Won’t someone think of the children?

by CarlD

The following has been lurking in my drafts queue for quite awhile and as you’ll see from its apologies it has resisted completion and posting before. The new post at Ktismatics on the crappiness of teacher effectiveness evaluations is shaking it loose, for what it’s worth.

When we renounce learning we have no troubles… when there is abstinence from action, good order is universal. — Laozi

I’ve been collecting materials for an education post, but I’ve been too busy to pull them together and they’re starting to exceed both the scope of appropriate bloggery and my powers of synthesis. So rather than hold out for a perfectly polished and coherent analysis I’m just gonna rero this stuff with as much connective tissue as I can concoct and hope it’s stimulating for thought and discussion.

Speaking of which see two good posts on education, coming from two different angles: Undine at Not of General Interest on educational consultants and vacuous stereotypes of college faculty as pedagogy-challenged content experts; and Crooked Timber on schools that beat the odds.

In the comments to her post Undine expresses a common and understandable bad attitude about ‘educational experts’ patronizing content experts with their ‘one best way to teach’. The idea is that we know our stuff but we don’t know how to teach it. Do we really want to know what works best? (Assuming it really does, or if it does it’s translatable, which is the topic of the Crooked Timber post.) Undine echoes the students in our classes nicely by invoking ‘fun’: “the ‘stifling creativity’ part is what I fear most. If you can’t change anything [about your classes], a lot of the fun of doing it goes out of the process. I think about that sometimes with the elementary school teachers who are given scripts which they must follow word-for-word and minute-by-minute.”

Agreed, but what are these oppressive, formulaic practices for? To intercept the really bad outcomes, knowing that lots of teachers (and students) are bad and can do great harm while only a few teachers (and students) are good and will find a way to be so no matter what. Standards don’t raise the bar at the top, they raise it at the bottom. The top is by definition non-standard.

From the recent widely-discussed article by Elizabeth Green in the New York Times Magazine we learn that students learn better from good teachers than from bad ones. Thank you, science. Exemplary researcher and education-industrial-complex-entrepreneur Doug Lemov finds that key strategies, as gathered from effective teachers themselves, mostly boil down to what’s often called ‘classroom management’, or what I’ll call attention-wrangling: effective teachers are good at wrangling their students’ attention. Keys: giving/getting attention; ‘knowledge for teaching’; taking the perspective of the other (teacher reaches out to student’s perspective while teaching student how to reach out to hers); resilience/tolerance for failure, keeping at it until the click; dog whisperer quiet authority. Stand still while giving instructions. Really? Students are easily distractable and have short attention spans. Their problem? Teacher’s problem? Pretend to teach/learn – inflate grades to cover? Or teach students how to pay attention/focus?

If it’s the teacher’s problem, how do they learn to be the solution? Do they always need someone else (Hitler) to wrangle their attention? Persistent elite of attention-givers.

Of course education is a good thing and more of it is generally better than less of it. But there’s only so much education can do. It’s not the solution to all problems, or even part of the solution to some we throw it at. For example in a social order in which some people give orders and some people take them, some serve and others are served, some make messes and others clean them up, and parents are allowed to pass advantages on to their children, education is unable to fundamentally alter the playing field. If everyone got a college education, we’d have college-educated janitors. If everyone got a Harvard education, we’d have Harvard-educated janitors.

The pyramid is smaller at the top than at the bottom. As long as there’s a pyramid it has to be staffed somehow. People toward the top will not be willing to give up their positions and will enjoy disproportionate access to the means of keeping them and passing them down to their children. If education is historically part of those means but becomes equally available to everyone, this elite will simply use other mechanisms to staff their positions (as they already do). There doesn’t have to be a conspiracy or even evil intent to accomplish this, just people who care about their kids and want to keep what they have. Given this fact, and that most jobs farther down the pyramid benefit little from advanced learning, it may not be the best allocation of scarce community resources to try to give everyone a college education, or even a really good secondary education.

We spend so much on educating people who don’t ‘need’ to be educated and talk about doing even more of that every election cycle, as if it would obviously be good and helpful, because this is part of the ideological apparatus of the manufacture of consent in a mass democracy. Making education available to all creates the impression of fairness in pyramid-staffing, and possibly even conceals the structurality of the pyramid altogether, as if with the right education and a little personal grit everyone would be President or at least a Fortune 500 CEO, and win American Idol to boot. Of course beyond this theater of democracy education does a number of arguably-good things, like employing lots of women and minorities and keeping kids off the streets. It actually does these things better the less efficient it is, which may have something to do with why we’re always fiddling with it.

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7 Comments to “Won’t someone think of the children?”

  1. Good stuff. I’ll have to come back later, but for now…

    “we learn that students learn better from good teachers than from bad ones. Thank you, science.”

    The NYTimes article observes that good teachers’ students improve by as much as one grade level more than than poor teachers — a finding I’d read elsewhere. But that’s misleading: every bell curve has extreme high and low outliers. Most teachers in the middle, with minimal differences in student outcomes. Those are the findings I cited in my post: based on empirical findings, chopping off the bottom 25% of teachers would improve students’ average standardized test scores by a minuscule amount — something like 0.03 standard deviations, which is less than trivial. And rigorous national re-accreditation programs that model high outliers’ teaching methods don’t show improvement in teacher performance. In short, I’m one of the skeptics that the NYTimes reporter mentions, but I don’t believe that performance-based financial incentives would do the trick either.

  2. There are empirical data relevant to your claims of economic class rigidity, Carl, and from a quick eyeballing I’d say you’re more pessimistic than is warranted. The Wikipedia entry on “economic mobility” summarizes findings from and provides links to several studies. To be sure, “moving on up” from one generation to the next is blocked by rigidity, but the barriers are permeable.

    The first study I looked at, conducted in 2007 by the Brookings Institution (I know, I know), compared parents’ income in the ’60s with their children’s income in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Of children born in the bottom income quintile, 42% stayed at the bottom, 23% moved up one notch, and 38% moved up 2 or more slots. Of children born in the top income quintile, 39% stayed at the top, 23% moved down one notch, and 38% moved down 2 or more slots. So while birthright is clearly a major factor determining children’s economic futures, there is significant maneuverability.

    The question on the table is whether getting a college degree provides the poor kid with a “badge” for moving up a notch or two. As we dicussed on one of my prior posts, a bachelor’s degree-holder earns 85% more than a high school diploma-holder. This relative advantage bestowed by higher education turns out to hold for blacks/latinos: they make 30% less on average than whites, but the degree-holding minorities still earn 85% more than their h.s.-educated counterparts.

    Now I see on the Wiki entry a reference to the kind of study I’d been seeking: income of poor kids who earn a college degree. It turns out that only 16% of them stayed in the bottom income quintile, compared with the previously-noted 42% who stayed at the bottom overall. So it seems that higher education does give the children of the poor a significant opportunity boost. However, as I noted in that earlier post, high-aptitude poor kids are only half as likely to go to college as their rich high-aptitude counterparts. This gap will almost surely widen as state funding for college students goes down and tuition prices go up.

    I want to look at this and other studies in more detail. One of them shows that US economic mobility is less than that of all first-world countries except England.

  3. This is the great gamble of our system, John. It’s a Ponzi scheme. You can get a class hierarchy to look permeable if you can sustain enough economic growth that new opportunities are constantly opening up. It’s not that elites are ever falling, but that recruits are being sucked up into new space. So how do we keep the pyramid expanding? Globalization is the short answer – by sucking resources out of the rest of the world. This is why our imperialism is so important, and this is why our civilization has a looming horizon just like all the other expansion-driven empires.

  4. While I understand your Ponzi scheme thought, I’m not sure how it applies to the studies I’ve cited. The main issue you raised in your post isn’t absolute economic growth from one generation to the next, but the relative inter-generational stability of class boundaries. If it were just a matter of opening up new opportunities, then those at the top would stay at the top while some from the next tier down would move up a notch. But the empirical data show that it’s more fluid than that: 60% of those who grew up in top-tier families actually dropped down 1 or more notches — which also means that 60% of the top-tier slots go to people who didn’t grow up at the top of the pyramid.

    You can say that if everyone gets a college degree than the children of janitors will just be better-educated janitors than their parents. But we’re a long way from that scenario, and the financial boost provided by a college degree is still worth as much as it was a generation ago if not more, even as the percentage of people with college degrees increases. The major obstacle I see from the empirical studies I’ve seen is that the children of the poor don’t have access to college and the economic boost it provides, while the children of the rich do. The same percentage of poor kids with high SATs go to college is the same as that of rich kids with low SATs.

  5. I’m not saying that equal access to college would level the playing field entirely; it’s the relationship between poverty, school, and income that’s in question. You’ve pointed to habitus, whereby one’s place in the classist social structure both shapes and perpetuates itself through class-specific subjectivity. This effect isn’t only social; it’s also biological. In my last post but one I looked at some research demonstrating that poverty suppresses the expression of genetic predisposition toward the kinds of intelligence measured on IQ and college aptitude tests. That suppression of innate aptitude, rather than lower innate capability, is why poor kids tend to score lower on these tests than rich kids. To me the implication is that poor college kids are more likely to benefit from an intensive immersion into the upper-class realms — e.g., private colleges with lots of student-teacher interaction — than are rich kids. But of course the opposite is what happens: rich kids’ parents can buy the low student-teacher ratios and the ongoing socialization among kids from their own privileged social class.

  6. Yup, I agree with that. Given that the poor kids’ habitus and perhaps aptitude suppression makes them functionally ‘unteachable’ in less intensive environments.

    But now we’re into a ‘culture of poverty’ sort of argument that stirs up counterclaims of blaming the victim and elitism. I’ll cop to both, in the more nuanced sense that from moment to moment the kids really are resistant to education in self-defeating ways, and the elite skills/knowledge they are resisting are not just contingent class preferences but actual valuable human accomplishments.

    In a more classically structural sense, however, it’s reasonable for the masses at the fat end of the class system to doubt that any elevator offered them by The Man is going to go to the top floor for more than a few class renegades. It’s also reasonable for them to look at, say, the lives of middle-grade urban professionals in Boulder CO or Raleigh NC and say, What, I’m supposed to put myself out for that?

  7. There’s rigidity built into the economic hierarchy. Even the semi-permeable boundaries between strata don’t eliminate the pyramid; rather, they demonstrate that the pyramidal structure is stronger than the individual stones. The top of the pyramid, while clearly preferable to the bottom, might not be so great either. And the educational system consists of an array of chisels, pulley, cranes, and other tools for building and maintaining the pyramid. So what sort of education might make sense if it weren’t coopted by the pyramid? Please limit your answer to 200 words or less.

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