Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Roots of academic failure

Commenting here  today, somebody identified what they saw as two root causes of academic underachievement. These were, supposedly, bad schools and poverty;

Let's not forget the root causes of this problem: the poverty and poor education of the parents of the children Simon is talking about. They, too, were once children, and were probably in school ~10-30 years ago. The school system was little short of a disaster for them.

I want to look a little at these ideas today. 

The two   explanations above  are commonly advanced in this country for the low educational attainment of many children. Often, the preferred of the two explanations  is based  more upon  an individual's political allegiance than on any rational examination of the available  evidence. On the one hand are those who tend to assume that ill educated and badly behaved  pupils are a product of useless schools staffed by ineffective teachers with outdated, child-centred educational theories.  It was this perception of course which led to the introduction of the National Curriculum. The only way to raise standards is to tell the schools precisely what to teach and then to keep a sharp eye on them to make sure that they are actually doing it! At the same time we should use schools to inculcate children and young people with a sense of discipline and teach them good values. Those at the other end of the political spectrum often look towards society itself for the cause of academic failure. For them, poverty and racism are at least as important factors in determining the child's academic achievements as  are teaching methods. Tackling social inequality and eradicating prejudice will help to break the middle class stranglehold on good schools and universities, thus allowing working class children to flourish. 

     These two notions are not  mutually exclusive. Those from both left and right are generally agreed that good teaching produces better achievement in pupils than poor teaching and that there is an association between poverty, as measured for example  by the number of children entitled to free schools meals, and academic results. The problem is to establish a causal link between these associated factors and to avoid falling into the error of arguing  post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Perhaps it is worthwhile at this point to say a few words about this well known logical fallacy, of which we shall be seeing a good deal.

  Post hoc, ergo propter hoc,  which means literally,  'After this, therefore because of this',  entails positing an erroneous cause and effect relationship between two events. Perhaps a man walks under a ladder and is subsequently struck by lightning. Here, there was of course no connection at all between the two events. A superstitious person though, might imagine that the misfortune had actually been caused by walking under the ladder. Usually, the case is a little more complicated than this. There may be a definite association between two events, although it is not at all clear if  one caused the other or whether both were the consequence of a third event. Consider the discovery a few years ago that teetotallers are at increased risk of death from heart disease. Could this mean that total abstention from alcohol can cause heart attacks? Or could there be another fact or at work? In fact, many total abstainers have given up drinking because they have been diagnosed with heart problems. Rather than the teetotalism causing the heart disease, it was the heart disease causing the teetotalism!

     Let's look at another case, this time concerning education. It is perfectly true that the children of parents who have a very low income tend to do  worse at school than those whose parents are affluent professionals. Is the poor performance at school caused by the low income of the parents? It has long been observed that children whose parents are from certain parts of the world such as the far East are more likely to do well, despite the low income, than those whose parents are white  and English. Could it be that being  Chinese  confers some educational benefit upon a child? Might the inheritance from one's parents of an epicanthic eye fold and sallow skin go hand in hand with increased intelligence which enables these children to overcome the economic disadvantage of their home background? Probably not, as we shall later see. It is enough for now to realise that when looking at the reasons for a child's failure to take full advantage of the education he receives, we shall have to be very careful about jumping to this conclusion or that and be particularly alert  to the possibility of post hoc, propter hoc. 

     Before we go any further, it might  be helpful to conduct a couple of simple thought experiments, both of which will start us thinking about the true causes and nature of academic failure. Let us begin by looking at the idea that good schools and good teaching produces good pupils who achieve well academically. We shall take two nearby schools; one a so-called 'bog standard' comprehensive and the other a high performing faith school. This latter is the sort of school where eager parents find it worth their while attending church for a few years in order to ensure that their child is eligible for a place. The pupils here  do brilliantly at their GCSEs, while at the run down Comprehensive down the road, a large proportion leave with no GCSEs at all, let alone the five 'good' GCSEs which represent the current benchmark of a decent education in this country.

     We shall start by taking it for granted that the good school with the good teachers is directly responsible for the fantastically good  GCSEs which the pupils are getting. We shall also assume that the poor results at the other school are caused by poor teaching. I know, let's swap the pupils round and see what happens! In other words, we shall take all the current pupils at the faith school and transfer them to the 'bog standard' comprehensive. The kids at the comprehensive will all be sent instead to the faith school. This is in effect, what is being done in areas where attempts are being made to prevent good schools becoming the exclusive preserve of pushy, middle class families. Will it work? Will the underachieving pupils newly registered at the good school now take advantage of the good teaching and do well at their GCSEs? Will the children who were formerly at the faith school suffer terribly from the poor quality teaching to which they are now being subjected?

     In fact, what will probably happen is that within a few years, the faith school will acquire a dreadful reputation as a 'sink' school and the middle classes will be clamouring to get their children into the formerly poorly performing comprehensive! The fact is that at schools where the pupils muck about a lot and don't want  either to behave properly or learn anything, there tends to be a very high turnover of staff. Good staff avoid getting jobs there and the only teachers they can get are those with little experience. They don't stay long and the constant chopping and changing does little to enhance the quality of the education on offer there. In fact this combination of badly behaved pupils and ineffective teachers can prove absolutely lethal for an educational establishment! Rather than it being a case of poor staff causing the pupils to receive a poor education, it is really a case of poor pupils causing the school to acquire poor staff. The same process operates in  good schools, with the good behaviour and high aspirations of the pupils and their families attracting good staff who would rather work in a good school  These teachers stay put, thus providing continuity for the children, which is in itself good for academic achievement. In fact, rather than good teachers producing good pupils, it is more likely that it is good pupils who attract good teachers! 

     Perhaps then poverty is a clearer example of a factor which obviously causes or precipitates inferior educational outcomes?  Let us begin by assuming that this is indeed the case and that poverty actually causes poor results at school. We shall combat this by massively boosting the incomes of the families whose children attend the poorly performing school. Many of these families are on very low incomes and so every week, we shall take £500 in cash to each of these poor households and simply hand it to them. This will at once double, triple or even quadruple their disposable income. Now what will happen to these families as a consequence of this well meaning piece of benevolent intervention? Will they spend this money on fresh vegetables, books and educational resources? Will the diet of their children improve dramatically? Will they use some of this money to visit museums and opera houses in order to enrich the lives of their children? Are more of the children whose families are part of this programme going to be passing five GCSEs at A* - C? 

     Of course, nothing of the sort will happen. In many of the families, the money will be spent on cable television, new mobile telephones, computer games, alcohol, cigarettes and even more take away pizzas.  In fact, the result could well be a decline in educational attainment. More children will have cable television in their bedrooms to keep them awake half the night and their diet will become even more impoverished. They will be getting less sleep and consuming even fewer vitamins than before the increase in disposable income! Once again, our well meaning social engineering has failed wholly to achieve its object.

     We have arrived fairly swiftly at the problem of post hoc, propter hoc, upon which we touched briefly above. In short, the popular and widely accepted  proposition that 'good teaching causes good educational outcomes' is no more likely to be true than the opposite notion that 'good educational outcomes attract good teaching'. In fact, we may well discover that neither of these statements is true and that both are linked by other causes which we have yet to examine. Similarly, the idea so beloved of some politicians that, 'poverty causes poor education' is not a whit more likely to be true than the assertion that, 'poor education causes poverty'. There is a good deal more to all this than meets the eye and it is only by delving a little deeper into the matter that we shall be able to determine the root causes of failure, poverty and educational underachievement in this country.
     The twin notions of good teaching as the remedy to poor academic achievement and of poverty as a prime factor in low educational attainment are deeply entrenched in the popular mind. The introduction of the National Curriculum by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was an attempt to improve the education of the nation's children by forcing teachers to change their ways. Projects  today in which universities are encouraged to offer places to children from deprived backgrounds are predicated on the other main theme in this debate; that poor children are being held back by their poverty and that it is up to the state to give them a 'leg up' as it were. However, unless we are first careful to establish the precise relationship of poverty and the quality of teaching to successful educational outcome, we may well risk at best wasting our time and at worst actually exacerbating the situation.

     For instance, there is a growing feeling that well off parents are somehow managing to monopolise the best state schools by moving into the catchment areas or providing extra tuition for their children. This, it is supposed, deprives the less advantaged children of places at the school. A number of schemes have been tried to prevent this from happening. For example holding lotteries is considered by some to be a fairer and more equitable way of distributing places at sought after schools. Now if it is the good teaching at the school which is solely responsible for the good educational achievements of the pupils, then this is a good idea. It will enable some children from poorer backgrounds to take advantage of the better state schools. If on the other hand, as we considered earlier, the good teachers have actually been lured there because well behaved and industrious students are making this a good school in which to teach; then the result will be a catastrophe for all concerned. Bringing in random children from varying backgrounds could lower the general standard of behaviour at the school and change it from being a good school to a poor one!

     Similar considerations might apply to the method of improving education which is most favoured by some governments of both left and right; increased expenditure and more 'resources'. Spending ever larger amounts of  money on underperforming schools would have little effect  upon academic achievement if the cause of the problem was the pupils and not the state of the building or the amounts of electronic hardware which were to found in the classrooms. 



  1. Heavens, a whole post devoted to part of my comment!

    However, the problem to which I was referring was not, directly, low academic attainment, it was the one you raised in the post, namely the parents' attitude towards their children's education.

    Those parents often have low educational attainment themselves and be poor as a consequence, so things like books and education have a low priority. Poverty and poor education fuel each other in a vicious circle, but I agree that simply throwing money alone at the problem - for parents or schools - is not going to provide any immediate improvement, and may make things worse.

    I think the problems with schools are only partly to do with funding and are more related to incompetent interference by politicians on all sides over many decades.

    In addition, I think that high school teachers ought to be competent practitioners of their subjects, but that would require people with experience, and pay is a fundamental issue here.

    What's the answer for the children in your school and their parents? I don't know of any easy answers, but if you think that lying to them about rights to home education - and penalising other home educators - is part of the answer, then before you reach that stage, you should also be banning (or restricting access to) cigarettes and alcohol, and maybe turn-off TV and internet access at 9:00 p.m.

    Fancy giving that a try?

  2. "In fact, what will probably happen is that within a few years, the faith school will acquire a dreadful reputation as a 'sink' school and the middle classes will be clamouring to get their children into the formerly poorly performing comprehensive! The fact is that at schools where the pupils muck about a lot and don't want either to behave properly or learn anything, there tends to be a very high turnover of staff."

    There's a fascinating and sad story of how exactly this happened to what was once one of Washington DC's best public schools -- Dunbar High School.

    Established in the late 19th century, this was a "black" school that attracted the most motivated black students and the highest qualified teachers. For over eighty years, it had outstanding results in standardised tests. Then something happened which led to the school's rapid decline.

    The full article is available here,, but this is the relevant quote:

    "When Dunbar became a neighborhood school, the whole character of its student body changed radically-- and the character of its teaching staff changed very soon afterward. In the past, many Dunbar teachers had continued to teach for years after they were eligible for retirement because it was such a fulfilling experience. Now, as inadequately educated, inadequately motivated, and disruptive students flooded into the school, teachers began retiring, some as early as 55 years of age. Inside of a very few years, Dunbar became just another failing ghetto school, with all the problems that such schools have, all across the country. Eighty-five years of achievement simply vanished into thin air."

    It's a long article, but a fascinating read, and relevant to this discussion.