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Bruno: The Soft Bigotry Of High Expectations (For Reform)

6717604035_6895962e6b_nI usually appreciate Kevin Drum's skepticism when it comes to education reform, but I don't understand his pessimism about the infamous Chetty/Friedman/Rockoff study.

Chetty et al, you'll recall, found that using value-added measures to identify weaker teachers and replace them with better teachers could increase students' long-term earnings by about 1%.

There are lots of reasons to doubt that we really could reap that 1% gain by broadly implementing VAM-based hiring and firing. What's puzzling to me, though, is Drum's disappointment with the "shockingly low" 1% figure, which he seems to think is hardly worth bothering about.

But why is 1% too small of a gain to care about? That 1% figure is for one teacher in one year of school, but if we're considering an education reform like this we're presumably imagining implementing it in multiple grades so that each student would benefit from it over multiple years.

I doubt I'm the only person who would be excited if my 13 years in the K-12 system had been able - cumulatively and hypothetically - to increase my future earnings by an additional 10% or more.  And I'd need some pretty good reasons to deny those gains to other people.

While education policy skepticism can be healthy we shouldn't get carried away with unreasonably high expectations for proposed reforms. Education pundits are typically privileged adults, so benefits that we might dismiss as insignificant may seem quite valuable to many students (or their future selves) -- especially on a cumulative basis.

So if we demand that a proposed reform meet pundits' arbitrarily high expectations to be deemed worth implementing, we may unjustifiably write off potentially worthwhile projects and policies. The fact that an education reform is "not good enough" to excite and entertain adults who are done with the K-college system doesn't necessarily mean it's not good enough to benefit lots of kids who have yet to finish their educations. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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I thought he made it quite clear. First, it was incredibly fuzzy criteria and data, so you'd want really convincing increases to be sure it wasn't just noise. Second, you keep talking about the money you'd like, but the kids studied were predominantly low income kids, the ones who are supposed to have terrible teachers that are utterly ruining them. Yet with all those supposedly horrible teachers being replaced by better ones, 1% is all you could get out of the weakest kids supposedly weak because they had horrible teachers?

Finally, something Drum didn't mention but is highly relevant: they eliminated any ex-students they couldn't find in the IRS database. Well, those would be the kids most likely to be doing poorly, so it would skew the results up.

I wrote about it here as well:


Also, 1% is good or bad compared to what? "A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity." (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/integration-worked-why-have-we-rejected-it.html)

That's a lot of high performing teachers!

Also, the median personal income for, say, African Americans employed full time in 2006 was $32,021, so ten good teachers gets you what? A little over $35,000? Or do we compound the interest? 10% of not a lot of money is not a lot more money.

If you want to increase the lifetime income of low-income students, it'd be a lot easier to just increase the minimum wage.

@Ed - As I said, my objection to Drum wasn't about whether the 1% was correct, but whether 1% is worth our attention. I said think it is, hypothetically speaking, and I don't see that you've addressed that point.

@Tom - Increasing the minimum wage is also probably a good idea. In fact if I had to choose I might very well prefer it to a hypothetical 1%-boosting edu-policy.

"As I said, my objection to Drum wasn't about whether the 1% was correct, but whether 1% is worth our attention. I said think it is, hypothetically speaking, and I don't see that you've addressed that point."

It's not worth our attention because it's a picayune amount of money (remember, it doesn't apply to you). and how on earth can it not matter that it's probably not correct?

Except that 1% per teacher per year is actually *not* a tiny amount of money when accumulated over many years and students.

Whether or not the 1% is real is - as you might say - orthogonal to the question of whether 1% would matter hypothetically. That is precisely the point of hypotheticals: to consider the implications of something that may not actually be the case.

Investing in expensive data analysis systems may not be as important as investing in ways of measuring teacher effectiveness that can identify the specific supports teachers need to improve their practice.

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