Fair schooling — take-off

This blog starts a very long series of blogs on a multitude of aspects of fair schooling. For Dutch readers the article ‘Op weg naar eerlijk onderwijs’ in September Van Twaalf tot Achttien; in print as well as on the journal’s website https://www.van12tot18.nl/op-weg-naar-eerlijk-onderwijs) sketches the broad outlines.

Because of limitations of my own expertise, the main focus will be on individual differences: what do we know about them, are they heritable, how strongly are they SES-related (Social Economic Status), what do ‘we’ (parents, teachers, politicians, scientists) believe about them, what are the historical roots of those beliefs.Individual differences might be differences in intelligence, personality characteristics, achievement, age, sex, health, circumstances of living.

‘Fair schooling’ is a value-laden concept.  I probably won’t even try to present definitions. However, a useful starting point might be the capability approach of Amartya Sen see here.  My own take, for the time being, is that fair schooling is schooling that is furnished equally to almost all pupils, regardless individual differences in whatever characteristics.  Of course, there will always be children handicapped in ways that might prevent them from profiting from regular school instruction; they deserve lots of attention from special teachers as well as researchers, they are not the subject of this blog series (my expertise is nil).  An interesting exception is the work of Alfred Binet: his attempt to diagnose students not able to fruitfully follow regular school instruction sparked developments in the testing of ‘intelligence’ that deeply influenced our societies.

‘Intelligence’ and ‘talent’ are rather problematic concepts, because many people, teachers, parents, even psychologists, believe intelligence and talent to exist (reification), to be probably highly heritable and therefore to be rather fixed personality traits.  That is a bunch of baloney, so many blogs will be needed to disentangle a multitude of misunderstandings concerning talents and intelligence.

Our beliefs on talent and intelligence are rooted in 19th century publications by members of the intellectual class (men like Galton and his older nephew Darwin), a class despising the poor for their lack of intelligence, and fearing the poor for their numbers. Therefore I will use 19th century history of education especially and history of society generally.

My take on the purpose of education: first and foremost it is to teach knowledge that one does not acquire in a natural way like one learns to understand and speak one’s mother tongue.  (Geary: the latter is biologically primary, the former biologically secondary).  If that theory is defensible, it should be possible to teach school stuff (reading, writing, arithmetics) irrespective of differences in intellectual assets pupils have acquired at home.  That is yet another description of how schooling could be fair.  It might just be the case that E. D. Hirsch Jr’s ‘Core Knowledge’ curriculum is a good attempt to realise just that kind of fair schooling.  (See also his 2016 book Why knowledge matters).

In broad outline the blog series will probably treat the following.

(1) Inequality is about differences between people. I feel at home thinking and writing about differences. After all, differences is what differential psychology is about, a topic that has been with me for half a century now. It is my experience that ‘individual differences’ is a difficult concept for people not trained in personality and testpsychology. Yet it is a crucial concept for many if not most analyses of inequality of chances in education. If you are now associating these differences with the ‘difference principle’ as developed by John Rawls, be assured there are strong relations between concepts in Rawls’s theory of justice (‘talents’), and concepts of personality (‘intelligence’). For an introduction to these concepts in the theory of justice, see, e.g., Rosenkrantz (1978) and The Stanford Encyclpedia of Philosophy. Therefore there is good reason in the following to speak of fair chances instead of equal chances. Equality almost never obtains, yet the concept itself strongly suggests it does. Is it possible for educational chances to be ‘somewhat equal’ or ‘almost equal’? That sounds strenuous. The concept is treated by many authors as kind of self-explaining, all one has to do is sample instances of equality and inequality? Contrast this with the concept of fair chances: we do have theories of justice (e.g., John Rawls; Amartya Sen; Martha Nussbaum) to give meaning to fairness. And we do have psychological theories (Anders Ericsson; Han van der Maas; James Flynn) to give meaning to the individual differences involved: talents, capabilities, affordances, achievements, intelligence, personality characteristics.

Of course, people are born and live in different circumstances, a subject of sociology. Circumstances and abilities/talents come together in rather peculiar ways in behaviour genetics (e.g., Asbury & Plomin G is for genes), in my humble opinion in its conclusions regarding education policies a direct threat to fair schooling. It might be that some behavioural scientists have lost sight of the peculiar character of behaviour genetics: heritabilities are population characteristics/statistics, not individual ones. No, that is not true, they know perfectly well that heritabilities do not pertain to individual persons/children Therefore, there is nothing in education that depends on heritabilities. In any case, this is one of the many issues that I’ll have to clear up, at least to myself 😉 [key: Lewontin 1974?] [key: Scott Barry Kaufman, January 2019, sciam blog commenting on that terrible book by Robert Plomin, Blueprint]

(2) In another project, assessment in history, I have experienced how important it is to do some historical research: it just might be the case that our practices in education (or in psychology and behaviour genetics) have their roots in the past. Grading practices have evolved (in a very short time in the nineteenth century) from the ubiquitous ranking practices in education. Knowledge of that fact makes one never to look upon grading practices the same way: they are just ranking practices trying to look like ‘scientific’ measurements.

In a class society, like the nineteenth century still was, the upper classes didn’t always think of the lower and lowest classes as people. There you go. Along comes the new science of genetics, how easy it is then to ascribe differences between the classes to genetics. It is in the nineteenth century that the idea of heritability of individual differences in talents found a hearing in upper intellectual classes (there were protests against this humiliating way of thinking also, of course). Are we still thinking in nineteenth century grooves, as far as fair schooling is involved?

(3) About 1800 there was little or no education at all for most of the population. (some reading and writing, orphanages might have a teacher ; evening schools [Dutch example: Mathesis Scientiarum Genitrix] What, then, does the transition to education-for-all look like? Fritz Ringer, of course is a key author on the subject. How that kind of transition is possible at all is another question. One key idea is Kremer’s ‘O-ring theory of economic development’: development of technology X makes it possible for technologies Y & Z to develop. Indeed, there are massive developments in the early 19th century in transport, industry, science, standardisation of measurements and measures, etcetera.


1 Robust instructional methods are possible / do exist / have been used – and researched. 

  • Robust meaning: class instruction appropriate for all pupils, no matter their differences (barring special handicaps). NO differentiation.

2 Differences in talents/intelligence, having been acquired (mainly nurture), need not impact the effectiveness of robust instruction.

  • E.g. It goes against the grain of psychological codes of conduct to routinely use aptitude tests that are not curriculum aligned (that’s typically the problem with aptitude tests). Among those codes of conduct: the Standards

3 Differences in talents/intelligence are mainly environmentally acquired, notwithstanding claims of psychologists and geneticists.

  • This hypothesis is a tough one.  However, see James Tabery (2014). Beyond versus: the struggle to understand the interaction of nature and nurture. MIT Press. info

4 The main function of schooling is the teaching of biologically secondary (Geary) knowledge. (Other functions are derived).

  • E.g., David Geary (2007).  Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, Ch 1 in Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology, JS Carlson & JR Levin (Eds). Information Age Publishing. [info] Chapter 1 pdf

5 Schooling also impacts on growth in intelligence (witness the Flynn effect; summer lapse with low SES pupils).

  • Growth in intelligence is not the same as growth in IQ, the latter being a standardized measure.
  • E.g., Richard E. Nisbett, Joshua Aronson, Clancy Blair, William Dickens, James Flynn, Diane Halpern & Eric Turkheimer (2012). Intelligence: New findings and theoretical developments. American Psychologist. pdf. See also discussion with Diane F. Halpern in Psychology Today

6 Instruction need not, & therefore should not, be contingent on differences in IQ. Mastery of curricular content is what counts.

  • This is the crucial one. It seems to be underresearched, however. There is an analogue in psychological testing: tests should be pure in the sense of testing for differences in the intended ability or subject mastery, not mixing things up by testing on differences in (other) intellectual abilities also. Tests should be valid in that sense. So should educational instruction itself. It is not asking for the moon, it is asking for the abolition of beliefs in inborn talents and intelligences.

7 It is possible for robust instruction to result in approximately the same high levels of mastery for ALL pupils.

  • This is an empirical claim. Are there schools approaching this goal? Michaela in London?

8 Unequal pupil backgrounds/personalities will ultimately result in achievement differences (e.g. summer losses not compensated).

  • Robust schooling will not treat/stigmatize pupils because of their background (IQ, age, sex). Attention for individuals, no differentiation. Of course, schools will not be able to compensate for all kinds of differences between pupils because of backgrounds etcetera. Therefore, equal results is not the right criterium for fair schooling.

9 Robust education will beat conventional and progressivist education in terms of, at least, cognitive achievements for all pupils.

  • The idea of teaching generic skills (problem solving, creativity) is not compatible with robust instruction. Those skills do not exist, dummy!
  • “Interventions of the right kind, incl. in schools, can make people smarter. And certainly schools can be made much better than they are now.” p. 2 in Nisbett 2009

10 The idea of talent or intelligence being inborn is inherited from the 19th century

  • Looking for possible origins of the concept of (hereditary) (differences in) intelligence, a probable place is Galton’s ‘Hereditary genius’.

    “By natural ability, I mean those qualities of intellect and disposition, which urge and qualify a man to perform acts that lead to reputation. I do not mean capacity without zeal, nor zeal without capacity, nor even a combination of both of them, without an adequate power of doing a great deal of very laborious work. But I mean a nature which, when left to itself, will, urged by an inherent stimulus, climb the path that leads to eminence, and has strength to reach the summit—one which, if hindered or thwarted, will fret and strive until the hindrance is overcome, and it is again free to follow its labour-loving instinct. It is almost a contradiction in terms, to doubt that such men will generally become eminent. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence in this volume, to show that few have won high reputations, without possessing these peculiar gifts. It follows that the men who achieve eminence, and those who are naturally capable, are, to a large extent, identical.” [p. 38, Hereditary genius, galton.org]

  • If all of this strikes you as a self-serving philosophy of the 19th c. intellectual elite in a class society: true. For one, Galton neglected the impact quality of the environment must have. On class society, see Argyle 1994
  • The idea of differences in intellect itself is definitely older: W. Howison (1826). The contest of the twelve nations; or, a view of the different bases of human character and talent. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd. The book is anonymous., but the author is known to be William Howison. online.
  • ‘Individual differences ‘, as a concept, probably used in psychology in 1885 for the first time (by McKeen Cattell, source: R.I. Watson 1968)

11 More often than not, equal opportunity is considered conditional on talent or intelligence, both taken as inborn characteristics. Equal opportunity therefore is taken by these authors to mean equal opportunity for equally talented pupils.

12 Because of what is stated in Hypothesis 11, equal opportunity protagonists typically organize education in ways that tend to preserve class differences.  Kind of a contradiction in terms. Recognized in sociology, of course, as reproduction of inequality. 

  • Recognized in sociology, of course, as reproduction of inequality. A.o.: Bourdieu & Passeron.

13. Educational test item design is not neutral with respect to these hypotheses.  In fact, my secret goal in this search for fair schooling is to identify the constraints for unbiased test item design, ‘unbiased’ taken in the broadest sense.

raw materials

(English and Dutch materials respectively, the third one especially on education and heritability)


reading matters

Barshaw, Jill (June 27, 2016). Is it better to teach pure math instead of applied math? OECD study of 64 countries and regions finds significant rich-poor divide on math instruction. The Hechinger Report. goo.gl/zLcP8p 

Binet, Alfred & Simon, Théodore (1916/1973 reprint). The development of intelligence in children. (The Binet-Simon Scale). Translated by Elizabeth S. Kite. Reprint: New York Arno Press. online

Borsboom, Denny, & Lisa D. Wijsen (2017). Psychology’s atomic bomb. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 24, 440-446. pdf 

Bowles, Samuel; Gintis, Herbert, & Osborne Groves, Melissa (Eds.) (2005). Unequal chances. Family background and economic success. Oxford: Princeton University Press.  Introduction: online goo.gl/NHNyvE 

Dehaene, Stanislas (2011). The number sense. How the mind creates mathematics.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. Info: goo.gl/74Abqq

Downey, Douglas B., & Condron, Dennis J. (2016). Fifty years since the Coleman Report: Rethinking the relationship  between schools and inequality. Sociology of Education89, 207-220. abstract: goo.gl/rZe4GZ (No access? Use sci-hub)

Flynn, James R. (2015) The March of Reason: What Was Hidden in Our Genes. In: Goldstein S., Princiotta D., Naglieri J. (Eds.) Handbook of Intelligence. New York, NY: Springer.  (Section: Darwin and the “scum worthy” p. 471). Op Books Google: goo.gl/vRnMGV

Galton, Francis (1869/1892 2nd/2000). Hereditary genius. An inquiry into its laws and consequences. London: Julian Friedman Publishers. Free: goo.gl/93ULqi

Hick, Rod, & Burchardt, Tania (2016). Capability Deprivation. In David Brady and Linda M. Burton (Eds.)  The Oxford Handbook of the Social Science of Poverty. Oxford University Press.  open access open access #key: the capability approach of Amartya Sen; and, e.g., Martha Nussbaum,  Ingrid Robeyns.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (2016). Why knowledge matters. Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Harvard Education Press. Prologue: goo.gl/wkUzHk 

Jarvin, Linda, & Sternberg, Robert J. (2003). Alfred Binet’s contributions as a paradigm for impact in psychology.  Chapter 3 in  Zimmerman, B. J., & Schunk, D. H. (Eds.) (2003). Educational psychology: A century of contributions. Erlbaum. Complet on Google  Books (might take time to download all pages): goo.gl/Wn2kQa

Jeronimus, Bertus F., and others  (2015). Relative Age Effects in Dutch Adolescents: Concurrent and Prospective Analyses. PLOS goo.gl/2DStHa

Kaufman, Scott Barry (January 18, 2019). In the Nature–Nurture War, Robert Plomin Is Fighting a Losing Battle. One of the leading behavioral geneticists of our time is promulgating outdated and potentially pernicious notions about the interplay of nature and nurture. sciam blog

Raven, John (2000). The Raven’s Progressive Matrices: Change and Stability over Culture and Time. Cognitive Psychology4, 1-48. goo.gl/XFYEYd

Reyna, Valerie F., and others (2009). How Numeracy Influences Risk Comprehension and Medical Decision Making. Psychological Bulletin,135, 943-973. goo.gl/kSdMqv

Gorard, Stephen, and others (2008). Equity and its relationship to citizenship education. In The Sage Handbook of Education for Citizenship and Democracy. SAGE. goo.gl/6djo2B

Sullivan, Andrew (October 24, 1999). None of the above. Does achievement testing create just the kind of elite olicharchy it was intended to prevent? New York Times, Books. Reviews Nicholas Lemann (1999). The big test. The secret history of the American meritocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Review: goo.gl/iCbmx5

Tabery, James (2014). Beyond versus: the struggle to understand the interaction of nature and nurture. MIT Press. info: goo.gl/oZj4JH

Weale, Sally (12 October 2014).  The American who wrote Britain’s latest teaching bible. Doug Lemov’s 49 classroom tips are required reading for many new teachers, but he is not universally popular. The Guardian. goo.gl/ATHXug 

Werfhorst, Herman van de, & Mijs, Jonathan J. B. (2010). Achievement Inequality and the Institutional Structure of Educational Systems: A Comparative Perspective. Annual Review of Sociology36, 407-428. goo.gl/MWEZp4 

Werfhorst, Herman van de, and others (2017). A positional model of intergenerational educational mobility: Crucial tests based on 35 societies. https://osf.io/yaxm7

Young, Michael (1958). The rise of the meritocracy 1870 – 2033. An essay on education and equality. Thames and Hudson. Toby Young on his father’s book: goo.gl/oTuNPy


Katharine Birbalsingh (28 November 2018) Keynote on Michaela School, London. Making Shift Happen 2018, Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam.  https://academicabusiness.college/making-shift-happen/msh-archief/ (find her also the keynotes by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Daisy Christodoulou, Ben Laker, Greg Ashman. What a line-up!)

Ben Kelly (11 january 2019). Meet the inspirational headmaster rescuing Britain’s most disadvantaged youngsters. Teachers at new model of academy in Hull are taking on the most disruptive pupils in the area and results suggest it is working. TheScepticisle. article

Julie Henry (20 January 2019).  No talking in the corridor, mobiles confiscated for a week and public apologies: How Britain’s strictest headmaster turned around his failing school. The Mail on Sunday | Mail Online  https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6611505/How-Britains-strictest-headmaster-turned-failing-school.html

To be expected first (sorry, plans turned out otherwise 😉

A blog on my personal experiences regarding fair schooling.  Where do I stand personally?  You have a right to know my personal motivation.

A blog on how fair schooling and especially fair assessment figures in my professional work 1968-2018.

A first blog on what it is for schooling to be fair; the capability approach.

A blog on the concept of core knowledge (E. D. Hirsch, Jr., he will present in Amsterdam November 28, Making Shift Happen 2018 on the theme of knowledge in education)

A blog on Alfred Binet and his intelligence test, the mother of all general intelligence tests.

And another 100 or something blogs, together building a well-connected conceptual network on the subject of fair schooling.


3 thoughts on “Fair schooling — take-off

  1. Pingback: Jubileumboek 50 jaar Cito – Mantel der liefde | Fair schooling & assessment

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