Altruism, not the market

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Education and Public Choice: a critical account of the invisible hand in education

By Nesta Devine

Greenwood Publishing pound;48.99

UK orders: 01865 888 181

The Birth of Head Start: pre-school education policies in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations

By Maris A Vinovskis

Chicago University Press pound;20.50 The Elusive Ideal

By Adam R Nelson

Chicago University Press pound;49

Supertest: how the international baccalaureate can strengthen our schools

By Jay Mathews and Ian Hill

Open Court pound;16

UK distributor: Hi Marketing. Email for info or to order

The drive to neo-liberalism is almost global; so is its extension, in the name of accountability, added value and parental choice, into education.

Few countries, however, adopted the creed as enthusiastically as did New Zealand, so a study from there has more than academic interest. But despite its title, Education and Public Choice is not an account of the effects of this policy. Indeed these are taken to be self-evident: among schools, a growing disparity between those for the rich and those for the poor; within schools, an instrumentalism that impoverishes learning and teaching; outside them, a "monumental failure to deliver the promised prosperity". It is the creed itself that is examined here: the assumption that the economics of individual self-interest is the only valid driver of political action.

Unsurprisingly, the creed is found to be wanting. The argument, based on close analysis of the theory itself and of its history, is that it is not the objective science that it claims to be, that economics is not the paradigm of knowledge, that society is not (and never was) merely individuals in the mass, and that Adam Smith (coiner of the concept of the market's invisible hand) was, on the sources of capital, simply wrong.

It is essentially an academic argument, a university text. Its conclusion, though, is inescapable: that educationists, especially teachers, need to examine the language of economics as applied to education with a suspicious and analytic care. Only then, Devine suggests, will we retrieve the sort of education that has room for altruism, kindness, differences and debate from the policy dustbin into which it has been thrown.

Educational policy-making is the theme of two new books from the United States, each of which is relevant to the UK. The Birth of Head Start analyses the politics behind one of the most influential projects of the 1960s.

It was the decade when the US discovered its hidden poverty and then squandered in Vietnam the wealth that might have resolved it, but as this book shows, the failure of Head Start was rooted in the need of successive administrations to be able to trumpet dramatic "solutions". Head Start was never piloted; it was never resolved whether it was aimed at educational or social deprivation; the professional consensus that an eight-week summer holiday programme was unlikely to have lasting effect on pre-school children was ignored. Cost-cutting - the appointment of thousands of untrained and sometimes barely literate pre-school "teachers" - didn't help. Evaluation was minimal, and unwelcome. Repeatedly, political considerations trumped educational expertise.

It has a familiar ring, as indeed - in the context of our own Sure Start - does the central argument. One lesson is that complex social problems have multiple and complex causes. It is not only scholars in comparative education who will find this book valuable.

The Elusive Ideal is an equally scholarly analysis of federal education policy, in this case in a single city (Boston) and over an extended period (1950-1985 and later). But Boston here stands proxy for the US's attempts during those years to address the pressing reality of its educational, social (and overwhelmingly ethnic) deprivation. The central thesis is that the city's taxpayers desperately needed federal grants, but because such grants were exclusively for equal opportunity or special needs programmes, they tended to prolong the very problems that they targeted. In their demand for measurable results, and for more testing, they probably worsened them; a classic example, by no means unknown in the UK, of unintended outcomes.

But there is concern in the US about its tick-box examination culture.

Supertest: how the international baccalaureate can strengthen our schools taps into this. It is an enthusiastic and persuasive account of the IB programme, interwoven with the story of its adoption in Mount Vernon high school on the outskirts of Washington DC: 40 per cent black or Hispanic students, 40 per cent poor. How many of these would flourish in the IB's unfamiliar and demanding programmes?

In fact almost all of them did. They did better on their standardised tests, and fewer dropped out of higher education. So far, only 2 per cent of American high schools have joined the IB programme, but they are prestigious, and their number is growing. On the basis of this account, you can understand why.

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