Summer break widens achievement gap

Summer break may be welcomed by children but research shows that it contributes greatly to the achievement gap between students of different backgrounds:

Consider, first, the evidence for the summer fade effect. Taken together, a variety of studies indicate that students’ academic skills atrophy during the summer months by an amount equivalent to what they learn in a third of a school year, according to a review by Harris Cooper, a professor of education at Duke University, and several co-authors.

This deterioration, furthermore, varies substantially by income and race, and its impact persists even past childhood. Barbara Heyns, a sociologist at New York University who studied Atlanta schoolchildren in the late 1970s, found that although academic gains during the school year were not substantially correlated with income, summer decline was.

Subsequent studies have replicated the finding. Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Olson of Johns Hopkins University, for example, found that the summer fade can largely explain why the gap in skills between children on either side of the socioeconomic divide widens as students progress through elementary school. Children from all backgrounds learn at similar rates during the school year, but each summer students of high socioeconomic status continue to learn while those of low socioeconomic status fall behind.

The impact is felt even years later. The learning differences that begin in grade school “substantially account” for differences by socioeconomic status in high-school graduation rates and in four-year college attendance, Alexander and his co-authors report.

This article adds some more information:

Many low-income kids actually make great progress in school from August to June, only to see much of it wiped away by an idle summer, he says. “We need to get over ourselves a little bit over our idyllic view of what summer is and what it’s supposed to be,” he adds.

A 2007 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that by the time students enter high school, “summer learning loss” accounts for roughly two-thirds of the nation’s achievement gap in reading between poor and middle-class students.

If the evidence is clear, how long until more districts go to reduced summer breaks or year-round school? Overcoming the culture of summer break could be difficult to do. Also, might we have a situation where wealthier districts continue summer break while less well-off districts try to combat this summer achievement decline?

Chicago second in the country in economic segregation

I recently noted a Brookings Institution report about how zoning contributes to differences in academic achievement. Looking further at this data, Chicago shows that Chicago doesn’t do well among metro areas:

* In Chicago, the “housing cost gap” is large: costs (a combination of renting and buying) are over twice as high in neighborhoods near high-scoring elementary schools than in low ones. In context, the metro area has the 32nd biggest gap out of the 100 largest metros.

* The area does worse on the “test score gap”: 24th in the country, with a 26-point gap between middle/high-income schools and low-income schools.

* The authors pinpointed zoning as a driver of these inequalities, because of the relationship between restrictive zoning, low density, and high prices, but on that the area does best, the 70th most restrictive out of 100.

* On economic segregation? As a measure of how many low-income students would have to move to achieve equal distribution (a measurement similar to how racial diversity is measured), Chicago is second-worst in the country, behind Bridgeport, Connecticut, 61 to 58 percent.

Whet Moser argues that this economic segregation doesn’t bode well in a city that is also known for racial segregation. Of course, racial and economic inequality is linked so perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising.

To solve this issue, you would need to find some way for students of different backgrounds to mix in schools. Of course, this has a long history in the United States. The Coleman Report suggested this back in the 1960s. In response, the government promoted busing but this proved unpopular. Today, Chicago claims to deal with this by allowing kids to attend other schools throughout the city but of course there are not enough spots in these high-performing schools and the poor performing schools still need help.

Differences in who blogs by race and education

A new sociological study shows that who blogs is affected by both race and education:

While African Americans as a whole are less likely to afford laptops and personal computers, Internet-savvy blacks, on average, blog one and a half times to nearly twice as much as whites, while Hispanics blog at the same rate as whites, according to a study published in the March online issue of the journal, Information, Communication & Society.

“Blacks consume less online content, but once online, are more likely to produce it,” said the study’s author, Jen Schradie, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley and a researcher at the campus’s Berkeley Center for New Media.

Schradie analyzed data from more than 40,000 Americans surveyed between 2002 and 2008 for the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which tracks Internet use and social media trends. Her latest findings follow up on a 2011 study in which Schradie found a “digital divide” among online content producers based on education and socio-economic status…

But, she said, “While blacks are more likely to blog than whites, it doesn’t mean the digital divide is over. People with more income and education are still more likely to blog than those with just a high school education and Internet access.”

There is not a whole lot of public discussion about this “digital divide” but it is interesting to see how this plays out with blogs. Of course, blogs are just one part of the content of the Internet and are a form that generally lends itself to longer pieces of writing (say compared to Twitter, Facebook, comment sections, discussion boards). In general, how involved are minorities in other forms of web content?

I wonder if the link between blogging and education is tied to the idea that more educated Internet users feel like they have something to say and contribute. Or perhaps education leads people to think that they should have a voice. For example, if you think about Annette Lareau’s theories about two types of parenting, “concerted cultivation” leads to adults who are assertive and comfortable in conversing with others.

Thoughts on the fact that 35% of four-year degree students finish college in four years

Several low statistics about college completion tend to startle my students when I share them in class:

Only 35 percent of students starting a four-year degree program will graduate within four years, and less than 60 percent will graduate within six years. Students who haven’t graduated within six years probably never will. The U.S. college dropout rate is about 40 percent, the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world.

When I’ve shared these figures with my students, they tend to be incredulous: most people they know go to college and complete it. Figures have gone up over the years but only about 30% of American adults have a college degree. For my students, they have never really known a world where they weren’t expected to go to college. While we might hold up figures like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as model entrepreneurs who were able to drop out of college, I would guess few people would counsel young adults to not go to college.

These figures can be taken in two directions. One option: these statistics are cited in an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that calls for rethinking “our obsessive focus on college schooling” and moving toward an educational system like Germany that funnels students into different tracks, college being one of them, after high school. Proponents of this plan like to note that this would increase vocational and technical training, providing the skilled workers than a post-industrial economy needs.

On the other hand, one could argue that there needs to be a lot more support for completing college. This doesn’t necessarily just happen once a student arrives on campus though I think there is much colleges could do to foster a more academic atmosphere that is focused on learning and training as opposed to “having an experience” and jumping on the credentialism train (having a college degree simply so you can get certain kinds of jobs). Aspiring to go to college can be very good but it requires a conducive environment and much work before one gets to college. This whole matter glosses over a bunch of other social inequalities that then play out at the college level. Asking colleges to solve all of these problems is very difficult – one, education is not necessarily the magic bullet we as a culture can solve everything and two, college comes at the end of a long chain of previous experiences.

Another argument to be made in favor of college is that it isn’t just about getting a job. While some will argue this is a luxury, college should be a place where students learn to think and encounter the big ideas that make the world go round. For many students, this will be the only time in life where they will have the time to truly engage with the issues they will then face for the rest of their lives. I do teach at a liberal arts school so I’m betraying some bias here but there is plenty to be gained in terms of human flourishing at college as well as being trained in particular fields or disciplines and I don’t think this should just be available to the wealthy or those who have the time. (Granted, this sort of learning doesn’t have to happen in college but there are few other social institutions that provide this in adult life. And self-learning can be a great thing but you will would want to interact with others in meaningful ways about what you have learned.)

Of course, college can be quite expensive and this influences the debate quite a bit.

h/t Instapundit

The real question to ask about the iBooks 2, textbook killer: will it help students learn?

There is a lot of buzz about the iBooks 2 but I have a simple question: will students learn more using it? In one description of the new program, this isn’t really covered:

Yet, the iPad offers a big opportunity for students to get excited about learning again. The iPad has already demonstrated it can help children with learning disabilities make leaps in bounds in their development, and schools have already invested heavily in Apple’s tablet. Roughly 1.5 million iPads are currently in use in educational institutions.

Schiller said that the problem with textbooks is not the content, which is “amazing,” but the weight of the physical book. They need to last five or six years when they’re written, and they’re not very durable or interactive. Searching is also difficult.

At that point, Schiller introduced iBooks 2, which has a new textbook experience for the iPad. The first demonstration showed what it’s like to open a biology textbook, and see an intro movie playing right before you even get to the book’s contents. When you get to the book itself, images are large and beautiful, and thumbnails accompany the text. To make searching easier, all users need to do is tap on a word and they go straight to the glossary and index section in the back of the book…

Jobs had long hoped to bring sweeping changes to higher education for much of his life. When he left Apple and launched NeXT in 1986, Jobs wanted the company’s first computer — a distinctive all-black magnesium cube — to be designed specifically for higher education establishments and what Jobs called “aggressive end users.”…

“‘The process by which states certify texbooks is corrupt,’ he said. ‘But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent the whole process and save money.'”

Based on this article, I see five things that are good about iBooks 2: it will excite students, it is lighter to use so don’t have to carry so much weight around, it will be cheaper for everyone in the long run, there are some cool features like searching and embedded videos, and it could make Apple a lot of money (and presumably traditional textbook publishers will lose money unless they adapt?).

But, we have been told for decades that better technology in the classroom, computers, laptops, the Internet, etc., will lead to improvements in learning and test scores. Isn’t this how iBooks 2 should be measured? It is good if kids are excited about learning again but will this tool actually help them learn more? The technology may be better and cheaper in the long run but this doesn’t necessarily mean it will lead to improvements in the education system.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that iPads or iBooks 2 can’t lead to better learning but I would want to know a lot more about its effect on educational outcomes before simply adopting the technology.

“Concerted cultivation” in the Chicago Tribune

A story about how class affects how willing students are able to ask for help ran Wednesday in the Chicago Tribune:

Just as every school principal knows the adults most willing to pipe up about everything from the kids’ class assignments to cafeteria food — by and large, well-educated working professionals — a study published last month in the American Sociological Review found their children showed the same propensity to advocate for themselves in the classroom as early as third grade. The children of working-class parents profiled in the two-year study seemed more reticent in asking teachers to review directions, provide more instruction or even check their work…

“We tend to assume that once you put kids in school, what they get there will help them overcome any differences they bring with them. But what this shows is … children have a meaningful impact on the way schooling is happening and what they are able to get out of it,” said University of Pennsylvania sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco…

The picture that emerged was striking: Middle-class students walked in the door knowing how to get their questions answered and, in turn, spent less time waiting for help and typically completed assignments on time. Many working-class children, meanwhile, had to learn those key skills in class from their teachers and peers.

What’s more, Calarco found many middle-class parents coached their students to speak up — politely but persistently — if they did not understand. They viewed seeking help as a critical skill in a class where more than two dozen students turn to a single teacher.

The article doesn’t mention this but this is the concept of “concerted cultivation” (from Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods) in action. While some might just chalk these differences to personality (some kids are more shy or outgoing), Lareau argues that this is really the result of social class. Within the same classroom, students of different class backgrounds have been raised in different ways: the middle- to upper-class students have been socialized to be more assertive with authority figures while lower-class students are less assertive and let authority figures dictate what is happening. With years of being more assertive, middle- to upper-class students are able to reap the benefits of advocating for themselves as well as practicing interacting with and connecting with adults.

While the article mentions that Illinois “the first state in the nation to require that all school districts teach social and emotional skills as part of their curriculum and day-to-day routine,” it doesn’t see if this curriculum helps with this particular topic. While individual teachers might be addressing this, is there a systematic effort to try to help lower-class students find a voice in the classroom and speak up?

It would be fascinating to track these kids further and see how this affects educational achievement differences by high school. Similarly, are there studies about the effectiveness of trying to help lower-class students be more assertive?

This is not a bad run of publicity for the December American Sociological Review: another story from that issue about the gender inequality in multitasking among working parents has also been getting a lot of attention.

ACT scores suggest most students not ready for college

The ACT has released a report that says the majority of students who take the test are not ready for college:

Only one in four college-bound high school graduates is adequately prepared for college-level English, reading, math and science, according to report released Wednesday by the ACT college admissions test.

Some 28 percent of the members of the high school class of 2011 failed to meet readiness benchmarks in any of the four core subject areas.

“ACT results continue to show an alarmingly high number of students who are graduating without all the academic skills they need to succeed after high school,” the report stated…

Readiness was defined as a student having a 50 percent chance of getting a B or a 75 percent chance of getting a C in first-year courses English Composition, College Algebra, Biology and social sciences.

Additionally, there are some pretty big gaps between racial and ethnic groups.

Here are some possible courses of action in response to this information:

1. Tell colleges that they need to offer more remedial classes and get students up to speed.

2. Add to the argument that perhaps college isn’t for all students.

3. Tell high schools that they need to keep their standards high and improve their ability to prepare students for college.

3a. Push the issue further down the educational ladder before high school.

4. Attack the ACT test. Perhaps it isn’t a great predictor of success, perhaps it is culturally biased, perhaps the students who take the ACT are not the same who take the SAT, etc.

I wonder how colleges will respond to this information. I would guess that this really doesn’t impact more elite schools who have their pick of students who have higher ACT scores. But where does this leave schools that accept a broader range of students?

Quick Review: Waiting for Superman

I recently watched the documentary Waiting for Superman, a film that received a lot of media attention after it was released late last year. It does try to take on an important on-going problem: how to improve American schools? This is an issue that one can hear average citizens, politicians, college professors and others discuss frequently. Here are my quick thoughts about this film’s take on the issue:

1. The framing of the issue in the opening and conclusion of the film is quite effective. Toward the beginning, we meet several students who want to go to the better schools (often a magnet or charter school) in their school districts. But since they are not alone and these schools are attractive to many families, the students have to go through a lottery. At the end, we see the results of the lottery. This is the question that is raised: should a child’s educational opportunities be left to chance in a lottery? Get into one of these elite schools and life will likely be good; not get in, and children can be doomed to terrible schools that are termed “drop-out factories.”

2. While the documentary hits on some possible reasons behind the problems of American schools (No Child Left Behind, bad neighborhoods, tracking), the main emphasis here is on two things:

2a. Teachers are a problem. The idea pushed by the documentary is that the bad teachers need to be replaced and unions resist this process. Michelle Rhee, the attention-getting superintendent of the Washington, D.C. schools is followed as she tries to make a deal with the union involving merit pay for the good teachers. Interestingly, we don’t really see evidence from districts where teachers are not as unionized – does this help improve student performance?

2b. Parents deserve choices in schools. This involves magnet or charter schools within districts plus other operations such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and KIPP schools.

2c. I wish they had put these two ideas together more: so how do teachers operate within these “better” school settings? How are teachers trained and encouraged within these settings? What exactly about these schools boosts student performance – is it just the teachers?

2d. I also wonder how all of this might be scalable. Later, the documentary talks about raising expectations for children and Bill Gates talks on-camera about having the right “culture” in the schools. How might this fit into the idea about American schools being more of a competition-based system versus a country like Finland that pursues more equal outcomes across the spectrum of students?

3. Even though most of the documentary is about inner-city schools, it also follows one “average” suburban girl and the suggestion is made that even suburban schools are not doing that well. This is backed up with data showing that American students are the most confident among a group of OECD nations but their scores are behind those of many nations. Additionally, it is suggested that these suburban schools are not preparing students well for college where a good number find that they need to take remedial courses. Since many Americans likely are influenced by school district performance as they look to move, what exactly is going on in these suburban schools that needs to be fixed? Outside of the exemplar schools held up in the movie (magnets or charters, KIPP, Harlem Children’s Zone), are there any good schools? Is the whole system so broken that no school can really succeed?

Overall, I was a little surprised by the message and who I have seen support it: improve the pool of teachers (and fight the unions!) and offer parents and communities more choices of schools that are more effective in providing educations. Considering what I often see blamed as the problems of schools, No Child Left Behind or funding disparities, this is a change of pace.

At the same time, I wonder about whether these two solutions are really the answer. Are they band-aids to the issue or would they really solve educational problems in America? I keep coming back to the idea of residential segregation, the concept describing how races and social classes live apart from each other. Life chances are better for people growing up in wealthier, more educated settings but of course, these people can buy their way into such settings and avoid others. Would school districts near me, say in Naperville, a suburb that takes great pride in its schools, really go for the idea of charter or magnet schools? Do they even really need them?

At the very least, this documentary raises some interesting issues and a different perspective on a problem for which many wish to find a solution.

(This film was well-received by critics: it is 89% fresh at RottenTomatoes, 99 fresh out of 112 total reviews.)

The origins of Oregon Trail

While looking at a column that included some thoughts about the book American Grace, I stumbled across the story of how the computer game Oregon Trail became a sensation. Here is what happened in those early days:

Minnesota’s City Pages tells the story of the game’s early days, when it was an underground sensation, played only by Minnesota schoolkids through a teletype machine installed in a janitor’s closet.

The Oregon Trail — a computer game in which players go on a simulated wagon journey out West, making key decisions along the way (take the Donner Pass or go around?) — was invented by a group of nerdy, computer-programming public school teachers in 1971. It was originally conceived as a board game, but Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger (all Minnesotans) quickly realized its potential as a computer game, and spent two weeks programming it on a middle-school teletype terminal. Their students played the game without a screen, by taking turns pecking out commands on the console, which forwarded them on by telephone to a mainframe computer; the game’s prompts (“You have dysentery”) came out of a printer. In subsequent years, the game was accessed by kids statewide through the same method.

Everything changed in 1978, after a handwritten bid was submitted by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple Computer, then just two years old. Apple IIs were installed in schools throughout Minnesota, and the game was rewritten in the form in which millions of students have encountered it since then. Over the past 40 years, 65 million copies have been sold, making The Oregon Trail the most widely played educational game of all time. Nowadays, you can play it on your iPhone for 99 cents.

The Oregon Trail wasn’t just one of the first computer games — it was, as City Pages’ Jessica Lussenhop points out, “one of the first simulation computer games.” In fact the emphasis, for its creators, was on simulation. Looking back, one of the most striking things about the game is its accuracy: The programmers pored over actual settlers’ journals to figure out exactly how often players should break their wagon wheels, get sick, or meet helpful Native Americans, and painstakingly integrated those probabilities into the game. The Oregon Trail made pioneer history more fun — but it also made it more accurate.

Another innovation brought to you by Apple.

In conversations with other people my age, many of whom grew up playing Oregon Trail at school or at home, there is both joy and nostalgia when anyone brings up this game. Looking back it, it isn’t terribly complicated, the graphics were limited, and I’m not sure how much we actually “learned.” Perhaps it was the fact that it was a video game that one was allowed to play at school (along with other beloved games like Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?). However, I must ask: by playing this educational game and the others that followed, have students become more knowledgeable? Have these games contributed to rising educational achievement? (I think the answer to both of these is probably no or the impact is very limited.)

It is also interesting to see this idea that Oregon Trail was one of the first simulation games. I have long been a player of a few of these games, most notably Simcity, starting with a 386 version on a monochrome screen.

Argument: improve educational performance of poor children by moving them to the suburbs

Academic achievement is a familiar topic in recent American discourse: how exactly do we improve student performance, particularly for those who are behind? One foundation president suggest the answer is to have more poor kids move to the suburbs and attend suburban schools with wealthier children:

One of the most important recent pieces of education research was released last year — and promptly ignored. The Century Foundation’s report “Housing Policy is School Policy” confirms the seminal 1966 finding of Johns Hopkins University sociologist James Coleman: The school-based variable that most profoundly affects student performance is the socioeconomic composition of the school. In short, poor children do better if they attend schools with affluent children.

The “new” news in the report? It highlights the critical out-of-school influence of where the low-income children reside. Poor children attending an affluent school do even better, it turns out, if they also live in an affluent neighborhood.

There is more interesting material in here, including reference to the Gautreaux program in Chicago (see some of the academic research generated in studying this program) that was one of the first programs that moved public housing families to suburban neighborhoods. (However, there is no mention of over similar and bigger programs, like HUD’s Moving To Opportunity.)

As the article suggests, this is a difficult solution to implement. The suburbs tend to have more expensive housing, suburban residents can be resistant to minorities and the lower classes, support networks can be lacking, and transportation by automobile is often required (and is costly). Additionally, it is very hard to create laws that would force movement or impel suburban communities to build affordable housing.

More broadly, this piece is a reminder of the price of segregated housing in America. We have an ethos that says people can move wherever they want (particularly if they have the money) but there are a variety of factors that inhibit this. As American Apartheid suggests, residential segregation “is the ‘linchpin’ of American race relations.”