Genes are the things that are, for the most part, driving differences among children, and not different teachers or even different schools.”
– Brian Byrne
I ran across this article recently by a Dr. Brian Byrne, claiming that genetics are responsible for about 75% of the success in school. The study also claims that the impact of teachers and schools was almost negligible, only 5%. It would seem to be a sort of educational eugenics.
The research isn’t available yet, but we already know that the research is based on standardized tests. We know that simply because there are no other reliable, repeatable metrics for educational analysis.
As we have discussed here on numerous occasions, test-taking is a function of the memorize-but-don’t-think approach to education. Second and much worse, standardized tests are of almost no value in the real world, and are lousy predictors of anything other than test taking. So to make sweeping statements based on untrustworthy metrics presents an immediate problem.
However, even if standardized tests measured something permanent and useful, they are a snapshot. The best they can do is tell you where someone is at the moment. They tell you nothing of where they’re going.
Benjamin Franklin, the first major scientist of the United States, failed arithmetic twice. Thomas Edison couldn’t read until he was 12. Albert Einstein’s parents feared he was mentally retarded.
Where would these three – and millions of other students who don’t produce age-adjust test scores on demand – fall under Dr. Byrne’s metrics?
Education for the Caste System
It is not surprising that Dr. Byrne comes out of a Commonwealth nation, but disappointing that he comes out of the independent culture of Australia, and that an American university collaborated with him on this. In his influential book on sociobiology, Vaulting Ambition, Philip Kitcher opens with an essay, “A Bicycle is not Enough.” He talks about how under the English class system of education, children are sorted – at the tender age of 11 – into sheep and goats, those who would be prepared for university, and those would be sent to trade school. The title of the essay deals with a cousin of his who did not pass the examination. She was crushed, and her parents gave her a bicycle to soften the pain. As he watched her wobble off down the sidewalk, her future greatly pruned by a brutal, exclusive educational system, his thought was the title for his essay.
Every culture finds excuses for relegating some children to lower castes, for curtailing their potential so that they might fill jobs that serve the upper castes. The educational theories of the Commonwealth countries, however, have long been dominated by the studies of Sir Cyril Burt, who like Dr. Byrne also studied twins, and who also showed that genetics dominated a person’s learning potential.
The problem is, after his death it was discovered Sir Cyril falsified his data.
His work was bogus. Much of it was simply an educational variation of social Darwinism, a rationalization of a class system that abandoned some people to fail, to starve, and even to die.
The ruthless, Darwinian point here is revealed by the authors’ choice of terms. They do not say that genetics determines level of skill, or even level of skill at a given age. Just skill: they only consider a binary conclusion.
This one is a sheep; that one is a goat. Educational eugenics.
What are we to make of Dr. Byrne’s conclusions, which argue that schools and teachers don’t make much difference? It flies in the face of all common experience. The first thought that comes to mind is, if teachers and schools only account for 5% of education, then why do we need schools at all? And if schools don’t do much, then parents must not do much more. It’s preposterous.
Even Dr. Byrne is aware, at some level, that his research doesn’t make sense. After noting that teachers and schools have only a tiny impact on education, he then apologizes, “Teachers really matter.” He attempts to explain this observation in contradiction to his conclusions, by contending that the demonstrated effect is small because teachers are uniformly good.
Which makes even less sense. First of all, no one – no one anywhere – believes all teachers are uniformly good. There is wide disparity in the effectiveness and productivity of different teachers. But even if they were uniformly good, that still won’t explain his data. You cannot argue that “Teachers really matter” and then argue that they only matter by 5%. He can’t simply ignore the contradictions; he needs to choose.
This is educational Darwinism, which of course becomes educational eugenics: we can discard some people.
We can throw away some children.
Because at the bottom, the real subtext in this research is about discarding educational responsibility. Social Darwinism was a justification, a placebo for the upper classes: “Darwin proves that the poor will die anyway. So we shouldn’t do anything about it.”
And Social Darwinism is first cousin to Nazi eugenics: “Genetics proves that the inferior races will just die anyway. So we might as well kill them now.”
Of course, both were based on bad applications of science. So now we have this similar research which insists, rather loudly: “Science shows that struggling students are just going to fail anyway.
“So we might as well abandon them now.”
Picture courtesy of GreyerBaby on Pixabay.