May 17, 2007

Income Inequality in America

Tyler Cowen has a good article in today's NYT on the causes of income inequality in America.

The most commonly cited culprits for the income inequality in America — outsourcing, immigration and the gains of the super-rich — are diversions from the main issue. Instead, the problem is largely one of (a lack of) education.


College graduates have been gaining relative to high school graduates...

Starting about 1950, the relative returns for schooling rose, and they skyrocketed after 1980. The reason is supply and demand. For the first time in American history, the current generation is not significantly more educated than its parents. Those in need of skilled labor are bidding for a relatively stagnant supply and so must pay more.

The return for a college education, in percentage terms, is now about what it was in America’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century; this drives the current scramble to get into top colleges and universities. In contrast, from 1915 to 1950, the relative return for education fell, mostly because more new college graduates competed for a relatively few top jobs, and that kept top wages from rising too high.

... Improvements in technology have raised the gains for those with enough skills to handle complex jobs. The resulting inequalities are bid back down only as more people receive more education and move up the wage ladder.

Income distribution thus depends on the balance between technological progress and access to college and postgraduate study. The problem isn’t so much capitalism as it is that American lower education does not prepare enough people to receive gains from American higher education.

Bingo. In America, as in many western countries, K-12 education has been stagnant for the past 50 years. Student performance remains flat. Productivity is decreasing because we spend more and more with nothing to show for it.

Bottlenecks currently keep more individuals from improving their education. Professor Katz has suggested changes at multiple levels, including additional college aid, more-accessible community colleges, easier financial aid forms, more serious attempts to identify and retain top teachers in high schools and school voucher experiments.

The bottleneck is K-12 education. But, there's scant evidence that any of those things are going to improve K-12 education.

Vouchers? Have you seen the state of private schools lately? The private schools that do well mostly do well because they are loaded with easily educable kids, not because they employ superior instruction. I visited my son's CCD class at our local parochial school last Sunday and there I saw the same rotten reading and math programs that our local public school uses.

It doesn’t suffice simply to increase the number of people in college; rather the new students must be prepared to learn. There is, however, no single magic bullet.

There isn't a magic bullet for most of the problems we face today, so I'm not sure why Tyler is looking for one in education. The "solution" will be found in the same places it is found in other areas -- through lots of hard work by skilled people.

Pessimists like Charles Murray, co-author of the much-debated 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” have argued that only so many individuals are educable at a high level. If that were the case, current levels of inequality might be here to stay.

Unfortunately, the evidence seems to be on Murray's side (though I've disagreed with him on many of his recent policy forays). Even with a far superior K-8 education, there is little evidence to suggest that you can prepare the bottom 2/3 of the curve for a rigorous college education in a competitive major that employers are looking for. Sure, you can cherry pick the smarter ones at the margins who are currently being underserved. And, you can pull many of these kids out of illiteracy and innumeracy, but there is a long way between being literate and numerate and being prepared for college level work.

Primarily, the problem remains language acquisition. Language skills are especially difficult to acquire for low performers who (a) lack the cognitive ability to learn language quickly and (b) typically, do not grow up in language rich households. Most of the advanced vocabulary students will need to succeed in college will only come from reading lots of difficult books-- the kind of books that don't get assigned much anymore.

We could be doing a lot better with K-12 education today and improving the lot of many underserved students. Many average students would benefit immensely from a decent high school education instead of the watered-down babysitting that they get today. many lower performing students would benefit immensely if they learned to read and do basic at an eighth grade level. But you're never going to get equality of college education for the same reason you don't see midgets playing in the NBA.

May 16, 2007

Let's teach them English by teaching them in Spanish

I don't get this at all.

José Perez is a fidgety 5-year-old – as if there's any other kind. Since he's more fidgety than most, his teacher changes activities often to accommodate his attention span and keep him focused on the business of kindergarten – phonics, reading, writing.

José sometimes writes in what the teacher calls “run-on words” – soJosé'ssentencesenduplookinglikethis.

Yesterday, his mother, Sylvia, was at his left elbow for 40 minutes, coaching him to put space between the words, erasing mistakes, helping him with vocabulary in “Escápate,” the Spanish-language book the class is reading. José hasn't learned to speak English yet.

Why is this school teaching Spanish-speaking Kindergarten students in Spanish and not English?

I'm sure there is some silly government mandate.

Here we have a young child from a poor family with uneducated parents and who, if you tested him, would most likely reveal that he didn't know that many Spanish words to begin with being taught to read in Spanish, not English.

This makes no sense at this age. It's just as efficient to teach kids this young in English because you have to teach them most of the vocabulary from scratch anyway. You might as well teach in English from day one.

There might be a more compelling reason to teach older kids in a language other than English, but I don't see it for kids this young.

Good Idea, Dopey Implementation

The Seattle School District's Academic chief wants to standardize the Curriculum:

Hired last year as chief academic officer of Seattle Public Schools, Santorno, 56, is responsible for what kids learn and how they learn it. And if her plans move forward, Seattle's future classrooms will have a lot more of what Santorno envisions, especially standardized lessons in math, social studies and reading.

Her most conspicuous effort so far -- establishing a uniform math curriculum at the elementary-school level -- has been difficult to develop and met resistance from parents and teachers. Her proposal, which the School Board is scheduled to consider tonight, is something of a compromise between two distinctly different approaches.

Standardizing the curriculum is a good thing, especially in big city school districts with high student mobility. Students who transfer between schools in the same district can be easily assimilated.

Another benefit, is that we know who to blame (and by blame I mean fire) when the curriculum fails -- the academic chief. Take, for example, the selection of math textbooks.

In 2005, an instructional-materials committee was formed by the district to focus on choosing a uniform math program. For years, debate has raged between those who support so-called "reform" math, which stresses a conceptual approach, and advocates of the traditional method, which focuses on calculations and memorizing formulas.

Kids entering middle and high schools came with different skills, and that made teaching tough, said Sharon Rodgers, a math-committee member who now leads the Seattle Council PTSA. But people argued about which strategy was the best, and both sides could point to data and studies to prove their point.

So what program did the Academic Chief select?

Santorno recently announced that elementary schools would use a reform-math textbook for an hour, coupled with traditional-math instruction for 15 minutes. Schools can request a waiver, but individual teachers can't. The cost of implementing a new elementary math program: $1.3 million for textbooks and materials only, and every elementary-school teacher must be ready to teach it by September.

The one that hopefully will get her fired when performance fails to improve.

Calculators tell teachers which pupils need help

USA Today reports:

Texas Instruments, whose calculators helped make the company a household name, has found a way to help teachers quickly identify students who may be failing math, Chief Executive Rich Templeton said Monday.

The so-called TI-Navigator sends wireless signals from pupils' handheld calculators to a personal-computer screen that lets instructors correct and analyze errors in real time.

"The teacher can understand who's not getting it" by assessing which functions students keyed into their calculators, Templeton said at the Reuters Global Technology, Media and Telecoms Summit in New York.

Like the "power on" button?

With TI-Navigator, even shy students get a say in the classroom as teachers can review their calculations streamed wirelessly, and quietly, to the instructor's monitor, according to the company's website.

The system lets teachers "get answers from every student, not just the vocal ones," says TI's website. Instructors also can identify and correct common mistakes as they occur and, if necessary, adjust lessons as they go along.

This sounds tone deaf on the part of TI. If a teacher doesn't understand the need to get feedback from all students, not just the vocal ones, I don't think this calculator is going to improve matters.

May 10, 2007

NYC schools get lots of new money

According to the NY Daily News:

Nearly 700 underfunded schools will see an influx of $110 million next year under the city's new student funding formula, officials announced.

As principals across the city began scrutinizing their 2007-08 budgets yesterday, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein laid out specifics of the new "weighted" system designed to create more equity.

"For too long, some schools and some students have not had their fair share of resources, and we as a city can do better than that," Klein said.

Under the plan, each student will be assigned a dollar value depending on grade level - from $3,788 to $3,902 - and then extra cash depending on special needs like poverty, special education and ability to speak English.

"There's always so much more you can do if you have more funds, so this is almost an answer to prayers," said Bronx Public School 53 Principal Collin Wolfe, who was thrilled to see his budget grow by about $440,000 for next year.

Isn't that charming. Warms your heart to see that these schools will be getting much more funding to improve education.

My Prediction: No increase in student achievement at all.

May 2, 2007

Another Nail in the Coffin of the Savage Inequalities Meme

According to the Kozol crowd, our educational inequalities can be solved by putting poor and minority kids into affluent suburban schools.

Or not.

With the governor visiting, Montgomery County school officials might have been tempted to throw up some slides showing rising test scores or burgeoning Advanced Placement participation.

Instead, school leaders spoke candidly yesterday about the seemingly insoluble problem of getting students from some minority groups to succeed in advanced math courses.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) listened as school officials gave a PowerPoint presentation showing three schools, one each from affluent, middle-class and low-income neighborhoods, all with moribund math achievement among blacks and Hispanics.

It's not the schools; it's the bad instruction. Bad instruction that is present in most schools. Some kids just tolerate whole language and fuzzy math better than others. These are the smart kids who will succeed despite the instruction. The rest of the kids not so much.

Montgomery school officials were showing off M-Stat, their version of a celebrated initiative that uses statistics and computers to identify and analyze problems. The school system is among the first in the nation to adopt a variant of CompStat, the New York City police program that analyzes crime trends. The "Stat" concept has drawn notice not only for its success but also for encouraging lively -- and occasionally sharp -- exchanges among top brass.

Do you really need a computer to analyze and identify the problem? It's right in front of your face.

"M-Stat is really designed to focus on, 'Where do we have achievement gaps, and what are we going to do about them?' " said Donald H. Kress, chief school performance officer for the Montgomery schools.

Problem is they don't know what to do about the achievement gaps. Or, at least, they don't want to change what they are presently doing.

Ideally, the meetings stir revelations. Yesterday's session, for example, left participants with the disquieting fact that black and Hispanic students aren't reaping the benefits of attending high-performing schools in affluent communities.

One principal, representing a middle-class neighborhood, predicted that her minority math data would "flat-line" this year because the school is focusing on other reforms. In the often sugarcoated world of public education, that was a bold admission.

Finally, a truthful article on education from WaPo. I'm shocked.