27 November 2006

NYT on K-12 Education

Paul Tough, writing for the New York Times Magazine (November 26, 2006, starting at page 44) has a thoughtful summary of the "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) Act, the sources of economic and racial gaps in performance, and what works to deal with the performance gaps. Some key conclusions:

There is an income/race based education results gap that NCLB Can't Solve

* The 2002 NCLB is not having a material positive effect on American education. For example: In eight graded reading black students have gone from 13% proficient to 12% proficient in 2005, while for whites it went from 41% to 39%. The number of poor students who were proficient in reading went from 17% to 15%. The gap closed, but only due to everyone doing worse.

Math was better in 2000 poor students were at 8% proficient and black students were at 8% in the fourth grade. In 2005, it was 19% for poor students, 13% for black students, and 47% for white students (an improvement for all groups, but far from 100%).

* The 100% proficiency goals of the NCLB are hopelessly unrealistic given what it tries to do to achieve it. The goals cannot be achieved in ordinary public schools with the amount of instructional time that is now the norm.

* States are avoiding the NCLB requirements by making state tests easier. Mississippi declared 89% of fourth-grade students to be proficient readers on its own test, despite being second worst in the nation on a national test which showed the state with only an 18% proficient rating for fourth grade reading.

Parenting Style Matters

* IQ and vocabulary are closely corollated. By age 3, the children of professionals have 1,100 word vocabularies and IQs of 117 on average; the children of parents who are on welfare have 525 word vocabularies and IQs of 79 on average by that age.

* The article implicitly rejects the notion that IQ and other measures of academic success are overwhelmingly hereditary and that no amount of schooling can make a difference, based on the success of a few schools and on the importance of self-discipline. Instead, it concludes that education can matter, but only with overwhelming effort due to the difficulties inherent in growing up in a family that is poor, not by chance, but due to a lack of skills including parenting schools, that puts those parents in that position.

* Professionals talk to their kids more than twice as much as welfare parents, and are six times as likely to encourage their kids as to discourage them, while welfare parents are almost three times as likely to discourage their kids as to encourage them.

* There are other key parenting differences between the rich and the poor:

Children from more well-off homes tend to experience parental attitudes that are more sensitive, more encouraging, less intrusive and less detached. . . . while wealth does matter, child-rearing style matters more. . . . [Affluent families] engaged their children in conversations as equals, treating them like apprentice adults and encouraging them to ask questions, challenge assumptions and negotiate rules. They planned and scheduled countless activities to enhance their children's development -- piano lessons, soccer games, trips to the museum. The working-class and poor families . . . allowed their children much more freedom to fill in their afternoons and wekends as they chose -- playing outside with coussins, inventing games, riding bikes with friends -- but much less freedom to talk back, question authority or hagle over rules and consequences. . . . Kids from poor families might be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite -- but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society.

* A measure of self-disicpline is a more accurate predictor of GPA than IQ by a factor of two. Factors like self-control, adaptability, patience and openness which kids in middle class families pick up unconsciously matter.

Few Schools Close The Gap, But Some Do

* While a conservative Washington think tank called the "Education Trust" identified in December of 2001 a total of 1,320 schools that were both high poverty and high minority but scored in the top third on at least one standardized test, in one subject, in one year, of those only 23 of those schools had scores in top third, in two subjects, in two different grades, in two different years. Most "high flying schools" are really flukes -- schools where one or two teachers, or one batch of children does exceptionally well. Only about 2% of them have a total system that seems to work consistently to help poor children achieve.

A public school that enrolls mostly well-off white kids has a 1 in 4 chance of earning consistently high test scores . . . ; a school with mostly poor minority kids has a 1 in 300 chance.

* Charter schools, in general, do not do better than ordinary public schools academically.

* A handful of charter school franchise concepts do better. Those highlighted were KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) founded in the South Bronx, Achieve First (founded in New Haven, Connecticut), and Uncommon Schools. They talk to each other, use for the most part of a common formula, and operate collectively perhaps about 68 schools, teaching perhaps 15,000 overwhelming poor, minority kids. These schools achieve test scores above state averages and worlds away from those of other schools in similar neighborhoods -- doing perhaps single digit to 12 percentage points better than state averages in percentage of children proficient, and up to 70 percentage points better than area schools.

* These schools require about 50% more time in the classroom a year than traditional schools, they have clear curricular standards that are outcome oriented, the principals ride the teachers hard expecting much and dealing out swift discipline, and that have a strong focus on character and conduct as well as academics, such as KIPP's Slant method (sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the speaker with your eyes) of paying attention to what is going on in class. There is some influence of having parents who are engaged enough to put their kids in a school choice lottery on the success, but only some.

It Takes Massive Resources To Close The Gap

* As a founder of one of these schools states:

We want to change the conversation from "You can't educate these kids" to "You can only educate these kids if . . .

According to the founder (as paraphrased):

If poor students are going to catch up, they will require not the same education that middle-class children receive but one that is considerably better; they need more time in class than middle-class students, better trained teachers and a curriculum that prepares them psychologically and emotionally, as well as intellectually[.]

* One study of teachers ranked by "quality" in Illinois showed that in majority-white schools "just 11 percent of the teachers are in the lowest quartile. But in schools with practically no white students, 88 percent of the teachers are in the worst quartile. . . . At schools where more than 90 percent of the students are poor . . . just 1 percent of teachers are in the highest quartile."

* Federal spending on education helps kids in well funded districts more than those in ill funded districts because Title 1 aid for poor children is tied to state funding.

* "The evidence is now overwhelming that if you take an average low-income child and put him into an average American public school, he wil almost certainly come out poorly educated." The article concludes by nothing that only massive commitment of resources to high quality programs like KIPP, and quality pre-school education is capable of changing that.

Thinking Local

* The article did not address findings like those of a program in East High School, that mixing students in different tracks leaves students in both tracks better off academically. Another broader study of Denver schools came to the same conclusion at the school-wide level -- mixed income schools don't hurt well off students and significantly help poor students. Most students in America of all races attend de facto segregated schools, years of desegregation efforts to fight this notwithstanding.

* Denver is doing better than most cities on these scores. It is investing in pre-school education (due to recently passed Referendm 1A), and does some things in its K-12 system like better teacher incentives, a focused curriculum, and innovative schools calendars and programs, than most, but the bottom line is that it is only doing marginally better than par for the course.

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