Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Schools, selection, and all that stuff

I thought it might be worth looking at the whole schools thing from another angle. I've been re-reading Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and in particular his chapter on Parenting (chapter 5 page 148), where he tries to work out which behaviours and decisions make a difference to a child's success or failure in life.

He cites a very interesting study done on the Chicago Public School System. From 1980 onwards, primary school children could apply to enter any Chicago High School they wanted (as opposed to going to the school nearest their home). The choice is huge (more than sixty high schools within the Chicago system to choose from), and hence the take-up rate is high - about half of CPS students opted out of their neighbourhood school. Because it was impossible for every child to go to the best school, CPS resorts to a lottery. If you decide to opt out of your neighbourhood school, you pick your school of choice and your name is entered in a lottery - and you either get in or you don't based on the lottery. The choice plus lottery system makes it ideal to test whether there is an advantage to going to a "better" school or not.

Here's the interesting thing: the data shows that the students who won the lottery and went to a "better" school did no better than equivalent students who lost the lottery and were left behind in their neighbourhood school. They gained no academic benefit from going to a better school and those who got left behind in the neighbourhood school did not suffer from any supposed brain drain either. However, the students who entered the lottery in the first place were more likely to graduate than the students who didn't, regardless of which school they ended up in.

Conclusion: the parents and students who enter the lottery tend to be smarter and more motivated to begin with (that's why they are trying for a better school in the first place) and this motivation is what affects the academic outcome, regardless of school. i.e. it's the parents that make the difference, not the school.

Which suggests that New Labour is on the right track with it's emphasis on parenting classes, and trying to intervene early so that ignorant parents don't pass on bad behaviours and neglect onto their children. Good parenting is a skill, and though people are supposed to have learnt this from their own parents, some in the underclass haven't (which is why they are in the underclass). If only parents on the sink estates realised that all they have to do is make sure their children eat properly, do two hours of study at home each night, and then go to sleep on time so they get their rest, and they will do well in school. How well you do in exams is correlated with the amount of time you spend studying, and no matter how brilliant your teachers, you will fail if your parent does not insist you put in the study time. Instead too many neglect their children and let them hang around outside late at night, getting tired and wasting their time. The world in 2007 is very different from that of 1907 or even 1957, most (though not all) class barriers have been smashed - all you have to do is get good GCSE's and A Levels and you are on your way to a decent job and good life.


Anonymous said...

I must admit, that Chapter of Freakonomics did spring to mind.

That said, I don't see what's wrong with giving people more choice and/or vouchers for schools.

It's taxpayers' money after all, if the State takes money off you to educate children, why shouldn't they allow the taxpayer (i.e. the parent) to have more say in how it is spent?

snowflake5 said...

Mark - the whole point about the education debate is to get those children who are not performing well, to do better.

All the evidence is that they don't perform well because their parents don't care enough to make sure these children put in the hours of study (the key determinant to doing well in exams). These are the very same parents who wouldn't bother to take up school vouchers.

Vouchers, like grammar schools and independent schools merely play to those parents who are already motivated and will ensure their child does well regardless. However parenting classes and targetting of families that are "at risk", will help the underachievers.

As for the "it's my money anyway, so I should be allowed to take it out of the system" argument - there is a cost to the whole of society in having underachievers - they tend to commit the most crime, need more tax credits etc etc. It's actually cheaper if we spend money on them up front making sure they don't underachieve than to spend it the rest of their lives dealing with the outcome of their underachievement.

Anonymous said...

Well, I sort of agree, but the point about e.g. vouchers is, if you set them at a level that is LOWER than average spend per state pupil and enough people take them up (it would have to be increased gradually from say £500 in year 1 to £3,000 in year ten, or whatever), then the DfES has more money to spend, per capita, on "failing" pupils, as defined.

You can achieve the same thing by making funding per pupil lower in selective schools.

Parents then choose between - your kid in with other studious kids and no flashy computer screens and hi-tech sportshall, or in with average kids but with all the whizz-bang stuff.