It’s the Curriculum, Stupid: why the Executive Office IliAD Report was a Waste of Public Money
“If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” Charles Darwin
This essay concerns the Investigating Links in Achievement and Deprivation (ILiAD) Report, volume three of which was placed in the public domain on September 5th 2017 by the Northern Ireland Executive Office (formerly OFMDFM). The research was commissioned from Queen’s University Belfast with Professor Ruth Leitch as principal investigator in 2012. In the next section, I will argue that the focus on the role academic selection plays in explaining the attainment gap between rich and poor is unjustified. I will identify the real culprit, namely, the curriculum and demonstrate that my analysis is confirmed by the international literature. Furthermore, given the Curriculum Vitae of the Queen’s University academics, why was £0.3 million awarded to individuals without detailed knowledge of the literature on curriculum, and little or no direct experience of the practicalities of the classroom.
Where are the missing Volume 1 & Volume 2 including the literature review?
In the final section, I demonstrate that my claim that the culprit is the curriculum (a Revised curriculum foisted on every child in Northern Ireland many years ago), rather than academic selection, is confirmed by the international literature. Given the sheer scale and quality of this international research – a highly visible century-long literature review and the most sophisticated and extensive experiment in the history of education – how could the Queen’s academics, even with their limited expertise, not have known about the consequences of skills-based curricula like the Northern Ireland Revised curriculum for the life chances of the poor? Why were those who funded the ILiAD project not aware that the solution, for which they paid £0.3 million from the public purse, already existed?
When is a School of Education not a School of Education?
The BBC’s presentation (on both radio and television) of volume three of the ILiAD Report gave the clear impression that academic selection was a culprit, if not the culprit, in the attainment gap which separates rich and poor schoolchildren in Northern Ireland. The ILiAD report (a product of The Queen’s University of Belfast’s “School of Education”) has always been surrounded by controversy both in respect of its eye-watering cost to the public purse, and the fact that it has been embargoed by the Executive Office for so long.
Given this background, it is intriguing that no one at the BBC thought to question the motives of the civil servant(s) who triggered the publication of ILiAD now. Moreover, William Crawley, host of the BBC Radio Ulster Talkback programme afforded Tony Gallagher, professor at the School of Education, the opportunity to interpret the ILiAD findings pretty-much unopposed. William Crawley failed to raise with Professor Gallagher how the ILiAD report could be construed as a School of Education report when none of the Queens authors has a background in education, let alone experience in the classroom.
The authors comprised two psychologists, one anthropologist, one “built environment” academic, one sociologist, and a researcher working in conflict resolution/transformation. It is interesting to note, in passing, that of the many professors of education employed by the School of Education, none have experience of the post-primary classroom. William Crawley’s claim on a previous Talkback programme that Tony Gallagher had expertise in three of the fundamental facets of education is bound to puzzle those who are aware that the professor has never even been employed by a school.
But here is where the BBC, professor Gallagher and the authors of the ILiAD report are most at fault. The conclusions of the ILiAD report, and the central message of the BBC’s coverage, is undermined by this simplest of counterexamples: Scotland has a similar attainment gap (see Economist 27.08.2016) to Northern Ireland, but that gap cannot be accounted for by academic selection because Scotland doesn’t have grammar schools. Moreover, this simple counterexample points the way to the real source of the attainment gap – something Scotland and Northern Ireland have in common – a progressivist curriculum. The Economist study attributes Scotland’s difficulties not to selection but to its progressivist curriculum.
We have now arrived at an explanation of the attainment gap which accords with all the extant high quality international research but is entirely at odds with the reasoning set out in ILiAD: Northern Ireland and Scotland share a common problem in that policy-makers (supported by “educationalists”) in both countries have adopted models of curriculum known to be damaging to the life chances of the poor. The true culprits are not the grammar schools but former CCEA leaders Gavin Boyd and Carmel Gallagher who developed a progressivist “Revised” curriculum which required schools to adopt incoherent notions such as “learning to learn,” Assessment for Learning and so-called thinking skills.
It’s the curriculum, stupid
OFMDFM (now The Executive Office) made a profound mistake when it supported the ILiAD approach to the problem of the achievement gap between rich and poor. OFMDFM funded ILiAD to investigate a question that had already been answered in what has been described as the largest educational experiment ever conducted: Project Follow Through.
It is important for the reader to appreciate how Project Follow Through dwarfs the ILiAD project both in scope and ambition. The generalizability of Project Follow Through’s findings is far beyond anything ILiAD could offer. Project Follow Through focused on the classroom and sought to identify the teaching method that would raise the academic standards of the poor to middle class levels. The most successful method? Traditional teaching (so-called “direct instruction” (DI)) stood head and shoulders above all other teaching techniques.
With a price tag of a fraction of a billion dollars (a lot of money in the 1960/70s), Ian Ayres summarises Project Follow Through as follows: “Concerned that ‘poor children tend to do poorly in school,’ the USA’s Office of Education and the Office of Economic Opportunity sought to determine what types of education models could best break this cycle of failure. The result was Project Follow Through, an ambitious effort that studied 79,000 children in 180 low-income communities for 20 years.”
Traditional teaching methods (DI) outperformed all its rivals in getting disadvantaged children to perform at middle class standards. Richard Nadler writes: “When the testing was over, students in DI classrooms had been placed first in reading, first in math, first in spelling, and first in language. No other model came close.” Independent evaluations were subsequently carried out by the American Federation of Teachers and by the American Institutes for Research, with the same conclusions. The message for Northern Ireland is simple: If one wants to address the ill-effects of poverty, scrap the Revised Curriculum.
Curriculum models categorised as “learning-to-learn” performed very poorly in Project Follow Through. Given that Northern Ireland’s Revised Curriculum has ‘learning-to-learn’ principles at its core, the explanation for the underachievement of disadvantaged children (Catholic, Protestant, whatever) isn’t hard to find. The missing link between poverty and underachievement could have been identified without giving a penny of public money to “educationalists” at Queens. Individuals like Gavin Boyd – who now commands one of the highest salaries in the public sector as head of the new Education Authority – have bequeathed to children who live in poverty a dysfunctional and damaging curriculum.
In her 1990 book The Academic Achievement Challenge, the distinguished Harvard academic Jean Chall conducted a detailed study of a century of research on the effective teaching of disadvantaged children, finding no evidence for the efficacy of methods which depart from traditional teacher-centred methods. On page 171 Chall writes: “Whenever the students were identified as coming from families of low socioeconomic status, they achieved at higher levels when they received a more formal, traditional education. Overall, while the traditional, teacher-centred approach produced higher achievement than the progressive, student-centred approach among all students, its effects were even stronger for those students who were less well prepared. The teacher-centred approach was also more effective for students with learning disabilities at all social levels. overall, the research showed that at-risk students at all social levels achieved better academically when given a more traditional education.”
On page 182, Chall draws this conclusion from a century of published evidence: “The major conclusion of my study in this book is that a traditional, teacher-centred approach to education generally results in higher academic achievement than a progressive student-centred approach. This is particularly so among students who are less well prepared for academic learning – poor children and those with learning difficulties at all social and economic levels.”