Evidence and conventional wisdom

by John Quiggin on May 5, 2019

I’ve been looking over some posts from the bright dawn days of blogging in the early 2000s. One thing that struck me is that some ideas I put forward as unconventional but evidence based, are now fairly widely accepted. In view of the widespread, and justified, concern about a post-truth era, this seems encouraging, and worth investigating. A few examples

  • In this post on equality of opportunity from 2003, I noted that “contrary to popular belief, there is less mobility between income classes in the United States than in European social democracies.” I was drawing on a 1999 book, The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism by Goodin, Headey Muffels and Dirven, which I’d reviewed a couple of years previously. In 2009, when I started work on Zombie Economics, I wrote about this again. However, I soon realised I was pushing at an open door. The decline of social mobility in the US had become part of the conventional wisdom.
  • In 2004, some of the first studies of charter schools were coming out, showing that, contrary to the widely-shared expectations of education reformers, they weren’t showing any clear gains in student performance. I wrote about this fairly cautiously, noting that studies of this kind often fail to find any effect. As it turned out, however, the findings were replicated, particularly in the case of for-profit schools. This piece in the Washington Post (which used to be associated in some way with the for-profit testing industry, IIRC) shows how much the tide has turned against charters, and even more against for-profits.
  • Here’s a post on minimum wages, drawing on the work of David Card and Alan Krueger (whose tragic death recently was a big loss to the economics profession). from the early 1990s. By then, the formerly orthodox view that minimum wages had big negative effects on employment was sufficiently out of favour to be revived in Slate (then famous, or notorious, for “contrarian” views that generally tended to support the establishment).
  • Finally, I wrote a couple of mildly snarky pieces about the “Reading Wars” between phonics and whole language. This was one of the relatively rare cases in which the emerging evidence supported the cultural right. It’s pretty hard nowadays to find unequivocal supporters of whole language.

Looking at these examples, there’s a gap of about 10 years between the time the evidence emerged (or at least, emerged prominently enough for me to take notice) and the time the conventional wisdom adjusted. That doesn’t seem too bad. As the great replication crisis has shown, it’s unwise to take too much notice of an individual study on any social science topic.

Unsurprisingly, most of the examples above are cases where the emerging evidence was consistent with my broad political principles (I was never engaged in the Reading Wars, though I mostly lined up against the phonics advocates on other issues). I’d say that’s because most of the evidence we’ve had in the past twenty-five years or so has gone against the beliefs of the political right, who have had to retreat from the triumphalism of the early 1990s. But it’s obviously possible that there is confirmation bias at work. I’d be interested to see suggested examples of evidence shifting the conventional wisdom to the right in this period.

{ 41 comments }

1

Tim Worstall 05.05.19 at 10:50 am

“I’d be interested to see suggested examples of evidence shifting the conventional wisdom to the right in this period.”

It wasn’t all that long ago that only the overthrow of global capitalism could possibly be a solution to poverty. There must be a massive transfer of resources from rich countries to poor, a planned world order.

https://ourworldindata.org/extreme-poverty

Didn’t seem to work out that way.

2

harry b 05.05.19 at 12:21 pm

I never understood the reading wars. I know that evidence matters in all the other debates, too, but I can understand why people have priors for or against charters, or for-profits, or even global capitalism. But — how to teach children to read?? How could that be anything other than a technical issue? Its like having some politically driven bias about how to fix bicycle brakes.

On for-profit higher education the evidence is damning, but on charters it is much more equivocal. Remember, also, that there are 42 states with charter schools, each with different regulatory frameworks, and some with more than one regulatory framework (my state has at least two types of charter school).

3

LFC 05.05.19 at 12:37 pm

Tim Worstall @1:

It wasn’t all that long ago that only the overthrow of global capitalism could possibly be a solution to poverty. There must be a massive transfer of resources from rich countries to poor….

These are two different things. The New Int’l Economic Order (NIEO) proposed a transfer of resources, but nothing that even approached “the overthrow of global capitalism.” That might not be the impression one gets from a glance at the way the NIEO is discussed in, for example, Slobodian’s Globalists, but it nonetheless is the case.

4

Hidari 05.05.19 at 1:13 pm

I echo ‘2’.

How did phonics become a ‘right wing’ political opinion (I know it is, but why?)

And why did ‘whole word’ learning become a ‘left wing’ idea? Again, I simply don’t see the link.

Looking briefly into the debate (and believe me this is a debate I have no intention of becoming well informed about…after all why should I, when most of those commentating about it obviously aren’t well informed either) it seems that much of the debate is simply the two sides talking past each other with different interpretations of the phrase ‘learn to read’, with much bad faith, and wilful misreading of the evidence on both sides, but that’s just me.

@1 Dear me, where to start.

1: There has never been, at any point, in the intellectual history of the West, a majority of intellectuals calling for the ‘global overthrow of capitalism’ (more’s the pity). Generally speaking Keynesian marks the absolute ‘outer limits’ of ‘respectable’ opposition to capitalism.

2: The idea that there has been a huge decrease in absolute poverty, while not being absolutely false, is a claim that has to be hedged with many caveats and discussions of the exceptions. It also necessitates ignoring everything we know (and we do, in fact, know this) about the (forgive my English) ‘social construction of statistics’: i.e. the question of how were these statistics created (not discovered), by whom, why, and cui bono.

3: Even accepting the claim that neoliberal capitalism has led to a global reduction in poverty (which is, in fact, a highly questionable thesis) the question is: in the face of global warming, ‘the death of birth’, the ‘great extinction’ and so forth, is this decline sustainable? i.e. not just ‘will it continue’ but ‘will poverty increase or decrease in the late 21st century/early 22nd century, in the face of the climate apocalypse, assuming the worst predictions happen (which seems more and more likely the more the century goes on)?’

5

Ogden Wernstrom 05.05.19 at 1:46 pm

Can someone remind me of when the conventional wisdom was that the only possible solution to poverty was to overthrow global capitalism?

If poverty is largely an effect of income inequality, I think that the popular opinion – probably to become the conventional wisdom – about global capitalism is moving left, at least here in the USofA.

6

Rob Chametzky 05.05.19 at 2:00 pm

Not addressing the general topic of post, but rather harry b@2

Not telling Harry anything he doesn’t know, but for anyone else who might
be curious and not so well placed, his colleague at UW/M, Mark Seidenberg (psycholinguist/cognitive neuroscientist), has addressed how reading works
and the ‘reading wars’ in his 2017 book “Language at the speed of sight”

https://seidenbergreading.net/

An interview with Seidenberg on the topic is here:

https://www.wabe.org/the-gap-between-the-science-on-kids-and-reading-and-how-it-is-taught/

And here’s a quote from the book that speaks to, but doesn’t offer the explanation that Harry (rightly) would like about, priors with respect to teaching reading:

“There is a profound disconnection between the science of reading and educational practice. Very little of what we’ve learned about reading as scientists has had any impact on what happens in schools because the cultures of science and education are so different. These cross-cultural differences, like many others, are difficult to bridge.

The gulf between science and education has been harmful. A look at the science reveals that the methods commonly used to teach children are inconsistent with basic facts about human cognition and development and so make learning to read more difficult than it should be.”

Seidenberg is, as one might gather, VERY hard on schools of education and what goes on (and doesn’t go on) in them.

–RC

7

Scott P. 05.05.19 at 3:18 pm

The idea that there has been a huge decrease in absolute poverty, while not being absolutely false, is a claim that has to be hedged with many caveats and discussions of the exceptions. It also necessitates ignoring everything we know (and we do, in fact, know this) about the (forgive my English) ‘social construction of statistics’: i.e. the question of how were these statistics created (not discovered), by whom, why, and cui bono.

Do we need to to the same hedging with regards to the studies that show that raising the minimum wage doesn’t increase unemployment?

8

bianca steele 05.05.19 at 3:40 pm

My father went to ed school in the 70s (after an MSEE) and I got bored with the other books in the house at some point and read many of his. The arguments in favor of whole-word were always bad to the point of forming my current prejudices about similar types of arguments. The basic argument was that “science” had taught us that fluent readers’ eye movements flow across the page, so children should be taught not to obsess over the individual letters.

OTOH my daughter had a friend in K who, her mother told me, had been an early reader, but got so turned off around the time they introduced phonics in 1st grade that she began hating school. It was surmised she might be having difficulties because though she was fluent in English, it wasn’t the language she spoke most at home. And maybe she’d learned to read in the other language (which also uses the Roman alphabet). A whole language approach, with lots of English reading, might have helped her, because she was bright enough to pick up the phonics herself. But that situation was messed up (the school situation, not her family’s), even before considering why there was no perceived need to get a bright bilingual student early assistance when there was “so much time” to acquire the skills on a developmentally appropriate timeline.

9

steven t johnson 05.05.19 at 4:18 pm

There are two aspects to the reading wars. One is the notion that successful reading is sight reading, and it is useful or even pleasurable activity, whereas close analysis is tedious work, demotivating and even useless, like a musician who would busily identify each note but not understand the melody and harmonics. It is in effect the insistence that drill is soul-killing, an imposition on kids. Its proponents in my opinion tended to think their vivid memories of fun activities that provided variety and application and maybe a degree of independent exploration (questionable, but it seems to feel that way) while forgetting the drill or practice. If they remember anything it might be the anxiety over spelling tests, etc. This is the part that’s wrong.

The other issue in the reading wars was censoring the curriculum. Phonics proponents didn’t just want phonics, they wanted a reactionary curriculum. That’s why they reprinted McGuffey readers.

As to the claim the evidence on charters is “much more equivocal,” I can only observe that the routine claims for charter schools go far, far beyond mild improvements whose very existence is hard to demonstrate. That is after all what equivocal evidence means.
Also, you should ask whether investment in multiple levels of reading materials and textbooks and tutoring wouldn’t be much more effective than charter schools. As I understand amateurs have worked on fonts easier for dyslexics to read. Unless things have miraculously changed, I very much doubt that texts and reading materials are being supplied. Perhaps especially if it’s easier to write an IEP that simply requires extra time and modified grading, much cheaper (except for teacher labor.)

At any rate, since any such marginal improvements are to be purchased at the expense of the public school system and undermine teachers’ unions, you do have to ask whether that isn’t the real goal, and why there will be study after study to find marginal improvements. If you’re going to defund public schools you need much greater improvements, I should think. Or you need to include the decrease in outcomes due to defunding the rest of the system, to correctly assess the costs/benefits to society as a whole. I think the equivocal results already demonstrate the failure of charter schools to work as advertised.”

As to Tim Worstall@1, it is true that in the long run technological development will help humanity. This has nothing to do with capitalism, unless he wants to claim the massive population increase in Ming China was capitalist. I’m afraid he’s probably crank enough to either deny that increase of population is evidence of a decrease of poverty, or that American food crops were somehow produced by capitalism, or that Ming China was indeed capitalist. (If I am unfairly lumping Worstall in with the Henry Hazlitt/Armchair Economist/David Friedman Machinery/Freakonomics style, my apologies.)

10

bianca steele 05.05.19 at 4:39 pm

Sorry for the double post, but I just looked up “Why Johnny Can’t Read” and it was published in 1955. JQ’s post was sixty years later, not ten. Interesting, the comments on that thread, presumably by people who went to school well after 1955 but before 1995, are largely by people who write things like “I’m glad my teachers were intelligent and didn’t follow trends and taught me phonics.” I wonder if this narrative sketch might begin to suggest an explanation for the questions raised in the OP.

(Not quite OT, I had a dream last night where someone who obviously knew little math was trying to explain how someone had carried out an addition problem by saying things like “he didn’t understand how addition works but he felt that there was an affinity between 19+1 and 1 so he wrote down a 1 here instead of 21 and then looked for a way to deal with the extra 2.” Which may well tell against me, I guess.)

11

Stephen 05.05.19 at 6:01 pm

On phonics vs. whole-words.

I am not a primary teacher, but friends and relatives who were have told me that the great disadvantage of teaching reading by phonics is that (especially in English where spelling is often far from uniformly phonetic) it requires considerable understanding of the language, and intellectual effort, from the teachers. But the whole-word system is far less work for the teachers, even if the results for the students are worse. Guess which the teachers prefer?

Hoping not to be too cynical.

PS and in as far as teachers, or at least their unions, are predominantly left-wing, obviously phonics is irredeemably right-wing.

12

Dipper 05.05.19 at 6:57 pm

One thing that struck me is that some ideas I put forward as unconventional but evidence based, are now fairly widely accepted

… so what ideas that you are putting forward now that are unconventional but evidence based do you think will be widely accepted in 10-15 years time?

13

bianca steele 05.05.19 at 10:28 pm

The stuff I’ve seen online suggests a different timeline, but in the school I went to, whole-word (outline shapes and all) was replaced by phonics around 1973 or 1974, and the Dick and Jane readers were discarded, in favor of more “natural” stories, within the next four years.

14

Omega Centauri 05.06.19 at 12:48 am

On reading wars, I taught my kids reading at age 4 from a dilapidated book called Dystar. It was both easy and enjoyable for both parent and kid. I remember the school (this would have been late 90’s) asking how I did it -since they started school as already good readers. When I showed them the book, the reaction made it clear to me that they thought there was something seriously unacceptable about it.

And interestingly the book began by misspelling certain words, but gradually correcting that in the later lessons. And that seemed to work fine for the kids.

15

John Quiggin 05.06.19 at 2:35 am

Dipper @12 ” so what ideas that you are putting forward now that are unconventional but evidence based do you think will be widely accepted in 10-15 years time?

“to help poor people, give them money” is probably 5 years away from general acceptance now. To spell it out, assistance specifically for poor people should be in untied cash, not tied to particular goods and services, as with food stamps. Conversely, the case for governments providing services like health and education depends on the inadequacy of markets for those goods and services, not the fact that poor people can’t afford them.

16

John Quiggin 05.06.19 at 2:38 am

Harry @2 “Its like having some politically driven bias about how to fix bicycle brakes.”

I assume there would be a political/culture war dispute about this if it weren’t for the fact that only hippies ride bicycles.

17

Alan White 05.06.19 at 2:48 am

John–

“Conversely, the case for governments providing services like health and education depends on the inadequacy of markets for those goods and services, not the fact that poor people can’t afford them.”

I completely agree. But how can that inadequacy be realistically be translated into political action? The Rethugs in the US are salivating at posturing as anti-socialists for 2020. And unfortunately I have to agree that that might work for those jerks.

18

John Quiggin 05.06.19 at 2:55 am

Harry @2 I agree that charters vary a lot. However, many charters rely on claimed advantages which, if they exist, ought to be even greater in the case of for-profits (the flexibility of a non-union workforce being an obvious example). And quite a few non-profit charters are tied up with for-profit service providers. The disastrous results of the for-profits have negative implications for charters of this kind, and therefore for the aggregate outcomes from charters.

Because the move to charters was tied up with other reform agendas which have failed badly, it’s hard to draw implications from the US experience as to whether the core idea of charters (giving publicly funded schools more independence from school boards) is a good one.

19

Moz of Yarramulla 05.06.19 at 3:49 am

The bicycle wars are more about chain lube (oil vs wax) and rim vs disk brakes, plus more generic subjects like “if I can’t fix it I won’t buy it” vs “all the shiny toys”. Although I suppose “the only way to deal with a bicycle shaped object (as sold by KMart etc) is to throw it away and buy a working bicycle” could be considered controversial since there are people who argue that selling a BSO should be a capital offence. I think there is evidence that the latter course would save lives, even aside from the element of natural justice.

I think we’re 10-20 years away from accepting that paying people to stop doing things is self-defeating. We saw that with the Chinese refrigerant manufacturers recently (people built new factories in order to be paid to shut them down), but it’s going to apply to a whole bunch of AGW related stuff.

Another now widely accepted thing is that cutting taxes on the wealthy does not help anyone else, the trickle down effect is almost entirely limited to political parties. Ditto self-regulation, which is again being bitterly defended by corrupt beneficiaries of the “game of mates” as almost no-one else.

20

Chris (merian) W. 05.06.19 at 6:59 am

The post is reassuring to me because I find that to me, “this is [not] how it works” is a line I often find myself holding … against my own ideological side. And there’s just not much I can do about it, other than really carefully and as honestly as I can marshaling all available evidence.

The phonics vs. whole-word issue is weird because I’ve seen it at play, hotly debated, in Germany, France and the US (I’ve lived in 4 countries as an adult). Each time with the same ideological alignment, though varying degrees of viciousness. And it’s odd because German, French and English have really different relationships between sounds and graphs, so you’d expect a little more nuance. The way I read the story is that whole-word approaches to reading instruction go back to the 19th century and are part of a whole slew of more-or-less progressive pedagogic innovations (ignoring the aspects that in retrospect we classify as colonial, eugenic, classist etc.) – moving away from the model of endless dictations and copying of (patriotic) texts, and highly regimented schooling with rules enforced by beatings.

And there is *some* empirical legitimacy to expanding on all-phonics given that a small number of students *does* not properly learn to read that way (though a smaller number than with all-whole word), at least in some languages. But bianca steele already correctly characterized the faulty way of thinking at the origin of the method – just because mature readers read whole words this is no guarantee that it’s good pedagogy. Unfortunately it seems that the colleges that train elementary school teachers tend not to have a history of a deep commitment to empirically well-tested methods. Maybe that’s changing, but institutions cling to their cultures. Elementary school teaching suffers from being treated with condescension from science and higher learning (and higher-level teaching) institutions. Maybe that made it easier for them to foster this unhelpful process.

I find pedagogy in general unnecessarily undermined by ideology. (Even at the higher ed level. I use active learning techniques all the time, and think that project-based learning is great — but the idea of teaching a college physics curriculum entirely with discovery-based activities would be incredibly frustrating both for students and instructors. And then there are useful ideas and innovations that HAVE to be hyped into fads, like flipped classrooms, and MOOCS. Then there follows a backlash etc. pp.)

This goes for charter schools, too. On one hand they’re a symbol of what tech industry benefactor dilettantes with zero pedagogical experience prescribe to “solve” the problems of public education in the US, particularly ridiculous as a panacea for highly segregated, high-poverty and low-achievement areas; on a second, they’re an alarming example of extracting public funds to benefit private companies. But on the third, they don’t have to be either of that. Where I am, they’re pretty strictly regulated (cannot be run by for-profit companies, teachers are normal unionized employees of the school district like any other), and even though you surely can find some limited negative aspect, overall they’re a means to inject a measure of variation in the offer of schools. In the school district right here, the charter schools are: a Montessori school, a very well regarded vocational high school, an elementary school with place-based pedagogy (which includes indigenous cultural practices and outdoors-focus), a college-prep secondary school focussed on enhancing education for indigenous students, a “catch the dropouts and help them graduate” school. One might argue that they may not need the charter school mechanism and could be offered within the public system, but for the students the difference would be close to non-existent. (There’s also an arts-focussed magnet school whose goal is to draw students to the city center, which has less desirable housing stock and would therefore concentrate a higher rate of students with social disadvantages. But that one’s not a charter school.)

(I am a believer that no homogeneous school system, however great, will fit everyone, and that a *small* amount of wriggle room with options to find a differently-structured environment is desirable.)

21

nastywoman 05.06.19 at 9:38 am

@
”I assume there would be a political/culture war dispute about this if it weren’t for the fact that only hippies ride bicycles”.- and everybody in Amsterdam and the German city I currently enjoy –

And the ”bicycle -” -(let’s not call it ”war”) – but perhaps – ”bicycle movement” has already been victorious in any culture -(and city) which offers it’s ”inhabitants” a ”likeable life” –
which always could remind US how faaar – the US -(and Australia? – and the UK??) is – behind any ideas – that are already widely accepted in the ”more civilised parts” of our planet?

22

Tim Worstall 05.06.19 at 10:35 am

“3: Even accepting the claim that neoliberal capitalism has led to a global reduction in poverty (which is, in fact, a highly questionable thesis) the question is: in the face of global warming, ‘the death of birth’, the ‘great extinction’ and so forth, is this decline sustainable? i.e. not just ‘will it continue’ but ‘will poverty increase or decrease in the late 21st century/early 22nd century, in the face of the climate apocalypse, assuming the worst predictions happen (which seems more and more likely the more the century goes on)?’”

The IPCC itself certainly thinks so. The underlying models – whether we use the SRES and A1FI and A1T or more modern RCP 8.5 and so on – insist that the global economy will be 5 to 11 times in 2100 what it was in 1990. Further, if the economy doesn’t grow like that then there isn’t a climate change problem. And only if it does grow in a fossil intensive manner is it a problem.

The entire thing is predicated on continued economic growth and yet some outcomes even with the growth are not a problem.

“As to Tim Worstall@1, it is true that in the long run technological development will help humanity. This has nothing to do with capitalism, unless he wants to claim the massive population increase in Ming China was capitalist. I’m afraid he’s probably crank enough to either deny that increase of population is evidence of a decrease of poverty, or that American food crops were somehow produced by capitalism, or that Ming China was indeed capitalist. (If I am unfairly lumping Worstall in with the Henry Hazlitt/Armchair Economist/David Friedman Machinery/Freakonomics style, my apologies.)”

Well, William Baumol is really pretty certain that technological advance is at least aided, if not propelled, by capitalism and markets. And such advance faster than population growth is something we only got around when we got capitalism. Malthusian economies end up with population growth, not per capita income rises. And Ming China is generally regarded as a Malthusian economy, probably because it wasn’t capitalist. But sure, I’m a crank.

Dipper @12 ” so what ideas that you are putting forward now that are unconventional but evidence based do you think will be widely accepted in 10-15 years time?

“to help poor people, give them money” is probably 5 years away from general acceptance now. To spell it out, assistance specifically for poor people should be in untied cash, not tied to particular goods and services, as with food stamps.

Obviously I’m a crank for I’ve been preaching that for near a decade now. Heck, even US Census agrees that recipients would value the cash amount of their benefits more than the benefits in kind themselves and they’re well known kooks.

23

Procopius 05.06.19 at 10:59 am

Not entirely on topic. My memory is that I taught myself to read, starting with the sign at the Sohio gas station we passed when driving downtown. I’m pretty sure my school used phonics because that was in the ’40s. I wonder how many people are aware that some words in English are spelled strangely because in the 15th century that was how they were prounounced. For example, “knife” was pronounced ‘kaniffa.’ Dictionaries were not produced until later, after The Great Vowel Shift had changed the pronunciation, but the spelling had already been fixed in printed material.

24

Matt 05.06.19 at 11:22 am

It is in effect the insistence that drill is soul-killing, an imposition on kids. Its proponents in my opinion tended to think their vivid memories of fun activities that provided variety and application and maybe a degree of independent exploration (questionable, but it seems to feel that way) while forgetting the drill or practice.

for a couple of years I worked in an English language department in a Russian university. They had _amazing_ success in teaching English to students. Literally, I don’t think I’ve met a top student in a very good university who learned a foreign language at university as well as the bottom 25% of students at this relatively undistinguished provincial university did. There were many reasons for the success in language teaching at this university, but the single most salient one to me is that the teachers drilled, drilled, and then drilled some more on basic language matters. I can see why this isn’t favored by teachers in the US. I found it hard to do myself! But, the reading case really does seem to be one where “ed schools in the US are screwed up” is largely the answer.

25

Hoimrdengr 05.06.19 at 1:32 pm

Chris @20: The phonics vs. whole-word issue flared up again in Germany just recently. But the ideological alignment is the reverse of the anglo world! Progressives introduced phonics into the curricula in the 90s. Now the conservative roll-back forces the whole-word method in more and more states.
https://www.welt.de/vermischtes/article190940915/Nordrhein-Westfalen-Schreiben-nach-Gehoer-wird-abgeschafft.html

26

Cian 05.06.19 at 1:56 pm

Tim:

The statistics on development in the developing world are unreliable and highly variable. In addition there is the statistical artefacts that coming from people (usually kicking and screaming) being forced into a cash economy. Does it mean anything to say that somebody is $2 a day wealthier when today they struggle to get food and housing, whereas in the past (when they were subsistance farmers) they didn’t. And then there’s China and it’s disproportionate affect on global statistics.

To the degree that we do know anything it’s that the neoliberal development policies of the 80s onwards have been a disaster, and policies followed prior to that seem (to the degree there can be any certainty on these types of issues) to have been more successful.

I suspect in the next 20 years we’re going to see all the smug certainties of ‘globalizers’ being overturned as people realize what they mistook for a general tendency, was actually the affect of a huge, dense country (with a lot of power – unusual for developing countries) with decent infrastructure (for the developing world) becoming a middle income country. A cheap, highly centralized labour force is disappearing. Should be interesting.

Well, William Baumol is really pretty certain that technological advance is at least aided, if not propelled, by capitalism and markets.

Currently in my field, and I suspect a few others, neoliberal capitalism is hampering technological advance. In a lot of areas (medicine being a good example), capitalism has never been terribly helpful. In others (electronics) it’s never been the major player it likes to portray itself as. Certainly capitalism has benefitted and been able to monetize technology, but that’s a very different claim to the one you’re making.

27

Cian 05.06.19 at 2:09 pm

The problem with teaching is that there is no single solution that works for all students. So with Phonics – they work with most (but not all) students, and they only really work at the early stages of reading. To be used effectively you need skilled and highly trained teachers who are able to work with all their students individually and assess their current needs. This requires smaller classes, skilled (and respected) teachers and an environment in which teachers are trusted (albeit with some kind of light monitoring) to get the job done.

In contrast the US is a country where teachers are poorly paid, class sizes are too big and the environment is one where politicians/administrator want to deskill teachers as much as possible. This leads to a culture where everyone is looking for ‘1 simple trick that will educate the kids’. And this really applies to all teaching policy in the US. See for example the extremely stupid fads for the latest technology, or teaching kids ‘computational thinking’.

As for the debate between phonics/whole reading. Stephen T. Johnson is right. The phonics debate was really about a reactionary debate to restore education to some kind of golden age modelled on an imaginary curriculum of the past and was associated with other things like teaching patriotic politics, and the like. The other side were on some kind of de-schooling kick. Neither was terrible helpful, though the Phonics proponents tended to have wretched politics.

28

Cian 05.06.19 at 2:20 pm

@20: Chris (merian) W

I don’t disagree with what a lot of what you’re saying, but I think you’re missing the problem with charter schools. It’s really a problem of democratic oversight – there’s none. It’s about removing schools from parental influence/oversight. In a few areas you get lucky and the local elites have a certain amount of vision, in other areas it’s conmen as far as you can see (in my area it’s mixed – professional’s kids get the language immersion/Montessori – the rest get fleeced by dodgy ‘non-profits’). It’s like monarchies – sure an elightened monarchy might be the best system, but who wants to roll the dice on that incredibly unlikely outcome.

But there’s certainly no reason why you couldn’t get the outcomes that you mention in a more democratic system where parents had influence on the types of school that get built. It might be worth asking why nobody’s pushing that, but instead are pushing a system where tech billionares can take over 100s of schools.

I am a believer that no homogeneous school system, however great, will fit everyone, and that a *small* amount of wriggle room with options to find a differently-structured environment is desirable.

Maybe, but there are several countries that have homogeneous school systems that get very good educational results. And there’s no evidence that heterogeneous school systems deliver good results. One significant problem with a huge amount of variety is that it’s very hard to identify what works, and what doesn’t. And to push good practice (because each school is it’s own special snow flake). The other problem of course is that a lot of the school variants are fads of the stupidest kind.

29

Hidari 05.06.19 at 3:02 pm

@21

The IPCC (which is under constant external (and internal) pressure to ‘water down’ its key messages, for obvious reason) says a lot of things.

There is huge pressure from (amongst other sources) the corporate media to insist that growth and the future are compatible.

We shall see. It will doubtless be ‘fun’ finding out. At the moment the ‘progress’ the human race has made in the last 200 years reminds me of the old joke of the man falling from the Empire State Building, and, a couple of hundred feet from the ground, giving the thumbs up and shouting ‘It’s going great so far!’.

But that’s just me. As I say it will be ‘fun’ finding out who is right.

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Dipper 05.06.19 at 3:21 pm

@ John Quiggin ““to help poor people, give them money” is probably 5 years away from general acceptance now. To spell it out, assistance specifically for poor people should be in untied cash, not tied to particular goods and services, as with food stamps.” and Tim Worstall “Obviously I’m a crank for I’ve been preaching that for near a decade now”

well hang on there …

In the UK we provide every child with free education and every person with free healthcare. For a family of 5 (2ad, 3ch) that’s about 3 x £5k + 5 x £2K so £25,000 pa, plus if the parents have no income or means then additional benefits including housing benefit.

I believe housing benefit used to be paid direct to the landlord but now goes to the individual. This has contributed to a housing crisis as landlords decide they do not want to take the credit risk of tenants spending their housing benefit on something else. Are you two now proposing doing the same with healthcare and education? What if someone spends their children education only on drink and drugs, or gambling? Are you going to not educate their children?

So I think your prediction needs to be better framed to make it a falsifiable prediction. Are you predicting that the state will withdraw from providing what we might regard as essential services and just pay people to source them from the market? Are you going to subsidise them if they spend the money on something else and leave them and their families short in some way?

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reason 05.06.19 at 3:25 pm

I’m interested in two further areas where I think the consensus is wounded but not yet collapsed:
1. “The Washington Consensus” which I read as the belief that budgets should be avoided (almost at any costs) and that monetary policy should be used aggressively to combat economic cycles. (See the book Between Debt and the Devil for an alternative view).
2. The belief that high land prices are mainly the result of land use regulation (see the excellent blog Fresh Economic Thinking – and indeed the book from point 1) for an alternative view. Although, I believe that lack of infrastructure investment also plays an important role.

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afeman 05.06.19 at 4:17 pm

It’s probably largely invisible and counterintuitive to outsiders, but probably the sharpest conflict among cyclists nowadays involves the utility of various kinds of bicycle lanes. The political divide doesn’t really map well to anything in the larger world.

This has largely replaced whether helmet laws are a net good, which boiled down to inactivity being a greater public health threat than marginal increases in head trauma.

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Tim Worstall 05.06.19 at 5:10 pm

“Progressives introduced phonics into the curricula in the 90s. Now the conservative roll-back forces the whole-word method in more and more states.”

Sorry, that really makes me laugh. In a language where Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskajütenschlüssel is a possible – although not extant – word people are trying to teach reading on the whole word basis? Seriously?

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Chris (merian) W. 05.06.19 at 6:12 pm

Hoimrdengr #24 – I forgot about this, and it’s related. But it’s also different: learning to read isn’t the same as learning to write, and teaching reading via memorization of whole words is not the same as letting students write without correcting the spelling. What is related is the idea of privileging sense over detail.

But this is really an area where attention to detail and scrupulous checking against evidence are called for. Matt in #23 sings the praise of drill in English-as-a-foreign-language teaching, and as a former EFL teacher (and someone who learned two foreign language to fluency) I agree that it’s an essential ingredient, and sometimes wrongly maligned. But you can’t extrapolate from this to reading instruction for young children in their native language. (Or, say, to mathematics, where IMHO drill is currently vastly overused in elementary education, with dismal results, while effective methods which are marked as “politically progressive” are facing a lot of resistance, dismissal and scorn.)

I’m not sure why teaching-something-to-someone (including dog training, horseback riding etc. etc,) is an area that is particularly susceptible to this kind of design process:

[purely theoretical argument which may have some limited validity]
THEREFORE
[rigid method prescription implemented with no consideration to empirical support]

Maybe we can agree that this pattern is unsound pretty much everywhere and should always be reviewed.

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Rob Chametzky 05.06.19 at 6:26 pm

On “phonics vs. whole-language” in teaching reading

(1) To basically reiterate the point made in OP: there is no controversy here, “whole-language” doesn’t actually qualify as an approach to teaching reading.

(2) Because most people won’t rush out and get/read Seidenberg’s book (I referenced it in 6 above) here’s a link to a paper (by Seidenberg and others who, fwiw, don’t agree with each other on various technical matters in linguistics/psychology of language otherwise) from 2001 that sets out the situation at the time. The major changes since then are basically that it’s ever-so-much-more-so clear why and how the conclusions are what they are (see the Seidenberg book):

https://www.pitt.edu/~perfetti/PDF/How%20psych%20sci%20informs%20teaching%20of%20reading-%20Rayner%20et%20al..pdf

Stanislas Dehaene ‘s 2009 book “Reading in the brain” is also relevant and an accessible read:

http://readinginthebrain.pagesperso-orange.fr/index.htm

A more technical update paper is available here:

http://www.unicog.org/publications/Dehaene_Reading_inthebrainrevisitedandextendedMindLanguage2014.pdf

(3) Yes, English is harder to learn to read than various other languages because the grapheme-phoneme correspondence (as it is called) is notably complex (at times opaque) in English. French is pretty hard, too, for that reason. Finnish is amazingly easy (one-to-one G-P correspondence), and German and Italian, for examples, are also pretty simple.

That said, as I tell my students, English spelling is actually quite good if you can read English, though quite bad if you need to learn to read it. That’s for several reasons.

English spelling preserves word relationships between words that pronunciation loses. Examples: “bomb” and “bombard”; “malign” and “malignant” (note that if you run across “benignant” you immediately know stuff about it if you already have the much more common “benign”); “cite” (vs. “sight” or “site”) and “citation”; “electric” and “electricity”; “crime” and “criminal”

English reserves word-final “s” for inflectional endings (plural on nouns, 3rd person singular on verbs), so either adds an “e” or a second “s” after “s”. Examples:
“lapse” (vs. “laps”), “mess”, “kiss”, “sense” , “house”

“Lexical/content” vs. “function/grammatical” words–the former overwhelmingly have at least 3 letters. Examples: “inn” vs. “in”; “buy” vs. “by” .

Despite the general complexity, there are all sorts of predictable relationships in the spelling-to-pronunciation direction. Examples: if there were words “scright” or “dight” you’d know how to pronounce them.

And so forth

(4) There are some different approaches to the teaching of “phonics”. For those with a taste for research results laced with pretty fierce convictions, Diane McGuinness on the (non)teaching of reading of English is a bracing brew (regardless of what one thinks of her views on dyslexia and AD(H)D).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diane_McGuinness

–RC

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Ogden Wernstrom 05.06.19 at 9:07 pm

Anecdata only: My own experience with learning to read started with something akin to what Omega Centauri mentions @14, but without material designed specifically to teach reading. From my mother and grandmothers* reading to me, I learned by word recognition – which worked well for this undiagnosed dyslexic. There’s a downside: At the tender age of 44 (months), we moved to a new house; there was something I did not recognize, written right at my eye level. I recognized “WE” and “HOUSE”, and asked my mother what it was.

Phonics would have come in handy for interpreting the unrecognized text. But phonics is a poor approximation method for a language with so many irregularities as English. (Spanish is the most phonics-phriendly language I know of.) Can’t we let multiple methods get along? I need more than one method.

It was a challenge, but I soon recognized that “WE5T1N6HOUSE” says dishwasher. (Later, with rudimentary phonics skills, I found a gadget on my father’s desk, sounded-out the label, and asked my mother, “What is a bullshit grinder?” So, phonics has a downside, too….)

Though the topic of learning-to-read is important to me, I am disappointed that this thread has resulted in so much discussion of only one example that Quiggin gives, and some mild ribbing/frame-pushing from The Right on the other topics.

*Note: My two grandmothers, between them, must have read to me every racist children’s story and nursery rhyme extant in English. Multiple times. Oh, and misogynist, I forgot misogynist.

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steven t johnson 05.06.19 at 9:38 pm

Tim Worstall@22 write”…Malthusian economies end up with population growth, not per capita income rises. And Ming China is generally regarded as a Malthusian economy, probably because it wasn’t capitalist. But sure, I’m a crank.”

It is entirely unclear how families can suddenly raise more children without an increase in standards of living. It is not clear how per capita income is the only measure of the success of a society’s economic arrangements in achieving material welfare. It is not clear a Malthusian economy is actually a thing. This undercuts the irony at the end.

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J-D 05.07.19 at 12:09 am

Dipper

John Quiggin is not predicting that the state will withdraw from providing health and education services (in favour of providing cash benefits which people can use to obtain those services from the market), and he is also not advocating that it do so. (I wish I could feel more confident that you are fully alive to the distinction.)

On the contrary, John Quiggin advocates (I’m not sure that he also predicts) that the state continue to provide health and education services and not substitute the payment of cash benefits for direct service provision, and the reason he advocates this (I’m not guessing, he’s just made this statement himself) is that markets in those services fail to provide adequately.

Therefore I conclude (this isn’t directly stated, but it’s an immediate implication) that he is advocating that the state: (1) function as a direct provider of those services which are not adequately provided by markets; and (2) make unconditional cash payments to the needy (which they won’t have to spend on services provided freely by the state, and will therefore be free to spend as they choose on those goods and services which are adequately provided by the market).

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J-D 05.07.19 at 12:11 am

I wonder what is the closest analogue to the debate between ‘phonics’ and ‘whole language’ advocates among teachers of Chinese. (It can’t be a very close analogue, and yet it also can’t be that there are no principles useful both to teachers of English and to teachers of Chinese.)

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Nathanael 05.07.19 at 10:48 am

Right wingers have never been right about anything. The original term “right wing” came from the faction in the French Revolution which supported the monarchy and aristocracy. They’ve been pushing wrong-headed “return to feudalism” ideas ever since, and have consistently opposed the scientific method.

And the scientific method is how we figure out what’s right, so by opposing science, they can never be right.

I can think of things where *true conservatives* were correct — pesticides are bad for your health, the “old ways” of farming are safer, modern plastics are bad for your health, the “old ways” are best — but the conservatives are now called “left-wing” in areas like that

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Barry 05.07.19 at 4:14 pm

I’m sorry to be a curmudgeon, but could we please talk about gun control or abortion?
Those arguments only last for millennia:)

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