14 November 2006

I don't know

Every year, 35,000 children in England - 6% of all 11-year-olds - leave primary school without basic literacy skills. This casts a shadow over their own future and has huge costs for society as a whole. Rapid Response, 'The Guardian', UK, 7 November
[Christopher Monckton] has a degree in classics and a diploma in journalism and, as far as I can tell, no further qualifications. This is a dazzling debunking of climate change science. It is also wildly wrong, George Monbiot, 'The Guardian', 14 November

I know even less about education than I do about climate change. But I know that when policy is being made in both areas outcomes are almost irrelevant to the debate. Allegiances are bought and sold, insults are traded, activists use their support as a quid pro quo for more power and deep down, at the very heart, is either personal ambition or - which is very much the same thing - the drive to validate an ideological position. The losers are those of us with no input into policymaking; that is, ordinary members of the public and our children. While the politicians and think-tanks debate local control of schools, literacy standards suffer. While they debate greenhouse gas emissions, the global climate may or may not be changing catastrophically and irreversibly.

Policies and ideologies; ambitions and systems; all should be subordinated to targeted outcomes. It doesn't matter who controls schools, as long as basic educational outcomes are achieved. And it doesn't matter what happens to greenhouse gas emissions, as long as the climate is stabilised. Some sort of humility is called for: the ability of policymakers to say 'I know what I want, but I don't know how to get there. Let the private sector decide: that's what it does best.'


Anonymous said...

Dear Sir

I would agree with your position on educational policy makers. Those that make the policies who live in "elsewhereness" do truly gravitate in that place, somewhere else! (bear in mind that this is a sweeping generalisation). At the chalk face of education I have observed the pressure policies and ideological theories put on teachers, in turn reducing the quality of the educational praxis which is delivered in classrooms, in turn, affecting the quality of the education of the children in their classes. Is this the intention of devising policy? To heap pressure on people (mostly women) who already feel put upon? To make the working conditions so unrealistic in terms of expectations that the working lifespan of a teacher these days is about five years? Even worse, the teachers who are worth more than the $40, 000 NZD they are paid leave teaching altogether? With the reduction of quality, I fear, there will be more and more children who will leave school, not only illiterate, but also, disconnected from school and education overall.

With regard to targeted outcomes, I ask you whose outcomes are the target? Are you talking about society on the whole, in that we are all working for the “greater public good” or are you talking about community based outcomes? On that note, I am OVER the fact that New Zealand advocates community involvement as an integral part of policy making and strategy devising. The people they choose from the community (Maori/Pacific or the "small" people’s voices) are not people I delegated to talk on MY behalf! These people are selected strategically by "hierarchy" who seeks only to fulfill its own purpose. These people are generally those that do not rock the boat, who are compliant and will help to reinforce the systems that are already in place. Do I have a problem with this? Hell YES! Because, the “outcome” is no longer a true appraisal of what the community or people want but in fact, a hidden version of what the institution wants. However, on the face, the institution can feasibly say, “Maori led policy”, “Pacific’s Nations were consulted”. How true and how accurate and how useful is this?

New Zealand’s education system needs an overhaul. Imagine, if the rest of the world offers education like we do here in New Zealand than what will our next generation look like?

Ronnie Horesh said...

Many thanks for your comment. The points you make are all well taken. I sympathise especially with your views on consultations with 'community leaders'. Unfortunately this sort of obeisance to existing institutions is rife in all policymaking areas. Institutions have their own objectives - primarily self-perpetuation - and these are not always those of the people they are supposed to represent. Indeed, very often the institutions and their supposed beneficiaries have mutually conflicting goals. As you imply, in our current policymaking environment, consultation with certain institutions, or the appearance of it, has become an end in itself; at the expense of meaningful outcomes for real people.

So we come to your question 'whose outcomes'? I do not think that all the goals of an educational system, or rather parents and children, can be quantified and targeted. That said, there are important goals that can be so quantified, and I should think that universal literacy is one of them. Now in the transition to an outcome-based regime, I envisage that we'd start with such basic, quantifiable goals. In essence these would be 'lowest common denominator' goals; those desired by the vast majority of adults. They could be phrased negatively, recognising that government cannot do everything, but at least can strive for and ensure, in this case, universal literacy, or other minimal societal goals, such as avoidance of catastrophic social and environmental collapse. Similarly in health, poverty-eradication, crime and housing: at first certain widely-agreed, minimal goals would be explicitly targeted. In the transition phase, government could continue with its other activities, but the targeting of these basic specific outcomes would at least ensure a tightly-woven safety net, so that the co-existence of a massive public sector with , for instance, illiteracy in schoolchildren would be stamped out. It helps that, in general, it is easier to quantify minimal goals in ways that are strongly correlated with what society (probably) wants to achieve. For instance: literacy and numeracy of schoolchildren are relatively easily quantified; so too are such basic health indicators as infant mortality, longevity etc. At higher levels of educational attainment or health status, the numbers become less reliable and people might prefer the combination of less government involvement, lower tax rates, and more money to spend on their own goals. Depending always on what society wants, you could imagine a decline in public spending on tertiary education, transport infrastructure or corporate welfare schemes, once the public becomes actively involved in choosing societal goals.

During this transition to an outcome-based poliycmaking regime, ordinary people would become more engaged in the policymaking process. I say this with confidence, because expressing policies in terms of outcomes that are meaningful to real people (as against institutions) is inherently more interesting to members of the public. Under the current system, policy goals, assuming they are made explicit at all, are expressed in terms of institutional structures, activities, or allocations of funds - anything except outcomes in fact. The result is not only inefficiency but widespread disengagment of ordinary people from politics. But if policy were subordinated to outcomes, then people would understand and take an interest in the goals of government policy. Expectations of what government can achieve with public funds would be constantly refined. Under a Social Policy Bond regime, the market values of the bonds would also generate extremely valuable information as to the costs of government policies. I envisage, that at the end of a transition to a Social Policy Bond regime, a well-educated - universally-literate and numerate! - population would be consulted regularly about what government goals should be. They would be presented with various options and trade-offs. In contrast to what seems to be happening now, this would not only would narrow the gap between government and the people it is supposed to represent; it would make for a far more efficient and responsive public sector.