Category Archives: Class

How College Contributes to Inequality

Check out my Atlantic interview with political scientist Suzanne Mettler, who is doing some of the best thinking on exploding college tuition, student debt, and for-profit colleges. 

Should we pay attention to those studies about how little money liberal arts grads earn in their first year out of college?

With the liberal arts, there’s long-term payoff. By the time you are 40, you are doing much better. As a college professor, I could ruminate on that. There’s been a reframing of higher education in the media in the last few years. The media looks at higher unemployment among college grads and says, ‘Maybe a college degree is not worth it.’ That’s wrong. You’re always better off to try and get more four-year college degree recipients. But then of course, we have to look at what sector of education are people attending? Is it a valuable degree?

Your book suggests that in many cases, people are better off not going to college at all than attending a for-profit college. 13 percent of college students are now enrolled at for-profits, yet they make up nearly 50 percent of student loan defaults. The industry says this is because they take a risk on less well-prepared students. They blame the students themselves when they drop out or fail to get decent jobs. What did your research turn up?

No. That’s an inadequate explanation. To the contrary, there are various scholars who’ve looked at this. As I show in my book, students who grow up high income and have low test scores are about as likely as students who are low income with high test scores to graduate college. What I’m trying to emphasize is the financial part of it. The major reason why students drop out and don’t complete college has to do with finances and with their varied ability to stay enrolled and afford it. That’s true across the board, whatever kind of institution the student is attending.

At the for-profits, the graduation rates are 22 percent. We know schools with more low-income students are going to have lower graduation rates. Studies control for that factor and still find particularly low graduation rates at the for-profits. They don’t have student support services and they don’t emphasize learning. They charge very high tuition. You could get the same kind of degree at a community college or four-year public for a much lower cost.

Read the whole thing

Jacob Riis, School Reformer

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Essex Market School, the East Side. By Jacob Riis, ca. 1888-1895.

I just caught this poignant essay at the New York Times about How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis' 1890 exposé of day-to-day life in New York City tenements. Bill de Blasio mentioned Riis during his inaugural address, and the book — which depicted urban squalor through vivid, flash photography (a new technology at the time) — is credited with sparking the movement toward modern sanitation laws and housing regulations. 

What's less well known is that Riis' exploration of poverty in New York City turned him into an education reformer — one who sounded a whole lot like today's teacher accountability hawks. His follow-up to How the Other Half Lives was a volume called The Children of the Poor. Here's a litte excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Teacher Wars (Doubleday, Sept. 2014), about the familiar arguent Riis made in that book:

Riis acknowledged the systemic constraints on immigrant children’s lives. The United States lacked strong anti-child labor laws and relied mostly on overextended local charities, many with a proselytizing religious mission, to provide the poor with health care and jobs training. There was no public support for sanitary affordable housing and far too little government funding for truant officers who were supposed to encourage child workers to enroll in school. (In New York City, Riis found that a paltry 12 officers were responsible for tracking 50,000 absent children between the ages of 5 and 14, many of them homeless.) Nevertheless, like today’s accountably reformers, Riis considered teachers the determining factor in whether a child escaped poverty. He wrote that schools are “our chief defense against the tenement and the flood of ignorance with which it would swamp us. … it is the personal influence of the teacher that counts for most in dealing with the child. It follows it into the home, and often through life to the second and third generation, smoothing the way of sorrow and hardship with counsel and aid in a hundred ways.” 

Is Giftedness Real?

Check out the latest episode of Schooled, my Slate podcast:

Is your child “gifted”? What does that even mean? Some schools use old-fashioned IQ tests to identify gifted students. Others use teacher recommendations. A few schools are ending gifted programs altogether and are trying to implement gifted-level instruction for all kids. Which of these methods is fair? What should schools do to make sure that gifted tracks aren’t an option only for socio-economically advantaged children? In this episode, I talk to Sandy Darity, a researcher on giftedness at Duke, and Jeff Danielian, a Rhode Island teacher and giftedness advocate.

 Listen here!

TFA Teachers Perform Well in a New Study — But Teacher Experience Still Matters

Before I dive in to Mathematica's new, positive research on Teach for America, a major caveat: Past studies of TFA suggest its recruits are more effective at teaching math than other subjects, and this study looks only at math. Across the board, it is easier for schools and teachers to raise math test scores than literacy scores. That's because most kids encounter math only at school, while in reading and writing, middle-class kids get a huge boost from vocabularly and book-rich home environments.

Here we go.

The study design: Mathematica compared the performance of 136 TFA math teachers and 153 Teaching Fellows math teachers in 11 unnamed school districts to the performance of "matched" math teachers from other training programs, working within the same school buildings and with similar low-income student populations. Student outcomes were measured using end-of-schoolyear standardized tests. TFAers and Fellows were not compared to one another, in part because they tend to work at different schools.

The big takeaway: TFA math teachers outperformed non-TFA math teachers in their schools by .06 standard deviations in middle school and .13 standard deviations in high school. The talking point will be that this is the equivalent of an additional 2.6 months of learning per schoolyear. But it's important to realize this represents a relatively modest improvement in student achievement. For the average child in this study, who scored in just the 27th percentile in math compared to her peers across the country, having a TFA teacher will help her move up to the 30th percentile–still a long way off from grade-level math proficiency.

Teaching Fellows teachers, who tend to be career-changers, not recent grads, performed similarly to their non-Fellows peers. They were slightly less effective than traditionally-certified teachers, but more effective than teachers who came from non-elite alternative certification routes.

Teacher experience still matters: The bias against first-year teachers is borne out in the data. The students of second-year teachers outperformed the students of first-year teachers by .08 standard deviations–a larger gap than the average one (.07) between the students of TFA and non-TFA teachers. And even though TFA recruits did well in this study, that doesn't mean teachers reach their pinnacle after two years on the job. To the contrary, the researchers found that for teachers with at least five years of experience, each additional year of work was associated with a statistically significant increase of .005 standard deviations in student achievement. Interestingly, during years 2, 3, and 4 of teaching, there is no observable improvement. So this study shows a big leap in effectiveness from year 1 to 2, a flat line for a few years, and then slow and steady improvement year-to-year after year 5.

College selectivity is not a magic cure-all: Are TFA teachers successful because they hail from elite colleges? Maybe not, this study suggests. Teachers here who attended selective institutions did not outperform other teachers, regardless of whether or not they participated in TFA or the Teaching Fellows. That finding is in line with new data from New York City linking student achievement back to the colleges teachers attended. In that study, NYU and Columbia grads were not significantly more effective than graduates of Hofstra or CUNY.

It doesn't matter much what teachers majored in: One of the big critiques of traditional teacher education is that not enough teachers have college degrees in the subjects they teach. But in this study, traditional teachers were actually more likely than TFA or Teaching Fellows teachers to have majored in math. That coursework didn't necessarily help them become better teachers.

And teachers' own test scores are not all that predictive: TFAers and Fellows demonstrated better standardized test scores in math–they scored an average of 17-22 points higher than their counterparts–perhaps because they were much more likley to have attended academically selective colleges, which require good test scores for admission. The relationship between teachers' own test scores and student achievement remains murky, however. The researchers conclude that at the high school level, higher teacher test scores are associated with slightly better student outcomes, but that there is no relationship between teacher and student test scores at the middle school level.

Coursework is distracting: When a teacher is taking night courses–as all first-year TFA teachers do, to meet state certification requirements–student achievement declines. 

So, why are TFA teachers successful? If it isn't college selectivity or their higher test scores in math, what's the theory of change? After observing TFA's summer training institute this July, I'd guess that there are two major factors. First, TFA teachers are incredibly mission-driven and optimistic. They actively choose to teach in low-income schools and they are selected because they believe closing the achievement gap is not only important, but possible. This inspires them to work hard. (Of course, many non-TFA teachers have these characteristics, as well, and also tend to be great at their jobs.) Second, TFA's training emphasizes data tracking of student outcomes and the importance, specifically, of raising standardized test scores. That could lead to the students of TFA teachers getting more test-prep and hearing more messages about why performing well on tests is important.

Update: The researchers tell Dylan Matthews that although they used the results of high-stakes state exams to measure student outcomes in the middle-school grades, at the high school level, the tests they used were completely new to the teachers, so they couldn't have prepared students for them. I'd still make the point that the students of TFA teachers may be more likely to take testing seriously, for the reasons I outline above.

Don't forget race and class: Of TFA's 2012 class of recruits, 62 percent are white. But the TFA sample in this study was a whopping 89 percent white, while the demographics of the non-TFA comparison teachers were starkly different: only 30 percent white. The student population, meanwhile, was 80 percent low-income children of color. As I research my book, sources across the country are telling me, anecdotally, that urban districts are losing teachers of color, especially African American teachers. Given what we know about the importance of race-similar role-models for minority students, and how this, too, can affect achievement and school culture, it's important to gather more information on how well districts and teacher training programs are doing at putting teachers of color in front of students of color. 

Peter Buffett’s Solution-Free Critique of Big Philanthropy

I spent a year editing a philanthropy section at The Daily Beast. During that time, I often felt frustrated that corporate and celebrity donors seemed to lack understanding of the systemic causes of the problems they wanted to solve. A good example is what goes on in the Congo. Philanthropic and foreign aid dollars stream in to efforts to provide medical and psychological services to the victims of mass rape, but Western governments and corporations have expended very little will to end the regional, mineral-fueled war that is the root cause of the sexual violence there. As a result, many rape victims return to their villages and are raped again. Another good example is female genital cutting. The most hyped anti-FGC effort is conducted by the non-profit Tostan, in Senegal. A new UNICEF report finds no significant decrease in cutting rates in that country. Meanwhile, in the Central African Republic, an anarchic nation with fewer philanthropic interventions, cutting rates have decreased by almost half. Why? Nobody really knows!

So I was gratified to read Peter Buffett's Sunday Times op-ed, which shines a powerful light on the problem of philanthropy disconnected from political and economic systems: "Because of who my father is, I’ve been able to occupy some seats I never expected to sit in. Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left." 

Yes. Buffett doesn't explain how to solve this problem, but one place to start is with evidence. He complains that microfinance, for example, "feeds the beast" of the Western "system of debt and repayment with interest." This is a rather quixotic critique. The real problem with microfinance is that the most credible research finds that behind the heartwarming anecdotes of single moms who launch hatmaking businesses, these loans have no broad track record of success in lifting the poorest of the poor out of poverty, and in fact end up saddling many families with debt they cannot repay. A far better idea is for charities and governments to simply redistribute free money — no strings attached — to the poor. 

Another solution is to ask where the non-profit sector is truly the most effective actor, and where less corrupt government–supported by progressive taxation–must step in to solve deep-seated social and economic problems. The Buffetts are liberals who support higher taxes on people like themselves, though for some reason Peter Buffett doesn't mention the word "taxes" in this op-ed. Nor does he mention government regulation of international corporate labor and manufacturing practices, which could help solve some of the most pressing problems of poverty in the developing world.

The New New Fatherhood

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 2.33.45 PMThe old "New Fatherhood" was about mainstream, middle-class American men redefining masculinity to encompass spending more time talking to, playing with, and caring for children. Today at the Daily Beast, I write about the New New Fatherhood, as depicted by the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson in their important book Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner CityThe study is a follow-up to one of the books I recommend most often: Edin's Promises I Can Keep, which pretty much demolished the myth of the "welfare mom."

The new book questions the stereotype of the "deadbeat dad." It describes how low-income fathers love and yearn to spend time with their children. But instead of seeing "quality time" as an add-on to the traditional expectation of the father as provider — as in the New Fatherhood ideal — single dads in economically depressed neighborhoods have argued that quality time and emotional connection are a fair substitute for earning and contributing financially to a child's core needs. This is the New New Fatherhood.

I write:

"The problem with this vision of 'doing the best I can' is that it really isn’t good enough. It leaves all the most difficult responsibilities of parenthood, financial and disciplinary, up to mothers. Edin and Nelson conclude that 'lower-class fathers have tried to bargain for a wholesale reversal of gender roles,' in which dads are the 'soft,' emotional parents and moms are the tough, pragmatic ones. If this were true, however—if poor fathers were becoming traditional “moms”—they would be living with their children and performing all the domestic labor involved with their care and feeding. This, of course, is not the case. In Edin and Nelson’s study, the vast majority of single dads are noncustodial parents and seem to prize buying their children ice cream or watching TV with them—the fun stuff—over helping with homework or taking them to doctor’s appointments.

Make no mistake: this isn’t only a poor-people’s problem."

Read the whole piece.

On Doing Well to Do Good

Dylan Matthews has an interesting report about a group of young American and British professionals with progressive social values and high-paying jobs in finance and tech. The subjects of the piece are unusual because they are giving away between a quarter and a half of their incomes each year, typically to health and anti-poverty charities operating in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, inspired by the philosopher Peter Singer, they say they have chosen handsomely paid jobs, like high-frequency trading, because they aspire to give away as much money as they can. 

I'm a fan of some of the organizations, like GiveDirectly and GiveWell, that are loosely part of this movement toward ethical, high-impact giving, with few or no requirements for the individual recipients of aid. Yet I worry about an ethical stance in which any career choice is socially responsible, as long as one pledges to give generously to charity. The fact is, the number of people who choose to make millions in order to give money away is infinitesimal; the ability to donate generously is usually cited as a guilty liberal's justification for richly rewarded work in fields, like finance, that can be defined by bad social values, such as lobbying for lower corporate tax ratestaking advantage of low-income consumers right here in the United States, and bad labor practices. That's not to say progressives should never work on Wall Street or for Big Food/Pharma/Tech; indeed, we need social justice-committed people within those fields to argue and work for ethical change. But the ethical behavior must go beyond individual philanthropy itself and toward efforts to make corporations better American and global citizens.

In Defense of Daisy

DaisyAh, Daisy — the glamorous, self-absorbed cipher at the center of The Great Gatsby. She has come in for a lot of hate from critics of the book and film. Richard Brody judges actress Carey Mulligan "overmatched by the part." Ester Bloom says Daisy is "a drip." Critisizing Fitzgerald's novel, Kathryn Schulz argues the Daisy/Gatsby/Tom love triangle is "psychologically vacant." She accuses the author of making a "travesty of his female characters–single parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin," thus ignoring the vibrant women's movement of the 1920s. 

I don't think so. Daisy isn't awful, she is trapped and scared — and that is how Mulligan plays her, timidly. Raised a debutante in Louisville, she is expected to marry as a teenager, and she does, to the alcoholic, racist, chronically unfaithful Tom Buchanan. Daisy hasn't had the chance to go to college, or travel the world in the army, as the male characters have. She has a baby before she becomes an adult, and thus is hardly prepared to be an attentive mother. If there are opportunities out there for Daisy to live a more exciting, fulfilling life, she is only dimly aware of them. Is it any wonder she idealizes her first, adolescent romance, with a sweet young officer? Her brief affair with Gatsy is probably one of the only things Daisy has ever done fully by choice. Look at her wrists, bound by diamond cuffs. She is shackled by her own privilege. When she finds out her newborn is a girl, she can only hope the child will turn out to be "a beautiful little fool." Why? Because Daisy is smart enough to know how awful her predicament is, as an old money daughter and wife with few culturally acceptable options for independence. It would be easier, she thinks, if her own daughter could be simple-mided; if she could accept the role she was born into without coming to understand its severe unfairness. There's a reason why, in the film, director Baz Luhrman keeps drawing our attention to Daisy's massive diamond engagement ring. She has been acquired by Tom and is weighed down by men's expectations for her. Even Gatsby is in love with a chimera Daisy more than the real woman; as he tells Nick toward the end of the book/film, he wants her because she has always been "a nice girl;" the kind of girl who could help him his advance his climb from poverty into the upper class. 

Some of the most powerful feminist depictions in art are the ones that show us how bleak life was for women before feminism, or for women who couldn't or didn't embrace feminist ideas. (Think: Anna from Anna Karenina or Lily Bart from House of Mirth. Even Betty from "Mad Men.") By design, all the characters in The Great Gatsby, male or female, are sketches; archetypes of the most cynical, materialistic slice of a cynical, materialistic, lost generation. Nick Carraway could be any Ivy Leaguer with writerly pretentions who gets a job on Wall Street. But I've always found Jordan, Nick's unrealized love interest and Daisy's best friend, one of the more intriguing people in Gatsby. She is a golf star — a famous female athlete! Jordan, with her boyish name, is optimistic and fun-loving; unlike that pitiable, delicate flower, Daisy, Jordan has a life.

In the end, when Daisy runs away with her brutish husband, there is little question that she has made the "right" choice. Marrying a gangster who loves her for her respectability wouldn't have solved her problems. Poor Daisy. She might be a bit of "a drip," but it's not because she's bad at heart. She is the representation of every woman entrapped by beauty, wealth, and femininity. She is a tragic, utterly conventional, child bride. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About “IQ:” Algebra and School Quality

The now-unemployed Jason Richwine is portraying himself as a numbers-driven policy wonk who has been unfairly pilloried for a nuanced, intellectually sophisticated Harvard dissertation, whose only crime was questioning liberal pieties on race and IQ. Byron York:

Richwine and others also pointed to the fact that his ideas were expressed most completely in a dissertation done at Harvard, of all places, under the supervision of a group of distinguished scholars, and that the dissertation was accepted and Richwine was awarded a Ph.D. It seems unlikely that a Harvard dissertation, finished in 2009, would qualify as hate speech, his defenders contend. But that is how it was portrayed in the controversy.

Over the past several days, I dove more deeply into Richwine's dissertation arguing that Hispanics are innately less intelligent than whites, and thus should not be granted citizenship. Let me acknowledge at the outset that I disagree profoundly with Richwine's conclusion. I find it inhumane to argue that political rights be conditioned on a test score. Richwine and the Heritage Foundation also downplay the reality that many important jobs in our economy–picking tomatoes, delivering food, cleaning buildings–require little formal education or demonstrated intellectual ability, and that native-born Americans will not do them

But what I want to address here, at greater length, is the attention this controversy has put on IQ testing as a means of judging innate intelligence. What do measurements of IQ actually consist of? Does Richwine's analytic work stand up to scrutiny? He argues that education can do very little to help Hispanic immigrants achieve. So does he demonstrate familiarity with the educational and economic research on poverty, schools, and human capacity? 

Richwine's dissertation may not be hate speech, but I emerged from it surprised that this document garnered a Ph.D from the nation's preeminent university. Richwine fails to grasp the difference between testing academic achievement and testing innate cognitive ability, claiming that an exam that includes algebra can be used to draw conclusions about inherited IQ. He explicitly ignores the well-documented, historically persistent reality of educational inequality across the United States, assuming that the only "environmental" factors that affect a child's test score are ones inside the home.

In Chapter 2 of the dissertation, Richwine acknowledges that the "language bias" in most American IQ tests makes it difficult to assess the intelligence of native Spanish speakers or those who grow up in Spanish-dominant homes. He therefore argues that gaps between Hispanic and white performance in math provide the strongest evidence of innate ability differences between the two groups. He draws many of his conclusions from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which collected IQ scores from nearly 12,000 individuals who took the Armed Forces Qualification Test.

Is the AFQT an accurate measure of genetic cognitive ability, as Richwine claims — as distinct from academic achievement?

As Richwine writes, the AFQT "was designed for 17 and 18-year olds who speak English and have taken algebra." Some students in the data set may not yet have enrolled in algebra when they took the exam, so Richwine adjusts for school-entry cutoff birth dates. This ensures, he writes, that his entire sample has completed the same number of years of schooling, and thus their cognitive abilities can be accurately compared to one another using this test that includes algebra.

Here I was taken aback. I don't know about you, but I was not born knowing how to solve for x. It was taught to me at school, by teachers. Was Richwine truly claiming that 12 years of schooling in Scarsdale, for example, was equal in quality to 12 years of schooling in East New York? Was he claiming that there is no significant inequality in schooling across the the United States that could help explain differences in scores on a math test? As I continued to read, this did, in fact, emerge as Richwine's argument. From pages 65-66:

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Sure, academic standards are more uniform today than they were 100 years ago, and we give schools more funding, even in the "inner city." But to claim that school quality no longer "varies enormously" is shockingly ignorant. Affirmative action in college and private school admissions does nothing to guarantee the typical young Hispanic child access to effective preK-12 schools or teachers; in fact, in recent decades, American schools have become more segregated by race and class, with the poorest children most likely to be stuck in low-quality schools. We know these children do much better when we get them into better schools and classrooms, because we've tried it. Poor kids score higher than their racially and socioeconomically identical peers when they are enrolled in schools with middle-class students. Teachers who are good at raising their students' test scores (like, in algebra) are also good at helping them graduate high school, avoid teen pregnancy, and get higher-paying jobs — all those achievements that can supposedly be attributed to genetic IQ. Economists have been demonstrating for 15 years that somewhere between five percent and a third of the achievement gap can be attributed to poor children's lack of access to effective K-12 teachers.

So while Richwine does acknowledge that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to IQ, he locates environmental variability almost solely in the home, as if there were no inequality in contact with good teachers, orderly classrooms, up-to-date textbooks, and engaging curricula. He praises only one school-based intervention, the Abcedarian pre-school project, which he admits demonstrated "modest, tentative" IQ score gains that merit "further research." He quickly moves on, however and his overall elision of school as a factor allows him to claim that "environment" itself is a function of low IQ, with poor parents too unintelligent to provide a stimulating environment for their kids, who inherit the genetic deficit. He does not seem to know or care that such families have, through no fault of their own, unequal access to good schools that can and do raise student achievement in algebra and many other areas.

I've written extensively about how difficult it is for schools to overcome the academic affects of poverty. Yet we know good schooling does make a significant, potentially life-changing difference, and that poor children, including Hispanic immigrants and their descendents, do not have equal access to good schools. When people obsess about IQ in the face of these obvious inequalities and the vast research literature dissecting them, one has to wonder: What is the motivation? Ta-Nehisi Coates takes some guesses here. So does Jamelle Bouie.