Wednesday, June 19, 2013

When It Comes to Differences In Educational Outcomes, Environment Is the Key

I’ve got a new post up over at Recess that takes a somewhat controversial stance on tracking. There are a few things that I wanted to include in that post but just didn’t fit for reasons of space and theme, so I’d like to share them with you here. The basic theme of the piece is that we often let our (important) concerns about equity cloud our judgment about how important it is to provide students with the pace and curriculum that suits their academic level well. As I was thinking about such things, it was impossible not to think about the whole Jason Richwine affair from a few weeks back. After all, research and theory by the Jason Richwines and Charles Murrays of the world serve as the intellectual backbone for so many of the biases that pervade our thoughts about race, class and educational attainment. While there was certainly enough blowback against Richwine’s thesis that Hispanic students are of genetically inferior intelligence on the basis of its racist implications, it was a bit harder to find a thoroughgoing rebuttal to Richwine’s argument on the merits. Nevertheless, Brink Lindsey of the CATO Institute came through with a solid review of where Richwine’s reasoning goes wrong. Though Lindsey admits that many studies have shown a strong genetic component of IQ, the picture is much more complicated than those studies and their proponents often assume. As he explains:
So what's the problem? These studies typically assume that the similarity of twins' shared environment is the same as that of regular siblings (highly unlikely) and that adoptive families are as diverse as families generally (in fact, parents that adopt tend to be better off and better educated). When these assumptions are relaxed, environmental factors start to loom larger. In this regard, consider a pair of French adoption studies that controlled for the socioeconomic status of birth and adoptive parents. They found that being raised by high-SES (socioeconomic status) parents led to an IQ boost of between 12 and 16 points - a huge improvement that testifies to the powerful influence that upbringing can have. 
A study of twins by psychologist Eric Turkheimer and colleagues that similarly tracked parents' education, occupation, and income yielded especially striking results. Specifically, they found that the "heritability" of IQ - the degree to which IQ variations can be explained by genes - varies dramatically by socioeconomic class. Heritability among high-SES (socioeconomic status) kids was 0.72; in other words, genetic factors accounted for 72 percent of the variations in IQ, while shared environment accounted for only 15 percent. For low-SES kids, on the other hand, the relative influence of genes and environment was inverted: Estimated heritability was only 0.10, while shared environment explained 58 percent of IQ variations.
This last bit seems to me the most important. The Turkheimer study suggests that while everyone has a genetically bounded intellectual capacity, that genetic capacity is not inevitable and can be powerfully limited by environmental factors. It is perhaps more simple to think of the example of height. You might have the genes to become 6’2’’ but if you don’t receive the proper nutrition as a child, you will likely never realize your full genetic height capacity. So in the case of low-income kids, where environment accounted for 58 percent of variations, in comparison to just 28 percent of the IQ of their high-income peers, you can see the clear effect of environment disrupting IQ development. Put another way, it doesn’t matter your genetic capacity for intelligence if you never learn the vocabulary or practice and develop the critical reasoning skills.

All in all these questions point to the importance of providing children with every opportunity to realize their full potential and to be careful about the conclusions we draw if they don’t. It also points to why exactly my post at Recess could be considered controversial. To state that students often have disparities in their academic level that align disproportionately with demographic factors such as race and socio-economic status can seem dangerously close to claims by the likes of Richwine and Murray that their is something inherently different about the capacity of certain groups that cause that alignment. And there is a lot of misleading analysis out there that can cause people to misinterpret the causes and implications of the achievement gap.

To my mind, to see the disparities in educational outcomes among demographic groups as anything but the result of a profound and systematic inequality of opportunity and the devastating effects of poverty is dangerously misguided. But is precisely because I believe that we have deprived those most in need of the educational opportunities that they need and deserve for so long that I believe we need to be clear and honest about the effect of those disparities and what they mean for how we teach students. To allow the potentially racist conclusions that might be drawn from a choice to track students by level to prevent us from doing what is best for students would grant too much power to theorists such as Richwine and Murray. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Can MOOCs just be good enough?

Recently I've used some of my corner of the internet to push some MOOC pessimism and in the course of that argument have taken particular issue with the visions of disruption often put forward by believers in educational technology. Matt Yglesias has a piece up at Slate that goes a long way in clarifying what exactly disruption, in its original formulation as posed by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator's Dilemma, means. In the way it is popularly understood, disruption seems to mean just "to change dramatically the way things are done." But Yglesias takes pains to distinguish this perception from Christensen's idea, which he explains as follows:
Christensen observes that many successful companies spend most of their time working on what he calls “sustaining innovations.” You are IBM, the world’s most successful manufacturer of mainframe computers, and so you pour your energy into building better and better mainframes. You look at your client base—the universe of institutions that need mainframes—and ask yourself how to keep upselling those clients on more and better mainframes. This leaves you vulnerable to a “disruptive” innovation like the personal computer. 
What makes disruptive innovations so deadly is they’re not better than your product. They’re worse. Anyone who needed a mainframe at the dawn of the personal computer era would find a PC to be an incredibly lame and underpowered alternative. So you ignore the alternative in favor of meeting the needs of your customers and perfecting your product. But the disruptive product keeps iterating and improving and selling to people who didn’t need mainframe computers but who do have use for a cheap, flexible PC. Soon enough, the PC market has swamped the mainframe market and your firm is on its last legs. You’ve fallen victim to the innovator’s dilemma: Your own success in the mainframe market blinded you to the real trajectory in the industry.
I've not read Christensen's work, but the idea here seems to be that the initial and most powerful uses of a specific innovation are not always it's most broadly marketable uses. And while the initial innovators devote a lot of time to maximizing the quality of these innovations, they often miss crucial opportunities produce a much more successful product. Put another way, the most powerful or advanced version of a particular innovation might not be the best value proposition. That's why worse innovations can beat out better ones. Because although the innovation might be somewhat worse, it is significantly cheaper, which ultimately gives you more bang for your buck. And because often the broadest market segment doesn't need your innovation to have all the bells and whistles, it would prefer to pay less for a pretty good version than way more for an amazing (but not much more useful to them) version.

So the real question for the future of MOOCs and educational technology (and it's one I admit I didn't confront in my initial thoughts on them) is not whether they provide a more effective education, but rather if they provide a good enough education at a much cheaper price. That question is much harder to answer because it is hard to know how such technologies will continue to improve. Perhaps as the technologies and practices that accompany them continue to improve, they really will be able to provide a "good enough" education. But there are a few things that make me doubt it.

First, it's hard for me to envision an educational technology recreating the sorts of social pressures and academic learning environments that seem essential in causing even good students to follow through on the demands of an education, especially in higher education. Basically, learning is really hard and demands all sorts of self-discipline. Our self-discipline is often subsidized by the social demands and incentives that abound in a school or on a college campus. I go to class not just because I know its what's best for me, but also because I have friends in the class who it would be nice to see, a teacher or professor who might know me well enough to expect (or at least take account of) my presence there, and because when I look out my window or down the hall I see lots of other people going to class. Anyone who has taken an online class knows how tempting it is to leave the lecture running in the other room while you cook dinner, channel surf, or tidy up. Going to a physical space where someone is watching you for signals of attentiveness and where you can see your peers taking notes pushes you to do educationally productive things in a way you might not when you're connecting to your class through a computer.

Second, it seems to me that if MOOCs were to become a viable way to get a good-enough degree on the cheap, there would become significant pressure on them to become degree rubber-stamping factories. Because in a two-tier world of educational options where one is option is great and really expensive and another is pretty good and cheap, you have to imagine that the best students, the ones with the sort of inherent self-discipline to really succeed in a MOOC, would still continue to flock to the better and more prestigious traditional options for higher education. If that's the case, it will be difficult for MOOCs to get their graduation rates high without some slippage in academic standards and, consequently, in reputation.

And if MOOCs and other educational technology innovations can't find a way to ensure that students are completing and passing their classes and earning a degree that has some credibility, it will be hard to meet that "good enough" standard required for disruption.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Why People Underestimate The Educational Attainment Crisis

It is a testament to how bad I am at keeping up with articles that I intend to read that I am just getting around to Dana Goldstein's Atlantic piece on David Coleman, a major force behind the Common Core standards. It's an interesting read and sheds a lot of light on one of the individuals quietly having a great deal of influence on contemporary American education. Coleman, Goldstein reveals, is a deep believer in the value of a rigorous curriculum rooted in the liberal-arts. As she explains,
Coleman was a lead architect of the Common Core standards, which emphasize canonical literature—think Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, Pablo Neruda—and serious nonfiction texts across all subjects, from math (Euclid’s Elements), to science (medical articles by The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande), to social studies (the Declaration of Sentiments from the feminist Seneca Falls Convention of 1848).
All implementation hiccups aside, it's an appealing vision of a rigorous curriculum that would provide a strong backbone for the kind of work that might prevent the high remediation rates (Goldstein notes: "20 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year colleges, and about half at community colleges, are assigned to non-credit-bearing remedial courses.") that currently exist at the college level.

However, Goldstein slips into a bit of sloppy editorializing as she starts to assess Coleman's vision. She remarks, with respect to the notion that all students ought to be prepared for a college level curriculum: 
The problem is that by waiting until college to begin tracking students according to their career interests, the American education system may be consigning more and more young people to poverty. Youth unemployment is at a staggering 17.1 percent in the U.S., compared with less than 8 percent in Germany and Switzerland. These nations link high-school curriculum directly to the world of work, placing students in private-sector internships that typically lead to full-time, paying jobs. The Common Core, on the other hand, has a blanket definition of “college and career ready,” which, according to Carnevale, ignores the reality that each student has different strengths and weaknesses, and that every job requires a specific set of skills—some of which are best taught in the workplace, not in the classroom. Not to mention that with almost 54 percent of recent college graduates jobless or underemployed, and with total student debt surpassing $1 trillion, college has become a much riskier investment than it once was.
Where to start? First, we might hope for a bit more tight of a correlation between youth unemployment and tracking students based on career interest. You know, just in case there might be a few confounds driving the international differences between youth unemployment rates, like, say, just shooting in the dark here, a global financial crisis that has affected different countries (and their respective employment rates) to varying extents.

But putting that to one side, let's look at the crux of the argument, the idea that because students have "different strengths and weaknesses, and that every job requires a specific set of skills" means that students should enter different tracks in high school, some with a rigorous Common Core-esque curriculum and others which are more focused on technical skills and career preparation. It seems that the different strengths and weakness of students are pretty much irrelevant from a policy perspective. That's a question relevant to how you teach, not what you teach. But as for the "specific set of skills - some of which are best taught in the workplace, not in the classroom," I just don't see how this is a persuasive argument against giving every student the Common Core.

Is it true that some non-zero number of students won't (and shouldn't) go to college because their specific skill set will allow them to be more successful as an electrician or some other venture? Of course. But that doesn't mean that those students should be exempted from the rigor of a high quality curriculum. And not because they've made some mistake and should actually value college more, but because (1) without traversing a rigorous curriculum that would allow them to go to college, they won't even have the option to go to college if they change their minds or find they have misjudged their talents or the job market and (2) the rigor provided by a robust curriculum provides important soft skills that are crucial for succeeding in a career.

Goldstein waves at this second point a bit when she explains Coleman's response to Carnevale's criticism: "Coleman counters this critique with the classic case for a liberal-arts education: that it teaches students how to think, providing a powerful intellectual foundation for any line of work." While Coleman certainly has point that such an intellectual foundation is important, I think he undersells the true value of such studies. Because the demands of rigorous curriculum are quite large, students have to learn precisely the types of skills, from patience to organization to emotional control, that are so crucial to persisting in a job of any sort. (James Heckman's research on the economic value of such skills has been highlighted in lots of places of late, most notably in Paul Tough's recent work.) But on top of all that, because these career-prep skills are allegedly not best taught in school, they can easily be learned after a student finishes their high-school education, on the job somewhere.

But for me the really frustrating thing about the general tone of this critique of Coleman's work is that it so blithely accepts that huge swathes of our population aren't college ready based on some vague notion that "College just isn't for everyone." As I've already said, of course no one expects absolutely everyone to go to college. But we can and should expect way more people to not only go to college, but to go to college prepared for the work they will do there.

Probably the most largely underemphasized statistic in all discussions of education in this country is the fact that in 2011 of those adults aged 25-29, just 32% had Bachelor's degrees. I think that if those people who run around saying "College just isn't for everyone" had to say instead "College just isn't for 68% of the population" they would get much funnier looks. So why don't we question such assertions? Because in the mind of many Americans (especially the well-educated, well-off types who tend to spend their time writing or thinking about education policy), lots of people already go to college, and so some people choosing another path isn't such a bad thing.  But because of huge disparities in educational attainment by income level, the gut estimate of many American's about what percentage of the population already attends college can be way off. (If you want to see this in action, 12PLUS has a great video that demonstrates it pretty well. Availability heuristic strikes again!)

To get a sense of just what that means, Andrew Rotherham provides a useful stat: "In 1972 thirty-eight percent of high-income Americans earned a bachelor's degree by age 24. Now, 82 percent do. Among low-income students, however, that figure was 7 percent in 1972 and it's 8 percent now." It's an astounding gap; while 82% of high-income Americans will graduate from college, just 8% of low income students will. Now if you're a high-income American, your sense of how dire the educational attainment crisis is will likely be skewed by the fact that so many people around you are getting degrees. And that makes it much easier to stomach the idea that some for some people the most successful path might not include college. But that's only because you think "some people" means 15% and not 68% of the population. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why don't books disrupt higher education?

I am quite excited to let you know that in addition to writing here on my personal blog, I will also be doing some blogging over at the new YEP-DC blog, Recess, on a monthly basis. My first post is up now, and it features me playing the role of Old Man CJ and harumphing a bit about how exaggerated I find claims about educational technology (especially MOOCs).

In reading a recent Op-Ed in the Times that shares some of my disillusionment with MOOCs, I was struck by a sentence that made me think that I maybe wasn't harsh enough in my assessment over at Recess. In his piece, A.J. Jacobs notes:  "On the other hand, how can I really complain? I’m getting Ivy League (or Ivy League equivalent) wisdom free. Anyone can, whether you live in South Dakota or Senegal, whether it’s noon or 5 a.m., whether you’re broke or a billionaire."

The implication here is that lectures from prestigious professors are the core of an Ivy League education. No doubt, that's an important part of the whole deal, but I remain unconvinced that it's as valuable as it seems at first glance. It overlooks the importance of peer effects, which experience tells me has always been a crucial force in my own education. Amplify that to the level of peers you encounter in the Ivy League and you're talking about an incredibly influential factor that doesn't come with MOOCs. 

But the more damning piece of evidence running against the notion that MOOCs ought to be disruptive by virtue of the fact that the deliver an Ivy League experience in a more efficient way is that books already do the same thing. Lots of professors whose lectures demand a premium at the best universities around the country and world write books about the subject they teach. Lots of non-professors-but-still-really-smart-and-informed-people also write informative books on a range of subjects. And often those books feature explanations that have been contemplated at great length, edited, and made generally consumable. You can read books in your home, on the metro, in places without Wi-fi. Your access is constrained only by an upfront (relatively small) investment in paying for the book. Indeed, what's amazing about books is that you can even learn directly from amazing professors or thinkers who are dead, something no university, no matter the size of its endowment, can promise you. And yet the self-study allowed by books has never threatened universities because universities offer a delivery method that is of a different kind completely and offers advantages books (or online lectures) cannot. 

Unless, of course, you're Will Hunting:  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Go Big or Go Home

The Op-Ed pages of the New York Times are usually a pretty good place to get yourself worked up about education reform, no matter which side you come from. There's a good amount of schilling from both sides, but Jal Metha's recent piece grabbed my attention for its evenhandedness in tone and its comprehensiveness in diagnosis and prescription for what ails American schools.

I happened to read it on the heels of another Times Op-Ed piece from William J. Reese, which mixed an interesting historical perspective with a less engaging rehearsal of the arguments of the great testing wars that have been inflamed once more by increased attention on cheating scandals in Atlanta and D.C. (On that matter, I think Matt Yglesias nails it here.) Trudging through the testing debate, littered as it is with a lot of straw men and hackneyed arguments, always leaves me with a disproportionate sense of frustration.

Metha's Op-Ed, though, helped me see why the testing debate is so dissatisfying. First, discussions over the role of testing rarely veer from their concern with the effect on teachers to discuss the impact on students, except to lament in a hazy way how hard it must be on them to take so many tests. And while we're busy thinking about the pressure such exams put on teachers (to be clear, I'm not dismissing that concern, teachers do important, hard work and deserve methods of support and evaluation that promote a positive work environment), we too often fail to keep in mind just how unacceptable the current achievement levels of students are. As Metha explains:
In 2009, the Program for International Student Assessment, which compares student performance across advanced industrialized countries, ranked American 15-year-olds 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math - trailing their counterparts in Belgium, Estonia and Poland. One-third of entering college students need remedial education. Huge gaps by race and class persist: the average black high school senior's reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress continue to be at the level of the average white eight grader's. Seventeen-year-olds score the same in reading as they did in 1971.
Beyond this crucial oversight, the debate over testing frustrates me because, Metha's analysis reveals, it is such a small part of what is holding back improvements in teacher quality. However, because testing has such salience in the daily work of teachers, it commands disproportionate attention in education reform debates. Metha's vision for professionalizing the teaching profession, though, would overhaul the system for recruiting, training, and evaluating teachers in a much more profound and effective way. From reducing the number and increasing the quality of teacher preparation programs to reducing the proportion of hours teachers spend teaching and increasing the amount of time spent preparing and collaborating to developing a robust set of professional standards that guide licensing.

It is a compelling and comprehensive vision that is well worth your time.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Fighting Is Fun; Progress Is Better

Two pieces of education news caught my attention recently. Among the usual din of fights over common core implementation, teacher evaluations and other similarly controversial reform efforts came two bits of information that show how broken the system is for some students in some places, but also give us a reason to hope that progress is possible. First, a post from the New America Foundation's Early Ed Watch blog pointed out the surprising and depressing fact that for all the talk of late about Pre-K, a startling number of states do not even offer their students free, full-day kindergarten through their local public school district. Using a yearly map from the Children's Defense Fund, Clare McCann runs down the current state of play for kindergarten throughout the nation:
Most states do not guarantee by law that children will have access to a full day of kindergarten, and six states don’t require districts to offer any type of kindergarten…Data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that about three-quarters of kindergartners were in full-day programs as of 2010. But those data do not say whether those children’s parents pay tuition for part of the day, or whether the lowest-income and neediest children are enrolled in kindergarten programs.
The bottom line is that while we're spending time debating the whether and how to get our nation to universal Pre-K, thanks to a push from the President in the State of the Union and through his recently released budget, we still don't even have universal full day kindergarten.

The other piece of information that came to my attention, that high-achieving low-income students tend not to apply to or attend the most selective colleges, despite having the ability succeed at such schools, has been covered quite thoroughly by David Leonhardt at the Times and Matt Yglesias at Slate. As Leonhardt explains:
Only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges, according to the analysis, conducted by Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard, two longtime education researchers. Among top students in the highest income quartile, that figure was 78 percent.
So where's the hope in these two ostensibly discouraging facts? For me, they are evidence of how a considerable portion of the shortcomings of the current system aren't the result of malfeasance or disagreement on the part of policy makers or school officials or teachers, but rather the natural byproduct of designing and administering a hugely complex system. Would a system without such bugs be better? Certainly. But given that we don't have that sort of system, these naturally-occuring shortcomings can be opportunities for reform that don't face the same up-hill political battle that other reform issues do and, in the case of getting talented poor kids to the best colleges, may not even require legislative or policy fixes.

While universal kindergarten, if mandated from the federal level, might face pushback from states'-rights types, state-by-state pressure from unions (for whom the increase in Kindergarten teachers would require an increase in demand for teachers) and reformers alike could start to move the ball on such things. Additionally, undoubtedly funding kindergarten might be a challenging demand for state budgets to meet, but providing the necessary funding might be a leverage point for federal policy-makers.

As for helping low-income high achievers, it seems that one of the main impediments to changing the habits of such students is the type and clarity of information they are provided with. In some cases its a paucity of friends and family who have successfully traversed the path to selective schools that prevents such students from pursuing enrollment at the best schools. But, my own experience with trying to get good information about the availability and prudence of taking out student loans to pay for graduate school has shown me, greater availability to get good advice and guidance on how best to proceed with choosing and handling the college admission process would undoubtedly have a hugely positive effect on the status quo. And as David Leonhardt has said in a follow-up piece on another bit of research from    Hoxby and Avery, research has shown just that. That's a job that government agency might be able to do, but it might also be something that a creative non-profit could tackle.

In both cases, though, they represent opportunities for the traditionally opposed poles of the education world, who seem so often to love the opportunity to fight about their differences, to come together on what should be common-sense fixes to our system.

Monday, September 17, 2012

CTU Strike, follow up

So the strike goes on. Andy Rotherham and Rick Hess have initial thoughts on the implications of the strike extension. I see Andy having some better points, but it's hard to tell what the political and policy upshots will be.

There were three other pieces of journalism I wanted to share with regard to all these things. The first is a really, really good piece at This American Life which takes a look at all the ideas in Paul Tough's new book. Very enlightening and nice to hear some positive stuff in the midst of the strike mess. Second, if you're feeling cleansed by the TAL piece and want some more strike info take a listen to this episode of the Diane Rehm show which features a lot of interesting talk of the strike from some smart people. And finally this New York Times infographic adds some other important context to the whole matter. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Chicago Teacher's Strike Roundup

So the blog has been in hibernation for quite some time (predictably so) because, it turns out, I am generally a bigger fan of using my free time to watch online TV than formulate thoughts about education policy, but with the Chicago teacher's strike happening, I thought it might be good to revive the blog for a bit of a roundup of interesting things I've read on the subject and then add a few thoughts of my own at the end.

First, we should look at what's really being asked for in this strike. Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog did a great rundown of the basic parameters of the strike. The biggest disagreements, he says, are about evaluation and hiring practices:
What do the two sides still disagree on? 
The Chicago Public Schools in March unveiled an evaluation system (pdf) in which standardized testing makes up 40 percent of the rubric, which was designed by panels that included teachers, principals, and teachers’ union officials (including the president). The system goes above and beyond the state requirement that testing make up 20-40 percent of teacher evaluations. The teachers’ unions are resisting this system, calling it too punitive. 
Teachers also want laid off teachers to be able to be automatically “recalled” to positions if they open up. Emanuel would allow these teachers to apply to new openings, but given his desire to focus layoffs on worst-performing teachers, does not want automatic recalls. Finally, the teachers’ union is demanding smaller class sizes (both to improve working conditions and to improve student learning and life outcomes) and air conditioning for classrooms that don’t currently have it.
Matthews also adds important context to the evaluation point, noting that the Illinois legislature has already passed a law that dictates that "schools must incorporate standardized tests as a 'significant factor' in their evaluations of teachers, which the state school board has defined (pdf) as meaning 20-40 percent of those evaluations’ content."

Next, a few pieces of relevant info on the state of Chicago schools and school children. In the same post, Dylan Matthews also gives an informative explanation of the current state of Chicago public schools, as seen from the national point of view. The first of those points is that Chicago significantly underperform national averages. He explains, "As Reuters notes, fourth-graders in Chicago performed an average of nine points worse than the big city average and sixteen points worse than the national average on the math section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the national gold standard for measuring learning. On reading, they were eight and seventeen points worse than big city and national averages, respectively."

Another great source of info on Chicago student outcomes is a great article Paul Tough had in the New York Times magazine recently (pre-strike) that took a look specifically at the challenges of poor Chicago students, which is nearly all of them:
Chicago’s public-school population is almost entirely low-income — just one in eight students does not qualify for a federal lunch subsidy — but within that population, some students are much more disadvantaged than others. Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research were able, recently, to identify a subset of students who were particularly disadvantaged, living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and unemployment, with high levels of crime and an elevated incidence of child abuse.
And these extra challenges result in persistently lagging educational outcomes for many, many students in Chicago Public Schools:
The researchers found that these students were clustered at 46 public schools, which the researchers, borrowing a phrase from William Julius Wilson, labeled “truly disadvantaged” schools. These 46 schools were the targets of frequent reform efforts. But they were much less likely to respond positively to those reforms than schools with a less disadvantaged (but still poor) student body.
And the challenges of the school system go beyond just the poorest of the poor. As Wendy Kopp (founder of Teach For America) noted in her piece on the strike in the Financial Times:
Chicago, where 80 per cent of public school students qualify for free or subsidised lunches, is a microcosm of the national education crisis and its devastating consequences. Only 20 per cent of city students perform at “proficient” levels based on national standards. Four in 10 do not graduate from high school. At a time when a university degree is a prerequisite for financial security, only 6 per cent graduate by the age of 25.
So what does this all mean?

This debate about the state of Chicago public schools has quickly switched to debate about the reform efforts of the Obama administration and Mayors like Rahm Emmanuel and Michelle Rhee. It's easy to see why: Emmanuel is the president's chief of staff, Chicago is Obama's adopted hometown and his current Secretary of Education used to run (gated link) the Chicago public school system. And, in an election season that will have a lot to do with turnout, the implications of an administration pitted against one of its most important political constituencies, the unions, are considerable. But with the nationalization of the debate comes a great deal of the national rhetoric about the reform movement. You get pundits such as Diane Ravitch who continue to lament the rise of charter schools, merit pay and other reform ideas. (For my view on Diane Ravith's conventional anti-reformist arguments, see Matt Yglesias here.) And you get anti-unionism of the Scott Walker sort. But the real debate on this subject takes place in the specifics. That is, your views on the reform movement or the value of collective bargaining need not dictate how you come down on this. Matt Yglesias said it best recently: 
Indeed, what baffles me about these discussions is the tendency of labor's alleged friends to simply refuse to look this reality in the face and instead insist that any hostility to specific union asks must secretly reflect the skeptic's hostility to the existence of the union or its members. If you think that Chicago's teachers deserve the right to form an association to advocate, lobby, and bargain on behalf of the interests of its members (and why shouldn't they?) then you have to think that they deserve the right to advocate for ideas that may not be in the public interest.
In order to judge the demands of the teachers unions, you have to understand them in context. A crucial component of that context is the current attainment levels of students in Chicago public schools. Simply put, Kopp's quoted college graduation rate of 6 percent by age 25 is devastating. A 6 percent college graduation rate destroys the social mobility and, as Kopp notes, financial security of the students stuck in that system. And one of the main pro-union arguments that results from seeing such numbers is that high-poverty is entirely to blame for educational outcome in the city. As Ravitch asserts, "Chicago is a city of intensely segregated public schools and high levels of youth violence. Teachers know that test scores are influenced not only by their instruction but by what happens outside the classroom.Are there non-educational factors that play into that abysmal level of educational outcome? Of course! Paul Tough himself notes how highly correlated failing schools are with high levels of poverty. Does this mean that teachers are therefore absolved of their responsibility for student outcomes? Definitely not. 

Because one's judgement on matters of education so often gets clouded by a number of biases we have in our lives (one's own educational experience, one's personal relationships with educators, one's own self-identification as educators, or one's reflexive sympathy for workers in labor disputes), I like to apply the doctor test to questions of our expectations for teachers. In other words, in situations where I wonder, Is this reasonable to ask of a teacher?, I check my conclusions against the question, Would it reasonable to ask a reasonable analogue of this job demand of a doctor?

In this case, would we accept a 6% survival rate? Further, would we accept a 6% survival rate even if we knew that the doctor treated patients that on average began at a much lower levels of health? I really don't think we would. True, we wouldn't instantly fire all of those doctors, but we would be singularly focused on ways to improve care and get survival rates up. And if we saw that some doctors or hospitals were managing to significantly raise survival rates despite the extra health challenges in their patient community, we would study what they were doing. And we would be begin to increase the number of successful doctor types and decrease the number of unsuccessful ones. And we would feel bad that those unsuccessful doctors lost their jobs, but we wouldn't feel nearly bad enough to let that cloud our judgement about whether or not they should still be doctors.

And if the types of hospitals that were getting unusually high results were part of a class of hospitals called charter hospitals and we knew that many charter hospitals were doing significantly better than the average hospital, while many (perhaps even more) were doing significantly worse than the average hospital, we would know better than to try to say anything about the class of charter hospitals generally and focus instead on what those successful charter hospitals were doing right. And once we established the factors that allowed success in those charter hospitals, we would see if they could be applied to regular hospitals. And if they could, we would apply them.

What does this all have to do with the Chicago teacher's strike? I think it clarifies the stakes a bit. 
Because the effects of limited educational opportunity are so distant we tend not to understand the immediacy in the same way that we do with health care, where mistakes often have instantly disastrous or salubrious results. Still, educational attainment is incredibly intertwined with matters of poverty and it remains one of the most powerful levers we have for helping children to find a way out. So when we measure the interests of teachers (and we certainly should measure the interests of teachers; they work hard and do important work) we need to measure it against the fact that a quality education is just as important as quality health care. 

So to address the exact demands of teachers in this debate, let's apply the doctor test once more. We're in a hospital with a 6% survival rate that is losing funding (Matthews: "Chicago public schools are facing a $665 million deficit, one which even raising property taxes to the maximum amount allowed by law and tapping reserves that had been built up by the district in better economic times could not close.") and therefore has to fire some doctors. Which way will you fire doctors? Consider two options: 
  1. Fire doctors by when they were hired (the most recently hired will go first).
  2. Fire doctors by how effective they have been in raising the survival rate, among other factors. 
Now consider a few added details: You're hospital has suffered financially in large part as a result of a major financial crisis and may at some point in the near future have improved economic conditions and be able to afford more doctors again. The rehiring method can also look a lot like either of the firing methods, but in reverse. That is, you can either rehire in order or by effectiveness. Also, consider another thing: the method by which you judge effectiveness can be unreliable. But the unreliable part will be just 40% of the overall evaluation and can be outweighed by more subjective methods of evaluation, such as evaluation by superiors. Finally, know that firing doctors by when they were hired will force you to fire more doctors, because junior doctors are cheaper to employ because they've been employed for a shorter amount of time. Which do you choose? 

Even knowing that judging effectiveness is tricky, I choose basing it on effectiveness. Judging effectiveness accurately is crucial in any profession, but especially in those as important as education and health care. Even a flawed system of judging effectiveness is better than one that openly disregards quality. In addition, the only way to put enough pressure on the system to create the most effective methods of judging effectiveness is to increase the importance of getting it right, which putting it at the center of hiring and firing methods will do. 

Ok - one last programming note. As I'm currently living and teaching in Madrid, I will have a bit more time on my hands and will hope to give some insight into the Spanish school system, which has it's own fiscal difficulties right now. So stay tuned and hopefully I will do a better job of blogging!