September 28, 2010

Today's Question

Today's question is for all you National Standards folks.

Mississippi, despite being the poorest state in the U.S., is nearly as affluent as Finland.  Why is Finland capable of setting its own educational standards while Mississipi requires guidance from the Feds?

Waiting for Petrelli's Kids

Fordham's Mike Petrelli wants all you affluent people to send your kids to inner city public schools to improve them "overnight."

More recent, and more sophisticated, “peer effects” research (by the likes of Carolyn Hoxby and Eric Hanushek) finds much the same. Rick Kahlenberg has been shouting from the rooftops that poor kids do better in “middle class” schools–which is why, in Gerald Grant’s words, there are no bad schools in Raleigh

I've heard of Spike Lee's "Magical Negro," but I've never heard of Petrelli's "Magical Rich Kid."

Now Hoxby's paper is under lock and key (Five dollars for an electronic download? Really?) and Kahlenberg and and Grant are merely spouting opinion. But Hanushek's paper is readily available. Here's the conclusion:

On average the black share of school enrollment in Texas is almost 30 percentage points higher for black students than for white students. Elimination of this gap would reduce the proportion black from roughly 0.39 to 0.16 for black students and raise the proportion black from 0.09 to 0.16 for whites. Using the coefficient for blacks of 0.20 and the coefficient for whites of 0.10, such a redistribution of students would reduce the racial achievement gap by 0.050 standard deviations in a single year. The cumulative effect of such a reduction for grades 5–7 (the sample period) depends upon the rate at which knowledge depreciates over time. If the rate of depreciation were equal to one minus the coefficient on lagged achievement (roughly 0.4 for blacks and whites), the 3-year cumulative effect of racial composition equalization would reduce the race achievement gap by roughly 14%, moving it from 0.70 to 0.60 standard  deviations.
These estimates represent extremes in the possible changes in racial compositions because they would require significant changes in residences across districts and regions for blacks. More modest, and perhaps more achievable, changes still imply substantial closing in the test score gap.

So, at best we might possibly at the extreme see an 0.10 standard deviation increase in black student performance by sending your kid to an  inner city public school.

Notwithstanding Hanushek's assertions to the contrary, a 0.10 standard deviation increase is student performance falls far short of an educationally significant result (0.25 standard deviation).  Moreover, this kind of result, meager though it is, is only obtainable in the fantasy world of a data-mined economics study.  In the real world, we're not going to see anywhere near such a large effect.  Typically, educationally insignificant effect sizes don't show up at all in the real world.  That's why we have the concept of educationally significant.

About the only thing you can be sure of by enrolling your pampered suburbanite children in an inner city school is that they will quickly learn how to catch a beating.

(Note:  Even Checker laughs at this one.)

September 27, 2010

Obama: Old Text Books Are the Problem

Really?  Did he really just say that?

"Obviously, in some schools money plays a big factor ... ," Obama said, pointing out that schools in the poorest areas often don't have up-to-date textbooks.
I guess so.

I taught my kids how to read with a 20 year old classroom textbook.  They didn't seem to notice the difference.  I did this because I knew the 20 year old textbook worked.  I didn't have the same confidence in their school's much newer textbook.  Apparently, their school thought the same; they just switched to a different book.  I don't like gambling with my child's future.  Schools don't seem to mind so much whose future they're gambling with.  That's because they aren't gambling with their own futures.

My son is using a 30 year old textbook to learn algebra.  He's teaching himself.  He's in fifth grade.  The book was intended for high school students.  He can do it because he learned elementary math well.  And, that's all you need to understand algebra.

How about history?  The most recent history we covered in school was decades old.

Science?  Lots has changed in science and our understanding thereof.  But not much of that new stuff is taught in school either.

A Fool and His Money ...

Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, just unfriended $100 million by giving it away to the Newark School District ($23,000 per pupil) with no strings attached.

Isn't it great the way capitalism has a way of voluntarily divesting rich idiots from their money?

Free advice to wealthy edu-philantropists:  Your educational consultants know as much about education as you do:  Almost nothing.  Therefore, you can't trust the "means" they are advocating.  Have they ever run a successful school or school district getting successful results with the demographic group you are targeting? I didn't think so.  So, if you can't trust the "means," you can only trust the "ends" - does the reform actually work?  Where does this leave you? With a contest of course.  take your $100 million, find a cooperating city, and hold a contest.  A tenth of the prize goes to the first group that can achieve the results you desire. The remaining 90% is awarded when the reform can be successfully scaled.  Now go cruise around on your yacht.

Why do we still talk about the Black-White gap in education?

When it's pretty clear we should be more concerned with the Black-Asian gap. (And, the Hispanic-Asian gap , the Native American - Asian gap, and, what the hell, the white-Asian gap for that matter)

For one thing it would allow us to look at why Asians succeed better than all other groups.

It would also get us past the silly discrimination/oppression excuse when we use whites as the comparison group. Last I checked Asians suffered discrimination and yet that didn't seem to hold them back.

Lastly, if you're going to talk about gaps between groups, do it the right way -- express the gap in standard deviations not percentage difference.  Using standard deviations eliminates much of the mischief caused when percentile gaps are used to compared (more or less) normally distributed groups.

And, if you don't understand what I wrote in that last paragraph you don't have an informed opinion yet on education policy.

Obama: D.C. schools don't measure up to Sidwell Friends

The president, in a television appearance Monday morning on NBC's "Today" show, was asked by a woman from an audience whether a public school in his home city could measure up to the standards of his children's private school.

"I'll be blunt with you: The answer is no right now," the president replied. Obama said the D.C. schools are "struggling." There are "terrific individual schools" in the city, he said, and because he is president he could "probably maneuver" to get his daughters into one of them.

Nonsense, I say.

Take all the Sidwell Friends students and put them into a random DC public school.  Then take all the students from that DC public school and put them in Sidwell Friends.

(Don't forget the control group.)

Then cook for whatever period of time you think is needed for there to be observable results.

The result shouldn't be surprising to anyone who follows education.

The Sidwell Friends educated students will still perform as miserably as they did in their DC public school.  The Sidwell teachers aren't trained to and don't know how to educate the difficult-to-educate students found in the typical DC school.  Also, the curriculum at Sidwell Friends, is most certainly not accessible to the typical DC student.  Never has been.

On the other hand, the DC public school educated Sidwell students will perform about the same as they did back at Sidwell.  The quality of the teachers and the curriculum won't matter much.  It doesn't take a fabulous super-teacher to educate the kind of kids who go to Sidwell.  And, as far as the curriculum goes, what's being peddled at Sidwell is only superficially different (from an instructional basis at least) than the curriculum used in every other school.

Tuition-wise the DC public schools have about $26,000 per pupil to squander far more than it takes to teach students how to read, write, do basic math, and learn some content.  Sidwell is only about 20% higher and no one believes that money is needed to educate the students at Sidwell.  Everyone knows that tuition is high at Sidwell in order to keep out the kind of kids that typically go to the DC Public schools.

As far as the "terrific individual schools" in the city line goes, these are mostly magnet schools, i.e., schools that use the admissions process also keep out the the kind of kids that typically go to the DC Public schools.  Might as well call them Sidwell-lite schools.

September 19, 2010

September 17, 2010

Still Overselling Play

I understand the allure of using play and games as a means of making learning more enjoyable for children.

I get it. I do.

These breathless stories never fail to flush out the educationally naive.  As if wishful thinking alone will improve the instructional value of children's play time activities.

This kind of child-centered learning has been tried  for a very long time and the improved learning has yet to materialize.  The technology is certainly there.  But no one seems to understand instruction well enough to use all that technology productively.

Even I find this surprising.

And yet a thirty year old critique of child-centered education techniques still remains valid today.

[C]hild-centered approaches have evolved sophisticated ways of managing informal educational activities but they have remained at a primitive level in the design of means to achieve learning objectives.
Child-centered approaches rely almost exclusively on a form of instruction that instructionally-oriented approaches use only when nothing better can be found.
This primitive form of instruction may be called relevant activity. Relevant activity is what teachers must resort to when there is no available way to teach children how to do something, no set of learning activities that clearly converge on an objective. This is the case, for instance, with reading comprehension. Although there are some promising beginnings, there is as yet no adequate "how-to-do-it" scheme for reading comprehension. Accordingly, the best that can be done is to engage students in activities relevant to reading comprehension-for instance, reading selections and answering questions about the selections. Such activities are relevant in that they entail reading comprehension, but they cannot be said to teach reading comprehension.
The contrast of sophistication in management and naiveté in instruction is visible in any well-run open classroom. The behavior that meets the eye is instantly appealing-children quietly absorbed in planning, studying, experimenting, making things-and one has to marvel at the skill and planning that have achieved such a blend of freedom and order. But look at the learning activities themselves and one sees a hodge-podge of the promising and the pointless, of the excessively repetitious and the excessively varied, of tasks that require more thinking than the children are capable of and tasks that have been cleverly designed to require no mental effort at all (like exercise sheets in which all the problems on the page have the same answer). The scatteredness is often appalling. There is a little bit of phonics here and a little bit of phonics there, but never a sufficiently coherent sequence to enable a kid to learn bow to use this valuable tool. Materials have been chosen for sensorial appeal or suitability to the system of management. There is a predilection for cute ideas. The conceptual analysis of learning problems tends to be vague and irrelevant, big on name-dropping and low on incisiveness.
Unless thinkers and experimenters committed to child-centered education become more sophisticated about instruction and start devoting more attention to designing learning activities that actually converge on objectives, they are in danger of becoming completely discredited. That would be too bad. Child-centered educators have evolved a style of school life that has much in its favor. Until they develop an effective pedagogy to go with it, however, it does not appear to be an acceptable way of teaching disadvantaged children.

The tools at educators' disposal have improved dramatically. And yet educators don't seem to know how to use these tools to improve instruction. It must be the pedagogy, the instructional know-how, that is lacking.  I can't think of any thing else.

Teaching beginning skills to children is often a mindless and dull endeavor.  Effective practice requires lots of repetition.  And, repetition is boring (at least for the adults teaching the skills).  You know what are good at mind-numbing repetitive tasks?  Computers.  It doesn't take a genius to see the potential.

September 10, 2010

The Continuing Irony of Alfie Kohn

In a long post criticizing value-added teacher evaluation, Alfie Kohn unwittingly hits us with this ironic gem.

I don't expect the founder of a computer empire like Bill Gates, or a lawyer like Joel Klein, or a newspaper editor to understand the art of helping children to understand ideas, or of constructing tasks to assess that process. I just expect them to have the humility, the simple decency, not to impose their ignorance on the rest of us with the force of law.
The irony of this statement is so dense it threatens to collapse upon itself into a sort-of black hole of irony.

I'm guessing Alfie favors his own ignorance based reforms instead of the current crop of ignorance based reforms.  But since the underlying purpose of government-run public education is to impose the will (or ignorance if you will) of those in charge politically, by definition politicians, on the rest of us with the force of law, only those politicians in charge get to pick the brand of ignorance being imposed. Those not in charge get to lament their fate and beg for humility and forbearance from those in charge.

It's the Progressive way of running things.  And, Alfie is a Progressive.  But, so is the current Administration.  Which should give you an idea of how long Alfie's brand of progressive education will be out of favor.

And, by the way, Alfie is right about the current crop of reforms being no good.  He just gets the reasons why (mostly) wrong.