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Home Schools: The New Melting Pot?

On Sunday I caught some of David Gregory’s interview with Rick Santorum on Meet The Press. Gregory’s question near the end caught my attention because he quoted Santorum’s book, It Takes A Family, which somewhat contracted something I wrote a few blog posts ago on schooling. Feel free to skip to the 11:14 mark.

GREGORY: I’ve just got a minute left. I want to pin you down on a couple of quick issues, if I can. One is education. This is something that you wrote in your book, ‘It Takes the Family’ back…

SANTORUM:  Right.

GREGORY: …in 2005 about public education vs. homeschooling. I want to put it up on the screen, it caught my eye. ‘It’s amazing that so many kids turn out to be fairly normal, considering the weird socialization they get in public schools. In a home school, by contrast, children interact in a rich and complex way with adults and children of other ages all the time.’ You want to be President of the United States, public education’s one of the foundational parts of our country, and yet you say the weird socialization is kids being in school with kids their same age?

SANTORUM: Yeah.

GREGORY: How is that weird socialization?

SANTORUM: Where else is that – where, where else in, in America, outside of school, do kids go to a place where they sit with people basically the same age, same socioeconomic group, and interact for, for a defined period of time? That’s not what life is like. Life is very different than that. You’re dealing with a whole bunch of different people. And I think, you know, the one-room schoolhouse was the example of how you had interaction, you have sensitivity. I can see it in my, in my own family, I see it in other children who deal with children of different ages, respect for elders. This – what I’m saying is that the – that we need to transform public education to reflect more of what the dynamism is in the private sector. And, and that includes a whole, a whole way of infusing parents into the system, a dynamism of having not people stuck in classrooms.  They – the sort of the old factory model of how we educate people…

I wrote in my post that “Humans instinctively create in-and-out groups, but schools – especially American ones – allow kids a unique context to experience others different from themselves.”

George Washington High School, Philadelphia, PA

Now obviously American public schools are fairly sorted along demographic lines and it’s also true that most classes kids take with peers their own age, but is it really true that home schools are more complex in age and other demographic groups? Home schooled children almost by definition only interact with kids in their same socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Public school kids also spend plenty of time socially interacting with children of different age groups (note to Santorum: public schools usually have more than one grade level in them). Also, just in terms of descriptive accuracy, aren’t many of life’s experiences spent dealing mostly with people from a similar socioeconomic group (communities, workplace, even hobbies)?

I’m not trying to bash home school or elevate our public school system as some heterogeneous utopia, but if you want your kids to interact with “a whole bunch of different people” keeping them at home doesn’t seem like the best strategy.

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Categories: Education, Uncategorized

Matching Reforms

March 12, 2011 1 comment

It’s surprisingly difficult to find dispassionate arguments for reforms that harm teachers’ interests. I imagine this might be due to most academics having a strong pro-teacher bias so the type of people arguing against teachers usually are rabid crazies on the right. But I suspect that I’m susceptible to bias since both my parents, my sister, and my sister-in-law are all teachers and I like teachers. Therefore, I do my best to search out sober arguments to penetrate that potential bias. Megan McArdle does an admirable job at presenting clear arguments for weakening certain teacher benefits without demonizing teachers and while acknowledging reform pitfalls.

Her whole piece is worth reading so I encourage it, but even if we accept her argument that making it easier to fire teachers outweighs its downsides, she rests her argument on the matching reform of being able to compensate teachers much differently.

At a minimum, making teachers easier to fire needs to be paired with extensive reforms: a move towards defined contribution rather than defined benefit plans (which make a mid-career job loss catastrophic); elimination of seniority and useless credentials as the primary criteria for setting pay; broadening the recruiting base by eliminating a requirement for ed degrees; and a shift towards paying teachers more, especially in math and science.  I also think it’s absolutely crucial to set up some sort of Federal bonus to recruit high-performing teachers to the lowest-performing districts–a bonus sizeable enough to attract top teachers, and available only on one-year contracts.

Note that she says, “at a minimum”! Does she believe that if these extensive reforms aren’t linked together that we should still dissolve teachers’ benefits in the way she suggests. Despite some of her wording, I actually suspect she would say, “yes,” but I can’t be sure. It seems difficult to believe that we could sustain public support for paying teachers even higher wages in order to maintain administrative flexibility without teacher quality suffering mightily. I’m sure it is exaggerated because of the economic climate, but there is already consistent complaints that teachers get paid too much even though we pay our teachers so little compared to other countries.

Paying teachers high enough wages to entice attractive candidates and keep the best performers is challenging in a institution that isn’t committed to making profits. In business it makes sense to pay competitive wages because if you don’t you lose out on the profits those extra wages pay for. But the bottom line for schools isn’t profits, it’s education. It’s much more difficult to determine what the marginal dollar buys in student learning so it’s easy for political support for higher wages to dry up. Think recessions.

If you agree that the pubic benefit demands a role for state funded education there is a need to maintain a constant level of support for competitive teacher compensation. I’d support testing McArdle’s extensive reforms, but worry that the diffuse benefits bought at the more concentrated cost to the taxpayer might be too difficult to keep those competing interests from pulling apart. I’m pessimistic on the prospect of the culture changing enough to entrench sustained support.

Categories: Education, Megan McArdle

We Should Replace Every Grade With Kindergarten, ctd

August 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Judith Harris and Raj Chetty get back to Greg Mankiw on his questions – they also address some of mine.

We Should Replace Every Grade With Kindergarten

David Leonhardt of The New York Times continues to put out great stuff one after the other. This latest piece excited as well as confused me.

Students who had learned much more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college than students with otherwise similar backgrounds. Students who learned more were also less likely to become single parents. As adults, they were more likely to be saving for retirement. Perhaps most striking, they were earning more.

[…]

Mr. Chetty and his colleagues — one of whom, Emmanuel Saez, recently won the prize for the top research economist under the age of 40 — estimate that a standout kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000 a year. That’s the present value of the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers. This estimate doesn’t take into account social gains, like better health and less crime. 

This is really exciting news if it is true, but the “not yet peer-reviewed” findings, as Greg Mankiw also wondered about, seem to contradict the evidence that suggests even parents’ actions don’t have much of an effect on children’s adult outcomes. 

Meanwhile Jonah Lehrer argues that preschool and early education programs don’t so much make you more intelligent but do affect our “non-cognative” abilities. 

How does preschool work its magic? Interestingly, the Perry Preschool didn’t lead to a lasting boost in IQ scores. While kids exposed to preschool got an initial bump in general intelligence, this dissipated by second grade. Instead, preschool seemed to improve performance on a variety of “non-cognitive” abilities, such as self-control, persistence and grit. While society has long obsessed over raw smarts – just look at our fixation on IQ scores – Heckman and Cunha argue that these non-cognitive traits are often more important. They note, for instance, that dependability is the trait most valued by employers, while “perseverance, dependability and consistency are the most important predictors of grades in school.” Of course, these valuable skills have little or anything to do with general intelligence. And that’s probably a good thing, since our non-cognitive traits are much more malleable, at least when interventions occur at an early age, than IQ. Preschool might not make us smarter – our intelligence is strongly shaped by our genes – but it can make us a better person, and that’s even more important. (my emphasis)

That helps explain things a little, but I’m still unclear why our parents wouldn’t be able to effect those same abilities. Until that is settled, I still think the public policy implication is obvious: spend more on early education. 

The economists calculate that, for every dollar invested in preschool for at-risk children, society at large reaps somewhere between eight and nine dollars in return. 

More from Leonhardt here.


(image: Robin Hood School, Stoneham, MA.)

Evidence For Intuitive Probability?

I’ve often pressed the case for teaching probability (here and here) because it is counter-intuitive and therefore difficult to understand. Well this bad-ass 10 year old girl either confirms the benefits of teaching probability at a young age or shows that maybe it’s only counter-intuitive to us post-pubescent pansies. 

A 10-year-old Orlando girl has become Volusia County’s first shark bite victim of 2010 — and she said she can’t wait to go back to the beach.

[…]

“I like swimming in the ocean,” she said. “It’s a freak thing, and a one-in-a-million chance that I would get bitten by a shark. So it really wouldn’t happen again, I don’t think.”

(h/t Freakonomics

Direct Answers

What makes a good teacher? Is it some innate unteachable ability? Turns out, if this New York Times magazine article is to be believed, specific techniques can be taught to teachers and successfully applied to “build a better teacher.”  

Zimmerli got the students to pay attention not because of some inborn charisma, Lemov explained, but simply by being direct and specific. Children often fail to follow directions because they really don’t know what they are supposed to do.

Different techniques can also be taylored to fit individual classrooms and grades. The 9-page story covers the journey and search for improvements.  It paints an optimistic picture.  While structural school reforms are recommended, it argues that radical change isn’t necessarily the major answer. 

I’m definitely a proponent of trying various market-based reforms for our schools (despite Debra Viadero’s recantation). But if only a limited number of teachers can be good, there would be an insurmountable problem. 

“If it’s just a big pie, then it’s just a question of who’s getting the good teachers,” Lemov told me.

Just like in sports, only so much good talent can be bought through free-agency.  Good times also have the best farm teams where they groom their own.  I hope the people in the article like Doug Lemov, Deborah Ball, and Judith Lanier are really good coaches. Alas, not all the evidence is in their favor:

A more typical education expert is Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia University, who favors policies like rewarding teachers whose students perform well and removing those who don’t but looks skeptically upon teacher training. He has an understandable reason: While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research he can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. So why invest in training when, as he told me recently, “you could be throwing your money away”?

That’s why I’m never one to discount the radical; but sometimes the little things make all the difference.  

What Are Schools For?

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I often find it helpful to look at fundamental questions – it forces us to keep our bearings when thinking about public policy.  So, for one of my favorite topics – educational policy – I’d like to ask the question:

What are schools for?

Partly, this question was prompted from me watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about how schools kill creativity.  It is the most favorited video currently at TED and I certainly enjoyed it.

Although, I’m not sure I entirely agreed with its premises.  But he does make some great points along the way.  Robinson argues that since we don’t even know what the world will look like in 5 years, it is futile to try to educate children for specific industries that may not be there when they finish schooling. From that he argues that it is necessary to promote creativity in schools (fully agree).  Also, he’s certainly right that instilling the idea that making a mistake is the worst possible thing isn’t conducive to creativity.

Despite what Robinson claims, do our schools crush creativity?  At least compared to Japan’s schools, America seems to be in much better shape. I don’t think that creativity is necessary going to be best promoted by focusing more on art and dance in schools (for the record: I loved my theatre and music classes) – at least it might not be the proper role of a school.  We have to recognize that schools can’t teach everything.

But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.

I’ve referenced this before but Steven Pinker also makes that enlightening argument that schools should promote subjects that are unintuitive to humans.

The goal of education should be to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with.

Those subjects might be more necessary for schools to step in and teach since students aren’t likely to learn them without special instruction, but need them to better navigate our modern world.  Subjects like economics, finance, and statistics aren’t likely to become obsolete either as Robinson worries about other areas of study. In order to determine what schools are for do we need to just list the subjects of highest priority?  Highest priority for what?  It seems that is straying a bit away from my original question.  Bertrand Russell can help get back to the core issue, he writes in his essay, “The Aims of Education:”

Before considering how to educate, it is well to be clear as to the sort of result which we wish to achieve.  Dr Arnold wanted ‘humbleness of mind’, a quality not possessed by Aristotle’s ‘magnanimous man’. Neitzche’s ideal is not that of Christianity. No more is Kant’s: for while Christ enjoins love, Kant teaches that no action of which love is the motive can be truly virtuous. And even people who agree as to the ingredients of a good character may differ as to their relative importance. One man will emphasize courage, another learning, another kindliness, and another rectitude. One man, like the elder Brutus, will put duty to the State above family affection; another, like Confucious, will put family affection first. All these divergences will produce differences as to education. We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce, before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.

So school’s purpose is derived from what we want our students to become as people. Further in the essay, Russell argues that students should be looked at as ends, not means.  It seems important to educate not for the sake of creating citizens that can serve the state, for example, but to give them the tools necessary to live their lives how they as individuals see fit.  After all, as I learn from wikipedia

Etymologically the word education contains educarae (latin) “bring up” which is related to educere “bring out”, “bring forth what is within”, “bring out potential” and ducere “to lead”.

Yet, clearly if we think of education as a public good, we want some sort of specific “means” goals from students, don’t we?  Providing them with a proper finance and economic background clearly helps them as individuals, but the additional externalities on society aren’t insignificant.  The question isn’t easily answered.  I’ll be sure to follow up on this topic in the future.  Feel free to offer your answer to the question: What are schools for?

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