Monday, November 29, 2010

Education reforms can't ignore family influences

(Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 11/28/2010)

The newspapers are full of coverage on education reform. In last Sunday’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman went so far as to say the Department of Education was the “epicenter of national security.” His op-ed paints a dour picture of the US education system. He endorses the Obama Administration efforts to transform the US education system thereby indirectly endorsing the current efforts in Indiana. Friedmann points favorably to the educational systems in Denmark and Finland (Finland especially has a wonderful educational system). However, pointing to such “socialistic” countries isn’t much of a selling point.

Gov. Daniels’ penned an article in the November 7th Indianapolis Star. He wrote: “If there is one fact that every expert and all the data confirm, it is that the single most important predictor of a child’s academic success is the quality of the teachers he or she encounters.”

I’ll forgive Gov. Daniels for favoring politics over the known science on academic performance. The best predictor of a child’s academic performance is their parents. It is that inconvenient fact that “No Child Left Behind” treats as an excuse instead of explanation and thus ignores parental contribution (or subtraction) to a child’s academic performance.

Research on family type (a different measure than socio-economic status) shows consistent effects on child academic performance (and not just in the US). Children from larger families tend to underperform relative to children from smaller families. Children from single headed families are the most likely to underperform and that type of family is increasing across every category of socio-economic status in the US.

Friedmann’s article was 12 paragraphs long. He waited until the last one to mention parents. Other than the use of proxies, such as parent’s income and education, I couldn’t find any research on the “qualities” of parents that contribute to their children’s academic success. There is research on how parent’s educational goals for their children affect their children’s educational goals. Unfortunately nothing that connects any parent quality to test scores, other than the proxies of socio-economic status and family type. Talk to teachers, however, and one gets enough anecdotal evidence to suggest the need for more systematic research on the subject.

What do you think? Who is likely to perform better on standardized tests? Children who are or not read to at home? Children whose parents monitor their children’s homework and academics or not? How about the simple act of asking kids what did they learn today and not accept “nuthin” as an answer? Kids who eat breakfast in the morning or those who could eat at school, but whose parents can’t get them to school on time? Kids of parents who meet with and work with teachers when a child is struggling or those who refuse to meet with school officials, even when school officials are willing to meet outside the normal school hours? This list could go on and on, but I think the point is made.
Our leaders’ answer to this social problem is merit pay for teachers and school choice. To date, the largest experiment with merit pay for teachers is Tennessee, the results released this year, indicate merit pay (bonuses were significant averaging $9600 to $11,300) had little to no impact on children’s academic performance and what positive effects were found, diminished over time.

Just as Americans (and American children) are getting fatter and as a result diabetes is on the rise, do we conclude then that there is a problem with US doctors?

Those who are interested should find Hanushek and Rivkin’s article in the May issue of the American Economic Review. In short, they lay out very well the problems of tying value added measures of student performance to teacher pay, and examine the relationship between teacher quality and academic outcomes. And contrary to Andrea Neal’s claim in Thursday’s newspaper, Hanushek and Rivkin examine observed differences in teacher quality (GPA, their own tests scores, etc) and find no difference on student outcomes. This is not to say there are no bad teachers. According to Hanushek and Rivkin, just replacing 6-10 percent of the worst teachers and replacing them with average ones (in terms of student outcomes), would make a significant impact on our education system.
Reformers commonly say the US has a good education system for 1950. Arguably, the US had better family situations and fewer distractions for academic performance then than we do today. The education problem can’t be solved by ignoring the contributions, good and bad, of parents and families.

Note: Steiger is married to a public school teacher.

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