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.