February 27, 2008

Common Core Off to a Dubious Start

New education group, Common Core, issued their very first survey-based report this week on the serious lack of knowledge possessed by our 17 year-olds. They even managed to get the NY Times and USA Today to use the report to bash NCLB a bit.

Timesman, Sam Dillon, spins the report thusly:

The group says President Bush’s education law, No Child Left Behind, has impoverished public school curriculums by holding schools accountable for student scores on annual tests in reading and mathematics, but in no other subjects. (emphasis mine)

Greg Toppo of USA Today has similar thoughts:

Twenty-five years after the federal report A Nation at Risk challenged U.S. public schools to raise the quality of education, the study finds high schoolers still lack important historical and cultural underpinnings of "a complete education." And, its authors fear, the nation's current focus on improving basic reading and math skills in elementary school might only make matters worse, giving short shrift to the humanities — even if children can read and do math.(emphasis mine)

Naturally, the report, itself, uses less-heated rhetoric. However, I am somewhat concerned with the dubious motives behind the issuance of this report.

The report is based on a telephone survey of 17 year-olds using questions taken from a 1986 NAEP exam. Of course, few of the interviewees could successfully answer the questions. From USA Today:

•43% knew the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900.

•52% could identify the theme of 1984.

•51% knew that the controversy surrounding Sen. Joseph McCarthy focused on communism.

This lack of knowledge could then be used as a club to criticize education and/or to push the group's favored education reform.

Then I started wondering why the group just didn't use the NAEP data in the first place. Why go through the hassle of calling up thousands of people, asking them a battery of questions to capture their responses, and crunching the numbers when the Feds have already done the heavy lifting for you?

That's when it hit me that the longitudinal NAEP data most likely didn't support the group's conclusions.

And, sure enough, the data tells a different story.

Here is the NAEP data for 17 year-olds in history:

Compare the pre-NCLB scores ('94 and '01) to the post-NCLB scores ('06). If anything, the post-NCLB scores show small (mostly statistically significant, but surely not educationally significant) gains. If 2006's 17 year-olds are dummies, this data shows they were just about as dumb (or slightly smarter) as their '01 and '94 cohorts.

That's an inconvenient fact for the Common Core people. It's also an inconvenient fact for the all the pundits who are so worried about NCLB's supposed narrowing effect on social studies. Especially when the 4th grade and 8th grade data show similar trends.

8th grade:

4th grade:

I especially like the somewhat substantial gains made by the 4th graders from the 10th and 25th percentiles. Hey, maybe knowing how to read does help learning content in other areas.

Similar trends show up in civics.

I'm giving Common Core an F for their fledgling attempt at advocacy.

You might be able to fool the dummies at the Times and USA Today with this crap, but you're not getting it by the edusphere.

February 19, 2008

Rhee Pulls a Klein

Before today, Michelle Rhee's tenure as Chancellor of the DC Public Schools system looked promising.

Today she pulled a Klein and voluntarily sabotaged herself:

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee plans to establish an experimental program that would offer customized lessons for disabled, regular and gifted students in the same classroom, a key component of her strategy to reduce exorbitant special education costs.

Rhee's proposal would launch a "differentiated learning" laboratory at West Elementary School in Northwest Washington, then replicate it citywide. Under the proposal, which is being met with skepticism from some West teachers and parents, the system would hire a private special-education school to run the program.

Differentiated Instruction = Instructional nit-wittery. Instructional nit-wittery is what is sabotaging Klein up in New York who also famously consulted education "experts" who advised him to adopt squishy reading and math programs with dismal results.

It doesn't really matter what she does now to improve the non-instructional aspects of the SC schools, this sort of educational nit-wittery is going to pretty much guarantee that student achievement will not improve.

If you hitched your wagon to Rhee's rising star, it's time to start backing away and giving yourself some plausible deniability when it ends badly.

And, it will end badly. That's now guaranteed.

February 18, 2008

The Knowledge Connection

Don Hirsch weighs in on why NCLB isn't working:

Those in Congress in charge of crafting revisions should understand that the law's disappointing results owe less to defects in the law than to the methods and ideas schools use in their attempts to fulfill the "adequate yearly progress" mandate for all groups of students; this causes schools, as many complain, to teach to reading tests rather than educate children. But intensive test preparation by schools has resulted in lower reading test scores in later grades. "Teaching to the test" does not effectively teach to the test after all.

I agree with Hirsch that "the methods and ideas schools use in their attempts to fulfill the 'adequate yearly progress' mandate for all groups of students" are the problem. In some cases, such as at the middle and high school level, the reason schools haven't responded appropriately is because 1. too many students continue to reach them ill-prepared for grade-level work and 2. there's not a whole lot of data at these levels out there on effective pedagogical methods for lower performers. There was no golden era of education in which lower performers successfully learned middle and high school level content. Before WWII, these students dropped out, after WWII, students stayed in school longer, but there's no evidence that they learned more.

However, this lack of pedagogical knowledge does not pertain to the elementary school level. There are successful models out there to emulate. If elementary schools are still floundering with AYP at this point, they have no one to blame but themselves. NAEP results show small 5th grade gains, so far, but they are far smaller than they could or should be. To put it simply, many elementary schools still refuse to do what needs to be done to imrpove, despite the punitive measures imposed by NCLB.

Perhaps there are better ways to motivate schools than NCLB, but I haven't seen any better way with a proven track record. What I normally see is nebulous ideas and complaints. I'm a firm believer in market based solutions, but for such solutions to work, you'd pretty much need to dismantle the entire public school system, the toxic education colleges, and all the special interest groups that have arisen that perpetuate the status quo. This would not only be highly disruptive, but it also requires political capital and will which presently don't exist. Remember, the public schools function well enough in the affluent suburbs where the chattering class resides.

February 16, 2008

Degree ratios tell a different story

Following up on the graduation rate debate. I found more reliable, but not perfect, longitudinal data on the number of high school graduates going back to 1880.

The graph shows the degree ratio--the number of high school diplomas conferred divided by the number of 17 year olds. This ratio excludes alternative means of obtaining a diploma, such as the GED, which have been increasing in recent years.

We're interested in 1958 to present. Overall, the trend is flat. If anything, there was an uptick until the mid sixties and then a slow decline back to the baseline until 1980. This corresponds to the big decline in SAT verbal scores, but who knows what this all means.

Anyway, it's more food for thought as to whether graduation rates really correspond to improved academic achievement.

February 15, 2008

Going fishing skiing

Going skiing for the day, kids.

Argue amongst yourselves.

Play nice.

February 14, 2008

It's Been a Long Strange Week

I find common ground with Kozol

While debating whether high school graduation rates are a good proxy for improved education outcomes in the U.S., I discover there is a scintilla of common ground between me and Kozol:

Grade level completion does not equal grade level competence.

Might be the only sane thing the man has written.

I find Common Ground with Philip Kovacs

Buried in a lengthy and somewhat confused anti-market diatribe. Education Roundtabler, Philip Kovacs, makes an odd admission:

I don't believe that massive cash infusions can save our schools. Cash would certainly help in places like Butler, where black "stuff" oozes from the ceiling vents, but the issues plaguing many schools cannot be solved with money alone.

Actually, better management of Butler's current funds might be enough to do the trick, but let's not quibble over details.

Of course, Philip thinks the underlying problem is "despair," whatever that means, which needs to be solved with a "broad coalition" with undefined goals.

Nonetheless, common ground. You take it where you can get it.

Maybe Philip will stop by and elaborate. He apparently thinks I owe him an apology for something or other too.

The trouble with snark

I like good snark as much as the next guy. However, when you engage in snark, you better be certain you're got a good position. Preferably a defendable and/or coherent position. Otherwie you look foolish.

The race card gets played

Over at Crooked Timber the subject turns to education and equality, deeply confused commenter Greg Anrig, sensing he's losing the argument, plays a thinly veiled race card.

You haven’t responded with specificity to what I wrote and keep conflating race with income, and home environment with schooling. Put your actual name on your posts and I’ll go through the trouble of putting together a bibliography. I would understand, though, if you felt that might not be helpful to your career.

You stay classy, Greg.

The opposition should take some lessons from frequent commenter Stephen Downes who, though we often disagree, takes the effort to justify and find support for his arguments. By doing so, he moves the discussion forward and we all learn a little bit and thereby adjust our positions accordingly. At least that's the theory.

In any event, it's my birthday today, so I'll play nice and go easy on the opposition at least for today. So, if you've been afraid to comment for fear of being smacked down, I have the kid gloves for the rest of today.

By the way, go read this speech, Complexity Theory and Environmental Management, by Michael Crichton. The problems of Yellowstone Park are similar to the problems in Education.

February 13, 2008

Where's the so-called improvement

I recently wrote that:

Student achievement has not improved during the past 50 years during this rapid increase of wealth.

Stephen Downes responded:

This makes you possibly the only person in the world to believe this. 50 years ago, students were not even finishing high school. A tiny fraction attended university. Many were still illiterate. To say that student achievement has not improved over the last 50 years is a fabrication on a monumental scale

I doubt I'm the only one to believe this, but even if I were, it doesn't necessarily mean that I'm wrong.

Let's take a look at some data and see who has the better position.

Decent longitudinal data is hard to come by in education. About the best we have is the longitudinal NAEP data going back to the early 70s.

Let's look at the performance of 17 year olds in reading.

No statistically signficant improvement. Across the board. Nine year olds have seen a small increase in recent years, but it's yet to be seen whether those gains will translate into real gains by 17 years olds.

Scores in math tell a similar story, but there has been some slight improvement which does not appear to be educationally significant.

Now let's take a look at SAT scores.

Notice the large drop between 1963 and 1980, in particular the pre-1971 drop which is where the NAEP data begins. This represents nearly a drop of a standard deviation.

Now I understand the selection bias issue here and the great expansion and demographic shift of students taking the SAT. Analysts claim that these factors might account for up to 75% of the drop. That still leaves 25% of the drop unexplained. We're still in drop territory, no one seriously argues that there really was an improvemnet that was washed out by all the new students. Most tellingly is that this substatial drop in scores also occurred at the top of the scale where the influx of demographically-shifted students should not have affected the scores as much. This is evident in the SAT recentering conversion that took place in 1995:

Where the solid black line is above the dotted line students received bonus points. Since the solid line is above the dotted line across the entire range, all students received a bonus, even the kids with scores above 650, i.e., the elite students. (Math scores remained steady at the top, except for scores above 750 which showed a slight drop.)

The point of the SAT scores is that no one seriously argues that there's been an improvement in student achievement, except maybe Stephen Downes.

I doubt that even Stephen believes his own rhetoric at this point. That's why he argues: "A tiny fraction attended university" as opposed to arguring that they actually graduated from university or graduated from univerisity with a degree that the job market actually values as opposed to a degree from some new fangled major which might, at best, get you a job as my secretary, so long as you learned how to type. He's also reduced to arguing that "Many were still illiterate." It seems that the NAEP data refutes that claim and I'd be surprised if other literacy measures tell a different story, but I'll let Stephen dig up that data should he chose to maintain this argument.

Oops: I forgot to address this argument: "50 years ago, students were not even finishing high school." Finshing high school was far more of an accomplishment fifty years ago when there was no or little social promotion. Seat time is not a valid substitute for academic achievement in my opinion and the data shows that academic achievement has not improved. The drop-out rate has gone down a bit, but the data before the 70s is spotty at best and, according to Jay Greene, is inaccurate afterwards.

Climbing Maslow's Pyramid

despite the title, this post isn't going to be about Maslow's Pyramid, it's about Abraham Maslow, the guy who invented it:

Abraham Maslow was born in New York City in 1908, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and the oldest of seven children. Young Abraham grew up in modest lower-middle-class comfort--and withering emotional barrenness. His father, Samuel, ran a barrel-repair business in Manhattan and spent little time at home, absorbed in his work and steering clear of his shrewish wife. Rose, Abraham's mother, was nothing short of a horror, Intensely miserly despite the fact that her husband earned a decent living, she kept a lock on the refrigerator to prevent her children from snacking. Her penny-pinching, furthermore, was embellished by a vicious cruel streak. Once, as a young child,Abraham came upon two stray kittens and decided to take them home. When Rose discovered the kittens in the basement, drinking milk from her dishes, she killed them right in front of her little boy, bashing their skulls against the basement wall. Maslow thus discovered early in life that bread alone was not enough: economic security was no consolation for a love-starved boy.

Like so many other bright young New Yorkers of his day, Abraham took advantage of that broad avenue of upward mobility, City College. He tried other, conventional routes of further ascent--law school and medical school--but was unable to stick with either. Intellectual passions won out over economic passions, and he ended up earning a PhD in psychology from the Univerity of Wisconsin. Entering the job market in the middle of the Great Depression meant that finding a position would be difficult, and the reflexive anti-Semitism that then prevailed in academia made matters still worse (several advisors urged him to change his name to something more ... acceptable). Overcoming all obstacles, Maslow was eventually able to land a job at the unprestigious Brooklyn College. He later moved to the newly formed Brandeis University, established as a refuge for Jewish scholars and students.

The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture, Brink Lindsey, p. 59-60

So how did so many of those low-SES immigrants, like young Maslow, manage to climb the pyramid despite withering material hardships and virulent discrimination that makes today's conditions seem like a walk in the park?

Let me suggest it had something to do with the fact that Abraham Maslow was a "bright young" boy.

February 11, 2008

Improving Socio-Economic Status

I promised to follow-up on last week's post on poverty and student achievement which sparked quite a few lively comments.

Let's advance the discussion by trying to accurately state the issue at hand.

We know that low socio-economic status (SES) correlates with low student achievement. But, does a low SES cause (or significantly contribute to) low student achievement and can student achievement be improved by artificially increasing the child's SES?

SES is a function of family income, parental education level, parental occupation, and social status in the community. Often, when discussing this issue, most advocates focus on the family income part/social status part of the equation and conveniently forget about the parental education/occupation part. Thus, the favored bromide of poverty advocates is to increase the family income of poor families and hope that the parental education part might follow, along with a bunch of associated behaviors which we believe to be associated with high-SES families. Wash. Rinse. Repeat and in a few generations everyone will by high-SES. Or at least act like they are high-SES. The formerly poor will perform academically as well as the rich.

At least that's the theory. We've been testing this theory for forty years now by providing massive injections of financial assistance to the poor. The gains in academic achievement, however, have proven to be elusive.

Some will argue that we don't provide enough to work the special magic. This is a ridiculous argument based on the actual amount of cash, noncash, and post tax transfers, not to mention all the income we don't count. We could squabble over how much is enough all day long, but that's not going to be productive.

What if we had some student achievement data from placing low-SES infants in high-SES households, replete with highly educated parents and lots of lots of earned income, and allowing the high-SES parents to nurture the low-SES children over their childhood? Might that settle the issue?

In fact we do have just this sort data from various adoption studies, for example, the Minnesota Twin Family Study and Brouchard's Reanalysis, the Minnesota Texas Adoption Research Project and Willerman's various analyses, and the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study.

The results have been consistent. About three quarters of the variance in IQ and student achievement is attributable to genetic factors. While the variance attributable to familial factors is about zero.

The contribution to the correlation between twins caused by similarity in rearing environments was estimated by multiplying the square of the environment-score correlation by the correlation between twins in the environmental measure. It was found that the contributions to the correlation between twins in g by familial cohesion, expressiveness, conflict, independence, achievement orientation, intellectual-cultural orientation, active-recreational orientation, moral-religious emphasis, organization, and control (all dimensions of the Family Environmental Scale) were all zero to within two decimal places. The contributions by family size, parental occupation, parental education, and possessions in the home (including material, cultural, mechanical, and scientific possessions) ranged from zero to 0.02.

So which aspects of the environment are important:

Behavioral genetic studies have demonstrated which aspects of the environment are not likely to be important. The aspects that are not likely to be important are all those that are shared by children who grow up in the same home: the parents' personalities and philosophies of child rearing, their presence or absence in the home, the number of books or TV sets or guns the home contains, and so on. In short, almost all of the factors previously associated with the term environment, and associated even more closely with the term nurture, appear to be ineffective in shaping children's personalities.

Apparently, not the ones we think are important. Which is not to say that abusive parents and ghetto life aren't going to have a detrimental effect.

But the data is not encoraging when it comes to improving outcomes for low-SES children.

Let's look at the data from the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study

The study was conducted by researchers well-known for their environmental opinions. The study analyzed White, Black, and Mixed-race adopted children in more than 100 White families in Minnesota. The study was an egalitarian's dream, because the children's adoptive parents had prestigious levels of income and education and were anti-racist enough to adopt a Black child into their own family. The children were first tested in 1975 at age 7. In 1985, 196 of the original 265 children were retested at age 17. The parents were also tested along with the children and had a measured of IQ of 115 and 120 (depending on the test used), a standard deviation above the mean. Here are the results.

Children's background

Age 7 IQ

Age 17 IQ

Age 17 GPA

Age 17 class rank %

Age 17 school aptitude %

Nonadopted, with two White biological parents






Adopted, with two White biological parents






Adopted, with one White and one Black biological parent






Adopted, with two Black biological parents






The testing instruments used in 1975 and 1985 were different, so the scores between the two periods are not directly comparable.

What is important to see is the 13 and 17 point gap between the children with two white parents and two black parents. That's about a standard deviation (15 IQ points) which is what we typically observe. Notice also how the children with one black and one white parent fall in between the two extremes, which is also a consistent finding.

In no case do we find that the lower-SES adopted children perform as well as the high-SES biological children. The achievement gaps are what you would predict from genetics in the absence of the adoption and years of nuture with the high-SES families.

My conclusion is that low-SES does not cause or or significantly contribute to low student achievement. Further, student achievement will not be significantly improved by trying to artificially increase a child's SES. Clearly, environmental factors play a role in student achievement, but the factors associated with high-SES parents that we think are the important ones, aren't really the right ones. Moreover, genetics is a large fly in the ointment that has a more significant effect on outcomes than the environmental factors in any event. (Bear in mind that one environmental factor that might play a role is the quality of the school the child attends and the instruction that takes place there.)

It's all well and good to attempt to ameliororate the plight of the poor. We do quite a bit already, perhaps too much. Just, don't expect that it's going to improve student achievment or improve real SES in the long run across generations. Let's stop wasting time with these misguided schemes and focus our efforts elsewhere.

Let the comments begin.

More on Poverty

Maybe I was too quick to condemn the Kozolesque anti-poverty rhetoric in my post last week.

I came across a wonderful heart-warming story this weekend that changed my opinion.

You see, there's a tiny isolated coastal village in Nicaragua, Bluefields, which is located between the U.S. and Columbia. Drug running speed boats coming from Columbia loaded with cocaine frequently encounter the U.S. Coast Guard and are forced toss their cocaine bundles overboard, both to eliminate evidence and lighten their load in an escape attempt. By luck or geography, a great deal of these bundles wash-up along the shores of Bluefields. Thus, the War on Drugs has created a financial windfall for Bluefields since each kilogram of cocaine is worth about $3500 locally and the typical 35kg bundle nets a cash sale price of $122,500. This has made the tiny village of Bluefield very wealthy.

All this wealth has had a profound change on Bluefield. The people of Bluefield put all this cash to good use, creating a bunch of new businesses and institutions, including a new school. Now all the children of Bluefield get a first-class of education. Test scores have sky-rocketed. The principal believes that almost all the students will graduate from high-school for the first time Bluefield history. This is a good thing since all the new high-tech businesses need lots of educated workers to mean the demand.

No wait that's not what happened.

"Last time bags and bags washed up, everyone [felt like] a millionaire, but that money does not last." explains Helen, who runs a university research institute in Bluefields. Asked how the locals unload their cash, she said: "Beer, beer, beer. You should see the amount they drink here. Go to the pier and see how much alcohol goes out to the islands."

"When the drugs come in, everyone is happy, the banks, the stores, everyone has cash."

Arana, the former mayor, recalled one month when the village bought 28,000 cases of beer.


At night, Bluefields wakes up. The locals wander down to Midnight Dream, a reggae bar that locals have nicknamed Baghdad Ranch because of the surreal nature of its party scene. Young black men wear baseball hats, NBA sleeveless shirts and Nike Air sneakers. They are bedecked in gold chains.

My new drinking buddy says: "I got protection," and lifts his Houston Rockets NBA shirt to show off the butt of a pistol. "You won't get thieved here."

As they say, go read the whole thing.

Phonics: Is It Time to Move On?

Apparently it is.

Or at least that's what the International Reading Association, a whole language support group, would have us do:

Phonics’ arrival on the “not hot” list may surprise many teachers and policymakers who recognize it as one of the five so-called pillars of reading instruction. Explaining its shifting status, Jack and Drew Cassidy point out that many literacy leaders have expressed concern that phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension could be viewed as equally important. “Comprehension and vocabulary instruction are more important than the other three,” Cassidy notes. Debate over phonics instruction fueled the “reading wars” in the 1980’s, leading one unnamed respondent to comment that phonics’ move to the “not hot” list signals that “it is time to move on.” [Emphasis added]

Maybe comprehension and vocabulary are "more important" than phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency once the student is proficient in decoding, i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency. But, vocabulary and comprehension aren't going to do much good before the student the student is a proficient decoder.

Here's my favorite demonstration of this inconvenient fact. If you're reading this blog you're no doubt a skilled reader with good decoding, vocabulary and comprehension skills. Here's a passage that's only about 80% decodable, let's see how well you comprehend the passage with your decoding skills crippled.

He had never seen dogs fight as these w__ish c___ f____t, and his firs ex__________ t____t him an unf________able l_____n. It is true, it was a vi_______ ex_________, else he would not have lived to pr_____it by it. Curly was the v_________. They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friend__ way, made ad_________ to a husky dog the size of a full-______ wolf, th____ not half so large as _he. __ere was no w_____ing, only a leap in like a flash, a met_____ clip of teeth, a leap out equal__ swift, and Curly's face was ripped open from eye to jaw.

It was the wolf manner of fight__, to st___ and leap away; but there was more to it than this. Th__ or forty huskies ran _o the spot and not com______d that s_____t circle. Buck did not com______d that s_____t in_______, not the e___ way with which they were licking their chops. Curly rushed her ant________, who struck again and leaped aside. He met her next rush with his chest, in a p________ fash___ that tum___ed her off her feet. She never re_____ed them. This was __at the on______ing huskies had w______ for.

This is, of course, what reading looks like to a kid who can't decode very well. It's a lot of fun isn't it? I bet you wish you could do that all day long. I'm sure you'd just gobble up books one after the other.

And we wonder why some kids aren't motivated to read.

Thank you, International Reading Association, for all your crackpot schemes.

February 7, 2008

Willingham to the Rescue

As always, Daniel Willingham, has the most insightful take on the new crop of pay for performance programs. Read the whole thing. A snippet:

[R]ather than offer rewards, shouldn't teachers create classrooms in which students love learning? It is difficult not to respond to this objection by saying "Well, duh." I can't imagine there are many teachers who would rather give out candy than have a classroom full of students who are naturally interested and eager to learn. The question to ask is not "Why would you use rewards instead of making the material interesting?" Rather, it is "After you've wracked your brain for a way to make the material interesting for students and you still can't do it, then what?" Sanctimonious advice on the evils of rewards won't get chronically failing students to have one more go at learning to read. I think it unwise to discourage teachers from using any techniques in the absolute; rather, teachers need to know what research says about the benefits and drawbacks of the techniques, so that they can draw their own conclusions about whether and when to use them.

It's not the poverty, stupid

Over at the Education Policy Blog, the sycophantic, partisan hack Jim Horn poses a loaded hypothetical question to the presidential candidates regarding education and poverty.

Question # 1: Poverty

Thank you for taking my question. And this question is for all candidates:

Our poorest children in the public schools face insurmountable challenges that threaten their future, as well as the future of their schools. It is an indisputable fact, for instance, that family income is positively correlated with student achievement, with state and district level test scores showing the correlation without exception, as do SAT and ACT scores: the lower the family income, the lower the test scores, and the higher the family income, the higher the test scores.

At a time when public school households across the nation are, indeed, getting poorer, NCLB demands test scores go higher and higher. While experts agree, without exception, agree that these demands can't be met, and that most public schools will fail by 2014, and while most urban and poor rural schools are being turned into abusive test prep chain gangs, politicians refuse to confront the truth for fear of being accused of the "bigotry of low expectations."

My question is this (and thank you for your patience): Do you see poverty as the problem that has to be addressed in order to raise student achievement? And if you do see poverty as a problem related to the achievement gaps, what will you do to reduce poverty in urban and rural neighborhoods and to help raise family incomes, which would constitute the grandest kind of education reform--one that does more good than harm?

I'm not a presidential candidate, but if I were, here's how I'd answer.

Jim, your question assumes, wrongly, that since poverty correlates with low student achievement that poverty somehow causes low student achievement. This, quite frankly, is a profoundly foolish mistake, even for an assistant professor at Monmouth college. It would be like someone observing that wet streets correlate highly with rain and then jumping to the conclusion that wet streets cause rain. I mean really, Jim, have you no shame?

Given the poverty/achievement correlation there are three potential causalities: 1. poverty causes low student achievement, 2. low student achievement causes poverty, or 3. some third factor causes both poverty and low student achievement. For example, low student IQ is correlated with both poverty and low student achievement and might be one potential "third factor."

We have no hard evidence today that supports your contention that poverty causes low student achievement. And, there is no hard evidence that supports your conclusion that reducing poverty will lead to increased student achievement. If anything, we have quite a bit of longitudinal data relating to adopted twin studies that shows that even if we were to take a low-SES child and place that child in a high-SES home, the gains in student achievement will be small and will almost completely wash out by late adolescence. This is an extreme intervention and government could not hope to achieve but a fraction of these conditions and government could not hope to replicate the familial effects of smart, well-educated parents in any event.

Your rhetoric notwithstanding, the poverty rate stands at about half of what it was 50 years ago (23% vs. 12.3%). The average poor person in the U.S. actually has more income than the average European (not just the average poor European). Student achievement has not improved during the past 50 years during this rapid increase of wealth.

Today a family of four can have income of nearly $21,000 and still be considered to be living in poverty. This income does not include a substantial amount of governmental benefits: noncash benefits such as food stamps (about $2,200), housing assistance (about $5,400), Medicaid (about $6,000 for a family of four), the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) (about $1,000 per child), energy assistance (about $400), the school lunch and breakfast programs (as much as $600 per child), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) (about $400 per person). It also does not count refundable tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) (about $1,700), because they are “post-tax.” (All figures are average benefit amounts in 2002 regardless of family size, unless otherwise noted.) In addition, assets, such as the family home are not counted. Nor is the income of cohabitors and nonfamily household members. All of this non-income and governmental assistance permits the typical "poor" family to consume 50% more than their income alone would permit.

Additional government assistance is not going to raise the income of the poor for the simple reason that governmental assistance does not count as income. And once you account for all the governmental assistance the poor currently receive, it's difficult to imagine that the vast majority of our poor have the same resource problems as the subsistence-level poor do around the globe.

So, no, I do not see poverty as the problem that has to be addressed in order to raise student achievement. Nor do I think that there is any reason to believe that devoting additional resources to poverty will result in an increase in student achievement.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, "It's the instruction, stupid." Not poverty.

February 6, 2008

NCLB Slashes Social Studies or does it

Edwonk and Eduwonkette are going at it over whether NCLB is causing schools to cut back on social studies.

Both pundits make some good points, but ultimately I can't help thinking why do we even care in the first place.

Why do we care that some schools have responded to NCLB by cutting back instructional time spent on social studies? Or, more accurately, why do we care that some schools that were failing to adequately educate their students pre-NCLB have responded to NCLB by cutting back instructional time spent on social studies?

First, whatever these failed schools were doing with respect to social studies before NCLB, wasn't working. So, the established baseline time spent teaching social studies for these schools is meaningless.

Second, there is no established optimal amount of time that needs to be spent teaching social studies. No one can argue that students need, say, an hour's worth of instructional time in social studies to be "proficient," whatever that means.

Because of NCLB, Schools are now experimenting with various changes in their instruction to improve education outcomes. That's a good thing, even though many of those experiments will result in failure. Hopefully, there will be some successes and those successes will hopefully be replicated. But that won't happen until we give schools some freedom to try new things. NCLB gives them 14 years.

When schools find out how to teach social studies so that most students are actually learning social studies, then we might begin to know how much time should be spent teaching social studies. And, one day when we learn how to teach the rest of the subjects as well, we'll begin to know how to optimize the instructional time to maximize learning in all subjects.

But today is not yet that day. And until that day comes it seems foolish to get one's panties in a twist over reducing or increasing time in any subject. No one knows the optimal amount of time to spend on social studies and whether schools are spending too much or too little time teaching social studies. Today, there simply is no basis for making the assertion.

In the meantime, it seems foolish to me for anyone to assert they know precisely how much time we should be spending teaching any subject.

And in case you're keeping score at home, this argument favors Edwonk.

Update: Just so it's clear, I understand that social studies isn't being tested under NCLB and that some schools might be giving the subject short shrift becaue it isn't a tested subject. I also understand that properly taught, social studies should teach critical background knowledge that could aid reading comprehension, a tested NCLB subject. However, it is not right to assume that social studies, as it was being taught in these failed schools, was actually teaching this critical background knowledge. I do believe that civics, history and geography are important subjects, but I'm not so sure that social studies, especially poorly taught social studies, is an adequate substitute.

Dorn Takes Umbrage II

(Continued from Part One)

Sherman has a second, and even weaker, argument for opposing student pay for performance:

[Another problem] is that these programs are not finely calibrated. Whether they reward status achievement (straight As or a certain score on standardized tests) or some sort of growth/effort, there are going to be some rewarded students who did not work hard for the reward and other unrewarded students who probably deserve it.

It appears that Sherman is purposely ignoring the fact that this goes on every single day in a heterogeneously grouped classroom, i.e., the typical American classroom. The instruction in these classrooms are not finely calibrated for low-performers (or high performers). Low performers receive a daily stream of negative feedback due to their low performance relative to the higher-performing students, especially the ones who perform well with seemingly little effort while the low-performing student struggles mightily and and achieves little. Given these conditions it is unlikely that the low-performing student is going to be too upset with yet an other program which shows he is incompetent.

I'll take this argument more seriously when Sherman uses the same reasoning to denounce heterogeneously grouped classrooms.

Sherman also questions rewarding students due to status because some rewarded students may not have "work[ed] hard for the reward." The answer to this questions depends on the preexisting motivation state of the students. If these students were already motivated to do the work an external motivation system is superfluous and should not have been implemented. There is, however, no problem with providing incentives to unmotivated students who are capable of performing the work:

If students are able to perform well on an activity but are not motivated they are perfectly logical and their lack of motivation is based on evidence. They have evidence that their work doesn't make a difference. If they work hard to finish a task, they discover that the teacher was not impressed and acted as if this effort was not adequate. The evidence these students need is that the material is important; the teacher responds to it as if it is important; and when students do it well, the teacher is very impressed with their importance. (emphasis original)

Fixing Motivation Problems, Engelman and Crawford, DI News Fall 2007.

Sherman also questions the failure to reward students with growth/effort because the "unrewarded students ... probably deserve it." The answer to this question depends upon whether the student was actually capable of reaching the goal in the first place. If the student was capable of achieving the goal, yet failed to achieve, this subpar behavior should not be rewarded because rewarding this behavior will merely reinforce the student's not working hard which is something you definitely don't want to do. If, however, the student isn't capable of reaching the goal in the first place, then we are in the realm of shaping behavior which brings us into the realm of differential reinforcement and shifting criterion of enforcement and is outside the realm of the kinds of motivation programs under discussion.

I think it's time that Sherman graduated from the potty training manual to a real primer on operant psychology for the classroom. Let me suggest Applied Psychology for Teachers: A Behavioral Cognitive Approach.

Update: Daniel Willingham has a good discussion of the behavioral research behind these pay for performance programs.

February 5, 2008

Dorn Takes Umbrage

I recently wrote on the subject of paying for student performance:

Sherman Dorn rounds up the commentary on the recent plans to "pay" students for performing well at school.

None of the commenters, including Dorn, appear to understand "student motivation" and how "rewards" affect motivation or lack thereof. The result is a lot of ill-informed opinion, i.e., the typical state of affairs in education opinion journalism.

As luck would have it, Sherman Dorn showed up in the comments to defend his analysis.

Let me take this opportunity to elaborate on my initial criticism. I'll begin by pointing out that I'm not taking a position with respect to the efficacy of any of the proposed plans. I'm merely criticizing the analyses as being superficial and/or ill-informed. I'll address half of Sherman's analysis in this post and tackle the other half in an other post.

Sherman has two main criticisms of paying for student performance. The first criticism is:

[One] problem with paying students cash for achievement, and that is the question of the reward itself: will it promote continued effort, or will it be tangential to effort?

Apparently, what Sherman means by "tangential to effort" is that rewards are appropriate only "when their use is intimately tied to additional effort."

This definition is unnecessarily limiting.

For a stimulus (such as paying cash) to be a positive reinforcer (or a reward) for a student it must increase the future occurrence of the behavior that will follow. If a stimulus doesn't increase the future occurrence of the desired behavior, it simply is not rewarding or reinforcing for the student. The "tangentialness" of the stimuli is largely irrelevant.

Let's say we have a classroom full of elementary school students. Some like to read, others do not. The behavior we would like see increase is the incidence of reading. We would like all the children to read more because practicing reading helps one become a better reader. To achieve this, we want to find stimuli that will exert some control over each student and motivate them to read more. Stimuli that actually increase the desired behavior (in this case reading) are called positive reinforcers.

There are three main categories of reinforcers that are typically available to a classroom teacher:

  • Social reinforcers: involve the student’s behavior—words of praise, attention, smiles, nearness.

  • Token reinforcers: are things such as money, poker chips, points, and gold stars that can be exchanged for other reinforcers.

  • Activity reinforcers: are activities children like to participate in when given a chance. These might include running, games, art activities, singing, eating, recesses, going home.

For a stimuli to be a reinforcer it must serve to increase the desired behavior. If an an atta-boy from the teacher (social reinforcer) motivates the child to read more it is a reinforcer. If the attaboy does not increase the behavior, it is not a reinforcer. For this child a piece of candy (token reinforcer) might serve as a motivator. For other children additional recess time or a trip to the library (Sherman's example) (activity reinforcers) might be motivators. All the stimuli I've listed might validly serve to promote the "continued effort" of reading.

The flaw in Sherman's analysis is that for most children the trip to the library will not serve as a positive reinforcer because the child most likely already enjoys engaging in the desired behavior, i.e., reading, already. Children who don't like to read are likely not going to find going to the library to be rewarding. And, for those children that do like to read, taking a trip to the library, ostensibly to get more books to read, probably is not increasing the future occurence of the behavior (assuming that the child has sufficient reading material available to him).

I suppose trips to the library might, in very rare cases, serve as a positive reinforcer for a child. Perhaps the child is a connoisseur of library architecture. Perhaps the child loves taking trips, even to libraries, Or perhaps the child is a fan of the Dewey Decimal system. But, I don't think this is what Sherman had in mind.

This also highlights the large catch-22 in Sherman's analysis; only students who already find reading to be enjoyable are likely to be motivated by stimuli "intimately tied" to the activity of reading. Sherman's "intimately tied" limitation effectively forecloses our ability to find reinforcers for students who do not find the underlying behavior we are seeking to increase to be rewarding--the children who most need the motivation.

This flawed analysis leads to a spurious conclusion:

We know that Pizza Hut is engaged in marketing rather than a promotion of reading because it rewards kids with pizza instead of with books.

Both pizza and books are neutral stimuli. Handing a kid a stack of books will not necessarily motivate him to read those books, especially if the child does not find reading to be rewarding already. Unread books do not promote reading.

Pizza, on the other hand, can be token reinforcer for a child who already likes engaging in the activity of, say, eating pizza. The child may be motivated to read a book for the reward of getting a pizza to eat. This would promote reading because the child has increased the amount of books he has read in order to get the reward, the pizza. In fact, operant psychology holds that if a learning activity (reading) is followed by a known reinforcer (pizza), the learning activity (reading) will become a conditioned reinforcer (reading for its own sake). To make the transition it is only necessary to use appropriate procedures to fade out the special reinforcement system.

And, the fact that Pizza Hut is engaging in marketing (its own self-interest) doesn't change this analysis at all. As Adam Smith so famously put it:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.

Sherman is mistaken. Rewards/reinforcers do not have to be intimately tied to the underlying desired behavior for them to be effective. To be a reward/reinforcer the only condition is that the reward/reinfocer actually increase or promote the desired behavior.

(Continued in Part Two.)