Flipping the switch

Jelmer Evers is a teacher from The Netherlands who has been twice nominated for the global teacher prize and who is ‘moving away from traditional teaching’ according to the site where you can book him as a speaker. He also edited the 2015 book, Flip The System, which maintains that education is under attack from a global neoliberal conspiracy dubbed ‘GERM’.

In his latest move, he has taken to Twitter to bravely fight oppression by noting that he will not be reading a copy of a free magazine because of who is on the front cover:

Jennifer Buckingham is no stranger to personal attacks. She is best known in Australia as an advocate for phonics teaching, arguing for a UK style phonics screening check and founding the Five From Five reading initiative. I’ve not received my copy of the latest researchED magazine yet, but from the cover, it looks like phonics is the focus of the Buckingham piece.

However, Evers in this tweet and in subsequent tweets, seems to take issue with Buckingham because she worked at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) think tank (she now works at Multilit).

This is the ‘right-wing’ think tank that Evers refers to. CIS is probably best described as ‘classically liberal’ in outlook, pursuing free market economics and a limited state. We know this because it is upfront about where it stands on its website.

To some, being classically liberal might be crime enough. However, when this was met with a shrug by most fair-minded people, Evers went for the line that its funding is opaque.

I don’t know who funds CIS but here is my best guess: Rich people who are classical liberals. Why might they wish to remain anonymous? I suspect they are worried about opponents of the CIS feverishly pouring over their every deed and utterance in order to find something to be offended by.

Perhaps there is a possible vested interest. Perhaps some of these backers are set to make billions out of phonics. Somehow. That would seem an eccentric choice. Surely EdTech is a better bet for sucking money out of the education system. But let’s just assume for the sake of argument that this is the case and that CIS is simply a front for the phonics-industrial-complex. Which would be the better way to skewer Buckingham’s argument: Somehow expose these shadowy figures or refute the argument with evidence and facts?

Some people get pretty snooty about think tanks. They compare the quality of research and transparency of funding unfavourably with publicly funded universities. And it’s true that think tanks rarely have the capacity to conduct randomised controlled trials or other gold standard research. But you are kidding yourself if you think that this is what most university academics are doing. Unfortunately, universities produce a lot of junk research.

And perhaps a bigger problem with universities is that they present themselves as impartial – they actually have a duty to be impartial – but they are not. There is an overwhelming left-leaning bias in most public universities and particularly in their education faculties. Without a few right-leaning think tanks, we’d have an utterly skewed view of the world.

After receiving pushback on Twitter, Evers must have realised that ad hominem attacks are not a good look and that it was better to disagree with the substance of what someone writes. To this end, he eventually found a Buckingham paper arguing for the equivalent of US charter schools and UK free schools/academies in Australia. The paper also suggested there might be a case for for-profit providers but that the evidence was mixed and so the regulatory regime would be critical.

Yes, this is what you might expect from a market-oriented think tank. No, I personally don’t think we should consider for-profit providers, but I don’t think anyone who is considering them is evil. Given that most of the paper is about introducing the kinds of reforms introduced by a Labour government in the UK and supported by Democrats in the US (although less so these days), the idea that this paper is evidence of a hyper-partisan, neoliberal GERM conspiracy is plainly absurd.

Earlier this week, I wrote about why I object so strongly to politicising arguments that are not inherently political and that are better evaluated on the available evidence. By deciding that someone or something belongs to the wrong tribe, the baddies, the others, we essentially flip a switch in our brains that shuts down our capacity for critical thinking. Little did I know that I was about to observe such a prototypical example of the problem.


9 thoughts on “Flipping the switch

  1. I expect that Jelmer Evers is as mistaken about education as he is about ‘right-leaning think tanks’. I’ve written 10 policy papers for the Centre for Policy Studies and one for Policy Exchange; although my researcher got paid £2,000 for our most labour-intensive study (where we discovered that New Labour’s ‘Children’s Plan’ had a pathetically weak research base), I never even got reimbursed for expenses travelling back and forth from Norwich to London. I also worked pro-bono doing the groundwork for the Civitas New Model School Project. Likewise, the only salary I had during the time that these were written (1996-2010) was three years as a part-time unqualified teacher. In fact the only time I ever received any payment for anything I wrote was a handful of articles for the Times, the Telegraph and the Mail. Mostly I lived off fees for tutoring supposedly ‘dyslexic’ pupils.

    In 1999 I was doing unpaid work for a Suffolk Probation Services project, and I had a unique opportunity to determine whether former pupils at Woods Loke Primary School in Lowestoft had a lower rate of offending than comparable Lowestoft schools. I had already published an article demonstrating that the synthetic phonics programme developed by Sue Lloyd had reduced reading failure to negligible levels compared to other Suffolk School. Friends at UEA, where I completed my first degree in History, urged me to apply to UEA’s Centre for Applied Research in Education. Despite my scepticism, I did–and the professor who talked to me laughed in my face. He said that reading failure and crime had common roots in social deprivation–implying that I just wanted to smear hard-working teachers. His hostility and rudeness shocked me. In fact, this research was later vetoed when it got high enough up the food chain in Suffolk’s Education Service.

    Writing for Right-leaning think tanks is pretty lean business: it’s rather like blogging–you do it because you believe in what you’re doing, and as often as not no one else will publish your research. I don’t know anyone who ever got paid for writing for them. This hasn’t stopped my critics from sneering about my being a running dog of my capitalist masters. I would be very surprised if many progs like Mr Evers did not enjoy rather generous state-funded salaries.

  2. What Parents Don’t Want To Know About The Education System

    If parents really, really became aware of what goes on behind these endless divisions in education they would really worry for their children. Even if they asked about the methods being used in schools they’d be mystified by some remarks about being “pragmatic”, or “eclectic”. At least that’s what I was tossed.

    Nowadays parents might be tossed such remarks as “constructive”, or “balanced”, or . . .? If they happen to follow some of the ed chats they will soon become superficially acquainted with some of the decades old education wars — reading wars, math wars, science wars . . . And then they may hear about “constructivism” or “balanced literacy” and feel hoodwinked by code words proliferating that only insiders are familiar with. Then, if parents chance upon something like Greg’s posts they might fear that left and right politics drives the education systems, that their children are caught up in the midst of some ideological agendas being played out.

    Frankly, as a grandparent who long ago obtained a Teachers College certificate I never used, I feel very sorry for parents today who want to be knowledgeable about education for their children’s sakes. There’s no right-wing or left-wing medical or engineering or architectural debates, are there? Why is education so messy? It’s high time education got its act together. Perhaps the researchED movement is the best thing we have for common-sense to prevail.

  3. Tunya have you heard of the Dunning Kruger effect? As we are not engineers or doctors we don’t know what kind of ideological conflicts go on in those area. While it is unlikely that they mirror education they will have their own idiosyncrasies. For example,e until relatively recently, medicine considered evidence based practice to be quite novel with most medications only safety tested rather then compared for effectiveness. Though you can argue that the field of medicine is now moving on that and it is a good example for education.

    I know little about engineering but I would hazard a guess that most engineers use simple models to calculate with, and that they are often expected to design features to deal with issues that may or may not exist. (Powerlines, building safety, cancer causing materials).

    The reason most people wouldn’t understand education is the same. They don’t know enough about it. A likely reason that this field is so political is because our knowledge of the world affects our politics. The two subjects are entwined. The reason there is such a vigorous debate is because different teachers have different purposes.

  4. Regardless of the truth of Buckingham’s arguments about phonics (which I support), it’s worth considering why a right-leaning think tank (which I don’t support) would publish them and fund her research. Some potential reasons:

    1. Buckingham’s arguments are true. This may be correct, but it has little to do with the aims of the CIS, which can reasonably be assumed to amount to making its rich supporters richer. Truth does not seem very important to them. The CIS has always supported and will always support lower tax, regardless of how good an idea anyone qualified thinks this is. Certainly their attitude towards climate change is close to being unequivocably false and dangerous. “Classical liberalism” is ideological rather than evidence-based.
    2. Buckingham’s arguments would result in smaller government (and thus lower tax for CIS supporters). Some of her papers are consistent with this (the ones Greg has disagreed with above). But it would be hard to GUARANTEE that more phonics would result in smaller government.
    3. Buckingham’s arguments are consistent with classical liberalism. Again, this is debatable, particularly since she comes close to arguing for the imposition of one method of teaching reading.
    4. The supporters of the CIS are culturally “traditional” in outlook and interpret the advocacy of phonics as “traditional”. There is probably some truth in this, although “traditional” is difficult to define. (School vouchers are hardly traditional.)
    5. Left-wing people tend to oppose phonics, so by advocating phonics, right-wing people can “win” a “battle” against “the left”. Not every left-winger hates phonics, but Evers’ response demonstrates that this is a common trend. This is one of the most plausible reasons why the CIS and similar organisations bother to recruit phonics defenders.

    Three conclusions from this:
    1. Perhaps if more people influenced by the CIS got into power, there would be more phonics in schools and better educational outcomes. This might work out well, but you would have to speculate about how seriously phonics programs would be implemented in this case. I strongly doubt that CIS-influenced thinkers would prioritise better educational outcomes over lower taxes, so it is most likely that we’d end up with cheap and half-hearted programs which would not work optimally. (Maybe that is better than the status quo but I remain suspicious.)
    2. Academics may be and often are biased. (I don’t think the JCU case proves that, by the way.) Think tanks are nearly always biased. Everyone should be extremely suspicious of anything a think tank says, and verify it with academic evidence.
    3. While I could not trust the right to implement good educational reforms, the left has a much bigger problem. For example, is it better to have a well-funded system with poor curriculum design and a poorly-funded one with good curriculum design? I can’t answer this impossible and artificial question, but it’s absurd that anyone should have to ask it, and it’s undoubtedly the fault of education academics and teacher unions.

    1. Your response displays an interesting lack of empathy for those who are not in your political tribe. Takes this point:

      “This may be correct, but it has little to do with the aims of the CIS, which can reasonably be assumed to amount to making its rich supporters richer”

      Nobody goes to bed at night telling themselves they had a great day making their rich supporters richer. Whether right or wrong, everyone wants to make themselves the hero of their own story and tell themselves they have done good in the world. Members of the CIS sincerely believe that their policies would make the world a better place.

      You say the most plausible explanation for why CIS backs phonics is as a stick to beat “the left”. Let’s examine this for a minute. Jen Buckingham spent a number of years completing a PhD on the use of a phonics intervention. If you’re right, she managed to motivate herself through all that research and an 80,000 word dissertation just to make this stick. And it’s not even the most obvious one to use against “the left”. It’s actually quite obscure.

      Or perhaps Buckingham is the unknowing foil who is being used by others at the CIS to wield this stick?

      Belief in either of these options requires quite a high level of conspiratorial thinking and I suggest this falls foul of Occam’s razor. You may be right. When it comes to the motivations of others it is all speculation. But there is a far simpler explanation available:

      Buckingham and the CIS are convinced by the evidence for phonics (perhaps Buckingham herself has convinced others in the organisation) and believe its more widespread and rigorous adoption would improve educational outcomes and make the world a better place.

      1. First of all I absolutely wasn’t intending to criticise Jennifer Buckingham, partly because I agree with her but also because she seems sincere and devoted to her ideas. Her studies and the fact that she’s moved away from a think tank demonstrate this.

        Perhaps the thinking above was too conspiratorial but I still don’t believe think tanks should be trusted in general or that it was, as a general rule, wrong for Evers to point out that Buckingham worked for a think tank. (His reasoning seemed poor but he was right to be suspicious at least.)

        Your point is that if think tanks are proposing a good idea, it doesn’t really matter what their funding or political orientation is. Sure, it was beneficial to the public that the CIS published Buckingham’s work. I still think it would have been better to use a method other than a think tank.

        Here’s a concrete example. The IPA is a more politically extreme and more influential think tank. Their views on education have some value. There is plenty to agree with in their assessment of curricula: https://ipa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/archive/31-oct-14-English_curriculum_report.pdf is one example.

        The problem is that educational reform isn’t one of their core aims, but tax reduction and small government is. Having identified various problems with government curricula, they then suggest that the best way forward would be to deregulate curriculum and let everyone choose. There are a lot of problems with this, most obviously that a lot of people would take the path of least resistance and stick with their existing curriculum.

        Relying on or trusting think tanks seems risky to me. The good thing is that Buckingham has abandoned this and is now working with academics, schools, and independent educational NGOs. These might not work perfectly but they seem to be a better way of actually implementing change.

        Lastly I doubt that corporate funders are any better at identifying good educational ideas than anyone else. The case at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/world/australia/school-tech-lumineer-academy-susan-wu.html seems typical.

        Thanks for the great blog by the way!

      2. Thanks – I’m glad you like my blog.

        You have just mounted a good argument against the IPA’s proposal that is based on the substance of their proposal. I don’t think it’s a choice between relying on trusting think tanks or being suspicious of think tanks, I think it’s a choice between dealing with the substance of an argument or not.

  5. This guy sounds just like my introductory professor at my university. He was fanatical and believes that there was a conspiracy of right wing billionaires trying to make charter and private schools based on traditional (as opposed to progressivism) methods. The last month was devoted to nothing but his leftist ravings on this subject. He claimed to be in it for the kids but, this last month he words betrayed him and cared more about making teachers rich.

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