Weasel Words and School Autonomy

Recently, Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced that $70 million dollars would be made available to support public schools in becoming Independent Public Schools.

The plan was immediately and resoundingly rejected by many secors of society, with NSW Education Minister outright refusing to agree to the policy, claiming that there was not enough research of evidence to suggest that it wa sa good model for education.

What I intend to focus on in this post, however, is not the lacking evidence base in support of Pyne’s proposition, nor the fact that Independent Public Schools are widely recognised as being primarily an attack on public education and an move in the conservative’s ongoing battle to destroy unionism in education, nor highlight that the currnt government’s anti-unionism ideology is so overbearing, that Prime Minister Abbott blatantly lied about the effect of Unionised workers when justifying why his government wouldn’t support long-standing Australian company SPC, who were asking for only around 1/3 of he money being put into this move to shake up public education in Australia.

No, what I’ll be looking at is the government’s own language used to explain and justify the policy, and demonstrate how the use of language results in very little actually being communicated or committed to (admitted?) to by the government. They offer a single page of explanation for the policy on their studentsfirst.org.au website, which can be found here.

It begins:

Both internationally and in Australia, evidence emphasises the advantages of school autonomy as part of a comprehensive strategy for school improvement

Right off the bat, familiar weasel words appear in the use of the phrase “As part of a”. Remember all those childhood cereal commercials that tried to tell you that several hundred calories of sugar-coated flakes were “part of a complete breakfast”? It’s a phrase that means “The thing we’re selling may or may not be a positive part of the complete whole, and we’re trying to mask it’s deleterious effects behind a more holistic image in the hope of appearing to take a comprehensive view of the subject while ultimately just trying to sell you large amount of unhealthy processed sugar”.

The page continues:

In Australia, schools in all states and territories have been moving towards more autonomous and independent models to improve education outcomes.

While this sentence seems innocuous enough, the use of the simple conjunction ‘to’ between the two clauses make for a minefield of potential meaning. The first clause, that school sin Australia have become increasingly autonomous, is a factual claim that is easily verifiable, however to use ‘to’ to connect that fact to the motivation of improving school outcomes is to make a claim that requires significant further evidence before it can be taken as true. In fact, the primary counter-claim against Independent Public Schools is that it is not a policy aimed at improving educational standards, but a cost-cutting measure masked by educational concerns. That counter claim is backed up by the general failure of any nation’s implementation of models like IPS to yield significant improvements in academic results that can be directly attributed to the model. Therefore, for that statement form the government to be taken as true, further evidence is required.  In terms of argument, it falls under the heading of “that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”, and therefore offers no value to the discussion.

This is followed by:

The Australian Government also recognises that giving schools and school leaders greater autonomy can help improve student results.

Everything said about the previous sentence applies here. No evidence, no reason, just words. Meaningless words.

Then:

Great schools have leaders and teachers who have the independence to make the decisions and develop the courses that best meets the needs of their students.

Here we see what is effectively a non-sequitur, in that it does not logically follow from the previous statements. This statement actually has nothing to do with the previous or following statements. Even if we accept this statement to be entirely true (and this webpage offers no evidence in order for us to do so) you will notice that the statement itself contains the implied assumptions that schools currently don’t have the capacity to develop great courses (they do!). This is the informal logical fallacy of begging the question. If the argument is to be made that schools currently do not have that capacity and that becoming independent with grant it, then make that argument! Unless of course, that argument is easily identifiable as false. Ultimately, again, this sentence adds no actual valid information, and appears to be a deliberate misdirection.

The page then goes on to say that the government is committed to supporting development of school leaders, and as a statement of intent, followed by two qualified “we know” statements, it again does not actually add information that can be verified.

So after the introduction, we actually have no reliable information about School Autonomy or its effects on education, nor references to sources we might evaluate for ourselves.

Then, after the heading “Independent Public Schools” we find…

The evidence shows, and overseas experience highlights, that increasing school autonomy can help lift student outcomes and better meet the needs of local communities.

More familiar weasel words appear. First of all, this statement makes a claim to evidence, yet offers none. But then it uses the word ‘help’. Any grade 10 English student should be able to identify how the word ‘help’ is used in advertisements for products that have no proven effect, just like vitamin supplements “help” your bodies natural defences, or ‘miracle diet foods’ “help” your natural metabolic processes. Like with the complete breakfast example, the use of the word ‘help’ here immediately undermines any suggestion that Independent Public Schools actually contribute toward improved student outcomes, and anyway, if the evidence exists, as this statement claims it does, then where is it?

The following statement uses almost exactly the same strategy, but uses the term ‘better placed to’ , which again does not guarantee a specific outcome but does sound suggestive of positive action and outcomes.

Then there’s this statement:

The Australian Government is responding to the growing demand for greater school autonomy and flexibility with its new $70 million Independent Public Schools initiative, that builds on current developments across the states to help schools become more autonomous and independent if they so choose.

“Responding to the growing demand?” What growing demand? Where is the growing demand? A simple poll result or parent survey would give some indication, but we aren’t even offered that. Lets consider the things in Australian society that there is a clear growing demand for: Same Sex marriage, Effective Action on Climate Change, an End to the Music Career of Justin Bieber. You know how we can tell there’s growing demand for these things? Public action, news stories, debates in parliament, polls and surveys showing clear preferences in public opinion.

You know what I haven’t seen? A single story – not one – of a community rallying to have their public school made independent against the will of the teachers or school administration.

Without evidence, this is another phrase that can be dismissed as entirely meaningless, and attempting to use positive language to imply justification.

The following statement is again another statement of intent, and therefore unassailable, though no justification is given for why “increased parent and community involvement” is a good thing, or what it will even look like in practice.

Then there are four short paragraphs that link to other government documents with information about Independent Public Schools for parents and carers. I will particularly tackle the ‘fact sheet’ in greater detail in a future post.

So in it’s official page outlining the plan for Independent Public Schools the government cannot offer us even one single verifiable piece of evidence to support their claims of the policies efficacy, and use several deceptive phrases and at least two logical fallacies that suggest either they don’t have anyone on staff who knows how to write a coherent piece of text, OR they are selecting words carefully to avoid addressing the issue of evidence while still seeming positive and official.

As a piece of written communication it does not offer any reliable information except for two vague statements about the governments intent regarding the program which let us know, at least, what they intend to do. We are no more enlightened about the efficacy of Independent Public Schools at the end than we were at the beginning, though potentially a bit more confused.

The site does, however, promise that there will be more information coming. I eagerly await it’s arrival upon my dissecting table.

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Filed under Just Add Logic; Won't Hold Water

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