Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Limits to what schools can achieve

Since setting up one of England’s first free schools in 2011, I’ve become interested in what schools can and cannot achieve. Six years ago, I shared the optimism that characterises most graduates entering the education sector for the first time and talked passionately about the transformative impact that good schools can have. But six years later I’m a little more realistic. I now like to quote the opening verse of the Serenity Prayer when talking about this subject:

God grant me the serenity/to accept the things I cannot change;/courage to change the things I can;/and the wisdom to know the difference.

So what are the things that schools cannot change? Having immersed myself in psychology, particularly psychometrics, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that it is naïve to think schools can do much to ameliorate the effects of inequality. I don’t just mean socio-economic inequality; I also mean differences in intelligence. A child’s general cognitive ability is the strongest single predictor of how well they do in their GCSEs, with differences in IQ accounting for more than half of the variance in exam results. See this 2007 study, for instance, which involved tracking 70,000 English schoolchildren over a five-year period. It’s a finding that has been replicated several times.

Can schools do anything to raise children’s general cognitive ability? The answer is maybe, but we haven’t yet discovered how to do it. Intelligence is a highly heritable characteristic, which is to say that more than half the variance in IQ at a population level is due to genetic differences, with less than half due to environmental differences. It’s true that the heritability of IQ is lower among children than it is among adults, with the environment playing a bigger role during adolescence. But the impact of the environment on children’s attainment, even during these formative years, is still fairly negligible – lower than most educationalists believe. Overall, children’s genes account for between 60 and 70 per cent of the variance in GCSE results, with IQ accounting for about half that genetic influence.

Paradoxically, schools do appear to have an effect on the [itals] mean [itals] IQ scores of large populations. As a general rule, the better a country’s public education system, the higher its average IQ. Not only that, but the political scientist James Flynn has demonstrated that the mean IQ of populations in the more affluent parts of the world has increased since 1930, an effect he partly attributes to better schooling. (For more on the Flynn Effect, see here. Interestingly, Flynn now believes IQ across the developed world has started to fall.)

But what schools cannot do, or haven’t been able to do up to now, is raise the IQs of individual students. In particular, they haven’t been able to reduce the differences in IQ among their pupils by raising the general cognitive ability of those who start out below average. A fairly common misunderstanding among educationalists is thinking that if you make schools more equal, you will equalise attainment. In fact, if every school is equally good, you may succeed in reducing some of the differences in GCSE results due to environmental differences, but by doing that you will automatically accentuate the variation due to differences in natural ability, including genetic differences when it comes to conscientiousness and other personality traits linked with attainment. Looked at this way, school improvement may actually [itals] increase [itals] inequality of school outcomes rather than reduce it.

So what can schools do? The good news is that environmental differences still account for between 30 and 40 per cent of the variance in GCSE results, and some of that is linked to the quality of the school. The bad news is that differences between schools, such as the amount of resources a school receives, the number of children in a class, the quality of the teachers, etc., account for no more than 10 per cent of the variance in exam results after you control for variables like students’ IQ and parental socio-economic status.

Now, the fact that ‘school effects’ are quite small shouldn’t be a reason to despair. Good teachers and good schools can still make a difference for key attributes like motivation, attitudes toward learning and self-confidence – see the impact of No Excuses charter schools on raising the attainment of minority students in America’s inner-cities, for instance. And I believe it’s possible – even likely – that we will eventually discover how to boost children’s IQs. By this, I don’t mean that teachers will become better at instilling a ‘Growth Mindset’ – see here for a wide-ranging discussion of the shortcomings of that approach. Rather, I mean that as our understanding of the neuro-biology of intelligence deepens, we may be able to develop pharmacological interventions that boost children’s intelligence. Smart drugs that actually make you smarter – permanently. As I say, I think that could happen, probably within the next 25-50 years. (For more on this, see The Neuroscience of Intelligence by Richard Haier.) Of course, the risk is that affluent parents will be the first to take advantage of this technology, thereby increasing inequality.

In the meantime, we should acknowledge the limitations of what schools can do. As the Serenity Prayer says, it takes courage to change the things you can – and fortitude to keep on going when you know those changes are bound to be quite modest.


The Rise Of Red-Green Fascism: British Universities May Censor Student Reading

Universities are considering the insertion of warnings into books and even moving some off open library shelves altogether to protect students from “dangerous” and “wrong” arguments.
Image result for banning books

The proposal could hit books by climate-change sceptics, feminists, eugenicists, creationists, theologians and Holocaust deniers. It will generate new controversy over free speech at British universities, where speakers have been “no-platformed” because of their views.

The move on books follows a campaign to restrict access to work by the historian David Irving, which has already resulted in some university libraries, including Churchill College, Cambridge, moving his books into closed storage. Others, such as University College London, have also labelled some of Irving’s books “Holocaust denial literature”, or shelved them with historiography rather than history.

Manchester has refused to remove Irving’s books from open display, arguing that making them available to students is a matter of free speech, which universities have a duty to uphold.

The director of library services at UCL, Paul Ayris, revealed the decision to move the Irving books was based on “contemporary thinking among librarians”. This included a study “of the sometimes complex ethical issues of library neutrality, in relation, for example, to climate-change denial, and questions of equality and diversity, as well as Holocaust denial”.

Ayris also referred to a campaign directed at Vancouver Women’s Library to ban 20 feminist titles including works by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon on the grounds they might offend transgender people and sex workers.

Academics said controversial titles included Nigel Lawson’s book An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming, and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which hypothesised that the children of Jesus and Mary Magdalene have a claim to the throne of France, inspiring Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code.

The debate is being led by a group called the Radical Librarians Collective, which argues that pretending that libraries are “neutral” in the way they display books “maintains the status quo of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”.


Credentialism threatening Preschool education

Efforts to fill centers with better qualified early-childhood workers are threatening the jobs of those who can’t afford to get their college degree, and some states are turning to apprenticeships to solve both problems at once. 

Jameelah Jones is relieved to be working again. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, she had to take leave from her job at the Parent Infant Center in west Philadelphia where she was the head teacher to a class of 3-year olds. With her cancer in remission she was able to return to work last year, but she was barred from going back to the same classroom: The center had raised the qualifications for its head teachers, requiring that they now have an associate’s degree. Jones doesn’t have one, so she had to take a position in the infant room instead, caring for children ages 2 and younger.

Jones, who recently turned 50 and has lived in Philadelphia since immigrating there from Guyana at age 10,  has spent most of her adult life working with children. She has watched the childcare field evolve over the course of her career, from an emphasis on making sure young children mind their manners to one on helping them develop rich vocabularies before they start kindergarten. “I used to teach the children to say, ‘No thank you’ to anything they didn’t want or like. I must have said it a thousand times a day,” she said, chuckling. “Now, if a child doesn’t want something, I encourage them to say exactly what they mean; ‘No, I do not want to share my block with you.’ Or `No, I do not want to eat the carrots.’ The more words the better.”

Jones believes that long-time workers like her do need more training in the theory and practice of early learning. In fact, she has tried many times over the last two decades to complete a college degree, and she is still paying off over $8,000 in student loans from those attempts. But thanks to various obstacles—raising her two daughters, the deaths of her nephew and then her sister, or her recent battle with cancer—she was never able to finish. By now, she has run through her eligibility for Pell grants and can’t afford any more debt.

With so many new requirements popping up, time is running out for many long-time childcare workers, particularly those like Jones for whom going back to school seems all but impossible.

But thankfully for Jones, her employer is keen for her to stay and willing to help. It’s partnering with a program that equips early-education workers who lack college degrees with the training and qualifications they need to remain competitive. This spring, Jones enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), as part of the apprenticeship program, organized by a local nonprofit dedicated to building the skills of the city’s health and childcare workers. The organization, the District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund, is partnering with CCP and more than 20 childcare centers across the city to provide apprenticeships to people like Jones, who along with 32 fellow apprentices is on track to earn an associate’s degree in early-childhood education.

Jones is optimistic about finishing because it’s easier to combine working and learning through the apprenticeship approach than it is through traditional degree programs. In this program, she is a “registered apprentice,” a designation defined in federal law for a particular class of workers that confers a set of specific rights and responsibilities on her and her employer. Jones’s rights include access to structured, paid, on-the-job training and a worksite mentor. She also has six hours a week of release time to attend classes at CCP, and is entitled to a series of pay raises as she meets key benchmarks. Her responsibilities include working closely with her mentor, passing her courses, and abiding by all the workplace rules she was already subject to at PIC. In addition, she has to demonstrate mastery of a set of core, on-the-job skills; she gets college credit once she does.

In other words, Jones is making progress toward her degree just by coming to work every day and learning on the job. And by the time she finishes next year, she’ll not only have an associate’s degree—she will also be making $2 more per hour than she currently is, and be no deeper in debt.

* * *

The early-education field is in a difficult period of transition. Grounded in solid evidence that early learning can help reduce educational achievement gaps among children and generate a host of other lasting positive effects, the field is still struggling to distinguish itself from traditional childcare. Early education is arguably the most effective part of the educational system for mitigating the toxic effects of poverty, but it also receives much less funding than other levels of schooling. While advocates seek to position early education as a natural extension of the K-12 school system, it is still delivered primarily through private childcare centers and paid for by parents who can afford it. The public funding that is available exists primarily through Head Start and block grants and is distributed as vouchers to low-income families; states are increasingly funding early education, too. But waiting lists are often long and demand far outstrips supply.

As governments invest, they also need to ensure that public dollars are flowing to high-quality programs—which means to centers staffed by qualified teachers. Efforts to professionalize the field have focused on increasing the education level of the workers in the centers, with the eventual goal of putting them on par with those of elementary-school teachers, who in public schools are required to have bachelor’s degrees.

Increasing the credential requirements for early educators, however, is raising a host of equity concerns as longtime workers like Jones face the prospect of losing their job if they are unable to complete college. Fewer than half of educators working with children ages 3–5 in center-based settings in 2012 had a bachelor’s degree. That figure drops to 19 percent for those working with infants and toddlers.

Then there’s the fact that increasing the educational levels of early-education workers has had almost no effect on their wages. The average pay for a childcare teacher in the United States is just $9.70 an hour, and many lack access to benefits like health insurance or paid leave. Pay is low even for early-education teachers with bachelor’s degrees, who make around $30,000 per year on average. In fact, according to Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, a bachelor’s degree in early education generates the lowest lifetime earnings of all college majors. Imposing degree requirements for workers like Jones without a strategy for increasing her wages could mean early-education advocates are just trading off greater equity at one end of the spectrum for more inequity at the other.


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