Pre-K won’t close achievement gap

Universal pre-K won’t solve the vocabulary gap (or inequality), writes Kay Hymowitz in Time. There’s no substitute for stable, nurturing families.

Two-year-olds from high-income families know many more words than two-year-olds from low-income families, according to a new study that confirms earlier research. Language Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K, reported the New York Times on the front page.

The idea that pre-K can compensate for family break down is “the preschool fairy tale,” writes Hymowitz.

It’s true that good preschools raise the math and reading scores of disadvantaged kids. The problem is that the gains are almost always temporary.  Study after study of every kind of program since Head Start first came on line in the 1960’s to recent state wide programs in Georgia and Oklahoma has concluded that, with the lonely exception of third grade boys’ math scores in Tulsa, cognitive gains “fade out” by third grade, probably because subpar schools and an unsupportive environment at home were unable to help pre-K kids take advantage of those gain.

Researchers now argue that preschool has the potential to create lasting benefits in students’ “soft skills” such as  attentiveness and self-control.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, one of early childhood education’s most prominent advocates, has argued that because soft skills are vital to labor market and life success, under some conditions preschools have actually been able to reduce welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, and crime rates, while also improving educational outcomes and earnings. At least one study has estimated that the resulting higher tax revenues, lower imprisonment and welfare costs have created a return of nearly 13 dollars for every preschool dollar spent.

. . . Heckman’s findings are based on several small, model programs from the 1960’s. The most famous and influential of them, the Perry Preschool in Ypsalanti, Michigan, involved only 58 children.  It takes a heavy dose of wishful thinking to assume that states are any more capable of creating a large system of Perry quality preschools than they have been of designing networks of high quality K-12 schools.

Even if that were possible, it would close the achievement gap, she writes. Perry graduates did better than the control group, but much worse than children from middle or working-class families.  And “these mediocre gains were not passed on to the next generation.”

The first two children of Perry grads (there’s no data on later siblings) were just as likely as the children of non Perry-ites to go on welfare, drop out of school, and to get arrested; their earnings were also similarly anemic.

In other words, the graduates of the best preschool designed for low income kids we’ve ever had in the United States  grew up to become low skilled, low income single parents, less costly to society than others without their early educational advantage, but equally likely to raise children who would cycle back into poverty.

“It’s parents, not formal education, that makes the difference for young children’s readiness for school and success once they get there,” Hymowitz concludes.

If Mama ain’t functional, ain’t nobody functional.

Gove: Stop lying to kids

“Lying to children” is a crime, said Michael Gove, Britain’s education secretary, at the National Summit for Excellence in Education in Boston. Children are being “told they’re ready for college, a job or the military” when they’re not, he said.

He compared inflated exam grades on Britain’s graduation exams to Soviet tractor production propaganda, notes the Guardian.

“For years, ministers in previous governments looked at the way more and more people were getting GCSEs and they congratulated themselves, like Soviet economics ministers on the growth in statistics,” Gove (said) . . .

Slipping into a mock Russian accent and syntax, Gove said: “Look in Russia, thousands more get GCSEs. Surely now we are education powerhouse?”

Instead, he told the audience in Boston, “the truth is that we were lying to children” by telling them they would be able to go to university or find skilled work.

“Employers said: ‘You have a piece of paper that says it, you’re qualified in English and mathematics. But you can’t write a business letter, you can’t do basic arithmetic required to work in this store or on this shop floor.’

Both Britain and the U.S. are “houses divided by inequality and lack of opportunity,” Gove said. Access to the best universities in schools is “rationed and restricted, increasingly, to those who live in upscale neighbourhoods, have parents who have access to connections, and are supported by stable families.”

Children without those advantages need “a great school with great teachers,” but many won’t have that chance, Gove said. They’ll never reach their full potential.

Born to an unwed mother, Gove could have been “robbed of opportnity,” if he hadn’t been adopted, he said. Instead, he was raised by parents who made sure he attended excellent schools.

In the name of equity, Gove strongly endorsed Common Core standards, high expectations for all students,  testing (“tests are liberating!”) and competition.

Be skeptical of ‘deeper learning’

Beware of educators promising deeper learning, writes Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

The notion is that schools spend too much time focused on the acquisition of knowledge, especially knowing facts. In the past century, several alternatives have arisen to dethrone the prominent role of knowledge in schools: project-based learning, inquiry and discovery learning, higher-level thinking, critical thinking, outcome based education, and 21st Century Skills.  Now it is deeper learning.

All such strategies claim to transcend learning academic content organized within traditional intellectual disciplines, writes Loveless.  For example, it’s more important for students to be able to analyze any history they study than to learn the major events of U.S. history. It’s better for students to do science than to know about science. “It is less important to learn the algorithms and articulated procedures of mathematics than to apply them in real world contexts while solving real world problems.”

As E.D. Hirsch argued in The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them, these anti-knowledge movements lack evidence to support their claims, Loveless writes. Furthermore, “in disparaging academic content” they “exacerbate social inequality.”

If public schools don’t teach algebra or chemistry or history or great literature or how to write well—the old-fashioned learning that has been around for centuries and remains high status knowledge in most cultures—rich kids will get it somewhere else.  Poor kids won’t.

Common Core won’t be able to test deeper learning, writes John Merrow on Taking Note. A recent NewsHour story looked at a four-month “expeditionary learning” project at a Maine middle school.

. . . what sort of standardized paper-and-pencil (or computer-based) assessment can test for grit, teamwork, communication, innovation, ambition and the like?  To test those skills and capabilities, we would have to be willing to go back to the days when we trusted teachers to assess their students.  We would have to back away from our current small-minded policies that embrace test results as a way to judge, threaten and punish teachers–and instead use tests and assessments as we once did, to improve learning and teaching.

In a comment, Merrow calls for spending whatever’s necessary “to develop a sophisticated instrument that can assess those skills and capabilities that we value.”

College’s ‘party pathway’ maintains inequality

Seeking the “college experience,” young women in “party dorms” — especially those from working-class families — are distracted from their academic goals by social pressures, according to Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality Elizabeth-A.-Armstrong, a University of Michigan sociology professor, and Laura T. Hamilton, of the University of California at Merced, followed 53 women for five years after they first moved into a dorm at a middle-tier public university.

Even ambitious students were tempted by the “party pathway,”  which included a Greek party scene and an array of easy majors, researchers found.

. . . Taylor and Emma had strong academic records entering college and both aspired to be dentists. At the end of the study, Taylor was in dental school while Emma was working as a dental assistant—a job that does not require a college degree. Their fates diverged when Emma made it into an elite sorority and Taylor opted into a more studious sorority—a move supported by her college-savvy parents. Without highly educated parents like Taylor’s, Emma needed academic and social supports not offered at this school to succeed.

“College did not act as a pathway to upward mobility for most,” Armstrong said.

“Party schools” cater to “the social and educational needs of affluent, full-freight students,” write Hamilton and Armstrong.  For students who can’t afford five or six years to earn a soft degree — or no degree at all — the “college experience” is too costly.

Students overboard

Photo: Here in Philly the district is closing nearly 30 schools, sending some kids to other dangerous schools to save $$$.  Meanwhile a few miles away it's laptops for every kid.  This could work for other cities' schools, too.

Philadelphia is closing nearly 30 schools, sending some students to dangerous schools to save money, writes cartoonist Signe Wilkinson. “Meanwhile a few miles away it’s laptops for every kid.”

Is higher ed creating inequality?

Has higher education become an engine of inequality? 

More colleges are awarding credits for competence rather than class time.

‘Broader, Bolder’ is ‘narrow, niggling, naive’

Low achievement by low-income students isn’t caused by poverty, argues Paul Peterson in Education Next.  He’s responding to a speech by Helen Ladd to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management calling for fighting poverty and income inequality rather than trying to change schools.

Education reform policies “are not likely to contribute much in the future —to raising overall student achievement or to reducing [gaps in] achievement,” said Ladd, an advocate of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Instead, policy makers should adopt “macro-economic policies designed to reduce unemployment, cash assistance programs for poor families, tax credits for low wage workers, or or an all-out assault ‘war on poverty.’”

Family income correlates with reading and math scores, but research hasn’t found a causal link, Peterson writes. It’s possible that “parents who make a better living also . . . do a better job of raising their children.”

In a 2011 Brookings Institution report, increasing a poor family’s income by 50 percent lifted math achievement by 20 percent of a standard deviation,” but that drops to 6.4 percent after adjusting for “race, mother’s and father’s education, single or two-parent family, smoking during pregnancy, and so forth.”  It’s more than twice as important for achievement to have a mother with a high school diploma instead of a mother who dropped out.

Drawing on a study by Stanford education professor Sean Reardon, Ladd says that the gap in reading achievement between students from families in the lowest and highest income deciles is larger for those born in 2001 than for those born in the early 1940s. She suspects it is because those living in poor families today have “poor health, limited access to home environments with rich language and experiences, low birth weight, limited access to high-quality pre-school opportunities, less participation in many activities in the summer and after school that middle class families take for granted, and more movement in and out of schools because of the way that the housing market operates.”

But her trend data hardly support that conclusion. Those born to poor families in 2000 had much better access to medical and preschool facilities than those born in 1940. Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start, summer programs, housing subsidies, and the other components of Johnson’s War on Poverty did not become available until 1965. Why didn’t those broad, bold strokes reduce the achievement gap?

What has changed for the worse is family structure, Peterson writes. More children are growing up in single-parent families, which doubles the risk that a child will drop out of high school.

Ladd proposes spending more on preschool, after-school programs, school-based health clinics and social services. These programs “have never been shown to have more than modest effects on student achievement,” Peterson writes. She also wants high-quality schools with good teachers for needy students — with no way to judge quality. “In sum, the Broader, Bolder platform is narrow, niggling, naïve, and negligible. . . . They promise little hope of stemming the rising number of single-parent families, a major contributor to both child poverty and low levels of student performance. “


While protesters complain about the top 1 percent, a harsher inequality — the gap between college graduates and non-graduates — is dividing the country, writes David Brooks in the New York Times

Over the past several decades, the economic benefits of education have steadily risen. In 1979, the average college graduate made 38 percent more than the average high school graduate, according to the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke. Now the average college graduate makes more than 75 percent more.

Moreover, college graduates have become good at passing down advantages to their children. If you are born with parents who are college graduates, your odds of getting through college are excellent. If you are born to high school grads, your odds are terrible.

It’s not just income, writes Brooks, cribbing from Can the Middle Class Be Saved? in The Atlantic.  College graduates have a widening edge in family stability, health habits, maybe even friendship networks.

In the 1970s, high school and college grads had very similar family structures. Today, college grads are much more likely to get married, they are much less likely to get divorced and they are much, much less likely to have a child out of wedlock.

 The “stagnant human capital” and “stagnant social mobility” of the bottom 50 percent is the real problem, Brooks argues.

U.S. is average — except in inequality

The U.S. education system is ahead of the pack in one category — inequality — notes Education Trust in its analysis of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.

Compared to other developed countries, the United States has the fifth largest gap between low-income students and their more affluent classmates. In reading, for example, students attending our high-poverty high schools performed 24 percent below those from higher income schools.

. . . Many of the countries at the top of the performance rankings – Canada, Finland, and Korea, for example – rank noticeably at the bottom of the list measuring the size of socioeconomic-status (SES) gaps.

Low-SES students in the U.S. don’t do as well as similar students in other countries, such as New Zealand.

U.S. students who are white and Asian students perform about as well in reading, math, and science as the average student in high-performing countries like Canada and Japan, Education Trust reports. But our Latino students are at the same level as Turkey and Dubai, while black students are on a par with students in Serbia and Bulgaria.

The recent ACT report, which looked at whether students can meet the new Common Core Standards, also found massive achievement gaps. In reading, 47 percent of white eleventh-graders reach the standard, compared with 19 percent of Hispanic and 11 percent of blacks. In algebra, 41 percent of white high school juniors, 21 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks are meet the standard.

Inequality in Hamburg

By the age of 10, most German children are tracked into a college-prep or vocational program.  “A child from a privileged background is four times as likely to reach a Gymnasium, the main route to university, as one with similar grades from a working-class family,” reports The Economist. To reduce inequality, Hamburg is delaying tracking and eliminating school choice.

Propelled by the Greens, Hamburg’s government wants to extend primary school, where children of all abilities learn together, from four years to six. “Social distance is diminished when children learn longer together,” says Christa Goetsch, Hamburg’s (Green) education minister. The reform would end parents’ right to pick their high school, because pushy middle-class parents advance their children at the expense of others. Less controversially, Hamburg’s half-dozen types of high school are to be melded into two, Gymnasien and “neighbourhood schools,” both of which will offer the Abitur, the exam needed to enter university.

Middle-class parents “worry that children will be held back by schoolmates destined to be social and economic laggards and by teachers who cater to their weaknesses,” reports The Economist.

Via Education Gadfly.