Can good schools help poor kids?

Cato’s Andrew Coulson believes better schools produce better outcomes for disadvantaged students, citing the success of Ben Chavis’ American Indian Public Charter Schools.

IQ expert and Bell Curve author Charles Murray disagrees,, responding that “such a huge proportion of a child’s educational prospects are determined by things other than school (genes and the non-school environment) that reforms of the schools can never do more than produce score improvements at the margin.”

The throwdown continues with Coulson citing international and U.S. research:

. . . moving from our current monopoly school system to a free and competitive education marketplace would shift the bell curve of academic achievement significantly to the right, raising the mean achievement substantially above its current level.

I can’t believe this is the best we can do.

Public Forum profiles five bad schools that got much, much better after restructuring in Breaking the Habit of Low Performance.

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  1. Whether Murray is right or not, aren’t we morally obligated to attempt a more Coulson-like solution? I can’t believe accepting the status quo is acceptable to anyone. Coulson does seem to have significant evidence on his side.

  2. I wonder what Murray says to the recent Tom Kane study of Boston charters, or the Caroline Hoxby study of NYC charters?

    Murray asks (I answer)

    1) Were the tests conducted by the same people who reported the results? (No)
    2) Were the students tested representative of the entire student population (or were certain kids mysteriously absent that day)? (Nobody was mysteriously absent)
    3) Are the results compared to those of a legitimate control group? (Yes, charter lottery losers)
    4) Were there practice effects from teaching to the test? (Not studied.)
    5) Has attrition been taken into account? (The failure to include the subsequent performance of the kids who dropped out of the program or school is usually the single most decisive artifact of inadequate evaluations.) (Yes. Attritters were assigned to the experimental group).
    6) Was there a test for fadeout two or three years after the exit test? (Fadeout of initial results has been universal when such tests have been conducted.) (Hasn’t been studied, but it seemed like gains INCREASED for each year in the school).

  3. Murray’s more important point is this: “But only a few percent of the nation’s students attend the worst-of-the-worst schools, and national or even state-wide test score results are driven by the huge majority of students who attend schools in the normal range, where improvements are modest.” Yes, if you closed the abominable schools, the test scores would improve for the kids in those schools. That wouldn’t do anything to improve the schools in the normal range.

    Moving to a “free and competitive education marketplace” wouldn’t miraculously lead to a burst of administrative competence. Just think of all the current school administrators. I guarantee you that median school boards would hire (or re-hire) experienced administrators, which would continue the past’s patterns, without change.

  4. Oh, sure a “free and competitive education marketplace” would lead to a miraculous burst of administrative competence.

    Here’s how it would work.

    The experienced but lousy administrators would continue to treat parents like dirt and indulge their own edu-fantasies. They’d use obfuscatory jargon to establish their professional weightiness while condescending to parents.

    Parents would notice that they’re being treated like dirt because there’d be a contrast between the way those experienced administrators treated them and the way inexperienced, or at least competent, administrators treated the parent’s friends who sent their kids to a different school.

    Using such proxies as the way administrators treated them and the degree of enthusiasm shown by the kids at the thought of going to school, parents would determine whether their kids would continue to go to that school. If enough parents decided “I think, not” then the school would close and the administrator responsible for the school’s closing would look for another job.

    Schools looking for administrative talent would tend to shy away from a prospective hire with a string of deceased schools in their wake.

    See? Not so complicated.

  5. palisadesk says:

    I find much of Chales Murray’s work enlightening and sometimes provocative, but his ignorance of how bad schools actually can be is palpable. So is his lack of awareness of the documented results of effective schools, such as the Bereiter-Engelmann Preschool (written up in City Journal last year by Shep Barbash), and the famous study in Harvard Educational Review that I detailed here:


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