Friday, July 29, 2011

Sci. Am., Do Your Homework

The August issue of Scientific American published an editorial by their board of editors titled, “Stand and Deliver.” In the editorial, they perpetuate the myth that Jaime Escalante was a paragon of teaching who should be emulated across the nation and that this will catapult the U.S. ahead of its trading partners in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education. To their credit, they do argue for increased funding, better professional support, improved social status, and better supplies and equipment for math and science teachers. However, they also replicate the same bad “science” of the Ed Deformers and pundits who blame poor educational outcomes on the quality of teaching, contrary to the data.

Here is my response, published on their website today:

Escalante was no model of good teaching. He verbally abused his students and couldn’t even replicate his own educational “experiment” after moving to Sacramento.1 Contrary to the myth, he did not convert random low income, math challenged students into calculus stars overnight. Students were recruited and had to spend years and summers taking special classes to prepare for it.2 Even with this additional support, students still needed considerable time outside the school day to succeed, with Escalante holding unpaid clinics on weekends and after school.

Also, the Escalante model is not sustainable. Teachers are not paid well for the hours they are contracted to work and most already put in considerable extra unpaid hours preparing lessons, and tutoring. Expecting them to give up evenings and weekends is unreasonable.

U.S. students do perform poorly compared with peers in many developed nations. However, the reason is that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any industrialized nation. Over 20% of U.S. children are poor, compared with less than 4% in Finland. Our middle class students outscore students in nearly every other country.3

Poor children are more likely to suffer low birth weights and malnutrition, which lead to cognitive impairment and learning disabilities. Iron-deficiency anemia is twice as common among poor children.4 10% of poor students have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which can impair intelligence.5 Lack of healthcare causes poor children to be absent 40% more often than affluent kids.6 In one study, high school drop-outs averaged 27.6 absences per year, while graduates averaged only 11.8.7 Likewise, 41% of students who changed schools frequently were below grade level in reading and 33% were below grade level in math, compared to 26% and 17% for those who remained at the same schools.8

The achievement gap is already in place well before children have even started school. Cognitive scores of children entering kindergarten were 60% higher for affluent kids than for those in the lowest income group.9 Similar results have been observed among children as young as three.10 

Better tools, higher pay and greater support are necessary to attract and retain the best teachers. However, as long as we ignore the socioeconomic factors that contribute to academic success, we will continue to see poor educational outcomes compared with other developed nations. Indeed, even conservative researcher Eric Hanushek believes that only 10% of student achievement is attributable to their teachers, while Dana Goldhaber attributes 60% of student achievement to factors outside of school, like family and income.11

1Pyle, Amy. 1998. “Escalante’s Formula Not Always the Answer.” Los Angeles Times, May 4.
2Jesness, Jerry. 2002. “Stand and Deliver.” Reason, July.
3Krashen, Stephen, Ph.D. 2011. “USA Today Gets It Wrong.” Schools Matter, July 18.
4Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, and Duncan, Greg J. 1997. “The Effects of Poverty on Children.” Children and Poverty, Vol. 7, Number 2, Summer/Fall
6 Rothstein, R. (2002) Out of Balance: Our Understanding of How Schools Affect Society and How Society Affects Schools, the Spencer Foundation.
7Alexander, K.L., Entwisle, D. R., and Kabbani, N. 2001. “The Dropout Process in Life Course Perspective: Early Risk Factors at Home and School.” Teachers College Record.
8Barton, P. E. 2003. “Parsing the Achievement Gap.” Educational Testing Service.
9Burkham, D. and Lee, V. 2002. “Inequality at the Starting Gate: Social Background Differences in Achievement as Children Begin School.” Economic Policy Institute, September 1.
10Hart, B., and Risely, T.R. 1995. “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.” Strategies for
11Ravitch, Diane. 2011. “The Myth of Charter Schools.” The New York Review of Books, January 13.

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