Monday, February 4, 2013

the backwards causation

Since reading educational research changed from being an amateur interest of mine to being a daily professional commitment, nothing has been more consistently striking than the strength with which educational outcomes are correlated with demographics of socioeconomic status, parental education background, and race-- and the relative weakness of pedagogical and educational variables.

Broadly speaking, the demographics of students within a given school are far more determinative of educational outcomes than any pedagogical variable that can be isolated. Given this, people who complain that poor students can't get a good education because they are systematically excluded from the good schools have the line of causation backwards; rather, schools are regarded as good because they have systematically excluded the poor students who contribute to poor metrics. Typical complaints that poor students underperform because they are ineligible to attend the best schools ignore the fact that the best schools would necessarily perform worse with an influx of poorly performing students. The response then should not be to expect education to elevate people out of their current station but rather to elevate them out of their current station in order to improve the outcome of their education.

The racial achievement gap is vexing and necessarily controversial. My own stance is that there is very likely no single cause, but rather a series of causes working together in a vicious cycle. I'm confident that our systems to measure educational outcomes are culturally biased in a way that disadvantages black and Hispanic students; that systematic economic exclusions and inequities undermine parental and community stability which contribute to educational outcomes; and that educational disadvantage is hereditary, in the sense that parents who were disadvantaged are likely to pass that disadvantage down to children, due to an inability to model and engender intellectual skills students need. (Indeed, this hereditary disadvantage is widely acknowledged in language and literacy, which are disproportionately influenced by exposure and modeling during the formative years that precede schooling.)

Given the difficulty in isolating variables that contribute to racial disadvantage, it makes the most sense to address the most obvious and manipulable correlate: parental income. We can likely affect major positive changes in educational outcomes through a brute-force method of giving parents money. Typically, addressing educational disadvantage through spending is focused on schools. But since students spend a large majority of their lives outside of schools, and because of the previously-discussed power of demographic and family factors, this is perhaps a misapplication of funds. Rather, giving parents money is likely to have a more direct and immediate effect. Some people say that you can't just give people money. But as Matthew Yglesias has repeatedly discussed, just giving people money has a strong track record. In addition to preventing an unduly paternalistic system from constraining poor parents from making decisions with the same freedom of the rich parents whose children perform so well, such a system would avoid having to create an onerous and costly bureaucracy that would be necessary for enforcement of particular rules about use. I would pay for such a program through significantly more progressive income taxation, which would likely result in slightly higher tax rates for the middle class and significantly higher tax rates for the upper class. Perhaps more traditional social programs that attempt similar interventions could be shrunk or phased out altogether due to the positive effects of a simple transfer of money. In time, if such a program was successful, it would likely reduce costs of other social programs. I am dedicated to protecting our current system of material support for the elderly, but to enact it to the exclusion of similar redistributive efforts for children and parents seems quite strange.

This would all take time. Poverty, in terms of both real capital and social capital, is a cyclical and effectively hereditary problem. In a country in which it is not uncommon to find families who are in their third or fourth generation of poverty, we cannot expect any programs to make miraculous changes overnight. Standards that are universal are inherently an error, as there will always be those who perform below standard, no matter what the social system. And I have been and remain dedicated to a long-term social overhaul that removes material security from chance and demographics in general. A universal basic income, while far from a panacea, would accomplish a great deal of what I'm advocating for here. But if a universal minimum income is not in the cards politically in this generation, perhaps an explicitly child-and-education focused effort like this one could be justified. If we take education as seriously as we say, and if we are really dedicated to attending to the needs of all children, a program of redistribution is likely a necessity-- particularly in the context of a school reform movement which has proven to be, empirically, one of the greatest failures of modern policy making.

When the correlate is determinative, change the correlate. If you want to make sure that no child gets left behind in a capitalist system, give the parents capital. And then, in the long run, we can address why their parents were ever poor in the first place. Let's turn vicious cycles into virtuous.

Update: Two (preemptive) reasons why this doesn't represent a nihilistic argument for the irrelevance of education. (That would be a particularly odd stance for me to take, as I am an educator, and a researcher whose major research interest is how to make education better.)

First, arguing that educational quality (which includes but is certainly not limited to teacher or school quality) is largely determined by demographic and familial inputs is not the same as arguing that there is no such thing as educational quality. I have little doubt that differences in educational quality are significant, in both the practical sense and the statistical sense (that is, I believe that differences in educational metrics exist that we can say with great confidence are not the result of random quantitative chance). But addressing education as a broad social issue means tackling the largely determinative part of educational outcomes first. Indeed, practically assessing educational quality would be made vastly easier if we had the ability to remove the powerful demographic confounds.

Second, it is plausible (although for the time being largely unverified empirically, to my knowledge) that educational quality has an unevenly distributed impact depending on a student's overall educational level. In other words, educational quality could be more determinative of student outcomes for students who have reached a certain threshold, but be largely irrelevant to the success of students who have not. Think about an illiterate 10th grader. Such a student is overwhelmingly likely to have come from a low socioeconomic background. The ability of high school educators to improve that student's learning outcomes is likely severely restricted. A high school is not designed to teach basic reading and writing skills, likely lacks the resources to do so, and likely lacks educators who are specifically trained or experienced in that area. So for such a student, the lack of prerequisite ability could render educational quality irrelevant. But educational quality could still exist for mediocre and high-achieving students. Again, the natural response seems to be to address the demographic and familial factors that are strongly associated with a lack of basic skills.


Greg Sanders said...

How important is the progressive funding of your proposal? Yglesias also fairly regularly points out that most European states are more regressive in terms of pre-tax income while offering robust transfer programs.

Obviously, this is your proposal, and there's no reason to make preemptive concessions, but I was curious what you thought of the deal that has been struck in other countries.

Freddie said...

As a way to evade that question, I'll say that the specifics really matter, right? I mean it seems to me that what matters is what the net difference is and for who(m). Does that make sense?

Mark D. said...

I think you're on to something here, as far as the way the education debate typically plays out. there's a tendency to dismiss "easy,"* expensive solutions, like the one you're proposing here, in favor of mysterious, magical-thinking type solutions that also happen to not cost anything, and therefore do not involve the transferring of any wealth.

like how Malcolm Gladwell wrote that big article in the New Yorker a few years ago about how teacher quality was SO MUCH more important than class size, and so reducing class size was a big waste of time. the only problem being, of course, being that the "just find the best teachers, dammit!" solution, while free, is basically impossible to implement, while the "reduce the class size" solution, while clumsy and expensive, produces guaranteed results.
and the fact that the two are necessarily related, since a fresh-out-of-grad-school teacher faced with a monstrously large class might actually morph into a shitty teacher when faced with an impossible problem forced on them by a depressing structural reality.

just a tangential thought. sorry to go all ranty and thread-hijacky in your comments section.

* by "easy" i mean conceptually easy, not politically easy

Greg Sanders said...

Freddie: Yeah, net difference and for who(m) is a perfectly reasonable criteria and it's probably the one I care most about too.

In theory, I could see some cases where net difference might wash out too much, but I didn't think it was too big of an issue as these programs are typically implemented.

Thanks for the answer.

Anonymous said...

Hello: I mostly appreciate the changes you've made to the blog, but, as a regular reader, I'd urge you to narrow the margins -- possibly to the width it was just previously. As someone who reads a lot of content on the web, the easiest way for a site to disrupt one's concentration (apart from multiple pagination) is to make the margins wide. Yours are too wide right now in my opinion.

I am sorry to introduce this off-topic comment on this thread, but I didn't see any other way to put it forward. Thanks.

Freddie said...


Brian Wilder said...

Think about an illiterate 10th grader. . . . A high school is not designed to teach basic reading and writing skills, likely lacks the resources to do so, and likely lacks educators who are specifically trained or experienced in that area. So for such a student, . . . . educational quality [is] irrelevant.

Granted that 10th grade might not be the optimal moment in life to teach someone to read, if a 10th grader is illiterate, then "educational quality" is teaching him to read. That's the job. The unwillingness to do the job is a legitimate problem. You can dress that unwillingness in bureaucratese, but it remains unwillingness; you can locate the lack of will in politics or culture, of the society or of the educational establishment, or both (or the political relationship of parents to school administrators and teachers), but it is still unwillingness.

I cannot pretend to understand that unwillingness, but I do understand that it is part of the homeostasis governing society's reproduction of itself. (Sorry for the fractured syntax of that sentence.) Ditto for poverty.

I don't know what it would take, say, to produce reading material suitable for a nearly illiterate 10th grader. I'm pretty sure small size of potential market, is, unfortunately, not one of the obstacles. Doesn't happen, though.

Freddie said...

Well here's where we get legitimately controversial, Brian: there is some compelling evidence that, while an individual student can rise up and overcome, as a class, students who lack basic literacy so early in life will never reach society's standards, that there is a critical period during early childhood when the brain is uniquely conditionable in a way that it never is again, and that the failure to adequatel expose that brain to a linguistically rich environment will very likely lead to permanent and significant educational disadvantage.

The typical response to that, from conservatives and liberals alike, is some version of "that's unpleasant to think about." And indeed it is. But that is irrelevant to whether or not it's true.

Freddie said...

*so late in life

Brett said...

I don't think it opens the door to full-blown educational nihilism, but it does open the door for some pretty changes. Why even bother with a public school system, for example - just give the parents extra money as part of the strategy to improve their socioeconomic standing, and then monitor to make sure that the students complete a certain amount of hours a year of school.

Freddie said...

Width adjusted. I have no idea how it looks on other screens.

Anonymous said...

Freddie - Your first three paragraphs are as sensible and balanced a presentation of the issue as you can find. Then you make a logically unsupported leap to "give the parents of poor kids more money."

One of the big controversial fault lines in political debate today, as I'm sure you are aware, is whether the dysfunction of lower socioeconomic strata is due to economic, cultural or IQ/hereditary causes. I don't consider Yglesias' argument dispositive, to put it mildly. (There - I'm being polite!) I realize you have more personal experience on the income/background question, based on your memorable post on your family background from last year, so your viewpoints based on personal experience would be interesting to read.

One last comment - on the practical component of increased income support: there's no money. If there was any money, the political system would syphon it off and give it to senior citizens. But there's no money. If you increase taxes - which is already starting to be a problem for residents in jurisdictions like California or NY even at present levels - that money will go to seniors. The US state apparatus is firmly on the side of funding senior citizens with money taken from poorer young people. That's the reality and it will only get worse in the future decades.

Sorry for the long post. Again, your initial assessment of the issue is praiseworthy.


Anonymous said...

I also think your premise is basically correct, but I'm not sure I see how "just handing out money" is a solution. When it comes to income and "good parenting," correlation is not causation. If the problem is an impoverished linguistic environment and poor parental modeling, how does just handing out money do anything at all?

Rich people tend to be better than poor people at managing their personal finances, but that's not because financial management is correlated with the size of one's bank account. Poor people who win the lottery don't suddenly become great managers of their personal finances just because they now have a lot more money in their bank account, in fact the outcomes are usually just the opposite. I'm not seeing a plausible explanation for how just providing more income would improve an impoverished linguistic/educational developmental environment.