Thursday, June 19, 2008

Education, Diversity, Poverty and Culture

There is an interesting report in today's (June 19th, 2008) New York Times, Gifted Programs in the City Are Less Diverse.

Apparently this past year, New York City instituted uniform standards for admission into public school gifted programs with the consequence that this year the children from the wealthiest districts are disproportionately represented in those programs and the share from the least privileged districts in the school system have seen their proportion of admissions decline steeply.

What is interesting in the article, once you strip away the rhetoric and make allowances for the weak analysis of the data, is that the City was motivated by ostensibly sensible goals but completely ignored the fact that some of its goals were in direct conflict with popular interpretation of those goals. The responses from various advocates, as reported in the article, shows that they have missed the mark completely in terms of learning what the results might show needs to be done, as opposed to just complaining about the results.

All of this is confused by trying to shoehorn the issue into one of race as opposed to what is clearly an issue of class, culture and to some degree wealth.

The objectives of the City as set out in the article were to 1) "equalize access to programs that critics complained were dominated by white middle-class children" 2) "even the playing field and eliminate any advantage held by certain parents", 3) "ensure equal access", and to increase 4) "fairness and transparency."

All of these are good goals and uncontroversial in their own right. The problem arises when some of these goals get misinterpreted. Ensuring equal access by setting standard objective tests is clearly a logical means of accomplishing these stated objectives. But only if fairness is defined as equal access and standards for everyone. If fairness is interpreted as equal outcomes, then there is a problem. One of the fundamental laws faced by every wealthy, diverse and free society is that Freedom of Choice + Diversity of Values = Varied (unequal) Outcomes. The greater the freedom and the greater the diversity, the more disparate will be the outcomes.

An interesting example of this was a recent study which was examining potential gender discrimination in the sciences. As part of her analysis the researcher looked at representation in the hard sciences fields (engineering, physics, chemistry, maths, medicine, etc.) in various countries to determine the degree of female participation. Perturbingly, what was discovered was that those societies that were the wealthiest and most free were the ones with the greatest gender disparities. Those countries with the least freedom were the ones where genders were more equally represented. It was a truly intriguing study.

Despite local efforts to make everything an issue of race, it is clear that the issue is one of class, culture and wealth, not race. And that is what I would think that the numbers ought to be telling the city. If equal standards apply to all and we also want there to be equal outcomes, then what interventions do we need to make in those districts where they perform particularly poorly?

This is difficult terrain for three reasons. One is that, as the article notes, experts were "warning that standardized tests given to young children were heavily influenced by their upbringing and the preschool education", i.e. class, culture and wealth. If this is accepted as true (and I believe it is), then in order to improve test results in low performing areas, the interventions have to be designed to change values surrounding the child's upbringing as well as their preschool education. Socially this smacks of social engineering and is very dangerous territory. The second issue is that such interventions, even if agreed to, have a huge price tag and consequently require a huge political commitment to helping to change the circumstances and culture of the poorest members of the community. The third issue is that it puts responsibility back into the hands of parents. Teachers can do a more or less good job but a good teacher can help a decent student who comes from a background with high expectations, values learning, etc. A great teacher working with a child unequipped with these values and with no home-front support will probably only make a marginal difference. Gifted teachers, diligent administration, and adequate resources are all important but can not on their own, overcome the issues of culture and class.

How does this all relate to reading? It is certainly true that factors such as class size, dollar resources committed to education, teacher certifications standards, and teaching techniques all have some impact. However, in virtually every well-structured study I read, contrary to expectations, the overall influence of these factors on outcomes is pretty small. At the same time, virtually every well-structured study I read and all my real world experience across many countries, seems to point towards home values and pre-school education as the primary predictors of reading capability and reading volumes. Reading is then in turn highly correlated to general academic and material success. So I take this general education article as a corollary to the more specific issue of reading capabilities.

As I say, an interesting article. Hopefully someone looks at figuring out how to make the right investments to bring all up to the same standards rather than to simply omit or lower the standards because they reveal needs that are not easily or cheaply fulfilled.

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