Material Fallacies of Education Research Evidence and Public Policy Advice

By O'Neill, John | New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Material Fallacies of Education Research Evidence and Public Policy Advice


O'Neill, John, New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies


Introduction

Rational debates about education policy choices are only possible when all those involved use language and evidence correctly. Material fallacies in logic are "mistakes in understanding the meaning or use of terms" (Kreeft, 2010, p. 85). Just as in practical logic, public policy discourse becomes problematic when the terms used are ambiguous, unclear or vague. This commentary analyses one recent case of material fallacy in education policy discourse in order to promote discussion of the responsibilities researchers may have whenever research evidence is used mistakenly.

Treasury's briefing to the incoming Minister of Finance after the 2011 election included a controversial assertion about school funding policy:

Student achievement can be raised by improving the quality of teaching, which the evidence shows is the largest inschool influence on student outcomes. Increasing student/ teacher ratios, and consolidation of the school network, can free up funding that could be used to support initiatives to enhance the quality of teaching, such as more systemic use of value-add data and a more professionalised workforce. (Treasury, 2011, p. 21)

In reply to a Parliamentary question about this briefing, the Minister of Education declined to rule out increases in class size. In short, this was because the "independent observation" of Treasury and the research findings of an influential government adviser, Professor John Hattie, were that schooling policy should instead focus on improving the quality of teaching (House of Representatives, 2012).

Government ministers have many portfolio responsibilities and rely largely on officials and advisers to provide accurate policy advice. At first glance, the Minister's reply appeared to draw logically on such advice: student/ teacher ratios do not have a large influence on student outcomes; the quality of teaching does have a large influence on student outcomes; therefore in order to produce a larger effect on student outcomes, school policy and funding should prioritise the quality of teaching over student/ teacher ratios.

Closer analysis reveals errors in both argument and evidence. Much of the terminology is ambiguous and inconsistently used by politicians, officials and academic advisers. The propositions are not demonstrably true- indeed, there is evidence to suggest they are false in crucial respects. The conclusion is, at best, uncertain because it does not take into account confounding evidence that larger classes do adversely affect teaching, learning and student achievement, particularly the achievement of already disadvantaged students such as those prioritised by the Ministry of Education (2011) throughout its current school reform agenda.

Precisely because material fallacies are written or spoken by persons, these limitations give cause to reflect more broadly on the practices, motivations and subject positionings of the various policy actors (politicians, officials and academics) within the contemporary discourse of schooling reform in Aotearoa New Zealand. It has been observed, for example, that, in the English context, the equivalent discourse seeks to portray the public sector as "ineffective, unresponsive, sloppy, risk-averse and innovation- resistant" yet at the same time it promotes "celebration of public sector 'heroes' of reform and new kinds of public sector 'excellence'" (Ball, 2007, p. 3). Relatedly, Mintrom (2000) has written persuasively, in the American context, of the way in which "policy entrepreneurs" position themselves politically to champion, shape and benefit from school reform discourses.

The case discussed in this commentary provides a timely opportunity to ask whether and to what extent New Zealand may too exhibit "a confusing interplay of trust/ distrust" (Ball, 2007, p. 3) in the education policy process. It also encourages a more systematic, disinterested analysis of the quality of evidence and advice, and how these are used tactically by various policy actors to facilitate a reformist ideology of public schooling.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Material Fallacies of Education Research Evidence and Public Policy Advice
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.