Educational Reform

Many people talk about the dire state of American education.  Naturally, almost all of what they say is nonsense.  You would expect that, since they were educated in that awful system…

One common theme is that education has gone to the dogs.  Kids aren’t learning the way they used to.  College graduates aren’t as smart as they once were.   Blah blah blah.

All false. Average academic achievement has not changed much over the  years.  We have good, representative national results for the last 40 years (NAEP); not much change.  We have some regional results (Iowa, mainly) that go back further: not much change.

Within every ethnic group, there has been some improvement, but nationally,  that has been canceled out by increases in the fraction of students from low-scoring groups. This is unevenly distributed.  For example, in California: scores are a lot lower than they were in 1965 because the kids are demographically quite different – i.e. dumber.

Now and then I have had someone say to me that schools in Brooklyn have gone to the dogs: somehow Puerto Rican kids today score far lower than the Jewish kids of yesteryear.  Do tell.

As it happens, kids from low-scoring groups do poorly (on average) wherever they go to school, and kids from high-scoring groups do well wherever they go to school. For example, my kids are going to a low-scoring, mostly-minority high school, but do fine.

Jerry Pournelle used to tell me that the school system somehow went to hell in the middle of WWII, since hardly any draftees were excluded for low scores in 1942 while 10% were in 1952.  Of course,  in practice, nobody could figure out what to do with such low-scoring guys in WWII, so Congress passed a law excluding the bottom 10%. Jerry has also told me that when he was a kid, everyone in his county could read. The census says otherwise.

Since within-group scores have gone up, you might think that education is more effective than it used to be. Another point in support of the US educational system is that members of a given ethnic group almost always score higher in the US than they do in other countries: not enormously higher, but some higher (PISA results).

But the fact that kids are learning a bit more does not necessarily have anything to do with the educational system. It might, but there could be other reasons. Way more high school kids are taking calculus than did in 1970, and math scores are up.  I’d guess that the school systems are responsible in that case.  But other factors may predominate. Kids today, on average, have parents with more education than kids in 1970. Maybe that helps. For example, when my daughter asked for help with her combinatorics homework, I could help, sometimes – not without feeling the mental rust flaking off the hinges.  On the other hand, my father was a high-school graduate and hadn’t taken any higher math.  In the other direction, some studies seem to show a higher fraction of people with high verbal scores before the late 1960s, and  I wonder if watching lots more hours of TV each day somehow cut into  reading time. Between 1950 and 1970, TV changed far more than schools did. Another point: teachers are, on average, a good deal dumber than they used to be.  Education majors score about a standard deviation lower than typical college graduates, which I don’t think was the case in the more distant past.  It’s hard to see how this is compatible with better results, yet there they are.

We spend a lot more money on education than we used to, but I would guess that increased spending has had no effect at all. Higher salaries, for  dumber teachers, combined with vast increases in administrative personnel -> nothing .

It is true that the average high school graduate is dumber than in 1940, but then we graduate a much higher percentage today than we did then.  Most of that increase has been among weaker students. It may be that the average 18-year old high school graduate knew more then than now: but that does not mean that average 18 year old today knows any less. If I were King, which should happen any day now, and suddenly conferred a B.A. on everyone, the average degree-holder would know less, even though everyone knew just as much as they did the day before…  Or, what if baseball expanded to three major leagues?  The quality of professional ball would decline without any player  forgetting how to hit a curve ball.

Often people quote some study showing that the average 17 or 21 year old doesn’t know jack shit as evidence of educational decline: of course it would only show this if they also  included evidence that some earlier generation knew more, which is generally not the case. At some future time I may discuss what people know: average people, college-educated people, and the Fools at the Top.

I also often hear about the awfulness of public education, compared to private schools.  In general, that’s bullshit. As far as I can tell, adjusting for student quality, results are no different. Private schools get to kick out troublesome kids: as far as I can tell, that is their only advantage.

Romney says that we have a third-world school system.  That is not true. We have an increasingly third-world set of students.

What can be done about American education? We could save some money fairly easily, by firing administrators.  We don’t know how to get substantially better results with the kind of kids we have. Nobody knows.  This does not prove that no feasible approach exists, but we probably would have to try something fairly different.  And, barring genetic engineering or magic,  it might be that there simply is no way to make things much better – that is possible too.

‘can-do’ without ‘know-how ‘ isn’t getting us anywhere.

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57 Responses to Educational Reform

  1. There is direct evidence of a decline in average intelligence, in the UK, since reaction times have slowed since the late 19th century. Presumably this would affect educational outcomes, if these could be measured objectively.

    http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/convincing-objective-and-direct.html

    In the UK the most striking change in education is that the nature of testing has transformed in the past 25 years – it is very difficult to cheat on supervised exams, and all of my tests in school and college were supervised exams. Now kids are evaluated by methods where it is easy to cheat (I mean, that other people’s work is being evaluated – not just the person being tested), cheating is almost universal, and acceptable practice is what we would have called cheating.

    Also, in the UK a person used to specialize from age 14 and build up through O-level and A-level and a specialized and integrated degree, a relatively narrow set of subjects and skills until they finished college. College built-upon school. Now, as in the US, UK college typically assumes near-zero knowledge base and degrees are modular (not integrated).

    So what people now know at the end of UK college is certainly shallower than a couple of generations ago, and it may also be broader.

    • Ian says:

      Re, your blog post which you have linked to: “the Flynn effect argument is that phenotypic increase in measured IQ also reflects underlying an increase in underlying ‘genetic’ g.”

      Flynn has made no such claim and instead attributes rising IQ scores to people learning abstract problem-solving skills as an outcome of industrialisation. Did Silverman control for the race/ethnicity of test subjects? Did the modern studies faithfully replicate Galton’s pendulum apparatus?

  2. j says:

    I have the impression the quality of the university faculty has improved greatly in the last generation. American textbooks are used as models and copied all over the world. Increasingly doctorants have to go to the USA to specialize.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I don’t have that impression, but we should get Henry’s opinion, since he lives in the belly of the beast.

      • dearieme says:

        I don’t know either. But I do know one British department that gave up its habit of hiring bright young men (and women) into tenure track positions straight from their PhDs, to hiring older people with an established record of raising research funds. The latter, in my estimation, were on average discernibly less gifted with scientific brio and intelligence. They were certainly less fun for us codgers to be among. Yet fun is an important part of doing science.

      • harpend says:

        I certainly share the impression that faculty quality has improved a lot in the last 40 years. There was a flurry of hiring around 1970 and slightly after just when standards all over the country went out of Ph.D. programs. A whole large cohort of ill-trained faculty were hired, at least they were in the newly-fashionable and popular social sciences. These days the market is tough and we get to hire the very best, at least in my department. On the other hand much of anthropology was taken over by the speakers of mush, and they are not worth much still.

  3. Anthony says:

    “Private schools get to kick out troublesome kids: as far as I can tell, that is their only advantage.”

    If schools are actually doing much, this will be significant not just for increasing the level of the student pool, but making it possible for those who would benefit most from a teacher’s guidance to receive that guidance. The level of troublesome that public schools have to put up with has, anecdotally, increased since the early ’60s, but I’d be hard-put to say when those changes actually took place, or whether white flight has successfully managed to concentrate troublemakers in non-white schools.

    Incidentally, regarding test scores, I looked at my home school district, and noted that between-school variations among white students was much lower than total between-school variation; at one level, the test scores for whites were nearly identical at all the schools, even though their overall scores were much more variable. (Asian test scores were more variable, but my community has significant numbers of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and other asian groups; it’s likely there are differences in the relative proportions across schools.)

  4. drawbacks says:

    Your daughter had combinatorics homework? A) Was this in high school? B) If so, why did it take you some effort to help: was it that it was so difficult, or was it that it was so basic?
    (Stephen Wolfram relates that when his kids were taught long division at school, he realized it was something he’d never learned, having been pretty much self-taught in math, and never having felt the need.)

    • gcochran9 says:

      College. I hadn’t touched it in a long time.

    • albatross says:

      A couple years ago, my goddaughter had some simple combinatorics homework, which O wound up helping her with over the phone since her mom’s math stopped at fractions. I vividly remember asking leading questions like “do you know what an exclamation point after a number means? Have you seen that in class?”

  5. Harold says:

    “Another point: teachers are, on average, a good deal dumber than they used to be. Education majors score about a standard deviation lower than typical college graduates, which I don’t think was the case in the more distant past.”

    According to this post of Khan’s (of which you are aware):
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2012/01/physical-education-teachers-are-not-smart/
    The intelligence of teachers is not as low as one might think, the average score of education majors being brought down by physical education majors, special education majors, and elementary education majors. Therefore, if your perception of the higher average score of education majors in the past is correct, the higher score could be due to a change in the percentages taking each sub-major.

  6. Student quality certainly is important, but statistically it’s easy to overadjust for it: good students also tend to have good parents, who pressure the school systems to treat their kids better, often resulting in the school improving. (Or who have the smarts to recognize that, whatever the flaws on average of a particular sort of school — say, public schools with high minority presence — the local example of such a school is decent.) It’d be hard to do a study that would separate that effect from the effect of the kids’ inherent abilities.

  7. gcochran9 says:

    So, when kids from low-scoring groups attend public high schools in which most of the kids are from high scoring groups, yet still do poorly, are their parents successfully pressuring the schools to be ‘bad’- but only to their kids?

    • Well, I have heard of parents pressuring schools to be bad, on the general idea that their precious little one couldn’t possibly be misbehaving or be inadequate, and so the school must adjust its practices accordingly. But that’s more an upper-class or middle-class thing; I doubt it’s what’s going on here, on average, with kids from low-scoring groups, which probably is mostly simple neglect. Still, for a statistical effect you only need good parents pressuring schools to be good, not bad parents pressuring schools to be bad. (Or instead of pressuring schools to be good, merely choosing good schools in the first place, or choosing where to live based on the quality of the local schools.) That’s enough to make it hard to “adjust for student quality”: doing such an adjustment in the usual ways captures some school quality as well, misattributing it to student quality.

      • pinchermartin says:

        Here’s how you control for student quality: Test the kids when they first enter school; test them again when they leave school; compare the results.

        What you’ll find is that it largely doesn’t matter what school the kids attend. Some dumb kids are in good schools because their parents care about their education or because they got lucky for one reason or another. Despite their good fortune, attending a better school doesn’t help make them smarter. On the other hand, some smart kids attend bad schools because their parents are immigrants or their family is poor or the kid is an aberration in his otherwise dumb family. Again, on the whole, it doesn’t matter. The smart kids at bad schools test better than their dumb peers at better schools.

        The patterns detectable in early testing are durable. They will be seen again after the students have completed their public schooling. Naturally, there are some exceptions, but we don’t make clever generalizations based on the exceptions.

      • pinchermartin, you seem to be focusing on “smartness” versus “dumbness”, as in the sort of thing that can be measured by IQ tests. But IQ testing is specifically designed to measure something that’s independent of the amount of useful knowledge one has, whereas the point of schools is to impart useful knowledge. So your point is pretty much orthogonal to the question at hand, which is the quality of schools. A high-IQ boy who was raised by the mean streets, seldom attending school, is likely to grow up to be a very intelligent predator. But that intelligence makes him even more of a problem than if he were a dumb predator.

        In any case, testing the students when they enter school is not a good way to control for parental influence on the schooling process, since parental influence was present before entering school. It was then much more directly focused on the kid in question, of course.

      • gcochran9 says:

        I think you’re pretty much wrong. For example, under NCLB, kids from ‘bad’ schools, where average scores are low, have a legal right to transfer to ‘good’ schools. Yet when they do so, their own scores do not change, on average.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        Norman,

        “But IQ testing is specifically designed to measure something that’s independent of the amount of useful knowledge one has, whereas the point of schools is to impart useful knowledge.”

        You don’t seem to appreciate that SAT tests taken by U.S. students are very good proxies for their IQ scores. You never define useful knowledge, but what can be more useful than the basic math and verbal skills you are tested on by the SAT and which are a major focus of public education?

        “A high-IQ boy who was raised by the mean streets, seldom attending school, is likely to grow up to be a very intelligent predator. But that intelligence makes him even more of a problem than if he were a dumb predator.”

        You’re too focused on extreme cases. The vast majority of below-average schools are not that dangerous. Of course, they have a disproportionately large share of troublemakers and juvenile crime, but classes are still taught and some semblance of order is still maintained.

        “In any case, testing the students when they enter school is not a good way to control for parental influence on the schooling process, since parental influence was present before entering school. It was then much more directly focused on the kid in question, of course.”

        Gregory gave you an example of how to discover what kind of boost a good school can give a struggling student. The answer? Not much.

        Parental influence is always there.

      • I ‘m guessing that the vast majority of those NCLB transfers (if not all of them) are to other schools within the same public school system, which I wouldn’t expect to have a big effect: same textbooks, same bureaucracy, same way of choosing teachers. It’s sort of like changing lanes on a clogged freeway: plenty of people do it even when it makes little difference. But switching to a different road is another matter.

        Another thing about transferring into a better school is that if the school really is seriously better, the student has to catch up with classmates who have already learned more than he has. That is hard; it can lead to demoralization.

        As for the SAT, yes, one does need to know some useful math to even begin to do the math parts, but the test itself is more of a brain-teaser sort of thing than a test of knowledge. That’s why it’s a decent IQ test. (The ACT, in contrast, is more a test of knowledge.)

        As for what parts of knowledge are useful, that’s always going to be a matter of contention. I personally think that geometry is useless. (That is, the classical geometry that is taught in high schools.) Calculus, on the other hand, is how the world works.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        Norman,

        You seem to have a hypothesis in need of evidence. You say, you’re “guessing” that some unknown environmental reason is to blame for the failure of poorly-performing students to capitalize on transferring to better schools. You then list a series of astoundingly naive, trivial, and even contradictory reasons why students might continue to perform poorly in their new school.

        Look, the important point is that the poorly-performing student transfers to a better school and yet, on average, doesn’t perform any better. What else do you need to know about the school’s bureaucracy, textbooks, or teachers?

        “Another thing about transferring into a better school is that if the school really is seriously better, the student has to catch up with classmates who have already learned more than he has. That is hard; it can lead to demoralization.”

        Most good schools have multiple tracks for their students. Just because the good school has more highly-capable students than the bad school does not mean they don’t also have classes for students who lag behind. If the plasticity of learning is as great as you assume, then just being in a safe place where learning is not frowned upon by most other students should have a positive effect on the transferee. And yet it doesn’t.

        Of course you can invent or speculate upon any number of environmental reasons why it doesn’t, but it’s obvious from your ad hoc responses that you haven’t given much thought to these questions and that you’re just making it up as you go along.

        “As for the SAT, yes, one does need to know some useful math to even begin to do the math parts, but the test itself is more of a brain-teaser sort of thing than a test of knowledge. That’s why it’s a decent IQ test. (The ACT, in contrast, is more a test of knowledge.)”

        No, the SAT and ACT are, essentially, both IQ tests. You really don’t know what you’re talking about, do you?

        “As for what parts of knowledge are useful, that’s always going to be a matter of contention. I personally think that geometry is useless. (That is, the classical geometry that is taught in high schools.) Calculus, on the other hand, is how the world works.”

        Well, it’s too bad that most poorly-performing students have difficulty with basic math skills throughout their education. This is why so many of those who dare to go to college still have to take remedial math once enrolled. It’s not as if they happened to fail geometry, but would have aced calculus if given the chance.

      • TangoMan says:

        Look, the important point is that the poorly-performing student transfers to a better school and yet, on average, doesn’t perform any better.

        The crux of the issue is how to define what constitutes a “better school.” Typically a better school is simply a school with better students. The processes of education are not having that large of an effect.

        There is however a way to disrupt this dynamic and actually deliver better performance to students and we have real world evidence to support such a reform.

        Most of the material taught in schools is not beyond the reach of people with IQs in 80s and 90s so it’s not the material which is holding the students back, it’s the student’s inability to master the material in a timely manner. Higher IQ students can master the material in a shorter amount of time, need less reinforcement across time in order to internalize the knowledge and can scaffold up the knowledge ladder in the time alloted to instruction than can their lower ability peers.

        It’s the Information Uptake Rate that is the governor on content mastery for the material taught in public schools. The KIPP schools keep their students in class an additional 2 hours per day, they hold classes on Saturday and they extend the school year by an additional month. This effectively doubles the amount of instructional time to cover the same material that a traditional public school covers. The result is that a slower pace, a more intensive effort to get the students to engage with the material and a continuous effort of repetition does work to improve the performance of the students.

        Of course there are cognitive ceilings at work here and no matter how much effort and time is put into instruction if the material is too cognitively challenging for some students they’ll never master it, but for a basic high school curriculum most of the material is below the cognitive ceiling.

        The political problem with this solution is that it effectively segregates the student body and outright acknowledges that the “troubled” students need almost twice as much time on task to master material as the normal students.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        TangoMan,

        Yes, you can kidnap the kids from their parents, sequester them from society, make them recite complex algebraic functions for breakfast and conjugate Latin verbs for their supper, and this will indeed have some effect on what they learn.

        I, too, have my doubts about the politics of how this plan will go down among the targeted populations. I also have my doubts about two other aspects of the plan. First, the fade-out is likely to be significant once the students leave school. Second, businesses tend to value learning not just for its own sake, but for what it signals about the person’s ability to learn. So even if you mask the differences in what is learned at school by children of various cognitive abilities, companies that hire still have an incentive to sort by IQ and they will come up with some other proxy to help them do that.

      • TangoMan says:

        First, the fade-out is likely to be significant once the students leave school. Second, businesses tend to value learning not just for its own sake, but for what it signals about the person’s ability to learn.

        The goal is not to prepare these students to compete at college and in cognitively demanding careers, it’s simply to impart knowledge which allows such students to function more effectively in society. Most of us don’t really know any people who are IQ 85-90 but they’re out there and the knowledge that we’ve so internalized is alien to many of them. Thinking in abstract terms, thinking in rudimentary algebriac terms, being able to read without breaking a sweat, understanding compounding interest rates, and so on are simply basic requirements for functioning in a advanced society.

        So the fade-out issue, in my opinion, is immaterial in that the specific facts that are crammed into heads can, and will, fade into the ether but once having learned to think in basic algebraic terms or reading with ease these skills should have some stickiness to them.

        The employer sorting mechanism is beside the point for HS students. That phase of life is about equipping students with basic tools to navigate forward in life – the Advanced Placement students are not the problem here, and the reforms are not really targeted to high performing students – the problem is the students who are functionally illiterate, functionally innumerate, and who have difficulty of thinking in abstract terms.

      • Pincher Martin, you’re taking me for an idiot leftist, and responding to arguments I never made and never will make. There’s no great hypothesis I’m pushing; I’m just quibbling with the odd point or two. Being skeptical of the idea that one can do a good job of “correcting for student quality” doesn’t imply any larger ideology; it’s just a technical issue.

        As for the ACT versus the SAT as intelligence tests, the paper you link to gives the correlation of the SAT with g as 0.77, and the correlation of the ACT with g as 0.61. Far from contradicting the phrasing I used, that fully justifies it: the ACT is more a test of knowledge. Yes, it is correlated with g, but it’d be silly to expect any kind of academic test to be uncorrelated with g.

        Some of the distinctions I’m making are admittedly a bit fine, but if they pass over your head, please just let them go, rather than trying to jump up and bite them.

      • gcochran9 says:

        On a related note, you might wonder to what degree educational achievement among college students is determined by characteristics of the college they attend, as opposed to the characteristics of the incoming students. For example, if you were looking at GRE subject results, how much can you predict from the kid’s SAT scores back in high school, how much from knowing which college they attended?

        There is some disagreement. Some studies conclude that college attended makes no difference at all, while others say that it accounts for something like 10% of the variance.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        TangoMan,

        “The goal is not to prepare these students to compete at college and in cognitively demanding careers, it’s simply to impart knowledge which allows such students to function more effectively in society.”

        That may not be your goal. But the targets of your social engineering won’t eagerly sign up to be lab rats when they discover that the end result of all their additional hard work is that they are able to function more effectively at menial jobs than they would have before. If the tradeoff for them is that they give up all the Saturdays of their youth so they make quickly change for you at a convenience store when the cash register is down… well, good luck selling that plan to them.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        Norman,

        “Pincher Martin, you’re taking me for an idiot leftist, and responding to arguments I never made and never will make. There’s no great hypothesis I’m pushing; I’m just quibbling with the odd point or two. Being skeptical of the idea that one can do a good job of “correcting for student quality” doesn’t imply any larger ideology; it’s just a technical issue.”

        The “technical issue” you mention is no different than that found when looking at any other social question. Social science is messy and hard to control. Your skepticism, therefore, isn’t intelligently directed, but more of an ad hoc series of random statements that consistently tries to throw doubt on one of the best-understood propositions in education, which is that we really know very little about how to control student outcomes so as to permanently raise the achievement of children on the far left side of the bell curve to the achievement levels found in the middle. Everything we have tried on large randomly-selected groups has failed. This fact should make the honest skeptic more dubious of the claims made by those on the left than those of claims made by some on the right.

        “As for the ACT versus the SAT as intelligence tests, the paper you link to gives the correlation of the SAT with g as 0.77, and the correlation of the ACT with g as 0.61. Far from contradicting the phrasing I used, that fully justifies it: the ACT is more a test of knowledge. Yes, it is correlated with g, but it’d be silly to expect any kind of academic test to be uncorrelated with g.”

        The difference is trivial. Both are acceptable proxies for IQ tests.

        And since your original point was that “useful knowledge” was “independent” from what is scored on an IQ test, a strong correlation between the two undermines your claim.

      • IQ tests are designed to measure the person’s raw mental ability, as distinct from things he might have achieved using it. But that doesn’t mean that achievements are uncorrelated with raw ability; far from it. “A is designed to be independent of B” does not mean that B will be independent of A. My point was that if you want to measure how well schools are doing, the last thing you should use is a measure designed to be independent of how well schools are doing — in the SAT’s case, something for colleges to use to cut through the baloney often emitted by high schools, and reveal what the student really has in him (or her). That design objective is never perfectly achieved, but even when imperfectly achieved it’s still working against you.

    • Pincher Martin says:

      Norman,

      “IQ tests are designed to measure the person’s raw mental ability, as distinct from things he might have achieved using it. But that doesn’t mean that achievements are uncorrelated with raw ability; far from it. “A is designed to be independent of B” does not mean that B will be independent of A.”

      IQ tests and SAT/ACT scores are highly correlated because education in the United States is universal, thereby allowing every young person’s “raw mental ability” the same access to the basic curriculum that is covered on college entrance exams. Thus IQ tests given to young children early in their education will be remarkably consistent with their standardized test scores taken more than a decade later.

      The implications for this are profound. Teachers, educational bureaucracies, textbooks, and most other topics on education that are frequently brought up by the “right” people to demonstrate they care would appear to be nothing more than progressive shibboleths that have no predictable discernible impact on student performance.

  8. TangoMan says:

    What can be done about American education?

    The concerns I have with respect to education reform focus on what happens within the “black box” (the time a student spends at school and what results from this effort) and less with outcomes for the outcomes, as you point out, are likely attributable to factors other than education process.

    If the pedagogical processes employed are not as efficient as they could be and private tutoring and parental involvement compensate for the pedagogical shortcomings, then we can’t really have an evidence-based discussion on what the schools are leaving on the table in terms of value added for the student. The Math Wars have been ongoing for over 20+ years. There are still school districts which are rolling out pedagogical reform centered upon constructivist models of instruction when other districts have rolled out the same reforms, tried their best to salvage the failures, and then have had to pullback and finally reject such reform and yet this evidence of failure doesn’t deter the true believers in numerous districts from believing that “this time it will be different.” My reform concern centers on the costs that fall on students when half-baked pedagogies are rolled out when the evidence shows that they don’t work as advertised.

    To riff on Pelosi’s claim of “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in the bill,” I’m not terribly impressed by the current education pipeline of half-baked education reforms being implemented in order to discover if they work or not. I’d favor reform which first insured that pedagogy was tested and then if there were efficiency gains observed, then and only then, would the pedagogy be rolled out wide-scale. We have evidence-based medicine, so having evidence-based education processes doesn’t seem to me to be such a radical idea, but apparently it is (likely having something to do with the human capital quality of the researchers, the advocates, and the bureaucrats in this sector.)

    A student’s time in school is finite, so when there are disruptions, when there is a substitution of social messaging in place of academic content, then to my standards the school is failing in providing the value added that I hold to be most useful to a student’s academic journey. I’ve looked at a lot of educational research and frankly the quality of what is produced depresses the hell out of me. Compounding my depression is the roll-out of shiny new pedagogies which are supposed to miraculously improve the learning process but which invariably fail to live up to their billing and then instead of being rejected they are defended by pointing to some other hypothetical factor as the cause for failure. What results is comprehension shortchanging for many students but a remediation effort elsewhere saves some lucky students and the national and international comparisons don’t really capture what is going on.

  9. Andrew says:

    What can be done about American education?

    Do not underestimate the effect of online education. We have several community colleges in California that offer online classes alongside traditional sit-down classes. The online classes fill up first and are difficult to get because they are in high demand. Many of them offer superior instruction through interactive problem solving with instant feedback to the student in addition to the standard video lectures. It is easy to imagine that these methods are scalable at a low cost, but I can understand why education bureaucracies might resist them. I think Charles Murray alluded to the potential of online instruction 5 years ago.

    I think if you decouple the distribution of education from certification and government only concerns itself with certifying the student, the private sector is probably better at finding ways of providing quality instruction and would give students better choices.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      “Do not underestimate the effect of online education.”

      I second the motion. The high priests of the speakers of mush won’t even know their time has passed until it’s past. We live in interesting times, simultaneously we can be depressed at what is and optimistic of great change afoot. Online education is a vehicle that will do many things far better than the old system did. Some poor brilliant kid in China is now taking free online classes at MIT, talk about increased upward mobility, it’s happening. We take our online choices for granted, hardly even noticing the power of the hyperlink as an educational tool. The days of yore when we had to plod through badly written three hundred page eighty dollar text books to flesh out a few ideas we weren’t clear on are gone. This in no way contradicts Cochran’s glum assessment that the spontaneous fuckers are inheriting the earth rather than the meek or the lucky few who won the G loaded genetic lottery, but hey, it is what it is.

  10. Actually, I wrote the post on teachers’ SAT scores; Razib linked to it and discussed the graphs. Here’s the piece

    It’s not that phys-ed and special ed instructors are dragging down ed major test scores, but that education majors are meaningless in any discussion of teacher intelligence. First, close to half of education majors don’t become teachers. We don’t know which ones do become teachers, but we do know that they have to pass a credentialling test, so it’s completely pointless to use the scores of ed majors as a whole, rather than these who happened to major in education and then become teachers–and then, we can just look at the SAT scores of the teachers who pass the credentialling test. Which is what ETS did. The vast majority of education majors teach elementary school, special ed, or physed.

    Secondary school teachers in academic subjects almost never major in education. Whether they do or not, however, they, too, have to pass a pretty rigorous credentialling test. The people who pass the tests have average scores well above the average college graduate in their area of expertise.

    The credentialling tests have gotten much harder for elementary school teachers since NCLB. For the most part, our teachers are considerably smarter than they used to be.

    Your post was great, by the way. I agree completely. I just get on my rant horse every time someone talks about education majors as being in any way representative of teachers.

    • Harold says:

      Thanks for the better information.

      I am sorry about not linking to your post. I recalled having seen something about teacher intelligence at Razib’s blog, found it with a quick search, glanced over the graphs (and comments to see if Cochran had commented), and made my comment. If I had noticed Razib’s post was a discussion of your own I would, of course, have linked to yours.

    • TangoMan says:

      so it’s completely pointless to use the scores of ed majors as a whole, rather than these who happened to major in education and then become teachers

      No, it’s not a pointless exercise for it allows us to estimate the quality of the student body and the academic difficulty of the material that they are taught. Only 14% of Praxis exam takers are taking the exam without benefit of Teacher Education programs of one sort or the other, so education programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels capture most of the people who will become Praxis certified teachers.

      Now a program that is designed to allow proficiency from the dimmest bulbs in the class will be easily mastered by the brighter students in the class but we’re still left to contend with material designed to the lowest common denominator. The pass rate for Praxis exam-takers with GPAs of < 2.5 is still 60% under the more rigorous metrics compared to a 75% pass rate under the earlier, more lax, standards and the SAT-V + SAT-M combined mean score for this low-end of the spectrum group is 999 which puts them on par with students who intend to major in Ethnic Studies (1075) Paralegals (1014) Military Science (1034) Natural Resource Conservation (1041) Visual and Performing Arts (1018). Those with GPAs in their undergraduate major of 3.00 – 3.49 had a Praxis pass rate of 80% and a combined SAT mean score of 1037 which puts them above dance majors and paralegals but still under the scores seen in Ethnic and Gender studies majors.

      What these scores indicate is that we're not pulling the brightest of students into the teaching profession and we can partly validate this assessment by referencing the asininity we see in how many of our schools are run – the bone jarring stupidity of decisions and policies emanating from a 1,000 points of light in the public school universe that leave many people wondering where is the sense in the decisions made by various experts, teachers and administrators. If you'd like an example of what I'm talking about go and read the comments from Razib's thread – the regurgitation of favored lore in the field of education is not a sufficient basis for rebutting the statements Razib made. The whole point here is that many of those commenters are supposed experts in education (you know, expertise developed through mastery of specialized knowledge required to practice a profession) and all they offered were talking points which have been invalidated by non-education specialists. What this whole sorry episode points to is a curriculum designed to a lowest common denominator and that's why the Education major reference has some validity in this discussion. Your larger point stands – when presented with better information one should use it and Praxis information is better than the SATs of intended majors, however you overstep by claiming that SAT information by intended major has no use at all.

      • It is no use at all when discussing the average intelligence of teachers. I’ll write it shorter: Many people plan to be teachers without ever majoring in education, many education majors never intend to teach.

        The value of the major (nil)and the academic content of the classes (less than nil) is another issue entirely. Why people think that matters is utterly beyond me, as the entire field of teaching is pay to play, and has nothing at all to do with what one actually learns in the classes.

        “What these scores indicate is that we’re not pulling the brightest of students into the teaching profession and we can partly validate this assessment by referencing the asininity we see in how many of our schools are run – the bone jarring stupidity of decisions and policies emanating from a 1,000 points of light in the public school universe that leave many people wondering where is the sense in the decisions made by various experts, teachers and administrators.”

        No, those scores indicate no such thing, both for the reasons already mentioned and for the fact that one doesn’t argue by anecdote. Moreover, educational policy is not driven by teachers or administrators, but politicians and policy makers–few of whom were ever teachers.

        There’s also the not insignificant point that research hasn’t shown any link between content knowledge and student outcomes–that is, teacher content knowledge doesn’t trump student intelligence. As I said, we substantially raised the standards for elementary school teachers 10 years ago for most states, and the outcomes didn’t change. This
        result has been replicated in smaller studies constantly. In the few times a correlation
        has been found, it’s been a small correlation and a small sample.

        This is important when you realize that almost all white and Asian teachers easily pass existing standards with much higher scores. The reason the scores are set relatively low is because of the terrible time getting URM teachers. Whenever you see those “minority teaching programs”, or hear about the “lack of support” that minority teacher candidates get, the unspoken basis for this focus is helping them pass the credential exams. So when you consider a) that there’s no research basis proving that smart teachers get better results and b) any real bump in standards will leave the predominantly white female teaching force untouched and obliterate the remaining URM teaching population (which has already happened in the last ten years thanks to the boost I mentioned), it doesn’t make political or educational sense to keep raising the standards.

        Look, teachers as a group aren’t brilliant. They don’t need to be. Elementary school teachers don’t need to be pulled from the smartest college graduates. Secondary school teachers should be–and are–pulled from the top 50% of their academic field. We don’t need them smarter.

      • gcochran9 says:

        I had the impression that in the old days, when women seldom became lawyers or doctors, more bright women went into teaching than do today. I agree that there is no sign that teacher intelligence has much effect on outcomes.

      • TangoMan says:

        I agree that there is no sign that teacher intelligence has much effect on outcomes.

        I’ve long argued the very same point but this isn’t what I’m referring to above. I never claimed that having a smarter teacher will produce better educated students than those produced by a dimmer teachers, rather I wrote the following: “we can partly validate this assessment by referencing the asininity we see in how many of our schools are run – the bone jarring stupidity of decisions and policies emanating . . . “ I’m referring to a systemic bias – common ineffective pedagogies, common time wasting instruction on behavior modeling, course design targeted towards the LCD instead of the broad middle, social promotion policies, avoidance of streaming, rewarding busy work as being equivalent of content mastery, student peer teaching, and so on which gullible teachers buy into and believe are effective.

        An intelligent teacher and a less intelligent teacher both doing the same ineffective activities will result in student outcomes being responsive to ineffective activities irrespective of the student’s individual cognitive endowments. To put it in other terms, when you engage the clutch and rev the engine, the size of the engine doesn’t matter for the outcome will be the same – the car won’t move.

        My point is that the nuts and bolts of how education is delivered is developed and implemented within an education sector dominated by gullible people. Politicians set the broad parameters, and they do so with “expert” guidance from the education specialists, but the details are left to the specialists and it is the design and the implementation phases where the problems lie.

  11. Kiwiguy says:

    The government here in NZ have caused some controversy by reducing teacher funding so class sizes may increase up to 27 1/2 per teacher.

    “There can be few qualms about the accent on quality. The Treasury has suggested the effect on pupil learning of moving from a class with an average teacher to one with a high-performing teacher is roughly equivalent to the effect of a 10-pupil decrease in class size. That calculation points also to the importance of class size. Any increase in the teacher-pupil ratio must not be the start of a slippery slope.”

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=10806369

    • dearieme says:

      I went through primary school in a class of about 45 – my mother kept my Report Cards, so it’s not my memory I’m relying on. We had the advantage of streaming – there was another class of the same size for the slower children. We also had a disadvantage of streaming – our last year was wearisomely repetitive presumably because we had finished the syllabus the previous year. What a dullard our teacher must have been.

      • dearieme says:

        And, I should add, there was a special class for the yet slower children who were known, bluntly, as “mental defectives”.

  12. jb says:

    There was a long article in the December 2010 Atlantic, Your Child Left Behind, which talks about PISA scores and claims that the “diversity excuse” does not hold water.

    Of course, the fact that no U.S. state does very well compared with other rich nations does not necessarily disprove the diversity excuse: parents in Palo Alto could reasonably infer that California’s poor ranking (in the bottom third, just above Portugal and below Italy) is a function of the state’s large population of poor and/or immigrant children, and does not reflect their own kids’ relatively well-off circumstances.

    So Hanushek and his co-authors sliced the data more thinly still. They couldn’t control for income, since students don’t report their parents’ salaries when they take these tests; but they could use reliable proxies. How would our states do if we looked just at the white kids performing at high levels—kids who are not, generally speaking, subject to language barriers or racial discrimination? Or if we looked just at kids with at least one college-educated parent?

    As it turned out, even these relatively privileged students do not compete favorably with average students in other well-off countries. On a percentage basis, New York state has fewer high performers among white kids than Poland has among kids overall. In Illinois, the percentage of kids with a college-educated parent who are highly skilled at math is lower than the percentage of such kids among all students in Iceland, France, Estonia, and Sweden.

    (The article also claims that Massachusetts pulled ahead of similar New England states in educational achievement by upping the standards for new teachers).

    Interestingly, while I was searching for the above article I found an blog post — U.S. Education Is Much Better Than You Think — on the Atlantic web site, also dated December 2010, which seems to contradict the published article (although the apparent contradiction may have something to do with the difference between focusing on averages and focusing on “high performers).

    • ziel says:

      It seems the difference is from one study comparing results in aggregate (where the US comes in 7th), to a state-by-state comparison using NAEP scores correlated to PISA results, where no state finishes higher than 12th. Obviously, there’s a flaw in one of these approaches – I’m putting my money on it being in the more complicated approach.

    • call says:

      What are the odds that some article in The Atlantic, dealing with a key point of the PC catechism, is largely a tissue of sophistries? The article, or some parts of it, may have some value — but one is way better off skipping straight to the formal literature. In the science world, all sorts of severely-talented cynics and ‘atheists’ have at least some voice — whether it’s both Watson and Crick (and the clearly formidable Jensen) on race/IQ, or some cynic who claims the USA pressures the International Energy Agency to pad oil reserve estimates in hopes of lowering prices (something which may or may not be true, but seems eminently plausible a priori).

      In the science world, the severity of the confrontation with these ‘atheists’ may not be as great as we would prefer — but in the likes of The Atlantic this confrontation is almost non-existent. There, the potential for friction and discomfort is overwhelmingly a potential for having to confront the pious, not the impious.

      Anyway, why tangle with blah blah this and that, “high-achievers” — if you want to look at Polish whites vs New York whites, you should zoom to the source: the complete distributions of PISA scores for (actual, non-biracial) whites. (Especially in math, since the tests based on natural languages may be less comparable.) That way you aren’t subject to some dude’s idea of what high achievers are — how did this dude come up with that threshold, and how many other thresholds and angles of investigation did he tinker with before corralling a supposed certifiable p < 0.05 fact? If you generally tinker with four, seven, or fifteen "angles" for every one published claim, then your "p < 0.05" is of course stuff and nonsense. We probably cannot find out how many angles this guy tinkers with — at p < 0.001 this wouldn't be an issue, but I doubt his work has a p-value anything like that — and for that and probably further reasons we probably cannot reach a hard episteme on this point. Which is a fantastic reason for going straight to the real source, the complete PISA distributions themselves.

  13. Simoleon says:

    Sitting at my computer I can quickly look at some NAEP long-term trends (LTT) with the tool on the NAEP website, but the data only go back to early 1970′s. Between 1972 (1978) and 2004 (2004) the NAEP LTT results for Reading (Math) show little overall change in Reading and noticeable though not amazing change in Math. Nearly all the gains in Reading accrued to Blacks and Hispanics (NAEP 4-race breakdown); the difference in Black score improvement is five (5x) times the difference in White score improvement. All races gained in Math, but the Black improvement was only twice (2x) the White improvement. (The NAEP LTT data goes out to 2008 but the format of the test changed after 2004.)

    I really wish I had comparable data handy for long ago. The single biggest change in American education in the 20th Century was the substitution of virtually useless “whole language” reading instruction for effective “phonics” reading instruction. Since the “whole language” fraud devastated primary education long before the 1970′s (see “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolph Flesch, 1956), it is not visible in NAEP LTT data that starts only after 1970.

    You appear to agree with many other analysts (including, a decade ago, Charles Murray) that public schools have already adapted to teach basic subjects to their respective students as effectively as possible. The fact that neither spending more money on schools nor forcing students to spend more hours in them improves results tempts us to conclude that schools are as good as they can be. Yet I am convinced that notion is wrong, for several reasons.

    First, it does not square with historical experience. Decades ago US schools taught most of their pupils (including black children) to read. The public schools now fail to teach a substantial proportion of kids to read.

    Second, it does not square with my observations of elementary-school teaching methods and results, as applied to my own children, their cousins, and their classmates. In both rich and poor districts in California and Washington, despite funding pressures (NCLB), despite (somewhat weasel-worded) state laws supposedly requiring schools to use proper methods (phonics), and despite the acclaim which accrues to officials of more successful schools, most elementary school teachers attempt to teach reading chiefly by the “whole language” method. (Some still reproducing blurry photocopies of “see Spot run”-type material from the 1970′s. Really.) From what I have read, this problem exists nearly everywhere in the USA.

    Of course, the “whole language” method does not work. There are many reasons why teachers use it anyway. They’re lazy: “whole language” requires little effort from the teacher. They’re ill-trained: all teachers’ colleges inculcate the whole-language method and disparage any other approach. When teachers take jobs, their union leaders tell them to ignore mandates to teach phonics (unionistas denounce such mandates as legislative sops to evil right-wing pressure groups and urge teachers to defy them as immoral!). Current teachers are not the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree anyway, so they rarely discover how wrong their trainers are. Finally, we give teachers tenure then reward them for seniority, not performance. NCLB-ish funding sanctions translate only into managerial hectoring rather than meaningful incentives to teachers.

    I think the divergence between NAEP Reading and Math performance trends supports my view. When school administrators do press elementary school teachers on reading and arithmetic instruction, the teachers assign more arithmetic drill, which works pretty well, and they repeat whole-language memorization drills, which is not very effective.

    I suspect the reason Black and Hispanic Reading scores in the NAEP LTT reports improved much more than White scores is simply that most White children are taught to read by their parents and have been for three generations, so formal reading instruction in public schools is almost irrelevant. I suspect Sesame Street’s phonics did more for Black reading performance than all the whole-language claptrap inflicted by public-school teachers.

  14. Simoleon says:

    Sorry, missing datum above: NAEP LTT scores for 13-year-olds (only).

  15. Florida resident says:

    Dear Dr. Cochran !
    I think that it is a good excuse to mention the book by Charles Murray
    “Real Education. Four simple truths for bringing american schools back to reality”,

    and the book “Bad Students, not Bad Schools” by Robert Weissberg,

    Respectfully yours, Florida resident.

  16. Alrenous says:

    If student outcomes are indeed indifferent to both school and teacher, why bother sending them to school at all? Why stop at firing the administrators?

    • Florida resident says:

      Dear Alrenous !
      Try to apply your logic to this sequence of statements:
      “If student outcomes are ideed indifferent to both quality of food and water.
      [compare this quality now and 200 years ago], why bother feeding them at all? ”

      Actually the lack of iodine in food may lead to cretinism. Lead in paint is also not very good for child development.
      But after certani minimum level of quality of food and water, further investment of time and money into improving those leads to diminishing (vanishing) marginal returns.
      Respectfully yours, F.r.

      • Alrenous says:

        That’s certainly a possibility.

        How do you know? WIth starvation, even if there weren’t incidents of people starving to death, you could test it yourself by fasting for a few days or a week. By contrast, homeschooling – letting total amateurs do the work – leads to vastly improved outcomes. The data in the link shows that on average, it is two to three full letter grades. While unschooling hasn’t been as intensively studies, preliminary results suggest similar advantages – including on college applications.

        When a thing doesn’t seem to be doing anything, the best way to find out is to stop and see what happens. With food, the results are immediate and negative. In Belgium they recently failed to have an election for over a year, and nothing much happened.

  17. Florida resident says:

    Dear Alrenous !
    Reading your 2nd comment is acknowleged.
    Your F.r.

  18. Robert King says:

    “teachers are, on average, a good deal dumber than they used to be”. I wonder how much of this is due to smart women being able to access jobs in fields wider than that of education these days as compared to the past? Previously we were being taught be women who could have been college professors, MDs, barristers etc.

  19. Florida resident says:

    Dear Robert King !
    You may want to look at Steve Sailer’s VDARE article “PISA Scores Show Demography Is Destiny In Education Too—But Washington Doesn’t Want You To Know”

    http://www.vdare.com/articles/pisa-scores-show-demography-is-destiny-in-education-too-but-washington-doesnt-want-you-to-k

    The article shows that any given cohort of students is educated by “American Educational System” (whatever this combination of words may mean) better than by any other “System” in the world.

    Your F.r.

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