an assumed admixture

As someone with both a professional and amateur interest in how the public talks about education, and particularly educational assessment, I’m fascinated and disturbed by a trend that I’ve noticed in popular assumptions about educational performance. Though I can’t say this with great rigor, it seems to me that many people now talk about educational performance by students as simply and uncomplicatedly a product of school and teacher inputs. There’s a certain degree of variation between students in their academic performance, whether you’re looking at standardized testing or grades or whatever. What portion of that variation is controlled by teachers and schools is, I would argue, tremendously difficult to ascertain empirically, given the massive number of confounding variables and noise to deal with. But more and more, I see an attitude reflected in our popular discussion of education that presumes that teachers and schools control essentially all of that variation. This attitude was satirized effectively in this old cartoon:

So often, I read popular commentary that seems to assume that student outcomes are simply the product of the schools these students attended. For example, when data was released showing broad trends in the economic outcomes of students from various colleges, I read piece after piece that seemed to assume that the causal explanation for unequal outcomes in alumni income and employment was purely school-side factors. (Let’s set aside the implicit ideology that says a college’s reason for being is to produce successful capitalists.) This attitude seems to be of a piece with a general, rapidly-congealing conventional wisdom about the primary source of unequal academic outcomes. The Upshot’s David Leonhardt, to pick one example, strikes me as someone who writes about different outcomes in education as being uncomplicatedly a matter of school- and teacher-side factors.

But this is all pretty crazy. It fails to reflect a simple basic fact of human life: that different people have substantially unequal academic abilities. There’s of course tremendous diversity in educational outcomes between individuals, as measured in standardized testing and GPA and graduation rates and time to degree and self-reported satisfaction with schooling and successfully gaining licenses and certifications…. Debates in these areas, both academic and popular, tend to fixate on the source of differences between students who excel and students who struggle, with “nature vs. nurture” arguments as old as formal  schooling itself. But for teachers, these debates are in a deep sense academic: by the time children reach even preschool age, they end up unequal no matter what the cause. Whether there’s more truth in typical left-leaning explanations about environmental factors and socioeconomic inequality or typical right-leaning explanations about grit and natural talent, whatever that is, we know students get to school already unequal in academic ability. To that we can add the uncomfortable (and thus little-discussed) reality that there’s remarkable consistency in this inequality throughout life, with students at the bottom tending to stay at the bottom and students on the top tending to stay on the top throughout formal education, including into adulthood.

To speak and act as though student outcomes are the product of schools and teachers in an uncomplicated way ignores the vast number of variables that we know contribute meaningfully to a student’s academic performance. That attitude also ignores the banal fact that within-school and within-class variation is vast. It posits simplicity where we have every reason to expect massive complication. I think, based on the predictive power of student-side and parent-side factors — and let’s note again that, bizarrely, parents are essentially undiscussed in popular ed reform debates — the teacher- and school-controlled variation in student academic outcomes is probably smaller than the student- and parent-controlled variation. It’s not nothing, and the portion controlled matters a great deal and we should try to get the most out of it we can, but the notion of student brains as endlessly moldable clay does not seem to fit either data or experience to me. And note that the clay is only under the control of the schools for 6-8 hours of every weekday. And note too that the amount of variation which is controlled by schools and teachers probably varies widely from student to student, with particularly high-achieving and particularly low-achieving students probably being less susceptible to teacher and school inputs than the average student. And I’m willing to bet that the degree to which the variation is controllable by schools and teachers is probably not static for individual students, either, but likely changes over time, and is likely different for some subjects than for others….

Attachment to the school-determines-almost-everything stems, I think, from the typical tail-wagging-the-dog of policy talk, particularly in the era of the wonk. If students and parents are largely responsible for educational outcomes, it diminishes the capacity of policy to close these gaps (while still somehow enabling education to act as a great meritocratic sorting mechanism, which is a directly contradictory goal). In the current era, our religion is that all problems have policy responses. More importantly, of course, there’s the existence of a very large, well-funded, elite-driven ed reform movement that is underwritten by privatization efforts and a vast array of profiteers who are looking to turn the public school system, one of the last bastions of the great tradition of American government social systems, and sell it off piece by piece. The notion that educational inequality reflects complicated-but-real differences in the ability of individual students is inconvenient for the “throw the bums out” rhetoric that is an essential part of this effort.

Part of what I find interesting about this trend, if it’s real, is that this belief is likely undercut by the personal behavior of the very same members of the media elite who spread it. Our elite media class is overwhelmingly comprised of people who have been overachievers throughout their lives, with Ivy League degrees incredibly common, despite the tiny sliver of the American population who hold such degrees. I’ve written, many times, about the ample distortions and biases this demographic reality has on our media. One thing that I find generically true of these tryhard types is that they tend to be very convinced of their own control of the outcomes of their lives. They tend to believe that they are the generators of their own destiny. I doubt, in other words, that when these people got to Yale and Harvard, they proceeded through their education at those places as though their own abilities and behaviors would have little impact on their performance. On the contrary: they probably believed, in college as well as in high school, that they were the arbiters of their own outcomes, whether academic or economic. (And it’s a safe bet that they put together college applications that were designed to demonstrate to admissions officers that they were substantially unequal with, because better than, the average applicant.) I doubt very much that they got to a class themselves and said, “ah, a bad teacher! I will shortly become an imbecile.”

I’m willing to bet even more money that they don’t parent that way. Again, it’s my observation that elite types tend to raise their own children to believe that they control their own academic fates; they don’t accept the notion that their children will succeed or fail thanks mostly to the performance of schools and teachers but because of what the children do themselves. They tend to demand excellence in a way that directly undercuts the assumption that it’s teachers, not students, that determine performance. In other words, I’m willing to bet that a lot of professional political and policy commentators out there write like the parents from 2010, in the comic above, but parent their own children like the ones from 1960.

I understand why some friends blanch at talking about the fact that different people end up with different academic outcomes in ways that can’t be solely or even significantly attributed to schooling. They fear that this is some sort of conservative justification for social and economic inequality, that absent a school-side culprit, we’re doomed to a kind of educational social Darwinism. This is common logic, but I find it deeply confused. Essentially none of the common theories of educational inequality lead reliably to a conservative economic morality. If environmental factors like childhood poverty are determinative of student outcomes, then distributing material  security and comfort according to those outcomes can’t be fair or moral. But then, that shouldn’t be the case for people who take strongly hereditary visions of academic ability, either. I’m strongly on the side of environmental explanations, not genetic, but even if I was a hereditarian, I wouldn’t find economic inequality deserved. After all, you don’t choose your own parents; if genetic factors predominated, then that would simply be another example of punishing people for things they can’t control. I suppose the grit theory of educational outcomes could be consistent with a “just deserts” theory of economic inequality as product of educational inequality. But then,  it’s not at all clear to me that the tendency to have grit, itself, lies in the hands of children rather than their environment, their parents, or their genetics.

In fact, the assumption that people end up substantially unequal in their academic abilities, whatever the cause of that inequality, supports socialism and other systems of economic justice. A world of perfectly or substantially equal ability would be a world in which economic inequality would be most justified, as it would suggest that outcomes are largely in the hands of individuals. But a world in which human beings are substantially unequal in their abilities, as well as their privilege, opportunities, and resources, is a world in which we must build economic structures that protect everyone and insist on material security and basic comfort for all people. To put it another way: if your goal is to promote economic justice, why try to do that by undertaking the probably-impossible task of flattening away educational variation, especially given that improving broad educational outcomes has not been remotely proven to actually promote economic equality? Why not cut out the middleman and give people money? Why not focus on welfare states instead of welfare schools?