One of the most glaring contradictions in policies being foisted on public schools (charter schools are generally exempt from these regulations) is that research on which they are based is fundamentally flawed. Ethan Pollock’s examination of “Stalin and the Soviet science wars” (Princeton University Press, 2006) teases out the complex relationship between science and ideology. The book provides a window on why research produced at the World Bank, the nerve center of the global project that aims to marketize education and convert teaching to contract labor, (to use a non-scientific term), stinks.
Pollock analyzes Stalin’s personal interventions in scientific debates and the shifting modus vivendi in which the Party both supported scientific research and attempted to control its conclusions. We do not (yet?) have a figure or body that directs educational researchers on what their conclusions should be, which Pollock explains Stalin did as “the coryphaeus of science” (leader of the chorus, with Soviets scientists singing “in rhythm to the commanding movements of his baton”). At the same time, educational research has become chillingly captive to ideology, as it was during the Cold War. Neoliberal assumptions currently drive both the premises of research at the World Bank (WB) and its conclusions.
Elaborate speculation, often based on data the researchers acknowledge is inconclusive or tangential, is used to force privatization and deprofessionalization of teaching on countries who want aid. Vouchers, for example, have been favored by the WB for years. Typical of the research supporting vouchers is the study conducted by Harvard economist, Michael Kremer, who evaluated the worthiness of a scheme (the study's poor construction doesn't make it worthy of the label "experiment") in Colombia by examining the projected incomes students who won a lottery for vouchers to attend private schools. The study never questions the predictive reliability of the income projections, which assume that Colombians will face the same job market and economy in a decade. The study assumes a study based on 300 students (that is, at its start, by completion the size had dropped) is large enough to drive a nation’s education policy. Nor does Kremer's study explore implications of his finding that voucher payments did not keep pace with increases in school tuition, which caused some students to drop out of the program.
However, the most significant flaw in the evaluation is his acknowledgment that pupils left behind in public schools may have been hurt by the departure of motivated classmates for private schools, a factor that his study cannot measure. Yet, Kremer concludes this negative effect can be ignored because the positive effects for winners of the lottery are so “clear cut.” While this is the kind of logic the pharmaceutical industry uses to pursue drug approvals, we still require medical researchers to address possible negative effects of treatments. That should be the standard we demand of research used to support privatization.
Pollock notes that during the 1920s the sciences were relatively free from Bolshevik intervention. Lenin defended “bourgeois technical experts” and the contribution bourgeois scientists could make to the society and state. Lenin would have rejected the kind of research conducted by the WB as ideologically driven, harmful to the nation’s future. What we’re seeing isn’t just “junk science.” It’s science used to endorse social engineering to put profits first.
Note: I invite reader comments, either on this website or to me directly at email@example.com. Is there a subject you want me to tackle? Let me know. And you can follow my thoughts on teaching, schools, and education on twitter , Facebook, as well as my blog here at New Politics.
Kremer Interestingly Kremer was also responsible for the WB ‘study’ – ‘Teacher Absence in India: A Snapshot’ – which was comprehensively critiqued by the All India Federation of Teacher Organisations. It has been used extensively to deride public school teachers in India, not only in that country but in the liberal press in the UK for instance. It fails to take into account any of the factors which cause teachers to be absent – for example mandatory requirements to be out of the classroom on non-teaching business such as census taking – with no cover.
Lois, as both a New Politics Lois, as both a New Politics contributor, & as one who had a job for 10 yrs. actually scoring the state school system standardized achievement tests required under the No Child Left Behind Act, I’d like to see this addressed: in my ten years of scoring these tests, I saw a vast number of test papers I scored (usually in math, but also in English language skills, science, writing, with none of these tests asking questions that were above the grade level tested; in fact, usually the opposite, e.g., high school seniors would be asked to answer math questions that only required an eighth-grade knowledge of math, where not only did the students come up with incorrect answers, all too often they demonstrated an actual don-have-a-clue-how-to-answer “knowledge”! And this was not just limited to minority students, as in my experience half or more of these papers I saw were of this type (and the papers I scored came from all kinds of students from all kinds of schools, public, private, parochial, charter). What they demonstrated in my opinion, is a vast lacunae of ignorance across-the-board by todays’ youth from all kinds of backgrounds! Dismal results, scary in their implications, and a real failure of the “dumbing down” trends so eagerly promoted by liberal/left educators in the 1970s/1980s in the interest of making school learning more “accessible.” I live near a public high school, and also see these youth leave school without textbooks in hand–which tells me that, unlike in my days attending high school in the early 1960s, these youth don’t have homework to do, so that they are thus able to do (as studies tell us) is waste time for an average of 8 hours a day surfing the Internet, playing video games, poring through “social media” sites and watching the mindless pabulum that’s proffered on TV. I also had this happen to me: I bought a meal at a fast-food restaurant, where the bill came to $5.57; I handed the clerk behind the counter $6.07, which put her at sea–she rang up on the cash register the sum of $6.00 and wanted to not only give me my 7 cents back, but an additional 43 cents in change, which my giving her the “extra” 7 cents was meant precisely to avoid! Now this is someone who was at least of high school attendance age. So there is, I would say, a real problem w/ “dumb” youth in the first place, children and adolescents mesmerized by the capitalist marketing and advertisements they see all around them that life must be “fun” at all times, & that it’s perfectly OK to be stupid as long as one’s having “fun”! And I don’t see it as solely a problem of poverty: after all, poverty’s been around under capitalism for a long time, certainly as long as there’s been universal education, and the myriad immigrant populations of the U.S.–Eastern and Southern Europeans, Jews, Middle Easterners, Asians, all of whom were in their vast majority poor themselves, and often lacked English-language skills–learned basic skills back then that seem to be just plain lacking in today’s youth. I say there’s clearly a lack of motivation, a desire just to have mindless “fun,” to do drugs or consume illegal alcohol, not accept and meet challenges, etc., among today’s youth that also has to be addressed. Certain skills in math and English, certain types of scientific knowledge, just have to be instilled in today’s youth, and I certainly don’t see that happening, and I see it not happening across the board. Nor do I see that addressed by you or other critics of the left in terms of today’s education problems.
Valuable commentary from Valuable commentary from Huffington post on just what’s wrong not only w/ today’s youth, but w/ their parents as well: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kelly-lynch/an-open-letter-to-the-parents-of-the-stephentown-300_b_3983962.html?view=screen
Another good article from the Another good article from the Huffington Post on education, test scores & today’s youth, this one focused on the SAT & college readiness. Another good, informative read that critiques both high-stakes testing as well as what I saw far too much in my 10-year career of scoring state school system standardized tests, woefully ignorant test-taking kids. See the article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/26/sat-results-2013_n_3991523.html