Many education interventions are either harmful or costly

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Education Realist notes some harmful interventions and costly interventions in education:

Harmful interventions:

  1. Ending tracking
  2. De-emphasizing demonstrated test scores on difficult tests in favor of grades.
  3. Increased legal protections for discipline disasters.

Of the first two, neither have done anything to improve achievement or access. Both have done tremendous damage to high achievers. Caveat: most people think of helping high achievers via coverage (learning faster) but in fact, this has been the most damaging aspect of the changes. Kids are only able to demonstrate ability by the age at which they take a particular math course, and so you have sophomores taking 1st year calculus classes and memorizing enough to pass an AP test without particularly understanding the underlying math.

No, the cost to high achievers is that we aren’t pushing them hard because we can’t, because GPA means so much that teachers can’t create a proper leveling schema. I taught trig. Five kids never showed up regularly, so they got Fs. Other kids worked hard despite having no understanding of the concept in a class they had no choice but to take, so they got Ds. Others had some limited understanding and could successfully do about half the work, so there’s your C. And so on.

And that’s in math. Things are far worse in literature and history, so that even top students are often terrible writers and teachers can’t even begin to address it in classes where the bottom students can’t even read and everyone’s using Schmoop or Sparcnotes to get the short version. We can’t have classes just for bright kids and give hard workers of merely adequate performance in a tough class a C for trying, because that C will do tremendous damage to those kids without the context of a test score.

The third is causing tremendous damage in low income schools, as well as creating more segregation as parents who can leave do. (I get annoyed at people who blame teachers for reduced discipline. It’s a specific policy demand forced on us by the state.)

Costly interventions:

Special education now gives additional money to 1 out of 8 kids and we see nothing for it. Special ed means different things. (1) The severely retarded, who cost hundreds of thousands to educate and should not be part of public school. It’s free childcare service for 16 years, at which point we then dump the kid over to a different state budget. (2)Then there’s the low IQ kids, what we always meant by special ed, who get relatively little in services. (3) Then there’s the emotionally damaged kids who can’t function in regular classes despite no IQ problems. (4) Then there’s the kids with a real disability (blind, wheelchair bound) who get access and aids. (5) Then there’s everyone with a “learning disability” — the fastest growing group. Only 2 and 4 were originally intended by the special ed category. We should dump 5 entirely, create centralized institutions for 1 and 3. 2 and 4 would still cost a lot, but at least they were intended to be addressed by K-12 ed.

We spend billions on “English language instruction,” which hasn’t one meaning. In schools like mine, it means free English lessons for immigrant kids who just got here — mandatory lessons that are often frustrating to bright kids whose English is adequate to work in academic courses (and far better than the bottom third in each course) but aren’t allowed because the “get me out of ELL” score is ridiculously high. In more homogenous schools, it means running half the classes in (usually) Spanish, because ELL from the 60s on was designed on the expectation that ELL kids would be illegal immigrants from across the border.

So the things that do actual harm aren’t extremely expensive, and the things that are a waste of time don’t so much do harm as create hugely expensive systems to support kids that aren’t improving their education and often given tremendous support to kids who just got here while not offering that service (enrichment) to citizens who might benefit from it.

A couple years ago he put forward five education policy proposals for 2016 presidential politics.


  1. Hereme says:

    “The severely retarded, who cost hundreds of thousands to educate and should not be part of public school. It’s free childcare service for 16 years, at which point we then dump the kid over to a different state budget”

    My wife taught for years in special ed (though it had various exciting ‘new’ names to cover the job) and she recognised that much of it was childcare. She did help some of the less able to progress and in some cases find a job that suited them though the importing of tens of thousands of immigrants willing to do the same job for less meant that competition for those receding jobs was high.

    A number of the immigrants who arrived in her town had offspring with a variety of learning difficulties, but whether the parents were local-born or arriving from another country they all soon demanded yet more from the state. Once they understood it was a free (to them) service they went all out to get every benefit they could.

    It got to the point where some young people were kept ‘in the system’ for years longer than they should have been. One young woman’s parents made my wife’s working life hell because they were determined to be the receivers of the most freebies and benefits, and all the while claiming they were only doing this for the good of their daughter and most of all wanted the best for every person with learning disabilities in the area.

    All the while the job of teaching (or child-minding) these young people was hampered by increasing government edicts, legislation and new procedures, almost all of which required extra paperwork and — ultimately — would be merely filed away until disposed off, unopened and unexamined. But not ticking boxes was becoming the greatest sin, even if it meant the actual education of those that needed it was suffering because the teacher had less time available for individuals.

    It was, by the time she stopped, rapidly becoming unworkable and consuming a lot of time and money to lessening effect.

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