Schools raise scores, but not smarts

Schools can improve students’ achievement test scores, but not their cognitive ability, writes Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American. Reseachers analyzed math and English scores and cognitive ability (working memory, processing speed, and abstract reasoning) among nearly 1,400 eighth graders attending traditional, exam and charter public schools in Boston.

“Good test takers tend to have high levels of working memory, processing speed, and abstract reasoning skills,” Kaufman writes.

Cognitive ability was associated with growth in achievement test scores from 4th to 8th grade. This is consistent with prior research suggesting that cognitive ability predicts academic achievement, but academic achievement does not predict cognitive ability.

Students in some schools showed growth in achievement scores but school quality “played little role in the growth of cognitive ability.”

Students attending a charter school as a result of winning the admissions lottery had higher standardized test scores compared to students who lost the lottery.

There was no difference between the lottery groups, however, on measures of cognitive ability.

Cognitive skills such as fluid reasoning and executive functioning (working memory and cognitive inhibition) affect many life outcomes, from school performance to drug use, Kaufman writes. The researchers cite “examples of targeted programs that increase cognitive control and reasoning.”

Why ‘Preschool for All’ won’t work

The Strong Start for America’s Children Act – President Obama’s Preschool for All idea — has been introduced in Congress. “Decades of research tell us that … early learning is the best investment we can make to prepare our children for a lifetime of success,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Research doesn’t say that, writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst, who’s spent most of his career “designing and evaluating programs intended to enhance the cognitive development of young children.”

Advocates for universal preschool cite two “boutique” programs from 40-50 years ago and “recent research with serious methodological flaws,” writes Whitehurst. They ignore the large, randomized National Head Start Impact Study, which found no differences in elementary school outcomes for Head Start kids. They also ignore “research showing negative impacts” on children in federally funded child care “as well as evidence that the universal pre-k programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, which are closest to what the Obama administration has proposed, have had, at best, only small impacts.”

A newly released Vanderbilt study analyzes Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K (TN-VPK) for four-year-olds from low-income families. Researchers compared children who won a lottery for pre-K slots with those whose parents applied but lost the lottery, making it a “gold standard” study, Whitehurst writes. Furthermore, TN-VPK set high quality standards similar to Obama’s Preschool for All proposal.

Yet all cognitive and social/emotional gains were lost by the end of kindergarten. In first grade, the control group did better than the former pre-K students on seven of eight cognitive skills, though the advantage was significant only for quantitative concepts.


Cognitive Outcomes at the end of first grade

The control group also did better — but not significantly — on four of seven measures of social/emotional skills or dispositions, as rated by first-grade teachers.

TN-VPK participants were less likely to have been retained in kindergarten than non-participants (4% to 6%), researchers noted. But kindergarten retention doesn’t predict later school performance, Whitehurst writes. The TN-VPk students also were more likely to receive special education services (14% to 9%).

These findings, which match the Head Start study, are “devastating,” writes Whitehurst. “Maybe we should figure out how to deliver effective programs before the federal government funds preschool for all.”

Study: Most 3rd graders are below average

By the age of eight, only a third of students have grade-level literacy, math and science skills, according to The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success. The Casey Foundation report used federal data to track 13,000 children from kindergarten through middle school.

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten defines scoring at or above the national average on all three subjects as meeting cognitive development benchmarks, reports Education Week.

The data analysis showed that by 3rd grade, 56 percent were on track with physical development, 70 percent with social and emotional growth, and 74 percent in their level of school engagement.

. . .  19 percent of 3rd graders in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line—in 2001, that was $35,920 for a family of four—were hitting their cognitive development milestones. In comparison, 50 percent of children in families above that income level hit that mark.

The analysis also showed that 14 percent of black children and 19 percent of Hispanic children were on track in cognitive development.

This strikes me as the Lake Wobegon effect in reverse. Instead of all the kids being above average, two thirds are below average. If only half the middle-class and affluent kids are on track cognitively, “on track” must be too high.

The report advocates “quality birth-through-8 education programs targeted at children from low-income families” and linking preschool providers to elementary schools, notes Education Week.

Secondary teachers are smarter

While would-be elementary teachers have below-average SAT and GRE scores, aspiring secondary subject-matter teachers compare well to other students, writes Education Realist.

The Richwine-Biggs study (pdf), which concludes teachers have lower cognitive skills than workers with similar education levels, combines elementary and secondary teachers, Realist complains.

Secondary teachers specializing in a subject — English, history, math, science — have “much stronger academic histories” than elementary, special education and phys ed teachers, ETS reports (pdf).

 

Overpaid teachers

Teachers earn similar wages — and much higher benefits — when compared to similarly skilled private-sector workers, concludes a study released in November by Jason Richwine of The Heritage Foundation and Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute. Including benefits, teachers make $1.52 for every dollar earned by similarly skilled workers in the private sector.

In a new paper and an Ed Week article, Richwine and Biggs respond to their many critics.

Comparing teachers to private-sector workers with similar levels of education misses the difference in cognitive skills, they argue. The study measured teachers’ reading and math skills on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) and found “teachers are paid commensurately with their cognitive skills.”

Teaching requires “important organizational and interpersonal skills that formal tests may not capture,” they concede.  However, these skills should be valuable in other jobs as well.

If teachers are not fairly paid for their non-cognitive skills, one would expect teachers who shifted to private-sector jobs to receive significant raises. But they do not. Using data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, we are able to track changes in individuals’ salaries as they switch jobs. We have shown that the average public-school teacher suffers a slight wage decrease upon leaving the profession.

Paying all teachers more money won’t improve teacher quality, they argue.

What is needed is a more rational system that pays teachers according to their performance, encouraging the best teachers to stay and the least effective teachers to leave the profession.

Public school administrators rarely have the flexibility to do this, they write.

Undereducated Americans

The demand for college-educated workers has outpaced the supply, concludes The Undereducated American, a new study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The weak economy has hidden the problem, says Anthony P. Carnevale, co-author of the report. “In recession and recovery, we remain fixated on the high school jobs that are lost and not coming back. We are hurtling into a future dominated by college-level jobs unprepared.”

The U.S. economy will need an additional 20 million postsecondary-educated workers by 2025, Georgetown predicts. This includes 15 million with bachelor’s degrees, one million with associate degrees and four million with vocational certificates. Adding these new graduates will stop the rise of income inequality, according to the report, which predicts wages will rise 24 percent for high school graduates, 15 percent for those with an associate degree and 6 percent for bachelor’s degree holders.

All this jibes with President Obama’s push to make the U.S. first in the world in college graduates by 2020, points out Inside Higher Ed.

The shortage of college-educated workers has created a rising wage premium, write Carnevale and co-author Stephen Rose.

College graduates earn 74 percent more than do high school graduates today — a gap that is up from 40 percent in 1980.

. . . (Adding 20 million college-educated workers) would not only allow the wage premium to shrink to 46 percent, much closer to what it was in 1980, but increase the gross domestic product by about $500 billion over what it would be without those better-educated, higher-earning workers.

Increasing college-going and graduation rates requires spending more on higher education — unlikely, Carnevale concedes — or making higher ed more efficient.

Higher education has not historically been inclined to look for efficiency, but it is likely that “as money slims down, there will be kicking and screaming, and higher ed will move toward efficiencies,” he said.

A bachelor’s degree pays off even for secretaries, plumbers and cashiers, asserts New York Times columnist Dave Leonhardt, citing the Georgetown report. Blue-collar workers with a bachelor’s degree earn more and they’re healthier and happier than their high-school-educated colleagues.

“Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea,” says David Autor, an M.I.T. economist who studies the labor market. “Not sending them to college would be a disaster.”

About 33 percent of young adults earn a bachelor’s degree and another 10 percent receive a two-year degree, Leonhardt writes.

Financial aid cuts the cost:  “Average net tuition and fees at public four-year colleges this past year were only about $2,000 (though Congress may soon cut federal financial aid).”

Meanwhile, the wage premium for college graduates has soared.

According to the Hamilton Project, “college tuition in recent decades has delivered an inflation-adjusted annual return of more than 15 percent. For stocks, the historical return is 7 percent. For real estate, it’s less than 1 percent.”

Perhaps “college filters out people with low cognitive ability, low conscientiousness, and other adverse traits,” writes Arnold Kling.

My elitism comes from the few years I spent as an adjunct at George Mason. The typical undergrad in my course could not write a paper or solve an algebra problem. I doubt that adding more students at this margin is the way to raise people’s incomes.

College attainment will boost economic growth only if it increases cognitive skills, responds Andrew Gillen of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, citing studies by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann. “Recent research (such as Academically Adrift) calls into question how much college boosts cognitive skills,” wrote Gillen in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

I don’t see much point in sending more high school graduates to college to take eighth-grade reading, writing and math.

Brain training fizzles in Britain

Computer-based brain training doesn’t improve cognitive skills, concludes a large study published in Nature. The study involved healthy adult viewers of a BBC science program. From the Wall Street Journal:

One group took part in online games aimed at improving skills linked to general intelligence, such as reasoning, problem-solving and planning. A second test group did exercises to boost short-term memory, attention and mathematical and visual-spatial skills—functions typically targeted by commercial brain-training programs. A third “control group” was asked to browse the Internet and seek out answers to general knowledge questions.

The conclusion: Those who did the brain-training exercises improved in the specific tasks that they practiced. However, their improvement was generally no greater than the gains made by the control group surfing the Internet. And none of the groups showed evidence of improvement in cognitive skills that weren’t specifically used in their tasks.

Critics say the brain workouts were too brief –  10 minutes a day, three times a day, for six weeks — to make a difference.

Modest benefits to cognitive abilities have been reported in studies of older people, preschool children and videogame players, the study’s authors say.