3 Questions for Ed Policy and the 7 Ways We Answer Them

Corey Keyser
Sep 1, 2020 · 15 min read

Different approaches to education reform can be taxonomized by their answer to three questions. When assessing the causes for student success…

What influence does personal choice play?

What influence does natural ability play?

What influence does society play?

Now, obviously there are other questions, but a good deal of the variability can be quickly broken down around these ones alone because they quickly get at what we ultimately care about: who excels, who struggles, and why?

So even though there is a considerable amount of nuance to each part, a simplification of the three quickly corresponds to both our political affiliation and what we think will fix our system.

US Education is extremely decentralized and complicated. A lot of these principles go unsaid, and when they are said, there’s often a disconnect between our actions and our lip service. The nice liberal teacher might say that every student has the infinite capacity to learn, but they still may call some students smart and some students slow.

What’s important is how our answers to these questions influence our policy. And, so, I’ve broken down the 7 ways we tend to make sense of these issues (Notice that I left off one possibility [Low Low Low] because I don’t think anyone actually believes it).

Disclaimer: Notice though that de-emphasizing one of the questions doesn’t mean that you think it has no impact. It just says that you don’t focus on it. So while the modern neoliberal may put the most emphasis on societal and individual factors, this is not to say that they don’t believe in the existence of ability.

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This idea is focused on two big points: 1. intelligence and general academic ability is heritable and massively consequential, and 2. people can choose to put in the work to be successful and possibly make up for some deficiencies in raw talent.

The locus of control is the individual, and although talent matters, a person’s success is ultimately up to them.

I’d most associate this view with a caricature of the theory of success put forward in Hillbilly Elegy, and, at least anecdotally, I believe this is the dominant view of most white conservatives. For those of yall who have not read the book, the author J.D. Vance spends 300 pages chronicling his own story of upward mobility. Working his ass off to become a successful lawyer despite growing up in a dysfunctional Appalachian home that was torn apart by apathy and drug abuse.

Even though he outlines a lot of systemic causes for the massive levels of poverty in white Appalachia, his conclusion mostly condemns the “moral decay” of the region and puts a lot of emphasis on the power of the talented individual to rise above poverty through sheer relentlessness.

There are a lot of ways to turn this ideology into policy. What ultimately matters is that the talented and motivated are able to rise to the top, so maybe the best policy conclusion would be a greater reliance on high-stakes standardized tests in the way that Steven Pinker has argued. The tests allow us to quickly sort students while rewarding the students who work the hardest to study. I’m not convinced of this, but I can see how the alternatives to testing may lead to even more inequality than we have now. More to come…

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This idea is really well outlined by the fantastic new book by Leftist Activist Fredrik deBoer, The Cult of Smart. It’s my favorite book of the year so far even though it’s wrong. It’s fantastic because it effectively attacks so many orthodoxies of education reform while still ultimately putting forward an egalitarian and deeply humane explanation of modern inequalities in outcome.

If we take the conclusions of Behavioral Genetics and Psychology seriously we are led to conclude that there are massive differences in natural intelligence within groups. So although we can argue that the differences between groups can be caused by non-genetic factors, we can still conclude that genetics plays a clear part in determining the natural ability of different students within specific groups.

So while this person may argue that genes have no influence on the difference between the test scores of a black student and white student, they may argue that genes can play a part in explaining the difference between two wealthy white students.

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On top of this acceptance of differences in natural ability, we can also accept that systemic factors like racism and classism can have massive effects on the outcomes of students that go well beyond the natural capacity that students possess.

However, there can be a lot of divergence in how we answer the society question. On one side, we can go the route of the Marxist like deBoer, who explains societies impact through the lense of class warfare and systemic racism.

But we could also take the route explained by the Libertarian Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart. Rather than focus on systemic oppression related to class and race, he instead emphasizes the role of moral decay within culture as, arguably, the ultimate driver of differences in outcome — while the nice white creative class liberals benefit from new forms of cultural support systems and social capital; the poor white has lost their religion, become addicted to drugs, become reliant on welfare, and gotten stuck in cycles of single parenthood.

To deBoer the remedy is Marxism, to Murray the remedy is social conservatism.

Either way, they both accept the general premise that a good deal of our success is up to the luck of just getting the right genetics. And, in that way, both approaches can be valuable reactions to the toxicity of modern meritocracy. If you didn’t really choose the factors that led to your success, then you probably shouldn’t deserve all the praise you get.

The policy implications really depend on your stance to the question about society. For the Marxist, maybe the dream really is something akin to the old Soviet education system. Test early, identify talent, and then relentlessly cultivate talent with the goal of bettering the society as a whole.

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This is the camp that my educational journey started in. As a Teach For America Corps Member teaching at a Charter school I am routinely surrounded by this line of thinking.

It’s pretty basic, everything matters except natural ability.

Every child can learn anything as long as they are positive and gritty enough. If a student is struggling then it’s the teachers fault and some complicated mix of cognitive biases are almost certainly at play.

As someone with many years of research experience in Cognitive Science, this line of thinking is particularly frustrating. Sure, implicit biases and biases related to race and gender like stereotype threat can have an influence on our outcomes. There is no doubt about this. The trouble is thinking that this is the whole story.

Take our two biggest buzzwords in this approach: implicit bias and grit. Grit has small effect sizes and seems to be frequently misinterpreted. It may be able to account for insignificant sections of student outcomes, but it pales in comparison to most other factors. What about implicit bias? It is almost certainly true that people hold implicit biases toward different groups, however, the research doesn’t replicate and the implicit bias test that everyone sends around in DEI sessions has proven to be total pseudoscience. We’ve known for a long time that it is pseudoscience, but it unfortunately takes educators years to adapt to the new consensus.

This collection of beliefs leads students and teachers to continually preach the importance of hard work and positive thinking while simultaneously spending considerable time explaining outcome inequality through the barriers put up by systemic oppression. Racism and classism play a massive role in our students lives. Positive thinking and relentlessness helps, but what are disadvantaged students left to say when some of them get to college and some of them struggle to pass 9th grade?

Were they just not gritty enough?

Of course not! And it’s anti-scientific and demeaning to even begin to suggest that. This is the ultimate downfall of our current Neoliberal reform movement.

No amount of teacher-blaming, union-crushing, growth-mindset-preaching schools are going to fix the achievement gap. Grit can’t get a student through a lifetime of systemic racism and chronic poverty. But even if we accept the social justice initiatives put forward by many of these organizations — we justifiably take seriously the impact of race and class on students — that won’t change the fact that student’s have different interests and abilities within groups.

The policy implications for this movement have gripped our country for a couple decades. For a full breakdown of their implications I will once again push you to read the aforementioned book, Cult of Smart.

But for those uninitiated, the last 20 years have given us No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core. The general effect of these reforms has been to standardize curriculum and testing across states while pushing college prep, attacking teachers, closing failing schools, and privatizing many aspects of our education system.

I’ve written about many aspects of these reforms in past blog posts but if I could synthesize my critiques to a tweet it would go like this…

Charter schools are somewhat effective, a college prep focus is a massive mistake, districts should focus on teacher retention, there’s massive financial waste in the public education system, student outcomes are caused primarily by outside factors, and it’s misguided to blame teachers for student test scores.

Someone really believes this. Someone thinks that we are created equal to such a degree that natural talent doesn’t really exist, and class, race, and status don’t ultimately have any effect on outcome.

This is obviously insane, but we’ve probably all heard this version of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” sometime in our lives. But I don’t believe anyone believes in this enough to actually act on it or have any influence.

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Nice White Parents Producers: Ira Glass, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Chana Joffe-Walt

Here we focus on nurture to its most extreme. This is the mindset of the good liberal, this is the approach of the popular new NYT podcast, Nice White Parents.

These are the people who know the downsides of grit and have read one or two of the hundred criticisms of meritocracy. They understand how an emphasis on the power of choice can create toxic structures in schools, and they also know of the legacies of race science within psychology.

As a response to all this they underplay the role of choice and natural ability while putting their full effort into explaining how systemic structures and cultural racism lead to serious barriers for disadvantaged students.

And they are right.

Nice White Parents, for all its flaws, is still a deeply convincing and well reported series that documents the history of white parents exacerbating inequality through frequent disruptions to the public school systems.

These people are right in a lot of ways and they almost certainly leave room for the limited impact of choice and ability. The trouble is that they focus on society alone. They tell us that it is all that matters and they shoo the importance of other factors aside. Worst of all, the focus shows the one fatal flaw of the believers in this approach….none of them are teachers.

This is the belief of the New York Times writer, the Jacobin reader, the 2nd year Cultural Studies major, the White Park Slopes Liberal.

There’s truth to it, but almost anyone with experience in teaching is shown very quickly how important ability and choice are. You see how some kids just get it, and some kids struggle without explanation. You see how some teenagers make good decisions, and some continually choose to do what they know is wrong.

You know that their neighborhoods, families, churches, and cities have massive impacts on their outcomes and decisions. But you also know that across so many students of roughly the same circumstances, some do what’s right and some do what’s wrong.

When you take this approach to its conclusion, you are almost only left with disillusionment and defeatism. As a teacher, not only do I know that this hyperfocus on external circumstances alone is factually incorrect, I also know that it does little to help my students succeed without the extra accompaniment of how choice and motivation can still help them.

Think of it through the example of a recent test I gave. Students are learning remotely, they are working hard, but they are learning a really difficult subject, AP Statistics. If a student fails on their test, what do I tell them? Do I say that they shouldn’t feel too bad because systemic oppression created circumstances such that they were disadvantaged for the last 18 years in a way that makes their failure on the test okay? No, I say that this is difficult material and that they need to be gentle with themselves and put in the work to succeed next time. I tell them that we can do more tutoring sessions and that they will eventually understand it better

Take it to its next level. What do we say about the failing public school? Yes the history of racism and oppression is almost certainly to blame for many of its issues, but we don’t just give up on the school and ignore all of the factors that we have control over.

The ultimate issue is that a hyperfocus on society alone can lead to a degree of disillusionment and nihilism that takes power away from communities and paradoxically puts it in the hands of the oppressor. It tells students that they have no power because the rich and the white have oppressed them so much. It tells students that they won’t succeed unless the powerful let them.

What if ability is all that matters? What if the majority of student outcomes are really just about the roll of the dice in parentage and genetics? What if our capacity to make the right choices is really just determined by personality traits like conscientiousness that are ultimately heritable?

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Whether we like it or not there are folks who make arguments that basically amount to an acceptance of how external heritable factors control the majority of our variance in outcome. I don’t believe there are many people who believe this, but there are some out there.

The best example would be an extremely caricatured reading of Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids. To be very clear, I don’t think that Caplan actually believes this explanation — he personally puts a good deal of emphasis on societal and choice-based factors in developing a full explanation of differences in outcomes — but I can very easily see how a reading of much of the work can lead people to ultimately determinist conclusions about the influence of education on outcome.

The idea is that a parent has very little control over how their kids turn out. For the most part, kids are born with a set of abilities and personality characteristics that end up having a massive influence on how successful they become. No amount of parenting or education can really make up for natural ability because eventually we all end up reverting back to what our hereditary factors would predict. This is pretty persuasively argued through years of adoption, twin, and GWAS studies.

That’s not to say that choice and society have no influence, its just to say that it is smaller than we’d like.

My response to an overly determinist reading is basically the same as Caplan’s. It’s a complicated issue with many factors. Any single issue theory would lack a lot of explanatory power.

I also don’t personally believe that social science can effectively control for all confounding factors and it CERTAINLY can’t account for thousands of years of historical, systemic oppression. A hyperfocus on heritability alone will almost certainly downplay important societal influences that will disproportionately affect students of color.

And at least anecdotally I think that choice and a general commitment to the relentless pursuit of one’s goals can still have a big impact on student outcomes. The trouble is whether that tendency towards relentlessness is heritable since a lot of the personality factors that could lead someone to having that demeanor may be fairly genetic. I’m agnostic on this.

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From a policy perspective, I suppose this person just wouldn’t care(?). If a student’s outcomes are mostly predetermined by their parentage then why should we even care about education? No matter what we do it won’t matter…well it ends up that Caplan somewhat argued for that in another book Case Against Education.

Case takes a lot of the arguments and data from the Selfish Reasons and then combines it with more data on the impact of education on economic growth to argue that a society without public education may actually be better off. Once again, I’m not convinced, but I’d still recommend people to read the two books because many of the arguments are more difficult to deal with than most people would assume. The mistake would be to dismiss them altogether.

Now I know what you must be thinking.

“Corey were you just strawmanning everyone else’s perspective’s on education policy so that you could lead us to your own conclusion about the correct way to think about education?”

And yes, I did, it’s called rhetoric. Or at least my attempt at it. This is a blog not a book.

My concern is that we have a collective tendency to focus all of our attention on the factors that suit our own circumstances.

If I am a liberal progressive, I am going to overestimate the role of societal factors and underestimate the possibility of choice being a factor for success.

If I am white and successful I am going to neglect the possibility that privilege and systemic oppression helped me become successful, and I am going to overplay the role of choice and ability.

If I am a charter school principal that is graded on my ability to deliver test scores, I will emphasize choice and society, and blame bad test scores on teachers.

And, on, and, on.

The point is that any true conception of our educational problems will be built on an honest accounting of all the many causes. Yes, ability matters. Yes, sheer relentlessness and grit can lead to success. Yes, the United States is experiencing serious decay of key cultural systems. And yes, thousands of years of systemic oppression have had an undoubted impact that massively disadvantages the poor and the people of color. The mistake is to focus on any one explanation too much while neglecting the impact of others.

Not only is this true, but this is the most gentle and humane explanation of outcomes. Not only does it give us room to have agency and upward mobility, but it also gives us room to mercifully fail.

The trouble is that a full and true acceptance of the complexity of our situation doesn’t allow us to have easy answers. When we focus on one cause and write everything else off, we are at least given the possibility of an easy answer. But there aren’t easy answers.

And so I want to leave this article with two policy conclusions:.

  1. Localism- This is directly stolen from the work of Nassim Taleb. “I’m a communist with family, a socialist with friends, a progressive in my city, a conservative in my state, and a libertarian in my country.” The point of all this is that there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty in what policies accomplish, and, because of that, the most important political unit for improving the lives of individuals is the Community. To me, resting control from disconnected and overly powerful political influences is essential in creating truly equitable decisions for education on the ground. That does not mean that we forego federally managed education altogether, but for me it does mean using redistributive practices to fund local schools in such a way that the Community can be equipped to meet the unique needs of their students. It means fighting against the inherently undemocratic foisting of policies onto relenting local school districts.
  2. Marginal Revolution- This, again, is stolen from Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen. To me, this means an honest assessment of how little we know and how multi-causal any circumstance is. We want progress but we don’t quite know how to get it, and so we need to carefully assess options and allow ourselves to seek marginal revolutions, things that make marginal improvements to our education system. We seek the incremental because we know enough from history that any grand narratives of social change are almost certainly not as effective as we would hope.

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Corey Keyser

Written by

Math Teacher writing on Philosophy and Policy and Science and Education and Other Things. coreykeyser@gmail.com

Data Driven Investor

empower you with data, knowledge, and expertise

Corey Keyser

Written by

Math Teacher writing on Philosophy and Policy and Science and Education and Other Things. coreykeyser@gmail.com

Data Driven Investor

empower you with data, knowledge, and expertise

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