March 4, 2009

Some kids excel regardless of the school

A new study from across the pond shows that bad schools are relative:

Middle-class parents obsessed with getting their children into the best schools may be wasting their time and money, academics say today.

They found that children from privileged backgrounds excelled when they were deliberately sent to inner-city comprehensives by parents opposed to private schooling.

Most of the children “performed brilliantly” at GCSE and A level and 15 per cent of those who went on to university took places at Oxford or Cambridge.


This shouldn't be surprising. Most schools teach roughly the same hodge-podge of topics and skills. Teacher skill varies, but it's generally suficient to induce learning in a typical middle-class child with educated parents.

These kids will thrive in the better public schools and also in schools that we don't typically consider to be that good. But, that's because these kids are full of the "less privileged" students, whatever the hell that's supposed to mean.

Thanks to NCLB, we know that a large achievement gap exists betwen the lower-SES kids and the higher-SES kids, and black and Hispanic kids and white and Asian kids. Even in affluent schools districts.

And, thanks to studies like the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study we know that familial environment doesn't make much, if any, of a difference either when it comes to student success.

The only thing that does seem to matter is improved instruction, the earlier the better.

3 comments:

Tracy W said...

For entirely anecdotal reasons I am very skeptical about whether private schools are on average better than public schools.

There are public schools that are just appalling, but then I have also heard appalling things about some private schools, including from kids who went to them.

Dick Schutz said...

You're missing the big story here, Ken. Your title gets it right. But the real story is that schools run on rhetoric and on the fact that some kids will excel without any schooling or despite mis-instruction.

Ben Bloom and his former students Tom Hastings and George Madaous, made the general point way back in 1971, and it was common knowledge among serious educational psychologists at the time:

"…the present set of teachers’ expectations: expecting about a third of their students to learn what has been taught; a third to fail or to just ‘get by,’ and another third to learn a good deal of what was taught, but not enough to be regarded as ‘good students,’ is transmitted to the students through grading procedures and through the methods and materials of instruction. This system creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. . . that is the most wasteful and destructive aspect of the present education system."

“Most students (perhaps more than 90 percent) can master what we have to teach them, and it is the task of instruction to find the means which will enable them to master th subject under consideration. A basic task is to determine what we mean by ‘mastery of the subject’ and to search for methods and materials which will enable the largest proportion of our students to attain such mastery.”

“Our educational efforts have been unsuccessful to the extent that the distribution of achievement approximates the normal distribution."

But edpsych wandered into "cognitive psych." The government-academic-publishing complex hijacked instruction. Educational testing was corrupted by statisticians and "big business." And here we are.

What was old is new again. Time to dust off "Planned Variations," pull up our socks, and get educational change we can believe in.

KDeRosa said...

I didn't miss it, Dick, I just get tired of repeating it in every post.

After three years of writing this blog I think my general theory of education can be summed up as follows.

The effectiveness of the instruction that a child requires to learn varies. Some need a lot; some only require a little, but would benefit from more effective instruction. However, if they don't get it, they'll still learn enough to get by.

Also, there's not much you can do to change the student no make them better to take advantage of instruction that below the effectiveness amount that they need.

I'm sure someone already came up with this theory before me.