Monday, July 21, 2014

The Freeloader Punishment Problem in Education-as-an-adaptive-group Theory

If a societal level group, like the institution of education, functions as an adaptive group, then multi-level selection theory suggests adequate freeloader detection and punishment is required for long-term group survival/coherence.

While it is unlikely that education is a strong grouping (compared to religion, political party, family, etc.), I certainly take the view, that the institution of education functions at the level of an adaptive group.  As such it is subject to:

  • cultural evolution,
  • individual vs. group strange attractor dynamics, 
  • group maintenance processes (at the proximate cause level) and 
  • complex growth/decay dynamics.
Because the institution of education has survived remarkably well as a societal level group, examining possible ways the freeloader problem is handled is important.  


Without freeloader detection and punishment, one would expect to see swamping by disruptive shadow systems.  On this point a few facts provide context.
  • For the last 150 to 200 years education tends to follow a 50 year disruptive (phase change) cycle (Tyack & Cuban, 1995).
  • Despite clear phase changes every 50 years or so, education's coherence with larger societal shifts and limited population focus (ages 5-25) minimize the severity with which the general population perceives major disruptions (Tyack & Cuban, 1995).  In other words, the growing bifurcation is only noticed by a few 'long-in-the-tooth' teachers who've had feet in both paradigms.
  • Charter schools, online/blended schools, and home schools represent significant shadow systems to education's traditional institutionalization (Christensen, 2014; Basham, 2001; Bielect, Changler, Broughman, 2002).
  • Teacher regulation is a perennial issue in North America.

My reading and perspectives here seem to mirror Larry Cuban's: education has a significant tendency to hybridize reforms.  Other institutions like various religious denominations and moral based social groups rarely hybridize their splinter groups.

Off-the-cuff thinking suggests many religious denominations and moral based social group tend toward balkanization.  One plausible explanation for balkanization and splinter-group vs. main group competition is a steep gradient for norm variation punishment.  In other words, you leave a religion or moral social group with a fair bit of momentum.  i.e you're punted out the door.

Education seems to have a softer gradient for norm variants.  While you can still get punted out, there seems to be significant liberalness with regard to orthodoxy and certainly tremendous tolerance with regard to orthopraxy.  This suggests adaptive level groups such as religion and moral based social groups have stronger 'freeloader' punishment tendencies than education (as an adaptive level institutionalized group does).  Why?


Universalist religions tend to have well developed systems to teach and encourage norm compliance.  Often a hard-to-fake show of intent submission is a good enough group entry point (Evangelicals = public redeemer confessions, Mormon = gaining a testimony, etc.).  Novel offshoot splinter groups tend to be much more concerned about current, rather than future, norm adherence.

I've already done a bit of speculation about norm variation punishment in education (online courses  & homeschooling ). For a more grounded perspective, Izhak Berkovich's research on teacher reform resistance in the 64 day 2007 Israeli teacher strike.  His work reveals teacher attempts to combat  the 'freeloader' perception problem.
This attempt to undermine the public’s perception of teachers as "freeloaders" enjoying public funds for little work was found to be a central theme in teachers' rational appeals. (pp. 13)
 Analysis also reveals teacher attempts to frame 'freeloader' issues in terms of group member (education's direct participants) benefits.
The analysis reveals a tendency to tie the present struggle and resistance to reform with a broader struggle over public recognition of the importance of education. The teachers continued to claim that the struggle was not only about teachers' salaries and work conditions, but that they are fighting against the reform because it did not answer to the real needs of students or the problems of the educational system. (pp. 14)
In making these arguments it was found that many educators employed an in-group vs. out-group strategy.  The following example from a school website framing the argument for the public is illustrative:
This reform does not center around education and pupil welfare. This is an economically driven reform and so budgetary efficiency is at the center. More teaching work hours means less expenses, but more students per teacher, less time to invest in any of the children and advance a significant educational process. The teachers also want reform! But first and foremost a pedagogically driven one that will promote the public education. (pp. 14)
So freeloader concerns certainly crop up in education.  In-group binding within education seems to centre on an orthodoxical attitudes concerning students' best interests.  (the dynamics of short-term vs. long-term interests will have to be delayed for another post).  But how are freeloaders punished?


I think there are at least two insightful ways of looking at the freeloader problem in education:

  1. Dig into punishment moderators (in religion, the repentant sinner problem)
  2. Rationalize norm variant toleration  (in religion, the uber-classic problem of evil)

Largely because I'm biased toward the dynamics that can emerge from tolerance-intolerance, I favour the second approach, and will expand on that in my next post….

Part 2: Rationalizing Norm Variation Tolerance in Education-as-an-adaptive-group Theory


Berkovich, I. (2011). No we won't! Teachers' resistance to educational reform. Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 49(5), 563 - 578.

Basham, P. (2001). Home-schooling: From the extreme to the mainstream. Public Policy Sources, 51, 3-18.
Bielick, S., Chandler, K., & Broughman, S. P. (2002). Homeschooling in the United States: 1999. Education Statistics Quarterly, 1-12. 

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