Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Must Read Education Story

Paul Tough in the New York Times magazine has written a must read piece on the state of the Education debate today. He provides as clear an overview on No Child Left Behind, the achivement gaps between students of various backgrounds, Charter schools and the state of the current reform efforts and the issues surrounding it. I highly recommend the whole thing to get a grasp on what the stakes are here.

A few things jumped out at me in my first read through. Tough highlights the conclusion of research that tried to get a handle on why some students achieve more than others. This passage is a nice summary of the dual nature of hte achievement gap question:

The issue was complicated by the fact that there are really two overlapping test-score gaps: the one between black children and white children, and the one between poor children and better-off children. Given that those categories tend to overlap — black children are three times as likely to grow up in poverty as white children — many people wondered whether focusing on race was in fact a useful approach. Why not just concentrate on correcting the academic disadvantages of poor people? Solve those, and the black-white gap will solve itself.
There had, in fact, been evidence for a long time that poor children fell behind rich and middle-class children early, and stayed behind. But researchers had been unable to isolate the reasons for the divergence. Did rich parents have better genes? Did they value education more? Was it that rich parents bought more books and educational toys for their children? Was it because they were more likely to stay married than poor parents? Or was it that rich children ate more nutritious food? Moved less often? Watched less TV? Got more sleep? Without being able to identify the important factors and eliminate the irrelevant ones, there was no way even to begin to find a strategy to shrink the gap.

Tough provides a nice overview of the most important studies and their conclusion on why kids are less or more prepared to succeed in school, and its not as simple as rich or poor or black or white:

What’s more, the kinds of words and statements that children heard varied by class. The most basic difference was in the number of “discouragements” a child heard — prohibitions and words of disapproval — compared with the number of encouragements, or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. Hart and Risley found that as the number of words a child heard increased, the complexity of that language increased as well. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another — all of which stimulated intellectual development.

Hart and Risley showed that language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and academic success later on in a child’s life. Hearing fewer words, and a lot of prohibitions and discouragements, had a negative effect on I.Q.; hearing lots of words, and more affirmations and complex sentences, had a positive effect on I.Q. The professional parents were giving their children an advantage with every word they spoke, and the advantage just kept building up.
In the years since Hart and Risley published their findings, social scientists have examined other elements of the parent-child relationship, and while their methods have varied, their conclusions all point to big class differences in children’s intellectual growth. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a professor at Teachers College, has overseen hundreds of interviews of parents and collected thousands of hours of videotape of parents and children, and she and her research team have graded each one on a variety of scales. Their conclusion: Children from more well-off homes tend to experience parental attitudes that are more sensitive, more encouraging, less intrusive and less detached — all of which, they found, serves to increase I.Q. and school-readiness. They analyzed the data to see if there was something else going on in middle-class homes that could account for the advantage but found that while wealth does matter, child-rearing style matters more

These studies challenges, or at least adds depth, to many of the broad, simplistic arguments that we all tend to apply to education such as Racism, poverty, funding inequities, not to mention the IQ issues that have arisen, most notably since the publication of the Bell Curve

As far as I can tell, these studies seem to align with the test results, particulary in reading scores, where you would expect these language issues to have the greatest impact. That impact is often referred to as "Social Capital", the advantages students carry with them on the first day of school, as opposed to other students who are less successful. These resulst do not neccesarily debunk or fatally undermine arguments that emphasize the impact of poverty, racial discrimination or other related ideas. But it does seem to challenge the tendency to compress those inherently complex notions into tools to dismiss arguments we do not like or appear at first blush to be politically unpalatable. I think the IQ/race arguments that some people attribute to the Bell Curve suffer the most, since IQ does not seem to be the ultimate determining factor according to the research Tough cites. Rather, it appeared to be one of several outcomes that affected ultimate education success (just for the record, I'm not a fan of the arguments pushed by Murray in the Bell Curve concerning social policy or policy in general.)

Tough proceeds to the next logical step in the piece, how do we address these problems and reform our current system of eduction to accomplish whatever strategy we decide on. I plan on highlighting various elements of this piece in future posts. But read the piece and offer your comments on the research issues. Did it surprise you? Do you vehmently object to their conclusions? Do you agree?

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