Bottom up vs. top down

by Russ Roberts on April 5, 2011

in Complexity & Emergence, Education, Politics, Uncategorized

I happened to cross paths recently with the head of a charter school. One thing we talked about was standards. He argued that a national standard would be a huge improvement over the patchwork of state standards. Why were national standards a good idea? Then schools could share best practices and best curricula. They wouldn’t have to create a customized set of materials for everything they wanted to achieve. They could learn from each other and save all the time it takes to do a good job and to comply with the separate standards.

That is the upside of top-down centralized standards. He was right. It can be great to have a single standard.

My response was that I don’t know a lot about curriculum and standards. I know a little. My wife is a math teacher and we talk a lot about the challenge of what is best for kids to learn and how to teach them or help them learn those lessons. I know a little bit more about market forces. And my main response to the head of the charter school was that when you have national standards there is an immense incentive to steer those incentives via political pressure to benefit special interests who can profit from the particular standards that get chosen. My best example is the Basel Accords. Yes, when banks operate internationally, it’s a good idea to have international capital standards and regulations. That lowers costs dramatically. But who will write the standards. The people with the expertise. Won’t they have an incentive to write standards that benefit them, rather than are good for the world? Yes, they will. And the more complicated and complex is the field, the more they will be able to steer things in ways that are opaque and that benefit them rather than you and me.

That’s how my conversation ended with the head of the charter school. If we’d had more time, he might have responded that come on, what kind of politics and special interests dominate the design of math standards? There are basic skills that are good to know. Yes, it might be hard to test for some of the less tangible skills, so that means the standards have to be carefully written. But these are kids we’re talking about. People’s children. Don’t we all want the same for our kids. Excellence. Mastery. And while there may be disagreement or uncertainty about how to get there from here, the standards are pretty straightforward.

I was thinking about that conversation of the other day when I read this story in the Washington Post.

With its intricate mysteries of quadratics, logarithms and imaginary numbers, Algebra II often provokes a lament from high-schoolers.

What exactly does this have to do with real life?

The answer: maybe more than anyone could have guessed.

Of all of the classes offered in high school, Algebra II is the leading predictor of college and work success, according to research that has launched a growing national movement to require it of graduates.

In recent years, 20 states and the District have moved to raise graduation requirements to include Algebra II, and its complexities are being demanded of more and more students.

Now this is a bad idea. Not in and of itself. It’s better to take Algebra II than not to. But taking Algebra II comes at a cost of other stuff you now won’t have time to study. Requiring everyone to take Algebra II doesn’t strike me as a particularly good idea. Requiring everyone to take Algebra II because it is the leading predictor of college and work success is a horrible idea. It is to misunderstand cause and effect in a rather embarrassing way. (Not as embarrassing as this, but it’s close). The reporter, Peter Whoriskey, is a smart guy and understands this. The story continues:

The effort has been led by Achieve, a group organized by governors and business leaders and funded by corporations and their foundations, to improve the skills of the workforce. Although U.S. economic strength has been attributed in part to high levels of education, the workforce is lagging in the percentage of younger workers with college degrees, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

But exactly how to raise the education levels of the U.S. workforce is a matter of debate. And whether learning Algebra II causes students to fare better in life, or whether it is merely correlated with them doing better — because smart, motivated kids take Algebra II — isn’t clear. Meanwhile, some worry that Algebra II requirements are leading some young people to quit school.

And later he quotes the slightly alarmed author of the study that found the relationship between Algebra II and success:

One of the key studies supporting the Algebra II focus was conducted by Anthony Carnevale and Alice Desrochers, then both at the Educational Testing Service. They used a data set that followed a group of students from 1988 to 2000, from eighth grade to a time when most were working.

The study showed that of those who held top-tier jobs, 84 percent had taken Algebra II or a higher class as their last high school math course. Only 50 percent of employees in the bottom tier had taken Algebra II.

“Algebra II does increase the likelihood of being employed in a good job,” they reported, although warning that many factors come into play.

To check the Algebra II findings against the “real world,” the Achieve researchers then asked college professors and employers to identify which skills are necessary to succeed.

Somewhat to their surprise, they found that whether students were going into work or college, they needed the skills taught in Algebra II. Other independent studies backed them up. One conducted by U.S. Department of Education researcher Clifford Adelman found that students who took Algebra II and at least one more math course attained “momentum” toward receiving a bachelor’s degree.

“There was a fair amount of judgment that went into this,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve and a former assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration. But “it turns out to get the skills needed, students had to reach Algebra II.”

The push for Algebra II had begun, and it was embraced by many states.

But not everyone is convinced that Algebra II is the answer.

Among the skeptics is Carnevale, one of the researchers who reported the link between Algebra II and good jobs. He warns against thinking of Algebra II as a cause of students getting good jobs merely because it is correlated with success.

“The causal relationship is very, very weak,” he said. “Most people don’t use Algebra II in college, let alone in real life. The state governments need to be careful with this.”

The danger, he said, is leaving some kids behind by “getting locked into a one-size-fits-all curriculum.”

One-size-fits-all is efficient. But it comes at a cost. It doesn’t fit everyone. And there are fads in math education and the rest of education that are bad ideas. Do we really want those fads to take over. Or do we want competition?

But worse than that, there’s so much at stake to be the one size that’s chosen when there’s one size required to fit all. What’s at stake here in the Algebra II fad? I’d look at the textbook companies. Whoever sells Algebra II textbooks has a big stake in this debate. Maybe there are others. I’d look into that group Achieve and see who’s running it day-to-day and who that person talks to. But the bottom line is remember the virtues of bottom up decentralized inefficient policies. They are often better than those top-down centralized efficient policies.

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