Thursday, December 21, 2006

Schools, witches, and jock-ocracy

So, this article a fairly long, fairly biased rant against the current U.S. education system. Now, I'm by no means of a system did the Simpson's put it?..."smart kids powerless before mindless jock-ocracy," (sic) but this author takes things a little far. Here are two points:

1. He trashes the "blank slate" theory. So, human beings are not blank slates when they are born. Great, I don't really know of anyone who disputes that. However, the author goes off into flights of genetic fancy, and where the shrillness is at its worst, you get:

"These undesirable outcomes—these mysterious test-score gaps, these dropping-outs and delinquencies—arise only because we are chanting the wrong spells!"

Leaving aside his comparison of modern teaching methods and witchcraft, I bring this up because, while I don't think that humans are blank slates, we do have a remarkable individuality, not to mention an (almost pathological) ability to change and learn. I agree that no one's a blank slate. But no one starts with everything programmed either. And I'd much rather start from an educational principle that assumes that people can learn, rather than one that would give up on certain people for the sake of preconceived biological or cultural notions. And the problems that emerge from this point of view come out in the article itself.

"One wonders if there has ever been an education theorist who has actually raised children, or retained any memory of his own childhood."

That may be fair, but I've got to wonder if Mr. Derbyshire retains any memory of being a teenager. I think we can safely say that questioning, change, learning - all of which happens in a social setting - are hallmarks of that period of our lives, not slavish following of supposedly biological imperatives.

2. This leads me to my second point. Because there are educational systems where they assume that some people just "can't learn." And those students are either punished or sent off to vocational schools, which invariably suck. And all of this within a "school voucher" supporters' wet dream. I am of course speaking about East Asian school systems.

Oh, the memories of corporal punishment and stress positions gleefully copied by the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, the gulags, and some undisclosed location in Burma. Okay, so I never went to an East Asian elementary school and I exaggerate, but I do look at my cousins, some of whom had to leave Taiwan because they would be stuck in a dead-end school with the expectation of a dead-end job. All because he doesn't take tests well. Or my mom, who is very intelligent, but also doesn't take tests well, and was forced to do law (which she hates). Or my dad, who takes tests very well, and was forced to do chemistry (which he passive-aggressively hates). Or the brother of an ex-girlfriend, who has been taking and retaking the Japanese college entrance exam for 4 years, studying nonstop in between, and still can't get into a good school that will allow him to pursue, in some small way, the career that he wants.

So, when I hear people say that we should adopt a more East Asian model of education, I shudder. When I hear people talk about school vouchers and merit-based admissions, I shudder. Because it's fine when you're on top, but if you're in the middle or the bottom, the resources to provide you with a solid education just aren't there. As I said, there is no profit in poverty, and forcing a "merit"-based system on something as complex as intelligence or learning is inevitably going to leave behind many individuals who could succeed if they are given a chance. Hence, my cousin(s) coming to the U.S.

And of course, as James Fallows just reported, no one, not even the Chinese, Japanese, or Koreans, like their school systems either. They think it deadens creativity, which is a threat to innovation and the service economy.


HoBs said...

I agree (mostly). The paradox of most education rants about the US system is always that they compare us results with those elsewhere (typically unfavorably) (it's not just East Asia, it's everywhere; until recently, college admissions in Germany hinged on test scores at age 9). But all reform proposals people talk about in the US move us away from the rest of the world, to encourage the individualism and creativity that we like about the system.

Though I'm not sure why you lump school vouchers into all that. School vouchers are targetted at low income students, and are often used for schools like the KIPP schools that has a policy for trying to recruit students that perform below average.

And uses creative methods to get kids to achieve.

So not sure why you are so much against vouchers.

Chengora said...

The issue is because vouchers, while aimed at low income students (or families, whatever), will have the opposite effect of creating institutionalized forms of underachievement. When you boil it down, vouchers are essentially a way for families to provide resources to schools (in some schemes). It's at a minimum a vote in favor of sending more resources to a well-performing school. That's perfectly fine in theory.

But in East Asia, "vouchers" are accomplished through rigorous testing. Essentially, schools set themselves up at "brain magnets", and students try to get into the best ones. The same thing would happen with vouchers. All the kids are going to want to go to the best schools. Differentiation is going to have to be made through either testing (i.e. No Child Left Behind) or money (private schools, blah blah).

Now, that seems natural: the worse performing students get into the worse performing schools, at least if we want to be...harsh about it. For example, there's certainly the possibility that a worse performing student would thrive at a better performing school. But when we boil down an educational system to a simple sense of intelligence based on testing, this mismatch is inevitably going to occur.

And when you don't provide alternative options for intelligent kids who are poor test-takers, you essentially are losing out on potential. The U.S. has a great education system because anyone can get into a good school with a little effort. It may not be a Harvard, but going to a state school is not a bar to advancement in the same way it is in East Asia. Choice can only come with further restriction and competition, which is some sense antithetical to the education system that the U.S. has built, and that East Asia wants to move towards.

And let's not forget that a free market in education is a spur to expensive after-school classes, which is probably the biggest and most negative effect on poor students. Education in East Asia is characterized by much longer at school. What's often left out is that even middling students spend hours after school at "review class." Those classes aren't cheap, but they are certainly necessary to keep up with your classmates, especially as the standardized tests get harder and harder to compensate for the more prepared kids. Now, sure, poor students could study a lot and do well. But you're still hitting the exact same problem in East Asia that vouchers try to address: the differentiation in resources, on both a familial and school level, which causes poorer neighborhoods and kids to have less options. There is an inevitable tightening of both resources and admittance as schools compete for the top kids, and kids compete for the top schools. With a premium on success, an education system can forget that those not in the top 1% are important too.

So, vouchers on a limited scale: sure, it can definitely work if combined with an effective strategy and implementation of that strategy to provide greater opportunities for bright, poor kids. But taken to a system-wide level, where the distribution of resources becomes a greater concern, that can move the system to exactly the opposite of what it's trying to achieve.

Chengora said...

A quick addendum: the wider political debate surrounding vouchers is that it is targeted towards all students, not just poor ones. After all, it aligns quite well with more conservative sentiments about the need for individual choice, not limited by class.

HoBs said...

Ok, fair point on the potential for vouchers to increase inequality, but two points.

1) This type of inequality is already there. The well off already choose private schools or more commonly, more expensive public schools (by moving to areas with high property taxes) and the type of segregation already exists. Also, the well off already spend tons of money on tutoring and SAT prep and college counselors and the like.

2) Vouchers can be offered to target this problem. Only offer vouchers to those with demonstrated need. We are rebalancing. The well-off already get these opportunities. It is anti liberal to ban the rich from doing tutoring and attending better schools, so the solution is to help the poor do the same.

Even if vouchers are offered to all students, it would help the poor the most. The upper middle class can already afford to move their kids to the best schools available.

You worry about competition, but competition has made American higher-ed better at all levels, the best in the world. Evidence shows that schools districts that face more competition get better results.

Chengora said...

Interesting, but I think there is some disjuncture in what you're saying.

First, politically, there's no way that vouchers would be offered only to children from poor families. I fully agree that it is anti-liberal to ban the rich from sending their kids to private schools, tutors, etc. Would never suggest otherwise. But equally so, you can almost hear the charges of reverse discrimination being screamed if vouchers are only extended to the poor.

2. Competition - You're absolutely right that the inequalities already exist. My point is that vouchers would make them worse. Remember, competition is not always a good thing. There needs to be a solid set of regulations and parameters for competition to channel competition in the right way. Unfettered competition in education can be, both theoretically and practically, against the basic impulse for education, particularly within a democracy. Every child deserves the opportunity to get an education, and I'm sure you know the political, moral, and strategic reasons for this.

But if you shift the U.S. education system even more towards competition, you will end up exacerbating the inequalities within the system. Again, look at East Asia, where the idea of competition based on standardized criteria has stifled a good portion of the population. And of course, the notion of "better results" really depends on what is being tested. The U.S. education system (and probably more important the economic system) highly values creativity and innovation. Those are critical drivers of the service economy, and ones which East Asian economies lament. The had a facinating article on how the U.S. admissions system developed, and why they moved away from an all-test based criteria (it was partially racist, but there was certain value, especially when everyone was eventually given an equal shot).

I agree that competition can be a beneficial thing. But unfettered competition through vouchers, and the reliance thereof on standardized criteria, threatens to eliminate one of the strategic advantages of the U.S. system, particularly as jobs and the economy shift ever more towards the service sector.

HoBs said...

Hm, for some reason my last comment didn't go through. so this will be brief.

"First, politically, there's no way that vouchers would be offered only to children from poor families."

But politically it is feasible given that's how it has always been implemented in the many programs across the country, and the voucher-like provisions that made their way into the President's No Child Left Behind target failing schools, which basically are those in poor neighborhoods.

Chengora said...

In local level school districts, yes, they've gone through. But that has been through processes of fairly open debate within smaller communities. The political and economic problems become highly magnified when you start discussing what will be done with state or federal money.

Which is why I think NCLB is not the best example. It is notorious in underfunding schools based on average test scores (especially since the federal government funds only about 5% of a public school's budget). It's actually a key piece of evidence for why an exam-based system wouldn't do so well, both because of the funding shortage, as well as the fact that poorly performing schools get shut down, increasing the pressure on existing schools, and cutting off one of the key advantages of the U.S. school system: the fact that there is an education center of some kind for everyone.