I did a brief interview with someone who was writing a story about crowdfunded academic writing, which appears to have been killed by the prospective publication. In the interview the journalist asked me how I would define my basic philosophy on education, which I said was deeply out of fashion with most education writing. What I came up with off the cuff was “Mechanism Agnostic Low Plasticity Educational Realism,” which is I guess as good a gloss as any. This is my alternative to the Official Dogma of Education.
The basic idea is that both the overwhelming empirical evidence and common sense tells us that different people have different levels of academic ability, that they sort themselves into various achievement bands early in life, that this sorting is at scale and in general remarkably persistent over time and across a wide variety of educational contexts, and that our pedagogical and policy efforts will be most constructive and fruitful if we recognize this reality. This is not a claim that people can’t learn, or that they can’t be taught in better or worse ways. It is a claim that the portion of the variability in outcomes in any given educational metrics that can be controlled by teachers or parents is dramatically lower than that which is commonly assumed.
I say low plasticity because the presumed degree to which any individual or group’s educational outcomes can be altered via schooling is usually assumed to be quite high – that is, the “no excuses” school of education philosophy, the “if you believe it you can achieve it” attitude that pervades our discourse, acts as though educational outcomes are highly plastic and subject to molding. And in contrast I suggest that the average level of plasticity in any given student’s outcomes is probably relatively low. Not zero, obviously – there are interventions that work better or worse, and we should work to maximize every student’s performance within ethical reason. And the degree of plasticity is probably variable as well; a child with a severe cognitive disability probably has more severe constraints on their outcomes than one without, just as a student who enjoys the benefits of extreme socioeconomic privilege and activist parents probably has a higher floor than the average. But across the system we should expect much less plasticity in outcomes than is commonly assumed.
I say mechanism agnostic because I am not entirely confident that we know why different people have consistently better academic outcomes than others, but we still know with great confidence that they do. Obviously, a lot of evidence suggests that differences in individual academic performance is genetic in its origin. The degree and consistency of that genetic influence will need to continue to be investigated. But the details of how educational outcomes are shaped, while of immense importance, don’t change the remarkably consistent finding that different people have different levels of academic ability and that these tend not to change much over the course of life. In a policy context that has spawned efforts like No Child Left Behind, which assumes universal ability to hit arbitrary performance benchmarks, this is an essential insight.
The implied policy and philosophical changes for such a viewpoint are open to good-faith debate. As I have written in this space before, I think that recognizing that not all students have the same level of academic ability should agitate towards a) expanding the definition of what it means to be a good student and human being, b) not attempting to push students towards a particular idealized vision of achievement such as the mania for “every student should be prepared to code in Silicon Valley,” and c) a socialist economic system. Some people take this descriptive case and imagine that it implies a just-deserts, free market style of capitalism where differences in ability should be allowed to dictate differences in material wealth and security. I think it implies the opposite – a world of “natural,” unchosen inequalities in ability is a world with far more pressing need to achieve social and economic equality through communal action, as that which is uncontrolled by individuals cannot be morally used to justify their basic material conditions.
Before we get to those prescriptive conclusions, though, we need to get to the empirical observation – that the existence of a broad distribution of people into various tiers of academic ability, at certain predictable intervals and percentages, is not some error caused by the failure of modern schooling, but an inevitable facet of the nature of a world of variability. Until and unless we can have a frank discussion of the existence of persistent differences in academic ability within any identifiable subgroup of students, we can’t have real progress in our education policy.