Snapshot of Freddie de Boer’s Education Views

The New Yorker summarized Freddie de Boer’s book Cult of Smart by saying he  “argues that the education-reform movement has been trammelled by its willful ignorance of genetic variation.”

I’m a regular reader of DeBoer’s writing and found his post You Don’t Get to Withdraw “Your Share” of Public Expenditures, Doofus to conveniently encapsulate many of his views on education. I have a lot of respect for deBoer’s thinking and research so I jotted down some of these views. All bold is mine.

Despite arguments to the contrary the US education system is quite competent

Many detractors of public spending on education claim some version of “but the schools are doing such a bad job.” Longtime readers will know how little I think of that claim. American public schools are not, in fact, uniquely or especially bad; our median student does alright, given that they consistently rank in the middle of OECD nations in international comparisons and the OECD no doubt performs far better than the international average. (Don’t get me started on Chinese educational data, or the inherent unfairness of including Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore, city-states that are simply not good comparisons.) Plus we look better in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) than in the PISA, from where I’m sitting. (Play with the data viz tools there, they’re great.) Our top 5% or 1% are competitive with any nation on Earth, and we frequently win international STEM competitions. Please enjoy looking over the American kids absolutely whipping everybody’s ass in the International Chemistry Olympiad, for one example. Or the International Math Olympiad, where we won outright in 2015, 2016, and 2018, and tied with China for first place in 2019.

The problem is not at the top nor, I would argue, in the middle.

Where is the problem in education?

The trouble is that we’re dragged down by a relatively small number of students that perform so terribly that they drag down our averages. That is indeed a problem, but it’s not primarily (or even secondarily, really) an educational problem. Rather it’s a complex and multivariate social problem that can’t be solved at the school level. Given the amount of money, energy, and manpower this country exerts on public education, whether defined in aggregate or per pupil, we should be able to confidently say that if there were any silver bullets available we would have killed all the werewolves by now. Unfortunately wonkism rules in this domain and core to the wonkist philosophy is that every problem has a policy solution.

How about teachers?

Our teachers deserve little of the blame (and, for consistency’s sake, the praise) for our current situation, as student-side factors dominate school-side factors in determining student quantitative outcomes. I’m not going to go through the paces of that particular claim here; I’ve written on this topic extensively and immediately above is a one-stop shop for my general take on the macro educational situation in this country. But for shorthand we might consider that the vast majority of American educational inequality exists within schools, not between them, making it very odd to blame schools for inequality. (For such blame to make sense, we would have to believe that schools are deliberately withholding the better education from the low-achieving students and hoarding it for the high-achieving, when in fact most schools do everything in their power to improve performance among their worst students, given how intense the pressure from above is to do so.) We could also look at serial failures of touted prescriptions like charter schools or vouchers, a world in which districts that are still referred to as “miracles” house tons of schools with terrible performance, where programs hailed as transformative turn out to be disastrous, and where the randomization tools that are so essential for equal access and effective research operate as a black box with little or no consistency or oversight. Like I said, I’ve made the case at length before.

The students themselves matter more than the schools or teachers in determining outcomes

I’m not the only one who says that the individual student is more important than the teacher or school for determining outcomes. There is grudging but growing understanding of this reality in the policy world. For example, RAND Education, which is very much in line with the broader neoliberal education reform movement, has estimated that student-side factors are four to eight times more responsible for student outcomes than school-side factors (The Rand report that included this estimation has been “superseded” and the specific numbers have been removed from the new report, in favor of perfectly vague language about the “many factors” which influence outcomes, which is pretty common for this world – inconvenient realities get whitewashed away. Luckily for us, I got the old report.).

This should be common sense, it seems to me, and more and more people are willing to admit to it, but there’s still profound resistance to this idea, as a) there’s a large educational profiteering industry in this country and b) too many people are still addicted to Stand and Deliver-style romanticism about education, the cheery notion that all any student needs is a passionate teacher.

The determinism is not rosy, but it’s closer to reality than many want us to believe

Here’s the thing, folks: wherever your kid goes, there they’ll be. If they’re particularly talented, they’re very likely to perform well regardless of school. If they’re particularly untalented, they’re very likely to perform poorly regardless of school. Many studies that involve randomly assigning students to schools perceived to be of differing quality find no school effects, which is counterintuitive only if you assume every brain is the same. There are no magical institutions anywhere in the world where you can take a kid who is not naturally inclined to be a genius and turn them into a genius. If such a place existed, this would be a profoundly different world. 

Why a policy of diverting funding away from poorly performing schools misses the point and is basically unjustified

The case for “school choice” is not remotely strong enough to overwhelm the basic social contract that dictates public expenditure. Even many of the most ardent ed reformers will now concede, after several decades of yelling “no excuses!” and then making constant excuses for charter schools and vouchers, that neither of those programs provide fast, reliable, or scalable improvements. In many cases, students in such situations perform worse. Are the rest of us really obligated to divert precious public funds into institutions that do not operate under public control when the case for the superiority of those institutions is so thin and so contested?

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