Friday, August 01, 2008

Education, Equity and the Family

Responding to John Curry, Sorry, Barack, but teachers aren’t the saviors you think they are . . .

Would have been nice if you could link to the Obama quote, so readers could fact-check it. But anyhow...

Quotes like that are common from politicians, not just Obama. It is usual to hear that 'teachers are the most important factor' in an education. This refrain comes from all sides of the political spectrum, and are uttered as some sort of initiation rite.

That said, from everything I've seen or heard, the best predictor of educational outcome is socio-economic status. Poverty is routinely related to health and nutritional issues, which in turn have a direct impact on capacity. Children living in impoverished homes are usually subject to different sets of expectations, which in turn impacts their motivations and drivers. Children living in impoverished homes will be more likely to work, more likely to walk rather than ride or drive, more likely to have to do things by hand rather than use a tool, all of which impact the amount of time they can spend learning. And children living in impoverished homes typically have access to far fewer educational resources outside the home.

All of this is well known, which it is why it is no surprise to see those countries that address social and economic inequities in society, particularly as they affect learning, to have the highest scores in international testing, such as PISA, to have the highest levels of educational attainment, and to be centres of economic stability and innovation.

The cynical me thinks that politicians say 'teachers are the most important factor' because they can then address simple factors, like funding for teachers, or testing to evaluate the result of teaching, instead of addressing the really expensive and complex factors that impact on education.

So - when a person criticizes Obama for saying 'teachers are the most important factor', I have to ask, is it because they are prepared to address, on a society-wide level, the inequities that impair a child's ability to learn?

It's all very well to day "it's up to the family" - but from where I sit I observe that children don't choose their families, that many families are dysfunctional, and that many children have partial families or no families at all. The fact is, though the family forms the basic social unit for many, it by no means forms the basic social unit for all, and is in many ways insufficient to address the factors that impact learning.

When 50 million Americans, for example, are without health care insurance, you can't address inequities in health care simply by saying "the family should provide it." That is tantamount to washing your hands of the whole issue, shrugging your shoulders and saying, "well I guess nothing can be done." The reality is that many *families* are suffering from poor or nonexistent health care, and are passing this on to their children.

I have no problem with a person focusing their beliefs and their value system on the family - but if this translates into a value system that does nothing for impoverished families, or does nothing for people without families, well then I see the focus on family as nothing but a well-developed excuse system.

14 comments:

  1. The Obama quote looks accurate to me, according to Time's transcript of the speech.

    During my third (and final) year of public school teaching, we started providing free breakfast to all students. We already had about 98% of the students on free or reduced lunches, so we were already providing one meal a day. It made a big difference to provide that second one though. Most of these kids wouldn't have had breakfast otherwise. How can you expect a student to concentrate at school when there's no food for them at home?

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  2. The link to the entire talk is at the bottom of the post.

    I agree with you, Stephen, it does seem easy to put it back on the family, especially when I don't offer a solution. And I didn't for a reason: I don't have one. I don't know how we fix the problem.

    My point with the post was two fold. First, teachers have enough to do that they don't need to raise everyone else's children. They need to spend time convering content.

    Second, I get frustrated when I see politicians pander to their audience rather than take a real stance. I think Mr. Obama was "playing to the audience" and that serves no one. Now, to his credit (I have reread the speech two or three times to see if I think I was off base), he did say: "But there is no program and no policy that can substitute for a parent who is involved in their child’s education from day one, who makes sure that child is in school on time, helps them with their homework, and attends those parent-teacher conferences; who is willing to turn off the TV once in awhile, put away the video games, and read to their child. Responsibility for our children’s education starts at home. We have to set high standards for them, and spend time with them, and love them. We have to hold ourselves accountable." But again, it's playing both sides of the coin, and that just frustrates me.

    At any rate, there is no easy solution. But my point is that Mr. Obama saying that teachers are "the single most important factor in determining a child's achievement"is wrong, and I disagree with him.

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  3. That said, from everything I've seen or heard, the best predictor of educational outcome is socio-economic status.

    If we're going to get all giddy about correlations, there's an even better predictor of educational outcomes:

    According to the APA, standardised measures of intelligence correlate at levels of .50 with school performance, .55 with years of schooling, .54 with work performance, and –.19 with juvenile delinquency. No other psychological variable is capable of producing these correlations (Neisser et al., 1996).

    Of course parental SES and children's IQ scores themselves are also correlated:

    These two predictors (IQ and parental
    SES) are by no means independent of one another, the correlation
    between them is around .33 (White, 1982).


    I wonder why you forgot to mention this correlation. Perhaps it was incovenenient to your narrative.

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  4. > I wonder why you forgot to mention this correlation.

    Even supposing this was relevant (which it's not) we need to ask, in turn, what predicts IQ. Could it be the same sort of things that predict learning?

    IQ isn't something tangible, that we can observe directly. Nor is it a variable we can control directly ("hey, that kid's not learning, toss on a few more IQ points, will ya?). It's a great distraction, a fiction.

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  5. Even supposing this was relevant (which it's not) we need to ask, in turn, what predicts IQ. Could it be the same sort of things that predict learning?

    What predicts IQ? That's simple - the IQ of your parents. See here for more:

    The estimates from both cohorts are consistent and indicate that 70 percent of the variance in IQ in these populations is accounted for by genetic variation.


    IQ isn't something tangible, that we can observe directly.

    Neither is the concept of love. Can you hold love in your hand and turn it over to examine it? Can you see love with your own eyes? No, you can't. Does that mean that love doesn't exist? Can you measure love indirectly? You sure can. The same holds true for IQ. We see how IQ affects people's lives, in terms of education, their health outcomes, their likelihood of running afoul of the law, their job performance, etc. We also see IQ having effects on tests which measure reaction time or on reverse digit span tests.

    Nor is it a variable we can control directly ("hey, that kid's not learning, toss on a few more IQ points, will ya?). It's a great distraction, a fiction.

    Well, there are plenty of variables that a researcher can't control directly. Hey, this woman has breast cancer, change her into a man and let's see if the breast cancer changes form or disappears.

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  6. Let's change the variable from IQ to SES:

    Even supposing this was relevant (which it's not) we need to ask, in turn, what predicts [SES]. Could it be the same sort of things that predict learning?

    [SES] isn't something tangible, that we can observe directly. Nor is it a variable we can control directly ("hey, that kid's not learning, toss on a few more [SES] points, will ya?). It's a great distraction, a fiction.

    Your argument still holds.

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  7. > Let's change the variable from IQ to SES

    You perhaps can maintain that poverty is an unobservable fiction. I can't.

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  8. >Neither is the concept of love.

    I am not attempting to draw a correlation between love and educational outcomes.

    Were someone to do so, I would offer the same criticism as I do regarding IQ.

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  9. What you are observing are traits and characteristics associated with poverty, not the abstract notion of poverty itself. And, as you know poverty is not the same as SES as you originally argued. Nice try though.

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  10. > Nice try though.

    Pretty lame response, consisting of misdirection. About what I expected.

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  11. I'm not so sure your three conclusory responses, including a not-so-subtle shift in argument, a distinction without a difference, and a quick run for the door qualifies as a rigorous defense.

    I thought you used to take pride in defending your positions to the bitter end?

    has it come to this already?

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  12. You responded by immediately changing he subject. I see no reason to treat such a response seriously or in detail. Now you're continuing to carp in the manner of the 'last post wins' troll agitator. I don't play that game either, and won't respond to further provocations.

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  13. Hello Mr. Downes,

    I would have sent this by email but I couldn't find your address. That said, I am trying to get as many eyes as possible to look at my idea at idealblog.com as I think properly using out of school time is the best chance for kids right now... trying to change the school system is a long and arduous process, and I'm not willing to keep losing students while people try to figure out how to fix things.

    If I earn enough votes and win the contest, I will get $10,000 towards starting it. This is incredibly important as it will make it much easier for me as a recent college grad to pay back loans while working full time on the project.

    My idea has already been written about at D-Ed Reckoning (http://d-edreckoning.blogspot.com/2008/08/bronze-where-least-motivated-find-will.html) and at the Core Knowledge blog (http://www.coreknowledge.org/blog/2008/08/01/vote-for-bronze/), but every bit of exposure I get will be extremely helpful. So if you can make an announcement at your blog, I would really appreciate it. Thank you so much for your time.

    Carol

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  14. I didn't change the subject; I merely pointed out that there was a variable that was an even better predictor than SES which you claimed was the best predictor. Then I pointed out an infirmity in your narrative since IQ and SES are correlated and that fixing the SES problem isn't necessarily going to fix the IQ problem.

    It is of course your choice whether you respond to arguments but don't respond by mischaracterizing my arguments.

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I welcome your comments - I'm really sorry about the moderation, but Google's filters are basically ineffective.