Kevin Drum reports on an essay by James Heckman that would be depressing if it weren’t predictable. The basic idea is expressed in this graph:
i-e9d812ca469f0ae2d7b4c8c03557e6eb-educheckman.jpg
Drum summarizes:

The chart shows achievement test scores for children of mothers with different levels of education. Children of college graduates score about one standard deviation above the mean by the time they’re three, and that never changes. Children of mothers with less than a high school education score about half a standard deviation below the mean by the time they’re three, and that never changes either. Roughly speaking, nothing we do after age three has much effect.

Drum echoes Heckman’s suggestion that this means we should cut way back on reform efforts aimed at secondary education, and even elementary schooling, and spend that money on early childhood interventions.

I tend to agree, with caveats. Standardized test scores don’t tell you much about how genuinely educated people are. As we see, these tests are basically measuring socioeconomic status, and one of the best things we can do to improve the next generation’s prospects is keeping kids in school, and getting them off to college, and then keeping at-risk students in college. People who drop out of high school usually do it for economic reasons, and that’s especially true of people who don’t complete college. But interventions that improve the number of students completing high school and college should have significant effects in the long run.

The focus on test-taking brought on by NCLB and the current crop of reforms can’t do much to encourage people to stay in school, or to become life-long learners. Standardized tests discourage independent study and innovative thinking, which is the name of the game in any good college, let alone high school.

There are ways that the educational system can be and should be reformed, but what this tells us is that the problems we face can’t be faced by firing teachers and shutting down schools. An educational system that raises up the lowest-performing students needs to be focused on issues of poverty, class, and race that limit students’ options.

Comments

  1. #1 Clam
    March 19, 2011

    or it could be that gasp intelligence is genetically endowed? i.e. nature not nurture.

  2. #2 Riman Butterbur
    March 19, 2011

    Most brain activity is intuitive rather than rational. The basic mindset you acquired in early childhood — your basic worldview — limits your possibilities for critical thinking. For example, if you were indoctrinated all your life to thinking that everything that happens is due to “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”, it’s very difficult to get it into your head that the universe works mechanistically following predictable natural laws.

    It seems to me this is a psychological rather than an educational problem.

    And it’s not just a problem of the socioeconomically disadvantaged. We all have our own mental abilities, and limitations, locked into our minds by early learning. I think this would be virtually impossible to change. The only way to cope with it is to remember, that just because you can’t imagine some preconception being untrue, doesn’t prove that it is true.

  3. #3 Anthony McCarthy
    March 21, 2011

    For example, if you were indoctrinated all your life to thinking that everything that happens is due to “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”, it’s very difficult to get it into your head that the universe works mechanistically following predictable natural laws. RB

    You wonder how Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and so many others, up to Guy Consolmagno, today, ever managed to have successful careers in science.

    Of course, the actual evidence that your idea is wrong, in the person of many successful scientists means nothing as compared to a seat of the pants statement. While the disparity in student selection and other issues would make any comparison, say, between Catholic, or other religious, schools and public schools meaningless, I wonder what the success rates of the graduates of religious schools in science would show. If your idea has anything to it, their “indoctrination” in religion should preclude success in science.

    Real world conditions used to be the court of final appeal in science, though that seems to be out of fashion, especially among the self-appointed defenders of science where prejudice and bigotry seem to have authority. But, as I recently read “remember, that just because you can’t imagine some preconception being untrue, doesn’t prove that it is true.”

  4. #4 Riman Butterbur
    March 21, 2011

    “You wonder how Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and so many others, up to Guy Consolmagno, today, ever managed to have successful careers in science.”

    Yes, I do. But I don’t expect to find out myself; I’ll leave it to others to study the biographies of the few individuals who have managed to overcome their culturally-induced mental limitations while billions of others could not.

    You call that “evidence” that my idea is wrong? You seem to have some preconceptions of your own to worry about.