Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Poor kids are dumb. There's nothing we can do about it

I just came across this article by Joan Barkan in the left leaning Dissent Magazine, about reforms in our education system, and I was, quite frankly, appalled.

The article's core premise is that Bill and Melinda Gates and the Broad Foundation have a disproportionate impact on the education agenda. I don't really have much of an opinion on that. My wife is an education professor and researcher and so I do see the education research funding process up close. But while Bill and Melinda fund what I think are some good initiatives I would not suggest that I know enough to opine on the overall effectiveness or subjective "goodness" of their work.

But the core of the article seems to be that none of the reforms that they have tried to effect have worked. As I was reading the article, I expected her to lay out some strategies that she thought *would* work. She did not.

Her argument seems to be that education in America, relative to other countries, works fine for families in the top 25% of income, but then gets less good relative to other countries as we include the lower 75%. And she sees this as proof that in fact there is nothing wrong with our educational system.

here is the key quote:

To justify their campaign, ed reformers repeat, mantra-like, that U.S. students are trailing far behind their peers in other nations, that U.S. public schools are failing. The claims are specious. Two of the three major international tests—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the Trends in International Math and Science Study—break down student scores according to the poverty rate in each school. The tests are given every five years. The most recent results (2006) showed the following: students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math. When the poverty rate was 10 percent to 25 percent, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate rose still higher, students ranked lower and lower. Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. The average ranking of American students reflects this. The problem is not public schools; it is poverty. And as dozens of studies have shown, the gap in cognitive, physical, and social development between children in poverty and middle-class children is set by age three.

Drilling students on sample questions for weeks before a state test will not improve their education. The truly excellent charter schools depend on foundation money and their prerogative to send low-performing students back to traditional public schools. They cannot be replicated to serve millions of low-income children. Yet the reform movement, led by Gates, Broad, and Walton, has convinced most Americans who have an opinion about education (including most liberals) that their agenda deserves support.
 In other words, regarding public schools, there's nothing to see here. Move along. All this money is being wasted (or worse) and there's nothing that can be done. And in fact all of these education reforms are "messing up" what it appears she thinks are schools that are running as well as is possible, given their students.

I find her argument disgusting. It is a horrific defense of the status quo wrapped in a pandering argument designed to curry favor with teachers unions that hate the idea of reform in any way shape or form.

I am not here to argue that all of the reform ideas floating around are good ones. But the idea that no reform ideas or experiments or research can be good because these poor dumb kids are hopeless by age 3 is really a modern day perhaps more politically palatable form of eugenics.

That this piece appears in "Dissent" which frames itself as "a magazine of the left" on its about page is even more shocking. It is also, I think, a reflection of the fact that the historical alignment of the policial left with the poor and lower middle class has given way to, among other things, powerful union lobbies that have no alignment of interests with "the people", much less poor people of color that probably come out in smaller numbers at the polls and are, for the most part, unfortunately, politically invisible.


  1. What if it were at least partially true?

    There is any, obviously, a genetic component to intelligence - just look around you. Even without believing scientific studies that quantify this effect in practice, you both cannot claim to understand how evolution works and believe there are no genetic discrepancies in intelligence.

    And if there is any correlation whatsoever whereby intelligent people tend to get out of poverty (which there is, just as obviously), then of course there will remain a higher proportion of genetically dumb people amongst the poor than amongst the rich.

    How big is that effect? It can be measured. Is it overwhelmed by other effects, or is it overwhelming them, or are they of comparable size? You have to measure to tell. You can't just dismiss this effect through religious faith in "equality", hope that by putting your head in the sand it will disappear, and hope that money spent while putting the head in the sand will be as helpful to those you purport to help as money spent while understanding the effects that matter.

  2. @Faré

    Ok, that is a fair perspective. I dont accept it at all, but if thats her perspective, that these poor (mostly brown) people cant be helped through education, then why would she be so offended at a private individual's desire to help. If that fails, its on them. But dont frame it as some sort of "from the left" perspective that she somehow has the kids and the education system's best interests in mind. If she wants to say "screw the poor kids, we cant help them", then thats fine. But I would appreciate a more direct approach as you have presented.

  3. Eliminating high poverty in schools is possible, particularly in mid-sized US cities. For instance, Raleigh NC starts bussing students if the poverty rate at a school exceeds 40%. The schools there perform very well, and it is the exact opposite of the "school choice" / charter school approach, which is advocated by the current administration.

    Eliminating high poverty schools should be a priority in all cities where it is possible. Obviously it is not going to work in a place like NYC, so charter schools seem like the only policy option.

    We are often reminded that replacing the bottom 25% of teacher with the top 25% of teacher would close the US-International achievement gap. Some people think firing the bottom performers, is the best way to go about this.

    Personally, I think the firing of bottom performers is just too confrontational. I have seen the policy implemented at a fortune 10 company, and all it did was make people paranoid, and employees over focus on non-productive activities like constantly bickering about performance reviews.

    If I were god of the school system, I would start by creating a charter school that is focused on peer review. Every teacher would spend 3 periods a week in a different teacher's classroom. They would be required to do a writeup of the other teachers performance using the sandwich method (what he did good, what can be improved, something else good). This way teachers would give and receive feedback on a continuous basis. If it worked, it is also something the unions might agree to.

  4. @Hank
    No, "the left" doesn't equate trying to help people, or by that definition, everyone is on the left, or at least people "on the left" aren't more so than others.

    If genetic limitations mean that return of education on investment on some kids is much less than on other kids, it also means, by comparative advantage, that you can help same kids much more through other means than education. Education-worship, or worse, schooling-worship, then only makes for making these kids MUCH WORSE OFF than if a fraction of the money had been spent in other ways for same kids.

    Then, we find that the "pour money blindly in schools" left is actually a vast conspiracy to make the poor people much worse off, while pretending to help them, and maintain a bureaucracy of vampires to live at the expense of both the poor people and the taxpayers.

    @John "improving" statistics vaguely and indirectly correlated to something you want doesn't actually improve things for anyone, but only leads to vast expense of resources for negative results. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart's_law

  5. @Faré

    I get it. There is something genetically inferior about *america's* poor 75% vs. the rest of the world. Gotcha mr. shockley. I'm sure glad my parents didnt take advice from you or I'd be a garbage man. But I do appreciate that you are so concerned that schooling may have done me a disservice.

  6. 1- Don't confuse causation and correlation.

    2- You obviously are endowed with above-average intelligence. 50% of people are not. I'd even say you are more intelligent than at least 75% of people. Certainly, you could have use for more education than most.

    3- "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." — Mark Twain

    4- Once again, if you understand evolution at all (which you claim you do), you understand that it is tautological that there will be more dumb people amongst the poor (correlation, not causation). The only question is how big is the phenomenon and what to do about it. More head in the sand?

  7. Oh, and even if you disagree with the MAGNITUDE of fact #4, at least you should have enough respect for your intellectual dissenters to not assume that they are evil children-eating devil-worshippers who vow to condemn others to poverty, instead of people who believe you are mistaken and have a dissenting opinion on how best to build a better society.

  8. Sorry, I do not have any respect (intellectual or otherwise) for the perspective that the poor 75% in america are a waste of money to teach (particularly at the k-12 level we are referring to here). I dont think you eat children or worship the devil (I have no way to know), but I do think that that perspective is at best anti-intellectual. (i.e. dumb), and at its worst, *potentially* more sinister.

  9. Oh, so it's anti-intellectual to recognize that 90% of people aren't intellectual, and that their scarcity makes intellectuals valuable?

    Not all improvements in teaching require massive amounts of money, not every massive injection of money improves teaching. Many countries have vastly better educational results than the US for less money. For a reason.

    As far as I know, the money you spend on education, as well as on anything, is to be accounted on the COSTS column of your books, not the benefits.

  10. Ok, so now you are contradicting yourself and wasting my time. First you were arguing against the proposition that poor kids in the US could be educated better. Now you are arguing that people in other countries do it better which obviously means it could be done better here, unless the US just has genetically inferior poor people, an argument I am also no longer willing to entertain. Since I have no more time to waste on your illogical arguments I am ending this conversation. Any further comments from you will be deleted.

  11. It can be both true that they CAN be educated better (and cheaper), AND that there's a strong limit to how much educating most of them is worth (to either themselves or those who willingly or unwillingly pay for such education).

    Resources are not infinite. How you spend them matters - which matters both for how to spend money inside education, and how much to allot to education to begin with.

    Good luck listening only to people who agree with you and demonizing those who don't.

  12. I grew up in a very poor, broken family. We're talking generational poverty here.

    The genetics of my family could be characterized as poor. I was put into special-ed as a kid. And in later years put into honors classes in HS before I quit to get a job to pay for a room.

    I taught myself computer programming and built a career.

    Along the way I've worked to become a tax-paying, contributing citizen and am blessed with a family I love.

    Every day I struggle with the past and try and do my best in the present. Hopefully someday I'll go to college in a more consistent manner and actually get a degree.

    And here's the thing I am coming to - you never know. I am a statistical anomaly in a million different ways. I shouldn't exist.

    But I do.

    It *is* a form of eugenics - not just on blacks - but on the poor period - that is being discussed here. Social Darwinism. The poor of all races seem to get this treatment to one degree or another.

    Does being poor reduce our chances to be successful at school? Yes. But that is NO EXCUSE to not provide the tools for us to lift ourselves up by.

    Here is what I had thought people agreed upon:

    Schools are part of a tool set that can be improved. There is no good consensus on what that improvement would look like.

    But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't embark on experiments. To measure. To try.

    And to do less is wrong.

    Fare - you keep drawing up straw men for Hank to argue. Where the hell did he say that resources were infinite? Don't fall for the troll Hank.

  13. @Karl
    You admit yourself you are a statistical anomaly.

    How much resources should be poured blindly in every below average kid, however untalented he may be, as compared to finding and caring for anomalies such as you?

  14. Fare staw man argument again - who said that 'resources should be poured blindly'? If you are going to word the question like that I am not gonna answer it. Not worth my time.

    But here's one for you that is a simple one -

    Do you, or do you not, agree that there should be increased investment in experiments to improve K-12 education or not?

  15. @Karl
    I certainly do agree that increased variety, i.e. competition, in how K-12 education happens is desirable.

    This isn't equivalent with "investment" or any increase in total funds being poured. Quite the contrary. More, and more meaningful, competition can only happen when it is made clearer that resources are limited, that there isn't an infinite manna to pour into the system, that changes are not to be contained and centrally censored "experiments" but verily a decentralized free market.

    And then we'll find that we can do more for less. By firing the hordes of vampires that suck the lives of kids and damage their brains, dressed as "educators".

  16. The word "experiment" shows such a contempt for the kids and their parents. They are but the matter molded by the "experimenter". F*** you, "experimenters" who think you are above mankind!

    Put the kids & parents back in charge. Let them choose their schools and school system, instead of imposing everything from a central bureau of civil masters. When they are empowered, they will make the decisions that interest them best.

  17. Fare - you are adding additional meaning to the words "investment" (like that only implies increased money) and "experiment" (like that implies some centralized authority) that wasn't my intent.

    Not falling for it and not worth it to reply to.

    So good night.

  18. Our schools are designed for the 19th century. They continue to decline as more testing and more homework multiplies the idiocy of the prison-like system.

    Scrap. Start fresh. Bonus: The Gates don't get this. Probably never will. That's how it is.

  19. wow! comments by Fare are not only laughable but completely misguided and even worse offensive at times. I get it. white people are superior, according to Fare that is. the issue is a lot more complex than simple genetics (as fare and his kind were told by their parents while growing up) America's educational system failure is more of a cultural and social problem than anything else. in a culture where kids look up to rappers as a role model it's hard to make them understand and appreciate the value of education. there's a reason kids from immigrant families are more successful than Americans when it comes to education. government policies play a huge role as well. just look at the huge difference that exists between North Korea and South Korea, or existed between in East Germany and West Germany before the reunification (Hey Fare, these by the way are the same people who happen to fall under different governing systems with different priorities. so much for your obsession with race) African immigrants in America, while making up less than 1%of the black population make up over 25%of the college population. even surprisingly, percentage wise African immigrants have a higher percentage of college attendance than whites. ooops, those dumb Africans. don't they know opportunities don't mean a thing and they should play their positions and remain dumb. what were they thinking? oh by the way, how do people like Fare explain the complete failure of states like West Virginia. you see, West Virginia has the one of the lowest number of educated people, despite being over 95% white. oh wait, I know why, a couple of blacks and Latinos drove by West Virginia, thus by spreading their dumbness around on to precious white children who can become great citizens instead of growing up in a trailer, eating fried twinkies and marrying their own family members.

  20. Mr. Williams,

    I think you may have misunderstood Barkan's point(see the excerpt you highlighted). What I took away from that paragraph was not the education system was fine and that we can all just "move along" but that we must understand that education does not exist in a vacuum. A systemic solution is needed not just a solution from 8am-3pm. I understand your frustration at the void where Barkan's proposal should be but I think this article really was addressing the skewed nature that the dialogue of public education resides within (see some of the comments on this blog to understand how far off some people are). The nature of the problem must be recognized before it can be cured.

  21. IMO, I believe she's got it right!

    There is a radical alteration of the natural order of things occuring, and we certainly have to fully recognize it to correct it.

    How else can you explain why the obviously superior Africans(African Americans, Indians, American and from India, Latinos, Asians, i.e. everyone on the planet except Caucasians) don't simply dominate the Caucasians, most of which aren't genetically African(more on that later).

    Here are the facts. The contribution of Caucasians to the formation of any civilization is a big fat ZERO. Don't believe me? Try picking up a history book(doesn't that thell you who's superior, lol). ALL civilization was in place BEFORE Caucasians were virtually out of their caves.

    Is there ANY Caucasian religion? Did they come up with Mathematica, Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry, electricity? What about Building great structures, plumbing... I guess you're getting the point here, all of this was created by Africans.

    What about modern science and engineering? Well, Jet planes, printing, guns, bombs and more came from the first Africans to leave, the Chinese.

    What about the Atomic Bomb? Created from the 2nd most African people in America, Albert Einstein, a Jew, who are closely related to Black Africans genetically.

    Yes, poverty caused by Caucasians who fear competing with Africans is truly a big cause of this problem.

    Affirmative action is also a problem. Caucasians continue to give their offspring opportunities they haven't earned, at the expense of others, and those offspring actually believe they're better while they cheat.

    You'll note that I say Caucasian, and not White people. Well, that's because I'm White, but not Caucasian. i'm Greek, and both Greeks and Italians(Romans) are genetically African, not Caucasian.

    Caucasians are the love children of Africans and Neanderthals. Ozzie Osborne tested his DNA, and was shown to be part Neanderthal. White Americans probably range from being 91-100% African, but that small percent seems to make a big difference in some of them.

    Anyway, I said all of this to say that I agree with her. When the obviously superior, as demonstrated by history, are on the bottom, something is very wrong.

  22. Whoever wrote George Bush's SOTU address actually nailed this one. It's the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that's the real problem here. (Which isn't to say that standardized testing will fix anything. It won't.) It's a psychological thing as much as anything else. As long as parents and teachers expect failure from their students, failure is what they're going to see. We need to convince parents and teachers to expect only the best from their students and we need them to refuse to accept anything less than the student's best.

    Asian parents actually have the right idea.


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