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November 16, 2007

Does Education Matter?

Given the nonexistent-to-moderate results for most education interventions, from charters to vouchers to merit pay to class size, I've occasionally wondered whether education policy and school quality really do achieve measurable results once demographic differences are sorted out. So this post by Kevin Carey, which breaks out city-level data from the National Assessment of Education Progress, is useful stuff. For instance, take math proficiency among poor 4th graders (defined as those eligible for the National School Lunch program):

New York City: 31%
Boston: 24%
Charlotte: 23%
Austin: 22%
Houston: 22%
San Diego: 22%
Los Angeles: 15%
Chicago: 12%
Cleveland: 10%
DC: 7%

As Carey says, low-income 4th graders in New York are more than 4 times as likely to be proficient as low income 4th graders in DC. And that's in two cities with similar percentages of students below the poverty line.

Now, what's hard about education data is that there really is a lot to disaggregate. Is New York a more economically and racially integrated city? My understanding, from Dana, is that its schools, at least, are. Are there cultural differences we're not accounting for? Hard to know. But in the aggregate, the data certainly suggests that New York is doing a far better job educating kids than, say, DC, and that they're seeing real achievement results as reward for their efforts.

November 16, 2007 in Education | Permalink

Comments

Hey, isn't Wall Street in New York? It must be their proximity to the unbridled energy of the free market that's rubbing off on those New York kids!

Posted by: DMonteith | Nov 16, 2007 9:46:58 AM

Hey, isn't Wall Street in New York? It must be their proximity to the unbridled energy of the free market that's rubbing off on those New York kids!

Posted by: DMonteith | Nov 16, 2007 9:47:31 AM

Hey, isn't Wall Street in New York? It must be their proximity to the unbridled energy of the free market that's rubbing off on those New York kids!

Posted by: DMonteith | Nov 16, 2007 9:47:38 AM

My wife tells me that everybody at PS 116--where she grew up--is on the school lunch program. It is a classic black middle-class neighborhood in Queens. (FWIW, the 1990 census median black income in Queens was a bit higher than the median white income.)

So maybe New York is just more "efficient" at signing up kids for the school lunch program? The usual problem with social sciences emerges again--you can't directly measure what you want to measure, and confounding variables can destroy whatever picture you are trying to paint.

Posted by: Joe S. | Nov 16, 2007 10:05:08 AM

There are much more obvious and stronger reasons for this:
New York City: 31%
DC: 7%
difference than differences in the schools.
You are absolutely correct in your wondering here:
"I've occasionally wondered whether education policy and school quality really do achieve measurable results once demographic differences are sorted out."

There is very little evidence that the differences in schools within the USA make any difference at all. See Kansas City where they did the best they could with the knowledge that they had at the time to improve the schools and yet came up empty.

Direct Instruction may help but if it does it will reach everywhere.

Posted by: Floccina | Nov 16, 2007 10:07:51 AM

Whoa, don't know how the multi-post happened; I only clicked once. Apologies.

Posted by: DMonteith | Nov 16, 2007 10:29:38 AM

BTW I forgot to say that education and schooling are not equal. Education includes much more than schooling. Education is far more important than schooling.

Posted by: Floccina | Nov 16, 2007 10:32:59 AM

Well, Floccina has gone and done it. She mentioned the Kansas City schools. That district was (is) bloody godawful, but they did not do "the best they could" with the knowledge they had. Not even close. I'm not really an education expert, but I'm somewhat knowledgeable about the failures of the KCMSD specifically. I grew up there and spent a lot of time thinking about it. I talked to Congressman Cleaver about it shortly after he left the mayor's office, and the frustration of all officials involved at every level was overwhelming. The district more or less reached the Give Up stage in about 1995. When it lost its accreditation in 1999, there wasn't nearly the uproar there should have been. Floccina is right that enormous funding didn't fix it, but it's not really demonstrative of a larger point about funding for a few reasons.

First, the KSMSD tackled desegregation in an extremely expensive way that is a total outlier from other districts. It didn't use mandatory busing; it invested its efforts almost exclusively in magnet schools and similar attractiveness efforts, expecting them to be great without any sociological changes around the schools. (Research indicates socioeconomic status is the best predictor of school performance.) It ran into a serious problem by not using mandatory busing, which has its own enormous set of problems. However, trying to desegregate using only the carrot and no stick means throwing gobs of dollars at the various magnet schools. And doing this without investing in the neighborhoods they're located in (unsafe school zones) or addressing the problem of proximity (parents don't want their kids in school all the way across town, even if transit is taken care of) is what we call an insufficient answer to the problem. Some schools had truancy rates of 33%! The socioeconomic situation just overwhelmed any school-based improvements.

Second, the state-level political economy was a disaster from the start. Nobody wanted mandatory busing; few things are less popular. On top of that, the majority of suburban parents weren't going to send their kids to urban schools; the suburbs wouldn't vote for increases in taxes marked for education elsewhere. This left the burden at the state level rather than the district level, massively increasing the state's net cost without notably increasing the gross cost of the program. Moreover, because Kansas City is a border city, much of the white flight that contributed to the origin of the district's funding and integration and socioeconomic problems could not fund these new state initiatives: they all lived in Kansas!

Third, the KCMSD is an excellent example of why Good Government matters. The district was poorly run when it started getting an influx of cash, and nobody ever corrected that problem. This meant mounds of extra work for people who weren't prepared to do even modest work. The programs that worked and the programs that didn't weren't easily distinguishable; nobody had the numbers to say one way or another. Nobody was accountable, and nobody knew who to try holding accountable.

Fourth, the goal of the program was totally insufficient. Desegregation matters, and it matters for its own sake, but it is not the be-all-end-all of schooling. Education is. If one program yielded gains in education but no real move toward integration while another yielded integration with no benefit for education, guess which got the funding boost? Education suffered because that's not why the district was spending money. The assumption that desegregating would be a magic bullet seemingly underlay everything.

The Kansas City area is one of disconnected suburbs; even much of the city proper feels suburban. As such, the failings of the KCMSD are largely absent to those of us who lived in suburban neighborhoods or went to private schools. Ultimately, money was never going to solve its problems for the simple reason that money can't make people care. Which is to say, its problems were not solved by greater funding, but they also don't prove that greater funding is ineffective. In a district where people care and/or are involved, where the socioeconomic structures underlying things received attention, where the programs to improve urban life were more comprehensive, school money could well make a dramatic difference.

The KCMSD had none of those things. People like to treat this as an either-or thing; that's what the (really very good) Cato paper her link cites implies by its conclusions. Addressing schools directly doesn't work. Therefore, address the underlying problems and don't do anything about the schools. That is, of course, wrong. It's possible to try both. School districts live an oddly isolated life in state and local administration, but they shouldn't. They should be part of comprehensive community-wide improvements; it's the only way school improvements will succeed. (That's part of why New York's schools work and DC's do not.)

Sorry for the extra long rant, but one needs to understand that in education, specifically, Bill Clinton-style liberalism with a focus on good technocratic approaches has the potential to be legitimately helpful, and we shouldn't dump it just because a paleoliberal approaches have failed.

Posted by: jhupp | Nov 16, 2007 12:24:33 PM

Thanks, jhupp. Don't mind Floccina. He/She repeats provides the same links and repeats the same cliches every time this topic comes up.

Posted by: Tyro | Nov 16, 2007 1:22:01 PM

Several years ago I did some research for a white paper on best practices for teacher training, and as I recall one of the things I ended up finding incedentally while I was searching the literature was that one of the most significant problems with the education system is a lack of good teachers, and that teacher retention is probably one of the best investments in improving the education system. I appologize in advance that I can't cite my sources here, because I'm working from memory.

The basic problem is that there's a teacher shortage, so the system hires teachers and gets them into classrooms as fast as possible, but in doing so fails to adequately prepare them for teaching. As a result, a huge percentage of them wash out after a year or two, before they've had a chance to learn how to be good teachers. The high attrition rate, in turn, creates a teacher shortage and we're back where we started. This problem is even worse in worse environments -- the schools that are hardest for teachers to succeed in are the same ones who have the most severe shortage of teachers, and who are thus most likely to fast-track teachers into classrooms.

It would be interesting to compare new teacher attrition rates for the cities listed above with those outcome rates.

Posted by: Galen | Nov 16, 2007 2:53:38 PM

I'll go with Galen.

Interventions and money don't matter, teachers and policies do, according to a recent McKinsy & Co. study.

According to the study schools need to do three things: get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers; and step in when pupils start to lag behind.

"America typically recruits teachers from the bottom third of college graduates. . . .Begin with hiring the best. There is no question that, as one South Korean official put it, 'the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.'”

McKinsey found that getting good teachers depends on how you select and train them; teaching can become a career choice for top graduates without paying a fortune; and that, with the right policies, schools and pupils are not doomed to lag behind.
http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9989914

Posted by: Don Bacon | Nov 16, 2007 3:27:25 PM

jhupp nothing that wrote contradicts my assertion that they did what they thought was best at the time.
For example you wrote:
Desegregation matters, and it matters for its own sake, but it is not the be-all-end-all of schooling.
But at the time is was thought that this was very imporant.
Now I think that Direct Instruction may help but it costs no more that other teaching methods.

Further I think that we need to step back and re-target our goals. What should be the goal of schooling IMO it should not be to produce good test scores but to help people lead better lives. Thus I think that schools should focus on driling certain priciples into students that will help them not get defrauded and help them get more out of life.

Posted by: Floccina | Nov 16, 2007 5:17:42 PM

BTW here is a link for direct instrution:

http://www.nifdi.org/
Galen and Don, direct instrution may help teachers do better lessening the difference in outcomes between so so and great teachers.

Posted by: Floccina | Nov 16, 2007 5:22:09 PM

"Thanks, jhupp. Don't mind Floccina. He/She repeats provides the same links and repeats the same cliches every time this topic comes up."

And has also shown his/her true colors with comments suggesting that teachers are largely lazy, greedy and self-interested and part of a "racket." He/she also seems to think that the way to do more in education is to spend less money.

Posted by: jmack | Nov 16, 2007 5:45:31 PM

Floccina: . . .education and schooling are not equal. Education includes much more than schooling.

That was a key observation. Education's root meaning is to draw out, whereas schooling is just instruction. A good teacher understands that children have different intelligences (see Howard Gardner) and develop at different rates (see Piaget). A good teacher recognizes these differences and is more able to help students develop. A less-qualified teacher adheres closely to the lesson plan and text and considers students to be identical repositories for facts.

NCLB with its testing regimen is no help, either.

Posted by: Don Bacon | Nov 16, 2007 6:28:04 PM

"Results show that for all students combined, four years in a small class in K-3 were associated with an 11.5 percent increase in high school graduation rates. This effect was even greater for low socio-economic students (students who were receiving free lunches). In fact, after four years in a small class, the graduation rate for free-lunch students was as great as or greater than that for non-free lunch students (more than doubling the odds of graduating).

- also: great comment, jhupp.

Also - interestingly, here in Philadelphia (median income for a family $37,036, 18.4% of families beneath the poverty line) per-pupil spending is $9,947. In the Philly suburb of Lower Merion - 90.3% white, median income for a family $115,694, 1.9% of families below the poverty line), it's $17, 184.

(see the PA educational costing-out study linked to in this Philly Inquirer article, and Wikipedia for the demographics).

There's more to it than that - as the Kansas City story demonstrates, finally getting, for a very few years, enough money to do a decent job of educating massively-disadvantaged (concentrated, high-poverty, despised,formerly enslaved and then legally segregated minority, low-parent's-education, etc.) populations doesn't guarantee the money will be appropriately/usefully spent - but really, it says a whole ugly lot.

Posted by: Dan S. | Nov 16, 2007 7:12:05 PM

jmack wrote:

And has also shown his/her true colors with comments suggesting that teachers are largely lazy, greedy and self-interested and part of a "racket." He/she also seems to think that the way to do more in education is to spend less money.

I never said any of that.

Posted by: Floccina | Nov 16, 2007 7:40:38 PM

Floccina is short for floccinaucinihilipilificator and I am male. You all should be on Ezra to becuase it seems that he is at least beginning to wonder if my position on education is correct.

Ezra wrote:

I've occasionally wondered whether education policy and school quality really do achieve measurable results once demographic differences are sorted out.

Posted by: Floccina | Nov 16, 2007 8:45:59 PM

"I never said any of that."

No, but you did signal agreement with these sentiments:

"There is the public school racket, in which homeowners and taxpayers fork out stupendous sums of money to feed a socialistic extravaganza..."

"There is the teacher-unions racket , in which people who only work half the days of the year are awarded lifetime tenure and lush pensions on the public fisc..."

"There is the homework racket, exposed in Alfie Kohn’s book The Homework Myth —basically, a device for getting parents to do teachers’ work for them."

And you have said:

"Better to spend less on schooling and introduce an hourly wage subsidy."

"No more money for schools. It will help nothing!"

"The goal should be to cut school spending and get the same results."

"There is the homework racket, exposed in Alfie Kohn’s book The Homework Myth —basically, a device for getting parents to do teachers’ work for them."

And if you won't admit that you want school improvement by

Posted by: jmack | Nov 17, 2007 8:50:12 AM

"you all should be on Ezra to becuase it seems that he is at least beginning to wonder if my position on education is correct."

Actually, Flocci, what he says is that he's occasionally wondered it, and the entire point of the post is discussing evidence that your theory is complete bullpucky (bullpucky which, I might add, functions only to screw over disadvantaged groups even more, though I'm sure that's not actually your intention.)

Posted by: Dan S. | Nov 17, 2007 8:26:39 PM

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