The Necessary

One of the most uncomfortable truths about society is that it needs a necessary proportion of people to fail. It is a condition when we subsume a capitalist ideology. When competition is the ethos of survival, those who thrive are at the expense of those who don’t. Fortunately for most, because of the size of the population, the middle ground, where people are able to comfortably reside, is vast. It is whilst in this middle ground or class that the curse of knowledge can be rife, embodied and entrenched through comfortableness and security. It is the place where lofty assertions are made about morality, what it takes to be successful, and ironically, equality.

Education, whilst claiming to be, is NOT immune to this axiom of society. Whilst the overwhelming majority of educators involved in education want to believe it isn’t true, that their endeavors will eventually result in the success of ALL their students, the reality is unforgiving. The reason is due to the way success is measured.

Summative testing is essential to fairly assess from a domain of knowledge. However, designing summative tests that are reliably consistent from year to year is not easy to do, and to compensate for possible errors in design, examination boards moderate the results: if more than the average number of students have done overly well in the exams, it could be that the exams were easier than last year, and so the grade boundaries are raised. Conversely, if more than the average number of students don’t do well on the exam the grade boundaries are lowered, to compensate for the possibility that the exam was designed poorly. The key word is average. The average is ascertained from a very large sample of students over many years. A norm is established, and all results are referenced to it. When there is deviation from this norm, statistically it is assumed that there must be an error in the design of the assessment.

The issues with this are several: if teachers work harder to ensure that more of their students improve, it won’t be reflected in grades, as the grade boundaries will rise. If teachers share resources to assist others achieve, the grade boundaries will rise. When teachers learn from books how to improve practice, grade boundaries will rise. But perhaps the most pernicious reality of the norm referenced system, is that effectively your success in your students passing is at the expense of another colleague having students fail.

So when teachers quite rightly effuse with successful results, and by God I’ve done that, it’s important we demonstrate humility with the knowledge that it couldn’t have been possible without students who:

  • couldn’t access the curriculum
  • didn’t revise
  • had information processing difficulties
  • were badly taught
  • were excluded from school
  • had poor attendance
  • panicked in exams
  • have dyslexia
  • have little cultural capital
  • weren’t flagged to receive exam access arrangements
  • disengaged during KS3
  • had emotional issues that obfuscated attention to academic content
  • have low IQ

The illusion that education is equitable is considerably evident when we discuss vocation with our students. How many of us suggest students should aspire to be cleaners, rubbish-truck drivers, or work in low paid jobs? Yet, by statistical definition, some of our students are destined to do them – and society needs them. No matter how much we try to inspire with high expectations, it simply isn’t possible that everyone wins. There is no middle class without a lower class.

This has implications for the way schools communicate their successes. The recent euphoric correlation made between academic success and zero tolerance needs further context: excluding students facilitates the conditions for a cohort of below average students, somewhere else, someone else’s problem. I’m not suggesting that this is the motivation for the exclusions; understanding of the ideology is discussed here, but it is most certainly a by-product. The same can be said of any selective school – if you weed out the cohort destined to fail, those who remain will always be statistically better off. So I ask you, is that something to sing and dance about?

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more discussions about education.

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