Monday, November 02, 2009

Long Tailed Schooling

I graduated from high school in 1961; the school I went to was and is a top private school, the same one to which Barack Obama later sent his children. While I have no hard data, the impression I get from a variety of sources is that top schools today work their students harder, and cover more advanced material, than my school did.

At the same time, my impression—based in part on hard data, but data that is now about fifteen years out of data—is that the average quality of American K-12 schooling had declined since then. A little googling found data on SAT scores from 1967-2004, adjusted to allow for renorming; over that period the average verbal score fell by thirty-five points, the math rose by two points. Of course, some of that might reflect changes over time in how many students took the test.

This suggests an interesting question: Is the dispersion of quality of K-12 schooling increasing? Are the best schools getting better (or more numerous) and the worst worse (or more numerous)? Do any of my readers know of data supporting or contradicting that conjecture?

It's relevant, among other things, to the ongoing issue of the dispersion of income, apparently increasing. Quite a long time ago the authors of The Bell Curve expressed concern that one result of an increasingly meritocratic society was an increase in assortive mating, increased correlation between innate ability and status, hence an increased division between social groups. In the old days, they argued, the students who went to Harvard and the students who went to Podunk U. differed a lot in parental income and status, not so much in innate ability. As the system got better at identifying kids who were poor but smart and offering them scholarships to Harvard, an opportunity to become doctors, lawyers, or professors, it increased the odds that high status people would not only believe they were smarter than those lower down but be right—with potentially unattractive social consequences.

If they were correct, it would not be surprising if the K-12 schools, public and private, that serve the upper end of the income and status distribution were getting better while the schools serving the lower end were getting worse—as measured by the quality of schooling provided, itself in large part a function of the characteristics of the students being schooled.

I should probably add, at a tangent to this, a note of skepticism that working students harder, one of the points I mentioned at the beginning of this, results in getting them better educated. Some years back, I attended a reunion of my high school at which members of the current staff took the opportunity to tell the alumni what a good job the school was now doing. One of their central points was the amount of the students' time being consumed.

My suspicion was that what I was hearing was "The Devil Finds Work for Idle Hands" theory of education. Keep the kids busy enough and they won't have time to do drugs or get pregnant.

I doubt it works. It might just result in eating up time they could have used to educate themselves. Reading science fiction, arguing politics, playing board games, even playing D&D or World of Warcraft are, I suspect, more educational than homework given for the purpose of keeping kids busy.

16 Comments:

At 3:52 PM, November 02, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should probably add, at a tangent to this, a note of skepticism that working students harder, one of the points I mentioned at the beginning of this, results in getting them better educated.

What you'll find is that despite your skepticism three facts hold true: (1) There is a positive correlation between school year length and test scores. (2) There is a positive correlation between years of school and compensation. (3) There is a positive correlation between test scores and compensation.

Given that you're quoting "The Bell Curve" correlation alone should be good enough for you.

 
At 10:56 PM, November 02, 2009, Blogger Lloyd said...

I never did much work going through school. I spent most of my time playing computer games. I don't think that playing games instead of studying made my marks better (probably MUCH worse). I still don't regret gaming all my time away though.

As a testament to what you said; When I finished school I had enough knowledge of computers from messing around with games and other stuff to get a full time job doing computer maintenance. My school had no course teaching anything about computers.

"playing board games, even playing D&D or World of Warcraft are, I suspect, more educational than homework"

Maybe, but if you are looking for games that make you use your brain you are really scraping the bottom of the barrel with WoW.

Braid:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braid_(video_game)

Baldur's Gate II:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldur%27s_Gate_II

Zelda Ocarina of Time:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zelda_ocarina_of_time

These three games will make your head hurt (in a good way) because they force you to be creative in your solutions to problems. I would even say that time spent playing them would be more beneficial to your child than any homework they will ever do in terms of their brain's development.

 
At 12:03 AM, November 03, 2009, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anymous writes "there is a positive correlation between ... ."

If you mean that literally, it isn't very informative. Compensation, years in school, and test scores can all be expected to correlate with family background, which would give your results 2 and 3 even if there were no causal relation between the variables you name. I don't know enough about what affects school year length to judge whether the same is true for that as well.

Could you provide a source for your facts, so that I can get a more precise statement of them? Do you have data that controls for family background and still finds the sort of results you give?

 
At 7:42 AM, November 03, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here are two sources for raw data for school achievement and school year length.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TIMSS
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_term

FWIW, I never said correlation is very informative.

 
At 7:43 AM, November 03, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading science fiction, arguing politics, playing board games, even playing D&D or World of Warcraft

None of these are particularly good for youer education. Reading "soft" sci-fi will lead you to internalize a lot of misconceptions about physics, arguing politics is worthless without a background in polisci/sociology/economics, and playing board games is a total waste of time unless these are specifically designed to be educational.

Now I'm not saying that busywork is educational either, but I question the notion that the only purpose of homework is to keep students busy. Surely, even bad homework is more educational than playing Word of Warcraft

 
At 8:16 AM, November 03, 2009, Blogger Isegoria said...

I suspect that the Devil does find work for the idle hands of those kids most likely to do drugs or get pregnant — and extra homework does take away from the time young Friedmans would use to educate themselves.

Kids with low impulse-control and low IQ are fundamentally different from kids with high impulse-control and high IQ.

 
At 10:14 AM, November 03, 2009, Blogger David Friedman said...

In defense of even soft s-f ... . Simply reading is educational, and it is more educational if you are reading because you want to, not because you have to complete an assignment and answer questions on it. It teaches you things about the use of language.

And, in defense of World of Warcraft, it can teach you lots of things, depending on your interests. Being active as a crafter selling on the auction house teaches interesting lessons about imperfectly competitive markets. Being active in a guild teaches lessons about small group politics and other social skills. Being really committed to doing well at Raids or PvP may lead to a good deal of education related to problems of constrained maximization—how to figure out what gear, enchants, gems best serve your character's purposes.

Using one's mind is educational, and WoW, like many other games, provides lots of opportunities and incentives to use your mind.

 
At 1:42 PM, November 03, 2009, Blogger Jonathan said...

The odd thing about schooling is that you spend so much of your youth on it, and yet in adulthood you're likely to find that (a) you've forgotten most of it, and (b) even if you could remember all that stuff, it wouldn't be of much use to you.

I had a fairly successful school career and graduated from university, but the only things I learned that have been useful to me in adulthood are reading, writing, simple arithmetic, and (if I find myself in France) my remaining scraps of French.

I'm not sure why people think it's so important for children to waste their time studying things they'll probably never find a use for.

When I was at school, everyone was taught how to solve quadratic equations, as part of elementary mathematics. What percentage of adults, I wonder, ever need to do such a thing in real life?

 
At 3:01 PM, November 03, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Johnathan, I suspect that you're greatly overstating whats forgotten, and understating what's useful. A good deal more than Jeopardy questions is learned in school.

 
At 5:46 PM, November 03, 2009, OpenID hudebnik said...

It might just result in eating up time they could have used to educate themselves. Reading science fiction, arguing politics, playing board games, even playing D&D or World of Warcraft are, I suspect, more educational than homework given for the purpose of keeping kids busy.

I'll buy that the best day reading science fiction, arguing politics, playing D&D or WoW is probably more educational than the worst day at school. And vice versa: the best day at school is more educational than the worst day doing those other things.

I think the real distinction is not between activities chosen by students and activities chosen by teachers, but rather between motivated and lazy. A highly motivated, hard-working child left to his/her own devices may indeed learn all sorts of exciting things, and they'll stick because they're self-motivated -- but the easy thing for such a child to do is vedge out in front of the TV or play a relatively mindless videogame. A highly motivated, inspired and inspirational teacher can come up with interesting, highly educational assignments -- but the easy thing for such a teacher to do (especially under the time pressure of preparing several classes at once) is to assign repetitive exercises that are easily and mechanically graded.

As an economist, you know perfectly well that hard work (mental or otherwise) is a cost that figures heavily in people's choices. And it's a cost that's usually visible up front, while the benefits are often delayed and easily discounted.

 
At 9:26 AM, November 04, 2009, Blogger Lloyd said...

@Dr F
".And, in defense of World of Warcraft, it can teach you lots of things, depending on your interests. Being active as a crafter selling on the auction house teaches interesting lessons about imperfectly competitive markets. Being active in a guild teaches lessons about small group politics and other social skills. Being really committed to doing well at Raids or PvP may lead to a good deal of education related to problems of constrained maximization—how to figure out what gear, enchants, gems best serve your character's purposes."

I seriously played WoW for a year and was regular member of BWL and molten core raids (before BC) before I got totally bored of it. Although what you say is absolutely true, it is covering up the fact that it is a game that is mostly about collecting boar tusks and doing other meaningless tasks requiring no intelligence. Honestly out of all the games I've played WoW was probably one of the least mentally stimulating. It is uninspired game design in it's purest form.

 
At 10:44 AM, November 04, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If everyone is like me then useful learning can only be the result of voluntary activity.

 
At 4:41 PM, November 05, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you put money into schools, you get nicer swimming pools, fancier science labs, etc., but dumb students stay dumb.

I think if you compared the AP math class, say, of a typical public school to an elite school, there would not be much difference.

 
At 5:46 PM, November 07, 2009, Anonymous Kid said...

I learned a lot of very useful things in school. Access to knowledgeable people, guidance, libraries with knowledge usefully sorted, and peers interested in learning has been invaluable to me.

Nevertheless it's extremely hard for me to accept the fact that I have had to spend more than half my time at school doing nothing useful.

I very much doubt that the latter is a necessary consequence of the former. I think it's perfectly possible to have all the things in the first paragraph without having the problem in the second.

As the situation is now, I think I would have been better off not going to school at all. I would probably have learned more useful things in less time.

 
At 6:54 PM, November 08, 2009, Blogger John_David_Galt said...

It seems to me that the decline of average K-12 performance is concentrated in poor minority kids and the neighborhoods where they live, and has two large causes which feed on each other: the welfare system and leaders such as Rev. Al Sharpton.

Sharpton and those like him are to blame because they teach blacks that they shouldn't bother to work or improve themselves; their troubles are all Whitey's fault, and their only hope of improvement lies in using politics and/or revolution to force the rich to turn over wealth to them. (It's not clear yet whether President Obama is really one of this faction and wants to use government to give them what they want, but most of them believe so.)

The welfare system is to blame because it enables people to follow Sharpton's advice and not regret it, or at least not soon. The result is a vicious circle of "welfare families" whose descendants never learn the skills to do anything but live on the dole.

Kids who acquire the "Al Sharpton attitude," either at home or from preachers and other leaders, then use peer pressure and sometimes force to stop those kids who do want to complete their studies, thus dragging down their neighbors along with themselves. Gangs are part of this process, too.

School choice, in some form, would help to alleviate this problem, but I would also like to see the state be willing to take kids away from parents who share the Sharpton attitude, or at least cut off the dole to those parents. My idea of liberty does not include a "right" to raise kids in a way that is certain to ruin their futures.

 
At 3:36 AM, December 04, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok John Galt. So, please explain to me why countries in Europe with far more generous welfare have much better K-12 performance, especially over the past few decades?

(P.S. WoW is a game designed to keep you addicted so you keep pl^Haying. Anything you "learn" from it is merely a side effect)

 

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