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.