The rise, fall, and rise of a university commercial arm: truth and morality in academia Aotearoa and how it affects us
Newspapers have been well involved in this story but in such a punctuated manner they have not realised how their contributions could be linked to make a considerable story about school education today. The first punctuation in this story is in the Sunday Star Times (January 4, 2009) with Catherine Woulfe’s headlining front page billing of the launch of John Hattie’s book Visible Learning, his shameless commercial bidding to Anne Tolley and Tolley’s profligate response; then the Education Review carried Ivan Snook’s amusingly condescending critique of the book, and some teacher organisation magazines also carried critiques by Snook; then the astonishing outburst by Hattie against Tolley’s education policies, especially national standards, in a story by Andrew Laxon in the NZ Herald (August 1, 2009); then the item in the NZ Herald (August 19, 2009) by Jacqueline Smith about an Auckland professor, a close associate of Hattie, providing puffery for the item and, prior to going to Wellington to seek contracts for national standards, making a strong statement in support of national standards.
Meanwhile, as regular readers will know, at my level, networkonnet has carried a number of postings about Hattie (The Hattie series, Parts 1-3; ‘Hattie and the Official Information Act’; ‘Calculated epiphany now: the partial turning of John Hattie’; and ‘The real reason why national standards have been delayed’). These postings have analysed Hattie’s research philosophy and his book (which I called a ‘Visible Shipwreck’), and followed and predicted the manoeuvring of the commercial arm of the Education Department, University of Auckland.
If you say something about how our children are being harmed, and believe in it, and act accordingly, I will honour you; if you say something about how our children are being harmed, and don’t believe in it, and act accordingly, I will mock you; if you say something about how our children are being harmed, and believe in it, and don’t act accordingly, I will pity you.
Why have the voices of academics in the pursuit of truth and morality been stilled: where are their voices?
The NZ Herald (August 19, 2009), carried an item describing how a New Zealand professor spoke to a ‘packed conference in Perth, Australia, about the effect of professional development on children’s learning’.
Who is this professor who has wowed Australian audiences? The Herald item goes on to say the professor’s presentation indicated ‘intense interest’.
Starting with the information from the second paragraph of the Heralditem, let us begin what is sure to be the tantalising academic life story of a professor. If the professor is like most other professors, not all the characteristics of his or her career will be edifying but, to get a line on this professor, we have to keep it close to reality.
Together we’ll go through the available clues to speculate on the professor’s academic life; but the final task of identifying this obviously charismatic personality will be yours?
Herald item, second paragraph
Any preliminary suggestion as to the name of the professor? Wrong! It’s not him.
What does the expression ‘packed conference’ and ‘intense interest’ suggest?
Yes, well done, you’re on track: The item was likely to have been prompted by a press release and to be promotional in nature (as against informative). The picture we are supposed to form from the ‘packed conference’ and ‘intense interest’ references is a conference centre packed with excited attendees ready to hang on every word.
Given the promotional basis to the item, however, and the fact the professor does not tell us it was a keynote address which he or she would have done if it was, this suggests it was a minor-note address with the professor competing with two or three other speakers for a share of the audience. This makes the reference to the ‘packed conference’ somewhat ambiguous: the conference may well have been packed, but was our professor’s audience, and was it just a side lecture room? (Let us, though, be charitable and grant the professor a good number in the audience.)
No, I give you my absolute assurance, it is not him. He’s not the only professor who can be ambiguous.
If an academic is promoting himself or herself what might that suggest?
Well done again!
And the item being carried in an Auckland newspaper, what does that suggest?
You’re on a roll.
Yes – because the item is promotional, and is in an Auckland newspaper, it is likely the professor is from the University of Auckland, and if the professor is from the University of Auckland, the research is likely to be associated with the commercial arm of the Education Department of that university, and if it is associated with the commercial arm of that university it is likely to be research of the quantitative variety which means it will have been based on innovation which, in turn, means it will have been considerably boosted by the Hawthorne effect, and whole lot of other things that occur when a school has to produce results for the sake of reputation and employment; and the project people in schools having to produce results for the sake of their reputation and employment. (This is a matter of situation not intention – as referred to below; a kind of heightened Hawthorne tends to occur.) It is also likely the research projects are to do with literacy and numeracy.
Now let’s suppose that this is so, what else can be said?
Now I’m not talking about any school in particular – well done if it worked for you; I’m talking about the way the research has been set up; set up in such a way that it was doomed to success. The intimations of principals to people they want to confide in, including me, indicate that the reported significant advances in literacy (and numeracy) learning as a result of the research are, in reality, only very modest – especially when sustainability is taken into account. The ministry and researchers display an amazing ability, unconscious I know, to suspend disbelief, to become the naif, in accepting as accurate, the figures produced from schools as part of numeracy and literacy projects. The competitive nature of the context within which the research occurs is a kind of research entrapment, which results in many concerned becoming compromised, albeit by circumstance rather than intention. It is mostly a kind of heightened Hawthorne. (Marie Clay understood how it happens – see below.) This is a difficult situation to encompass briefly because there are some schools and some project people in schools who carry it off and produce good and sustainable results. The reasons why they carry it off in reading, and others don’t, can probably be accounted for in my discussion of reading in ‘The battle for primary school reading’, Part 1, a posting on this web site.
An important question is what are these advances being compared to? If the same amount of time money was put into a teacher-generated project, I suggest the advances would be far more significant and sustainable.
I want to indicate to our professor now: that after 41 years of going into classrooms and seeing the raw deal teacher-generated projects get as against the platinum-card academic ones; and the way academic projects come over the top of the teacher-generated ones and take away their oxygen – that in my darker moments, I liken academic projects, and I’m talking quantitative-based ones here, to Japanese scientific whaling, with schools as the whales.
The very strong probability that our professor is a quantitative researcher prompts me to elaborate on quantitative professors in general which may throw some light on a professor in particular. If the professor is like most quantitative professors, he or she will have ‘developed’ an idea early on, an idea on which to base his or her career (they only ever have one); an idea he or she will have picked up from schools, and, as such, will have been a good idea to begin with, an accessible idea – but to make it rebound to the credit of the professor, to give plenty of scope for the professor to develop his or her career, to provide the idea with a mystique to pack conferences, and to gain government contracts – the idea will have been made thunderously complex with much talk of data and evidence.
Now more to the point of our professor and his or her life: if the research is from the commercial arm of the University of Auckland it will at least have traces of being from the ‘school effectiveness and improvement’ category of research – the category of research characterised by results being shaped to appeal to conservative politicians, especially by downplaying socio-economic effects on learning and playing up the significance of the teacher and school.
What was that?
Yes, quite right – being from Auckland, asTTle will be at the centre of the idea.
Look – we are talking about academics as entrepreneurs here; and we are talking about research projects that are about numeracy as well as writing and reading. In other words, I suggest that asTTle is more than at the centre of the idea, it is the idea. Indeed, I’m suggesting the press release and promotion of our professor is a commercial manoeuvre to promote asTTle as part of national standards and the professional development that goes with it.
By the way, I explored the Australian press for reports of our professor’s address; yes, there was one, but a very matter-of-fact one, with no references to ‘packed conferences’ and ‘intense interest’. How remiss of them.
And why do you think that our professor is promoting asTTle, not him?
That is the intrigue. Remember that huge spat he had about a fortnight ago with the minister in the NZ Herald, saying that the present direction of national standards was going to set back education by 50 years? A posting on this web site suggested that the cause of this remarkable outburst from the minister’s former golden boy was that asTTle was falling out of favour a bit because of its interpretive manipulability and he got the pip and threw his toys out of the cot. Well the press release about our professor, I suggest, is a way of getting asTTle back on commercial track, and a few toys back in the cot.
A bit farfetched you think. Well, let’s see how the story develops.
Let me tell you something about how quantitative research works (which may or may not apply to our professor, only our professor, and those who have worked with him or her, will know.)
An idea promoted by a quantitative researcher has the happy knack of always succeeding when researched by that researcher – that is rule one; rule two is that it always succeeds famously, so famously, indeed, that it can be always be heralded as a breakthrough – and with a straight face (another skill of professors); rule three is that it never fails to advance children’s learning by at least nine months, though in recent times with market conditions for contracts becoming more competitive, research ideas have been spurred to new heights, with advances in children’s learning usually being stated as more than a year (average effect size at 1.20 is currently very popular), and even greater advances for previously poorly-performing children thrown in as a bonus (usually twice the expected improvement, with 2.20 being the popular average effect size). (This inflation in advancing children’s learning is celebrated in some quarters as the market at work – a kind of academic hand of God.) Rule four is a case of recurring serendipity – when rule one comes into play (the announcement of a research breakthrough), lo and behold, shortly thereafter is an announcement in the Education Gazette of a research contract for just the kind of breakthrough announced. And the serendipity continues because other universities also find themselves able to announce breakthroughs in the same curriculum area and of a similar magnitude, if not more so.
This spontaneous eruption of breakthroughs coinciding with government contracts of the same concern has prompted the comment that to a advance children’s learning rapidly and on a wide front, the Education Gazette should advertise a roster of government contracts for all curriculum areas over, say, three months. The result would be, in very short time, to move all children ahead by at least two years, if not more, and poorly performing children, even more so.
The one dampener to this idea is that if there are so many breakthroughs occurring in children’s learning in Aotearoa, why it is not going ahead in leaps and bounds? Explanation is at hand. You will be pleased to know that that this question at this very moment is the subject of rigorous and intense research. Contracts have been let to all universities to research the whys and wherefores of the breakdown of their breakthroughs. The quantitative researchers concerned can be relied on to display the kind of objectivity they are renowned for, an objectivity so special it has evolved its own description – quantitative objectivity; a kind of objectivity with many counter-intuitive qualities, all too profound to indicate here. But we can get a glimpse of it at work with the research into the breakdown of the breakthroughs. Early findings suggest that no fault, not a scintilla, can be attributed to the research involved; the fault, it seems, is ineffective school leadership and ingrained teacher conservatism. I can sense a Best Evidence Synthesis (BES) in the making: the researchers’ Task Force Green.
Rule five is that when duplicate research of the idea is undertaken by professors from the same university as the original researcher, the claims are always supported, if not more so; but when undertaken by other universities, advances in children’s learning are found to barely keep up with chronological age, if not less so. This dichotomy has on the odd occasion been attributed to spite, but there is general agreement in academia that this can be explained by professors from the same university possessing a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of the origins and purposes of the research idea.
In the Education Gazette, 23 February, 2009, I read an item about a ‘Reading Breakthrough’ in a project headed by Professor Stuart McNaughton of the University of Auckland (he is not the professor who spoke to the packed conference) which encompassed a fair number of low decile schools in Auckland and some schools on the West Coast. This item does not refer to our professor’s project, however, any research project from the Education Department of the University of Auckland ends up contributing to the commercial arm of that Department, so McNaughton and our professor are grist to this particular commercial mill. I decided to write something about the McNaughton breakthrough but, I’m afraid, I adopted a rather flippant tone (‘Networkonnet Education Gazette Korero’ 1, 13 March, 2009).
My report went as follows:
Research into teaching methods has led to significant increases into tiddlywinks’ performance at 36 decile 1 schools in South Auckland.
Professor Vince Vincent of the University of Seascape faculty of pedagogy led the project. The results were published in the latest edition of the scientific journal Tiddlywinks for Life.
The number of Year 4 to 8 students performing at national average or above average levels increased from 40 to 70 per cent, and the average student made about one year’s extra gain in tiddlywinks over the course of the three-year experimental study.
Professor Vincent says the evidence marks a breakthrough in how to improve tiddlywinks’ results systematically across a large number of schools.
The Ministry of Education and Sustainability Limited and Hawthorne Unlimited contributed to the research.
Next week: Stunning results from tiddlywinks’ research, MasseyUniversity (Palmerston North); and Stunning tiddlywinks’ breakthrough from Massey University (Albany).
School professional development contracts
Preliminary notice: Two contracts for tiddlywinks’ work in schools will be available for 2009-2010. For further information contact, Ministry of Education, Wellington.
Let’s learn more about our professor by switching from clues in the Herald item to clues from the substance of his or her now famous address to the ‘packed conference.’
[To do this go to Part B.]