My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


Education Folly In The News

Two articles about recently caught my attention, and both demonstrate just how little we know about education, or how stupid we've become about education.

The first appeared about a week ago, in the Rocky Mountain News. Here's the gist:

"Girls tend to be more compliant and willing to sit down and do what they're told. Boys are less tolerant of that," King said. "If they don't have control and they're not interested, they're less likely to buy in.

"So we really need to approach it that way, and not make everyone act and behave like girls."

District officials say Douglass has narrowed the gap between boys and girls on tests administered under the Colorado Student Achievement Program since adopting the strategy 18 months ago.Douglass received a flurry of national publicity recently because of those efforts, with coverage in Newsweek magazine and the Today show.

This hits on one of the major new themes in education: the gender gap. See, I guess it turns out that boys do worse in schools than girls. And now the education world is devoting resources, energy, and a great deal of thought to how to make boys acheive better on tests. This has also become an issue for colleges, who have recently noticed--with much dismay--that their enrollments are now running nearly 60% girls. (For more on differential treatment of boys, check out the smart thoughts of The Daily Blogster on the feminization of the American male).

All of which is quite confusing to me, because I seem to recall, as I was suffering through the indoctrination of the "school of education" some 15 years ago, that all of our research was showing that teachers favored boys in their classroom behavior by a startling amount, and that the subsequent academic development of boys and girls was significantly different. Just to confirm my memory, I went and looked through some of my old papers, and found a prominent article by David and Myra Sadler (no link available) that concludes thus:

The experience of female students in U.S. schools is unique. What other group starts out ahead--in reading, in writing, and even in math--and 12 years later finds itself behind? We have compensatory education for those who enter school at a disadvantage; it is time that we recognize the problems of those who lose ground as a result of their years of schooling.

So, just what IS going on here? It would seem to me that there are two possible conclusions: one, that we wildly misunderstood the nature of the problem fifteen years ago, and that there was no correlation between the fovorable bias of our classrooms then and the acheivement of boys then; or, two, and here's the REALLY subversive one . . .

we have actually succeeded!! Twenty years of focus on treating girls better in the classroom, and voila!! girls are better at school than boys.

So how much you wanna bet twenty years from now we'll be actively seeking to swing the pendulum back the other direction, once we've come to accept that boys are different and they learn differently and maybe--just maybe--they catch up and perhaps evn pass the girls? Yeah, I wouldn't count on it either, but . .

And the second thing that caught my attention was this one, an op-ed submission in the Friday Rocky Mountain News. Here's the gist:

While there are certainly both ethnic and gender biases in all standardized testing, and volumes of research to support that contention, neither of those factors are the primary basis for our opposition to CSAP.

Rather, we believe that the primary bias of all standardized testing is socioeconomic. One of the strongest correlations in educational research is between family income and test performance. This has been shown time and time again over the last five decades, ever since the groundbreaking research of James Coleman in this area in the mid-1960s.

Now, if this isn't a fine example of post hoc, ergo propter hoc thinking (after the event, therefore because of the event) in defense of an intellectually untenable position, I don't know what is. The logic of Tim Babbidge, of the Coalition for Better Education, would hold that the ONLY important factor influencing test performance is a bias against those from lower socioeconomic groups.

In the first place, I would like to see a detailed, peer-reviewed research article demonstrating how specific questions on the test are biased against the poor. I'm not even entirely sure what such a question would look like.

But in the second place, and more importantly, this logic ignores the most obvious other explanation for the difference. See if this logic tracks better:

Innumerable studies have demonstrated that a low level of education leads to significantly reduced lifetime earning potential; therefore, the students in the low-income category will, by and large, be from parents who have a low education level; there is a logical next step to assume that said low education level is either the result of a disdain for education, or a low aptitude for academic pursuits, all of which, logically, could easily be passed on to their children. ERGO, the next generation is also likely--though not destined--to low academic performance.

Obviously, there will be and are many exceptions to this logic--in both directions (low income, high acheiving; high income, low acheiving). But since numerical reasoning of this nature tends to deal in the large, that is what we should deal in, also.

At any rate, I think it's entirely possible that we ought to look much more at where students begin on the acheivement scale, and what sort of progress they make, rather than blanket assumptions about academic development across the board. And rather than automatically look to tear apart the regime of accountability an measurement, we should look more to recognizing the usefulness of datae in making arguments to direct resources differently, earlier, when they might make a real difference.

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