Some Thoughts on Some Thoughts on Education

A week ago the Guardian newspaper published in full a strange document – a 237-page essay by Dominic Cummings, outgoing special advisor to UK education minister David Gove, which ranges across such territory as the heritability of IQ, innovations in computer science, and the problems with government bureaucracy. One section in particular, outlining an ideal education system, is worthy of closer attention, for two reasons.

First, because he was a key advisor to the education minister in the present government. Under this government, funding to the poorest pupils has been cut; schools have been granted permission to employ unquailified teachers; free schools have mushroomed; university tuition fees have tripled; and the primary curriculum has been made over along ‘traditional’ lines that appeal more to reactionary public sentiment than to pedagogical or economic sense. Last Thursday, two separate teachers unions that have traditionally been rival organisations took the remarkable step of striking together to protest proposals to lengthen the school day, shorten school holidays, and ‘reform’ teacher pensions such that they face a real-terms pay cut of 15% from 2010.

The second reason Cummings’ outgoing words are of interest is that they articulate the unspoken attitudes behind much education ‘reform’ of recent years. Rarely will we see it all laid out so candidly or argued so boldly. Commentators have offered some elegant rebuttals of Cummings’ key claims – that genetics overwhelmingly trumps privilege in determining success in education; and that privatisation leads to more ‘consumer choice’ and better services. I’m interested, though, in addressing the arguments on their own terms.

An ideal education

Cummings’ vision for the future of British education is to determine the cognitive capabilities of every individual pupil, and to provide each with a personalised course of study. A useful education should give a grounding in the major subject areas seperately, but also emphasise, at least for more able students, higher-order synthetic thinking that draws on all areas of knowledge to better understand complex situations.

But the cognitive abilities of students, and the best methods for drawing out those abilities, must be assessed empirically. Cummings evinces near-manic frustration with the messy, unscientific methods that, in his view, currently dominate education. Teachers insist on using their judgement in the classroom, despite Cummings’ conviction that, among any given population of teachers, ‘real talent is rare; mediocrity ubiquitous.’ Programs aimed at addressing the needs of under-performing pupils are rolled out across the country without sufficient testing in randomised control trials. And current teaching methods take insufficient account of the most reliable metric of intelligence and therefore potential excellence: IQ. IQ overwhelmingly determines academic success, he says; and IQ is itself 70% determined by genetics. Yet we remain blind to the applications of this ‘hard science’ to pedagogical practice:

If you ask, even in the Royal Society, “What proportion of kids with an IQ of X could master integration given a great teacher?” you will get only blank looks and, “I don’t think anyone has researched that.”

Sadly, the delicious vision of a wonk striding into the Royal Society and firing questions at the boffins is probably not grounded in literal fact. But Cummings clearly does see himself as one of the keepers of the empiricist flame in these dark times. I was surprised in his uncritical faith in IQ, a metric of disputed value in research circles. So I checked his endnote on ‘intelligence, IQ, genetics, and extreme abilities’ to see who his sources were.

His view of IQ is based chiefly on the work of behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin and on ‘blogs and talks by Steven Hsu’ – a physicist, not a cognitive scientist, though he ‘has been a tech start-up entrepreneur and is extremely interested in IQ and genetics.’ Plomin’s IQ research has focused on heritability, tracking changes in the IQ of natural vs adopted children into adulthood. Cummings defines IQ after Plomin:

IQ ≈ “general cognitive ability” (‘g’). “g” can be statistically identified; it is heritable; it is not measuring the income of the parents; high “g” is required for breakthroughs in maths and physics; “g” predicts key social outcomes such as educational and occupational levels far better than any other trait” (Plomin, 2013).

Cummings does not elaborate on Plomin’s methodology or reasoning. He follows with the unsourced assertion that ‘in general, people who do well on tests of verbal ability tend to do well on tests of spatial ability,’ so IQ should be taken as ‘that which is common among these broad factors‘ (italics his). Though many of us, as students and teachers, may have observed that a given individual will excel more in some areas than others, the centrality and reliability of IQ as a metric is important to Cummings’ vision of a ‘scaleable,’ ‘empirical’ total system of teaching and testing. Multiple intelligences? Just too damn messy. Here Cummings quotes IQ-enthusiast Steven Hsu:

Using a quick IQ screen at age 17 probably allows you to identify future scientific leaders with 100 times better accuracy than chance, and future business leaders with 5-10 times better accuracy than chance.

Again, Hsu’s reasoning and sources are not given.

Standardised, optimised, computerised

Cummings’ message is that the business of education is too important to be left to guesswork. Testing and teaching must be optimised across large populations, and that means standardisation. So what would this optimal system look like?

It is reasonable to hope that a combination of 1) finding the genes responsible for cognitive abilities, 2) scientific research on teaching methods and 3) the power of computers to personalise learning will bring about dramatic improvements in education…

He stresses that this won’t ‘“eliminate the gap between rich and poor”’:

Good schools, in the sense of “teaching children of different natural abilities as well as possible”, will not “eliminate gaps” – they will actually increase gaps between those of different abilities, but they will also raise floors and averages and give all children the opportunity to make the most of their genetic inheritance (personality as well as IQ).

My first question would be how far into the future he sees all this unfolding. ‘The power of computers to personalise learning,’ is not yet infinite, as any user of Rosetta Stone or MemRise knows. One of the first pundits Cummings quotes in his introduction is Steve Jobs, asserting that education will only work properly when teachers’ unions are smashed, allowing for rapid hiring and firing to weed out the weaklings, and all education is computer-based and ‘interactive.’ The meaning of ‘interactive’ in relation to computer media has aggressively expanded its turf in recent years. At first, it captured our astonishment at hyperlinks, search engines, instant-feedback testing systems, and other digital tech that allowed us to access information we needed more quickly than in the era of analog media. Now, ‘interactive’ seems to be be held up as the sole or special preserve of computers – as if we don’t interact with many other sources of information and stimulus in a day, some of them living and breathing. The classroom is already interactive. Teacher-student, student-student, and whole-class conversations are all interactive. And it’s interaction of a qualitatively different kind, which, if schools are supposed to produce responsible citizens, critical thinkers, and empathic humans, it is hard to imagine doing away with.

His argument for widening rather than closing ‘the gap’ rests on a strawman version of progressive educational policy as the obstructive, bureaucratic, anti-meritocratic desire that everyone should be the same – that we should achieve to the same level, should master the same things, should shun excellence because it can’t be attained by all. This misprision results from confounding groups and individuals. Different levels of achievement between individuals are natural; the systemic disadvantage that leads hundreds of thousands of children from less wealthy households to underachieve at school is a disaster. That’s the gap we need to close. It’s not about identical grey Mao suits and merit certificates for every kid in the class.

Unsurprisingly, variations on this generalised suspicion of all things ‘bureaucratic’ return throughout the essay. Cummings sensibly proposes that university funding be dramatically increased, accompanied by ‘a shift back to independence for universities.’ But this ‘independence’ turns out to be of a specific kind: ‘political control has corrupted admissions policy and debates on standards.’ The ‘standards’ comment is ambiguous. If he’s skeptical of the ‘show impact’ hoops through which UK academics are now constantly hounded, that has merit. But he himself advocates increasing funding, not to all institutions, but ‘to top-tier universities.’ I wonder which ones he has in mind, and how they are supposed to prove they belong in the club, and just what the rest of them are supposed to do. ‘Corrupted admissions policy,’ on the other hand, is pretty clear – ditch affirmative action.

Genetics is academic destiny

Perhaps the weirdest element of Cummings’ potted manifesto is his vision of ‘giv[ing] all children the opportunity to make the most of their genetic inheritance (personality as well as IQ).’ This will be a reality as soon as we ‘[find] the genes responsible for cognitive abilities’ (and, presumably, for ‘personality’). Will we then be able to do away with standardised testing for IQ, and determine it instead from a saliva swab? As disturbing as this Gattaca-esque vision is in itself, it also begs the question – if IQ is measurable already, and if IQ is such a reliable predictor of ability, why bother developing a genetic test for it? Why, indeed, does it matter whether IQ is genetic or not?

On the level of the individual, it doesn’t. But perhaps he isn’t concerned strictly with individuals. With dazzling circumlocution, he grumbles:

The political implications of discussing the effects of evolutionary influences on the variance of various characteristics (such as intelligence (‘g’) and conscientiousness) and the gaps between work done by natural scientists and much “social science” commentary have also prevented rational public discussion.

Leaving aside his distinction between proper science and the ‘social’ kind, and the petulant inflection on ‘rational,’ what is striking here is the word ‘evolutionary.’ When you’re talking about ‘variance’ and ‘evolution,’ you’re not talking about individuals; you’re talking about populations. Not only intelligence, then, but also ‘conscientiousness,’ are qualities with uneven, ‘evolution-influenced’ distribution. If this smacks of skull-measuring, a long quotation from biologist Robert Weinberg which closes the endnote on ‘IQ, genetics, and extreme abilities’ does little to dispel that impression. Quoted in feverish italics, it reads, in part:

And what happens if one of these days people discover different alleles for certain aspects of cognitive function? … What if somebody begins to look for the frequency of those alleles in different ethnic groups? … Then for the first time there could be a racism which is based not on some kind of virulent ideology, not based on some kind of kooky versions of genetics… if now for the first time we… begin to perceive that there are, in fact, different populations of humanity that are endowed with different constellations of alleles? … Some say the truth must out,… but I’m not so sure that’s the right thing.

This quotation is offered without comment. Weinberg seems to be warning against pursuing this research (Cummings does not indicate any such reservations). But then, perhaps in his coyness (‘I’m not so sure…’) he protests too much. Writing in Nature, genetics researcher Steven Rose is bluntly dismissive of the ‘dilemma’ of racialised research into intelligence:

In a society in which racism and sexism were absent, the questions of whether whites or men are more or less intelligent than blacks or women would not merely be meaningless — they would not even be asked. The problem is not that knowledge of such group intelligence differences is too dangerous, but rather that there is no valid knowledge to be found in this area at all. It’s just ideology masquerading as science.

The scholarly study of ‘IQ’ has a long history of linking intelligence to genetics, and of finding certain class or ethnic groups more endowed than others with cognitive ability. It’s not the question an IQ researcher has to ask. They just often seem to want to. In 1926 Nathaniel Hirsch tested and ranked the IQ of immigrant children in Canada by national background. They were ranked, in descending order, British, French, ‘Negro,’ Portuguese. In 1929 ML Fick set Zulu and European-South African children a standardised test developed in America. He found that the Zulu children were four to five years behind their European counterparts in cognitive ability. Fick initially attributed this to education and environment factors, but in 1939 decided it was at least partly due to innate differences. As recently as 1969, Berkeley researcher AR Jensen asserted that the type of intelligence required for complex problem solving was significantly lower in African Americans than in white Americans (Asians were higher again); and that this was due overwhelmingly to genetic factors.

Jensen had a practical point. Since higher-order intelligence was differently distributed between the races and was largely inflexible, it was wasteful to invest in remedial education programs like Head Start. RJ Hernstein and C Murray’s controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve also argued against affirmative action on the basis that IQ is genetically determined, and in turn determines success at school and work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hernstein and Murray went on to predict a two-class future in which the masses were ruled by a small, highly intelligent, genetically-insulated elite. But less fervently eugenic studies can likewise confound the influences of environment and genetics in disturbing ways. In 1966 DF Swift analysed the standardised test results of 11-year-olds from 132 families in the north of England, breaking down the results along lines of parental occupation. 60% of middle-class children passed the test, compared with 11% of working-class children. Swift’s conclusion was that ‘in developing industrial societies, the educational system is replacing all others as an avenue of social mobility.’ It is not clear why Swift concluded that educational achievement is a ticket to the middle class, rather than the other way round – though he’s not the only meritocratic thinker who seems to confuse correlation with causation when it comes to class and academic success.

Choice is good

It still isn’t clear why Cummings, like Jensen and Hernstein and Murray, wants to inscribe meritocratic principles on the cells of the body itself. But let’s allow a bit of sfumato around the question of ‘evolutionary’ or ‘genetic’ origins to IQ in Cummings’ paper. After all, he isn’t a scientist. He was a highly-paid and influential education expert in the service of the present government. And one of the most important points in his paper is also a point on which he and the Coalition appear to have been most clearly in agreement. This is the idea that more ‘consumer choice,’ and a minimal government role, will equal better educational outcomes:

Hopefully, recent reforms will push the English system towards one in which the state provides a generous amount of funding per pupil which parents can spend in any school they wish, thus breaking down the barrier of private / state school, while the Department for Education does little more than some regulatory accountancy, and due diligence functions and has nothing to do with the management of schools, the curriculum, exams, or teacher training.

This would, indeed break down the private / state barrier, as a school which is dependent on parental funds that might be withdrawn at any moment is no longer a state school. It is hard to imagine the chaos that would arise if parents could move their children from school to school as if they were switching telecomm or energy providers (these being other cases in point for consumer ‘choice’ not resulting in better services). Even supposing a perfectly empirical set of measurements for relative school performance could be developed, pupil mobility on this scale would certainly result in huge social and pedagogical disruption for children. It would also make it nearly impossible for schools to run themselves. We are already experiencing an early taste of the practical problems arising out of deregulating the school system, with free schools springing up in districts that already have an excess of places, while nearly half of the UK’s school districts have fewer places than pupils.

But even assuming, as Cummings does, that British education ‘market’ would self-regulate, his vision of unfettered competition between schools of different methods, sizes, creeds, funding models and social goals is at odds with his belief that there is a singular, scientifically-determinable best way to educate. Providing Britain’s greatest minds (those loafers over at the Royal Society, for a start) were put to work on getting the best out of every individual learner, how would we force this deregulated, privatised, atomised school system to adopt best practice? At one point Cummings hints at the idea of letting schools themselves be the laboratories for excellence, offering huge cash prizes, like the international bounties on longstanding problems in physics and higher mathematics, to schools that maximise pupil performance. The mind boggles at schools that are already desperate to stop parents from moving their children to the free school down the road gambling the pedagogical outcomes for a whole year group of pupils on the minuscule chance of a cash windfall.

It’s important to remember that Cummings’ manifesto is a strange and singular document, neither wonk report nor scientific research nor political blandishment. And it’s refreshing for not sounding like any of those things. But the ideas expressed here do beg to be criticised on their own terms. They are ideas that have lingered with baffling persistence behind a great deal of research into intelligence, social background and school performance, skewing the results before the tests are even written; and behind an even greater mass of pedagogy realpolitik. It’s easy to dismiss it as overheated ‘precious bodily fluids’ silliness – a scientism that ignores the nuances of real scientific procedure. But these attitudes translate into policy reality. The present government is using a rhetoric of ‘global competitiveness’ and ‘efficiency,’ often flying in the face of pedagogical expert opinion, to push through enormous changes to curriculum, school hours and teachers’ rights. The creep of free-market ideology, and the meritocratic dismissiveness of systemic disadvantage, are a matter of real and present concern. Cummings’ case for putting these values at the core of education simply doesn’t hold up.


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