Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Saturday, April 30, 2016

My apology to the k-12 system

On any given day, when students are staring at a diagram and not getting that when there's a right triangle you need to use trig functions, I might start cursing the k-12 system and proclaim my desire to reanimate Stalin so he can deport all of our mis-educators to Siberia.  When native English speakers from middle-class suburban backgrounds can't get their subjects and verbs to agree, there's a good chance that I'll call for high school English teachers to be sent to North Korea so that they can starve.  But those are emotional responses.  In my more rational moments, I know that teachers have far less influence on students than their families and the wider culture, and that teachers cannot simply fail vast numbers of students without incurring the wrath of school boards and legislators.

I rarely like the NYT Education Section, but this article and the associated charts are priceless.  The charts clearly show that factors contributing to socioeconomic status (including race) are major determinants of student success (or lack thereof).  Schools are limited more by their inputs than their practices.  (And, FYI, in a footnote the article says that socioeconomic status, hereafter abbreviated SES, was measured by "income, the percentage of parents with a college degree, the percentage of single parents, poverty, SNAP and unemployment rates".)

One particularly important thing about this analysis is that it doesn't just compare districts with each other, it also compares racial groups within districts.  In the second chart, black, white, and Hispanic students within the same districts are compared.  (Asians are left out because this is a nationwide analysis and in most districts there are too few of them to make for valid comparisons.)  Besides showing that blacks and Hispanics are disadvantaged, it also shows that they tend to perform at levels comparable to other members of the same SES groups in other districts.  Yes, there are racial gaps even after controlling for other aspects of SES, but the important thing about breaking it down by race is that within a district black, white, and Hispanic students will usually NOT be of the same SES.  If you didn't factor that in, you might wonder whether SES variables were actually telling you something about the schools themselves (via funding and local taxes) rather than the students that those schools receive. But students from different SES groups in the same district perform more similarly to kids in other districts with similar SES rather than kids in the same district but from different strata of society.

Now, the third chart does show that racial gaps persist even within the same SES, and that's an ugly aspect of US history and culture that we need to confront.  But just as measurable non-racial aspects of SES are beyond the ability of schools to single-handedly correct for, so are the sad fruits of America's continuing racial inequities.  I don't claim to know what the full solution is, and I freely recognize that schools can play their part, but it's only a part.

Anyway, this means three things, one of which I can use as an excuse and the others of which I will just have to accept:  On the one hand, my students are the way that they are for reasons that go well beyond any particular failings of their k-12 teachers.  On the other hand, at least it means that nobody can fault me.  But it also means that I am doomed to spend another 30 years shepherding people through the system without seeing them improve as much as I would hope, and without seeing most  of them perform at a particularly high intellectual level.  I am as limited by my inputs as the k-12 system is by its inputs.  On the other hand, it also means that maybe my colleagues are right to focus their attention on "special programs."  Most people will not beat the odds (that's the definition of the odds, after all) so maybe the only source of satisfaction is in focusing on anecdotes.

Finally, as informative as this NYT Education article was, it's still a NYT Education article.  They can't resist the temptation to find The Fix.  They note that This One School District in New Jersey seems to have beaten the odds.  The fact that they only found one, in an analysis of thousands of districts, really ought to tell you that maybe there are not magical solutions, but instead they spend the last few paragraphs going on about how great this school district is and wondering if there's a lesson that can be learned and scaled.  I doubt it, but I pity the k-12 teachers who will get to be subjected to workshops on the Best Practices from This One District.  Just as the NYT helps me finally get over my desire to see k-12 teachers suffer, it also proposes a new way to make them suffer.  Thanks, NYT.  Thanks a lot.

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