Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Polly's reading difficulties

This one isn't quite as egregious as blaming the Tories for the death of children, but it's just another example of Polly Toynbee basing her polemic on misrepresentations and untruths. The article is an attempted deconstruction of Dominic Cumming's thesis on the state of education in Britain. I haven't read his entire thesis (it's 237 pages of academic text, and I have a job), but I have read what I suspect is the same extract as Polly - the bit concerning education, and genetics.

Polly's take is:
Cummings suggests that 70% of cognitive capacity is genetic, beside which the quality of teaching pales into insignificance.
Which she gets from this passage:
Scores in the phonics test show ~70% heritability; scores in National Curriculum reading and maths tests at 7, 9, and 12 show ~60-70% heritability; and scores in English, Maths and Science GCSEs show ~60% heritability in a just completed twin study (the GCSE data will be published later in 2013)... Educational achievement in school is more heritable than IQ in English school children: i.e the heritability of what is directly taught is higher than what is not directly taught.
Not cognitive capacity then, but test scores. Polly runs off with this misinterpreted extract to a genetic biologist:
Cummings, using the work of the behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin, badly misinterprets it, says Jones, and "fundamentally misunderstands" how biology works. That 70% is, crucially, "a statement about populations, not individuals. It certainly does not mean that seven-tenths of every child's talents reside in the double helix."
If Polly can find a quote from Cummings arguing that 70% of every child's talents comes from their genes then she can have a gold star - because that isn't the point he's making. What then is that point?

As far as I understand it (and I am one of those despised arts graduates with very little knowledge or understanding of mathematics and science that Cummings is so hard about in his thesis), it is that the disparity in standards between children is largely heritable. That good teachers can improve standards for everybody, but the gap will remain. That being so, it's vital that a good education policy takes this into account:
Far from being a reason to be pessimistic, or to think that ‘schools and education don’t matter, nature will out’, the scientific exploration of intelligence and learning is not only a good in itself but will help us design education policy more wisely (it may motivate people to spend more on the education of the less fortunate)
Typically, Polly has refused to allow her failure to read or understand Cumming's thesis to dissuade her from writing the piece she was always going to: Tories hate the poor. This also enables her to indulge herself in two of her favourite hobbies. The first is refuting her own argument with her own rhetoric, enlivening a piece arguing that genetics are irrelevant, and teachers are the most important thing with the statement "With destiny all but set by five years old". The second is a clarion call for knowledge and understanding of basic facts ("Most people, right or left, would be alarmed at a trajectory of ever-worsening inequality. But few know the facts.") that are, um, wrong (inequality has reduced sharply since 2007/8 - recessions do that).


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