Direct Instruction Miracle? The Lewis Lemon Case

Back in February, I observed that Direct Instruction hadn’t failed because of teacher disdain, as Robert Pondiscio charged, but because educational leadership from superintendents on up through US senators had not only refused to support the program, but in some cases actively and systemically ripped out implementations that seemed to be successful.  As I said at the time, I considered it a real mystery.

So I dug deep into Zig Engelmann’s book, Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backwards System looking for an example of a success story I could independently verify. He goes on at some length about both San Diego and Baltimore schools, but not in any way I could pin down DI vs. Non-DI. Quite often Engelmann would cite a newspaper article as evidence.

The Ventura County Star carried an article on March 15, 2003, titled “Effective Reading Program Must Go”, which indicated that the only school in Ventura County and one of 109 in the state to receive a citation for achieving exemplary progress was forced to drop their [DI] program.

No mention of the school. Or the superintendent. Or the degree to which test scores increased. One gets the distinct impression that Zig….well, read about it in the paper. He uses virtually identical wording in this Edweek article. California keeps detailed, easily searchable records; with the name of the school, the specifics of the decision could be confirmed.

The exception is Lewis Lemon.LewisLemoncite

But then, as happened consistently through the decades, a new superintendent came in and demanded Lewis Lemon abandon Direct Instruction and adopt “balanced literacy”. The principal, Tiffany Parker, flatly refused. She was accused of cheating, so the students were tested again. They passed the new test.  The district actually had to give back Reading First federal funds because they dropped DI. Apparently, the district blamed the principal for informing the feds that the district was no longer using the program, and Parker was demoted. She sued, and settled.  If you google this, you’ll find a New York Times article, a New York Sun article, this Heartland article, and references to many Rockford Register Star articles by Carrie Watters, who from what I can tell now works at an Arizona paper. The Rockford Register Star archive goes back before 2003, and has other articles by Carrie Watters, but contains none of the many stories Watters did on the Lewis Lemon controversy. Even Joanne Jacobs’ blog entry on Rockford, “They Messed with Success” has disappeared, which had me really freaked until I learned she was had temporarily moved her archives.

The story made national headlines when the superintendent decided, in 2005, to force Lewis Lemon off of DI into “balanced literacy”, while the strong student performance of 2003 only got covered locally. The New York Times piece went into a bit more depth, mentioning that the fifth graders didn’t do as well. Also, the reports weren’t always specific. Was it math or reading? Or both? So I went digging for data.

If contemporaneous reports are scarce, the contemporaneous data survives. Illinois test scores comparing Lewis Lemon performance to the district and state by race are all online. Here they are, and please check my results:

2001–the year they implemented DI
2002
2003
2004
2005–the year they were forced to discontinue DI
2006

So now I’m going to go all graph heavy, like Spotted Toad. First up: the top level comparison of Lewis Lemon scores to the district and state level for both 3rd and 5th grade (reading down).

LewisLemonOverall

Note the big ol’ spike in 2003. Lewis Lemon 3rd graders had far more students meet or exceed standards than the district or state averages in that year. But then, third graders at Lewis Lemon outscored the district average  every year both before and after DI was implemented in  Notice, too, that the fifth grade scores aren’t nearly as impressive, but that both math and English show a spike in 2005, which is the year the third graders of 2003 would have been in fifth grade.  Then again, fifth graders had much better reading scores in 2002 than in any time after DI implementation.

Lewis Lemon officials blame the lower fifth grade reading scores on a less than perfect implementation, and students who were further behind. On the surface, this seems unlikely, given the high scores in 2002. But there may be other causes.

So I disaggregated, first by race. Here are black and white 3rd grade reading score scores compared at the school, district, and state level, broken down by achievement category.

Up first, 3rd grade blacks:

LewisLemonBlack3rdReading

Now remember, this is Lemon Lewis black students compared to other black students only (not the entire population). Blue is Lemon Lewis, and the more blue to the right of each graph, the better Lewis Lemon is doing. 2003 is the year of the Big Score. The blue clearly moves to the right from 2002 to 2003, and stays there for two years. Then it shifts back.In 2003, black students  at Lewis Lemon met or exceeded standards at 3 to 4 times the numbers that district or state black students did.

Third grade reading, white students.

LewisLemonWhite3rdReading

So this is interesting in a couple ways. First, it’s clear that in the pivotal year of 2003, white performance actually declined slightly. Fewer students failed to meet standards, but fewer students exceeded them. Not a lot. But there’s no tremendous spike in white student performance in 2003.

And then, something that has gone completely unmentioned: the white student population collapsed to below testing levels immediately after 2003. This explains some of the falloff of the graph above–if whites comprised a decent chunk of the high scores, then their disappearance would impact the overall “meets or exceeds”.

It’s not clear to me whether the DI implementation was reading only, or reading and math. The news accounts all focus on reading, but more than one account mentions improved math scores. So I’ll include them. Here’s third grade, African American.

LewisLemonBlack3rdMath

Here, Lewis Lemon was scoring better than blacks in the district and state before the DI implementation. The blue still shifts right, but it’s not as dramatic. In 2003, virtually every student met or exceeded expectations, but in every other year, both before and after the DI implementation, they were still doing very well.

Now white 3rd grade math:

LewisLemonWhite3rdMath

So in 2002 through 2003,  the school saw a good bunch of whites move from “meets” to “exceeds”. Unlike reading, third grade white performance saw a decent boost, but it started a year earlier. Whites at Lewis Lemon performed better than the district.

And now, the fifth grade. Reading, black fifth graders:

LewisLemonBlack5thMath

Scores actually declined in 2003. 2005, the year that the third graders from 2003 were in fifth grade, sees a slight improvement. But not much of one–more than half failed to meet standards.

Fifth grade whites, reading:

LewisLemonWhite5thReadingAgain, whites have their best year in 2002, and don’t show any particular spike. They also do better than black fifth graders (which is normal).

Fifth grade math:

LewisLemonBlack5thMath

Indifferent–except note the spike when the third graders of 2003 show up. It’s much more pronounced in math than it was in reading.

White fifth graders, to finish out.

LewisLemonWhite5thMath

So here’s one last way of looking at the data–compares blacks at Lewis Lemon to the whites at the school, district, and state level. Read down  on the left for 3rd and 5th reading, down on the right for 3rd and 5th math.

LewisLemonblktowhite

Once again a consistent pattern for  black third graders–big boost in 2003, slight fade in 2004, then tank. Black fifth graders see the boost exclusively in 2005, when the rock star 3rd grade class arrives,  holding on to their gains more so for math than for reading. Spike or not,  black third graders at Lewis Lemon do well in math compared to district whites from 2002-2005.

And here are the formal demographics reflecting the disappearance of white students from Lewis Lemon.

LewisLemonDemographics

That’s a stark drop in a short time. 47% or so from 2001 to 2003, and 50% from 2003-2005.  It may have just been a drop in new students, but the third grade and fifth grade classes ran out of whites at the same time–I’d have expected the fifth grade cohort to have more white students for longer, in that case.

So restating the observations:

  • Lewis Lemon black 3rd grade scores are stupendously high in 2003. The accusations of cheating were groundless, unless the cheaters carefully waited two years to boost the same kids’ scores when they hit fifth grade.
  • However, black 3rd grade scores at Lewis Lemon were consistently higher than black scores district and state wide, before and after the program.
  • White students saw no real benefit from the new program.
  • Fifth graders, white or black, saw no real benefit from the program. The one strong category, fifth graders in 2005, is the boost of the third graders from 2003.

Questions:

  • Is it possible that the 3rd grade class of 2003 was in some way extraordinary?
  • Were the white and black 3rd grade students practically (that is, for some legal reason) separated? Did the black students have a different teacher than the white students?
  • Did the white flight remove more high ability students? But even if it did, you’d expect the white kids to respond as well to DI as black kids,
  • Could parents “opt out” of DI?
  • Was the white flight out of Lewis Lemon exacerbated by the switch to DI? White students did not see the dramatic increases. Maybe they didn’t like the new regime?

Conclusions:

Well, it’d need a better analyst than me to evaluate the data. And if there’d been solid analysis and reporting at the time, we might have a better idea why the black third graders did so well. Clearly, the curriculum is a possibility for the higher reading and math scores.  But I can’t explain why subsequent third grade classes fell off in performance. And I really can’t figure why the white kids didn’t do well, unless it’s for the same reason that white kids don’t do KIPP.

Did the meta-analysis  include Lewis Lemon?

What I don’t see is a miracle. What I don’t see is  conclusive test evidence showing an obvious incremental increase in test scores at every level, in every demographic, or in every race. Given the actual, honest to god data, not a compiled version of it, broken down by both race and grade and score category, is easily available, I hope someone can go even deeper into the data and see if they find explanations or patterns that aren’t available in this surface level display of data.

Here’s what else I don’t see: any reason whatsoever for that domineering control freak superintendent to rip the program out of Lewis Lemon. I’m not a fan of D, but reading about this blatant obliteration of something that worked for the kids has been depressing. Shame on the media for not digging deep at the time and finding out why.

So there you go. Real data on Direct Instruction. Have at it. Draw your own conclusions.

Happy New Year.


The Students of My Christmas Present

“What..?”

On time for once, he trudged into the class pulling a small pine tree behind him, a stand in his other hand. His chin was set. His curly hair braided in two plaits instead of flying all around his head added to his air of determination.

“It’s a tree.”

“I see that.”

“I wanna make it a Christmas tree. I want a Christmas tree with lights and decorations. I want to know what it looks like, and see it looking pretty every day.”

“So you’re taking it home?” He rolled his eyes in my direction, and I grinned apologetically. “Just checking. I guess it’s haram?”

“Extremely haram.” Faisal has most of the brains, four times the looks, but far less of the focus and drive of his older brother Abdul, now in his sophomore year of a top 50 university.  Not unknown to the administrators for all the wrong reasons, Faisal nonetheless has held onto a 3.5 GPA and, barring a last semester senior catastrophe, a decent chance at a good college.

And so I acquired a tree.  I showed Faisal how to put the tree in the stand, and we steal some water from a classmate.

“The vendor across the street gave it to me for free! He’s Yemeni, maybe that’s why.”

“No, I’d guess his generosity is due to the trunk bending sharply forward before it goes up.”

“Do you have the..the lights? The things you hang on them?”

“Ornaments.” I looked sideways.  “You are expecting me to decorate?”

Faisal has a charming grin.

The tree was an instant hit with all my students, even sitting in the corner unadorned, as it did for a week. Someone noticed that the tilt kept pulling it over, so we snuck outside and grabbed some painted tiles from the garden to weight the stand down.  Students volunteered from their water bottles to keep the tree hydrated. I took three days and a weekend to bring in lights (one day to find them in my garage, one to pull the box down, one to sit by the door to be forgotten, weekend to put them in my car so I couldn’t forget them), another two days to bring in the ornaments.  Then one day four top students finished a quiz early and I assigned them “light” duty.  I have a huge collection of gorgeous ornaments, some hand-blown glass, others hand  made, some just utterly beautiful, that they all oohed and ahed over. Faisal got to select his favorites.

The vocational cooking teacher teased me for taking nearly a week to complete the tree, but she readily agreed my end product was far superior to the one her student put up in 30 minutes–and I still had it done two weeks before break. Each morning, I turned the lights on to twinkle cheerily throughout the day. Very festive. I have these old plastic window coverings, one with Santa peeking around the corner, one with bells, and on impulse taped them over my door windows, where they hung, unmolested and unbroken, for the better part of two weeks, the kids carefully closing the door without tearing them.

Four of my nine ELD students are either Muslim or Hindu, and they haven’t been here that long. I carefully explained “secular” as opposed to “religious”, reassuring them that the tree was in celebration of the former.  The other half of the class is Catholic, either Guatemalan or Filipino, so were surprised to learn that not everyone celebrated Christmas as a religious event. My math students needed no clarification. Our school is wildly diverse, but that’s never stopped us from openly celebrating Christmas. The kids sell mistletoe messages and Christmas wreaths through December.

I regret not capturing a picture of the tree at school, completely decorated. I’ve learned that it made any number of appearances on Snapchat and Instagram, as my students bragged about their Chrismassy room.

My family of origin has always centered celebration on Christmas Eve. For 45 years, December 24th means cheese, beef, and occasionally chocolate fondue.  When we were kids, we’d then go to bed and have Christmas in the morning. But once we hit our teens and late 20s, we’d just open presents Christmas Eve so we could sleep in. As we grew up and moved out, we turned Christmas Day into family unit, keeping Christmas Eve for fondue with everyone.

My ex and I did Christmas big. We both loved the holiday, both bought each other lots of gifts, bought other family members multiple presents, shopped together and separately.  I love presents. But it wasn’t just the presents. We had a party once, I remember, and always made plans to see friends or do something fun.

We divorced when our son was not quite three. Because of our fondue tradition, my son always had Christmas Eve and morning with me, then went to my ex’s for two or three days. So on Christmas Day, I was alone.

I wasn’t miserable. I still loved the Christmas holiday, even if the 25th was always a bit of a letdown.My son and I would always decorate, get a tree.  We’d drive around looking at lights, go to see It’s A Wonderful Life or Wizard of Oz at the revival theater. But after the divorce, I always felt as if I were watching others experience Christmas, rather than experience it myself. A good chunk of my loss was simply the presents. I’m not materialistic the rest of the year, but by god I like people buying me presents at Christmas. However, the larger sense of loss was due to the realization that while my family of origin is big, my own family unit was just two–and when my son was gone, I didn’t really have a family unit at all. Just me.

The post-divorce change in Christmas was as nothing compared to its utter disappearance after my son finished high school.   Before Faisal dragged that little scrubby pine into my room, I hadn’t put up a tree since 2005. My son would still come to fondue, we’d still have Christmas morning, but without him around during the lead-in, what was the point?

That amputated Christmas threatened to disappear entirely once he moved three states away with his girlfriend and eventual wife. I once had fond notions of visiting for Christmas and opening presents with my grandkids, but my ex and I have spent no small amount of time commiserating with each other about the truth of the maxim “A son is a son till he takes a wife, a daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life”. I am truthfully not bitter about this, although I would certainly have it otherwise. My son has a woman he adores, an excellent job he enjoys, two beautiful, loving children , a mortgage, and a marriage certificate (acquired in that order).  I have done my job well. Peace.

My son’s absence forced me to stare down a (hopefully very long) telescope looking towards old age wondering was this it? I’m going to be someone who doesn’t do Christmas? Will I just start peeling away holidays as I have fewer people to celebrate with? I’m still blessed with both parents and family of origin nearby, but the disintegration of my Christmas Day–now getting perilously near why-bother status–made me realize that I had to change my mindset and perhaps my practice as I move towards a time when family will be fewer and farther away.

So for the past few years, I’ve made a point to experience Christmas as a family unit of one. A married couple I’m close to often invites me over for dinner, where I have a wonderful time even though, god help me, she’s a terrible cook. I can dress up a bit, talk to people, drink wine, and mark the year’s passing. Sometimes I’ll go see the holiday film at the revival theater. I often go to a Starbucks, write, talk to people at the store or on the street, seek out a neighbor to chat.

I resumed putting up outdoor lights three years ago, slowly finding uses for the big pile of lights I’d acquired earlier, and then actually buying more. I love Christmas lights so much. And they’re outdoors, so it felt more like contributing to  neighborhood spirit, rather than decorating an empty nest. For three years now, coming home and seeing the house all lit up has been most cheering.

While I expected my new “experience” of Christmas to be limited to outside lights and activities,  Faisal and my students have reminded me of all the happy ornaments locked away in my garage, sitting there unused and unenjoyed. I have treasured the shared cheer of my classroom tree. If I ended my Christmas tree practice because there was no one to share it with, well, then, why not continue to have a tree at school for the season? So I will. When I told my students, they applauded.

I wonder if Julia Ioffe can possibly conceive of a Muslim Palestinian American  begging for a free tree, lugging it into his most familiar teacher’s room, simply because he wants to be a part of one of the best holidays ever created. Would she demand that he, too, see Christmas entirely in terms of Christ? Could she not see it as assimilation of the best sort, appreciation for what American culture has to offer?

I received an additional gift of recognition, one that involves the second best Christmas Carol. The finest is, of course, the Alistair Sim version, which you should run out and see right away, before Christmas season officially ends. But Patrick Stewart’s version holds its own very well.

One scene in particular has always resonated with me, and only recently have I understood why.  I’ll try to show it with pictures, but the difference is easier to see in action. Here’s Ebenezer before his transformation, sitting in front of his fire:

sadalonescrooge

His body language is all crunched up, his face is tense (granted, Marley’s said hello). Here he is after the three ghosts have visited:

happyalonescrooge

He’s alone both times. But in the second, he’s not eating dinner, shoveling it down as a utilitarian act, scrunched and sullen. He’s just sitting, enjoying the fire, with a nice drink. He’s experiencing Christmas, alone and happy.

I wasn’t Scrooge before, or now. I’m just an introvert who is perfectly content to be alone most of the time, but didn’t know how to celebrate Christmas if I wasn’t part of a  big family unit. I faked it–and faked it well–for a long time, but I’m learning how to keep the day in the spirit I’d like.

Faisal’s determined desire for a Christmas tree, and my students’ happy participation in creating one,  had one more surprise in store for me. When school ended for the year, I carefully took off all the ornaments, wrapped them up and put them back in the box. Next was the lights..but I stopped. I’d planned to put the tree in the dumpster but instead wrapped up the cords and carried the whole tree, lights and all, to the front seat of my car. I only felt a little bit silly.TreeatHome

I’m looking at it now, shining brightly in the front window. Maybe next year I’ll have two trees–one for school, one for home.

This year my friends had to delay their Christmas dinner until Thursday. So my brother and I ate standing rib roast, which cooked to rare perfection, and I made lemon meringue pie for dessert.  I’ll be rewarding myself with a hot toddy (Makers Mark) when I finish this.

I always give thanks for my students, past and present, and am grateful I’ve got many more students to enjoy in years to come. But this year, to students present, I thank you all for showing me how to bring back one more piece of my favorite holiday.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

 


Making Rob Long Uncomfortable

(Note: This is in the context of my multi-chaptered review of The Case Against Education, particularly the last, but I think it stands alone.)

I’m a big Rob Long fan; I listen to both his Ricochet  and GLoP podcasts. I’ve even subscribed to Richochet, and you should, too. I am not a Heather MacDonald fan, for reasons that puzzle others. But I like Long/Lileks/Robinson more than I don’t like her, so I was listening to their conversation a while back.

The three hosts were completely on board as Heather excoriated the college campus craziness documented in her new book. You can practically hear them nodding with approval as she outlines the various issues: the outraged feminist wars, the soft and whiny college students, the transgender insanities.

And then Heather turned the same withering sarcasm to race, talking about the delusional fools who think that African American disparities in college are due to racism as opposed to their low academic achievement….

Pause.

RobLongUncomfortable

I laughed and laughed.

You could practically hear Rob’s toenails shrieking against the tiles as he braked to a stop.  This was not the conversation he’d signed up for. He was there to lightly mock feminists and social justice nuts, not crack witty, on-the-nose jokes with Heather about the racial skills deficit.

Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

It runs all through the political and intellectual class, particularly on the right. So, for example, Charles Murray is a great social scientist and The Bell Curve an important work  (I agree!)–but  let’s blame crap teachers and low standards for black academic underperformance.

Recently, Megan McArdle added her voice to John McWhorter in calling for an end to research on race and IQ. This appears to be the new “informed right” position: if you’ve spent any time actually reading about race and IQ, it’s clear that only bad news awaits further research. So ban it.

Meanwhile, on the subject of recent campus craziness, Megan thinks that Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s formulation is one of “humanity’s noblest inventions” and John McWhorter routinely denounces the safe-space rhetoric on college campuses as absurd and “unhelpful”. Both of them are appalled at the idea that college students would want to shut down conversations they don’t like.

They’re reactionary fascists, you’re unreasonably censorious, I’m judicious in setting limits.

Ever notice how the same people who praise Caplan’s idea of restricting college are also those singing songs of praise about KIPP and “no excuses” charters in general–for sending more poor urban kids of color to college?

KIPP schools put their kids through hours and hours more school every week, all to get just 45% of them to graduate college “ten or more years” after 8th grade–that is, 6 or more years of college.

They’re the education blob who ignore reality to keep spending taxpayer dollars, you’re unduly optimistic about college readiness, I’m all for unqualified black kids going to college if it’s not unionized teachers sending them there.

I read many reviewers of The Case Against Education on the right or the intellectually honest left who discussed the book without ever observing the obvious implications of Caplan’s plan to cut back on college attendance. This perplexes me. I actually know a reviewer who gave a great analysis without mentioning race. I asked him why the omission. He replied the idea was  “far-fetched enough that the racial implications are a ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’ side issue.”

That sounds amazingly on point. Yeah, sure, Caplan’s proposal is pie in the sky, but it’s a great idea, you know? Interesting. Challenging. Controversial. Let’s engage it. Play with it. Not get into the nitty gritty details.

Of course, everyone’s totally into the nitty gritty when castigating the here and now.

“Failing schools” is an expression with bipartisan support–and the schools are always failing on the count of race. KIPP’s “Success for All” or Eva’s “Success” Academies are clearly talking about success by race. All the praise for Wendy Kopp giving Teach for America a chance to “expand opportunity” for kids is, again, talking about opportunities for black and Hispanic kids–and, by the way, pretty sure those opportunities include college. No Child Left Behind demanded that test scores be disaggregated by race, and only if all students of all racial and income populations achieved at the same rate could schools get out of academic probation. States dumped their test score standards and still couldn’t avoid putting all their schools in probation status, thus creating the need for waivers that allowed everyone to ignore the racial gaps while they Raced to the Top.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of my reviewer buddy. But come on. All the pro-charter, pro-voucher, anti-union policy wonks on the right are all about race when they can use it to beat teachers over the head. The nation itself defines its success in education almost entirely on how well it educates kids by race. But a guy writes a book proposing to restrict access to college and most public schools by choking off funding in ways that would be catastrophic to African Americans but hey, it’s just spitballing. No need to mention race.

Policy analysis a la Wimpy: I’ll gladly talk about race in today’s education if you let me ignore race in the education of tomorrow.

But despite my dismay, that is definitely how it goes. Everyone suffers from educational romanticism, as Charles Murray puts it:

Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.

In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion.

This silence from those who know better leaves the rest of the talking class, particularly those on the right, the ones who aren’t into policy, utterly unprepared for a serious discussion. They get very, er, uncomfortable with any mention of black underperformance that isn’t a de rigeur nod to shit teachers and corrupt schools. They haven’t really thought about it much or read the literature, but they quite like the basic GOP talking points (bad unions, bad! Charters! Choice!) and would much rather no one take away their comfort chew toys.

Fair to say I’d make Rob Long uncomfortable.

Notice that I did not (and do not) hold black culture  at fault for these academic results. As I mentioned once long ago when looking at the black/white gap in Praxis scores (teacher credential tests):

  • The white Millennial bonghitter with a 1.2 GPA who teaches sixth grade science after his parents booted him out of the basement ties the freshly-pressed hardworking black track star with a 3.8 GPA teaching special ed.*
  • The goofball wannabe [white] manicurist who loafed through Podunk U and went into teaching kindergarten after the tenth of her problematic boyfriends dumped her outscores the idealistic black welfare daughter success story on a full scholarship to Harvard who went into teaching sixth grade English to “give back” to her community.

Pace JD Vance, it ain’t culture. Your Middletown classmates who ended up dead or in dead-end jobs almost certainly outscored the rich black kids in, I don’t know, Delaware County, or wherever the wealthy black families live in Ohio.

As I’ve written before, all those placing great hope in KIPP are missing the big picture: the kids who need the hours of extra education and the forced discipline of No Excuses to get anywhere near 8th grade ability by 8th grade is simply not the same as the intellect that can eat Crispy Cocoa Puffs every day while watching TV or playing video games and bet at the 8th grade level by 4th grade.

MacDonald herself blames culture. In the podcast, she responded to Long’s plea with the offer of a thought experiment. If black kids have the same level of school attendance, same level of homework completion, and in ten years they still have lower achievement, she says, then and only then she’ll consider racism. Apparently MacDonald isn’t aware of the thought experiment known as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong who have the same dedication to education but wildly different academic results and graduation rates.

And given the frequency with which poor white kids outperform wealthier black kids, often at the same schools, it’s hard to reasonably argue that schools themselves are the result of black underperformance. Which doesn’t stop many people from unreasonably arguing it, of course.

What do I blame?

[Crickets.]

Look, it’s not a matter of “blame”.

But that’s an answer that gets one into hot water. People who talk about the test score gap without fingering responsibility–worse, who argue against the usual culprits–are giving the impression that there’s nothing to fix. Which isn’t true, but it’s closer to true than any hope of closing the racial achievement gap.

The discomfort has wasted billions to no real avail. Despite the demands to increase college readiness, we are sending far more students to college who are less prepared than ever. Colleges have responded not by tightening standards, but by ending them, giving college credit for classes teaching middle school skills. Employers routinely call for more unskilled immigrants to take on the tasks  “Americans won’t do” when in fact they mean jobs that won’t pay enough for Americans to do, and thus create more low-skilled populations we can let down in future generations–populations that are beginning to outnumber American blacks of slave ancestry, the people to whom America owes a great debt.

And yet. I can think of so many ways that accepting performance gaps and modifying education policy could create more problems–like, say, Bryan Caplan’s notion to end public education.

So it goes.  Bryan Caplan gets a book deal and fame for seriously arguing in favor of a policy that would block most blacks and many Hispanics from all advanced education. I’m anonymous, unpaid, and unbook-dealed, writing in favor of continuing public education for all. But Caplan ignores race, and I’m blunt about black academic results while refusing to blame acceptable scapegoats.

Despite his pose as a controversial intellectual, Caplan will never make Rob Long uncomfortable.

I wish I knew how to distill all this into something pithy. But I’m bottom up, not top down. Or is it the other way round?


The Case Against The Case Against Education: Average Was Always Over.

Part 5. (Parts onetwo, and three, and four.)

In his book, Caplan goes on at great length about what level of academic achievement predicts probability of success in attaining a credential.  But he complete ignores the fact that the probability of low academic achievement is skewed based on demographic attributes. While it’s fashionable these days to pretend that income is the great demographic divider, the mother of all disaggregations in America is race.

Let’s examine Caplan’s discussion of race in educational achievement. Go get your copy of Case Against Education and check the index. I’ll wait.

Huh.

Caplan mentions authors named “Black” about as often as he mentions blacks as a demographic category,  which he does three times .

What about Hispanics? No one has the last name “Hispanic”, or “Mexican” or “Puerto Rico”, much less “Dominican” or “Salvadoran”, so the sum total of their mention is uno.

And mind you, I mean mentions.  At no point does Caplan do anything so basic as discuss the  academic performance of different demographic categories. Blacks and Hispanics make a brief appearance in name only during the Griggs discussion and never show up again.

How do you write a book that argues for draconian cuts in our education system—and not discuss race?

Education policy in America is obsessed with race. Name a single problem in education and it’s a mortal lock that it was either caused by the achievement gap or caused by a policy put in place to end the achievement gap. Any attempts to solve educational challenges will be sued out of existence, or fail, or simply ignored to death because of its impact on the racial achievement gap.

But Caplan never once explores whether the implications of his proposals might unduly affect certain demographics. He simply uses median scores and percentages for the overall population. I am not a huge fan of Tyler Cowen’s dystopic fantasies but in education, there’s no doubt that average is over and has been for years. Averages hide too much. In Caplan’s book, averages hide the implications of his “ability archetypes”:

capstudentdef

Caplan advises people to use “ability archetypes” to ensure they are realistic about their goals:

capstudentselfish

Let’s consider the racial implications of his advice.  Once again, we’ll use the  NAAL report that Caplan discarded after culling a few shallow data points.

Here’s the results broken down by race in the four ability categories, from Below Basic to Proficient, for Prose and Document. For example, white comprise 70% of the population and 7% of the tested white population scored below basic in the Prose category.  So 4.9% of the tested population was white and below basic in Prose.  White scores are in gray, black scores in blue.

2003NAALproscomprace2003NAALdoccomprace

(I’ve been working on this forever, and just now noticed I didn’t put the percentage of each race’s contribution to each category. Sigh.)

Asian and Hispanic results are skewed by the conflation of immigrant and native results.  But it’s instantly obvious that blacks, who were only 12% of the tested population, contribute far more to the lower categories and are almost non-existent in the skill categories Caplan considers suitable for college.

The columns in the graph below list the median score by race in each education category. The horizontal lines are the overall population percentiles. So 14% got Below Basic, while “Basic” scores went from the 14th to 44th, Intermediate from 44th to 85th, and Proficient above that. The “Excellent”, “Good”, “Fair”, and “Poor” classifications are those that Caplan defined and are at (very roughly) the corresponding percentile location. (“Good” is a bit low, I think.)

naal2003raceandedNotice that white high schoolers and high school graduates have roughly the same scores as blacks with 4 year degrees or more. This is a very consistent finding in most test score data.

Caplan argues that only students from the Excellent or Good categories should invest in college. The NAAL report finds that only two percent of blacks read at proficient levels,  31% score at the intermediate level.  If blacks or colleges took Caplan’s directive and only went to college with that qualification (which is actually broader than Caplan would like) just 4% of the overall population would be black college graduates.

NAAL doesn’t disaggregate by race, education, and performance category. But another survey, done three years later, gives us some insight: The Literacy of America’s College Students. This literacy survey tested 25 randomly selected students from each of over 1800 universities.

This survey uses the same assessment as NAAL, and the same categories, to assess  college students in their last semester of an AA or BA degree. Again, I’m restricting the comparison  to blacks and whites.

First, I benchmarked the literacy data to the NAAL data for college graduates. 2006colllitmedian

The literacy survey data is much higher for blacks than the NAAL data, particularly for black AA holders. But it’s pretty close for BA holders. Moreover, standards change over time so it’s at least possible that looking at brand new AA degrees would differ from the overall population.

Here’s the breakdown by score category. Black AA and BA candidates are on the left, whites on the right. Blue and green are intermediate and proficient categories. 2006colllitmedian

And consistent with the first graph, these results seem quite high for African Americans. Only 5% of  blacks in 4 year schools scored below basic?  Blacks in 2 year colleges had no below-basic scorers? Really?

Still, this is fine for my purposes. 1 in 4 blacks about to get a BA had basic or lower reading scores, while less than 1 in 40 whites had the same low ability.

Caplan asserts “we” should  be shocked that  “under a third” of those with a BA or higher achieve Proficient levels in numeracy and literacy.  But close to half of the white college BA holders achieved Proficient levels in the three categories  ( 42%, 45%, and 40%).  The same black proficiency scores are 16%, 17%, and 5%.

Whites are achieving considerably higher than the results Caplan sniffs at, while black scores are far worse than “under a third” but rather “under a fifth”. Moreover, Caplan argues that he’s giving this advice to prevent low-skilled people from failing in college–but clearly, these blacks are about to graduate and made it through with skills he deems too low to succeed.

The college graduate data above would almost certainly be replicated in all the other education categories. Whatever Americans Caplan decries as low-skilled and incapable of succeeding in education, rest assured that he’s skewering a group that’s considerably more African American than the overall population.

Remember, too, that Caplan regularly dismisses the idea that our education system might be able to improve results.  He spent an hour debating Ric Hanushek arguing this very point.

But NAAL results over time (below) suggest that our k-12 system has improved results for African Americans. Asterisked scores indicate significant improvement. Blacks saw significant improvement in all three areas. (note again Hispanic performance declined rather spectacularly, thanks to increased immigration)

chgbyrace92to03

What educational categories saw the most black improvement?

chgbyedrace92to03

Well, hey now. Look at that. The blacks that graduated (or even dropped out!) of high school in the 10 years previous saw significant improvement in prose and quantitative skills.

Black proficiency scores on the NAAL survey are extremely low. But they have improved.

Caplan’s prescriptions run into all sorts of problems when evaluating black academic performance. If Caplan is correct about the skills needed for college, then why is the black college graduate average below the level that Caplan declares essential for college success? Certainly, as I’ve observed, colleges are lowering standards (for all admissions as well as blacks in particular). But while the average earnings of black college graduates are less than those of whites, black earnings increase with education nonetheless. So should they invest in more education even though they don’t meet Caplan’s criteria?

I pointed this out to Caplan on Twitter, and  he observed that the ethnic group improvements were marginal  and that the absolute level of basic skills were “terrible”. Which suggests he was aware of the ethnic group differences and just decided not to mention them.

Breaking down test scores by race can be incredibly depressing. No one likes to do it. But Caplan’s failure to include this information is simply irresponsible.

Caplan argues that people outside the top 30% of academic achievement should stop investing in school, the sooner the better. He sees this as both selfishly correct and also the correct government policy, so he thinks all funding for education past minimal skills should end. Those who are worth further investment can justify the expense to a bank or a parent. Meanwhile, we should end the child labor laws so that the very lowest academic achievers can get to work as soon as it becomes a waste of time to educate them.

Applying his policies to black Americans, around 25 percent would be in need of those changed labor laws, because Caplan wouldn’t spend a penny to educate them.

In his conversation with Hanushek, Caplan proposes giving low-skilled kids “more realistic” careers–the example being “plumber”, of course. Like most elites, Caplan uses  “plumber” as a low-skilled proxy when in fact the occupation is one of the more cognitively complex of blue collar jobs. But I think his focus on the job is also a tactical choice. “Plumber” sounds good, like a meaningful career. You can be self-employed or build a business.

Imagine telling a kid his best option is “janitor”. Now imagine telling a poor black kid his best option is “janitor”. Then imagine telling about 1 in 4 black kids that yeah, “janitors” where it’s at for them.

If you can’t imagine doing that, then don’t write a book arguing that Americans get too much education.

When people talk about the “bad old days” of American education, they are referring to the era when people did exactly what Caplan advises. School counselors looked at the students’ test scores and gave them a list of possible careers. White kids had higher scores and were advised to go to college. Black kids had lower scores and were advised to go to factories or custodial work. For a guy who spent several pages on the likelihood of Griggs lawsuits, Caplan doesn’t seem to have spent a single second looking at the case history of school district consent decrees.

But then again the kicker: Caplan wants open borders. So in Caplan’s ideal future, all those  teenagers of all races that have been kicked out of school because they aren’t worth educating  will be  competing for jobs and housing with millions or more adults from third world countries.

Earlier, I wrote:

I’ve been struggling with the best way to take on Bryan Caplan’s woefully simplistic argument about the uselessness of education. What do you do when someone with a much bigger megaphone takes up a position similar to one you hold–but does it with lousy data and specious reasoning, promoting the utterly wrong approach in seeming ignorance about the consequences?

Nowhere is this dilemma clearer than in Caplan’s utter refusal to engage with the racial implications of his proposals. I, too, want fewer people in college. The best way to keep unqualified people from investing in college is to make work worthwhile. But Caplan wants to devalue work to the point of worthlessness through open borders, all the while denying even the possibility of education to those who can’t afford it.

Caplan complains that no proponents of public education have seriously engaged with his book. That’s because no one has observed, in so many words,  “Bryan Caplan thinks most blacks shouldn’t go to college because they’ll fail. He thinks state funded education is a waste of time. Kids whose parents can’t afford education should have to be smart enough to get a scholarship.”

That’ll get him some engagement. But then, he knows that.

Caplan is often rather smug about his media popularity. “Steve Sailer’s policy views are much closer to the typical American’s than mine.  Compared to me, he’s virtually normal.  But the mainstream media is very sweet to me, and treats Steve like a pariah.  I have to admit, it’s bizarre.”

It’s not bizarre at all. Honesty usually goes unrewarded.

 

 

 

 


International Students in America: Fewer, Please. A Lot Fewer.

I just noticed Noah Smith’s recent thread on importing students. He’s quite wrong (which wouldn’t be the first time).

Noah is upset that international students are choosing Canada rather than America.

I couldn’t be more pleased.

The best argument for reducing the flow of international students: America should not be draining the brains of the world.  If indeed we are taking China and India’s brightest people, then we are robbing those countries of the intellects needed to lead and educate their next generations–all so that they can drive down labor costs for Facebook and Google.

Noah doesn’t care about other countries, though–well, that’s probably not true. But in this case, he thinks more international students is good for America.

His case: we shouldn’t worry about foreign STEM students, because the US is graduating more STEM students than any country but India or China.

stemgradsforbes.PNG

But as anyone following education trends in the US can tell you, a substantial number of those US STEM graduates are from China and India. Many STEM graduate programs are overwhelmingly dominated by international students.

and at least

33,000 of Science and Engineering undergraduate degrees go to international students. This is six year old Pew data, but it’s a good look at how big a slice of our undergraduate STEM degrees are taken up by international students.

While Smith is correct that educational attainment has consistently risen in US, I’ve written before that much of this is driven by a relentless push for US colleges to lower standards and give college credit and diplomas to students with limited reading skills and middle school math ability.  We can debate the value of this increase, but it’s certainly not evidence that international students aren’t hurting American college education.

We can import international students AND lower standards. Neither is related to the other, and neither is anything to brag about.

Smith then proceeds to argue that 1)  foreign students aren’t taking slots from citizens and 2) rather, they are PAYING for the education of American students!

The first is simply false. From 2008 to today, the undergraduate student population at Stanford has increased by 8.5%. The undergraduate international student population increased over that same time by nearly 47%.  At the University of Michigan Ann Arbor over the same time period, campus population grew by 14%, while the international students increased by half.  In this long-form article on University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, the university admits that admission of out of state American students had dropped since the massive increase in international students–and the number of African American students has fallen hard from an already low rate.  And none of these schools mentioned are among the campuses, most of them top 50 schools, with the most international students.

International students are taking spots from Americans at selective college campuses.  Full stop. Noah is wrong.

The second part is more complex. Unquestionably, public research universities with limited domestic-out-of-state enrollment began turning to  international students when states cut funding.  Moreover, some schools, like  Ohio State , seem perfectly willing to keep students in Intensive English hell for eternity, or as long as they’re willing to pay tuition, whichever comes first. So some of the appeal of unqualified foreign students does seem to be their money.

But is that all? I see several reasons to wonder.

First, the choice to turn to international students is, by definition, a choice against instate students.  The universities could choose to charge more tuition and focus on providing services for the in-state students who can pay. They choose otherwise.  Why? Next, it appears that international students get about 8%  of their funding from US sources (7.9% from state, a bit from US government, according to link above).

While their additional tuition is attractive, it’s also obvious that international students cost a great deal to support. Despite the protestations of many a university admissions officer, many if not most international students are completely incapable of functioning in an American university. Some schools have started charging more for those services, but, as the story acknowledges, before that point the international students were costing a great deal more. And if international students are valuable for their out of state tuition, why are some universities abandoning the international student premium, or giving it back in scholarships? .

So the argument that international students are increasing purely to subsidize in-state low income recipients  at public universities is….shaky.  Besides, a quick look again at all these private schools with the most international students. State funding wasn’t behind those increases.

Having watched this most recent push for international students going on for a decade now, I’m deeply skeptical that public universities are increasing their take of international students for the sake of their in-state applicants. These aren’t short-term moves. Prestige and money for niceties seem to be much more the focus than the in-state students.

Pish tosh, sez Noah, the advantage of international students  is not about educating local undergrads”.  We are thus instructed to ignore all his arguments in favor of American students that I carefully spent half a page deconstructing and rebutting.

It’s about RESEARCH. Research is what boosts the local economy, by drawing in talent and capital and money. The goal should be to UPGRADE scattered second-tier universities into good research universities.

And, from a different tweet thread:

International students are an important part of the university-centered regional development strategy that is pulling towns and regions all across America out of the hole dug by the Rust Belt and the Great Recession…But that’s not all that international students do for America. Their presence improves and increases research labs at American universities. That generates business activity in small cities across America. Want to revive the Midwest? You’re going to need second-tier universities to become first-tier universities, and create local innovation. International students are very important to that strategy.

He develops his thoughts on the value of a university to a community in an op-ed:

smithcollegeadvantages

I’m sorry, I can’t resist: You boys know what makes this bird go up? 

So, mid-tier universities should import international students to fuel a Midwestern Enlightenment, create intellectual capital that will draw in others to benefit from the bounty. A western Renaissance of smart educated people wading through the rich flow of generated ideas.

Of course if the ideas were generated by international students, the ideas are probably copied. Or maybe the research was just faked.

Take look at the names on his list of top international countries turning out STEM students, or just the countries sending the most students.  China, India, Russia, Iran, Indonesia, and Japan.  Toss in Saudi Arabia.

These are all countries that excuse and encourage tremendous educational and academic fraud.

The students who have the means and desire to come to America to study come from fantastically corrupt countries. They generally show up for college  woefully unprepared, which is unsurprising, given that their test scores and transcripts are generally a work of fiction created by the very companies the colleges hire to find, er, “qualified” students.

Before and during their college experience,  many international students cheat every way they can–from lying on their applications, to  paying ringers to take college admissions or TOEFL tests, to cheating in class, to not even being students at all and just getting work visas–and when they are caught, they routinely wail that their cheating is totally okay in their own cultures, so how could they possible know?

Numerous reporters will hunt down academics to bleat reassuringly that oh, dear, it’s terrible, but not all international students cheat, but far fewer will mention the numerous studies demonstrating that it’s quite a lot of them, and always in greater percentages than domestic students.  The research that exists is far less interested in quantifying the impact of the cheaters on the rest of the university, and far more interested in explaining why they cheat and how they can be educated and encouraged to stop.

These often unqualified students with no understanding of American academic standards are just the seeds of Noah Smith’s grand plan to revitalize the Midwest. He wants many, many more of the same.  He wants American colleges to import millions more rich students from countries with a strong culture of student cheating and academic fraud. We’ll get them to plagiarize grant applications and produce a stream of federal funding that will run Potemkin research labs from Pocatello to Wheeling, the better to pull in start up companies to lie to venture capitalists about the great new product that some kid lied about to get an A in a senior seminar.

I’m not entirely kidding, either.  The degree to which universities are actively encouraging fraud in admissions and overlooking dishonesty and plagiarism to avoid upsetting international communities is shocking. Increasing the population would make a bad situation far worse.

Colleges have brought in far too many international students as it is. We should bring in less. I’m pleased the wave appears to be receding, although it has receded–and come back–before. I might not agree with Stephen Miller’s reasons for ending Chinese student visas, but bring it on. Ending Saudi Arabian student visas would be an inadequate, but painful, penalty for Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

One thing is certain: the mid-western townsfolk wouldn’t object to fewer middle-easterners. Or easterners, for that matter.

What should public universities do if states reduce their funding? They should reduce the number of students or reduce the number of services. Perhaps they could consider accepting only college ready students, insisting on students who could read at a tenth grade level and demonstrate mastery of second year algebra.  They might limit first year curriculum to a sequence of humanities and advanced math–put everyone in the same courses, leave variety to the following years. I feel sure there are ways to teach capable students more cost-effectively.

That approach may not revive moribund towns. But it wouldn’t flood them with international students who view the locals with contempt, either. Or turn them into mini-Vancouvers.

Rather than flooding the zone with federal dollars for research projects staffed by rich Chinese kids, we could use those same dollars to start vocational training centers. Maybe give grants to unemployed or unemployable to relocate and spend some money being trained in construction, in digital technology, auto mechanics and body work, and other skilled labor. That would stimulate the local economy. And if those trained left the area, well, there’d be more coming. Just like with college.

America has to start making do with its own people. It might not be easy.  It might not be better, at first. But it will certainly be fairer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Memorization or Learning?

I originally started to write a post on a memorization technique I’m using for the unit circle, and went looking for representative jeremiads both pro and con. Instead, I found Ben Orlin’s piece When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning (from five years back):

memoryorlin

…which is the opposite of a standard, boring piece and serves as a good counterpoint to explain some recent shifts in my pedagogy.

It’s a good piece. In many ways, the debate about memorization runs parallel to the zombie problem–students regurgitate facts without understanding. Ben’s against that. Me, too. Ben says that testing requirements create tensions between authentic learning and manageable tests; I have various means of ensuring my students understand the math rather than just hork it up like furballs of unknown origin, so am less concerned on that point.

But I don’t agree with this sentiment as much as I probably did a decade ago: Memorizing a list of prepositions isn’t half as useful as knowing what role a preposition plays in the language. 

Not in math, anyway.

 

A couple years ago, after I’d taught trigonometry two or three times, I suddenly noticed that at the end of the year, my students were very fuzzy on their unit circle knowledge. (It’s no coincidence that Ben’s article and my observations are both focused on trigonometry, a branch of math with a significant fact base.) When working trig equations, they’d factor something like the equation above, use the Zero Product Property, solve for sin(x)…and then stop.

“You’re not done,” I’d point out. You’ve only solved for sin(x). What is the value of x?”

Shrug. No recognition. My tests are cumulative. Many students showed significant recall of concepts. They were using ratios to solve complex applications; they were sketching angles on the coordinate plane–both concepts we hadn’t revisited in months. They could sketch the unit circle from memory and eventually figure out the answer. But they had no automatic memories of the unit circle working backwards and forwards, even though I had emphasized the importance of memorizing it.

Upsetting, particularly at the end of the year. The name of the class is Trigonometry, after all. Solving for sin(x) requires not one tiny bit of trig. It’s all algebra. Trigonometry enters the picture when you ask yourself what angle, in radians or degrees, has a y to r ratio of 1 to 2.

The sine of π/2 is not among [the important things to memorize]. It’s a fact that matters only insofar as it connects to other ideas. To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is–or, for what matter, of what “kill” means.

Well, okay, but….if a student in a Trig class can’t work a basic equation without a cheat sheet, what exactly has he learned? He already knew the algebra. Does the same standard hold for SOHCAHTOA, or can I still assume the student has successfully learned something if he needs a memory aid to remember what triangle sides constitute the sine ratio? What else can be on the cheat sheet: the Pythagorean Theorem? The ratios of the special rights?

Ben describes memorization as learning an isolated fact through deliberate effort, either through raw rehearsal or mnemonics, both of which he believes are mere substitutions for authentic learning. He argues for building knowledge through repeated use.

Sure. But that road is a hard one. And as Ben knows much better than I, the more advanced math gets, the more complex and numerous the steps get. Most students won’t even bother. Those who care about their grades but not the learning will take the easier, if meaningless route of raw rehearsal.

So how do you stop students from either checking out or taking the wrong road to zombiedom?

I’ve never told my students that memorization was irrelevant, but rather that I had a pretty small list of essential facts. Like Ben, I think useful memorization comes with repeated use and understanding. But what if repeated use isn’t happening in part because of the pause that occurs when memory should kick in?

So I’ve started to focus in on essential facts and encouraged them to memorize with understanding. Not rote memorization. But some math topics do have a fact base, or even just a long procedural sequence, that represent a significant cognitive load, and what is memorization but a way of relieving that load?

The trick lies in making the memorization mean something. So, for example, when I teach the structure of a parabolas, I first give the kids a chance to understand the structure through brief discovery. Then we go through the steps to graph a parabola in standard form. Then I repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. So by the time of the first quiz, any student who blanks out, I say “Rate of Change?” and they reflexively look for the b parameter and divide by 2. Most of them have already written the sequence on their page. The memorization of the sequence allows them repeated practice.

But it’s not mindless memorization, either. Ask them what I mean by “Rate of Change”, they’d say “the slope between the y-intercept and the vertex”. They don’t know all the details of the proof, but they understand the basics.

I take the same approach in parent function transformations, after realizing that a third of any class had drawn parent functions for days without ever bothering to associate one graph’s shape with an equation. So I trained them to create “stick figures” of each graph:stickfigures

I drew this freehand in Powerpoint, but it’s about the same degree of sloppiness that I encourage for stick figures. They aren’t meant to be perfect. They’re just memory spurs. Since I began using them a year ago, all my students can produce the stick figures and remind themselves what graph to draw. They know that each of the functions is committed on a line (to various degrees). Most of them understand, (some only vaguely), why a reciprocal function has asymptotes and why square root functions go in only one direction.

So did they learn, or did they memorize?

I haven’t changed my views on conceptual learning. I believe “why” is essential. I’m not power pointing my way through procedures. I am just realizing, with more experience, that many of my students won’t be able to use facts and procedures without being forced to memorize, and it is through that memorization that they become fluid enough to become capable of repeated use.

Like Ben, I think a zombie student with no idea that cosine is a ratio, but knows that cos(0) = 1, has failed to learn math. I just don’t think that student is any worse than one who looks at you blankly and has no answer at all. And addressing the needs of both these students may, in fact, be more memorization. Both types of students are avoiding authentic understanding. It’s our job to help them find it.

So I’ll give an example of that in my next post.


Homework: The Rules that Matter

While reading another carefully worded propaganda blast on the value of  homework, I thought of Pirates of the Caribbean, a splendid film that I’d remembered recently for my ELL class.

Research on homework, and debates about research on homework can’t really be taken seriously. It’s all more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. But the fundamentals of homework are very much a cascading series of Jack Sparrow’s “two rules that matter“. For high school, anyway–and if it’s not high school or beyond, it doesn’t matter.

So as long as we’re just hanging here, pay attention. The only rules that really matter are these:

IronLaws

Savvy?

“Homework” is practice, work that is assigned with the intent to improve fluency and understanding. Math homework is the most common sort, but there are also science lab notes, reading textbook notes, those idiotic shoebox assignments, collages, or any other sort of out-of-school activity that isn’t formal written expression or assessment.

“Corrupted” is a strong word for grading that is very much standard procedure in most high schools nationwide, but appropriately dramatic given the degree to which grades are used as a proxy for ability. Many teachers would be upset at this description of their usual practice; in this conversation of mostly college-level instructors, most of the participants acknowledge that many students do well on tests, but flunk or get a much lower grade because they don’t do the homework.  Others point out how absurd this is. At the high school level, far fewer are found in the second group.

Teachers have a wide, legally enforced latitude in grading, but districts and schools can institute policies that reduce options. Overwhelmingly, these policies take place in low income schools, where the students shrug off the Fs and the failure rates affect the graduation rates. District and school efforts to protect students from low grades due to homework take the shape of  forced incompletes,  banning zeros and sometimes banning graded homework altogether.  And the public always scoffs. Lazy kids these days.

District or school-imposed restrictions are not to be confused with parent-initiated drama fests about homework overload.

The research on homework almost all focuses on two questions: does homework improves academic performance? How much homework are students doing? (The latter issue, in particular, has been annoying American parents for decades.)

I’m not…terribly interested in either of those questions. The first, which most consider quite important, is specifically in conflict with a teacher’s responsibility to grade accurately. No one would ever assume that homework improvement is anything other than relative to student ability.

But grades aren’t relative. Teachers can’t grade homework without impacting students’ performance grade. They can’t.

And so  they shouldn’t.

******************************************************

I don’t do homework, and this isn’t the first time I’ve written about the primary damage done by homework’s corrupting impact on grades.

Grades, really, are the main issue. Grades in America are simply junk. I can’t stress this enough.  Research–never mention a moment’s reflection–reveals that in  Title I schools like mine, an A denotes a much lower performance than at a high-income high school.

No one’s interested in adequately assessing student merit across classrooms, much less school districts, much less cities, states, or countries, so laugh at anyone who declares passionately that Harvard and other private universities are discriminating against more worthy claimants, Asian or otherwise.  No one knows who the worthy claimants are, and no one’s interested in finding out.

But that’s a topic for another day.

 

 

 


The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Well Are Americans Educated?

Part four of my seemingly endless review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. Parts onetwo, and three.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I get very, very irritated whenever Pew releases a new poll about “Americans” and their increasingly positive feelings about immigrants, because they aren’t surveying Americans, but adults who live in America.


Cite: Same source Caplan used

As Mark Hugo Lopez of Pew confirmed to me, back in 2016, “We asked our immigrations of all U. S. adults, including non-citizens.” They don’t disaggregate the responses by citizenship or immigrant status. In fact, they even ask all the adults if they are Republicans or Democrats when immigrants can’t be registered voters. This is just spectacularly dishonest and I get mad every time I write about it, but I mention it here for another reason:

“In 2003, the United States Department of Education gave about 18,000 randomly selected Americans the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).”–Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education, page 41. (emphasis mine)

NAAL did not survey American adults, but rather adults living in America. 13% of those surveyed were raised in a language other than English and are very probably immigrants. Another six were raised in households where the parents were native speakers of another language, and we can probably assume most were children of immigrants.

Here’s how Caplan characterizes the overall results:

caplannaalpic

Only modest majorities are Intermediate or Proficient in the prose and document categories. Under half are Intermediate or Proficient in the quantitative category.

Eighty-six percent of Americans exceed “Below Basic” for prose; 88% exceed “Below Basic for documents; 78% exceed “Below Basic” for quantitative. For each of these categories, 13% are actually “proficient”. Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education, page 41. (emphasis mine)

Please note the use of “Americans”. You can decide if he’s lying or careless while I continue.

What does the data look like if you isolate native English speakers and compare them to non-native speakers?

naaloverallvsnative

Eliminating non-native speakers reduces the “Below Basic” prose scores by 35%, while “Intermediate” readers increase by 11%. “Proficient” readers increases by 15%. The document scores see less dramatic changes, but 1 in 4 of every “Below Basic” scores disappear.

You can rewrite Caplan’s text above:

Over three fifths of Americans are Intermediate or Proficient in the prose and document categories. [Note: quant scores weren’t made available for disaggregation.]

Ninety one percent of Americans exceed “Below Basic” for prose; 91% exceed “Below Basic for documents…

Not nearly as horrible, are they?

Of course, Caplan also wants to convince the reader that education has little to do with human capital but is primarily signaling. What better way to achieve this than by showing how little education improves the public’s reading scores?

caplannaalpic

“While today’s dropouts spend at least nine years in school, over half  remain functionally illiterate and innumerate. Over half of high school graduates have less than the minimum skills [intermediate] one would naively expect them to.” The Case Against Education (page 43)

This graph doesn’t match up exactly to the report (he cites pages 36-37), because he averages the three reading test averages and then selects only the results for the categories High School Dropouts, High School Graduates, and College Grads. So the data above is only for 53% of the surveyed population and averages prose, document, and quantitative.

So Caplan is, deliberately or carelessly,  due to sloppiness or dishonesty, inviting the reader to assume that all those tested are reading their native language. He constantly uses the term “Americans” when over 1 in 10 was almost certain born elsewhere and probably schooled elsewhere. He also never once considers different populations or suggests that we should have anything other than identical expectations for every segment of American society (more on that in another article).

Happily, each NAAL survey generates a lot of research. Six years after the NAAL,  another report dug deep into the non-English speaking results: Overcoming the Language Barrier: The Literacy of Non-Native-English-Speaking Adults. To confuse things, the researchers use the words “High Prose Literacy” and “Low Prose Literacy”, combining the four categories two by two.  But this new report provided score averages on both language and education levels, while the one Caplan used only provided scores for language or education levels. (From here on in, all data is Prose only)

naaloveralllangedabs

These graphs (I assume I could have combined them into one Excel chart but couldn’t figure out how), combines the data from the overall NAAL report and the non-English speaking drill-down. The chart on the left is Low Literacy Prose results (Below Basic and Basic) broken down first by language and then by education. The chart on the right is High Literacy Prose results (Intermediate and Proficient) in the same way.

So right away, it’s obvious that  native English speakers are providing almost all the high literacy results, while non-native speakers are contributing an enormous chunk of the low literacy results. Roughly 20% of the tested population, the non-native English speakers,  is responsible for a third of the low literacy scores. Nearly 7% of all responders were non-native speaking dropouts, comprising the overwhelming portion of low-literacy non-native speakers. Most of the latter group probably didn’t ever attend American schools, although that’s not provided by the data.

Also of interest: 20% of the the high literacy (intermediate and proficient categories) native  English speakers had no more than a high school diploma, while 27% went on to some college and an equal amount went on to graduate and post graduate degrees.

The other half of native English speakers who stopped their education after high school–scored Basic or Below Basic, comprising 42% of all the low literacy scores for that group. I was interested to see that high school graduation numbers aren’t much affected by the switch to native English speakers, suggesting that immigrants are overwhelmingly high school dropouts, followed to a much lesser degree by college graduates.  While their percentage contribution to low and high literacy populations vary, the actual number of high school graduates in each group is about the same (more on that later). Caplan finds it appalling that high school graduates who didn’t go on to higher education are roughly split between four categories. I’m actually encouraged at how many high school graduates are in the top half of the literacy categories.

Ironically, this data slice also clearly shows the flaws in the American system much more clearly than the rather simplistic argument Caplan is making. As I mentioned in the last chapter on college graduate quality, colleges are increasingly accepting people who have not demonstrated college readiness. Almost certainly, some non-English speakers would have both college degrees and poor prose skills. But 7% of native speakers with low literacy rates are college graduates. In absolute terms, nearly 9% of the low literacy population attended at least some college.

Here’s one last take on the data that I used to check my compilation. The orange line is the percentage of each category in the overall Kutner report (that Caplan used). You can see that it’s off slightly, which I’d expect, but mostly in line.

Each column is green pattern, blue pattern, solid green, solid blue. The blues are native English speakers, the greens non-native English speakers. The patterns are low literacy, the solids are high literacy.

NAALoveralllanged

This graph shows how much of each category is dragged down by non-native English speakers with low literacy–anywhere from 6 to 39 percent. Also clear is that non-native English speakers with high proficiency have very little impact on the overall results.

In particularly, non-native English speakers with low literacy are simply overwhelming the high school dropout category, punching far above their weight. Also observe how clearly this graph that substantial numbers of high literacy readers are  stopping education in high school while other low literacy readers are moving onto college and even graduating. Clearly, we aren’t doing our best to identify and educate our strongest students. This might explain why the returns to education are less compelling than they might be, which is again linked to college quality control, not failures in the act of teaching.

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Non-native English speakers may have gone to American schools, and there are some Indian, English, and Australian speakers in the native English results.  But the second group would be overwhelmingly found in the college graduate categories. And if we are to concede that American schools don’t always educate non-native speakers as well as native speakers, we should also grant that no other country in the world expects its schools to educate millions of non-native speakers, much less be judged on the results. So I think it’s quite fair that if we are to consider prose reading skills a proxy for the quality of American education that we consider how the schools educate the people they were originally intended for.

I can’t for the life of me imagine how Caplan was able to get away with including immigrants in his NAAL results. It’s the same utterly dishonest bias that permeates the Pew data, but Caplan’s an academic, this book was published by Princeton Academic Press, has been reviewed by a zillion reputable people, and he is either dishonest or incompetent regarding a key element of his case against American schools.

But that’s not all, as anyone familiar with Caplan understands. Caplan is a libertarian and the leader of the open borders fringe. He argues that America and other countries’ welfare states are an incentive and rationale to restrict immigration, and sees K-12 education as an “indefensible universal program”.

So Caplan wants to end what he considers wasteful public education.He also wants millions of the world’s poor to immigrate to America, and believes this idea would be less controversial if we weren’t obligated to provide welfare and education to the immigrants and the subsequent generations. Hence he argues to end public education as a means to his ends of open borders.

It’s a bit odd, isn’t it, that he just somehow doesn’t notice that he’s rigging his case against American education by including the scores caused by  very immigration policy he wants to expand?

naal99203compare

As Kutner report makes clear, pulling out non-native speakers demonstrates that native English speakers improved their scores over the last decade.  Those with mixed language backgrounds improved as well. Meanwhile, native Spanish speaker performance plummeted from its already low 1993 baseline, while the tiny Asian population improved either because the source countries changed or perhaps more Asian Americans grew up to improve the scores.

Incidentally, the other knowledge tests Caplan uses to demonstrate our useless education system are similarly biased. He uses the General Social Survey but doesn’t restrict the results to citizens. The American National Election Survey limits its sample to citizens, at least, but that would still include many people who hadn’t been educated in American schools.

I would like to believe the best of Caplan and that he was just careless or sloppy. But I keep bumping into the fact that Caplan couldn’t disaggregate without explaining why. Explaining that non-native English speakers skew the results would alert readers to the fact that immigrants were so numerous that they were skewing our educational results, making the country appear less capable. He can’t alert the reader to the cataclysmic results that our immigration policy is inflicting on our national education profile because he wants millions more immigrants to further obliterate our educational profile.

All of the bad data shows up in Chapter 3, where Caplan uses it as a foundation for his argument that public education is a waste of time, that Americans’ utter failure to supports his argument that education credentials are all signaling. It’s just one chapter, but it’s the foundation of all the subsequent ones, as he offers it as a given that Americans are stupid useless gits who can’t remember everything they’re taught, which is why education is primarily signaling, and why we should gut our public support for all education.

Once you take out immigrants, American education looks pretty good, and our challenges are clear. We need to seek to improve our educational outcomes for high school, convince our high school dropouts to stay in school (purely for signaling) and we need better paying jobs and more affordable housing to convince them that there are good futures out there for hard work.

Immigration doesn’t help us achieve either of those goals. I understand Caplan disagrees, but he shouldn’t juke his stats. He especially shouldn’t hide the fact that the very immigration changes he argues for leads to an educational profile he finds so ridiculously awful that he considers it evidence we should stop bothering to educate Americans.

(Final note: I have spent a month trying to get this data right and be sure I didn’t make a mistake. I might have anyway. One thing I know, though: I spent more time trying to make sure the NAAL data reflected something closer to American achievement than Caplan did. And I wanted this sucker done. I’m so exhausted of thinking about it. If something’s not clear, please email me or mention it in the comments.)


The Case Against The Case Against Education: Toe Fungus Prevention

Part Three of my Caplan thoughts.

caplantoefungus

–Caplan, The Case Against Education

In Caplan’s world, toe fungus stands in for the “disease” of no education. The fungus cream is public schools. Caplan believes he’s proved that public school hasn’t worked, and thus we should stop funding public education. Live with the illiteracy and innumeracy that is only slightly mitigated, and then temporarily, by failing public education.

Caplan screws up the analogy. He says the obvious remedy is  “don’t use the cream”  (end all public education) but then explores “use less of the cream” (end subsidies) or “buy a cheaper cream” (curriculum austerity).

But I digress. Caplan uses some extremely old data–the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). The NAAL results are categorized as Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient (the survey had originally wanted to use “Advanced”, but considered it too value-laden. As if “Proficient” isn’t.) Caplan uses this data to argue that Americans are incredibly uneducated and therefore American education is terrible–the toe fungus that can’t be cured.

There’s a lot wrong with his analysis, some of which I’ll hold off until the next chunk, and he misrepresents NAAL’s connection to public education. Besides, static education snapshots are pointless. Change over time and disaggregation, baby, or it’s nothing. So I disaggregated by education category and found change over time, using the same report Caplan cites.

NAAL has three categories of assessment: prose, document, and quantitative. The adults surveyed were captured by their highest level of education: still in high school all the way through graduate degree.  So I broke the scores into two categories. First, on the left, are the scores of those whose highest education was vocational school or lower. On the right, those with some college through graduate degrees. In each case, the graph shows the average score for that category in 1992 and then in 2003. I’m terrible at data display, but I made the axes the same–the actual scores go from 0 to 500, but that was too small.

naal2003prosechgHS naal2003prosechgCO
naal2003docchgHS naal2003docchgCO
naal2003quantchgHS naal2003quantchgCO

She average reading ability of an individual with post-secondary education declined significantly from 1992 to 2003, while the decline in high school educated reading abilities declined less significantly or not at all. Quant scores were unchanged.

Here’s another take on the data, using a graph straight from the report. The percentage of “proficient” readers declined significantly for most college categories, while remaining largely unchanged for the high school only educated groups.

At the low end, the “less than/some high school” reading abilities dropped in the prose category, but the rest remained largely unchanged.

chgbyedcat92to03

Caplan doesn’t look at change over time, and so doesn’t take on the challenge of explaining why the average college graduate living in America became less proficient at reading over a decade.

Caplan’s opponents in the economics field argue that education builds human capital. Human capital is, or should be, reflected in the score gaps between different education categories. Those with some college should have higher scores than those with none, and so on.

So I calculated the change in the gap between “adjacent” education categories from the 1992 NAAL to the 2003 study.

naal2003gapprose

naal3003gapdoc

naal2003gapquant

So in one decade, the human capital improvement of education dropped in all but one college category.

From 1992 to 2003, high schools produced the same caliber of student. Colleges produced lower quality students that had built less human capital with their increased education.

It will come as no surprise that colleges produced more graduates than before.

naal2003edpops.

Caplan goes on about inflated credentials, the perils of increased access. But he doesn’t acknowledge a simple truth: it’s colleges, not high schools, that have significantly deteriorated in their ability to build human capital.

Why?

Because they are increasingly reaching further down into the barrel, accepting everyone. They’re accepting kids who can’t read at an eighth grade level, who can’t do middle school math. They have no standards beyond what’s on the high school transcript (giving high schools tremendous incentives of the wrong sort). For the past several decades, post-secondary education have been accepting transcripts at face value, then testing the students to establish how truthful the transcript was, then putting the students whose abilities didn’t match the transcript into remediation. Every state has its tale of trying to increase access, only to learn how shockingly unprepared and incapable students were, and how their efforts at remediation ended in failure.

All these efforts have only depreciated the value of a college degree. But not content with accepting unqualified students and trying to remediate them before, sadly, flunking them out, colleges kept reaching further down. It’s now quite possible to get accepted to college with Algebra 2 on the transcript, demonstrate that you have only elementary school math, take middle school math classes for credit, and earn a degree. No more remediation. Math was the last holdout; English and grammar requirements have been much easier to ignore.

Caplan argues that most cost benefit analyses for college education fail to account for dropouts. But colleges are reducing the risk of dropping out by lowering standards even further. His own college accepts unqualified students every year; 25% of George Mason’s freshmen enter with SAT scores below the “college ready” standard.  Now that colleges are ending remediation and giving credit for middle school ability, the risk of dropping out will continue to diminish. Those who want to “signal” will have to get graduate degrees–and of course, some academic will come along in a few years and deem “graduate degree” a “path to success”, and then everyone will do that.

“Would you rather have a Princeton degree without the education, or the Princeton education without the degree?”  Caplan asks, and readers go oooooh and aahh.

But that wasn’t always the case. Back when a college degree had meaning, a degree from a decent public university meant an education that would take one further than a Princeton diploma with no knowledge. Unfortunately, colleges have unilaterally obliterated all faith in their ability to educate, leaving  competitive admissions  on test scores–tests not administered by colleges in any way–as the only indicator of potential intelligence.

Caplan’s fix is to deny all educational funding. Applying that solution simply to colleges won’t solve anything. Colleges will still have the incentive to lower standards. The free market won’t fix the signalling problem. Ending public funding of education won’t stop colleges from lowering standards and giving degrees to anyone who can buy them. It will just deny any chance of education to those who can’t afford it. Over time, America under Caplan’s rule would be a country where rich people got educated, not smart people. We spent generations giving opportunity to those who could achieve. Our error was not spending too much money, but forgetting the meaning and the demands of education itself.

In Caplan’s view, “We would be better off if education were less affordable.” He wants to deny education to everyone who can’t afford it.

Why make it about money? Why not about ability?

We could prevent  or minimize toe fungus, the failure to successfully educate,  at the college level by setting a standard for college entry. Those who meet the standard can still qualify for public funding. I suggested a standard, back when I was an optimist who couldn’t even imagine colleges abolishing remediation.

Setting a standard for college entry would reduce the risk of failure as well as increase the human capital earned by even an incomplete education. Going to college wouldn’t just be another educational choice, but a choice only available to those who have the ability to develop and use the education.

Understand that I’m not some purist, calling for the days of Latin and Greek. I’m saying that colleges should accept students who can read, write, and calculate at an agreed-upon level. The levels we used in the 30 years after World War 2 would do nicely.

There are obviously–oh, so very obviously–political problems that go along with restricting access to higher education. But Caplan, man, he’s bold. He’s fearless. “In any other industry, a whistle-blower would be an outcast.”

So why call to eliminate public funding, denying education to qualified people who can’t afford it, while not bothering to fix the obvious standards problem in college admissions?

Maybe Caplan’s political ideology suggests the nail to which libertarianism has the hammer. I dunno.

What I do know is that people have been complaining about “too many kids are going to college” for forty years or more. It’s not new. It’s not bold. The devil is very much in the details. Which Caplan avoids.

 


The Case Against The Case Against Education: Pre-Employment Testing

In the continuing saga…wait. Before I dive in, I want to reiterate something. Sending fewer kids to college is an excellent goal. But we need a realistic case to argue, one that understands how we arrived at this point, what the pressures are to keep it this way, and what are realistic alternatives. Caplan’s 0 for 3. That’s irritating, particularly since Caplan is personally in favor of killing all public education funding, which I absolutely do not support. He makes all these wild statements while many reviewers go the chinstroker route, pretending to take him seriously but actually cherrypicking some of his arguments they agree  or disagree with–yes, this is all very interesting and we should think about it–without engaging with the consequences of his proposals.

The most common explanation for the deep emphasis on credentialing in America is  that employers use college degrees as a proxy for cognitive ability for fear that they’ll be sued. In most circles, this is referred to as the Griggs problem, for the Griggs v Duke Power decision. In the past, employers routinely gave cognitive ability tests for jobs not requiring college degrees, to ensure the applicant has a baseline ability level–or even just to hire the smartest candidate. However, the  Griggs decision severely constrained their ability to test employees if it resulted in a disparate impact by race or gender, so employers began using education credentials as a proxy for ability. Caplan calls it “IQ laundering”; take the IQ, stick it in college for a few years, and then hey, presto, that dirty cognitive ability has been converted into a shiny new, entirely legal, credential, since credentials are not held to the disparate impact ruling.

Caplan thinks IQ laundering proponents are wrong. He thinks it’s obvious that employers “fear” high IQ people who don’t go to college–it signals non-conformity and low conscientiousness. He argues that IQ laundering has to face an “awkward fact”:

10-30% of large employers admit they use cognitive ability tests. (page 89)

Then he continues:

“…the total number of employment discrimination cases filed in federal court peaked at about 23,000 in 1998, then gradually declined to about 14,000 in 2007. The average cash award if you win a trial is large–about 1.1 million for 1990-2000. But only 2% of plaintiffs acutally go to trial and win, so annual awards sum to less than $600 million. Most plaintiffs–58%–manage to get an out of court settlement. Settlements are usually confidential, but the average settlement is about 5% as large as the average trail award. Annual settlements therefore sum to less than $800 million. If plaintiffs’ lawyers work for a 40% contingency fee, and defense outpsends them by a factor of three, employers’ legal costs still sum to less than 1.7 billion. Updating these mid-1990s figures for inflation, employers’ total legal burden sums to under $5 billion per year.

Compared to total labor costs, $5 billion is trivial…[But] Only 4% of federal discrimination cases brought between 1987 and 2003 alleged disparate impact. That amounts to under a thousand annual cases against any form of employment testing. If disparate impact cases cost the usual amount, employers’ total test tax is under $200 million a year. (page 89)

So to restate, Caplan thinks employers aren’t interested in finding high IQ people, but only people who have managed to go through college, which presumably signals a decent IQ. Employers don’t have any interest in cognitive ability testing. If they did, they would, because the pittance they’d pay in lawsuits would dwarf the savings they’d find in high IQ workers. They don’t do this. Ergo, they don’t want high IQ workers. They want conforming conscientious folks.

So first, on the 10-30% of corporations testing. I actually heard about this argument several months before, on Twitter,  and called bullshit. I’m amazed no one else noticed. The article, The Benefit of a Degree in I-O Psychology or Human Resources, lists 2 prior surveys and does one of their own:

  • Terpstra, Rozelle, 1993:  201 companies, 20% did cognitive ability testing
  • Drogan, Yancy, 2011: 122 credit unions, 27% did cognitive ability testing
  • Wang, Yancy, 2012: 94 credit unions, 11% did cognitive ability testing.

I do not see how Caplan can use these three papers to assert that 10-30% of all corporations do cognitive ability testing. The papers themselves make no such claims.

Next, Caplan thinks that, since corporations spend billions in labor costs, they should shrug off a few hundred millions in court settlements in exchange for more efficient hiring. But labor costs will be in the billions no matter what. Suppose hiring the perfect employee every time saves employers collectively $1 billion each year.  Tests are expensive. Developing a test that will pass muster in the event someone sues would be extremely expensive. The tradeoff isn’t billions against $200 million, but more like $1 billion against $200 million and the cost of developing a test that passes EEOC in the event of a lawsuit. Morever, $200 million might be the total test tax for all corporations, but it’s not spread out among them evenly. Just ask Target ($2.8 million) or Federal Express ($54.9).

But the gaping hole in Caplan’s case is government hiring. The Civil Service exam was one of the great achievements of the late 19th century governance, but it didn’t last 100 years before the federal government abandoned it under pressure of a consent decree rather than lose at trial because of the test’s disparate impact. Teacher credential tests are routinely challenged for disparate impact and although they’ve been winning for 30 years, every so often a test is rejected for disparate impact and content that can’t be directly linked to the needs of the position.  But teachers have it easy next to  firefighters and cops–in no small part because firefighters and cops get promotions that have to be defensible and racially balanced.

Caplan doesn’t mention the extensive case history on government employment testing and disparate impact, possibly because he is unaware of it, possibly because it interferes with his easy, brief dismissal or, most likely, because he has some glib reason that he’ll use to argue in favor of ignoring it. But I find it difficult to justify his failure to take into account the hundreds of government cases on testing and disparate impact. The cases weren’t cheap, certainly, and it’s quite possible many large employers are scared off testing because of the many times courts have thrown out even carefully calibrated tests for seemingly random reasons. Toss that in with the $200 million “test tax” and the huge expense of developing a test against the likelihood of a loss–which happens to governments all the time, reminding corporations of what they could be wasting–and it’s far more reasonable, contra Caplan, to think that perhaps corporations don’t want the risk of cognitive ability testing.

Caplan occasionally mentions the “defenders of the IQ laundering theory”–those misguided souls who think Griggs had any sort of impact. For those looking for an excellent argument otherwise, see  Griggs vs. Duke Power: Implications for College Credentialing (O’Keefe/Vedder).  As Vedder and O’Keefe point out, employment tests were ubiquitous in this country before the Griggs decision. Now they’re very rare, other than in the EEOC-approved college credential path. In contrast to this history, Caplan’s simplistic, skeletal treatment of Griggs‘ potential impact on the rise of college credentialism undercuts his already weak argument for the employment value of conformity and conscientiousness.

Furthermore,  Caplan erred in saying that Griggs was codified in the Civil Rights Act of 1991. It was codified in the Equal Opportunity Employment Act of 1972, a distinction that matters because the court cases immediately following this codification supported Griggs. But  (Note: The Equal Opportunity Act didn’t codify Griggs, it just expanded the scope. I was misled by wording in the Vedder/O’Keefe piece. Thanks to Robert Verbruggen for pointing this out.)

But those of us blaming Griggs are focusing on the wrong target. In 1989, the Supreme Court threw out key elements of Griggs in a case known as Wards Cove , restoring the original 1964 understanding of the requirement.

Congress was much better at getting things done back then, and President Bush was running for re-election. So Teddy Kennedy proposed an amendment that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, overruling the Supreme Court’s decision and reinstating disparate impact.

This strikes me as important for a several reasons. First, it shows again that Caplan’s not a reliable narrator. He read the O’Keefe/Vedder article; it’s in his (excellent) bibliography. But he presented the information in such a way that utterly evades the complexity and controversy behind the disparate impact requirement.  Naw, it’s just like the 55 mph speed limit–a formality. Everyone breaks it. And that’s just not true.

Next, the Supreme Court appears to be once again forcing the conversation back towards equity and away from reverse discrimination–and this time, Congress and the President aren’t inclined towards swift action. What happens if disparate impact is ruled discriminatory in some future case?

Because, finally, Congress’s reaction to the Ward’s Cove decision overruled the Supreme Court, which doesn’t happen very often. What made this case special? Similarly, employers flagrantly violate all sorts of laws, but most of them are very leery of taking on the cognitive ability test and disparate impact. It’s almost as if institutionally, there might be a powerful counterforce pushing political and business leaders away from cognitive ability testing.

Hmm. What on earth could that counterforce be? But I’m at 1600 words already, so that’s the next article.

I can’t prove Caplan is wrong about employers and disparate impact. Caplan doesn’t take the long view, and it’s quite possible that today, given the ubiquitous nature of college attendance, employers do see failure to attend college as a sign of either low intellect or low conformity. But because Caplan elides or omits a great deal of importance from his argument, he makes the issue seem simple  when it clearly isn’t. Again, I don’t get the sense he’s making a serious case. Griggs wasn’t decided by stupid people. They had a reason for trying to stop employers from using cognitive ability as a hiring criterion.

I learned a great deal in fact-checking Caplan in this section. Most importantly, I learned that those of us who blame Griggs aren’t telling the whole story. Griggs was declared unconstitutional and then its elements were explicitly forced back into law by Congress and President Bush I. Disparate impact might not be similarly rescued in the future.