October 13, 2010

Expecting Too Much From Walt Gardner

Here’s how Walt starts off a recent blog post:
It's an article of faith among reformers that recruiting teachers from the top tier of their class will assure top performing schools.
Article of faith? Or deduction from research?  You be the judge.
It’s not like Walt has his own article of faith.
There's only one problem with their case. They say absolutely nothing about the role that poverty plays in performance…
I don't believe that even the best teachers can completely overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that poor students bring to class through no fault of their own. They can help narrow the gap between these students and those from advantaged backgrounds, but they can't eliminate it. That's a vital distinction given short shrift in today's debate. It's one thing to improve academic performance in absolute terms, but it's quite another to improve performance in relative terms.
Walt’s conceit (and others) is that they simply “know” that poverty CAUSES  “huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development.”  But maybe, it’s that affluent kids possess traits like self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, and cognitive ability that will allow them to stay out of poverty and do well in school.  Maybe Walt has the causation backwards.
If Walt were right, then we’d be able to ameliorate these deficits by reducing the influence by poverty. But, there’s ample evidence, such as all the failed programs aimed at remedying these deficits rattled off in this post, that suggest that reducing poverty doesn’t ameliorate these deficits.  Further, no one has been able to accomplish the things Walt thinks need the be accomplished to eliminate the gap.  And, it’s not for lack of trying.
I assure you that Walt Gardner is well acquainted with articles of faith.

9 comments:

Nick said...

Even if he's right and all that the best teachers can do is narrow the gap between poor children and affluent children (which is, as you've said, a debatable point), wouldn't that still be a huge improvement over the current system which basically throws in the towel and allows the gap to increase?

KDeRosa said...

I think the gap has been remarkably stable for the past 40-50 years.

In any event, the gap is just a statistical artifact of the way we measure student performance. Even if the gap were eliminated, it is still very likely that a real performance gap would remain

Why not just try to improve educational outcomes for everyone by improving instruction?

Would it be such a horror if black kids performed as well as Asian kids do today regardless of the presence of a gap.

Nick said...

For sure, I agree. I just meant that it seems odd for the author to dismiss improvement in absolute terms as if it's not a big deal.

With an absolute increase in performance, low performing students would be able to actually compete for employment in any number of fields that they are currently shut out of because they don't meet minimal literacy standards. I've seen a number of news articles talking about the economic "recovery" where employers are saying that they can't find enough capable workers to fill job openings. While sometimes this means extensive experience in a field or academic training, sometimes it just means as little as having enough literacy/numeracy skills to read a manual or operate a moderately complicated computer application. Demanding relative improvement is a worthwhile goal, but in some cases it seems to be a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

Michael Dunn said...

Maybe affluent kids do possess traits like self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, and cognitive ability, but where did they acquire them? If these traits are more typical among the affluent, then perhaps affluence is the cause. Also, contrary to the American Dream mythology, we do not live in a very socially mobile society. People are much more likely to stay in the same social class as their families than they are to move upward in any significant way.

KDeRosa said...

Maybe. Or maybe they are born with it, which is to say that it was passed down from their parents. Or maybe their parents taught them.

Maybe we don't live in a mobile society because of these factors.

Michael Dunn said...

"Passed down" can mean several things. Genetically, there is no known gene or mechanism for passing down class or self-discipline. Even intelligence has a very low heritability. Parents certainly "pass down" behaviors and attitudes by modeling them or emphasizing them or even through punishment.

KDeRosa said...

Indeed it is and I am purposefully being vague because we don't know the mechanism.

According to the APA, the heritability of IQ during adolescence and after is about 0.75 which is decidedly not very low. Even during childhood it is about 0.45.

Michael Dunn said...

Agreed, 0.75 is not low. However, if accurate, there is still a 25% non-genetic influence that can be profound. Take height, which has a heritability of around 0.91. Nutrition (and the wealth to be able to afford high protein diets) plays a major role. Consider that the average male height in the U.S. has increased by over three inches in the past century. This is more likely due to increased access to high protein diets than it is to any genetic changes.

While there is no known mechanism for the genetic transmission of intelligence or school-readiness, there are well-documented mechanisms for environmental influences. Smoking rates are much higher among lower income people. Smoking can cause low birth weight and brain size. Poor people have higher rates of lead poisoning, malnutrition and anemia, each of which can cause learning disabilities and impair cognitive development. Cortisol levels are higher among poor and working class individuals,which can impair brain function. Affluent parents spend more time reading to their children and tend to use a greater variety of words, both of which can greatly affect a child’s school readiness.

Lastly, without seeing the methods used, I am dubious of the APA data. There has been a long history of poorly designed intelligence studies, especially by psychologists. Cyril Burt, who did much of the early work on this, fabricated most of his data and has been completely discredited. There were also the racist arguments of Jensen and later Murray and Herrnstein, of Bell Curve infamy, all of whom relied on the work of Burt. Heritability is generally calculated, at least partly, by studying identical twins who have grown up in different environments. These studies are exceedingly difficult to control. Much of the time, the twins end up in homes that are still similar in wealth, location, ethnicity or culture. Therefore, are the similarities due to shared genetics or similar environments?

KDeRosa said...

I don't disagree that the environment has a role to play. Certainly it does. After all, education is an environmental effect.