August 15, 2006

Rope-a-Dope

In the Dallas Morning News, Sandy Kress takes on Charles Murray's (in)famous WSJ Op-ed article and proclaims:
Charles Murray's essay reminds me of the effort of the boxer who never lands a punch but hopes to impress the judges by dazzling dancing and ducking. The problem: He is a sitting duck for the knockout punches. Here they come.
Murray may be against the rhetorical ropes, but I think it's more a matter of Murray giving Kress the rope-a-dope than Kress setting Murray up for a knockout.

Kress takes issue with Murray's assertion that NCLB
"has not had a significant impact on overall test scores and has not narrowed the racial and socioeconomic gaps" and points out that there has been a statistically significant increase in NAEP scores:

On fourth-grade math national scores from 2000 to '05, the white-black gap closed from 30 points to 26 points, the white-Hispanic gap has closed from 26 to 21 points, and the nonpoor-poor gap has closed from 26 to 22 points.

In fourth-grade reading, the gap over the same period for white-black has closed from 34 points to 29 points; for white-Hispanic, from 35 to 26 points; and for nonpoor-poor, from 34 points to 27 points.

All these gap-closing statistics are statistically significant. Clearly there's much more progress to achieve, but, contrary to Mr. Murray's assertions, the gains since 2000 have been of historic proportions.

Kress may have won the opening battle, but it is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory. Murray will likely win the war in the long run. And, the reason has to do with the highly-controversial concept of IQ and racial inequalities and the nature vs. nurture debate.

Unfortunately for Kress, the weight of scientific authority is increasingly falling on the IQ is mostly determined by nature/genetics and is mostly immutable side of the argument. This is not fashionable among the largely liberal intelligentsia and it certainly isn't carved in stone just yet. Faced with dwindling scientific support, the nurture side of the argument has resorted to merely denying the entire concept of IQ and painting the nature side as racists and Nazis.

Because of this Murray is dancing around the issue without bringing up IQ. And, Kress is taking advantage of transient state increases in minority achievement.

Let's look at what's going on.

In recent years, schools have made a grudging effort to improve teaching of traditionally low performing students. And, as the NAEP scores are showing, that effort is starting to pay off. But, gains remain small (though statistically significant, but that doesn't necessarily make them "significant"). We know from Project Follow through and subsequent research shows us that on average low-performing kids can achieve like your average kid with better instruction.

This result, however, is dependent upon not improving the instruction given to the average kids. The average kids were the control group.

My theory is that this is what is causing the test score increase we see today. Political pressure has caused instruction to improve slightly for low performers. But the focus is almost exclusively on low performers and schools serving large percentages of low performers. It is business as usual with the average and higher performers. They are presently passing the low standards tests already, so they're still getting the same instructional witch's brew they've been getting.

But what if we started to improve instruction for the average and high performers as well? Guess what? Their tests scores will start going up as well. Check out Fig. 5 on Page 5 of this article.

The achievement of all kids can be improved if we improve their instruction. In fact there's reason to believe that the achievement gap will, if anything, increase, with better instruction:
With more emphasis on the higher performers, their performance could have been accelerated more dramatically.
It all comes back to IQ. On average, higher IQ kids will find a way to learn more if instruction is held constant. As a result, there will always be an achievement gap at least in the near future.

So what we have now is a short term transient situation which is the result of unequal educational improvement. We will eventually reach steady state again.

What Murray was really saying is that you can raise achievement (at least temporarily), but it's much more difficult to increase IQ. Eventually, the inability to change IQ will result in an achievement gap. The only way to eliminate the achievement gap is to mask it with
"pass percentages, not mean scores."

I'm not vouching for the rest of Murray's argument, but this part he's gotten right.

17 comments:

SteveH said...

"It is business as usual with the average and higher performers. They are presently passing the low standards tests already, so they're still getting the same instructional witch's brew they've been getting."

Actually, they are ignored. I've seen this first hand with my son in first grade. NCLB success requires more focus on the lowest ability learners. Helping the more able kids will not improve standardized test scores. If you set the bar low enough and work really hard, you can close the achievement gap.


The tests are so easy that group results are based more on instructional quality and student motivation than IQ. If the test expectations were higher and if teaching was much better, you would see a bigger gap between the more able (or hard working) students and the less able (or working) students. Even if you forget IQ, I just don't understand why you would want to eliminate an academic gap between those who want to learn and those who don't.

KDeRosa said...

But I think student motivation and work ethic are mostly a function of student IQ and instructional quality. Student IQ and instructional quality determine if a student will learn. Students who are learning wll stay engaged and motivated to learn more. Students who aren't learning quickly become disengaged and unmotivated and create classroom behavior problems.

As the quality of instruction decreases, more and more students fail to learn as we work our way up the IQ bell curve.

So the average and above kids ae continuing to get the same old instruction; the kids learn but not up to their potential. The lower performers are now starting to get marginally better instruction and their learning has improved marginally. The small achievment gap closing is illusory.

SteveH said...

"But I think student motivation and work ethic are mostly a function of student IQ and instructional quality."

This may (or may not) be the case on a statistical basis, but it really shouldn't affect how schools teach individual students.


"The small achievment gap closing is illusory."

My complaint is that the focus on closing a gap (which could be based on all sorts of reasons) is the wrong approach to education. As you say, the gap may never close and if they teach properly, the gap could increase. Teachers shouldn't care what a child's IQ or gap group is. Schools should set specific grade level standards and use proper curricula and teaching methods. They should allow the more willing or able students (based on what they do in class) to move ahead or accelerate.

allen said...

But that's what the NCLB is all about, pulling up the minimum standard from what it is now - there is none - to some measureable, and defensible, level. If that requires short-changing the smart kids, that's the nature of politics: a zero-sum game.

If you want a public education system then you have to come to terms with the fact that it's a political creation and thus can never be divorced from its origin. As a creation of the political process it'll always represent a compromise reached by those who can exert enough influence to have a say with none of the represented parties being particularly happy.

1citizen said...

Oh my

None of you get it. We need more diverse thinkers like referenced below to truly help those with the greatest need.

An excerpt:

"Walborn has long been critical of the district’s Reading Recovery program, as he has promoted another approach to teaching dyslexic students. Akan, formerly known as Carl Johnson, is an advocate of an Afrocentric approach to instruction."

http://www.fortwayne.com/mld/journalgazette/15277639.htm

KDeRosa said...

but it really shouldn't affect how schools teach individual students.

No, it shouldn't. It just tells us that as instructional quality decreases it affects the lower peformers the most since they will be struggling the most to keep pace.

It is another matter entirely whether schools should only be trying to get the lowest performers to the minimum NCLB standards or if they should be trying to get even more out of the average and higher kids. I haven't written much about this yet. but, these low expectations are problematic at the elementary and middle school level. The smarter kids really don't getr challenged until they are separately tracked in high school.

SteveH said...

"The smarter kids really don't getr challenged until they are separately tracked in high school."

A veteran "traditional" teacher told me once that it's not so much the best students that get hurt (they can pick up the slack in high school), but the average ones. It's all over for them by the time they get to high school.

SteveH said...

" ...that's the nature of politics: a zero-sum game."

But teaching is not a zero-sum game. There is no reason that schools cannot either set higher grade-level standards or separate kids by ability. I also believe that there is a lot of room for improvement in curricula and teaching methods. Bad versus good is not a zero-sum choice.


"If you want a public education system..."

Actually, I don't, unless they somehow figure out how to provide a lot more school choice.

Mike in Texas said...

Sandy Kress has been a disease to Texas public education. He is a political insider and lobbyist, NOT an expert on education.

Tracy W said...

...that's the nature of politics: a zero-sum game."

But teaching is not a zero-sum game. There is no reason that schools cannot either set higher grade-level standards or separate kids by ability. I also believe that there is a lot of room for improvement in curricula and teaching methods. Bad versus good is not a zero-sum choice.


Politics is often a zero-sum game however.

The political objective was defined as "no child left behind" ie every child learns how to read and do basic maths.

If schools can't both teach every single kid bar the severely-cognitively disabled to read and extend the average and intelligent kids, and that is a big if I agree, then it is a values-choice as to which you do. Speaking as someone who was incredibly bored at primary school and most of high school, I think that if schools have to chose between the two, they should chose to bring every kid (but the severely cognitively-disabled) up to the basic standard. I was massively bored, but the kids who didn't learn to read at school were also bored, and are far worse off in adult life.

Now KdeRosa provides some evidence that there is not an unavoidable trade-off here, the slower kids can be taught to read and do basic maths without compromising the education for the smarter kids using DI.
But:
a) it's unlikely the politicians knew about DI when writing the law,
b) the material on DI I've read through KdeRosa's links implies that the creators only expect it to work if a majority of the teachers at the school support its implementation. The government cannot force teachers across the country to support something. It can pass laws saying that DI must be used, but if people on the ground are not convinced of that then they could sabotage DI effectively.

So politicans made a value judgement that bringing everyone (excepted the severely cognitively disabled) up to a minimum standard was more valuable than extra education for the smarter kids while the slower ones rotted.

There's nothing in the NCLB law I know about that stops schools from challenging the smarter kids as well as bringing the slower ones up to the minimum standard. But if the NCLB law mandated both requirements, I strongly suspect neither would be achieved, and failure to achieve each would be blamed on the existance of the other goal.

As it is, the goal set for schools is clear - teach everyone (bar the severely cognitively disabled) to read and do maths. I think that's about the best a government can expect to do when it comes to mandates.

allen said...

But teaching is not a zero-sum game.

OK but that's not what's at issue. What's at issue is how resources are apportioned in the public education system and that is a zero sum game.

There is no reason that schools cannot either set higher grade-level standards or separate kids by ability.

I'd say there must be some reason since public schools, in the main, do neither.

I know why public schools are loath to separate kids by ability. That smacks of discrimination which starts with "d" which rhymes with "p" and that stands for "pool"!

Uhh, sorry. A Music Man moment.

But the public schools are loath to separate kids by ability. That's partly becaue of the trendy and self-aggrandizing fight-racism-even-if-you-can't-find-it mind-set so prevelant in public schools but also because of the inherent inflexibility of public education as it's currently structured.

As for public school districts setting higher standards for themselves; why? Other then pride what's the motivation? No teacher or administrator gets any monetary reward for bringing the state spelling championship back home so once again pride becomes the entire motivation. If anything, a downhill slide in results is offered as proof that more money is needed which means that the only discernable financial motivation rewards lower standards.

Actually, I don't, unless they somehow figure out how to provide a lot more school choice.

It's a work in progress. First, you have to break the grip of those tight little oligarchies, the school districts, that currently preside over public education. Charters are showing a viable way to do that. But that's only a stepping stone since charters are political creatures as much as school districts.

Give charters a long enough period of time and the people who are more adept at working the system then they are teaching kids will start to zero in. But charters, being out from under the dominion of the school district are inherently more flexible then school districts and, by inference and relative size, place more power in the hands of parents. I guess we'll see how far that transfer of power goes but at least it's going in the right direction.

Mike in Texas wrote:

Sandy Kress has been a disease to Texas public education. He is a political insider and lobbyist, NOT an expert on education.

He's probably not a scratch golfer either and that has about as much to do with public education policy as being a teacher. All the big questions in public education and quite a few of the small questions will be decided by politicians, aka the people. If you want more say-so over how education is done then go to work where your opinion does matter, a charter.

SteveH said...

"I think that's about the best a government can expect to do when it comes to mandates."

I wasn't talking about mandates. I was talking about what parents should be able to expect from schools. I'm no fan of NCLB because it IS a mandate - a very minimal one which will makes it OK to give the slowest learners more than what they have now, but not much more.

There's a lot more that schools can do for all students, but there is nothing but a low-expectation mandate to drive the change. Larger changes won't happen unless there is more school choice.

SteveH said...

"I know why public schools are loath to separate kids by ability. That smacks of discrimination ..."

High schools do this and many lower schools do this. It has, and always will be, a very common practice. The problem arises (since I was in public schools) when the lower grades (K-8) decide to use age-tracking full-inclusion, with spiraling of the curriculum and social promotion. This requires lower and less specific grade-level standards. This is a philosophical choice that has nothing to do with mandates or zero-sum. It has to do with their own ideas of education. It's not a political choice. It is a progressive, philosophical eduational choice.

There is also a philosophical and curriculum wall between most high schools and lower schools. In my town, they carry it to an extreme through 8th grade with no separation by ability. The school turned down the 8th grade math teacher's request for a separate full algebra course for some students. Everyone has to take the algebra lite class that is offered. When these students get to high school, all but the best students end up in the lower tracks. Parents complain, but our schools did a study that "showed" that our students hold their own.

This has nothing to do with mandates or zero-sum. That is my point. Our schools could do something else, but they just don't want to.


"But charters, being out from under the dominion of the school district are inherently more flexible then school districts and, by inference and relative size, place more power in the hands of parents."

But they are still under the domination of state educational authorities, many of whom do not like charters one bit. In our state (and others), there is a moratorium on new charter schools. Even if there wasn't, there are strict limits on the charter, and the charters have to be approved by the state public school education authorities. It would be an impossibility to set up a charter school that set high and specific grade-level standards. Our public schools complain bitterly about the handful of students that go to one of the remaining charter schools. Because our schools are high performing on the state standardized test, they don't want these kids to go elsewhere. They think it's their money.

I'm all in favor of unlimited charter schools and full vouchers - anything that breaks the stranglehold and monoply of public education and puts the power into the hands of the parents. If the people who are pushing NCLB are not careful, then the result will be no choice, but institutionalized low expectations for all. Our public schools love standards and are high performing, but 25 percent of the kids in our town go to other schools. Why? Low expectations.

allen said...

steveh wrote:

Our schools could do something else, but they just don't want to

And your guess/theory/suspicion as to why?

But they are still under the domination of state educational authorities, many of whom do not like charters one bit.

The difference is that district hierarchies exist for the purpose of doing the unnecessary job of overseeing schools and they've been in that business for a century or so. State bureaucrats would try to expand their authority by dictating to charter schools but it's a job for which they aren't set up and which would face very determined resistance from charter schools and charter parents.

Given enough time the bureaucrats would win; they're at the job of expanding their domain forty hours a week. That's why charters (and vouchers) can only stepping stones.

I'm all in favor of unlimited charter schools and full vouchers - anything that breaks the stranglehold and monoply of public education and puts the power into the hands of the parents.

Me too. Are you ready for an end to the public education system though? That's where unlimited charters and vouchers will take us. Not that I'm against that but it's a pretty big step emotionally.

SteveH said...

"And your guess/theory/suspicion as to why?"

Progressive education ideology.


"Are you ready for an end to the public education system though? That's where unlimited charters and vouchers will take us. Not that I'm against that but it's a pretty big step emotionally."


Emotionally? Happy-type emotion.

It won't happen. The best I hope for is lifting the moratorium on charter schools and much more flexibility on charters. As it stands now in our state, many of the charter schools are fuzzier than the public schools.

I see a huge latent parental demand for something else. Parents might be a little unclear about what that is, but with more charter schools, a lot will start to happen, even in the public schools. If, however, charter schools are strictly limited and geared towards strange charters and students that public schools really don't want, it will fail. Right now I'm not optimistic.

Politically, the major downside to charters schools and vouchers is the huge and hidden cost savings provided by parents who send their kids to private school. Our town's school costs might rise by 33 percent. Public schools like to think that the reason parents send their kids to private school is elitism. The real reason is higher expectations.

SteveH said...

Another comment - my opinion is that the fight over charter schools is very much more important than the fight for NCLB. NCLB is just a mandate for minimal success. Charter schools and choice is a process for unlimited improvement. There is no reason not to have both, but NCLB has not stopped state moratoriums on charter schools.

Mike in Texas said...

All the big questions in public education and quite a few of the small questions will be decided by politicians, aka the people.

Sandy Kress is not a politian and does not represent the people; he represents corporations.