Tag Archives: achievement gap

Glenn, John, and Philip K. Dick

In the last segment of their recent bloggingheads discussion, John McWhorter told Glenn Loury he was writing a piece suggesting that discussions of an IQ gap be deemed unacceptable for public discourse1:

I don’t understand what possible benefit there could be. I think it should stay in the journals.

Glenn agreed, and mentioned his famous response to the conservative welcome of The Bell Curve, in which he angrily rejected Murray’s assertions.

My first, instantaneous reaction was hey, great idea.  In fact, it will save us billions. Too bad no one proposed it twenty years ago, before we wasted so much time and energy on No Child Left Behind, forcing states to report by racial demographics. Think of all the schools struggling to meet adequate yearly progress and failing because they couldn’t teach students to perform in perfectly average racial unity. Let’s be sure to tell the College Board; they’ll be happy to stop breaking out test results by race; it’ll save them so much criticism.  This will put NAEP out of business of course, so….

What’s that? You don’t think McWhorter would link banning discourse on race and IQ to ending all scrutiny of race-based academic achievement?

Ya think?

Of course John McWhorter knows that race-based academic achievement is at least tangentially related to discourse on race and IQ.  I also think he understands that race and IQ discussions have been The View That Must Not Be Spoken for forty years. In fact, he even mentions that the only sites engaging in this discusssion are “right wing chat sites” and “some blogs”.

So sarcasm aside, I was a bit puzzled by the proposal, as well as Loury’s endorsement. These are two intellectually honest academics, who are generally fearless on racial topics. Here they are declaring certain topics Voldemortean–and doing so in the event that the link between race and IQ is proven out.

Without even going into the suggestion itself, consider that McWhorter posits one response to an acknowledge racial IQ gap:

…are we going to have an arrangement where we allow that black people have these lower IQs and therefore give extra help to black people, with the presupposition that all the average black people aren’t as bright? I think the black people would take it as an insult.

Fifty years and counting on affirmative action (which McWhorter famously opposes), and McWhorter thinks black people would take extra help as an insult? Seriously?

Even more surprisingly, Glenn Loury doesn’t point out this obvious hole.  Or maybe not so suprisingly, I’m a huge Loury fan, but as I’ve mentioned, he’s got some blind spots on education.

The most notable one I can recall is in this  excellent 2010 discussion Loury hosted with Amy Wax, author of Race, Wrongs, and Remedies:

Wax’s central point both in the discussion and in her book is that black academic underperformance is due to the wholesale collapse of the black culture and black family.

Loury pushed back hard (emphasis mine):

“Well, gee, when I look at education, I think, true, what happens at the home is really important….but I do think that the fundamental problem with urban education is its political economic organization. It’s the unions. It’s the work rules. It’s the efficacy of teachers in the classroom, and so on. It may also be to some degree the resources.

And that’s something that government, with great difficulty, with some consternation, can change….that’s something that ONLY government can change, either by making resources available to parents so they can have outside options and not be reliant on a school system that’s failing, and/or by reorganizing the functioning of those systems that are failing so that the kind of things that reformers want to do, that are known to work, are permitted to be put into place.

But in either case, those are political public large government undertakings that need to be done, and to blame the failure of urban education on the culture of African Americans is, well, maybe just a little offensive….Why wouldn’t we want to think of that as a public problem in public terms rather than [blame] the people who are really the victims of failed public policy?”

So Loury holds on to some of the conservative tenets from his youth.  Like all conservatives, he wants to blame schools: crappy, incompetent teachers, unions, and by golly maybe more money would help, too.

Wax responds that blaming schools makes no sense, because black kids in suburban schools are doing poorly. They do poorly in the same excellent schools that whites do well in, and she argues again that it’s culture.

Somewhat surprisingly, Loury agrees. Suburban black kids are doing terribly, too, but not for the same reason:

“I would not identify underperforming middle class African American performance in good suburban schools, which is a real thing, with the absolute wasteland in terms of the cognitive development of the students who have no alternative but to attend the failed inner city public school system. Both are problems, but the latter is just a huge problem and I say it’s mainly a problem of failed institutions not of inadequate culture.

So Loury has constructed  an absurd dichotomy: Middle class blacks and urban blacks have weak academic performance and he tacitly agrees with Wax that the problem is cultural. But urban black academic performance is about ignorant teachers and union work rules.

Wax comes back with an answer that any teacher would thank her for (which is why I’m quoting it in full)

“I would really argue, are the teachers really not trying to teach them basic stuff, or is it that the students, for whatever reason, are just so ill-equipped when they come in, so indifferent?….We know, from Roland Fryer…that these students are coming in significantly behind their counterparts, so they’re already behind the eight ball…then to turn around and say it’s the school’s fault that they can’t learn arithmetic, or they can’t learn to read. I really question that. I just am not sure that that is the locus of the problem or even the main problem.

Of course, then she ruins all that good sense by saying that the locus of the problem is  “the abject failure of the family….just collapse.”

Little evidence for either Wax or Loury’s position exists. Roland Fryer’s research on Harlem Children’s Zone ( the 2010 version) gets a mention by Loury as evidence that charters can do a better job. That’s odd, because Fryer’s research has widely been cited as evidence that HCZ does only an adequate job as a charter school, far less impressive academically than KIPP or the others–and of course, their “improvement” has a whole bunch of caveats. But Wax appropriately observes that the results, back in 2010 were new and fadeout often occurs.  As the medium term results from HCZ show,  lottery losers indeed  “caught up” in many ways.

Loury often swats his discussion partners for “asserting from faith”, but his demonization of  “failing schools”is exactly that.   Without any evidence, and considerable evidence against his position, Loury argued two separate culprits for black underachievement, depending on the SES category. Moreover, he uses a big ol’ group of conservative shibboleths to justify his position. That is not the Loury I know from other conversations.

For entirely understandable reasons, both Loury and McWhorter see any discussion of the IQ gap as a personal affront. They both interpret “racial IQ gap” as “blacks are inferior” and I’m sure that there are people who push the topic who see it that way. But one can angrily reject average group IQ as a sign of inferior or superior status while still acknowledging the hard facts of cognitive ability–Fredrik deBoer does it all the time. Whenever they discuss race and IQ, Glenn and John jokingly  mention how smart they are–which they are! But they don’t ever acknowledge that their tremendous intellects aren’t a rebuttal to the discussion at hand.

Men are, on average, taller than women. Michelle Obama is taller than Robert Reich. Both statements are true. Why more people can’t apply this to IQ is a mystery.

I don’t know all the corners of IQ science history, but I’ll stipulate that many unpleasant people discuss IQ gaps with a disgusting glee. I find it incredibly troubling how many people use “genetically inferior” as an equivalent term for “blacks have lower IQs on average”.  But I spend too much time with students of all abilities, and all races, to consider race as the logical grouping for IQ.  I’m more interested in IQ, or more generally the cognitive ability discussion, as a starting point to correctly frame what is now cast as a public education failure.

Our schools “fail” to educate many students. We tend to focus only on the black and Hispanic students–and not as individuals, just as data points that would push the average up nearer to that of whites.  We use white average academic achievement as the standard for success.  We began comparing racial groups back when it was primarily blacks and whites, in that optimistic era after Jim Crow ended, confident that the data would show blacks catching up to whites. If blacks had just caught up, if we just had the same amount of students “failing” to be educated, we’d have moved on.

But blacks never caught up. Since at the national level, we’d begun with the presumption that the gap was caused by racist oppression, we continued with that assumption as long as possible. Over time, other culprits arose. It’s the parents. It’s the culture. It’s the schools. People who offered cognitive explanations were ostracized or at least subject to a barrage of criticism. It’s always odd to hear Loury talk about the Bell Curve era as a traumatic time, when his peers were coolly discussing racial inferiority, while almost everyone else recalls it as a time when Murray was nearly banished from the public square.

As time went on, despite our failure to close “the gap” or, more accurately, despite our failure to provide a needed education for all students, demands went up. High school transcripts got more impressive, more loaded with “college prep” courses and, in many high schools, more akin to fraudulent documents, all designed to push all kids into college in equal proportions. Colleges have obligingly obliterated requirements. Schools have increasingly come in for blame from the political and policy folk, but all attempts to penalize schools for their failure have, well, failed. The public likes their schools and the public, frankly, is more willing to consider cognitive ability relevant than the political and policy folk are.

I’m always reminding myself that most  people see it in, literally, black and white terms for very good reason. But I only discuss IQ in terms of race because society insists on grouping academic achievement by race. Ultimately, I see IQ discussion as an effort to correctly categorize the “failure” of some students, regardless of race. I see it as a way of evaluating student achievement, to see how to best educate them to the extent of their ability and interest. I am well aware that these questions are fraught with reasonable tension.

But I worry, very much, that we won’t take needed steps both in education and immigration policy (as well as a host of other areas, no doubt) if we don’t stop insistently viewing cognitive issues through the prism of race. That is, as I first wrote  here, we need to consider the possibility that the achievement “gap” is just an artifact of IQ distribution. 

I would be pleased to learn this is not the case, as I wrote then. But if in fact IQ distribution explains the variations in academic achievement we see, then we need to face up to that. This facing up does not mean “well, your people are good in sports and music”. The facing up means asking ourselves regardless of race, how do we create meaningful jobs and educational opportunities for everyone?


I hope they change their minds. Because we are putting millions of kids in schools each year, making them feel like failures. Yes, some are black. Others are white, Hispanic, Asian. And we’ve spent no time–none–trying to figure out the best ways to educate them.  We’ve only looked for causes, for the right groups to blame.

Of course,  maybe we could trade: no more talk of the achievement gap in exchange for no more talk of race and IQ. That’s not the best approach, though, because in today’s employment environment, we need to educate everyone, not write off “failures”.

But I guess Glenn and John–along with a lot of other people–are still trying to wish reality away.

Note: The piece  Philip Dick, Preschool, and Schrodinger’s Cat is still canonical Ed on IQ.

 1: since I wrote this, McWhorter published the piece in the National Review. I made some additional responses directly on Twitter.

The Reverse Drinking Game

Well, school’s about to start and I’m two thirds of a way through a piece that I probably won’t finish for a while, and I’ve decided I need something longer than Twitter but shorter than the usual me to send out when people are being annoying.

So let’s call this the reverse drinking game post. Every time someone doesn’t mention cognitive ability while discussing student outcomes, go grab a beer.

So for example, Michael Petrilli writes about the problem of proficiency:

Proficiency rates are terrible measures of school effectiveness. As any graduate student will tell you, those rates mostly reflect a school’s demographics.

Grab a beer.

When Checker Finn rebuts Petrilli, saying:

One more point: Mike began his argument with the assumption that many schools have scads of entering pupils who are already far below “proficiency” when they arrive. He had in mind middle and high schools—and there is no doubt that many such schools do indeed face a large remediation challenge with incoming eleven- through fourteen-year-olds who have already been gypped educationally in the early grades.

Crack one open.

When Richard Venning writes:

The inconvenient truth I describe below is that when we benchmark academic growth rates, the best velocity is often not adequate to catch kids up to college and career readiness within a reasonable time.


However, far too many schools also have students in poverty making low-growth rates, where they progress more slowly than their advantaged peers and that is not acceptable.

Grab two beers. Three, if you spot: “Among students that score in the bottom performance level in Colorado, the percent making adequate growth is in the single digits. The statewide goal is 100 percent. Schools with top statewide velocity for low-income students are not moving kids to proficiency within three years—and Colorado is not alone.”

When Rick Hess, Rishawn Biddle, Michael Brickman talk about lowered AP scores, the importance of entrance standards vs. the importance of high expectations, go grab a whole sixpack. Or maybe some single malt scotch.

When Jason Bedrick, Michael Petrilli, or Andrew Rotherham sneer at the public schools “failing children”, it’s time to bend an elbow.

When the primary ed school credentialing organization proudly announces that it is raising the bar on “teacher quality”, when everyone goes all atwitter about Jason Richwine‘s work on teacher cognitive ability (before he broke the rules on Hispanic cognitive ability), ask yourself why so many people are willing to discuss the impact of teacher cognitive ability on academic achievement (you mostly have to squint to find any ) but never mention student cognitive ability. But do it before you get a beer, because I find, at least, that I often start banging my head in annoyance and it’s best to do that unarmed.

When people say that income matters more than race to academic achievement, tell them they are lying or misinformed on your way to the fridge.

Tweet or email whenever you spot an opportunity to play.

Hey. Under 500 words! A new record.

Boston Charter School Study: What “Improved Scores” Look Like

Slate article Do Charter Schools Work? is a good read; I recommend it. But what I wanted to do here is point out some interesting facts in the featured study: Charter Schools and the Road to College Readiness, which is incredibly important in that it’s one of the few studies that focus on high school outcomes.

Relevant quotes:

While the students who were randomly offered a seat at these high schools graduate at about the same rate as those not offered a seat, lottery estimates show that charter enrollment produces gains on Advanced Placement (AP) tests and the SAT. Charter attendance roughly doubles the likelihood that a student sits for an AP exam and increases the share of students who pass AP Calculus. Charter attendance does not increase the likelihood of taking the SAT, but it does boost scores, especially in math. Charter school attendance also increases the pass rate on the exam required for high school graduation in Massachusetts, with especially large effects on the likelihood of qualifying for a state-sponsored college scholarship.

Estimates of the effect of charter attendance on AP scores by subject… show a large increase in the likelihood that charter applicants take tests in science, calculus, and history, three of the most commonly taken AP exams. Paralleling charter schools’ large impact on MCAS math scores, the clearest AP score gains are for calculus. Charter attendance boosts the probability of taking the AP calculus test by 21 percentage points, and appears to boost the likelihood of earning a score of at least 2 by nearly 9 points. The corresponding impact on the likelihood of earning a 3 on AP calculus is 7 percentage points, though the estimated increases in the likelihood of scoring 2 or 3 are only marginally statistically significant. Charter attendance increases test-taking in science and US history, with no corresponding impact on scores in these subjects. Charter schools have little effect on English test-taking or scores.

Although charter attendance has little effect on the rate at which applicants take the SAT, charter attendance raises the SAT scores that applicants earn on the test. In particular, coding scores as zero for non-takers, charter attendances pushes the SAT composite score (the sum of math, verbal, and writing scores) above the bottom quartile of the state composite score distribution by 11 percentage points. Gains in math contribute most to the shift in composite scores; effects on verbal and writing scores are smaller (the estimated low-end shift in verbal scores is marginally significant). Charter attendance also raises the probability that applicants earn an SAT reasoning score (the sum of math and verbal) above the state median by 13 percentage points, with math again the largest contributor to this gain.

Although charter attendance has smaller effects on verbal and writing scores, the composite SAT score gain is estimated to be a little over 100 points, a large and statistically significant result. The gain here amounts to almost one-third of a standard deviation in the US composite score distribution. The corresponding effect on the SAT reasoning score is 74 points, also a large gain.

I’m torn as to the vantage point from which to consider the SAT score increase. The “average” increase provided by test prep is between 5-10 points. But everyone knows, or should know, that if “average” were “expected”, then test prep wouldn’t have kept Washington Post Company solvent for most of the last 20 years. Most parents would be unhappy with the results (while understanding the law of averages) if their average students only improved 100 points composite, which is an average of 30 points per section. Another way of looking at this increase is to argue that 30 points per section is three times the average achieved by test prep companies. Whoohoo! Except, of course, charters had three years. Test prep companies have about 15 hours.

Of course, there’s this annoying repetition of the test prep canard:

Designed to be challenging for all students, low SAT scores are a special concern for poor and minority students. Gaps in SAT scores by race and socioeconomic status that might be attributable to family background and school quality are further accentuated by the willingness of higher income families to invest heavily in SAT preparation. (see, e.g., Bowen and Bok, 2002)

How hard is it to stop repeating utter pap? Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to use test prep than whites, although East Asians trump everyone. And here’s a table to prove it (table courtesy of Inside Higher Ed, as mentioned in the linked essay):

And until someone can explain the socioeconomic reality of poor whites outscoring high income blacks on the SAT, best not go to that well, either.

Ahem. Back to the study.

Demographics of Boston Public Schools vs. charter students:

So if I’m reading this right, the charter population is way more female, way more black, way less Hispanic and a third as Asian as the lottery losers. The drop in Asians puts the math score increase in perspective, although the study makes clear that the charter group applicants had higher scores than average. (The study ignores any detailed discussion of race.)

And what did they do, these charter schools, to teach their kids? bostonchartermethods
Taught them for more hours a day, more days in the week, with younger (which in reformspeak means much, much better) teachers and smaller classes (the lower cost per pupil probably reflects fewer special ed and ELL students, but we’ll leave that to the side for now.) Your basic No Excuses model, all the happy tunes that eduformers love to sing.

Ah, here’s the graph I was looking for:


So before I break into my rant, let me say that I was so dumbfounded by these results that I hope I read them incorrectly. I will not be embarrassed if someone points out my error, but relieved. And now, the rant.

That huge increase of 100 points composite in average SAT score translates to an average section score under 500. The Boston Charter students, on average, couldn’t place out of remedial college classes, and wouldn’t even begin to qualify for a competitive university if they weren’t black or Hispanic.

While I often complain about assumptions and conclusions in studies, I have no knowledge of methodology, so I’m going to assume that their study is perfect, and just accept the results.

Ask yourself what those kids got for all those hours of extra time, all those lost Saturdays, all those “Advanced Placement” courses that clearly were nothing more than an exercise in fraud for many students. Improvement on AP outcomes and graduation rates: almost nil. They got a few points bump on the SAT that won’t get them out of remediation, much less exempt them from the “out” of affirmative action. In abilities, they are virtually indistinguishable from the population that tried to get into the charters and failed. What they have, however, are impressive looking transcripts, because charter schools, like majority minority urban schools, are heavily invested in creating the impression of rigor.

That’s how stark, how huge, the achievement gap is, the one that reformers say they can close with school choice. Except, as this study shows, they can’t.

It’s not that the charters did poorly. It’s that the public schools, with far less seat time, no control over their population, and a far smaller percentage of kids who actually want to be educated, did pretty damn well with motivated kids in comparison to the charter schools. They don’t have terribly impressive test scores for the same reason that the charters, with all their extra advantages, don’t have impressive test scores: because black and Hispanic students have low test scores for reasons that have little to do with curriculum, expectations, or teachers.

All you reformers out there, eagerly pumping your fists at the win: The majority of these kids couldn’t break 500 on any section of the SAT. This is what you were fighting for? Or are you going to hold to some measure of consistency in your approach and castigate these charter schools for wasting taxpayer dollars, pretending to hold kids to high standards while failing miserably, fraudulently shoveling kids into AP classes they haven’t a chance of passing, and worst of all, wasting students’ time while not making any meaningful progress in eradicating the achievement gap?

Or maybe, are you going to realize that “failing schools” just have a lot of kids with low test scores because of factors outside everyone’s control?

Skills vs. Knowledge

E. D. Hirsch is all upset because teachers are deluded about the importance of knowledge (content), emphasizing skills such as critical thinking and written expression over content. A Common Core true believer, he is shocked, shocked I say! at the fact that most teachers think they are already implementing Common Core, but think its ability to impact achievement is minimal.

Fundamentally, the problem educators face is freeing themselves from the skills stranglehold. It is preventing them from understanding the Common Core standards, preventing them from meeting their own goals as professionals, and preventing them from closing achievement gaps between poor and privileged students.

We see evidence of it everywhere, especially in the MetLife survey. Nine in ten teachers and principals say they are knowledgeable about the Common Core standards, and a majority of teachers say they are already using them a great deal. At the same time, teachers, especially in later grades, are not all that confident about the effect the Common Core will have.
The fact that so many teachers (62%) say the teachers in their school are already using the Common Core standards a great deal shows that these “thought leaders” are correct: most educators remain unaware of the massive changes that fully implementing the new standards will require. But everyone has been talking about these changes for more than a year. Clearly, the message is not getting through.

I have no dog in this hunt; I emphasize content knowledge in all my teaching subjects, but think Hirsch, who believes the achievement gap can be closed, is a tad deluded himself on its magical qualities. I also agree with the utter invincibility of the teacher population when it comes to resisting changes they don’t want to make, and let it be known that I join with my brethren in this resistance, because a cold, cold day in hell it will be before, say, I teach literacy in my trig class or come up with a project-based implementation of the power laws.

But I thought this graph interesting.


Hirsch on this graph, from the 2010 Met Life Survey:

I’ll let the executives off the hook for not knowing that the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills they are after depend on the knowledge that they (largely) dismiss. The teachers ought to know better. That just 11% think knowledge of higher-level science and math are essential for college and career readiness is appalling.

Okay. So the executives AGREE with the teachers, and DISAGREE with the thought leaders. But never mind, he’ll be noble and overlook their stupidity, because they were taught using this horrible skills-based method and it apparently didn’t serve them well. Oh, wait.

And please. Can we stop pretending? Trigonometry, chemistry, physics, and calculus are utterly non-essential for success in the real world. They are only essential for signaling to colleges that the student is a smart cookie, and as Ron Unz and Chris Hayes both point out, the value in that varies based on the student race and family SES (including where Mom and Dad went to school).

So can we give it a rest on the pieties?

Of course, now that I think on it, E. D. Hirsch is a thought leader, so I guess it makes sense he’d back his own against teachers and Fortune 1000 executives.

Midterms and Ability Indicators

Again with the big monster post (Escaping Poverty has eclipsed all but the top post of my old top 6, and my total blog view count as of today is 45,134), and again with the procrastination of success. I did not watch reruns while in hiding; it was All Election All the Time, and now I’m depressed. In the VDH typology, I’m a Near Fatalist, but an optimistic one. Like Megan McArdle, I think that the demographic changes will be offset by the inability of the Dems to manage a coalition with lots of demands but little else—and yes, I think, after a while, that the producers will wander over to the Republican side. If not, I will achieve total Fatalism.

Anyway. I got unnerved because I have many new followers, and I write about many things that may bore them because I don’t just write about policy. I have two posts almost completely done (okay, I didn’t just watch elections), but was actually intimidated to post them because they are about teaching math. Am I the only writer/blogger scared of the audience?

But I just graded midterms, and I thought I would mention something that may be illustrative to the people who are unhappy with my relatively frank discussion of race. As I wrote when I originally invoked the Voldemort View, (a notion proposed by an an anonymous teacher):

My top students are white, Hispanic, black, and Asian. My weakest students are white, Hispanic, and Asian. (No, I didn’t forget a group there.) Like all teachers, I don’t care about groups. I teach individuals. And the average IQ of a racial group doesn’t say squat about the cognitive abilities and the thousand other variables that make up each individual.

I wrote this at my previous school. So here’s what’s happening at my new school, in midterm results:

Freshman Geometry

Tied top scores: African American boy, Hispanic girl, white girl. Following right behind with one fewer right answer: two white boys. These five have consistently been the top achievers. The remaining top students are a mix of white and Hispanic (there are no other African Americans).

Low scores: two white girls, South Asian boy. Three Hispanic kids are next in line, but two of them took their time and did outstandingly well for their skill level, pulling off a D+.

The Asians in my class are all south Asian, and all but one are in the bottom half of the class, although one of those is clearly under achieving.

Keep in mind, however, that all the Asian kids are in the Honors Geometry class.

Intermediate Algebra

Top score: white senior boy, right behind him was a white sophomore boy, right behind him a Chinese junior girl and a Chinese sophomore boy, in that order. My top students, taking the tougher of the two courses I teach in one class, are a mix of whites, Asians (far east, mid-East, and south), and Hispanics (two girls, both in the top half of the top group). In the second half of the class, the top students are Chinese (but remember, this puts them in the middle of overall ability) and Hispanic.

Again, this is intermediate algebra; many of the top kids are taking Alg II/Trig.

But talking about race and cognitive ability can instantly annihilate a teacher’s career because of a flawed premise. A teacher who accepts that cognitive ability is real and explains much of the achievement gap must be a racist, sexist, or both. Racists can’t properly teach because their assumptions will color their outcomes. They’ll treat the black kids like they’re stupid, favor white kids, and assume all Asian kids are awesome math machines who can’t write. The sexists will be sighing impatiently at the girls who want more context and less competition and praising the eager beaver boys who want the facts and figures and that most horrible of all horribles, The Right Answer.

So, for what it’s worth, I offer my results to dispute that premise, and to restate: I don’t teach races, I don’t teach groups. I teach individual students.

Richard Posner, Voldemortean Educational Realist

Terrible confession: I have not always been clear on the difference between Richard Posner and Kenneth Feinberg. It’s not so much that I think, “One’s a famous judge, one’s the guy who did the 9/11 settlement” as it is that I make the famous judge the guy who did the 9/11 settlement. Someone got dropped in the duplicate data key, and I think it’s Posner, because I would recognize Feinberg if I saw him on TV, but Posner doesn’t look familiar. (You’re thinking um, they’re both New Yorkers who work in the legal profession with names that seem more than a tad Jewish? But that can’t be it, because I’m very clear on who Alan Dershowitz is, to say nothing of Ruth Ginsburg.) So even though I’ve read and enjoyed articles by both, I have traditionally conflated them into one guy.

But no more. In Rating Teachers, Posner takes fewer than a three hundred words to clearly articulate the major idea of my little blog, when I can never get a single entry below a thousand words. I bow to greatness.

Finally, I am not clear what we should think the problem of American education (below the college level) is. Most children of middle-class (say upper quartile of households, income starting at $80,000) Americans are white or Asian and attend good public or private schools, usually predominantly white. The average white IQ is of course 100 and the Asian (like the Jewish) almost one standard deviation higher, that is, 115. The average black IQ is 85, a full standard deviation below the white average, and the average Hispanic IQ has been estimated recently at 89. Black children in particular often come from disordered households, which has a negative effect on ability to learn and perhaps indeed on IQ (which is only partly hereditary) as well. Increasingly, black and Hispanic students find themselves in schools with few white or Asian students. The challenge to American education is to provide a useful education to the large number of Americans who are unlikely to benefit from a college education or from high school courses aimed at preparing students for college. The need is for a different curriculum and for a greater investment in these children’s preschool environment. We should recognize that we have different populations with different schooling needs and that curricula and teaching methods should be revised accordingly. This recognition and response should precede tinkering with compensations systems.

I do not call for greater investment in preschool , because most people who hold this view believe that better preschool would close the achievement gap. It almost certainly would not. However, I do wonder if preschool that removes poor kids from their often incompetent parents and physically dangerous environments would simply better prepare them to learn to their best ability and give them more resilience, more faith in the larger world and willingness to try to play a part in it. On that basis and with that goal, I would support more preschool funding.

Other than that, I could have written this if I weren’t distressingly verbose, nowhere near as disciplined and, though it pains me to say so, not quite as smart.

And just to prove it, I’m going to recall the times I’ve said so, because otherwise my word count will fall below 1000:

The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform:

No one has ever made an effective case that non-native speakers can be educated as well as native speakers, regardless of the method used. No one has ever established that integration, racial or economic, improves educational outcomes. No one has ever demonstrated that blacks or Hispanics can achieve at the same average level as whites (or that whites can achieve at the same level as Asians, although no one gets worked up about that gap), nor has anyone ever demonstrated that poor students can achieve equally with their higher-income peers. No one has ever established that kids with IQs below 90 can achieve at the same level as kids with IQs above 100, or examined the difference in outcomes of educating kids with high vs. low motivation. And the only thing that has changed in forty years is that anyone who points this out will now be labelled elitist and racist by both sides of the educational debate, instead of just one.

Algebra and the pointlessness of the whole damn thing:

In California, at least, tens of thousands of high school kids are sitting in math classes that they don’t understand, feeling useless, understanding deep in their bones that education has nothing to offer them. Meanwhile, well-meaning people who have never spent an hour of their lives trying to explain advanced math concepts to the lower to middle section of the cognitive scale pontificate about teacher ability, statistics vs. algebra, college for everyone, and other useless fantasies that they are allowed to engage in because until our low performers represent the wide diversity of our country to perfection, no one’s going to ruin a career by pointing out that this a pipe dream. And of course, while they’re engaging in these fantasies, they’ll blame teachers, or poverty, or curriculum, or parents, or the kids, for the fact that their dreams aren’t reality.

If we could just get whites and Asians to do a lot worse, no one would argue about the absurdity of sending everyone to college.

Until then, everyone will divert themselves by engaging in this debate—which, like many kids stuck in the hell of unfair expectations, will go nowhere.

The Sinister Assumption Fueling KIPP Skeptics:

I am comfortable asserting that hours and hours of additional education time does nothing to change underlying ability. I’m not a racist, nor am I a nihilist who believes outcomes are set from birth. I do, however, hold the view that academic outcomes are determined in large part by cognitive ability. The reason scores are low in high poverty, high minority schools is primarily due to the fact that the students’ abilities are low to begin with, not because they enter school with a fixable deficit that just needs time to fill, and not because they fall behind thanks to poor teachers or misbehaving peers.

And if that’s not enough, Posner further makes my day by pointing out that not all good people are competitive, and that teaching isn’t the only job that pays everyone the same salary.

Richard Posner, I’ll never think you’re Kenneth Feinberg again.

And HT to the uber-voldemortean Steve Sailer for pointing his readers to the Posner post.

The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform

A while back*, Rick Hess told education leaders to get over their “allergy” to policy. It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about, since education leaders are, for the most part, all about policy. (Teachers are another matter; they could give three nickels for policy.)

But a closer reading reveals that Hess is chastising education leaders—who do, despite his post, involve themselves in educational policy—for not agreeing with politicians on their current policy mandates. Hess says the politicians are the heart of reason:

Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and were responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level and high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable (and laudable, even) to think you can’t simply trust the educators to do the right thing.

Gosh. Those poor elected officials, trudging along, minding their own business, forced—yea, I say forced!–into the educational arena by the sheer incompetence of schools that can’t get their kids to read at grade level. Let us all bleed for them.

But while we are slitting our veins for a few ounces, some questions: what is this “grade level” he speaks of? And what are the academic expectations of a high school graduate? In fact, when did we declare that everyone should graduate high school, and why? When did we establish guidelines of what appropriate standards are? And aren’t those….you know, it kills me to bring it up, but aren’t those state responsibilities?

Yes, yes, I can hear the reply now. Of course it’s a state responsibility, constitution, blah blah blah. In fact the high school movement, the uniquely American push to increase access to a high school education, was a local movement. But the states want federal money, so naturally the federal government has an oversight role.

But when did the feds start giving the states money for education? Well, that would be when the states started incurring costs imposed upon public schools either by federal law or federal court fiat.

First up, of course, was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s Title I, designed to improve educational outcomes for the poor. More money would help the poor and close the achievement gap, so the thinking went–and still goes, although the Coleman Report, issued a year later, established that school spending had far less to do with student outcomes than student SES and background. But the expectation was set into law—all outcomes should be equal. No research, no science, no school has ever proven this out. It was just the sort of blithe expectation we had during the civil rights era that certainly seemed to be true. Unfortunately, when that expectation didn’t prove out, no one seemed to recall that we had no proof that it could ever be true. They just looked for someone else to blame. So the federal dollars came with more and more expectations, demanding an outcome that hadn’t ever been established as realistic to start with.

But Title I was just the start. In 1974, the Supreme Court, in Lau vs. Nichols, required the schools to educate kids in their native languages (ironically, this demand originated from the Asian community; bet they’re happy about that one now!). Then the Court told the schools that they have to educate illegal immigrants in Plyler vs. Doe, denying that there might be a “compelling state interest” in educating only those here legally. Don’t forget busing, disparate impact, free and appropriate education, inclusion….they cover all these court cases in ed school, did you know?

Meanwhile, Congress is busy declaring that children with mental and physical disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education, regardless of the cost, with a guaranteed Individualized Education Plan following when IDEA is passed in 1990.

So the feds are placing increasing burdens on the local school systems, often in the form of unfunded mandates, other times adding dollars with strings of steel.

These reforms were almost exclusively driven by progressives—liberals who believe that educational inequality is caused by unequal spending, white privilege, racism, prejudice, discrimination….you know that drill, too. Progressives were intent on improving access. While it’s likely that they, too, thought that access would end the achievement gap, they adjusted quickly when that expectation didn’t prove out. By the 80s, progressives in educational policy almost entirely anti-testing. They pooh-poohed SAT scores as racist and culturally biased. They instituted the multi-culti curricum, softened analytical requirements as much as possible whilst giving lip service to that all important “critical thinking”, declared tracking or other forms of ability grouping by demonstrated ability as another means of whites maintaining their institutional privilege, and declared that academic achievement could be demonstrated in many ways. To the extent possible, they ignored or downplayed demonstrated achievement in favor of a student’s effort, community service, and dedication to social justice.

So the original federal mandates were all initiated by progressives.

In contrast, the people we now call “reformers” (that I often refer to as “eduformers”) were largely conservatives. Checker Finn, Mike Petrilli, the Thernstroms, and Diane Ravitch before her switch—all policy wonks in Republican administrations or organizations (except Rotherham worked in a Democrat administration.)

The original reform movement originated as anti-progressive reform. Bill Bennett, in many ways the ur-Reformer, began his stint in the public eye by opposing or castigating many of the progressive mandates. He did his best to end native language instruction when he was Ed Sec, was pro-tracking, against affirmative action, and often castigated teacher unions as instruments of political indoctrination. Back in the 80s and 90s, Checker Finn lambasted the anti-tracking push and derided racial or economic integration as an end to itself, arguing that the important outcome was safe schools with effective teachers, not an obsession with numerical balance. Rare were the reformers who weren’t adamantly in favor of tracking, skeptical of mainstreaming special education kids, and opposed to bilingual education in native language. Educating illegal immigrants is possibly the only area in which reformers might have originally agreed with progressives (and consequently stand in stark disagreement with many parents).

They’ve softened this approach in recent years. For example, Mike Petrilli now writes about differentiation, and can be seen here telling a clearly skeptical, but not oppositional, Checker Finn about the way that differentiation avoids the bad old days of racially segregated approach of tracking. While many reformers used to openly oppose affirmative action, now they’re just really quiet about it, or promote charters for suburban families or selective public schools, both of which are just tracking in a different form (or reform, hyuk). No reformer has ever dared take on the special education mandates and the parental torrents of rage that would turn in his direction were he to be so foolish; instead, they’ll just talk up the charters that get to skate those mandates.

So, for the first twenty to thirty years, progressives dramatically reformed public education through federal interventions. Conservatives opposed many of the initiatives. Progressives denounced opposition as racist and elitist. Conservatives tried to hold progressives responsible for these initiatives through accountability, and declared that parents needed more choice in schools, to get away from the forced control imposed by the progressive viewpoint. Progressives continued to denounce opposition as racist and elitist.

Finally, in the late 90s, conservatives figured out an effective strategy to gain support for their reforms. They took a card from the progressive deck, and demanded that the schools live up to the educational objectives the progressives had set for them. It wasn’t enough just to desegregate classes by race, income, language and learning status. The schools needed to demonstrate that they were teaching everyone equally, that there were “no excuses” for failure. Excuses were—wait for it—racist and elitist. Accountability became the club through which they could achieve choice, and choice would weaken public schools, thus weakening progressives and—not to put too fine a point on it—unions, whose political power the reformers saw as the primary opponent of their political objectives. By demanding equal performance and softening or eliminating their opposition to tracking, bi-lingual education, and all the other progressive hot spots, they could beat the progressives on their head with their own club.

They’d finally figured out the unassailable rhetorical approach. Who could oppose setting mandates requiring everyone—of all races, incomes, and abilities—achieve proficiency? Only racists and elitists. Who could oppose punishing such failure with consequences? Only racists and elitists. Who could oppose giving parents and their students a way to escape from these horrible schools that fail to educate their students to proficiency? Yes, progressives with their excuses of poverty and culture and isolation—they’re the racists. The same people who gave lip service to equality are now fighting the reformers’ efforts to achieve the reality—so not only are progressives elitist and racist, they’re hypocrites, too!

And so, the current reform movement set new federal mandates, which takes those original mandates of the 70s and 80s and shoves them down schools’ throats, hoisting any progressive opposition on its own petard. Unions who opposed accountability on behalf of the teachers, who know full well that equal outcomes are utterly impossible, could now be castigated as anti-education, fat, entitled organizations who protected all the terrible teachers preventing the nation from reaching the dream that progressives started, the dream that progressives have now abandoned, that reformers are finally helping the nation reach. Over time, this approach picked up some new democrats, who aren’t overly fond of unions and tend to sneer at the reputedly low educational achievement of teachers, and the billionaires who Diane Ravitch, now on the other side, excoriates regularly for finding a new hobby.

I’m no fan of progressives, so it’s pretty amusing watching them sputter. They can’t say, “WTF? We never thought everyone would actually achieve at the same level, dammit! We wanted everything to look equal, so that we could browbeat employers and colleges! Tests are racist!” Besides, it’s their idiotic mandates we’re all being forced to live up to now, and they had no more basis for demanding them than reformers do in enforcing them.

So here we are. Schools are stuck with the outcome of two different waves of political reform—first, the progressive mandates designed to enforce surface “equality” of their dreams, then the reforms mandated by conservatives to make the surface equality a reality, which they knew was impossible but would give them a tool to break progressives and, more importantly, unions.

From the schools’ point of view, all these mandates, progressive or “reform” are alike in one key sense: they are bent on imposing political and ideological mandates that haven’t the slightest link to educational validity.

No one has ever made an effective case that non-native speakers can be educated as well as native speakers, regardless of the method used. No one has ever established that integration, racial or economic, improves educational outcomes. No one has ever demonstrated that blacks or Hispanics can achieve at the same average level as whites (or that whites can achieve at the same level as Asians, although no one gets worked up about that gap), nor has anyone ever demonstrated that poor students can achieve equally with their higher-income peers. No one has ever established that kids with IQs below 90 can achieve at the same level as kids with IQs above 100, or examined the difference in outcomes of educating kids with high vs. low motivation. And the only thing that has changed in forty years is that anyone who points this out will now be labelled elitist and racist by both sides of the educational debate, instead of just one.

So back to Hess. Hess’s rationale for political interference starts with the premise that low test scores means failing schools. When Hess says that a politician whose district schools show half or more kids reading below grade level can’t trust educators to do the right thing, he is assuming that half or more kids reading below grade level is a bad result.

Hess is using exactly the same rationale that progressives did when they labelled schools racist/elitist/pick your ist for enrolling fewer blacks, Hispanics, poor kids or dyslexics in advanced classes. It’s the fallacy at the heart of all reform: that all kids can achieve equally.

We don’t know that this is true. In order to call test scores “low”, we assume that all populations can achieve to the same average ability. We don’t know that they can. All available evidence says that they can not, that race, special education status, and poverty are not excuses but genuine, reliable predictors of lower achievement.

But thanks to the combined efforts of progressives and eduformers and their blithe lack of interest in the validity of their expectations, schools are now stuck with mandates that force them to pretend that all students can achieve equally to the same average ability, even though no research supports this. When Virginia bit the bullet to acknowledge that race is in some way related to achievement (note: I don’t think race is a direct factor, just an unsettling proxy), they were browbeaten and hammered into backing down, although I was cheered to see they still used race for achievement goals.

Rick Hess is wrong in saying that education leaders are “allergic” to policy. They are “allergic” to mandates with no relationship to reality. And his sympathy for political leaders who are dragged in reluctantly, poor folks, to spare the kids from uncaring, dysfunctional schools is also misplaced. The problem isn’t the schools. The problem is the mandates—both progressive and reform. The problem is the imposition of political and ideological objectives into the educational world, screaming and howling and suing for five impossible things before breakfast.

*Yeah, I started writing this a month ago and got distracted.

Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing

The whole algebra debate kicked off by Hacker’s algebra essay has…..well, if not depressed me, then at least enervated me.

A recap:


We shouldn’t make everyone take algebra. No one needs algebra anyway; we never really use it. Statistics would be much more useful. Algebra is the primary obstacle to high school success; millions of kids are failing because they can’t manage this course. If we just allowed students to have an easier time in high school, more of them would graduate successfully and go on to college.

Outraged Opposition:

Algebra is essential to college success and “real life” and one of many obstacles to high school success. No one is happy with the current state of affairs, but it’s clear that kids aren’t learning algebra because their teachers suck, particularly in elementary school. We need to teach math better in the lower grades, rather than lower our standards. Besides, the corollary to “not everyone should take algebra” is “some people should take algebra” and just how are you planning to divide up those teams? (Examples: Dan Willingham, Dropout Nation)

Judicious Analysis:

Sigh. Guys, this is really a debate about tracking, you know? And no one wants to go there. While it’s true that algebra really isn’t necessary for college, colleges use success in advanced math as a convenient sorting mechanism. Besides, once we say algebra isn’t necessary, where do we stop? Literature? Biology? Chemistry? But without doubt, Hacker is right in part. Did I say that no one wants to go there? Or just hint it really, really loudly?
Examples: Dana Goldstein, Justin Baeder Iand II.

Voldemort Support:

Well, of course not everyone should take algebra, trig, or calculus. Or advanced literature. Or science. Not everyone has the cognitive ability or the interest. We should have a richer and more flexible curriculum, allowing anyone with the interest to take whatever classes they like with the understanding that not all choices lead to college and that outcomes probably won’t have the racial distributions we’d all prefer to see. Oh, and while we’re at it, we should be reviewing our immigration policies because it’s pretty clear that our country doesn’t need cheap labor right now.

Hacker, Outraged Opposition and Judicious Analysis to Voldemort Support:


So really, what else is left to say? The Judicious Analysis essays I linked above were the strongest by far, particularly Justin Baeder II.

Instead, I’m going to revisit a chart I updated from the last time I posted it:

These are California’s math scores by grade and subject, the percentage scoring basic/proficient or higher on the CST. Algebra entry points differ, so the two higher (and slightly longer) of the four short lines are the percentages of “advanced” students with those scores—those who took algebra in 7th or 8th grade. The lower, shortest lines represent the scores of students who began algebra in 9th grade.

Notice that advanced students don’t match the performance of the entire elementary school population through 5th grade. Notice, too, that the percentage of advanced students scoring proficient or higher is just around half of the population. When I just considered algebra students who began in 8th grade (see link above), the percentage never tops 50. Notice that around 40% of the kids who started algebra in 9th grade achieved basic or higher.

NAEP scores show the same thing—4th grade math scores have risen, while 12th grade scores stay flat. In fact, Daniel Willingham, who declares above that we’re doing a bad job at teaching elementary math, was considerably more sanguine about teacher quality back in December, citing the improved elementary school math performance shown in the NAEP. So the strong elementary school performance, coupled with a huge dropoff in advanced math, is not unique to California.

These numbers, on the surface, don’t support the conventional wisdom about math performance: namely, that elementary school teachers need improvement and that the seeds of our students’ failure in higher math starts in the lower grades. Elementary students are doing quite well. It’s only in advanced math, when the teachers are much more knowledgeable, with higher SAT scores and tougher credentialling tests, that student performance starts to decline dramatically.

What these numbers do suggest is that as math gets harder, fewer and fewer students achieve mastery, or anything near it. . What they suggest, really, is that math knowledge doesn’t advance in a linear fashion. Shocking news, I know. We have all forgotten the Great Wisdom of Barbie.

Break it down by race and the percentages vary, but not the pattern. I skipped Asians, because California tracks Asians by subcategory, and life’s too short. I’m going to go right out on a limb and predict that Asians did a bit better than whites.

(Note: I know it’s weird that in all cases, 9th graders in general math have nearly the same percentages as 9th graders in algebra, but it’s easily confirmed: whites, blacks, Hispanics).

Whites in the standard math track perform as well as advanced math blacks and just a bit worse than advanced track Hispanics. Sixty to seventy percent of blacks and Hispanics on the standard track fail to achieve a “basic” score.

Some people are wondering how poverty affects these results, I’m sure. Let’s check.

Hey! Look at that! The achievement gap disappears!

Just kidding. This chart shows the results of blacks and Hispanics who are NOT economically disadvantaged and whites who ARE economically disadvantaged. You can see it on the legend.

So that’s how to make the achievement gap disappear: compare low income whites to middle class or higher blacks and Hispanics and hey, presto.

And that’s all the charts for today. I’m not detail-oriented, and massaged this all in Excel. You can do your own noodling here. Let me know if I made any major errors. The 2012 results should be out in a couple weeks.

Anyway. With numbers like these, it’s hard not to just see this entire debate as insanely pointless. In California, at least, tens of thousands of high school kids are sitting in math classes that they don’t understand, feeling useless, understanding deep in their bones that education has nothing to offer them. Meanwhile, well-meaning people who have never spent an hour of their lives trying to explain advanced math concepts to the lower to middle section of the cognitive scale pontificate about teacher ability, statistics vs. algebra, college for everyone, and other useless fantasies that they are allowed to engage in because until our low performers represent the wide diversity of our country to perfection, no one’s going to ruin a career by pointing out that this a pipe dream. And of course, while they’re engaging in these fantasies, they’ll blame teachers, or poverty, or curriculum, or parents, or the kids, for the fact that their dreams aren’t reality.

If we could just get whites and Asians to do a lot worse, no one would argue about the absurdity of sending everyone to college.

Until then, everyone will divert themselves by engaging in this debate—which, like many kids stuck in the hell of unfair expectations, will go nowhere.