Sunday, August 31, 2008

Trends in College Completion

In a previous post I pointed out, much to my surprise, that the percentage of 25-29 year old's obtaining at least a bachelor's degree had leveled off over the past decade. Since that time they've made another year of data available and I also made some colorful graphs while trying to avoid reading for a course I'm taking.

First of all, there was a significant jump from 2006 to 2007 (from 28.4% to 29.6%) in the percentage of 25-29 year-olds with at least a bachelor's degree. I don't know if that means that there were some sampling errors that year, sampling errors in previous years, if a lot of people got degrees over the course of that year, and/or if there were a lot of 29 year-olds without degrees the previous year. Nonetheless, the flattening trend is still evident -- particularly compared with the growth in bachelor's degrees among the entire adult population (defined as 25+ years old). The chart below shows the growth in bachelor's degrees amongh both 25-29 year olds and the total population since 1940.

Historically, there has been a significant gap between the two statistics -- 25-29 year olds are much more likely to have a bachleor's degree than are the entire adult population. As you can see, the gap has narrowed considerably in recent years -- with the lines almost crossing in 2006. Of course, they almost intersected in 1994 as well before the gap increased dramatically so this might not mean much of anything. Below is the percentage difference between the two figures over the years.

As you can see (again), the difference between the two figures has decreased substantially.

So, why does this matter? After WWII a lot more people started getting college degrees. At that point in time, the younger generation was much more likely to have a college degree over time than were their parents or grandparents. Over time this has become less and less true. In part, this should come as no surprise -- we'd expect a shrinking of the gap as baby boomers age. But, it could also indicate at least one of a few other things:

1.) A lot of people seem to assume (myself included) that the number of people obtaining bachelor's degrees continues to increase rapidly and that pretty soon a master's degree will be what a bachelor's used to be. In fact, it seems that degree attainment has stalled among the youngest demographic of post-college-age adults. Which might mean that any worries about the effects of too many people being encouraged to go to college are somewhat unfounded.

2.) It's fairly likely that the overall growth in the percentage of college-educated adults is about to stall out as well. That statistic (as evidenced by the first chart) has continued to grow steadily over the past few decades, but 25-29 year-olds aren't much more likely to have a bachelor's degree than are older adults then it would be difficult for that growth to continue.

3.) The only way it could is if there was growth in degree completion among those who are 30+ years old. I don't have data on that in front of me right now, so I'm not willing to count that out -- particularly given the advent of places like the University of Phoenix and the proliferation of online degree programs.

So, why the sudden interest in the topic? Well, it came up at a party last night. Yes, I really am that much of a nerd. Anyway, I continued the discussion with one friend today and he asked another related question. He remains unconvinced that more people aren't enrolling in college and wonders if the numbers might mean that more people are dropping out. That's a good question. I'm sure somebody out there has the answer.

Update: More on this topic here (I think #3 has been disproved). And I neglected to say that I got the data here.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Replicating Paternalistic Discipline

More follow-up on my review of David Whitman's new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism:

I've written I don't know how many times about the discipline problems that my school faced and that I've seen and heard about in other schools. Whitman argues that eliminating discipline problems may be the key to success in the schools he describes, writing that "the most distinctive feature of new paternalistic schools is that they are fixated on curbing disorder" (p. 37).

From what he describes, and from what I've heard, about these schools it seems like they've found a way to create an orderly environment where so many others have failed. So here's the key question: can their strategies be replicated by others? The biggest red flag that I, and others, have raised is that these schools may be able to use strategies that traditional public schools cannot.

Below are some excerpts from the book regarding the schools' discipline policies.

Cristo Rey:

"Merely fraternizing with gang members can lead to expulsion." (p. 38)

"If a student even draws gang graffiti on a notebook or piece of paper, we deal with it. They might be suspended for a day the first time. The second time it happened -- well, that would be your last day here." (p. 137)

American Indian Public Charter School:

"has never expelled a student" (p. 82)

"I've added Sunday school as well [for disciplinary infractions]. Sunday school is at [the principal's] house. The kids come by and do yard work." (p. 93)

Amistad Academy

"Over eight years, Amistad has expelled only two students" (p. 114)

"are expected to keep student attrition to less than 5 percent a year (not counting youngsters who move out of the district)" (p. 119-120)


"students learn the rubric of SLANT in class (Sit up straight, Listen, Answer and ask questions, Nod your head if you understand, and Track the speaker)" (p. 156)

"has two fulltime social workers who meet with the most at-risk students on a dialy basis and with all KIPP students regularly." (p. 170)

"hardly ever expels a student" (p. 176)


"unapologetically expels more students than day schools: 5.6% of its pupils each year, on average, compared to 1.8 percent at other charter schools" (p. 205-206)

"on average, about 30 percent fail to move on to ninth grade during their first attempt and must repeat eighth grade as a 'growth year.'" (p. 213)

University Park

"In its ten years to date, just one student has dropped out of UPCS" (p. 226)

A student "recalls that the "other teachers said to me 'we know you're a good kid, but you can't act like that and stay here'" (p. 232)

Overall, the picture looks mixed. Some of these schools certainly rely on expulsion, or at least the threat of expulsion, to keep students in line. Beyond expulsion, some schools clearly rely on convincing students to leave -- particularly by holding back students if they choose to remain. Whitman writes "Studnets who flunk grades and face repeating a year, and those intimidated by the academic demands of rigorous schools, exit to neighborhood schools that practice social promotio" (p. 255). On the other hand, some of the schools cited have exceedingly low attrition rates. It's possible that a school can use expulsion as merely a threat and not actually implement it, but the picture is unclear on how much that happens.

Lastly, principals in particular at some of these schools use techniques that would be explicitly prohibited in many schools. The principal at AIPCS makes students do yard work at his house on Sundays as punishment. That is, plain and clear, corporal punishment -- a big no-no in NYC and many other areas. Furthermore, it's hard for me to imagine that many schools are allowed to mandate that students do anything on weekends much less show up for detention. Whether he's able to do this because he's running a charter school or because he simply doesn't care about the consequences if somebody finds out he's doing this is unclear.

I don't know whether or not these discipline systems can be successfully replicated in traditional public schools, but some red flags certainly exist. Let's just assume for a minute that they cannot in the current system. The question then would whether we should: create more charter schools; give traditional public schools more power (e.g. allowing expulsion); or look to other sources to create discipline systems.

Testing Kindergartners

Ok, I am truly baffled. I just read this piece in EdWeek on NYC's plans to test kindergartners in math. The article says that the city wants to spend $400,000 to test a program that gives kindergartners math tests that can take up to 90 minutes to complete.

As a researcher I can see why we need to test the youngest kids in order to get baseline data. But I'm confused about a few things, including:

1. Exactly what math knowledge are kindergartners supposed to have? I remember counting in kindergarten and that's about it.

2. Why in the world would it take up to 90 minutes to test students on such a limited base of knowledge?

3. What sane person would expect a kindergartner to sit still for 90 minutes to do anything, yet alone take a multiple choice test?

I'm tempted to declare this a sign of the apocalypse, but there's got to be some information missing here. I must be missing something. Right?

Update: Another article is now up on CNN. Also, the commenter kiri8 points out below that kindergartners do a lot more than count -- I stand corrected. But even with the list that they provide, I still doubt the utility of such a long test and now wonder how useful baseline data would even be.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Paternalism at What Age?

More follow-up on my review of David Whitman's new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism:

Sorry if I'm beating a dead horse, but I think the issues that Whitman raises are quite important. Whitman describes a number of ways in which the six schools he observes essentially acculturate students to middle/upper-class social and behavioral norms. They refuse to assume that students know how to do anything and teach the most basic behaviors from walking in line to listening to speakers. Having taught in a school where teenagers didn't seem to know how to do these things, I can certainly see the value in teaching these things.

But here's my question: why are we teaching these behaviors to middle and high-schoolers? Obviously if middle and high-school age students haven't learned these things yet then they need to know them, but why aren't we making an effort to teach these to younger students?

In other words, if we want to replicate the success of these "paternalistic" schools are we sure that we should aim these strategies at these particular age groups? Wouldn't it be more beneficial to teach these skills to elementary school students so that they can move on to higher-order thinking in middle and high school?

Imagine, for a second, if students coming into a KIPP school, for instance, had attended a similar school K-4 and had learned all these behavioral norms. The kids were used to sitting up straight and tracking speakers with their eyes, knew that the slightest bit of disrespect toward a teacher was unacceptable, walked quietly through hallways, etc. Wouldn't it be a heck of a lot easier for the KIPP school to then focus on academic endeavors instead of spending so much time teaching students how to behave?

Consider the alternative: replicating these schools at only the middle and high-school levels. While wealthy/suburban schools start to loosen the reins and teach students to think creatively and independently, poor/urban schools are teaching kids to sit up straight, make sure that their shirt is the correct color and is tucked in, and using chants to reinforce behaviors. In order to eliminate our current two-tiered system of education we'd be creating a different type of two-tiered system of education. The inner-city kids might be proficient at basic reading and math skills and more likely to graduate, but there would still be an education gap.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Uniforms and Discipline Problems

I just got around to reading the article under an interesting headline in the Nashville paper yesterday -- "Uniforms may have contributed to safer Metro schools."

Here's the first line of the article: "Fewer Nashville students brought guns, knives or drugs to school during their first year wearing school uniforms, but district officials can't draw a direct link between the clothes and the numbers."

A few things to say about this:

1.) The headline is irresponsible. First of all, there's really no way to establish causality in this case. Second of all, although "serious assaults" may have decreased, "Overall, simple assaults on students — ones not involving weapons or serious injuries — increased 89 percent across the district and 211 percent in traditional high schools." I'm willing to bet that "simple assaults" generally have a much larger influence on school climate and student learning than do the much rarer "serious assaults."

2.) I'm at least 99% sure that the discipline data is meaningless. Which incidents get reported vary so much by teacher, administrator, and circumstance that comparing one year to another most likely means nothing.

3.) I have yet to see any rigorous empirical research that finds that uniforms cause fewer discipline problems, but uniforms seem to be more of gut-level decision anyway. When Nashville adopted the new uniform policy the school board was told that no evidence was available that this would work, but proponents of the plan literally shed tears as they pleaded their case.

I can't blame anybody for wanting kids in chaotic schools to wear uniforms. In such an environment it's entirely logical to think that orderly dress might bring a little more orderly behavior (I certainly would have supported uniforms at my school). But I get the impression that uniform policies are driven at least as much by class and culture. Teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members are, with few exceptions, college graduates. Which means that, for the most part, they come from middle to upper income homes and neighborhoods. When they see kids running around acting and dressing strangely they get frustrated that the kids don't act more like the way they did when they were kids. So I'm guessing, even if most people won't say it, that what's running through a lot of people's heads is something to the effect of "if they dressed more like us, maybe they'd act more like us."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Convincing Teachers to Choose High-Poverty Schools

I just read an interesting (and very short) piece in the latest Teacher's College Record. In it, Tom Carroll and Souma Sathya argue that we need to "change the conditions that make high-needs schools hard to staff" (which is also the title).

Their most important point, to me, is "that at the end of the day it will be the teachers who will make the decisions about where they will teach." As such, they argue that we should make high-needs schools more attractive to teachers.

Their recommendations are, in short, that we award bonuses to teachers who teach in these schools, ensure that there are competent and supportive leaders, that novices are not left to "sink or swim," and that paths to rise from novice to master teacher be created.

The purpose of this post is to encourage you to read the piece (it will only take two minutes, really), so I'll keep the analysis short. Though short on details, all of the recommendations seem logical and fairly straightforward. High teacher turnover certainly crippled my school and given the demographics of the current teaching force it seems likely both that reducing turnover in the future will benefit high-poverty schools and that making schools better places to work will reduce turnover.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What if Paternalism Boosts Achievement the Wrong Way?

More follow-up on my review of David Whitman's new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism:

I see the argument that more paternalistic schools boost achievement -- and not just because Whitman details the paternalism in these successful schools. It makes logical sense that a more paternalistic school would have higher test scores.

Whitman leads off the second chapter with a quote from Thomas Schelling -- "Ben Hur didn't have to make himself keep rowing. The man with the whip took care of that." We can translate that to schools. Students don't have to "make" themselves do homework if a teacher is all over them about it. Technically, no human being can "make" another do something -- one always has a choice -- but a person can make the alternatives so bad that they're virtually eliminated.

For example, my 8th grade math teacher checked my homework the second that class began every single day. Class was based around review of the homework, and homework grades were heavily weighted. I could be wrong, but I don't remember ever not doing my homework in that class (nor do I remember many others not doing their homework). In 9th grade, however, our teacher checked homework maybe a handful of times over the course of the year. It took me about a month to figure that out and then I pretty much stopped doing it.

If I'd taken a standardized test in both grades, I probably would've done better on the one in 8th grade simply because I spent more time immersed in doing the types of problems that would be on a standardized test. My 8th grade teacher was a really good teacher, and the strong scores would have reflected on that. But my 9th grade teacher was possibly the best teacher I ever had.

But enough of my tangent. Here's my point: it's quite logical to assume that students will perform better when they're micromanaged and when not following directions results in severe consequences. A child will keep their room cleaner if their parents do weekly checks and refuse to let them go out and play until it's immaculate than if a parent just chides them for having a dirty room every so often. And a child will have higher test scores if they're told how to do every little part of every little problem on the test and practice it repeatedly.

But is this really for the better? What are the long-term consequences? Let's go back to the child with the clean room. How will the respond when they no longer have their parent practically forcing them to clean their room each week? Will they have the self-discipline to keep their abode clean on their own? Will the habit be so ingrained that they won't consider not keeping their place tidy? Or will things fall apart? The child who never had much pressure to keep a clean room, on the other hand, will probably continue to do what they were doing (which could be either good or bad) because things haven't really changed.

I'd making the following argument: paternalism will yield more success in the short-run -- with few exceptions. But I can't help but wonder about the long run. If students are only exposed to uber-paternalistic management, what happens when they get into a situation that's not so strict (e.g. college)? Do their habits carry over, or are they unable to survive without somebody telling them what to do? I don't know the answer. If anybody's an expert on child development then please let me know what the research says.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Eduwonkette Unmasked

She's no longer anonymous . . . gasp!

Seriously though, now that I know she's a grad student I feel like a slacker.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

More Links on Paternalism

More follow-up on my review of David Whitman's new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism:

George Will weighs in on the book today (hat tip: Mike Petrilli). I normally find Will's columns engaging and intelligent, but I must be missing something today. I'll read it again later, but it seems like a random mishmash of thoughts and opinions. Two things stand out to me most about the column:

1.) He begins by chronicling a student who has been told that he's not good enough to attend AIPCS and is working hard so that he will be admitted. This is either semantics or illegal. Unless I'm mistaken, AIPCS (like virtually all charter schools) admits students by lottery. A student cannot be refused admittance because they're not "up to the rigors" of the program. I'm guessing that the student was admitted via lottery but Ben Chavis, the principal, simply told him that he had to earn his way in. Either way, how many traditional public schools wish they could tell their students that?

2.) He decides to blame the failure of our educational system on Democrats, liberals, Education Schools, and teachers unions in the last paragraph without really providing any evidence. Granted, it's a short column -- but he could've devoted another paragraph to why he was assigning blame to these groups. He might be right, but it comes across as sloppy, ideological finger-pointing to me. And I don't buy his assertion that these schools prove that "we know how to close the achievement gap" and the only reason we can't is because these groups are standing in our way.

Also, I neglected to point out earlier that Whitman wrote a quasi-summary of his book for the next issue of Education Next (posted here). Quite handy for anybody who doesn't have the time right now to read the book in whole.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Is Paternalism for Everybody?

More follow-up on my review of David Whitman's new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism:

The book raises a number of interesting questions, many of which I'd like to discuss this week. The central tenet of the book is essentially that paternalistic schools are better for poor students living in the inner-city. The follow-up question would be whether they're better for everybody.

In other words, should we be replicating (for example) the KIPP model in suburbs and wealthy areas -- or do inner-city students benefit uniquely from the KIPP model?

I think the book implies that it's the latter. Whitman writes that these schools assume that "the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through" to succeed (p. 35). In other words, these kids have some gaps that these schools fill. If a student does not have these gaps, would attending such a school benefit them as much?

If the answer to that is no, then that would lead us to a situation where the inner-city poor attend schools that are very different from those that the middle-class and wealthy attend. Of course, that's already the case -- but I would argue that it's not necessarily purposive right now. In other words, all schools right now are supposed to operate the same way, they just don't due to a number of factors and constraints. But what if a school in Scarsdale and a school in the Bronx were designed differently from the beginning on the theory that different populations need different types of schools? And then the really tricky question becomes what to do when a school has a mix of students from different backgrounds.

"I'll Give you $1000 if you pass that test"

Interesting article in the NY Times today about student bonuses for test performance. It's much too late for any substantive analysis, and apparently more figures are being released later in the day, but the first year of a program where students get paid $1,000 if they pass an AP test seems to not have had the intended results. It'll be interesting to see what happens in years 2 and 3. Meanwhile, I think this was the most interesting quote from the article:

“I’m just dumbfounded that they can regard this as an achievement or as a great improvement or as something worth spending the money on,” said Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, who had expressed cautious support for the Advanced Placement program when it was announced last fall. “I’m surprised that that kind of money, that kind of incentives, doesn’t produce better results. It sort of undercuts the argument that the problem is the question of motivation.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Is "Paternalistic" the Right Term?

I recently reviewed David Whitman's new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism, in which he argues that some of the most successful inner-city schools in the country are successful in part because they're paternalistic.

The term "paternalistic" seems to have raised a few eyebrows. Mike Petrilli seems to like it, but Jay Greene doesn't, and Jay Mathews wrote a column asking readers to suggest a different phrase.

First of all, I don't think everybody shares the same definition of paternalistic (read Wikipedia and to see how many different ways one can interpret the word). That many see it as a loaded phrase may both help (any attention is good attention) and hurt (people ignore the substance to decry the subtitle) the book. I, for one, don't really have a problem with it. The usage may or not be precise (I'm no expert on the term) and it certainly doesn't seem to be viewed as PC, but I think it largely makes sense. These schools, in general, seem to make decisions for their students that are in the best-interest of the students despite the fact that most wouldn't choose those routes on their own.

But, more importantly, I'm not sure I really see the point in debating whether or not the term is apt. I see the central findings of the book as much more important than the subtitle -- and it seems that discussion on the book should focus on the former rather than the latter. I think the central argument is important. The subtitle . . . not so much.

Update: I originally wrote that Petrilli didn't particularly like the term, but e-mailed me to inform me that I was wrong . . . my apologies. Meanwhile, Richard Whitmire appears on Eduwonk with another declaration of distaste for the term while Robert Pondiscio takes the opposite perspective on the Core Knowledge blog.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

How They Found Me

Taking a break from seriousness, I'm stealing an idea from Gently Hew Stone. I can see what google search terms people entered before clicking on my site. Here are some that were amusing or notable to me:

-corey education policy
ooh, I'm famous

-bad teachers in the bronx
damn, they found me

-argument against nclb act
-argument for nclb
guess I have both sides covered

-bower's theory
I always wanted my own theory

-corey bunje bower
ok, that one was me

-how to make a lottery ping pong ball vacuum

-im burnt out teaching sunday school how do i quit
beats me

David Whitman's Response

The following is David Whitman's response to my review of his new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism.

Thanks for your generally thoughtful book review. I very much appreciate that you took the time to read and grapple with my use of the "new paternalism" label to describe these six extraordinary inner-city schools, rather than giving a knee-jerk dismissal to any depiction of the schools that uses the seemingly verboten "P" word (Paternalism). I'm also grateful that you credited the impressive gap-closing record of these schools and acknowledged that their examples provide important lessons to those seeking to reform inner-city schooling.

Although I disagree with several points you raise, I would note only two specific objections. I don't know of any passage in the book where I make "no attempt to mask" my "loathing of liberals . . . and Richard Rothstein." I concluded that Richard Rothstein had minimized the importance of these gap-closing schools and the role they could one day play in helping to close the achievement gap. But I don't loath liberals or Richard Rothstein, and I don't think I treat Rothstein's arguments or data disrespectfully in any passage of the book, much less with loathing. In fact, I'm a fan of a lot of Richard Rothstein's writing; I just think he got this one wrong. (As for the other two groups that you claim I "loath"--multicultural activitists and unions--I don't loath them either, though I am critical of the impact that they have on inner-city schooling. It's true that I don't "mask" that belief in the book but why should I? If others believe that multicultural activists and teacher unions have made substantial contributions to closing the achievement gap, let them make the case for their conclusion).

Second, your book review leaves the impression that Sweating the Small Stuff turned out as it did because I was an ideological handmaiden of the Fordham Institute, which commissioned and published the study. But I'm not an employee of the Fordham Institute--I'm a freelance journalist with a long record of being able to mix journalistic observation and academic research. During my 17 years as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report I was often drawn to contrarian stories, too. I think that the Fordham Institute is on target in many K-12 education debates but the conclusions in my book are my own and the Fordham Institute didn't dictate where the book should come out. Over the years, I have written many so-called man-bites-dog stories that debunk some piece of conventional wisdom and have written two books in which I take on both conservative and liberal beliefs on a variety of issues. If you look at my 1998 book, The Optimism Gap, or a 2004 monograph that I wrote for the Fordham Institute, The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption, you will find that I am in fact critical of a number of pet conservative theories. Though my personal political proclivities shouldn't be an issue in a book review, I tend to tilt left of center.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Review: Sweating the Small Stuff

Today marks the release by the Fordham Institute of David Whitman's new book Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism. I had a chance to read an advance copy and I thought I'd share a few thoughts on it.

In the book Whitman details the strategies of 6 high-performing inner-city schools: 4 charter, 1 neighborhood, and 1 private (American Indian Public Charter School, Amistad Academy, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, KIPP Academy, The SEED School, and University Park Campus School). He concludes that they all have one thing in common: they are highly paternalistic.

In other words, all of these schools go to great lengths to manage every little detail of students' lives, no matter how small (hence the title). Though most of the schools' leaders reject the term "paternalistic," Whitman does seem to have a point.

In defining the term "paternalistic" Whitman builds on the prior work of Lawrence Mead, who once wrote that "the problem of poverty or underachievement is not that the poor lack freedom. The real problem is that the poor are too free" (p. 36). As Whitman writes, "the paternalistic presumption, implicit in the schools portrayed here, is that the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse."

While I'm sure that many of the founders and leaders of the schools profiled would be hesitant to explicitly endorse either of these views, their schools certainly implicitly endorse at least something similar to this. Whitman makes a strong argument that these schools essentially strive to remove students from their current environments and inculcate them into a new culture -- in other words to accept the social and cultural norms of the middle or upper class and reject those that they see in the streets.

Whitman is, however, hardly a dispassionate observer. He makes no attempt to mask his loathing of liberals, "multicultural activists," unions, and Richard Rothstein. The book is certainly written from a particular point of view -- which should probably not come as a surprise given that it is published by a think tank that also pushes a particular point of view. It is perfectly clear that Whitman wants more charter schools and fewer unionized teachers. That said, the main topic of the book is not one that should be particularly susceptible to one's ideological beliefs. He points out that despite the fact that many conservatives have extolled the virtues of these schools that most of their founders are, in fact, unabashedly liberal. In the end, the main purpose of the schools is to raise student achievement -- not serve as guinea pigs in any ideological debates.

The tales that Whitman tells of the schools paint a clear portrait of six schools that, while very different, operate quite similarly. All of the schools take a no-nonsense approach to discipline and work hard to create a positive school culture in which bad behavior is unacceptable and good behavior is rewarded. All of the schools go to great lengths to explicitly teach various social behaviors that one would expect to be second nature to middle and upper-income youth. All of the schools put great emphasis on attendance and manage to lengthen the school year and/or day in some fashion. And all of the schools have produced results that are quite impressive.

Whitman acknowledges some limitations to the these results -- the KIPP in the Bronx enrolls students that outperform their community peers before entering, The SEED School expels about 5% of their students, and Cristo Rey only admits students that they believe are capable of working in an upscale office, for example. And he also addresses some of the limits to replicability on a national scale -- most notably that there may not be enough individuals willing to put forth the time and effort that managing or teaching in one of these schools requires. Although he sings their praises for 311 pages, he acknowledges that they do not necessarily represent a definitive and simple solution to all of our nation's woes.

While Whitman makes a strong argument that increased paternalistic tendencies in schools have a good track record and merit more investigation, he fails to address a few major points. In the beginning of the book he extols the virtues of self-discipline and details a study that found it to be a more important determinant of success than IQ. Whitman fails to investigate whether a more paternalistic environment does, in fact, develop more self-discipline in students and, if it does, whether it is the most effective way in which to develop self-discipline. I suspect that there's a body of literature on this in psychology or child development. He also fails to ask at what point paternalism becomes a negative instead of a positive. He highlights the successes of such schools, but leaves one wondering at what point a school could be so paternalistic that Whitman would no longer be enamored. In other words, how much control is too much?

Lastly, Whitman compiles a list of the 20 things that these schools have in common and that other schools should copy (p. 259). While many of these points are self-evident, some appear to be part of the list more as a result of ideology than anything else. Number 13, for example, reads "Eliminate (or at least disempower) local teacher unions." While none of the schools have strong unions, it's unclear whether the schools succeed because they don't have strong unions or that they don't have strong unions because they succeed. If management and labor get along, unions serve little purpose. In the case of schools, if teachers trust the people running their school then there is little reason for the union to exist. So it's unclear whether the lack of a strong union helps these schools or whether a strong positive culture simply means that teachers don't feel the need to join together and defend themselves. Similarly, point 17 reads "Don't waste resources on fancy facilities or technology." While most of the schools don't have fancy facilities, this does not establish that nicer surroundings are bad -- it simply establishes that success is possible without them. Every so often we see a barefooted runner succeed in the Olympics or another big running race. This makes it clear that human beings are capable of running without shoes, but does not prove that buying shoes does not help.

In the end, the book provokes a compelling discussion about what is right and wrong about our urban schools and how we might push them to succeed. While it may not technically be research, it provides interesting insights and original ideas. The notion that the most successful are paternalistic is an idea that is not frequently discussed in the academic literature. If the key to success is, in fact, to remove students from their home environments and acculturate them to different norms and behaviors then this shifts the frame of thinking surrounding school reform. What remains to be seen is how easy it will be to replicate what these schools have done. I've said many times before that discipline is one of the largest hurdles that high-poverty urban schools face, and I'm curious to see how well the successful discipline systems of these schools can be replicated. Is it possible, for instance, to replicate these systems in schools that cannot expel students and where every student is admitted regardless without having to apply? Only time, and quality research, will tell.

Update: Read David Whitman's response to this review (along with my response to his response)

Monday, August 4, 2008

How Bad do the Students Think Their School is?

Here's the synopsis of the paper I'll be presenting at ASA today:

Almost every reform of high-poverty urban schools assumes one thing: that these schools are bad and everybody knows it. Why, for example, would a kid want to work harder, attend more days of school, sign-up for tutoring, or apply to a different school unless they thought there was something wrong with their current school and the way they're doing things now.

We in the policy realm are absolutely certain that these schools are hellholes that doom the kids to a lifetime of underachievement. But I wondered what the kids thought. So I asked them.

In a pilot study, I surveyed 79 students in college-prep and vocational classes at a high school on the brink of closure. The school is the poorest in its district and has a graduation rate that has dipped below 50% in recent years.

To summarize, the kids reported that their school was about average, that other schools weren't much better or worse than theirs, and that their student body didn't differ significantly from other schools. Kids reported that that students in their school graduated at a slightly above average rate. When asked to estimate the percentage of kids in their school that were African-American, they were spot-on (86%), but when asked to estimate the kids in all other schools in the country that were African-American they were a little off -- the mean response was 68% (actual figure is about 14%).

Perhaps I shouldn't be reporting results of a pilot study yet when I still have a lot of red tape to get through before I can start the final version (please don't steal my idea, I'm just a poor grad student who needs to build up his CV), but I find it interesting.

The reason I'm presenting it at a Sociological conference is because my guess as to what is happening relates to sociological theory (look up social construction or status construction if you're interested). My best guess, based on a very sample, is that people tend to assume that their immediate surroundings are normal unless their is explicit evidence to the contrary. In other words, the only way these students would think their school was abnormal was if they were exposed to a number of other schools that were quite different -- something I'm not sure happens. Of course, it could also be the case that the school is simply not as bad as we outsiders think.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

ASA Day 2

The stream of interesting papers continues here in Boston. Here are some tidbits from today:

-In a paper on racial inequalities in learning, Priyank Shah found that higher expectations of a child's future educational attainment was much more strongly related to higher achievement among White and Asian students than among Black and Hispanic students. Additionally, Parents of Blacks and Hispanics expected higher educational attainment than did Whites.

-In a paper on the roles of class and race on achievement, Dennis Condron found that school exacerbates the achievement between black and white first graders -- i.e. it was larger at the end of the year than at the beginning of the year -- but shrinks the gap between upper and lower class students. He attributes the effect to the segregation currently present in schools, as students in schools with high-minority populations performed the worst.

-In a paper on Desegregation, Argun Saatcioglu found that desegregation improved the odds of graduation among Cleveland students despite the fact that overall graduation rates didn't rise. Cohorts that went through high school before and after desegregation were harmed by their schools while a cohort that attended during the desegregation era was actually helped by their schools -- especially Black students. Using fixed-effects he found that about 20% of the variation in graduation rates was attributable to school factors and about 80% were due to home factors.

-In a paper on Charter Schools and Segregation, Deborah Marie Warnock found that increasing numbers of charter schools in Ohio caused the traditional public schools in those districts to be more economically segregated. She used a measure called the dissimilarity index to arrive at her conclusion.

-In another paper on school choice and segregation, Kristie Phillips, Charles Hausman, and Elisabeth Stuart looked at who transferred schools in a district with open enrollment. In other words, any kid in the district could enroll in any school in the district (though none of the schools were charter). They found that students were less likely to transfer to another school if they were an English Language Learner, had a single parent, or were eligible for free/reduced price lunch but that students were more likely to transfer when they were zoned for schools with over 50% free/reduced price lunch eligible students. Additionally, wealthier students were zoned for better schools than poorer students but also transferred into better schools than the ones to which poorer students transferred.

One more day to go and I hear there's going to be a stellar presentation tomorrow.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

ASA Day 1

I'm here at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association. Today was actually the second day of the conference, but the first I was able to attend. I heard a number of interesting presentations today -- here are some tidbits:

-In "School Disengagement and Problem Behavior: Distinguishing Cause from Consequence," Joseph Michael Gaspar and Paul Hirschfield examined the relationship between disengagement and delinquency in Chicago middle-schoolers. One model found that delinquency led to disengagement in school a year and a half later, but that disengagement did not lead to delinquency a year and a half later. Another model, however, using fixed-effects, found that both conditions led to more of the other condition a year later. The authors' preliminary conclusion is that delinquency causes more negative outcomes in the long-run while disengagement may affect students more in the short-term. One weakness was that "delinquency" was broadly defined and included many things that happen outside of school -- I'd be more interested in finding out if disengagement in school leads to more delinquency.

-In "Schools and Delinquency Revisited: Delinquent Affiliations in Middle and High School," Mark Warr and Robert Crosnoe looked at the actions of students' friends. They found that delinquent behavior increased steadily until about 10th grade, when it leveled off. Similarly, they found that moral condemnation of such behavior declined steadily until about 10th grade, when it also leveled off. The delinquency level of students in some schools was about 10x as high as in others -- meaning that significant differences do exist. The only students they found that were "peer-proof" and did not make friends with delinquent individuals were those that were highly religious and those that were socially isolated. Among those who said that all of their friends were going to college, 91% planned on attending college. Among those who said that none of their friends were going to college, less than half planned on attending college.

-In "Juvenile Delinquency, College Attendance, and the Paradoxical Role of Higher Education in Crime and Substance Use," Patrick Michael Seffrin and Stephen A. Cernkovich looked at the behavioral trends of those who do and do not attend college. They found that those who did not attend college drank alcohol and used drugs more often and committed more crimes before attending college. While attending college, however, college students drank more alcohol, used more drugs, and committed more crimes than their similarly aged peers who were not in college -- a surprising reversal. The authors attribute the increase in crime to the increase in alcohol consumption and the increase in unstructured socializing.