Monthly Archives: November 2011

The “Parenting Problem” is a “Poverty Problem”

"We have a parenting problem, not a poverty problem," Mike Petrilli writes at Flypaper. I agree that parenting matters greatly to a child's academic success or failure, and in fact may be the single largest determining factor. But Petrilli concludes that the best way to solve the "parenting problem" is through cultural messaging promoting marriage and stigmatizing divorce, so that kids benefit from growing up in two-income households. This ignores, I think, the concrete reality of life in many low-income neighborhoods, where many women are making a rational choice when they remain single.

Here in New York, for example, only one of every four young black men has a job. The communities from which these men hail have also been decimated by the drug war; 17 percent of adult black males have been incarcerated, compared to 2.6 percent of white men. In addition, low-income women, regardless of race, are three times more likely to experience violence from an intimate partner.

In other words, as sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas demonstrate in one of my favorite books, Promises I Can Keep, low-income women often prefer to remain unmarried because the men in their lives–men facing chronic unemployment in the legitimate economy, or who may be addicted or engaged in criminal behaivior–simply do not make stable husbands or fathers. 

If we want to get to the root causes of the "family values" issues in poor neighborhoods, we need to think not only about culture, but take a broad approach to social and economic policy-making, one that reforms the drug war, creates jobs, and, yes–educates people of all ages about the benefits of delaying childbearing and forming strong marriages. 

In Which I Cite My Sources in an Attempt to Deflate the Hot Air from the Teacher Quality Debate

There is so much hot air in education reform, and it's extremely frustrating when one's arguments and supporting research are misconstrued. 

RiShawn Biddle writes the following:

A penchant among far too many education writers who embrace the Poverty Myth of Education is to oversimplify the debate over the role of education in stemming the long-term effects of poverty. First, they argue that school reformers proclaim that education is the sole solution for economic development in poor communities — even though no one ever says this. Then they argue that education can’t possibly be either the long-term or short-term solution for poverty — and find some flimsy data or examples to back it up.

Dana Goldstein of the Nation weakly pulled this funny trick earlier this month in her review of Steven Brill’s Class Warfare, trotting out the famed Coleman study to argue that high-quality teachers cannot help students overcome the consequences of economic poverty. Of course, she ignores the Coleman study’s conclusion that teaching accounts for nearly half of in-school effects on student achievement, and that it concludes that if teaching is of high-quality, schooling will be a bigger factor than socioeconomic background — and conveniently bypasses Brill’s ultimate conclusion that good-to-great teachers alone can’t improve education or stem poverty. 

This is a complete and utter misrepresentation of my essay on Class Warfare. First of all, I never mention the 1966 Coleman Report, whose research I consider too old to be reliable or definitive. Because my piece appeared in print, there are no hyperlinks embedded to my sources, so let me elucidate exactly how I came to the conclusion that differentials in teacher quality account for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, with much of the rest of the achievement gap attributable to students' socioeconomic status:

  • This 1998 paper by Eric Hanushek, John Kain, and Steven Rivkin–economists who support free-market education reforms–concludes that teacher quality accounts for "at least 7.5 percent" of student achievement outcomes.
  • This 2004 review of a number of studies on teacher effectiveness estimates that between 7 and 21 percent of student achievement differences can be attributed to teachers. See pg. 240. The authors are education researchers at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and Tennessee State.
  • On pages 3 to 4 of this 2002 University of Pennsylvania study, the researchers conclude that depending on the valued-added method used, between 4 and 28 percent of student achievement gaps can be attributed to differences between classrooms within a school, of which the teacher would be the most significant. 

As you can see, by estimating teacher effects at 15 percent, I've interpreted the research consensus quite generously. Matthew DiCarlo, a sociologist with the Shanker Institute, has looked at this same body of research and concluded that another 20 percent of the causes of student achievement gaps are "unobservable" (ex; differences in innate intelligence, statistical error, other mystery causes); and that the rest, about 60 percent, can likely be explained by all the myriad factors associated with socioeconomic status. These conclusions are based on research far more sophisticated and current than the Coleman Report, much of it conducted by the education reform movement's own favorite economists and teacher quality experts.

Nor do I claim, as Biddle writes, "that high-quality teachers cannot help students overcome the consequences of economic poverty." To the contrary, in the essay I state outright that high-quality teachers can and do have an enormous impact on student achievement. I write:

Brill and the accountability crowd are correct to note that high-performing teachers are consistently able to raise the test scores of even the poorest children. Research shows that an improvement of one standard deviation in teacher quality leads to approximately two to four points of gain for a student on a 100-point test in reading or math. Five years of great teachers in a row, therefore, could raise a student’s test scores by ten to twenty points. Whether this potential growth is incidental or transformative depends on where a student starts out: if he began at the twentieth percentile in reading, he’d still be failing; a jump from the seventieth percentile to the ninetieth could make him a candidate for selective colleges.

My source for this paragraph was the research of Columbia University economist and teacher quality expert Jonah Rockoff.

Lastly, Biddle accuses me of bypassing "Brill’s ultimate conclusion that good-to-great teachers alone can’t improve education or stem poverty." Actually, I made every effort in the piece to sketch out the evolution in Brill's thinking over the course of his book. While Brill ultimately became more critical of Teach for America and the 24/7, manic work culture of some charter schools, he maintains throughout the book that good teaching can overcome poverty. Writing about the research of economists Kane and Staiger, whom I cite above, Brill concludes: “A snowballing network of education reformers across the country…were producing data about how teaching counted more than anything else. … It wasn’t that poverty or other factors didn’t affect student performance. Rather, it was that teacher effectiveness could overcome those disadvantages." (emphasis added)

Actually, Kane and Staiger's research does not show teacher quality counting "more than anything else;" it shows teacher quality counting, in their own words, for "at least 7.5 percent" of a student's achievement outcomes. 

Apologies for how detailed and wonky this is, but I did feel the need to respond to Biddle. It's ridiculous to claim that I think school reform doesn't matter or doesn't have a role to play in fighting poverty. If I believed that, I wouldn't have chosen to devote my professional life to this topic. If I thought schools didn't matter, I wouldn't spend time visiting schools to report on the awesome things they are doing to give poor kids a leg up. 

Back soon to your regularly-scheduled, non-confrontational programming…

NAEP, the Long View, and the Crisis in Reading

The latest scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress–the gold standard, no-stakes federal test–were released this morning. Only about one-third of American fourth-graders are proficient in reading, and 40 percent are proficient in math. Over the past two years, there has been no statistically significant improvement in the black-white achievement gap, and only a tiny closing of the Hispanic-white gap.

Let's look more closely at the reading scores. First, over the past two decades:

Screen shot 2011-11-01 at 12.23.28 PM

But it's important to keep an even longer view in mind when looking at these numbers. Although the picture in math is somewhat more optimistic, over the past 40 years in reading, achievement at grade 4 has improved, at grade 8 has stayed relatively stagnant, and age 17 has stayed completely stagnant–actually going down since a high in the late 1980s. 

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The longterm improvement in the early grades and stagnation in high school suggests that while our education system has gotten better at teaching basic skills to a diverse group of students, we haven't put the same effort into developing higher-order reading comprehension. That's why the curricular changes I outlined in my post yesterday on the Common Core are so important. In short, kids need to be reading more challenging, informational, non-fiction texts; fewer fictional stories; and should be writing more evidence-based analyses and fewer memoir-like personal essays. 

Raising our overall reading achievement is incredibly important, because literacy skills are the ones most closely correlated with success in college and the professional world. Third-graders who aren't proficient in reading are four times less likely to graduate high school than proficient readers.