leader again mirrors the miscalculation of Caesar’s assassins. Like Caesar, Corbyn would not have risen to power without deep, popular discontent with the ruling class. The parliamentary Labour party have not found a way of addressing this issue and worse, do not seem to believe one is necessary.


Cicero called Caesar’s assassination ‘a fine deed, but half done’. Shortly afterwards Mark Antony had him put to death. To call the attempts to depose Jeremy Corbyn ‘half done’ would be a gross over compliment. Labour’s plotters should stop and think, spend time connecting with Corbyn’s supporters and creating a platform capable of inspiring them and the broader electorate. In their attempt to depose their leader and return to business as usual they are as misguided as the men who hastened the Republic’s demise.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Mass Mobility: How Schools can build us an Equal Society

More evidence surfaced last week in research by John Goldthorpe that class is destiny in Britain, where you're born in our society to a large extent determines where you end up. This has led many to conclude that Education is not sufficient to bring about social mobility and that policy action in other areas is required to bring it about.

This view contains three assumptions which seem to me highly questionable. The first is that the way we conceive social mobility is a goal worth striving for, that we are aiming in the right direction. The second is that Education, in its current form, is helping, it just can’t get there on its own and the third is that ‘Education’ and ‘our school system’ are equivalent terms. That is, not only has our school system failed to bring about social mobility, no alternative school design would be capable of doing so.

By 'social mobility' we mean poor but academically able children going to university and then well-paid, professional work. So we're asking a subset of poor children to say to their friends and family 'I'm going to leave you behind in poverty and join a separate, higher, class of people'. Signalling, by word or deed, that you are superior to those around you is a socially disruptive act. Professor Goldthorpe talks of loss aversion in the context of middle class families making sure they pass on to their children privileges they enjoy. Working class children may be equally loath to weaken the social ties that bind them to their communities for the uncertain promise of higher status in the future. Loss aversion guards the class divide in both directions, making traditionally defined social mobility doubly hard to achieve.

Rather than inviting some poor children to enjoy opportunities and rewards that remain the default expectation for their richer peers, a better vision of social mobility is one where all move towards the same level of income. A society where respect and status are not conditional on having outperformed others academically. In other words, everybody mobilises towards Equality.

Our school system is not helping us to reach this goal, in fact it does the opposite. School reinforces the idea that society is a hierarchy with those with the greatest academic ability at the top. This hierarchy will always be dominated by the children of the rich because interventions to help the disadvantaged, such as better schools or expanding early years provision, raise the bar rich children have to clear to stay on top, they don’t change the fact that rich parents have the material and cultural resources to make sure it’s their children who clear that bar.

Is there a school system that could bring about an equal society, while furnishing its students with the knowledge and skills to sustain a modern economy? Critics will say to attempt such a thing is Social Engineering and they’re right. But consider what school does at the moment. The curriculum is a competition between individuals to see who’s at the top and who’s at the bottom. The children we say are high value members of society expect and receive secure, well-paid employment, while those who we judge to be of low value are taught to expect low pay, or none at all. The stratification of status affects social relations too as children who get Fs are rarely friends with children who get As. So the adult lives of the fortunate are not complicated by social ties to those who will go on to struggle with low pay and the indignities of the benefits system. Social Engineering is what schools do. So if it’s OK to engineer an unequal society, what’s wrong with engineering an equal one?

A Curriculum for Equality


If a school wants to instill the belief in its students that they are equally valuable citizens, then it must have a curriculum that includes, for all children, a substantial non-academic component because academically, children are not, and will never be, equal. This vocational component should, like its academic counterpart, not be narrowly focused on a particular occupation but rather oriented towards skills that are applicable to a wide range of fields. One form this could take would be for students, in teams of four or five, to set up and run small businesses. At primary level these could operate within school for school issued currency, at secondary level children could graduate to operating in the real world, earning money.

Running businesses would teach children how to work together towards a shared goal, how to build and maintain professional relationships with customers and how to define their own objectives and work independently to achieve them. In addition to these primary benefits there are a number of secondary ones to students as entrepreneurs. It would be easier to motivate students to work hard because, unlike in the academic sphere, in practical endeavours the correlation between hard work and results is strong. Aiming for a shared success helps here too, in any field few people can aspire to be the most successful individual but everyone can aspire to be part of the most successful team. Earning their first wage under the auspices of school would also unlock for students a powerful educational experience: their first wage negotiation. Most of us only ever get to discuss our wages a la Oliver Twist (‘Please sir, can I have some more?’). If instead, children got to ask ‘we’ve worked together to earn this amount, how should we distribute it?’ that would better prepare them to tackle an economy of wildly disparate pay as adults. Working together as business people could also reduce bullying. Children who bully others have a really useful skill, the ability to influence and motivate people. Given the chance to use that skill constructively, they would be less likely to wield it as a weapon against their peers.

The arts could be repurposed to provide opportunities for success independent of academic ability. Art, Drama and Music currently occupy space in the curriculum as hybrid artistic/academic subjects where the goal is to produce work to be marked by the teacher/exam board and that mark reflects not just the work or performance but written analysis of that performance as well. If we took the view that the goal of these activities is not to find out how good you are in the opinion of an expert, but to perform or exhibit work for an audience in your community, these lessons could become an avenue to success for talented artists, who are not necessarily talented writers.

The effect of the curriculum changes outlined above would, of course, reduce the time spent on learning academic subjects. Could this be done without compromising academic standards? I think it could because although we currently devote virtually all curriculum time to academics, the incentive structure this creates results in that time being used inefficiently. Most children are academically average, the bulge in the bell curve, so school is saying to them ‘work really hard and we’ll tell you that you’re average’. That’s a weak incentive. For the children at the bottom of the academic distribution the picture is even worse, ‘work hard and we’ll tell you you’re worse than average’. School for these children is not a blessing but a poisoned chalice, asking them to be complicit in proving their inferiority.

Like a Socialist government, school relies on propaganda and coercion to achieve an outcome that’s in everyone’s interest and as with Socialism the results are underwhelming because propaganda and coercion are far less effective motivation than incentivising individuals. Compare this with a situation where school can say to the academically weakest ‘you’ve gained skills and shown initiative that employers really value, if you can raise your academic performance to an acceptable level you can have a successful career’. Greater academic progress could be achieved in less time if academic attainment was decoupled from status in society.

So let’s say we allow schools to raise a generation of equals, what would happen when the new wine of equality is poured into the old bottles of our existing, unequal economic structure? Here I think the power of loss aversion could be turned from a force of stasis to one of change. Students raised as equals would be bound by friendships that cross current class divides and to protect these relationships they would resist a system that sought to place some into inferior social positions. The watching adults would be able to see and choose between these competing visions of society. A school is like a time machine, it shows you the future, we just don’t appreciate that yet because we’re building a future that looks just like the present, a privileged group, an unprivileged one, regarding each other with mutual antagonism. If we saw how happy is an equal society we would choose it in a heartbeat. And we can have that equal society, if we find the courage to design and then build it.


Sunday, 28 February 2016

1789

Our population is aging, within fifteen years the number of people over 65 will rise by over 50%. Our economy is changing as automation threatens to replace anything between a third and a half of the workforce with machines. These are not primarily demographic or economic challenges, they are social ones. The question in need of an answer is not can we find replacement jobs at a level of productivity sufficient to pay for the care of the elderly, it is can we do that before our society tears itself apart?

The core idea behind the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and on the Left in general is that Austerity is a choice and cuts have been compelled by ideological, not fiscal, necessity. This idea is dangerously half true. The Conservatives exaggerated the need to reduce spending in 2010, but it’s not the case that governments can freely choose any level of spending they want. Public spending is limited by the value of the goods and services produced by working people which can be appropriated from them while maintaining their consent to be governed.

In order to pay for the pensions and healthcare of a larger retired population, each worker has to be more productive to generate a bigger surplus of goods and services beyond those the worker expects to keep for themself. Automation could deliver those productivity gains but it will likely put that surplus in the hands of multinational companies and super rich individuals who are best placed to avoid the giant tax bill of the elderly populace.

While the profits of automation may disappear offshore the problems left in its wake will not. Failure to leave education with useful skills or qualifications was a set of personal tragedies when the people affected had to spend their lives doing mundane, low-paid work. When there is no work at all it stops being just their problem and becomes everybody's problem. And  our school system guarantees that some will be in this position. We judge all pupils by the same narrow criteria and for all the pressure we pile on teachers to see that their kids don't fail, some of them have to. If everyone passed the exams would have no rigour.

How will the hundreds of thousands who graduate each year into a society with no use for them react? After the riots in 2011 a concensus quickly developed that, having no political ideology, the rioters were mere criminals and could be dismissed as such. But ideologies can spread at the speed of a retweet, their absence is not what is significant. The lack of respect the rioters showed for their fellow citizens and their property is far more alarming. We live now with people who will loot and burn if the spell of law and order is broken and we plan on reducing their chances of finding jobs at a time when paying for the care of the elderly will make funding even our shrunken benefits system a challenge.

Where should the missing respect for society come from? Should teachers inspire it while telling poor children they are failures, underserving of professional success? Should their parents teach them to respect a society that offers bright futures to others, but not them? People treat others the way they have been treated, so isn’t it madness to expect respect and support from those whose formative experience of society is a humiliating lesson in their own worthlessness?

The situation may spiral out of control. Each subsequent riot erodes support for measures to improve the lot of the economically left behind, while increasing demands that money and manpower are devoted to the unproductive activity of locking people up. Waiting for the next storm to hit all but guarantees a counter productive response. Working class jobs went from something you were proud to do, to something you just did and society carried on, but the difference between a good job and a bad one is far smaller than the difference between a bad job and no job at all. It would be tragically ironic if we reached such technological heights we lounged in machine-made luxury for a moment, before our bestial refusal to treat others as worthy of the same led them to burn it down around our ears.

In 1789 France was the richest country in Europe but its government was broke, having foolishly exempted the richest citizens from tax. The elites tried a mixture of tax increases and money printing to honour their promises and maintain their hold on power. In the chaos that followed they, and thousands of others, were killed. Victims of fiscal incompetence and refusal to give up undeserved privileges.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Subtle Sexism

A paradox of Education is that if it's the key to professional success, why are women, who do better at school, paid less than men and less likely to attain senior positions?

The optimistic view is that the legacy of sexism is being swept away by well qualified young women...it just hasn't happened quite yet. I am not convinced. It seems rather that while appearing to privilege girls over boys our education system actually continues to skew society in favour of men.

The thing our education system rewards is doing what you've been told, the way you've been told to do it. Submitting to authority in this way is an easier choice for girls because they face less cultural pressure to be rebellious. Boys have to walk more of a tightrope where they need a certain level of academic achievement, without which you're a loser with no job prospects, but they also need to rebel against authority to assert their masculinity.

In this way boys get worse grades but a better education. School is the last workplace any of us have where recompense is based solely on the quality of the work that's been done. Doing what you're told and waiting paitiently for a just reward is a great recipe for success at school and a terrible one thereafter. Those who've learned to follow the rules only so far as it's advantageous to do so are far better primed to get promotions and pay rises.

Of course sexism is a broader and deeper problem than can be tackled by schools alone. But until we teach young women to ask questions as well as answering them, schools are part of the problem not the solution.