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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Improving education

The rising cost of health insurance and health care and the quality of public education are pointed to as causes of anxiety by many people. They are two significant areas of society with heavy government involvement. It makes you wonder...or at least it should. More money is the cry heard from certain interest groups:

If any state has taken to heart the claim that more money is the key to improving public education for low-income students, it's Connecticut. The Nutmeg State, which ranks first in per capita income ($47,800), also leads the way in average teacher salary ($58,700) and is third in per-pupil spending ($11,000). Yet according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress released this week, Connecticut has the nation's largest achievement gap between poor and non-poor students.

The NAEP measured reading and math skills in grades four and eight. And while scores nationwide showed modest progress this year, Connecticut is moving in the opposite direction. Not only are low-income students falling further behind in Connecticut than anywhere else, but the state's overall ranking is also down. Since 2005, Connecticut has lost ground to other states in three of the four NAEP categories. In fourth-grade math, it's fallen to 16th from 9th. In eighth-grade math, it's fallen to 29th from 20th.

As usual, the supposed beneficiaries of Connecticut's education lucre are faring worst. Poor and minority students typically attend schools in urban districts that spend thousands of dollars more than the per-pupil state average. Yet the state ranking for Hispanic students declined in all four categories; for blacks, it fell in all but one category. Eighth-graders in Connecticut who qualify for free or reduced price lunches had the second-lowest math scores for poor students in the U.S.

Public charter schools in Connecticut regularly outperform traditional public schools, and do so on significantly smaller budgets. Hartford's lone charter school, Jumoke Academy, receives $8,000 per student from the state, while surrounding public schools receive $13,600 per kid. On the most recent state assessment test, 60% of Jumoke's students scored proficient in math, 70% scored proficient in reading and 95% scored proficient in writing. The corresponding results for the surrounding public schools were 22%, 30% and 27%.

Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrock points to something else that can actually help but that much of the educational establishment simply resists.
What we need to save inner-city schools, and poor schools everywhere, is a method that works when the teachers aren't heroes. Even better if the method works when teachers are ordinary people, poorly paid and ill-motivated - i.e. the system we have today.

Ayres argues that large experimental studies have shown that the teaching method which works best is Direct Instruction (here and here are two non-academic discussions which summarizes much of the same academic evidence discussed in Ayres). In Direct Instruction the teacher follows a script, a carefully designed and evaluated script. As Ayres notes this is key:

DI is scalable. Its success isn't contingent on the personality of some uber-teacher....You don't need to be a genius to be an effective DI teacher. DI can be implemented in dozens upon dozens of classrooms with just ordinary teachers. You just need to be able to follow the script.

Contrary to what you might think, the data also show that DI does not impede creativity or self-esteem. The education establishment, however, hates DI because it is a threat to the power and prestige of teaching, they prefer the model of teacher as hero. As Ayres says "The education establishment is wedded to its pet theories regardless of what the evidence says." As a result they have fought it tooth and nail so that "Direct Instruction, the oldest and most validated program, has captured only a little more than 1 percent of the grade-school market."
This from the second link above about DI:

What if the federal government spent $1 billion over nearly three decades to study thoroughly the question of which teaching method best instills knowledge, cognitive skills and positive self-concept in students?

What if that study were able to conclude exactly which method best does all three?

Wouldn't the American people like to know about it?

"The education profession has never been particularly interested in results, especially if they run counter to the prejudices of the profession," says Mr. Carnine, who was involved with Project Follow Through when his university served as one of its sponsors.

Direct instruction, one of the basic skills approaches, showed the greatest positive impact on all three types of development (see graphs).

"What they did was change the question because they didn't like the answer. Their argument was that we should ignore the question of what leads to better academic learning. So they essentially gave people permission to ignore the whole point of the project.

I have actual experience teaching children with DI. My mom who is a special education teacher in the NYC school system has had phenomenal results teaching learning disabled children with DI when she has been allowed to use this method. Broward County schools have used this method in a limited number of schools in the most underprivileged areas with positive results that shocked board members. Widespread adoption of DI in schools where students are most in need of improvement could have a dramatic effect, but it is not happening. Give these parents vouchers and choice and see if anything changes.


erp said...

The object is to keep the students ignorant. Everything else is just obfuscation.

When phonics were disallowed, kids stopped learning how to read. Simple and incontrovertible. When rote learning of multiplication tables, decimals, percentages, etc. went by the board, kids had no clue about numbers, grammar and spelling, not even on the radar ... and on it goes.

The last time I was involved in textbook selection, a lot of the titles had the word fun in it. I wonder are they still having fun?

Oroborous said...

I dispute Alex Tabarrock's cliched assertion that teachers are "poorly paid".

University students entering teaching programmes have, on average, the lowest SAT scores of any discipline, and once graduated, they get paid for ten months of work per year, and in many cases, are awarded annual raises without regard to merit, and are well-protected from being terminated for incompetency.

I suggest that the average teacher with a decade of experience gets better-paid for teaching than they would in almost any other profession, given their average potential.

Howard said...


I dispute Alex Tabarrock's cliched assertion that teachers are "poorly paid".

He may not even believe it. He may have stipulated such in order to dismiss the usual complaints so he could move on to his point. There are teaching methods with a demonstrated record of success even under difficult circumstances - and they don't require heroes.