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Education vs Learning
Moontower Munchies #14
Any regular reader knows I boost and write about “learning” a lot in my letter. I discuss education much less frequently. The distinction is education is a bundle of topics in which learning is just one item. Education is the institutional instrument by which people can learn, but is also tasked with any number of oft-debated common goals. A few examples: preparing people to be productive citizens, civic indoctrination, and outsourced caretaking and nutrition. It’s as political as it is pedagogical.
When it comes to education, by far, my favorite writer is Freddie deBoer (see my post Snapshot of Freddie de Boer’s Education Views).
Today I’ll share a post he published a few weeks ago:
The Eduskeptics Guidebook (20 min read)
The boundaries of educational debate are set by the reach of policy. That is to say, what we allow into our discourse about education is dictated by what we can reasonably influence with the usual policy tools. [Kris: this is the person searching for their keys under the streetlight]
Premature baby example (1 in 10 kids)
RAND Education once stated ”Some research suggests that, compared with teachers, individual and family characteristics may have four to eight times the impact on student achievement. But policy discussions focus on teachers because it is arguably easier for public policy to improve teaching than to change students’ personal characteristics or family circumstances.”
Three statements that I have made in the past that go a long way to defining my position on these issues. The first I find essentially indisputable, the second I think is very likely thanks to the first, and the third is informed speculation about the second.
We can give kids skills and knowledge that they didn’t previously have. But thousands of years of formal education have not revealed consistent means to change relative performance.
These static outcomes in relative performance over the course of life suggest that there is such a thing as an individual academic tendency or potential, some sort of intrinsic attribute that predisposes an individual to a particular level of ability. The degree to which this level of potential can be exceeded isn’t precisely known and likely varies with particular skills or tasks, but as noted above the remarkably static distribution of performance suggests that potential is sticky.
The most parsimonious explanation for this factor is genes, or more likely and specifically, gene-environment interactions. It seems sensible to believe that individual genetic variation influences cognition in consistent ways that have consequences for learning.
Because discussion of human genetics is fraught, people tend to fixate on the third point. But it’s both the part that I’m least sure of and least interested in. I am much more interested in getting policy types to grapple with point one. Its social consequences are profound. If students have a strong tendency to remain in a given ability band, it means that teachers have been scapegoated for conditions out of their control; it means arbitrary performance standards and one-size-fits-all curricula are counterproductive, even cruel; and it means that the meritocratic ideal will inevitably produce inhumane results. If students have a more-or-less immutable academic potential, it follows that the frantic effort to raise test scores is pointless, that we should focus on nurturing each student so that they can reach the level of their natural potential, and that we should care less about quantitative metrics and more about making schools safe, welcoming, stimulating places where students can discover themselves.
Kids Learn, But That’s Not What Our Culture Actually Cares About
It’s tempting to say that all we should care about is learning, not relative performance, and I’m personally on board with that. But, one, academic achievement gaps are inherently questions of relative performance, and if you want to eliminate them, you have to think in relative terms; and two, the meritocratic system that rewards the most academically accomplished is also inherently focused on relative performance. Who gets to go to Stanford is based on who performs better than who in the classroom, and who gets to work at Google depends on who goes to schools like Stanford. Economic reward is handed out based on relative performance, not absolute. As long as this is true, parents and students will find learning in and of itself less important than where they are on the totem poll.
Education rhetoric tends to fixate on criterion referencing - students need to learn X, Y, and Z. In practice education tends to fixate on norm referencing. If we were just concerned with whether kids are learning, we could already declare victory.
See the section ‘American Kids Are Learning More and Faster”
The Racial Achievement Gap is Not Easily Decomposed
My guess is that the racial achievement gap is the result of a very large number of variables that each have small individual effect but which in aggregate result in the overall observed difference.
the urge to reduce the racial achievement gap only to money underestimates how profoundly multivariate racial inequality is in this country; there are innumerable environmental, social, and cultural differences between racial classes that could be influencing academic outcomes
The Gender Reversal in Education Serves as an Example
Throughout history, many people believed that male academic advantage was biological in nature, but these recent developments demonstrate otherwise. However, it’s worth noting that there was no specific pedagogical or administrative change that caused women to improve relative to men; rather, improving social conditions for women helped unlock their potential.
The inescapable gravity of the achievement gap discourse has obscured this basic question: what do we owe to students at the bottom of the performance distribution after we’ve eliminated racial inequality? How do we help them find economic security and fulfilling lives? Or do we not care at all?
Here’s the Fundamental Conflict —We talk about education as a great leveler, as a promoter of equality, but we also want education to be a system that sorts good students from bad, that establishes a hierarchy of excellence. And that makes no sense. They’re fundamentally incompatible goals. See too talk of educational “equality”: if we established educational equality, there would not be such a thing as excellence. Could not be.
American Education is Not the Basket Case It’s Made Out to Be
The evidence is strong that the United States has mediocre mean academic outcomes and that this disappointing average performance is the product of a relatively small number of schools in economically-challenged parts of the country that perform truly terribly. Our median student does alright, not great but alright, but our worst-performing students struggle dramatically compared to the rest of the developed world. Meanwhile, the top-performing American public school students are competitive with those from anywhere; I would put our top 1% or 3% or 5% of students up against those from any country.
The story of American education is not of generically bad or even mediocre results but of extreme inequality. Which is the general American story.
We’ve Never Done Particularly Well in International Comparisons
The narrative of American school failure frequently compares our supposedly-poor performance of today with halcyon days of the past when we were an international leader in education. But as David E. Drew effectively demonstrated in 2012, this is an illusion: we’ve never done well on international educational comparisons. Such comparisons have only really been made in a rigorous fashion since the 1960s, and we’ve done bad-to-middling during that entire period. To the extent that there were “glory days,” they were a vestige of a time when American schools were defined by de jure segregation and where a large percentage of the poorest white students didn’t attend school. (It wasn’t until the 1970s that we first achieved near-universal participation in elementary school.)
You might note that the United States has been the world’s dominant economic, intellectual, and military power during the entire period that we’ve been struggling in international educational comparisons, which says something about how important these comparisons really are.
Education Research is Difficult and Much of it is Low Quality
A few years back, there was a lot of commentary on the replication crisis in psychology research. It’s worth saying that a lot of the research in education has the same problems, and the field has done less grappling with those problems than psychology has. There is some high-quality research. But as I laid out here, there are inherent conditions in school settings that make for profound difficulty in securing permission to study, in randomization, in the temptation to data snoop, and in terms of basic research ethics. Selection effects are everywhere.
But Educational Assessments are Powerfully Predictive, Highly Reliable, and Valid
Because they consistently report bad news, educational assessments (tests) get a bad rap. They are often asserted to be meritless without evidence, usually by people on the political left. In fact, modern educational assessments are valid, reliable, and predictive. Indeed, they’re the kind of education research we do best. Standardized tests are remarkably effective at predicting future academic performance, and a lot of other things too. Again, this is why people hate them - because they’re too predictive. They predict future performance so well that they make people feel like they’re foreclosing on possibility, that they’re cursing children to failure. But of course the tests can do no such thing. They can’t create inequality. They can only reveal it. And if you believe in the existence of racial inequality (economic, social, legal) then the racial stratification of standardized tests is exactly what you should expect.
College Exacerbates Inequality Rather Than Reduces It
There are many benefits that education bestows on students, but the market benefits are inherently influenced by supply and demand. We know empirically that to a remarkable degree the college wage premium is a function of how many people have degrees compared to the number of available jobs. If you dramatically increase the number of college degrees the people who have them will compete against each other and their value will plummet, which is counterproductive. Today, where college degrees remain relatively rare, college education creates a class of people who have higher incomes than the norm, which is the opposite of promoting equality.
the natural tendency is for those with more education to become a kind of organic cartel, using their credentials to raise their own wages, depress those of others, and defend the advantages of incumbency. Which is all perfectly predictable from first principles.
[Kris: note that while college doesn't equalize in the aggregate (I'd argue that positional scarcity is an evergreen game of whack-a-mole…if everyone had the same credentials than everyone is effectively demoted to peasant and we'd re-sort on some other status dimension) it can get you the winner of a tournament a leg-up on everyone else and of course every immigrant family knows this as much as Aunt Becky from Full House]
Fund Schools to Fund Them
As long as funding schools and their programs are justified through the desire to improve quantitative academic metrics, those schools and programs will be vulnerable, as our ability to change those metrics is limited. So fund programs for the social and humanitarian good they do. Free school lunch doesn’t do much for test scores, so fund free school lunch because it’s the moral thing to do. Afterschool programs don’t do much for test scores, so fund them to give kids safe and nurturing places to go while their parents are at work. And chess lessons don’t improve grades, music lessons don’t improve test scores, and all manner of good things don’t improve test scores or grades. So fund them for their intrinsic value to students, not to juice quantitative metrics.
We Need to Figure Out What We Actually Want
Again and again with schooling, what you’ll find is people with very strong views on education who nevertheless don’t actually know what they want. A few years back there was a big New York Times piece on school choice in NYC, and it reflected an incoherent perspective on what schooling is and is for. This failure to understand basic conceptual questions - relative vs. absolute, education for equality or education to foster excellence, college as leveler or college as cartel - ruins our ability to make progress. It’s time for everyone to go back to basics.
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