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Reading John Lanchester’s interesting Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay this week (and there’s a publisher-suggested title if ever I saw one. Because every author secretly dreams of calling their book Whoops! Mind you, they used to get away with An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and such, so I suppose we reap what we sow). It’s a good explanation of the recent boom and bust moneyquake that has underpinned- or excused- the austerity frenzy coming to a Lidls near you. Did you know that the RBS was the biggest company not just in Europe, but the world?
I did not know that.
The salient point he raises is to do with capitalism in general. He traces the current financial clusterf*ck back to the fall of Soviet Communism, and the removal of a direct competitor to the free market model of economic and political discourse. With this removal, he argues, there was less need for the capitalist economies to justify their superiority over the repressive, but undoubtedly more societally inclined (at least on paper) Marxist experiments. Until that point, capitalism, for all its flaws, had produced what Lanchester describes as the most admirable societies ever seen- not perfect, just the best ones so far. The cause of this, he argues, is that the jet engine of capitalism was yoked to the oxen of social justice. Efficiency, enterprise and opportunity were tied to the generation of the maximum dividend of personal gain, tempered with social responsibility.
And removing the great Satan of Communism as an immediate source of geographical and economic comparison (China is, let’s face it, far away), meant that the economic engines were free to achieve escape velocity from those pointless, annoying liabilities we call justice and fairness. A triumphalist mentality emerged, where it was felt that capitalism could do no wrong, where it was felt that entrepreneurs should be freed from the shackles of taxation and restraint, and a free market should be more successfully realised. I mean, look at all the STUFF we have.
Fast forward through Thatcher, Reagan, and a worldwide surge in opportunism, Icelandic meltdowns and bank crashes, slow the tape as you approach the sub-prime tsunami that nearly drowned the world, and then let your finger drop on play when Fred the Shred gets his knighthood annulled (which will no doubt inconvenience him tremendously as he dries his tears with a handkerchief made of unicorn mane, and laughs from his golden throne on the Moon).
|‘Did we win?’|
This is not ‘Tom Bennett’s blog on fiscal responsibility’. High finance crosses my eyes like Marty Feldman, as it does most of us, which is precisely why the banks now resemble the shop floor of your local Ladbrokes, and withdrawing money is like enacting the Schrödinger Cat experiment every time you go to an ATM. And this is the point; economics are now ruled by a priest class, so remote and dislocated from common comprehension that they wiled as much power as the priest class in any pre-scientific society. They are the shaman (and shawomen, increasingly) who read the runes and entrails of our financial futures, and dictate, almost entirely, political policy around the world.
When I get some time I will revert to my blog default and rail against economics as another example of the voodoo sciences that have crawled into the popular perception as real sciences, when in fact, no one knows anything, as William Goldman famously said about movies.
But I am a teacher, and I know schools. And I know what happened to schools at the same time as this impossible sense of exceptionality and superiority crept into the collective consciousness of the men in the City and the Street; the language of the marketplace crept into areas of public discourse where previously they had been seen as necessary evils at most. Of course I’m referring specifically to education.
Even when I started just under a decade ago, I was amazed by how much we were expected to gobble up the gastronomy of the bean-counter. Everyone remotely related to schools and children had become a stakeholder; we were expected to produce returns on our efforts. Children avoided- just- being referred to as customers in mainstream education, but we are devilishly close to the concept at all times. Don’t believe me? Consider how much their views are now being taken into account, despite the concomitant lack of an obvious medium for the same communication from the teacher perspective.
I remember years ago I used to run one of many themed restaurants in the West End. No where before had I encountered the slavish ‘customer is always right’ mentality as I did here. One charmer put me up against a wall one night, hand round my throbbing jugular, and said he was going to ‘F*ck me up.’ Faith, dear reader, I lived. But the next day I was broken to learn that the company would pay him compensation and apologise to him; and I was told not to complain to the police, as it would damage sales, somehow. You might recognise some of the DNA from this incident in some schools, with their no-blame approaches to social responsibility.
|‘How do you sleep?’ ‘On a bed of money.’|
We see some of the most foul examples of this marketisation in concepts like value added, or FFT predictions (used as targets), target setting and a million varieties of ways in which the business of education is forced into the double columns of the balance sheet. Have we reached targets? Have we failed them? If we do reach them, what are the new targets? Pass me the smelling salts.
Of course, this model assumes that education is amenable to being circumscribed by the language of the bank, and this is where the bomb goes off. Education is not the same as selling lemonade and rose water at a jumble sale. Perhaps you noticed? The product of our labour isn’t easily numbered, weighed or measured. How we do it isn’t amenable to regimentation or standarisation. The effects of our efforts sometimes aren’t seen until decades later. Businesses run on the engine of arithmetic; but people defy this analogy with the abacus, because so much- my God, almost all, I should say- of our lives are not concerned with that which we can staple a number to. Our entire human experience is concerned with questions of meaning, value, emotion, desire and aspirations that are entirely resistant to enumeration.
Every time I see a number ascribed to something in education, I wince- a lesson, a school, leadership, the whole nine yards. I wince, as I witness yet another brainless attempt to shoehorn thoughts and dreams into the business end of a calculator. The two worlds barely intersect. They certainly don’t coexist easily, and often, like matter and anti matter, they explode on contact with one another. Children do not- do NOT- get more intelligent by 5% every year, satisfying the budgetary- sorry, pedagogic predictions of a well run saucepan factory, predicated on the model of a infinitely expanding market, which is another fairy tale, incidentally. Our teaching certainly doesn’t get better by the same. Yet we are assessed as if they are.
I am not anti-market; as Friedman said, show me a system that has worked better- but that doesn’t mean that I welcome its presence in every facet of our lives. I don’t judge my relationships by their numerical value, because such things are impossible to unearth. I do not love my family because they promise me secure returns on my investment. I do not teach because I add value to their grades.
I teach because I love them, and my subject. And I love both of these because I find them intrinsically valuable. Isn’t that what life is at least partly about? Discerning what is valuable, and valuing it?
Not the market. Not making money. Not adding value that never existed anyway. Love. Not money.
|Available from all good Waitroses|
Strike day today. Perhaps you noticed? The Brothers and Sisters were knee deep in the entrails of stockbrokers today, as the workers of the world united and raged against the machine, and the machine stroked its white cat and wondered how it could manoeuvere forty thousand people onto a table so it could laser them into dog food.
Last night saw me jet off from parent’s evening to speak at a meeting of NUT comrades in Wembley Park, which I am sure earns me an in with Arthur Scargill if I ever meet him at a cocktail party, which is unlikely. Although I was running on fumes after a rewarding, but exhausting day telling people endlessly about their child’s undoubtedly unlimited potential, the welcome was warm and as ever, and it was an honour to speak and be listened to, talking about things I love to talk about: behaviour, behaviour behaviour. I even bumped into a few familiar faces.
|‘I object to be compared to bankers.’|
I striked/ struck today, not because I am particularly animated by gestures, or by the illusion that George Osborne will magically pull a string of endless magic beans out of his anal iris that can pay for adamantine pension pots (although that’s one circus I would QUEUE IN THE RAIN to see). It’s been a long time since a British strike reversed a policy so deep and indomitable. If you believe the financial wallahs (and I have to, although I am perfectly aware that their pronouncements are as solid as strawberry mousse on most things, given that the future is a foreign country, and no man knows the hour of his departure, or foreclosure) then we are very much a busted flush; that we have lived beyond our means for too long; that the guardians of our financial destiny have written cheques that posterity could not cash. The cupboard is bare.
And I didn’t strike because it was demanded; I am obstinately personal when it comes to morality, and I weep to think of anyone striking because they were afraid not to- and don’t let’s pretend that this isn’t the case. Every man and woman has the right to chart the course of their own conscience, and I often feel that if it wasn’t considered such an imperative to do so then many people would strike more easily. A picket line chills my heart- it is the opposite of what I believe freewill and ethics to be about; the good will, freely chosen and decided in a conscious, conscientious way. Forcing people to comply is what the bad guys do.
|‘No, Mr Bennett, I expect you to DIE.’|
So what did I strike for? Not because I believed it would change matters; but not as an exercise in futility either. I stepped out for a greater cause; because when people take to the streets, governments are reminded of a fact that remains tacit in the main; that they remain in place at our behest; that we are the final arbiters of their destinies, and therefore our own. The moment the people decide they have had enough, they can shrug their shoulders and all shackles melt away, as if they were never there. This is the power that people have, and it is the power that they forget. ‘No’ is the most powerful weapon in the world. ‘No.’
Of course, the Masters of the Universe have a million tactics to deter this power- and in some sense rightly so. The wisdom of the herd is often no closer to wisdom than that of a real herd; Plato derided Democracy as the will of the lowest common denominator, saddled with charismatic false prophets who can promise bread and circuses and lead the proles by the nose, as long as there is grape and grain to keep our mouths moving and our eyes shut. You know the rhetoric. Some of it is true.
But there is one last, doomsday weapon; the decision by people to refuse. It’s blunt, but then so is a nuclear bomb. Hobbes feared no government even worse than poor government, and perhaps he was right; civilisation rattles along on the rails of rule, and we forget the privations of nature at our peril. Revolt easily runs into ruin; the London riots give us a glimpse as to what can happen when manners and civility are set aside for egoism and the savage pursuit of happiness.
|Even THE EMPIRE is in.|
Which is why rulers should pay heed when people fill the streets. Because it indicates that the rule of law is being challenged, not by opportunists and empty-headed hoodies farting on their leather-effect sofas, but by the people who drive the trains that keep everyone going to work, the teachers who teach their children, and by the men who pick up litter and change hospital sheets. People.
Should we consider that the cupboard is now bare? Of course we should. That’s not why I was out. I was out because the farmers have been blamed for the prodigiousness and cavalier avarice of the locusts. Wealthy men have been allowed to play roulette with the savings and securities of helpless people who have been forced to entrust these people with their futures, only to find them used as a gambling chip on the baccarat tables of Wall Street and the City. There is an excellent- and unavoidable- case for contracting public expenditure. But I will watch my pension wither on the vine with a smile and a handshake the day that I see the same happen, proportionately to the Masters of the Universe. When the Lords and the CEOs and the Eloi agree to catch a tube, defer a bonus, or vote down an autopayrise…that’s when I’ll feel happy about the Big Society. That’s when I’ll believe that, to some extent, we’re in this together. Until then, it’s business as usual in the ghetto.
I mean, I KNOW life isn’t fair. I know that shit rains down on us from birth to the moment we topple with exhaustion into holes we had to dig for ourselves. But that doesn’t mean I have to hold out a soup bowl, catch it, and wolf it down with a smile.
|‘Do you have any fantastic SEAL resources for me?’|
WARNING: Contains references to Bunny-Huggers.
There is a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. If you’ve seen it, I will anticipate your attempts to recite it verbatim; and if you haven’t, the example is redundant. All that needs to be said is that in one scene a small group of ultra-activist politicos pour scorn on the revisionist, repellant views of their former colleagues. One is, of course, the People’s Front of Judea, and the other is the Judean Peoples’ Front. Both are splinters from the same branch; both are anathema to each other. Both seem, outwardly, to be identical apart from in ways that would require Brian Cox and a very big microscope to discern. Perhaps not even then.
I’m reminded of this every time I wax down my cyber surfboard and catch some wwwaves in the edunet (apologies if neologisms make you sick a little bit in your mouth *heaves* it’s ok, I’m fine), especially at the beginning of the school year. When I started teaching, the geography of the profession was so alien to me that everything looked the same. Now that I am a man, I can tell accents apart, as well as dogmas. You know how they’re always telling you to be a reflective practitioner? What they really mean is ‘I want you to agree with everything I tell you.’ Which is funny, because the last time I checked that was the opposite of being reflective.
So I followed the opposite of the advice in every teacher training manual, and tried to become a reflective practitioner. Those of you kind or sympathetic enough to read my columns, blogs or books will be familiar with some of my more frequently visited tropes- bad educational science, the commodification of learning, and the behaviour crisis, to name three. I’d like to pick up on another, which I’m going to call..
The Great Education War for the Moral High Ground.
(If I can boil that down to one word, I can sell it to Michael Gladwell and we can go to print with it. Anyway.)
This is something I frequently see in any online discussion of education, in the badlands of Twitter, and most conspicuously, dripping from the pages of commercial educational websites. In the style of all good philosophy teachers, I’ll define and illustrate with an example. Or was it exemplify with an illustration?
‘The belief that one’s own approach to education is the most positive, compassionate and moral. Often accompanied by the unshakeable belief that unbelievers are cruel, tyrannical child-haters who would be happier grinding preschoolers into strawberry jam and catching truants with a crossbow.’
|A child’s dreams, yesterday.|
I only say this, because I find that in every village of the enchanted Kingdom of Education, there’s a well-meaning crier in full throat, shouting stuff like, ‘Every child who leaves school without succeeding is my personal failure,’ or ‘There is a rainbow inside every student, and our job is to let it out.’ Or, my personal favourite, ‘The job of the teacher is to learn from the students.’ I’m serious, I’ve seen all these turkeys.
Smurf Spoiler Alert!
Now, on the face of it, it rather paints one as a bit of a meany to be critical of such sentiments, as if one were standing outside the cinema before The Smurfs started and shouting that Gargamel gets slotted in the end. But there is a danger in tacitly accepting this kind of babble, as if you were some kind of Teacher-Santa, indulgently messing the hair of a child and saying, ‘Oh, you kids.’ Because behind every platitude, there rests an enormous tangle of assumptions about the aims of education, how children should be educated, directed, and led. If you, for example, believe that ‘Every child is a butterfly’ or some flannel, then you’ll have a very distinct approach to setting targets and discipline, than if you had the belief that every child was, say, composed of fire ants or tsetse flies.
So when I read something else on Twitter like ‘If you catch them being good, you’ll surprise them into learning’, I feel like I’m reading a Cat Calendar, or the memoirs of Liberace or something. Yet inevitably if you challenge the integrity and authenticity of such comments (which, I might add, worryingly get about a million thumbs-ups, likes, retweets or however cyber appreciation is expressed) you get scowled at for being a downer. But this is the problem with platitudes; because they are broad, vague, poetic and ambiguous, they can be read in so many ways. And they certainly don’t require any experiential support or evidence- their strength lies in their musicality, or the chord of emotional resonance that it rings in the reader. In other words, they rely on rhetoric rather than reason.
|Is this you? I can see you.|
It’s almost as if many in education wish to be prophets, not coming down from the mountain, but climbing up, ever upwards, desperately trying to evade being beaten to the moral high ground. They have to be the ones who love children the most, the ones who want the best for the child. Often the only way to achieve this is to exaggerate the claims of their nearest competitors; so if one educational bunny-hugger claims that most children respond best to praise rather than admonition, someone else will say that ALL children respond in such a way. And usually, such views are irritatingly, cloyingly, depressingly optimistic. Nothing against optimism, but remember that it’s an attitude, not a policy.
Also, they usually tend to be of the ‘progressive education’ flavour, which always gets my goat nicely. Any criticism of such inevitably attracts one of the stock ‘Your paradigm rests on the factory model’ or something equally moronic and incorrect. My favorite response is usually when I make some sniffy comment about the failure of IT to revolutionise the classroom, and someone says, ‘Dude, this is the 21st century,’ as if we should all be in hover-boots by now. ‘Why don’t you work in a profession with no children if you want to bully them?’
Well I have something to say about that. I love children; I love teaching children, particularly in the secondary age range. I adore education, and I adore my subjects. Since becoming a teacher I have never been happier, and I have never felt more like I was achieving what Aristotle would call my Eudaimonia, my flourishing. Giving punishments makes me feel desperately uncomfortable, and maintaining the cold stare, the silence, or the disappointed tone, makes me squirm inside. But I know that I have to set sanctions because I want my children to succeed, and sometimes, admonitions and sanctions are the best way to set students back on Straight Street. I believe that the rest of society has already thought of this idea for keeping peace and encouraging good behaviour- it’s called law, which is never perfect, but the boys in the lab have yet to get back to us with anything better.
So whenever I hear some well-meaning, pointy-headed middle-brow tell me that detentions don’t work, that children will behave if the lessons are good enough, that setting sanctions trains them into habits of cruelty and resentment…well, I just feel kind of annoyed that these people have been allowed to ruin the education of thousands and thousands of children for generations. Being anything less than firm with many children will result in them playing hopscotch on your good intentions and ambitions. That doesn’t mean hitting them, or shouting at them, or dangling them from the edge of Canary Wharf or something. It means being firm. It means setting boundaries and sticking to them. It means having high expectations of children and not accepting it when they want to immediately give up.
Sometimes this means showing them that your boundaries are meaningful, and patrolled meaningfully with sanctions. But these are behaviour modifiers, with an aim to providing the best habits to learn and flourish. They are the product of love, in exactly the same way that a parent will scold a child that acts cruelly, or selfishly in order to teach them to pursue other aims. It’s because of love, not in spite of it.
To allow a child to do as they please, embedding habits of egotism and indulgence, is one of the cruellest things you do for them, particularly if you’re interested in social mobility, which I believe is rather popular. Love is a broad enough concept that it often gets confused with the emotion part of compassion, but this is only an incidental, second order characteristic. Love is directed outwards; love seeks the true benefit of others, even at the expense of yourself.
What does that mean to a teacher? That means putting the educational aims of the class before your own selfish desires, laziness, angst or anxiety. It means working as hard as you can for their benefit. It means identifying their benefit in the best education you can provide. What it doesn’t mean is indulging their immediate desires, or deferring to their whims, because what serves the immediate pleasure of a child will often be to their eventual detriment, in the same way that a child, if given the choice, might defer salads and study for marshmallow and chocolate pizzas (which I have actually seen on sale in Glasgow, of course) and COD. This isn’t an anti-child manifesto; it is profoundly pro-child, and an acknowledgement that children aren’t angels or devils, merely human, just as we are, with all of our wonderful virtues and vices, frailties and perfections.
As teachers, we need to be more muscular in this aim; we need to be unafraid to state that these simple axioms are at the basis of the classroom relationship. We mustn’t be ashamed to say that we’re in charge of the classroom, that the child is subordinate in authority to the adult, that the teacher is the expert, and that praise and blame are equal partners in the field of behaviour modification.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to believe in the power of someone’s dreams. Hold onto your dreams, and don’t stop chasing rainbows.
‘These figures are a damn disgrace!’
Your new Minister for Education.
I enjoyed Panorama tonight; I always do. There’s something so intuitively respectable about the BBC’s venerable investigative magazine that I would default to unqualified admiration even if it were to tell me that spaghetti grew on trees. This week: Troops To Teachers (TTT)- Michael Gove’s drive to inject a bit of military discipline back into classrooms by aggressively recruiting and retraining ex-military servicemen. It apes the Troops to Teachers program in the US, launched 18 years ago after the first Gulf War, and since then it’s seen over 15,000 men and women swap green berets for cardigans with leather patches (or whatever the symbolic equivalent is in America).
If you watched the program you would be forgiven for assuming the the program is an unqualified success; we were treated to the example of Lordswood Boys’ School in England, which entertains no less than 1 in 12 staff from military backgrounds, which shouldn’t really be a surprise seeing as how the smallish Birmingham comprehensive has an assistant head who used to be in the Infantry, an ex-Sergeant from the Territorials, and a former sergeant major acting as a shooting instructor. Quite. Still, variety is the spice of life, and one thing that schools have to be praised for is diversity of strategies, trying different things, and adapting tactics to meet the needs of the local community. Looking at the prospectus and the Ofsted report, it seems a bit of a success story. Students like Hakeem Nawas spoke proudly of how it had transformed his self-esteem and motivation to be involved in Cadet activities, and Neil Macintosh, the aforementioned Assistant Head proposed that ex-military were ‘more resilient…less down-hearted…and more robust.’ As Mandy Rice Davies, said, ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he.’
Actually I have no issue with this: in fact I admire many of the principles that inspire it. I particularly liked how the servicemen spoke about how they maintained order- they didn’t have to raise their voices, they said. The students agreed. ‘They just look at you,’ one said. I know what he means. Screaming your head off is usually a sign that you’ve blown your stack, and for most kids it’s better than telly. Speak silently, they say, and carry a big stick. I couldn’t agree more. Who do you respect more- the small dog with the big bark, or the silent dog with the claw hammer behind his back? Exactly.
|Troops to Hogwarts|
Then we were off to Huntingdon Middle School, in Virginia’s Newport News City (honestly- I wouldn’t make up a name like that because you wouldn’t believe it), where a clutch of ex-military had taken over their classes like Desert Storm. The story here was the same, it seemed- lines of biddable, disciplined and enthusiastic students queued up to enter classrooms, and we were presented with crocodiles of marching students who were noticeably not selling crack pipes to grandmothers or auditioning for The Wire. Glee, maybe.
Geoff Lloyd, the poster boy for this school’s TTT project spoke proudly about bringing ‘discipline into an undisciplined world,’ and frankly, I couldn’t agree more. His robust, direct attitude to being a responsible adult in a classroom full of students who need clear boundaries and someone they can rely on was more inspirational than a dozen Dead Poets’ Societies or Dangerous Minds. I would put him on my fictional Heroes of Education list, but unfortunately he’s a real person, so he’ll have to content himself with a notional award instead.
So far, so good. As I say, I actually applaud many of the aims of this program. I think that what many of the ex-servicemen said made perfect sense- courage, responsibility, discipline and carrying your own water. Amen to that, brother.
And then- with the inevitability of the Sun rising- came the research. Because that’s what we do whenever we want to justify something: we wheel out the academics who biddably endorse whatever is being flogged to us. And that’s when it got interesting for me. William Owings of the Old Dominion University sat in an agreeable, respectable setting and enthusiastically waved the flag for the TTT program, his eyes twinkling as he did so. He twinkled a lot. ‘Ex-military stay in the profession twice as long as non-servicemen,’ we were told. ‘Troops in the T2T program outscore all other teachers,’ it was said. Owings also provided my favourite quote of the show- T2T had provided a ‘stellar performance,’ he said. Twinkle, twinkle.
Now that didn’t strike me as the careful, cool, neutral perspective of the scientist, I thought. And as soon as someone starts to mention educational research, my spider sense starts to tingle, and frankly I start to sweat a bit. Because, as regulars to this blog will be painfully aware, I’m allergic to the way that some educational research is used to hustle strategies and big ideas that are composed, it is eventually seen, of equal parts moonshine and optimism. As a teacher of some years, I’ve been making a list of the Initiatives and Great Ideas that the hucksters of education try to flog us, and my hackles start to mambo whenever someone calls along and says, ‘Hey, you guys! I have a great new idea for turning schools around! I just need your credit card number and your uncritical commitment…’ I’m just funny like that.
So I did a bit of, rooting around on t’interweb. Just what IS the Old Dominion University, anyway? It sounds awfully grand. And it is, I am sure, a paragon of academic vigour, rigour and propriety, even if its mission statement does say that ‘Our philosophy is simple: Knowledge should be productive. Research-driven solutions that make sound business sense.’ Which isn’t really a philosophy, is it? More of an admission that if something is worth something, it has to be worth money. Ah, it brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it? .
As I say, I’m sure it has the noblest intentions. It also has an interesting link to the Troops to Teachers program, as its website says: ‘The state office for Virginia TTT is located on the ODU campus.’ That’s the state office. Of course, that doesn’t suggest that the Old Dominion University might be a less than partial witness to the efficiency of the TTT program. I’m just saying, that’s all. Isn’t that a marvellous coincidence, though?
So I did what few civilians have done before: I had a peek at a couple of the papers quoted on their website as showing terrific, supportive data that confirmed the TTT program as a winner, and the ones that William Owings was quoting so freely on Panorama. You can find two of them here and here. They are, as most social science papers are, a thrill a minute, and I heartily recommend you print them off and read them on the way to work tomorrow. Unless you drive. Or listen to Coldplay while you read them.
The 2005 study was, broadly speaking, a survey of Teachers who had gone through the program, and of their supervisors. It asked if they felt that they had been appropriately trained to approved standards. It also asked supervisors of these teachers if they felt they were as good as, or better than teachers of similar experience who hadn’t come through the program. The answer was strongly in favour in both cases. How many were surveyed? A fair few. Over 2000 teachers and their supervisors were sent surveys. That’s not a bad study by any standards. Except that the response rate was 65%. We don’t know why the other third didn’t reply. We don’t know what attempts were made to convert those no-shows. We don’t know on what basis the surveys were sent. We can probably assume that surveys weren’t sent, or at least answered, by teachers who had dropped out of the program.
And it’s details like that, that make this kind of research so hard to value meaningfully. Big numbers are good, but without transparency about who answered, what their motives were, and show inaccuracies were avoided, the purity and reliability of this kind of data is always going to be hard to measure, let alone accept. I’m certainly not impugning William Owings, or any of his co-writers, but these are substantial, significant impediments to the development of social scientific research credibility.
Another problem is that this paper relies on perceptions- ‘how well do you feel …’ questions. These questions fall short, IMO of the clinical precision and neutrality of the genuinely inquisitive, and stray into the territory of market research. When did you stop beating your wife? Who’s to say that the TTT candidates were actually trained properly? What’s to prevent the supervisors betraying their own inclinations, preferences and prejudices through their own opinions. Nothing. Nothing at all. This isn’t the same as measuring the temperature at which mercury boils- it’s like interviewing a series of marathon runners at the finishing line and asking if they feel out of breath.
The paper does acknowledge some of this. Actually, it seems to acknowledge all of this:
‘the study does not provide evidence of T3’s self-reported or actual teaching behaviours. Neither does it provide empirical observations of school administrators watching T3s’ actual teaching behaviours. Nor does it provide evidence of students’ learning gains as a result of working for a period of defined time with T3s as compared with other teachers of similar experience. Further study of the actual teaching practices from T3 self-report or assessment of their students’ measured achievement, although very complex and difficult studies to undertake, would provide important information about T3s’ quality as well as feedback about how to strengthen T3 preparation.’
In other words, we know it’s all just opinion and self analysis. But we don’t think it’s a problem. Of course, opinion and subjective experience have a place in analysis; but it’s not the same place as objective, viewer-independent data. It doesn’t prove anything more than the people who responded felt the way they felt. It’s not corroboration that these teachers are better: it is what it is.
The other paper I looked at, from 2010 (and also by our hero from Panorama), focused on TTT candidates who went on to become Principals. This time it was 107 subjects; ah, boo, much smaller. Their supervisors (I didn’t even know Heads had supervisors) overwhelmingly (90% plus) said that they thought such principals were better on a variety of scales than similar, non TTT Principals. Yes, you may also find it unsurprising that supervisors, who I assume are involved in the selection and support of these principals, overwhelmingly thought that they were doing a jolly good job, and hadn’t they made excellent decisions hiring them? Again, we don’t know the conversion rate, the response rate etc.. I’m sure it was fabulous, given that 107 is a very small number. Still, the data comes out rather well, doesn’t it?
So is there nothing concrete at all to support the view that TTT candidates have a, if you will, tactical advantage over their civilian counterparts? Not a bit of it. Here it is:
‘In a 2008 Florida study comparing measured academic achievement of elementary,
middle, and high school students taught by TTTs, results indicate that compared to all
teachers, students served by Troops teachers performed about equally well in Reading and
achieved a small but statistically significant advantage in Mathematics. In comparisons
where each Troop teacher was individually matched to another teacher, teaching the same
subject in the same school, with approximately the same amount of teaching experience,
students served by Troops teachers achieved substantially and statistically significantly
higher in both Reading and Mathematics (Nunnery, et.al, 2008; Nunnery, et. al., 2009).’
Call me a gutless limey cynic, but ‘equally well in Reading’ and ‘a small but statistically significant advantage’ in Maths doesn’t exactly strike me as cause to start popping the champagne for the cause yet. Incidentally, the Nunnery paper mentioned above by Owings is co-written by…..yes, William Owings. And it wasn’t published in an academic journal, but, as the report says, ‘submitted to ‘Educational Administration Quarterly
October 2008′. I can submit a poem written on bog paper to the Sunday Times. Does that mean I can say it was printed? Have a look at the front page. It’s got a lovely ‘Troops to Teachers’ logo all over the front. I’m don’t have a Ph.D. in this exact subject, but I suspect that means they might have something to do with the report….
(I stopped reading it at that point, because I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I value every precious minute I possess.)
In fact, so do the previous two papers I mentioned, both of which are prefaced by the sentence, ‘A Report Prepared for Mike Melo, Director, Virginia Office of Troops to Teachers,’ and ‘Report to Dr. William McAleer, Executive Director, Troops to Teachers, Pensacola, Florida.’ So all of the reports mentioned were written for (can I presume commissioned?) the TTT itself. Hey, waitaminute…..
It’s not that I’m against the idea of ex-military training for schools: good luck to ’em, I say. And I think that there might be something in the idea that men and women who have experience with leadership, developing self-discipline and oiling rifles might have something useful to teach children (sniping, for instance). But it doesn’t do anyone any good to use research like this that seeks to support proposals with empirical claims that can at the very least be contested as meaningful or verifiable in any real sense. Michael Gove needs to look elsewhere for better arguments, and maybe we might start to take research based policy more seriously.