What Explains Differences in Student Achievement?

Researchers commonly associate family income with student achievement. However, a contrarian, Harvard’s Paul Peterson, argues teacher quality, school accountability, and school choice have bigger causal impacts than family income.

Peterson’s analysis challenges the Broader, Bolder Approach (BBA) to educational reform that has been advanced by a group of education scholars, teacher union leaders, and non-profit groups. The BBA recommends that proposals to enhance teacher quality, school accountability, and student choice be dropped in favor of policies that would redistribute income and provide support services to families outside the regular school day.

BBA advocates state, “Weakening the link between income and achievement is the fundamental challenge facing America’s education policy makers.” Peterson acknowledges the connection between income and student performance, but claims most of it is not causal, but due to other factors. He cites a study by Julia Isaacs and Katherine Magnuson (Brookings Institution, 2011), that examines an array of family characteristics – such as race, mother’s and father’s education, single parent or two-parent family, smoking during pregnancy – on school readiness and achievement. The Brookings study finds that the distinctive impact of family income is just 6.4 percent of a standard deviation, generally regarded as a small effect. Peterson also calls attention to earlier research by Susan Mayer, former dean of the Harris School at the University of Chicago, which also found that the direct relationship between family income and education success for children varied between negligible and small.

Peterson says, “A better case can be made that any increase in the achievement gap between high- and low-income groups is more the result of changing family structure than of inadequate medical services or preschool education.” In 1969, 85 percent of children under the age of 18 were living with two married parents; by 2010, that percentage had declined to 65 percent.  The median income level of a single-parent family is just over $27,000 (using 1992 dollars), compared to more than $61,000 for a two-parent family; and the risk of dropping out of high school increases from 11 percent to 28 percent if a white student comes from a single-parent family instead of a two-parent family.  For blacks, the increment is from 17 percent to 30 percent, and for Hispanics, the risk rises from 25 percent to 49 percent.

Peterson claims that BBA proposals such as expanded social services, preschool, and summer programs, ignore the many hours children spend at school and amount to a “potpourri of non-educational services (that) have never been shown to have more than modest effects on student achievement.” He argues that merit pay, school vouchers, and student and school accountability have been shown to have had equivalent or larger impacts. For example, school accountability initiatives have raised student performance by 8 percent of a standard deviation. Initiatives to improve teacher quality have the potential of raising student performance by 10 to 20 percent of a standard deviation.

Peterson is probably cherry-picking studies whose findings align with his conservative political ideology. Those of us on the left do that to our detriment at times. For lack of a shorter, catchier term, call it “selective perception for findings that affirm our preconceived beliefs.”

Except for his emphasis on teacher quality, I’m not buying what Peterson is selling. Among other research challenges, it’s next to impossible to isolate the variables he values most—merit pay, school vouchers, and student and school accountability. It’s possible that the BBA-ers’ analysis, which I’m more sympathetic to, is similarly compromised by political ideology. This isn’t a sexy debate, but it’s a very important one because public resources are increasingly scarce and the outcome impacts all of us directly or indirectly.

Most likely, this is a case of the truth being somewhere in the middle—just like it’s “nature and nurture” not “nature versus nuture,” inside and outside-of-school factors combine to explain significant differences in student achievement.

The Achievement Gap—Turns Out Family Income Trumps Race

Increasingly, the widening gap between rich and poor is in the news. Despite the complexity of the problem, and the fact that inequality has steadily worsened over time, expectations for solving the problem unfairly rest on teachers. Teachers are expected to help African-American and Latino students achieve at similar levels as white and Asian-American ones so that we can compete in the global economy and maintain our standard of living. The repeated refrain to teachers is “close the achievement gap”.

Now social scientists are finding gaps in academic achievement are tied much more significantly to differences in family income.

As reported on in the New York Times recently.

Researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.

Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist, is the author of a study that found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.

In another study, by researchers from the University of Michigan, the imbalance between rich and poor children in college completion — the single most important predictor of success in the work force — has grown by about 50 percent since the late 1980s.

The changes are tectonic, a result of social and economic processes unfolding over many decades. The data from most of these studies end in 2007 and 2008, before the recession’s full impact was felt. Researchers said that based on experiences during past recessions, the recent downturn was likely to have aggravated the trend.

Nevermind that the problem is complex and it’s completely unrealistic to expect teachers to close the achievement gap on their own. If you’re a teacher expect the “close the achievement gap” mantra to be updated.  In the updated version teachers will be expected to help students from poor, mostly single parent homes (or series of apartments or homeless shelters) achieve at similar levels as middle-income and well-to-do students.

The Coming Ed Tech Tidal Wave

Will smart phones eliminate the digital divide? That’s the title of an interview article with Elliot Soloway in The Journal Digital Edition. Here’s a video version of the same content. And finally, here’s his company’s website with a “contact us” tab in the upper right.

I don’t know enough about Soloway to know if he genuinely cares about improving teaching and learning or if he’s simply out to enrich himself.

Of course already extensive cell phone usage among young people is going to increase over time, but that doesn’t mean every K-12 student in the U.S. will be using a cell phone for educational purposes within five years. That’s his claim, but more accurately I suspect it’s his hope because he just happens to have created a company that outfits local districts and schools with personal cellphone learning devices.

Unfortunately, I can’t find anywhere on his website where I can place a bet on his claim. So maybe he’s just blowing smoke. I’d like to put $1k into escrow based on my belief that there will be at least one student somewhere in the U.S. in September of 2015 that isn’t using a cellphone device in their classroom. Maybe a kindergartner at a Waldorf School somewhere in Vermont?

The larger question posed by Soloway’s snake oil is whether more personal technology in the classroom is going to translate into achievement gains. The burden is on the techies to explain why that might be true. Soloway’s argument is extremely weak and only adds to my skepticism that personal technology is a panacea for improving teaching and learning.

An even more pressing question is whether more personal technology in the classroom is going to reduce the achievement gap. Again, the tech zealots have to do a much better job explaining why that might be true than Soloway does in the linked material above.

The achievement gap exists mostly as a result of outside of school factors. Uneven teacher quality also plays a large part. Soloway is silent on both of those essential factors.

Teachers and parents have to be on guard against tech salespeople who are desperate for a chunk of the textbook millions that will be increasingly up for grabs.  Headlines like this, “Georgia State Senator Hopes to Replace Textbooks with iPads” are going to be increasingly common.

At school board and related meetings a healthy skepticism requires us to ask the following types of questions:

• How will the personal technology device you’re selling improve the quality of teaching?

• How will it help students develop 21st century job and citizenship skills and sensibilities?

• Will it reduce the achievement gap? If so, how?

• What unintended negative consequences have you discovered through pilot studies and what are you doing to mitigate those things?

• If our district or school adopts your gadget, how much money does your company and your employees and you stand to make?

• If we adopt your device, what will you do to restrict image advertisement and direct marketing of commercial products to our students?

• If we adopt your device, how can we be assured you won’t try to influence the content of our curriculum?

Teacher Merit Pay 1

First things first, what’s the problem we’re trying to fix? Arne Duncan, as a high-profile representative of conventional wisdom, would probably answer this way. “The problem is motivating teachers to work harder so that we can close the achievement gap between more and less wealthy students, improve graduation rates, and hold off our traditional economic rivals, Japan and Germany, and our emerging ones, India and China.”

So here are the assumptions: 1) teachers don’t work hard; 2) because teachers don’t work hard, we have a pernicious achievement gap; 3) schools exist to help us maintain our relative advantage in the global economic race.

Conventional wisdom suggests teachers don’t work hard because their pay is predetermined based upon their educational credentials and years of service. That combined with tenure translates into educational malaise. This is a deeply held view by many Americans who view business model principles as immutable.

Business model peeps reason schools are like car dealerships and fast food restaurants. There’s no point being sentimental about shuttered dealerships and restaurants because they are a natural byproduct of intense free market competition. Keep your consumer eyes on the prize, a wide choice of affordable, high quality cars/food.

If unfettered competition is the economic magic bullet, no reason it can’t be the educational one too. Schools in a given locale don’t fear one another enough nor do teachers within individual schools. The proliferation of student test scores enable us to keep score between schools and teachers within individual schools.

Before I proceed, is that the problem merit-based teacher pay is supposed to fix?