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Rewarding merit is what Greek education needs first

George Papandreou speaking in Thessaloniki on 13 September promised Greeks that if they make him Prime Minister he would increase spending on education to 5% of GDP and set aside an extra 1 billion euros for the sector in his first budget. Greek education, however, first needs reform and then money because otherwise George would only finance a failed system. Unfortunately ‘New Democracy’ has also got its priorities wrong.

Asked by the ‘Athens News’ editor John Psaropoulos in April whether he plans to have schoolteachers assessed and whether salary raises given to them will be tied to performance as happens in the USA, Mr Aris Spiliotopoulos, Greece’s Minister of Education answered: “It is premature to discuss what we might borrow from foreign systems given that Greek society is structured differently (my emphasis)”. The same could be said by an Iranian minister asked if Iran might one day abrogate the article of its constitution that specifies the weight of the stones to be used for stoning adulterous wives to death.

The truth is that there are indeed people in this country who deeply resent the success of their colleagues. They vituperate in a vehement and snarling manner against the “smart alecs” who seek recognition and personal rewards instead of joining in militant mass actions to secure more public money spent on education and better pay for all

The truth is that there are indeed people in this country who deeply resent the success of their colleagues. They vituperate in a vehement and snarling manner against the “smart alecs” who seek recognition and personal rewards instead of joining in militant mass actions to secure more public money spent on education and better pay for all. In a curious twist, however, many of them also believe that taken collectively, the Greeks are smarter than any other race.

There is nothing new in this. Adolf Hitler was convinced of the inherent superiority of the white race that should rule the world. He was also sure of the deleterious influence of the Jewish race that needed to be obliterated not for what they did but for what they were (this is the difference between genocide and a routine massacre for political reasons). What is often forgotten is that Hitler also killed selectively those whites who were born mentally deficient in order to ‘cleanse the genome of the master race of its impurities’.

Such notions were not confined to Nazism. The introduction and use of IQ tests at the beginning of the 20th century showing that children of poor families did consistently worse at school and in society than those from better off ones gave rise to the so-called theory of “social Darwinism” that argued against social welfare policies because they allegedly perpetuated artificially the “survival of the unfit”. In 1919 Lewis Terman, a professor of psychology at Stanford University who had revised and expanded the Stanford-Binet IQ test (still in use today) wrote that “this will ultimately result in the curtailing of the reproduction of the feeble-minded”. In 1930 as many as 24 US states had passed sterilization laws to that effect.

Well, ladies and gentlemen and dear friends, there is real change in the air these days and not just because of the scintillating intelligence displayed by Barrack Obama in every sentence he utters, especially when compared to the dull pronouncements of his predecessor. Richard E. Nisbett, a prominent cognitive psychologist who teaches at the University of Michigan reveals in his aptly named book Intelligence and how to get it a whole new vista on the subject. He shows that IQ is not 75-85% heritable as thought before, but less than 50%. His estimates come from comparing the IQs of blood relatives – identical twins, fraternal twins and siblings – reared apart in different adoptive families. As he says, the same corn seed planted on two plots of land, one with rich soil and one with poor one will give plants of very different size. What he showed conclusively is that more than 50% of a human being’s IQ is due to the cognitive stimulation he gets from his family (whether biological or adoptive) and from his school. He produces ample evidence showing that the IQ racial gap in the US between those of African descent and the others has been steadily shrinking thanks to the better treatment and the prosperity of the African-American community, thus proving the social Darwinists utterly wrong. Over the last 30 years the measured IQ difference between black and white 12-year- old pupils has dropped from 15 points to 9,5..

deally they should be given the right to choose their kids’ school as they choose their clothes, thus creating competition among the educational service-providers. This already happens in Sweden

An important finding of these studies is that parents emerge as an extremely important factor for the development of intelligence in children, both during the pre-school years and after. Ideally they should be given the right to choose their kids’ school as they choose their clothes, thus creating competition among the educational service-providers. This already happens in Sweden. However, such a reform would be too much to ask of a union-shy Greek Government that likes to shift responsibility for the lack of change to Greek society as a whole. Nonetheless the least the Greek state could do is to give the teachers it appoints the necessary incentives to keep improving their performance. If the Minister stays put because he is afraid of the unions, this has to do with the structure of Greek politics not of Greek society.

Even Mr Spiliotopoulos must have realised, however, that times have changed, that Greece is no longer an isolated country that can live by its own rules and that its competitiveness in a globalized world, as shown by recent reports of world agencies such as the World Bank, is not just dangerously low but sinking. He should read a new report under the name ‘Top of the Class’ issued some months ago by the OECD on the changing notions of educational excellence in some 60 countries. The emphasis is now being shifted to the development of critical faculties, inventiveness and innovation requiring a new kind of teacher for the new era. As Andeas Schlicher, head of the OECD’s analysis division puts it: “Acquisition of routine cognitive skills that can today be digitized, automated or outsourced is no longer sufficient for someone to be successful in the global economy’.

The time has come for Greeks to demand of their leaders to impose meritocracy on the teaching profession NOW!

Mark Dragoumis