Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Quote of the Day: An Educational Challenge

...from Freddie deBoer (via):
I've said this before: let's have an academic decathlon. You choose a team based on whatever pedagogical criteria you want. You can choose students from public school or private, unionized teachers or not, parochial or secular, from charter or magnet, from Montessori or KIPP or whatever else you want. However, I choose the demographics of the students on your team. For my team, the situation is reversed: you choose the pedagogical factors for my students, but I choose the demographics. You stock your team kids from whatever educational backgrounds you think work, and mine with whatever educational systems you think don't work. Meanwhile, I give you all children from the poverty-stricken, crime-ridden inner city and impoverished rural districts where we see the most failure. I stock mine with upper-class children of privilege. I would bet the house on my team, and I bet if you're being honest, you would too. Yet to accept that is to deny the basic assumption of the education reform movement, which is that student outcomes are a direct result of teacher quality.

If you think that take is harsh, remember that I am a socialist, and if I had my druthers, there would be no more poverty and no more entrenched disadvantage to set these kids back so far before they even enter school.
One additional note about this.  One response I've heard to this point -- I feel like Matt Yglesias has said this several times, but I don't have the time & patience to google it up now -- is to say, well, then you're saying good teachers don't make a difference; or, if this is the case, we shouldn't put resources into good teachers.

But this doesn't follow at all, unless you have a (ludicrously simple) model in mind where only one factor influences results.  But here are a couple other models, which all strike me as, on their face, more plausible -- and which are certainly possible models, which you'd need empirical evidence to adjudicate.

First, it could be that teachers matter a great deal, but only once certain minimums are met.  Which is to say, that up to a certain minimum level of wealth, safety, home stability, home enrichment, etc, teachers have little effect.  But once that minimum is hit (whatever it is), then the main variable affecting educational outcomes would be teacher quality.  In this case, ignoring poverty would screw those below the minimum, but simply declaring teacher quality unimportant would screw all the kids above it -- which, one hopes, would eventually be everyone.*
Or it could be that both teaching and lack of poverty are necessary but not sufficient: you need both a minimum of wealth/safety/etc and good teachers to do well.  Remove either, and things go badly.  Again, both would need to be addressed.

And so on.  All sorts of models are possible.  (Maybe teaching only matters up to a certain level of competence.)  The point is, the fact that good teachers are important in no way implies that poverty vitiates any gains that improved teaching might make; and the fact that poverty blights the educational hopes of children in no way implies that good teaching is unimportant.

As deBoer says, the question of what effects educational outcomes is an empirical question.  Only inquiry can answer it.  But we certainly can't say, a priori, that the overwhelming importance of one factor means another is unimportant.

* Incidentally, my understanding is that happiness research shows that this is how happiness relates to money: below a certain minimum, you need more money to be happier; once you hit that minimum, other factors largely determine happiness.  So there certainly are some things that model works for (whether or not educational achievement is one of them).

No comments: