In his column today Eugene Robinson says we should stop blaming teachers and start blaming poverty:
It is true that teachers in Chicago have dug in their heels against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demands for “reform,” some of which are not unreasonable. I’d dig in, too, if I were constantly being lectured by self-righteous crusaders whose knowledge of the inner-city schools crisis comes from a Hollywood movie.
The problems that afflict public education go far beyond what George W. Bush memorably called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” They go beyond whatever measure of institutional sclerosis may be attributed to tenure, beyond the inevitable cases of burnout, beyond the fact that teachers in some jurisdictions actually earn halfway decent salaries.
The fact is that teachers are being saddled with absurdly high expectations. Some studies have shown a correlation between student performance and teacher “effectiveness,” depending how this elusive quality is measured. But there is a whole body of academic literature proving the stronger correlation between student performance and a much more important variable: family income.
Yes, I’m talking about poverty. Sorry to be so gauche, but when teachers point out the relationship between income and achievement, they’re not shirking responsibility. They’re just stating an inconvenient truth.
According to figures compiled by the College Board, students from families making more than $200,000 score more than 300 points higher on the SAT, on average, than students from families making less than $20,000 a year. There is, in fact, a clear relationship all the way along the scale: Each increment in higher family income translates into points on the test.
Unfortunately, that’s circular logic. The emphasis on the importance of test scores in measuring teacher performance is an assertion about the effectiveness of their influence on cognitive development. The SATs are one measure of cognitive development but they’re not the only measure. The reason that cognitive development is being emphasized is that it’s relatively easy to measure.
There’s more than one developmental domain. There are, in fact, several: physical, cognitive, social, and emotional. Languge is another developmental domain. Of these the most important determinants of future success are the social and emotional domains. The SATs or math and reading achievement tests are not particularly good predictors for how well one will do in life.
And the most important factor in social and emotional development isn’t what you learn in school or how much money your family had or even how much education your parents had. It’s good parenting. Economist James Heckman has been studying this for years. Here’s a brief summary from a recent paper of his:
The returns to early childhood programs are the highest for disadvantaged children who do not receive substantial amounts of parental investment in the early years. The proper measure of disadvantage is not necessarily family poverty or parental education. The available evidence suggests that the quality of parenting is the important scarce resource. The quality of parenting is not always closely linked to family income or parental education. Measures of risky family environments should be developed that facilitate efficient targeting.
The emphasis is mine.
The reason we should be focusing our attentions on early intervention programs that target the development of non-cognitive skills (like, for example, the ability to defer gratification—a skill closely aligned with future success) is that the return on investment is so good. It’s about 10%.
Compare that with the very low return on investment in public job training programs, adult literacy services, prisoner rehabilitation programs, and education programs for disadvantaged adults, programs with an ROI that is notoriously low.
Note that these findings do not support Mr. Robinson’s claim but they do not support the Chicago Teachers Union’s claims, either. There is a finite amount of money. The more that is thrown away supporting the development of cognitive skills for kids who come to school without the social or emotional development that’s necessary to prepare them for learning, the less there is available for doing that preparation.