November 10, 2010

The Instructional Black Box

I'm in the process of wading through the 100 or so comments generated in my five part Economics for Edupundits to address the issues raised. But, in the meantime I wanted to address the following issue raised by Dick.

Who is examining the nuts and bolts of instruction—which are the determinants of formal instructional accomplishments—or the lack thereof? No one. Well, almost no one. But that’s a whole nother story.

By and large in the US, instruction remains a black box [scratch black, make it a white box] between Standards and Standardized Test.
Dick is, of course, right.  Instruction largely remains a black box.  But why does it remain a block box?

The answer is that there is little incentive or reward in our present system for cracking open the black box.  And, here's why.

Students can be divided into the easily educable and the difficult to educate.  Let's deal with the former group first.

For the easily educable, there's no real need to crack open the instructional box.  These students are going to learn regardless of the instruction being delivered. There's no need to understand why your instruction seems to be working with this group.  Just accept that whatever you do, provided it's not too loony, will work pretty good and pick something and a style you find personally enjoyable.  If you're likable and organized, the students will like you and life will be good.  Sit back and collect your paycheck and enjoy your summers off content with the knowledge that the measuring stick used to determine what the students have learned is a glorified IQ test, the SAT or ACT.

If you run a private school, charter school, magnet school, or any other school with selective admissions, the situation is largely the same.  Your main goal is to weed out all the difficult to educate students and only admit  the easily educable students, preferably the easiest to educate and hence the ones most likely to perform well on the SAT/ACT.  The better you can separate the wheat from the chaff will largely determine your reputation and therefore the tuition you can charge.  If you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors, there are many non-instructional areas that can be attacked much more easily than the instructional areas.

There is so little competition in the current system, schools have largely adopted the carve up the market approach, establishing their little minimal competition, non-profit fiefdoms and enabling them to leased a comfortable existence.

Don't expect innovation to come from this segment of the market.

Now for the difficult to educate students, this is where cracking the instructional black box would bring the most benefits.  But where is the incentive to actually do so?

There is no incentive at the political level.  Political careers are too short.  Long-term accomplishments (like instructional reform) don't matter.  The game is to appear to care, enact some nebulous reform, throw some money at the problem, and hope you are out of office (or have moved onto a better office) when the chickens come home to roost.

And the reforms aren't going to come at a lower level because below the political level everyone is a wage slave.  The wage slave's only incentive is to collect the next paycheck.

Instructional reform requires entrepreneurship.   But what incentive does a Vanderbilt have to enter the market to compete with all Fulton and Livingston monopolies?

Reform won't happen at the curriculum level because there is no incentive for schools to adopt a better curriculum or for schools to not subvert the better curriculum if forced to adopt it.  Many good curriculums are languishing in obscurity due to this very reason.

So, tell me all you Kenysian market steering types, I'm looking at you Dick, how do you propose steering the educational ship to not only unlock the secrets of the instructional black box, but also to assure that schools follow the revealed secrets instead of, you know, sticking with the status quo?

November 9, 2010

New Great Schools study doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know

The oxymoronically titled Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy group for urban public schools, turns up the rhetoric to 11 on the new “study” it will release later today (Press Release):

New Report on Black Male Achievement Reveals Jaw-Dropping Data

The stark statistics reveal what a new report calls a "national catastrophe" in the academic attainment and future career prospects of too many of the country’s African American male youth.jaw_dropping_butch

Jaw dropping?


“Jaw dropping” implies surprise and I can’t imagine the Council of the Great City schools can possibly be surprised by the performance of black males on NAEP.

Only 12 percent of fourth­ grade black male students nationally and 11 percent of those living in large central cities performed at or above proficient levels in reading on the 2009 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), compared with 38 percent of white males nationwide. In eighth grade, only 12 percent of black males across the country and 10 percent living in large cities performed at or above proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white males nationwide.

It shouldn’t be surprising that NAEP scores are this low.  They’ve been this low for quite some time.  The relatively low scores are merely an indication that the NAEP is a more difficult or has lower cut scores (or both) than  most assessments

And the achievement gap hovers at about a standard deviation between whites and blacks.  That too is about where it always seems to be.

So, again, why the surprise?

In fact, the average African American fourth ­and eighth ­grade male who is neither poor nor disabled does no better in reading and math on NAEP than white males who are poor or disabled.

That’s not a surprising result either if you read this blog. (What?  You think this is an economics blog or something?)

Although since this study is getting mainstream attention, I am curious to see how this fact will be reported.

The Times gets  a talking head to spin it for them.

“There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten,” said Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard. “They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have.”

Those include “conversations about early childhood parenting practices,” Dr. Ferguson said. “The activities that parents conduct with their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. How much we talk to them, the ways we talk to them, the ways we enforce discipline, the ways we encourage them to think and develop a sense of autonomy.”

Apparently, those conversations won’t include any possible genetic effects.  I suppose we’re still unwilling to have that that conversation.

Dr. Ferguson seems to be relying on the famous Hart & Risley study and fails to mention studies like the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study which showed that black adoptees failed to benefit from the language rich environment found in high-SES white homes.

The last seven paragraphs in the Times article are comedy gold if you know anything about economics. and incentives. 

November 4, 2010

Economics for EduPundits: Bonus Video

Clearly, I side with Hayek.  And, apparently, so did the economy.

October 26, 2010

Economics for Edu-pundits: Part V

(Continued from Part IV)

Before I address the many fine issues raised in the battle raging over in the comment section of Part IV, I want to address the currently preferred organization for education entities, including universities, most private schools, and most charter schools –the dreaded non-profit organization.

We have seen that the role of profit-seeking businesses is better understood when they are recognized as profit-and-loss businesses, with all the pressures and incentives created by these dual potentialities. By the same token, what are called "non-profit organizations" can be better understood when they are seen as non-profit and non-loss institutions—that is, institutions which operate free of the constraints of a bottom line.

That freedom from turning a profit has resulted in the same kind of stagnation we see in our public schools which are basically organized along non-profit lines as well.

Freedom from the bottom line does not mean that non-profit organizations have unlimited money. It just means that, with whatever money they do have, non-profit organizations are under very little pressure to achieve their institutional goals to the maximum extent possible with the resources at their disposal. Those who supply those resources include the general public, who cannot closely monitor what happens to their donations or their taxes, and those whose money provided the endowments that help finance non-profit institutions Much or most of these endowments were left by people who are now dead, who cannot monitor at all.

What would be called "losses" in other kinds of enterprises are called "deficits" in non-profit organizations and serve as reasons given when seeking donations or government subsidies to cover shortfalls. Non-profit organizations have additional sources of income, including fees from those who use their services, such as visitors to museums, audiences for symphony orchestras, and tuition from students. These fees are in fact the main source of the more than half a trillion dollars in revenue received annually by non-profit organizations in America. However, these fees do not cover the full costs of their operation—which is to say, the recipients are receiving goods and services that cost more than these recipients are paying and some are receiving them free. Such subsidized beneficiaries cannot impose the same kind of economic discipline as the customers of a profit-and-loss business who are paying the full cost of everything they get.

Adam Smith noted how academics running universities financed by endowments can run them in self-serving ways, being “very indulgent to one another,” so that each academic would “consent that his neighbor might neglect his duty, provided he himself is allowed to neglect his own.”  Tenure granting lifetime appointments are common  in non-profit colleges, but practically unknown in businesses that must meet the competition of the marketplace.

The fact that some organizations’ income is called profit and other organization’s income is not does not change anything economically, however much it may suggest to the unwary that one institution is greedy and the other is not.

It is the non-profit organizational nature of private schools and charter schools that has contributive to the less than ideal competitive state affairs. Charter schools are most newly entities, run by activists (not businessmen), and typically thinly capitalized.  Moreover, they operate in a somewhat hostile highly regulatory environment with many regulations that tend to coerce these new entities into conforming to the current practices of public schools.  We are still a long way from a competitive market in education even with the presence of charter schools.

October 22, 2010

Economics for Edu-pundits IV: The Steamship Industry

(continued from Part III)

Let’s take a brief break from the economics lessons (at least one student needs a recess break) and see how all this “ideological” theory plays out in the real world. (As we know, novices learn best by seeing examples.)

The steamship Industry was one of America’s first large-scale businesses.  It was mechanized in the early 1800s and was an the vanguard of technological change.

As in education, government played a key and active role right from the start in America.  Once government shows a willingness to intervene in an industry, you will invariably see business, who will attempt to succeed primarily by seeking subsidies, aid, and pools (monopolies) from government. These are the political entrepreneurs.  And, if we are lucky, we will also find market entrepreneurs who try to succeed primarily by offering a superior product at a low cost.  These are the market entrepreneurs. (In education, we only have political entrepreneurs:  the teacher’s unions and the administrators.)

We’ve all heard of Robert Fulton and his steamboat, the Clermont, one of the first commercially successful steamboats. What we often don’t hear about is that Fulton’s company obtained a monopoly from New York state giving him the privilege of carrying all steamboat traffic in New York for thirty years.  Fulton is your classic political entrepreneur. He used the New York government to reduce his competition to zero and merrily collected his monopoly profits.  Who’s at fault here?  Fulton?  the New York government? of both?  I’m going with both.

In 1817, steamboat man Thomas Gibbons hired Cornelius Vanderbilt to crack Fulton’s monopoly by carrying passengers between New Jersey and New York for below the monopoly rate Fulton was charging.  This was, of course, illegal, but Vanderbilt managed to elude the law and cut fares up until the landmark case of Gibbons v. Ogden struck down the Fulton monopoly.

Following the decision, steamboat traffic along the Ohio river doubled in the first year and then quadrupled after the second year. By magic?  Hardly.

Freed from the Fulton-Livingston monopoly, the market entrepreneurs quickly improved technology in steamboating.  These new ideas were encouraged by the influx of capital which began soon after the monopoly was struck down.  (This would be the all important capital part of capitalism.) (Note to Dick:  this is how most productive research gets financed and why research and the adoption of research is reduced in monopolistic systems like our school  system.)

The new ideas included tubular boilers which replaced Fulton’s heavy, expensive copper boilers (he had no incentive to replace them as a monopolist).  Also, anthracite coal soon replaced the cordwood fuel used by Fulton, leading to expenses being cut in half.  Fulton had no incentive to switch to a more efficient fuel as long as he could charge monopoly prices as granted to him by the New York government.  Again, this should all sound eerily familiar to anyone who views the antiquated and stagnant ways of our education system.

With the removal of the Fulton monopoly, prices immediately dropped – from seven to three dollars from New York City to Albany, for example.  Nonetheless, with the adoption of new technology by Gibbons and Vanderbilt, lowered their costs enough so that they managed to earn a $40,000 profit each year during the late 1820’s. Gibbons and Vanderbilt made these profits which are thought to be so troublesome and dirty to people like Downes regardless of how much customers actually benefit.  they want to have their cake (a profitless system) and eat it too (the customer benefits).  Except in the fantasy world of Marxist theory – it doesn’t work that way.

At this point Vanderbilt left Gibbons, bought two steamboats, and went into business for himself. He soon established trade routes all over the northeast, becoming known for his fast and reliable service and low rates.  he cut the “standard” $3 fare between New York City and Philadelphia from $3 to $1.  For the New Brunswick to New York City Vanderbilt charged 6 cents and provided free meals.

Vanderbilt then moved into the New York City to Albany run on the Hudson River, competing against the Hudson River Steamboat Association, the largest line in America, which was trying to informally fix prices at the then prevailing $3 rate (down from $7 under the Fulton monopoly) to guarantee them a regular profit by eliminating competition on prices.  Normally, this would be a good opportunity for government to step in and eliminate such restraints of trade between businessmen.  But, in this case they didn’t need to.

Vanderbilt didn’t become the richest man in America by being complacent.  First he used two of his boats on the Albany/New York City and cut the fare from $3 to $1, then to 10 cents, and finally to free.  Vanderbilt figured it cost him $200 per day to operate his boats, so if he could fill them with 100 passengers, he would break even if they would each eat and drink $2 worth of food during the trip.  Vanderbilt later helped to invent the potato chip.

This put pressure on the Steamboat Association who dealt with Vanderbilt by buying him out for $100,000 plus $5,000 a year for the next ten years as long as he promised to leave the Hudson River.  Vanderbilt agreed and the Association tried raising the prices back up to $3 for the Albany/NYC route.

This bribery had little practical effect.  With no barriers to entry, other steamboaters came along and quickly cut fares.  Vanderbilt had shown them that it could be done for less and they saw how Vanderbilt had benefited by being paid off.  Almost immediately, other steamboaters entered the market, cut fares, and were bought off by the Association.  All the while passengers enjoyed the reduced fares.

Meanwhile Vanderbilt took his payoff money and bought bigger and faster ships, entered the New England market, and began doing to them what he has done to the Hudson River Association.

Business is almost never pretty, and these buyouts are little more than naked bribery in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, but the primary beneficiaries of all this unseemly business were the customers.

Here’s how Harper’s Weekly summed it up:

[Vanderbilt’s actions] must be judged by the results; and the results, in every case, of the establishment of opposition lines by Vanderbilt, has been the permanent reduction of fares…  Wherever {Vanderbilt] ‘laid on’ an opposition line, the fares were instantly reduced; and however the contest terminated, whether he bought out his opponents, as he often did, or they bought him out, the fares were never again raised to the old standards.

Vanderbilt is your classic market entrepreneur:  he fought monopolies, he improved steamship technology, and he cut costs.

Education needs someone like Vanderbilt.  Superman might come to education’s rescue  for altruistic reasons.  That’s why we’re still waiting for him to come; he doesn’t exist.  A Vanderbilt, however, will come if there is a profit motive. And, I would bet that we wouldn’t have to wait very long.

See The Myth of the Robber Barons for a more detailed account of Vanderbilt and other businessmen.

October 21, 2010

Economics for Edu-pundits Part III

(Part II is here)

Fixing the problems we see in the present public education system is easy, but in the short term highly disruptive.  But, that’s only because the present system is so screwed up and the interests within the system have gotten so comfortably entrenched and skilled at gaming the political forces by which the system is controlled.

The solution is simple – the system needs an injection of both profits AND losses.  The losses part is the critical component.

Businesses are only interested only in the profit half. If they can avoid losses by getting government subsidies, tariffs and other restrictions against imports, or domestic laws that stifle competition, they will do so. Losses, however, are essential to the process that shifts resources to those who are providing what consumers want at the lowest prices—and away from those who are not.

Here’s a good example of profits and losses in action in the airline industry from Thomas Sowell’s Basic Ecomonics from which I’m stealing a large part of this discussion.  (I’m not providing proper quotations for readability purposes; just assume the well-written parts are his and the poorly written ones are mine)

Between the last year of federal regulation in 1977 and twenty years later in 1997, the average air fare dropped by 40 percent and the average percentage of seats filled on planes rose from 56 percent to 69 percent, while more passengers than ever were carried more safely than ever. Meanwhile, many airlines went bankrupt. That was the cost of greater efficiency. It has been estimated that, during the era of federal regulation, government intervention in the market had caused costs and fares to be 50 percent higher than they would have been in a free market. When the protection of federal regulation was removed, those airlines which could not survive with lower fares and rising fuel costs went out of business.

In 2010, the inefficiencies are still being sucked out of the system and it remains a painful process, especially for inefficient airlines.  we haven’t reached airline travel mecca yet, but consumers have it better than ever.  Bad airlines still remain and you fly with them at your peril.  The situation is the same with bad charter schools.  But, the system as a whole is far better off.

People often have a knee-jerk reaction to “profits.” They think it is a valid criticism that business are “just in business to make profits.”  Schools  shouldn’t be in it for profit, but for more altruistic reasons.  By this kind of reasoning, it could be argued that teachers are just working to earn their pay.  What matters is not the motivation but the results.

To understand why profits and losses are so important, we need to examine what is needed for a business, such as a school, to turn a profit.

One precondition is that profit-seeking businesses cannot squander scarce resources like schools currently do. Businesses operating in a market economy have to pay for all their inputs—whether labor, raw materials, or electricity—and they have to pay as much as others are willing to bid for them. Then they have to sell their own end product or service at a price as low as their competitors are charging. If they fail to do both, they fail to make a profit. And if they keep on failing to make a profit, either the management will be replaced or the whole business will be replaced by some competitor who is more efficient.

In this case failure is a good thing.  if you don’t want children attending bad schools, you have to let them fail and allow the resources to shift to better schools.

Some people, like Downes, charge is made that profits are short-run gains, with implication that they come at the expense of longer-term considerations. Sowell deals with this argument handily:

But future values are reflected in the present value of a business' assets. A factory that runs full blast to make a profit today, while neglecting the maintenance and repair of its machinery will immediately see a decline in the value of property and of its stockholders' stock. It is in the absence of a profit-and-loss economy that there are few incentives to maintain the long-run productivity of an industrial enterprise or a collective farm, as in the Soviet Union.  What happens to the enterprise after the current management's tenure is over is of little concern in a system where there are no profits and no present values to influence decisions.

Ever notice how decrepit inner city schools are.  This explains why. It certainly isn’t for lack of funding.

Couldn’t we achieve the same results by running schools as non-profits?  We’ll see the problems of non-profits in the next post.

October 20, 2010

Economics for Edu-Pundits II

(Part I is here.)

Most people don’t understand the distinction between capitalism and capitalists (i.e., businessmen).  The former is almost always good when there is a high degree of free competition; the latter are usually bad and often attempt to stifle competition.

Being pro-capitalism is not the same thing as being pro-business, yet this is often how those who favor government intervention in markets tend to paint those who favor capitalism. Free-market economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo,and Milton Friedman have been harshly critical of businessmen.  Smith wrote against “the clamour and sophistry of merchants and manufacturers.” Any suggestions about laws and policies coming from such people, he said, ought to be “carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with most suspicious attention.” Skepticism about the business community has remained part of the tradition of free-market economists.

Businessmen seek to reduce or eliminate competition because it is in their self-interest to do so.  By reducing competition, they are able to squander scarce resources and increase their own profits.  It is competition that forces the efficient use of resources by businessmen, lowering prices and thereby competing down profits.

Today, the preferred method businessmen use to stifle competition is through the political process by lobbying the government to intervene on their behalf through subsidies, by keeping out foreign and domestic competition, through favorable regulations, by bailing out failing companies, and the like.  The reality is that businessmen don’t like free-markets and competition any more than Marx did. And government, both parties, is often all too willing to comply with these lobbying requests.  Business leaders are not wedded to a free market philosophy or any other philosophy. They promote their own self-interest any way they can, like other special interest groups. Economists and others who are in fact supporters of free markets have known this for at least two centuries.

Often only businessmen receive the scorn for their anti-competitive, self-interested behavior.  But their willing partner in this malfeasance, government, is just as much to blame. Behind every market scandal there is inevitably a bad regulation which played a significant part.

So what does all this have to do with public education? Plenty.

In public education, government has intervened to replace the businessmen with government officials (the school board). public schools are basically run as non-profit organizations.  This presents a special problem which I’ll discuss in a subsequent post.  For now, it’s only important to recognize are being run along traditional corporate lines with government officials serving as businessmen.  And, if government has been all to willing to intervene on behalf of private businessmen to stifle competition, it’s not difficult to recognize their willingness to do the same when they are the businessmen.

Since government officials are political actors they act in their self-interest not to seek profits (there aren’t any), but to seek political favors from school officals and employees and other related third parties.  Let’s go down the list.

Management.  The administrators who run the schools.  Always highly compensated, as in most industries.  But these guys have extracted a special advantage from their government overlords – zero responsibility to perform well.  when schools fail, like they are in the inner cities, these guys should be the first against the wall.  Are they?  Almost never. What typically happens is that they get reassigned or voluntarily move to another school to burden themselves with.  They have also been successful in shifting responsibility down to the next tier – teachers.

Teachers.  The employees, unfortunately not professionals, who in theory should be merely following orders from on high.  So when schools fail, it’s technically should not be their fault.  But, these are no white knights either.  they’ve formed themselves in unskilled labor-like unions and have successfully eliminated all competition in the labor market which might have served to keep their compensation in check and to make them somewhat responsible for performing with some degree of competence.  Their unions have been highly successfully in lobbying government for favors that are in their self-interest.  Teachers and administrators have in effect stepped into the shoes of the businessman who would normally be running schools.  They are now the loathed businessmen, as the public is starting to recognize. And they are certainly acting like capitalists  by converting what would normally be excess monopoly profits into increase compensation and job security for themselves.

Third party contractors.  All the people who provide services to schools – builders/contractors, publishers, schools of education, and anyone else who provides any service to schools.  These people benefit by being awarded contracts through the political process and by having administrators who aren't too concerned about  the bottom line.  This is why we see Taj Mahal like buildings and overly-produced and priced textbooks.

Only two groups are being screwed in our present system –students and taxpayers (i.e., the public).  The groups that the schools are supposed to be serving.  Bear that in mind the next time you read some lofty rhetoric about “public institutions.” “public good,” “society does to advance its own objectives,” “education being too important to be left to private enterprise,” and “the social harm that would be caused outweighing the profits.”

Forget about the public-good and private-enterprise labels.  That is a difference without a distinction.  We could easily have the same awful system under private enterprise.Private businessmen have also been successful in lobbying for the same kinds of reduced competition benefits.

The trick is to avoid the kinds of problems we see in the present public education system. The next post will discuss how that can be accomplished.

October 19, 2010

Basic economics for Edu-Pundits

Those who favor government running the education system often seem to think that government is somehow immune form economic and political forces.  They often believe that by having the government run the education system, we’ve somehow managed to avoid the common problems of free enterprise.  For example here’s Downes:

I think the point being made is that education is not something that is simply bought and sold, as a commodity, but rather something a society does to advance its own objectives. That it is, therefore, something too important to be left to the whims of the marketplace. And that the content of an education cannot be determined merely by economic pressures, but by the wider set of values of a society as a whole.

Most societies have decided that the management of education is too important to be left to private enterprise, that there would be too many poison pills to swallow, and that society would be irreparably damaged as a result. That even if private enterprise were to be able to manage education more efficiently, the product offered would be harmful to society.

The fostering of an educational resources regime where publishers and academics produce, and everyone else consumes, at once promotes their business objectives and undermines our social objectives and disempowers learners as a whole.

Implicit in this argument is the belief that government acting as both regulator and service provider is somehow immune from market forces, political forces, and self-interest such that it will inherently use education resources more effectively, provide education services more effectively, and serve society’s objectives better than free enterprise would.

More specifically, does eliminating profits and the risk of losses improve outcomes?  Does eliminating competition improve outcomes?

It’s basic economics.  Once you strip away the lofty rhetoric, it’s easy to see that our education system suffers from common maladies that plague other areas of the economy and for the same reasons.

There’s nothing inherently different because government is providing the education services.  If a private company was offering education services under the same conditions, the services provided would be equally bad and the the prices equally steep.  And, most importantly, the outcomes would be equally abysmal for the same students being under-served in the present system.

Unlike Downes and others of like mind, I am not willing to sweep the bad outcomes under the rug by blaming the failures on outside forces like poverty.  The majority of people who favor the present system, like Dick , recognize that reform is needed.  But, they are mistaken in believing that the present system can be reformed in a way that improves outcomes.

To understand why requires a brief overview of basic economics which I’ll provide in the next post.

In the meantime, feel free to present your arguments, pro and con, on the wonders and failures of the present system and why you think I’m wrong or right.  I’ll address them.

October 18, 2010

I win Open Left’s Dunce Hat Award of the Week

Woo Hoo! I win.

I’d like to thank all my readers and, especially, all my commenters who make all of this possible.  Without you I wouldn’t have the will to persevere to do daily battle with the mighty intellects at blogs like Open Left.  It’s very difficult to display your ineptitude in the face of Open Left’s withering criticism without support.  And, it’s not just ordinary everyday ineptitude; it’s dunce hat award level ineptitude.  That must be especially difficult to read.  I also want to thank Open Left for offering such a prestigious award to us dunces.  So, again, thank you, thanks to all of you.

Apparently it was my post on poverty and student achievement that set me apart from lesser dunces.  Let’s go through Open Left’s analysis.

His claim, in a nutshell, is that the fact that Asian students, despite their poverty levels, have higher achievement than any other racial or ethnic group of students proves that there has to be another more important variable than poverty influencing student achievement.

Actually, that’s not my claim in or out of a nutshell.  What I said, in response to Parry’s comment, was:

SES and student achievement are correlated. (You can't tell the tightness of the fit with this graph.) But, as you indicate SES can clearly not be the only independent causal variable.

SInce we’re in the realm of correlational studies, the data isn’t capable of proving any hypothesis.  The data can only disprove a hypothesis.  In this case the data disproves the hypothesis that poverty is the sole independent causal variable.

"Asian children with parents having only a high school diploma performed better than black children with parents having graduate degrees," he points out.

However, instead of rejecting outright that there is a consistent positive relationship between parental income or parental levels of education and student achievement (a correlation that is undeniable), he instead insists that there is an "invisible variable" at work.

I don’t reject the correlation outright.  The correlation exists. What I reject is the drawing of the causal inference that poverty causes low student achievement.  The correlational data is incapable of proving causation regardless of how consistent or positive the correlation may be. (In actuality, the correlation is rather low, as I pointed out here. Less than 20% of the variance in student performance is accounted for in the variance of socio-economic status, at best.)

And, I didn’t insist there was an invisible variable, I merely indicated there might be a third variable in play.

In fact, SES doesn't have to be an independent variable at all; there could be a third variable(s) that drives both SES and student performance.

And, that’s only because when drawing causal inferences from correlational studies, there is always the possibility that there is a third variable in play or that or that the causality is backwards (the wet streets causes rain problem).

Open Left goes on to conjecture:

And what is that invisible factor? he only hints at.

A few days later and many times previous I explicitly indicated what researchers conjecture those third variables might be:

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.

Open Left also conjectures:

But even if he is right - that there is something about what happens in Asian households (parenting habits, for instance, or nutrition) that matters more than poverty - that only proves that the determining factor is still outside the control of schools. Unless of course he wants schools telling parents how to raise children.

Open Left is so blinded by their own ideology, they can’t even draw fair inferences from what I wrote.  There is no implication in my post that Asian performance is attributable to what goes on in Asian households.  It could be that Asian students possess traits like self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, and cognitive ability that allow them to access the education being offered in their schools better.  And as far as Asian parenting styles go I pointed out Stanley Sue and Sumie Okazaki’s paper, "Asian-American educational achievements: A phenomenon in search of an explanation" that noted

the parenting styles and values found in East Asian-American homes tend to correlate with lower test scores when they are found in white homes.

So much for that correlation as well.

Open Left concludes:

The difference between school-based factors that influence achievement and factors outside of schools' control is a distinction that in no way does the ed reform movement want to discuss. And they'll go to any lengths to avoid that discussion.

I’m not the one handing out dunce hat awards in an effort to “avoid discussion” now am I?  I’m not the one with only correlational data and a bunch of failed out-of-school interventions.  And, I certainly have enough humility to know what isn’t known about what affects student achievement and not to hand out dunce hat award on dubious (and fairly debatable) premises.

Out of school factors certainly exist, we’re just still waiting for someone to accurately identify what they are and to establish an intervention that consistently works to ameliorate their effects before we shift resources away from school-based interventions which have been shown to increase student performance.

Is that really too much to ask?

October 15, 2010

And, now we see the violence inherent in the system

It was very sweet to see Dick Schutz defend Nancy Flanagan in the comments of this post.

Though normally ideological foes, they’ve found some common ground: they’re both statists when it comes to how our public schools should be run.  Schools should be run by the state with schools operating as monopolies in geographic based districts.  Competition.  None.

They both claim not to like the status quo and that reform is needed.  Specifically, they both believe that instructional reform is needed.  However, their views on education reform are diametrically opposed.
Dick is a a code lovin’ instructivist.  Nancy is a whole language lovin’ constructivist.

And, unfortunately, in their preferred statist system only one of them gets to run the show. The other gets to complain from the sidelines.

It makes for a good illustration why our present system is incompatible with real reform.  They both want reform, but want to maintain the present system.  This means one of them will have to gain central control of the system and then impose their will on the other.  Things would stop being lovey-dovey real quick.

It would make for a great reality show.