The Education Gap

The Times last weekend had a big article on the "achievement gap" in education, where poor and minority students are found to lag behind upper- and middle-class white students in many subjects. The author looks at a number of innovative shools that are producing good results with students from the at-risk groups, and considers a number of factors that might cause the gap.

If you're a regular blog reader, you've probably already run across this, as it's been commented on locally by Jonah, Dave, and Jake, and on the wider Internet by a cast of thousands (see, for example, Matt Yglesias). It's taken me most of the week to get around to reading the article, for a variety of reasons, but this topic is right up my alley, so I feel like I ought to say something about the article.

A lot of the big points have been made already, so I'm just going to pick out a few things that jumped out at me, starting with this (emphasis added):

Last year, a graduate student of [UPenn psychology professor Martin] Seligman's named Angela Duckworth published with Seligman a research paper that demonstrated a guiding principle of these charter schools: in many situations, attitude is just as important as ability. Duckworth studied 164 eighth-grade students in Philadelphia, tracking each child's I.Q. as well as his or her score on a test that measured self-discipline and then correlating those two numbers with the student's G.P.A. Surprisingly, she found that the self-discipline scores were a more accurate predictor of G.P.A. than the I.Q. scores by a factor of two. Duckworth's paper connects with a new wave of research being done around the country showing that "noncognitive" abilities like self-control, adaptability, patience and openness -- the kinds of qualities that middle-class parents pass on to their children every day, in all kinds of subtle and indirect ways -- have a huge and measurable impact on a child's future success.

Who, exactly, was this surprising to?

I mean, everybody in academia can tell you stories of bright but undisciplined students who end up with far lower grades than their raw ability would dictate. Some of us have been those students, at one point or another.

A fair chunk of GPA, even at the college level, ends up being a simple matter of completion of assignments. Grades aren't handed out based on ability, they're given based on the work that is done. A student who doesn't turn in assignments just isn't going to do as well as a student who has the self-discipline to hand in every single thing.

As faculty, we try our best to structure our classes so that the final grade rewards real ability and understanding of the material, but there's always room for bright but undisciplined students to slip below students with less natural ability but better work ethic. This happens all the time in the introductory classes-- the best grade on the final exam will go to a student who's getting a B in the class, and the best grade in the class goes to a student who may not be the most talented student in the class, but who puts in the hours and does all the work. We're a results-oriented business, and if you don't do the work, you won't get the grades.

Anybody who is surprised to find that grades correlate with discipline rather than intelligence hasn't been paying attention. Please see me after class for additional help.

The second thing that caught my eye was this paragraph:

Right now, of course, they are not getting more than middle-class students; they are getting less. For instance, nationwide, the best and most experienced teachers are allowed to choose where they teach. And since most state contracts offer teachers no bonus or incentive for teaching in a school with a high population of needy children, the best teachers tend to go where they are needed the least. A study that the Education Trust issued in June used data from Illinois to demonstrate the point. Illinois measures the quality of its teachers and divides their scores into four quartiles, and those numbers show glaring racial inequities. In majority-white schools, bad teachers are rare: just 11 percent of the teachers are in the lowest quartile. But in schools with practically no white students, 88 percent of the teachers are in the worst quartile. The same disturbing pattern holds true in terms of poverty. At schools where more than 90 percent of the students are poor -- where excellent teachers are needed the most -- just 1 percent of teachers are in the highest quartile.

Absent some information on the methodology used, this is a really problematic statement. On the face of it, this would appear to be an awfully tautological statement.

I mean, how do you measure the quality of teachers? The obvious way would be to say that the good teachers are the ones whose students do well on the assessment tests, and the bad teachers are the ones whose students do poorly on the assessment tests.

Having previously established that there is a strong correlation between class and race and performance on tests, then, why should we be surprised to find that the teachers in poor schools are rated poor teachers? And why is it surprising that the teachers with the highest ratings come from schools where you would expect the students to test well?

Unless they have some novel method of determining teacher quality (a value-added method, perhaps), I'd be highly skeptical of the claim that the teachers in poor schools are necessarily poor teachers. It's insulting to the good and dedicated teachers in those districts who are doing the best they can in a bad situation.

The final thing that caught my attention is more of a "Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps" sort of item, dealing with the great bugaboo of education debates, teachers' unions:

Levin and Toll sometimes seem surprised by the political company they are now keeping -- and by the opponents they have attracted. "I'm a total liberal!" Toll said, a little defensively, when I asked her recently about this political divide. Many charter advocates claim that the views of Democratic politicians on charter schools are clouded by the fact that they depend for both money and votes on the nation's teachers' unions, which are skeptical of charter schools and in some states have taken steps to block them from expanding. In Connecticut, the state teachers' union this year lobbied against a legislative change to allow for the expansion of Amistad Academy (it later passed), and the union's lawyers filed a Freedom of Information Act request that required Amistad to turn over all of its employment and pay records. The union's chief lobbyist told reporters in April that the state's charter law was intended only "to create incubators of innovation. It was never to create a charter-school system." Amistad was acceptable as a small experiment, in other words, but there was no reason to let it grow.

As regular readers probably already know, I'm annoyed by most union-bashing in educational contexts. My father was a public school teacher for thirty-odd years before he retired, and he was an officer in the local union for a good chunk of that time, and my impression is that at least in that case, the union did more good than harm, by a wide margin. As a result, I'm highly skeptical (to say the least) of education rhetoric that blames all the problems of the current public school system on obstructionist teachers' unions.

In this case, it bothers me that the author evidently hasn't talked to anybody from the union side of things-- charter school proponents are profiled in detail and quoted verbatim, but the union gets a second-hand quote from an unnamed official.

It's possible that the Connecticut union was, in fact, behaving like a right-wing caricature, and lobbying against charter schools for no good reason. It's conceivable that they filed their FOIA requests as part of an obstructionist fishing expedition. It's a little dubious, but much stupider court filings are made every day.

But isn't it also possible that they had some reason for opposing the legislation in question, and some reason for wanting to see the employment and pay records? And if your goal is to present a reasonably objective picture of the educational situation, isn't it your responsibility to find those reasons, and present them to the reader? If nothing else, the rationale for the FOIA request ought to be in the court papers somewhere, and those are usually a matter of public record.

It's a shame, because the piece otherwise appears pretty even-handed. But when the reporter lapses into uncritically repeating talking points on this one issue (that happens to catch my eye for personal reasons), it makes me question everything else in the piece. What other biases have snuck in that didn't happen to run afoul of one of my usual filters?

(For the record, I have no objection to the idea of "charter" schools as a means of testing new ideas and techniques, and the programs described in the article sound like they're worthy of being expanded. I would object, though, if the expansion of this program was being used as an end run around the normal regulations and oversight required for ordinary public schools, which is what comes to mind when I hear that the CT union wanted to see pay and employment records. But, of course, there's no explanation in the article of why the union objected, so I can't tell you whether there was a sensible reason for it or not.)

All in all, it's an interesting article, and well worth a read. I'm sorry I didn't get around to it earlier-- stupid day job!

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NCLB isn't just a failure, it's actively hostile to the schools that are the most needy. Under NCLB, Fairfax Co. is looking at seeing approximately a third of its elementary schools labelled as failing. As public school systems go, Fairfax is considered among the best in the country (all 25 of FFX Co.'s high schools make the top 100 list consistently).

The county has been fined millions under NCLB for finding too many kids eligible for spec. ed. (because, you know, the schools can dictate the population of students that they get, oh wait, only private schools get to do that).

If a student is in more than one at risk category, that student counts against the school in every category the student falls under. Children who come in to the system speaking no english have ONE year they are allowed to be exempt from taking standardized tests in English. It takes half a decade or more to master a foriegn language, but the legislature has decided that reality can't be allowed to influence their policy. NCLB dictates that schools that don't make AYP (acceptable yearly progess) two years in a row have mandatory staffing changes (because, high turnover ALWAYS makes things better). We watched a principal who'd turned one of FFX's worst schools in to one of it's best get told he could either move to another poor performer or find another system. He works in Alexandria now. It took him half a decade to fix that school, and that's what's normally expected. Forcing successful principals to constantly move to troubled schools does nothing but burn them out. It also has the lovely side effect of making them look incompetent when they inevitably fail to fix a school in the mandated two year time limit.

Failing schools? The get their funding cut, because that always helps too.

WHEN NCLB fails (and it will, there is no doubt), it will be because it was a poorly written law that mandated results under impossible constraints, while providing no additional resources, and yanking resources from the places they should have been adding more.

Why would a civilization invest in inferiority to the exclusion of its Gifted? The feminist bushwa of cherishing the runt - so effectively exacting military impotence in Iraq - has created two generations of delicate morons at home. When Baby Boomers are retired by 2015 and scream a $2.5 trillion/year Social Security and Medicare "UBI EST MEA!", who will pay the piper?

Entropy will pay the piper.

The real problem with focussing on teachers' unions in these kinds of debates is the minor detail that only a limited number of states even have teachers' unions.

Re: natural ability versus other qualities. I worry about injecting difficult to measure qualities into any evaluation process. There are already some vague criteria like "leadership potential" in admission to graduate school, which may end up favoring students of certain backgrounds over others, depending how one interpret that concept.

For example, just my own anecdotal experience, when applying to grad school it never crossed my mind I'd have to include anything but professional qualifications. I had nothing about volunteer work, being in the school's band, teaching ESL to kids...not to mention being in charge of 60 soldiers in the army... I believe my application got nothing for leadership. I now read those application and my case is not that unusual.

So, I'd have to see exactly how self-discipline and adaptability are defined operationally, and how do those measurements correlate with class differences, which may be the real predictor here.

I mean, everybody in academia can tell you stories of bright but undisciplined students who end up with far lower grades than their raw ability would dictate. Some of us have been those students, at one point or another.

Given that "I resemble that remark", I'd like to point out that a lot of "self-discipline" issues reflect undiagnosed or untreated learning disabilities. Many others will reflect crises outside of school, or simply lack of home support. A few will represent mental illnesses. Almost all of these cases could readily be accommodated and/or treated, but that would involve individualized attention to the kids in question, which is anathema to the "industrial education" approach of NCLB -- not to mention requiring more staff and more funding.

My own case involved ADD and hearing loss, which were diagnosed, and Non-verbal Learning Disorder, which wasn't. (NLD had just been defined when I was in high school.) As it happened, I made it through high school on raw intelligence, with only a couple of stumbles. College ("Hahvard") was another story -- I did graduate eventually, but it was a rough trip, and at least knowing about that NLD would have helped a heluvalot!

By David Harmon (not verified) on 01 Dec 2006 #permalink

For the second quoted section, teachers were ranked based on the Teacher Quality Index, which is based on:
1) the percentage of teachers with BA degrees from more-competitive colleges
2) the percentage of teachers with less than 4 years of teaching experience
3) the percentage of teachers with emergency or provisional credentials
4) the percentage of teachers who failed the Basic Skills test on the first attempt
5) the average ACT composite score of teachers.

The TQI, really measures the qualifications of teachers; it only measures quality to the degree that it correlates with qualification. These indicators were chosen because they have previously been shown to be related to "student performance." Unfortunately, they did not say how student performance was judged.

The report does mention a few times that better data, particularly in the form of more value-added/longitudinal studies, is necessary. Although this suggests that the TQI's value was probably concluded from non-longitudinal studies, it's not entire clear; the report discusses several other studies, most non-longitudinal and at least one longitudinal.…