individual genetics, group environments

Suppose we take a group of children and decide to have a jumping competition. We are going to see how high they can jump and, to continue the analogy, we are going to make the stakes in this jumping competition incredibly high, enough to largely determine their future job and wage. We also decide, thanks to prejudice, to disadvantage some of the children in this jumping competition. We fit them with weight belts to make jumping harder. We likewise advantage another group by giving them special springy shoes that make it easier to jump high. With different groups thus given an advantage, disadvantage, or neither, we are now set to hold our jumping competition.

As would be expected, we find that as a class those with the weight belts perform below average and those with springy shoes perform better than average. However, we do find that some children buck the expectations. Some students who wear weight belts are so gifted at jumping that they are among the highest jumpers. Likewise some students are so lacking in natural jumping ability that they don’t jump very high despite wearing the springy shoes. For these students, their genetic gifts heavily influence their outcomes, even though the difference from the average for their group is environmental. This is what I mean when I say that individual outcomes can be genetically influenced even while group outcomes are the product of the environment.

The analogy is obvious, of course. These advantages and disadvantages are the race and class disadvantages faced by students of color and poor students. In our academic system we observe group differences between students of different races and economic classes, but we also are aware of systemic inequalities in the environment of the children in those classes. The average performance of students in these groups is thus a product of those environmental factors, while the performance of any individual is a product of a mix of their environment and their genetic gifts.

So a few points here. Again, both group environmental differences and individual genetic differences can live side by side, and this is the contention of my book, which argues that racial (and other) achievement gaps are the product of systemic racism etc but also that individual students are profoundly influenced by their genetic parentage. There are poor Black students who get into every Ivy League school in the country and there are rich white kids who flunk out of high school. These exceptions don’t negate the trends, but they do demonstrate the importance of natural ability.

Now: some will ask, what about training the students to jump? What’s the influence of a good trainer? I would never say that a jumping trainer, or a teacher, has no influence. There is certainly some part of the variance in jumping/education that is attributable to training. But genetic influence matters for explosive athleticism and for academic ability1, and yet we have essentially no consideration for this fact in our public educational discourse. And my book argues in part that we have vastly overstated the influence of teaching on student academic outcomes when compared to genetics, largely because we have no policy mechanism to address genetic differences. (We are, once again, searching for our keys not where we dropped them but where the light is.)

Another important point to make is this: when the systematic environmental differences are removed, the influence of genetics will increase. Precisely because I don’t believe in a genetic explanation for the racial and class achievement gaps, I believe that once the environment is equalized, the racial and class achievement gaps will close. (That is, when we eliminate the influence of white supremacy, we will eliminate the achievement gap.) But once we equalize the environment, which is currently suppressing the performance of Black and poor students, the influence of genetics on individual student will be heightened, as the dampening effects of environment will have been removed. So now we’ll see a racially representative academic landscape where Black students attend Harvard at numbers equal to their proportion of the country, to pick one dynamic, but where the gap between a gifted Black student and a Black student without academic gifts will only loom larger.

Many people would see that world – where the races are represented proportionally in our various educational metrics like SAT scores and graduation rates – as one where educational justice has been achieved. And given the success pipeline in this country it’s likely we’d see improved representation of Black and Latinx people as surgeons, judges, politicians, etc. Some would declare victory. But the question is, what about that other category of student being left behind, the untalented students? Their struggles would be less stark than the racial achievement gap as they would look like all different kinds of people. But they do, and would, suffer terribly in our system. What about their interests? Why is there no national movement to help them? Why are there hundreds of dissertations about the black-white achievement gap but not the gap between the talented and the not? Where are the think tank white papers written in their defense?

When I was pitching my book I referred to it as my “prayer for the untalented.” And it’s exactly that perspective that I’m trying to force into the national educational conversation, the influence of natural talent and our moral duty to minimize the damage done to those who lack it. They are the poorest served by our system, and it’s time we began to speak out in their favor.

not if teachers matter but how they matter

A common theme of the initial wave of reaction to my book (due out August 4th! Preorder now!) goes something like this. Among many other things, my book argues that teachers and schools have far less ability to produce changes in quantitative educational metrics than is commonly assumed. This is particularly true of relative metrics, that is, the rank order of students compared to their educational cohorts. Most students separate themselves into ability bands very early in life and remain in those bands for the entirety of their educational career. There are exceptions, of course, but at scale the dynamic is unmistakable. Third-grade reading group is a powerful predictor of whether someone will go to college. Etc. See the book for more.

Some have taken this to mean that teachers “don’t matter” in my world, that to believe this is to undermine the value of the profession. As a one-sentence GoodReads review puts it, “if I agreed with the conclusions here I’d have to quit my teaching job.” Is this true? Does a belief in the predominance of intrinsic academic talent demean teachers? No.

Judith Rich Harris, the author of the classic The Nurture Assumption, got hit with this kind of argument a lot. As I understand it, her response was usually something like this: you don’t expect that you can change the quantitative educational outcomes of your friends and lovers, and yet it would be bizarre to suggest that this means it doesn’t matter how you treat them. How you treat those around you matters profoundly even if that difference does not show up on someone’s SAT scores. Teachers have a profound duty in how the interact with their students emotionally and socially. To a child, a teacher’s behavior and demeanor matter tremendously even if they don’t make a struggling student into a star. Surely you’d rather be around someone who models compassion and emotional intelligence than not. It happens that I also don’t think a teacher can make a shy student into an outgoing extrovert. But a teacher can treat that shy child in a way that honors their personality, recognizes the potential for them to be emotionally harmed, and make their classroom into a space that is safe for both shy and outgoing children alike. That matters!

Indeed: in suggesting that how well teachers change quantitative metrics is the sum of their quality, this argument runs counter to the basic argument of my book. In calling to tear down the Cult of Smart, I am asking for our society to stop seeing the purpose of teaching as moving children around on the ladder of educational success. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the incoherence of asking for great educational mobility. (Every positive change in rank for one student necessitates negative movement on the hierarchy for others.) Freed from the assumption that academic performance is the sole criterion for a child’s worth, teachers would be free to devote their energies to inculcating values that are not graded on quantitative scales, such as empathy, the ability to listen, respect for other races and cultures, creativity, self-knowledge, and patience. Teachers are already expected to instill these values in children, but now they are expected to do so with the threat of being fired over test scores hanging forever over their heads.

Someday, I believe, it’s possible that we will dismantle the Cult of Smart and in so doing decouple our perception of a teacher’s worth from the quantitative outcomes of their students. In that world, every child can learn and play with the freedom to fail and be respected even if they never become a star student. It’s a world worth fighting for.

looking beyond test scores in defense of after school programs

The Trump administration has proposed cutting funding for a program that provides after school programs for low-income students. At the Atlantic, Leah Askarinam defends the programs. I’m on board with continuing to fund them, but I find her defense counterproductive.

Askarinam’s argument is kind of strange. The Brookings Institution ran several large-n studies in the middle of the aughts that showed, without much ambiguity at all, that the quantitative learning gains from these programs are minimal. Askarinam fixates on the age of those studies as a reason to question their validity. It’s true that the latest study on the efficacy of these programs is about a decade old, which isn’t ideal, but also isn’t unusual; it’s really hard, far harder than most people think, to run effective large-scale social science research projects. More to the point, why would we assume that something fundamental has changed in the outcomes of these programs in the past 10 years? She notes that the federal policy situation was different then, but that hardly seems to be sufficiently explanatory for me – the federal education policy situation changes all the time, without seeing systematic differences in student outcomes. (Indeed, the irrelevance of federal education policy to student outcomes is the source of great lamentation.) Consider the standard here: if ten+ year old studies had shown robust learning gains, would Askarinam now say that they were too old to be trusted? Such a standard would cut both ways, after all.

And while it’s true that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, absence of evidence is… absence of evidence. Askarinam offers some anecdotal evidence of academic improvement, discusses internal research, and speaks generally of gains not captured by those older studies. That’s fine as far as it goes, but none of it amounts to responsible evidence for the kind of quantitative gains the Brooking studies were looking for. More study is needed, obviously – you can use that phrase like a comma when you’re talking about ed research – but as with pre-K programs, I think if the question is “are test score and other quantitative gains in outcomes sufficient to justify the expense of publicly-funded after school programs?,” the answer is clearly no.

So am I opposed to funding for after school programs? No, not at all. I just think we should fund them for defensible reasons. Askarinam quotes David Muhlhausen of the conservative Heritage Foundation, “It’s a place to have their kids while the parents are at work,” Muhlhausen said. “That’s the real key to these programs and why they’re popular—not that they provide any benefits to the students. It’s basically a babysitting program for parents who aren’t home.”

Sounds good to me.

The birth of publicly-funded, federally-guaranteed education for children aged 5-18 was one of the greatest advancements in human well-being in history. It helped move millions of children into formal education, providing not only the various benefits of schooling to them but also the essential ancillary benefit of childcare. This in turn made it easier for both parents to work. While we might lament the fact that it’s now necessary for most households to have two incomes to survive, the fact is that it is necessary, and without the free childcare that public schools provide, family life would be impossible for much of the country. Public education also helps our slow, imperfect march towards gender equality. And in a world where digital technologies make it easier and easier to avoid interacting with people who are outside our immediate familial and friend networks, formal schooling can help make the kinds of connections between people from radically different backgrounds that are essential for a functioning democracy.

The cost of these programs is around $1 billion a year, or about one quarter of one percent of what we’ve spent on the failed F-35 jet project in the past 15 years.

In an era of stagnant real incomes for most workers and spiraling costs of housing, healthcare, and higher education, programs that provide safe supervision for children are worth supporting. “Traditional values” conservatives should embrace programs that make child rearing feasible for more families; liberals and leftists should appreciate expanding government assistance and taking more social goods (like childcare) out of the market.

Askarinam’s defensiveness, it seems to me, reflects the way that the widespread acceptance of test score obsession has boxed us in. Too many well-meaning progressives have adopted this reductive view of the purpose of education; they then end up unable to defend programs they favor when the results of those programs on test scores are inevitably small or nonexistent. The universal pre-K debate is a perfect example. The endless back-and-forth involves credible arguments from both supporters and skeptics, but few would question that the test score and other quantitative gains we’re arguing over are modest. So stop arguing through that frame. As long as test scores are taken as the criterion of interest, we’ll be playing defense. Instead, we should argue that the basic benefit of pre-K and after school programs is to provide essential childcare support to struggling families, and to provide social and personal enrichment that has value even if uncorrelated with test score increases. We need to expand our definitions of the purpose of education outside of the quantitative, rather than staying rooted in a frame that often doesn’t help us. Askarinam describes an after school program that offers social and emotional health benefits. That’s worth fighting for on its own. So articulate that case, and do the same with pre-K. Argue from strength, not weakness.