March 6, 2013

I Wait for the Water

News out this week about efforts by Rupert Murdoch and the Gates Foundation (inevitable efforts, given the players) to go down the road of turning all K-12 student data into a funland for entrepreneurs prompted me to post my own view, from inside:

The research director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) co-authored a report in January in which he explained how he and his colleagues had miscalculated the impacts of fiscal multipliers (“the short-term effects of government spending cuts or tax hikes on economic activity”) within the various economies which were bound by the austerity policies the IMF promoted during the recent global economic downturn. The IMF had used “empirical studies from 27 economies the 1930’s” (another period when interest rates were near zero) to establish a baseline for what fiscal multipliers should have been in 2010, and forecasted a model that under “rational conditions” would have a “coefficient on the fiscal consolidation” that was quite low – or in other words, held an expectation that the fiscal multipliers for these economies would be very small and would remain fairly static over time. This was coupled with an apparently willful blindness to another context, wherein “lower output and lower income, together with a poorly functioning financial system, imply that consumption may have depended more on current than future income, and that investment may have depended more on current than on future profits, with both effects leading to larger multipliers.” Or in other words: Greece.

The IMF then realized, after prioritizing debt-repayment and austerity policies that had devastating impacts on these economies, that “a number of empirical studies have found that fiscal multipliers are likely to be larger when there is a great deal of slack in the economy…[and] fiscal multipliers associated with government spending can fluctuate from being near zero in normal times to about 2.5 during recessions.” A Washington Post story from January 3rd provided some perspective on the IMF’s policies and on this recent report by stating that: “The Fund has been accused of intentionally underestimating the effects of austerity in Greece to make its programs palatable, at least on paper” and noted that the projected fiscal multiplier number used for policy formation was “a background assumption rather than a variable that needed to be fine-tuned based on national circumstances or peculiarities.” The IMF essentially apologized in their report for the consequences of policy decisions that were not bounded by reality, or context; these decisions were not, in the end, trustworthy.

Along these same lines, the Economic Policy Institute, in collaboration with Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, published a report in January that claims comparisons of international tests of students do not provide trustworthy premises on which to base currently popular U.S. school reform policies, in part because of a very basic item: “social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared…If U.S. adolescents had a social class distribution that was similar to the distribution in countries to which the United States is frequently compared, average reading scores in the Unites States would be higher than average reading scores in the similar post-industrial countries we examined (France, Germany and the United Kingdom).” The authors do not simply use income, race, ethnicity, or parental education level to define social class groups. Instead, the authors use household literacy, specified by the number of books in a child’s home, which they find “plausibly relevant to student academic performance” within an accepted social science research frame, and they posit that “children in different countries have similar social-class backgrounds if their homes have similar number of books.” By making this choice, the authors implicitly encourage policy makers to broaden their definitions of social and class distinctions, and to be aware that “countries’ social class compositions change over time” so that “comparisons of test score trends over time by social class group provide more useful information…than comparisons of total average test scores at one point in time.” And they encourage policymakers to think about a range of contexts, including time, when forming policy, the hoped-for result being policy based on more trustworthy assumptions about data.

Policymakers do often choose to sidestep contexts, or base decisions on a specific or static state without any expectation of or comprehension of change, when forming policies that they nonetheless believe are rational and therefore ethical and beneficial. Policymakers also tend to be removed (or by intention keep themselves removed) from the problematic environment they are making policy about. The two examples cited above speak to this; they are also examples of how such thinking can be challenged in a reasoned manner. And these examples also connect to the current accountability era in school reform in a particular way, as they forefront both how persuasion can be and is used to make policy arguments that seem rational and trustworthy but are not, and how this might be countered. For how one counters these reforms – the calls for accountability in education as measured through tests, “objective” evidence-based policies, “objective” data-driven decisions, the primacy of standardized testing, the commodification of teaching and learning, for the general overhaul of public education to align more closely with business priorities – matters, not simply because time and data have shown these reforms to be more about exercising power than enhancing student experience or skills, but because these policies and tenets were from the outset based on hypocritical conceits. And hypocrisy, as Hannah Arendt once noted, “cannot be met with what is recognized as reasonable behavior. Words can be relied upon only so long as one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal. It is the semblance of rationality, rather than the interests behind it, that provokes rage. To respond with reason when reason is used as a trap is not ‘rational’.”

So perhaps these policies need simply to be challenged outright, to be met with the emotion suitable to them, and their “rationality” denied. 
Because if one were to reverse-engineer the IMF policy formation process, one could clearly say (and the report’s authors do say) that the policy makers engaged in that process were entirely capable of imagining varying contexts, pressures, and “peculiarities” in national economic systems had they chosen to, and were capable of incorporating these into the thinking that fueled their policies, but for political or other reasons, they chose not to do so. One can also look at contemporary school reform policies that, at their inception, incorporated the fearful predictions of 1983's fear-inducing screed A Nation at Risk and ideas on education from Ross Perot, and say that policy makers engaged in that process were entirely capable of envisioning American public education as not being a threat to global competitiveness and capable of envisioning its “chaos” as not needing to be managed like an enterprise IT system, but for political or other reasons, they decided not to. 
This may seem an extreme perspective, but it is a position that is actually given weight by much of the thorough, methodical, and decidedly not extreme analysis of school reform initiatives provided by educational researchers in the past decade. Much of this research addresses the very things that school reformers see as problematic about public  education (such as agency and control in educational practice and management, choice in educational environments, accountability in educational processes, access to educational resources, and equity in education) and finds that while these are issues that directly connect with and impact both teaching and learning, designing profit-promoting reforms that commoditize the intellectual capital around pedagogy has not been shown to directly impact either teaching or learning in a positive manner.