Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything Freakonomics discussion


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teachers' strike in Chicago

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Kressel Housman Since the teachers' strike is in Chicago, home of author Steven Levitt, and since one of the issues is teacher accountability, I thought of this book and its findings on teachers fixing grades on the standardized tests. And this led me to a question that I imagine you folks have opinions about. If schools would focus more on getting kids to be readers, as opposed to teaching to the test, wouldn't their scores improve more naturally? I think the answer is yes.

The big trouble, of course, is television and all the other media distractions. Nobody ever talks about that, though, because it's not really something to be addressed by government policy. And anyway, the powers that be probably want kids watching TV so they can view all the commercials and nudge their parents to buy stuff.

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Marks54 It is interesting that you mention this in regard to the teacher strike in Chicago. If I recall correctly, the method discussed for detecting cheating was to look at the data regarding how students performed before and after a given test data to see if scores were unusually associated with a given test administration - for example if scores obtained were much higher than in prior tests but failed to remain high in subsequent tests. The idea is that the teacher affected the scores through manipulation, since if student capabilities had improved the higher results would persist in subsequent administrations of the test.

Conceptually, this is the same approach that is used in a variety of statistical methods for assessing teacher effectiveness. The idea is to model what results the students would be expected to receive controlling for the influence of the teacher. The difference between the predicted scores and the actual scores (plus or minus) would supposedly be informative regarding the effectiveness of the teacher. As the example in Freakonomics suggests, it might not be so easy to tell what a given set of deviations in student scores mean without a lot of information about the students' full situation as well as knowledge about how the students performed subsequently to a given period. Is a positive result an accident, the result of cheating, or indicative of learning?

While it is possible to develop such an approach, using the results of such an approach to take consequential steps such as termination is fraught with difficulties and the teachers are right to be concerned with the details of how they will be evaluated and what actions will come from such evaluations.

By all accounts, a settlement has been reached in the Chicago strike. It will be very interesting to see what progress if any has been made on the issue of evaluations.


message 3: by Dee (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dee unfortunately, as soon as rewards are tied to the results of the standardized tests - salary increases, school funding - you create an environment where testing the test; looking the other way when kids are cheating occurs.

It will be interesting to see in VA, where the schools that opted out of NCLB do over the next few years


message 4: by Skylar (new)

Skylar Burris Teachers will always teach to the test as long as there is a state or national test, and as long as scores are linked to funding the temptation to cheat will be strong, especially among teachers who are given poor raw materials in their students to begin with. Leave curriculum to local school systems, leave evaluations to the teachers, and give the teachers the support they need to fail students who don't master the material instead of insisting no student can fail. One problem is forced consumption of a particular product. In no other instance must we do this - go only to the gym for which you are zoned, only to the doctor for which you are zoned, only to the grocery store for which you are zoned, only to the movie theatre for which you are zoned, only to the bookstore for which you are zoned....no, we can choose to take our dollars to the gym or doctor we deem best. If we could do this with schools, and the funding tied to our children followed to any school within the local system (parents bearing any additional transportation costs), then funding would no longer be tied to tests, but to overall perceptions of quality as judged by the people who most care a student receive a decent education - his own parents. Some schools would expand and others would contract over time. Independent sources could evaluate schools - the consumer reports of education. A single government standardized test is simply not the best means to evaluate the quality of education being received in a particular school and more often than not scores simply reflect the socio economic background of the majority of students.


Marks54 The "teaching to the test" phenomenon is a specific instance of a general problem that occurs whenever an observable measure is used to account for an unobservable goal only part of which is measurable.

I agree with you that the use of a standardized test to evaluate schools is dubious. The story behind the growth in prominence of such tests is a sordid one and most of the standardized testing approaches come across as bureaucratic lazy thinking.

However, I am not really convinced by "market-based" approaches either. The combination of local funding, statewide regulations, and a thriving private market, along with other factors make it doubtful that market approaches, however plausible the rhetoric, will end up just being some new form of price discrimination that allows those with means to consume more education than those without means.

This has been the case for public education since the beginning. For example, in many cities, public school systems developed originally in response to the development of Catholic schools and to this day, parents can exercise a choice by either moving to a suburb or else by sending their kids to private or parochial schools. As the public school system is increasingly the domain of those families with the least economic choice, it is difficult to see how vouchers or other market models would not be subject to fairly large transaction cost problems.


Kressel Housman Moving to the suburbs and/or sending kids to private schools are expensive options, not accessible to everybody. It's the same problem with school choice, just like Skylar pointed out. Informed parents will choose the best for their kids, but it's a sure fire way for the people at the bottom to stay at the bottom.

Ira Glass did an excellent report on some innovative programs in Chicago: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio...


Marks54 Kressel wrote: "Moving to the suburbs and/or sending kids to private schools are expensive options, not accessible to everybody. It's the same problem with school choice, just like Skylar pointed out. Informed par..."

I could not agree with you more - and Chicago sets the standard for this problem. The issue is how to improve the education for everyone in the public system not just for those that can afford to move elsewhere. The trouble with the innovative programs in these systems is how to institutionalize them and gain some scale so the program doesn't lapse when its sponsors go away. I am also a bit skeptical of "reform" efforts being hijacked for other purposes. For example, teacher performance evaluation - whatever its values if done correctly - can easily become a way of shifting the labor bill of a district from high cost long tenured teachers to lower cost short tenured teachers under the guise of "culling poor performers". Freakonomics is a powerful book on incentives, but it is always important to ask who has which incentives in a given situation.


Marks54 You raise many good issues. I will try to offer some responses.

1) In principle, parents could take the money spent on their children and go elsewhere, perhaps to better effect. For parents with means, this is already taking place. A key point is that the money spent by a district on a child is only a small part of the resources devoted to a child's education. The values of a stable home situation, educated and committed parents, constructive peer relationships count here as much as the more tangible expenses on extra instruction, private lessons, vacations, computers at home, etc. The Coleman studies of 40 years ago established this by focusing on the total wealth devoted to the child. This means that the gap between rich districts and poor districts is really far larger than the official numbers would suggest, even counting the greater support provided in richer districts. In Illinois, the test score performance of public school districts are published each year. Rankings by test performance correlate almost perfectly with a ranking of districts based on average household income. Rich districts spend a lot more than poor ones, but the intangible and unofficial expenditures are arguably much higher.

What is my point in saying this? If you gave the poor parents in urban districts a check with the average district expenditure for their child, what would they be able to do with it? The parents who have not already exercised their choice in moving or sending their kids to private schools likely have less income than those who have done so. Private or parochial school tuition is expensive, securing private transportation for your child is expensive, and private day care support (or time off from work) adds to the burden. Unless you have sufficient private means, handling your child's education independently is likely to be a substantial burden the parents in urban public systems. Because of larger classes and any possible scale effects, the average costs per student will be lower in a larger district, so the check provided to parents will also be lower. Even that assumes that the voucher would represent the average cost rather than the marginal cost, which would result in an even lower check. Many parents in these systems are simply stuck.

2) Vouchers or related systems are government interventions and not really free market. They just offer slightly better incentives than the current bureaucratic models. So . . . even if poorer parents could take their money and go elsewhere, What would the rules be for how other schools evaluated, accepted, and retained the students? If schools in these systems are ranked on test scores (else how would you know which schools are better), then could they turn away applicants with poor test scores or those who went to weaker schools? What about retention of poor performers? Going back to the incentives scheme behind Freakonomics, it would be in the interest of these schools to accept only better students. Unless this was clarified (through government regulations), such incentive issues would limit the ability of poorer parents to move their children from areas served by poorly performing schools. The devil really is in the details and I am wary of arguments to "work out the details later", which I suspect is a polite way of saying we don't know the solution to a problem.

3) A last point. I am as much for personal responsibility as the next person, but there is a domain for social responsibility here. In practical terms, working of a free market in urban systems would as likely lead to less education for distressed urban populations as it would more, since some of the current education is forced on family by mandatory attendance policies. As it stands now, a student from a poor community in Chicago who does everything asked of him/her, keeps away from drugs and gangs, etc., will at best be modestly educated relative to students in other districts. Then consider the outcomes for the tens of thousands of such students in such conditions.

Whatever one says about individual responsibility, is it really in the interest of society to have tens of thousands of individuals leaving school each year with little or so chance of successfully confronting the demands of the contemporary labor market? What are these people supposed to do for the rest of their lives? I personally believe that it is in the interest of society to see that as many people as possible believe that they are a part of society and have an opportunity to lead their lives as they wish. If they are unable to do so, based on educational deficiencies that are apparent by eighth grade, then there may be a problem for the continued social order that we all benefit from.

There has long been a distinction in thought about markets between market participants (or players) and those who were not able to fully participate. Personal responsibility is certainly desirable for those who are able to play. For those who are less able, some consideration is reasonable. I don't believe it is an either/or situation and I know government cannot supply all of what is needed. There needs to be room for some balance.


Marks54 A small world indeed! Our youngest graduated from New Trier a couple years ago but our kids went largely all the way through area schools.

I don't know that there is a solution. The problem is not the lack of options for reform, of which there are many. It is that reform examples are almost exclusively very small scale and idiosyncratic, while the sub-population in need of reform is huge and growing more pronounced in the country. Unless something fundamental changes, the solution needs to be bureaucratic. The numbers of children involved are just too large for it to be otherwise.

One suggestion that has been made is to change the funding model away from small local townships to the state as the funding. But then, as you suggest, it is not just the money or the breadth of perspective that matters. The money has to be employed effectively. I have little reason to think that state government is up to the task any more than local governments have been.

Analyzing the problem is one thing. But understanding the problem does not mean there is a feasible solution. That is very frustrating.


message 10: by CD (new) - rated it 1 star

CD Withing the past week to 10 days a preliminary report from the National Assessment Governing board has been released that indicate 1 in 4 8th grade and 12th grade students cannot write. Read that carefully (and if you can-thank a teacher :) ).

There is also a disparity from my youth (I'm in my early 50's) regarding who is literate. The 'official' numbers indicate that the United States is %99 literate. Yet that number is based on data and guidelines that when I was 16-25 would not have made you even functionally illiterate.

Testing has been with us for decades. These surveys have ranged from the Iowa Basic Skills Assessment and the Regents tests in New Jersey to SAT's and ACT's. And we have changed them to better reflect the students taking them.

What did we get? An increasing education divide. The educationally 'wealthy' got richer, and the rest got poorer. Part of this is not entirely the fault of the schools admittedly. If little Janie has parents that don't read well, she probably won't either.

While this divide is an artifact of the post WWII generation (not just Baby Boom stats), it has been a known issue for decades. Various programs have sought to remedy the problems. Much of this still has to come back to having a way to evaluate success or failure. Or by any other name, testing.

Money alone doesn't fix the problem. How and who spends the money is just as important. It may be we need to look far more closely at the administration of our education system, private and public. Evaluating for a standard result is going to require some type of testing. If not, what?

If students can read, write, and have specific skills then their educational background has worked. Else an immediate analysis is required to not lose more kids. There are not many chances for a do-over!


Kressel Housman Marks54 wrote: "The trouble with the innovative programs in these systems is how to institutionalize them and gain some scale so the program doesn't lapse when its sponsors go away. I am also a bit skeptical of "reform" efforts being hijacked for other purposes. "

I'm a bit more optimistic. I think these innovative programs do have a chance of scaling up by getting copies in other places. Have you listened to Ira Glass' report? With the publicity of "This American Life," I think that's a program that might really grow.


Global Donnica Chicago and teachers strikes aren't new to me... I'm thankful I was reared in private schools...


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