Arnold Kling  

Beyond Reform?

Measuring Shortfalls in Entitl... Let Them Get Roommates...

The book Beyond the Classroom, by Laurence Steinberg, suggests that school performance depends on factors that are outside the control of the school. He focuses on the issue of student engagement.

When highly engaged students are in class, they are there emotionally as well as physically. They concentrate on the task at hand, they strive to do their best when tested or called upon...They participate actively in class discussions, think about the material covered in their courses, and genuinely care about the quality of their work. [p. 15]

While the book offers some suggestions for schools that might increase engagement, the general thrust is that student engagement is largely exogenous to the school. Parents and peer groups are major factors.

Because peer groups are important, school choice could be problematic as a solution. Parents who care will seek to put students into schools with other parents who care, which is what happens with neigborhood choice today. However, if there are parents who do not care about their students' educational peer groups, then there is not much that the market is going to do about it.

Thanks to Ezra Fishman, an engaged student, for the pointer.

For Discussion. If Steinberg's view of the nature of the problem in school performance is correct, what are the public policy implications?

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
winterspeak writes:

If student committment is exogenous to schools, it still makes sense to have school choice.

Any given classroom will have some committed students, and some non-committed students. The non-committed students, if they are disruptive, will reduce the ability of the committed student to learn. As committment is exogenous, the committed student will have no impact on the non-committed student.

School choice enables the committed student to move to a school with other committed students, making him better off than before.

Non-committed students remain in school with other non-committed students, at no loss.

So the net benefit is positive.

One could argue that non-committed students need a very different type of school than committed students. If choice created this distinction, extra-school activities designed to impact the exogenous conditions generating non-committment in the students would be more efficient to deploy.

In other words, if the problem is the neighbourhood, then let the good students go somewhere else, and focus non-choice, command and control solutions on the students (and families) that need them.


Tony Vila writes:

Finally, conservatives recognizing the network impact of school differentiation.

winterspeaks comment makes complete sense... except for assuming committed have no impact on non-committed. If you assume that, differentiation is all good, but I think it's clear any student, good or bad, benefits from a "committed" student and loses from working with a "non-committed" student.

Of course, this is what has largely been going on anyway, and why purely fiscal causes about why our inner city schools are failing is, well farcical to say the least.

My presumption in favor of this dilemma (let all the committed people boost themselves to the maximum, or let the the committed help out the non-committed at the cost of the committed) is for the egalitarian approach, largely because I don't trust our current ability to separate out committed's or non-committed's correctly anyway.

John Thacker writes:


I suspect that the committed can separate themselves out from the non-committed to some degree. Merely those who choose to take advantage of choice would be more likely to be committed.

The problem with the egalitarian solution is that you either: 1) Let the committed poor students who can't move into a wealthy neighborhood enrich the uncommitted, while the committed wealthy enjoy their superior neighborhood schools, or 2) Do some sort of busing scheme, which, among other things, causes the wealthy to either move far enough away that busing can't happen or to send their kids to private school instead.

Either way, it seems to me to lead to a situation where the educationally committed poor students are dragged down by their non-committed peers, whereas the wealthy students get insulated from all that in good schools.

Given all that, I'd rather give poor students who are educationally committed a chance to escape. It has other ancillary benefits, such as increasing the benefits and return to poor students who are educationally committed, and thus increasing the percentage who choose to be committed. Provide a way to escape, and more people will work towards it.

mcwop writes:

Tony and John,
Check out Carl Rogers

I feel his work deals with the concept of committed and non-committed (though he does not use those exact terms). He makes some great observations.

A college professor of mine gave me his book (Freedom to Learn). After finishing the book, it changed the way I approached learning forever.

Randy writes:

To begin, we must separate "education" from "learning".

Learning is an individual responsibility.

Education exists to provide an introduction to learning, an opportunity for learning, and to seperate those who do learn from those who do not.

Transferring responsibility for learning from the individual to the educator accomplishes exactly nothing. And spending tax dollars on such efforts constitutes a misallocation of resources.

superdestroyer writes:

Why not make high school voluntary? Instead of creating some sort of choice program that rewards the connected family and leaves everyone else standing in line,on a wait list, or applying all over the place, just lower the cost to the uncommitted of leaving the academy to nothing. Then all the students that will be left are the committed and they will learn. The side benefits are much less violence, lower needs for remedial classes, and an atmosphere that promotes learning.

Wilson writes:

"If Steinberg's view of the nature of the problem in school performance is correct, what are the public policy implications?"

Given what educators have advocated in the past, a likely conclusion will be that schools and educators should have even more time with students: extracurricular activities before school, extracurricular after school, longer school years, smaller class sizes, etc.

Few findings can fail to be shoehorned into a generic demand for more resources.

Arnold Kriegbaum writes:

1. Most teachers in underperforming schools must feel that increasing student success is mostly out of their hands or. . . they truly are a bunch of thieves: receiving decent pay for year after year of mediocrity. So, the teacher mentally divorces his/her performance from student results. Clearly, this in not good.

2. Superdestroyer above suggests not requiring high school. It isn't really required and hasn't been for some years. As Arnold Kling suggests in his latest book, College (and I believe High School as well) is largely a holding zone during a physical and emotional maturation period.


Jim Erlandson writes:
However, if there are parents who do not care about their students' educational peer groups, then there is not much that the market is going to do about it.

Perhaps the administrators of these schools should have a chat with the colleges and universities referred to in a previous post. They've convinced parents of the importance of a good education.

Parents pay because they fear that to do otherwise would condemn their children to a hell of low-status occupations and spouses.

And no one wants their kid to be stuck with a low-status spouse.

Shakespeare's Fool writes:

Dr. Kling,
For perhaps 30 years I have been reading of schools
that improve with a new principal or classes that improve
with a teacher either new to the students or with the same
teacher who adopts new methods. Jaime Escalante comes
most readily to mind.
Are these reports false, or is Laurence Steinberg not
looking at or perhaps not using such evidence?
Shakespeare’s Fool

Austin writes:

Superdestroyer has a great point. Kids who don't want to be at school are ruining the education of kids with real potential. They disrupt classrooms, bring violance to school, and are a bad influence on others.

The bottom line is, the goal of high schools is to education the young to the greatest possible extent. If making high school voluntary improves the education quality, it should be voluntary.

Jim Erlandson writes:
... the general thrust is that student engagement is largely exogenous to the school.
From today's Wall Street Journal:
Right now, students in Atchison County, Kan., need a C average in order to participate in extracurricular activities. As of next year, however, even a D-minus average will be good enough. A district school board in northeastern Kansas voted last week to lower its threshold after asserting that efforts to determine eligibility under the C rule were distracting teachers from their job of helping pupils learn. Not everyone is buying that argument. Terrance Jordan, the principal and sports director of Atchison High School--which, despite its name, is in a different district--told the March 16 Atchison Daily Globe that his school is considering stricter guidelines: "We're here to educate kids; extracurricular activities are a bonus. . . . Kids have to be able to do what they're asked to do before they can play."
The original story is in the Atchison Daily Globe.

The premise that student engagement is exogenous to the school is, in this case, wrong. Atchison County schools are refusing to engage in the hard work of engaging students.

Greg N writes:

If the problem is actually that students are not engaged in their own education, then paying them for good grades on tests and homework sounds like an even better idea.

Boonton writes:

And how about taxpayers choice? School 'choice' is really choice with vouchers of taxpayer money after all. No doubt some school would attempt to cash in on the less caring parents by offering easier A's, more field trips and parties, less reading, and less homework and tests. Assuming parent and student are happy with this school doesn't the taxpayer have a right to step in and say they should not be funding this out of their pocket?

Local public school systems have the advantage of representing the average goals and values of the communities voters. (Since lackadasical parents are unlikely to vote and be part of the decision making process the goals of the local public school should actually be higher than the overall community's average goals).

At this point we should analyze why school choice is failing. By that I mean why voters are rejecting it in all but a few large urban school zones with serious problems.

Jim Erlandson writes:

Greg N: From Beyond Stage One

As Newt Gingrich suggested, maybe we ought to just get rid of the whole department of education bueracracy and use that money to pay students to learn.
Indeed, some skeptics will say that children should WANT to learn and not be forced (or be paid). But unforunately, no child has perfect foresight of his future.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

School Choice leaves Students behind--sad but true. The desirability of the option is clear to Parents, less clear to Students, and a clear destruction to Public School systems.

Engaging Students is not the answer--I am afraid. It is dependent upon Student desire to learn. Course studies and Teadhing methods must emphasize the Adult needs of these capabilities--telling the Students what the Workplace will pay high for, and how much Pay is lost from the lack of these skills.

One would say this is accomplishable only in specific skills like Math, but Teachers can reflect that knowledge of literature, art, and music remains essential for Conversational skills for Job applications, Conventions etc., and Social interactions with Employers and Co-Workers. lgl

Shakespeare's Fool writes:

Lawrance George Lux,

What I have read about school choice programs is
that they raise the performance of students who
attend them and raise the preformance of students
who remain in the public schools.

Have I been misinformed?

Can you tell us your sources?


Timothy writes:

The main problem with student engagement is how dull, backwards, and simplistic most school curricula are. Programs for remedial students have been given so much attention that programs for advanced (or even just above-average) students are largely ignored. I don't mean in high schools, AP and IB programs are great, and a lot of high schools have pretty good more challenging courses. It's elementary and junior high schools where more eager learners who'd likely be engaged if presented challenging material are sitting waiting for their classmates to learn.

RD writes:

Although in favor of school choice, school vouchers, anything to get committed students out of non-committed educational atmosphere, some anti-school choice arguments have been ignored here:

1) It's the parent who decides where the child goes. School choice does not help nerds who have uncommitted parents.

2) Actually, it's beneficial for the non-committed student to have a committed student around. Indeed the best way to kick the prefix off non-committed students are to throw a few into a classroom with a lot of committed students. The question still remains, of course, whether the benefit to a majority of non-committeds outweighs the very real negatives to a minority of committeds.

3) A committed student might very much need the better academic atmosphere of the better school he or she can attend via voucher... but there are social consequences. (S)he might feel intimidated being the outsider with a bunch of classmates who certainly all know and play with each other after school hours when (s)he goes home to the other neighborhood. And there is the possibility of social clashes. Thus the big question is still improving all the schools.

Of course, Steinberg is correct. Terrible as some school districts are, they in addition to their own incompetence always face a formidable hurdle not found in schools of wealthier neighborhoods: there is the overwhelming exogenuous social pressure to not be committed.

Policy implications? It rests with a cities to revive their urban centers. Kids who see older siblings and neighbors who graduate high school doing no better than ones who drop out aren't going to go to the trouble of school. In cities without jobs, there is not a lot of economic incentive. "Go mobile," a lot of well-meaning people urge them, but even for the talented there is the family and friend factor that makes them disinclined to leave for better markets with no personal attachments. LGL is absolutely right that students need to see an economic value to all this work. City governments: attract jobs. Specifically, jobs that require no less and little more than a high school education - a "real" high school education, the sort that requires literacy and skills, not the diplomas that are such only in name.

I know this sounds simplistic and that it would NOT be easy. It will take an investment considering the unfavorable conditions of the city. But unless it's done the cities will still have the problems that make it difficult to be done - ghettoization, crime, hopelessness.

Shakespeare's Fool: Sometimes a single teacher/principal/administrator can make that sort of wonderful difference. However, there's no way to produce enough of them to go around. They're simply not one-size-fits-all. Such a person might simply have "clicked" with the particular vibes of that neighborhood, and their style might be worthless elsewhere. The tactics of effective, engaging educators differ widely. A lot of it is adaptability and experience - and luck. In any case, there's no way to depend on that.

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