April 23, 2006

Jonathan Kozol -- Education's Greatest Monster

Education's lovable crank, Jonathan Kozol, recently surpassed Alfie Kohn as Education's Greatest Monster while on the road promoting his latest jeremiad.

No longer content in rehashing his pessimistic view that poor kids can't learn --wait for it-- as long as they're poor, he is now actively bashing effective instructional programs ostensibly because they are successful in educating poor kids. This is an impossibility under his pet theory.

His blissfully fact-free siren songs are very alluring to our gullible educators. He is one of the most often cited sources for education apologists. This is because he basically just says what he wants with complete disregard to the facts.

Take for example this interview with Voice in Urban Education.

Let's dispense with his main argument right off the bat. Kozol contends, without any proof, that you can easily improve student performance of poor kids by sending them to affluent school districts. Supposedly, the teaching that is going on in these affluent school districts is so superior that the deprived children would naturally just learn everything they need to. If but this were true.

Apparently, no one has told Kozol that NCLB now requires school districts to disaggregate their data by race and SES so it's now pretty easy to show that he is wrong.

Let's use my school district as an example. My school district ranks in the top 5% of school districts in Pennsylvania. It is a very affluent school district, located in the town of a highly selective liberal arts college. We spend more than 95% of all of Pennsylvania's school districts. My district is highly enamored with all the fashionable nonsense that passes for education nowadays. Here is the latest report card. Let's use the white students' score as a proxy for high-SES and compare the white students to the low-SES students using the average scores for reading and math in all grades tested in 2004 and 2005:


White (High SES): 82.7
State Avg: 65.3

Low SES: 52.5
State Avg: 36.8

Black: 40.2
State Avg: 28.5

All students: 80
State Avg: 58.3


White (High SES): 85.7
State Avg: 71.3

Low SES: 52.7
State Avg: 41.3

Black: 53.7
State Avg: 35

All students: 83
State Avg: 64.3

Now let's look at the achievement gaps for math and reading combined (AG):

AG between High and Low SES students: 31.6
AG State Avg: 29.3

AG between Black and White students: 37.3
AG State Avg: 32.25

There we have it.

Low-SES students only perform marginally better in a high-performing affluent school, but still perform below the state average and have an even larger achievement gap between them and their high-SES peers. And, bear in mind that I haven't controlled for the actual SES of the Low-SES students. In all likelihood the low-SES students in my district have a higher SES than the state average for low-SES students, which would explain most, if not all, of the small gains we see.

So much for that theory. Now let's get on to the meat of the analysis on part II.

Update: As I suspected, the low-SES students in my district have a significantly higher SES than the low-SES students statewide. According to schoolmatters, about 22% of the low-SES students in my district have a family income of less than $15k, compared to 36% statewide. Similarly, 47% in my district have a family income between $15k and $30k, compared to 43% statewide. The remainder fall in to the $30k-$50k bracket, compared to 21% statewide. In PA, 42% of students are classifiable as economically disadvantaged, which is way too high to be an accurate indicator of true poverty. Nonetheless, this higher SES in my district for the students classifiable as low-SES does explain much of the increased student performance compared to the state scores.


Catherine Johnson said...

Unbelievable. Of course, you know this....but until you really look at it, you don't know it.

Fantastic post.

Anonymous said...

I think there is some statistical manipulation going on here to make your point. In an ideal world schools would be palaces, but we don't live in that world. Urban schools simply don't attract the most talented teachers, wealthy suburban schools do. So while the gap may be larger, a lot of research shows that it is larger because the bar is higher. Additionally, the Urban Institute has some data which suggests more minority students atend college when they're making the commute away from Urban schools.

KDeRosa said...

So while the gap may be larger, a lot of research shows that it is larger because the bar is higher.

The bar is not higher. It's at the same place, we're using the same test to evaluate performance.

The only thing that is higher is the SES of the students, even the low-SES ones. That's why they are performing slightly better than the lower low-SES students at the urban schools.

Additionally, the Urban Institute has some data which suggests more minority students attend college when they're making the commute away from Urban schools

Attending college is not the same as graduating from college. The UI needs to control for SES effects for its studies to approach validity.