I agree strongly with this essay, based on my experiences growing up in a rural, working-class community, where I was one of the very few students whose parents had gone to college, let alone graduate school, and where only about a dozen students out of a graduating class of 650 went to selective colleges (more students went into the military than to college).

A significant problem with educational policy is that people who set the policies didn't attend public schools like mine. They tend to come from elite educational backgrounds and the professional managerial class, and very few of them have direct personal experience with people who are bad at and don't like school. So they think that all students will be like they were and will succeed at school, if we just have high expectations for kids and do this new and fashionable intervention (whatever it may be this time).

It doesn't work that way. I think we need a system like the have in Europe, and yes, I'm talking about tracking students into academic and vocational tracks. I'm old enough to have gone to school when tracking was still done, and it made a huge difference not just for me, but for students who struggled in school. Based on my experience, and pace claims from the experts that stronger students will buoy up the weaker ones by tutoring and challenging them, the weaker students didn't learn or enjoy the academic classes; instead they would pressure the stronger students to help them cheat, or would rely on the stronger students to do all the work in group projects. My high school allowed students to leave campus for classes at the local vocational school and to work at jobs, and the students who participated in these programs enjoyed them and got a lot more out of them than they did from the academic classes.

I believe that the most humane system allows every student to discover his or her interests and talents and receive an appropriate education for those interests and talents. I am grateful that this position has as eloquent and convincing an advocate as you, Freddie.

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"This is the prioritization of the relative over the absolute, and it is foundational to our education system and our labor market."

This, for me, is the crux of the issue. It doesn't matter if an individual gets a higher score on an IQ test compared to previous generations, what matters is where they place relative to their peers right now. Given two candidates for a high paying position in tech or finance who is going to get the job offer? The individual with an average IQ or the really bright one? Labor markets are competitive. In the end it doesn't matter how much an individual's educational attainment has improved if he is still relatively less qualified than the next guy in the interview.

There is nothing inherently wrong with sorting based on intellectual ability in the labor market. Who doesn't want a smarter doctor? But society goes off the rails when it sniffs in disdain at manual labor, dismissed it as "unworthy" and therefore implicitly condones condemning an entire segment of the population to a lifetime of drastically lower wages.

To be clear I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with physicians making more than fast food workers but there are extremes. When we talk about a country where the federal government pumps billions of dollars into higher education while leaving vocational and technical schools to starve we are talking about a country where the class of the college educated has seized the reins of power and are busily engaged in securing their economic advantage. Consider this: workers without a college degree live shorter lies and earn far less than the college educated. Why should they be the ones on the hook for forgiving college tuition debt?

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"If you want to close the Black-white achievement gap, the most reliable way would be to outlaw white students from going to school for several generations."

China conducted a natural experiment (if you can call it that) to test this policy. During the Maoist era it practiced an extreme form of affirmative action in which the children of workers and peasants were nearly the only kids given the chance to go to college, while children from "bad class backgrounds" (former landowning, business and professional families) were mostly excluded. This was *in addition* to the fact that wealthy families had already had most of their assets confiscated.

But many of the richest people in China today come from families who were wealthy before the revolution. So the situation is actually worse than Freddie acknowledges. These differences in ability are extremely persistent and if they're not caused by variations in inherited intelligence, they must be caused by something that mimics it to a suspicious extent.

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I disagree wholeheartedly with your example of the hypothetical alien abduction. If an entire freshman class at Harvard, Yale, or Stanford were to vanish into thin air, the crop of replacements would not be of a lesser quality. The number of qualified applicants to elite universities is vastly larger than the number of available seats. Harvard could admit an order of magnitude more students each year without reducing its standards; but it doesn’t do that, because doing so would reduce the relative value of a Harvard diploma in the marketplace. Consequently, admissions committees end up selecting applicants based on factors that may have nothing to do with academic (or, for that matter, social/civic) ability: athletic prowess, a sympathetic personal statement, or the last name of a family with the resources to finance the construction of a new basketball arena.

One of the best things we could do as a society is stop obsessing over credentials conferred by elite universities. These ostensibly academic institutions are, in fact, finishing schools for the past, present, and future 1% — their primary function is social, a way of signaling to employers that a recent graduate is “one of ours.” I’d wager that most, if not all, students at America’s best public universities (Michigan, UT Austin, the top UCs) would thrive at Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, if given the chance.

I recognize this wasn’t the main point of the story, but it’s a detail that felt worthy of further interrogation.

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“I’ve said many times that I believe the racial achievement gap is likely the product of the profoundly different environments Black children live in on average, and these environmental changes are far more complex and multivariate than the SES differences that do not adequately explain the achievement gap.”

Why do you believe this about black kids as a population but not about underperforming kids as a population? If you’re screening out, for the most part, the things that people complain about when we talk about racial environment differences, like SES gaps, peers, class size, facilities, teacher quality, etc.— and I’ll throw another, racism-specific theory on the pile: stereotype threat, which seemed like a promising explanation but which has apparently not held up — if you’re saying all that stuff doesn’t matter, then… what does? Is it all just lead and low birth weights? Or if it’s all just “multi-variate” and “complex” — I mean, isn’t that always true of everybody’s environment?

I guess I don’t see why, if black kids and underperforming kids in general both have highly heritable performance lags, and the typical proffered explanations don’t pan out, but you think in the case of the racial gap it can be attributed to a multi-variate, complex set of as-yet-not-fully-understood environmental factors… why wouldn’t you think the same about the underperforming group as a whole?

(To use your jumping analogy — if you’re assuming that one group is stuck with as-yet-unseen weight belts and that’s why they don’t jump as high as everyone else, why don’t you assume that as-yet-unseen weight belts are the cause of ALL differences? It seems like the answer is that you think it’s obvious that there are fixed genetic differences in jumping ability. But isn’t that just assuming the thing we’re trying to prove?)

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Love this!

One thing I would add is that grit seems highly correlated with conscientiousness, one of the five personality factors. Conscientiousness is correlated with job performance and academic outcomes, but it's not as strong as IQ. Still, it's long been known that you can barely budge your personality, although conscientiousness slowly rises as one ages while openness to experience falls. It's not surprising then that "grit" is also hard to change, since it's mostly a personality trait.

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I subscribed to this substack because I appreciated two of the author's writings on education policy and its limits. I was somewhat surprised to discover that the content was not nearly as focused on these topics as I would have guessed and included (what I found to be) bizarre reviews of prescription meds, teenage-angst-y music and articles that would not be out of place if presented at some anachronistic Trotsky-appreciation conference. Still, pieces like this are worth the subscription price.

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We don't need an intervention, or interventions. FdB is looking at this the wrong way, especially in using 30,000 ft view Ed research where the only measure is standardized test scores or later income or some other ultra broad temperature check. He's right in the aggregate, but wrong specifically. What everyone needs to focus on is making sure schools just get the very basics right for all. That kids learn foundational knowledge, math facts, spelling and grammar and punctuation, that schools are calm and quiet enough for teachers to teach and students to learn, that communities have school buildings in them where what goes on inside helps kids navigate life. The absolute learning increase is a perfectly good and noble goal we need to all focus on. He's right to indict Education researchers and the higher Ed systems that enable them. He's wrong to think they will ever "solve" our education woes. But all in all lots of great points here about SES not being that predictive, about spending/money not being the issue liberals make it out to be. Oh he's also dead wrong about 3rd grade kids knowing more today than they did 30 years ago. For many, their experience and attainment has in fact degraded. Especially from 40-50 years ago. Progressives, constructivists have in fact harmed education for the poor. This is a fact.

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Grifters gonna grift. That is one of the main takeaways from this article. There is too much money being made for the education industry (government, non-profits, consultants, for-profit companies (e.g. Panorama) for them to acknowledge that NOTHING MAKES A DIFFERENCE. All we hear about is how education is underfunded, how kids need new technology, more teachers, better school infrastructure, schools need more data on students, blah blah blah. Too many people's livelihoods depend on perpetuating the false idea that everyone can become smart given enough resources. They can't. The sooner we all acknowledge and accept this, the better we will be. Money can then be spent on other areas that would benefit the young and people generally.

The other takeaway here is that to admit that intelligence is primarily genetically based is taboo and evidence of white supremacy, despite the fact that East Asians and SE Asians outperform whites (except Jews, particularly Ashkenazi Jews). Add this to the list of things that we all know is true, but cannot voice aloud or even think to ourselves. To me, intelligence is like height. There is a genetic cap on how tall you will ever be and while you can never exceed it, the environment (or culture) can have a positive impact by allowing the person to approach that limit.

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Common sense/wisdom can't be taught but it can be gutted out of individuals; as seen by the US education system.

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Hilarious, kind of, to see a hundred comments like this: "Brilliant, Freddy! But what about [some bullshit intervention that demonstrates the commenter doesn't understand the piece at all.]"

A couple things:

1) Some people suggested tracking and Freddie said that it's the public, not elites, who oppose tracking. This is untrue. People do not understand the thumb we put on the scales in affirmative action or the massive...well, fraud...that is committed by *all* schools, from low achieving to high, in what their courses mean. So if you're a black kid in a diverse or mostly white/Asian school, you might be getting a C in Algebra 2 because the average ability level is much higher and the teacher is going much faster for kids (who frankly aren't learning much but hey, that's how the game is played) whereas if you went to a homogeneous mostly black (or black/Hispanic) school, you'd get an A. Similarly, there's a bunch of nearly illiterate blacks and Hispanics with 4.0 GPAs in "college prep" courses because they are taking a course labeled AP Calc that is covering first year algebra and AP Lang/Lit that's reading short essays. Grades are currently the currency that allows us to commit affirmative action even when it's banned, and the last two years have seen colleges obliterate even the balancing act that SAT/ACT allowed.

Take all that away, and as Paul Bettany said in Margin Call, things get really fucking fair really fast. If we used tests to demonstrate readiness, then the vast majority of all black and all Hispanic schools would be unable to offer anything but remedial courses and track into vocational. All diverse schools would see blacks in the low classes, whites and Asians in the high classes. If we had a minimum demonstrated ability level for Pell grants and college guaranteed loans, the vast majority of blacks and Hispanics would be unable to go to college.

Blacks and Hispanics are categorically not in support of this. That's assuming it'd get through the disparate impact lawsuits.

2) But if we don't do something, then the elites will continue their path of obliterating a college degree. So while I don't advocate high school tracking (more than it's done), I do advocate setting a minimum standard for Pell grants and guaranteed college loans. It should be something like 1100, or even 1000 for community college. Something that would pick up a decent chunk of blacks. I also recommend banning colleges from doing admissions, and instead develop a lottery system that everyone can enter *provided* they meet the college's mimimum test score standard. Only test scores. No grades. They are simply fraud.

This is something Republicans could do if they ever have control, and they should. They should then take the money they are saving in giving out college loans and invest heavily in vocational training. It's absolutely true that carpentry and plumbing and electrical work are relatively high IQ professions, but there's carpenter's assistant and electrical maintenance and better trained school janitors. These aren't nothing. But these should be treated as equivalent to college in terms of funding. Better yet, put vocational training centers in low employment areas like West Virginia. (wrote about this here: https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/vocational-ed-advancing-the-debate/

3) It's a near certainty that the tutoring effects are partly due to attrition of uninterested kids. So many kids don't do homework and don't bother learning, and having a tutor will take some percentage of the misbehaving kids and orient them to see hey, I'm learning this. A better, cheaper way to do this is simply slow down instruction and stop trying to cover everything--which is what I do in the classroom. In short, all tutoring does is forcibly create a classroom environment for kids who otherwise aren't listening or learning, and any kids who don't behave will be booted.

4) I can't stress enough what that what Freddie says about relative improvement is essential. And many low income schools do this! You can't tell from looking at test scores whether a school is giving students agency and a sense of relative achievement or letting kids run wild in the halls. Giving *all* schools the ability to control the environment and make it a place teachers want to work for that relative achievement is essential and a place where more money would be worth it.

Also, many idiots will respond, upon learning that teacher quality and environment etc doesn't matter, with "Then why bother with school?" because, well, they're idiots. The issue here is not that school doesn't teach, it's that school doesn't improve any students' inherent learning capacity outside of its range (in most cases). And this is something that needs to be emphasized more (Freddie does).

5) Freddie thinks education should be voluntary at a much earlier age than I would support--enabling his plan would result in huge spikes in criminal activity. I also think that kids can learn in high school. We need to just drop our standards.

I really wish I weren't always struggling to write, because I have more to say and I should write an article on this. But great piece. I wish more people understood it.

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Jul 11, 2022·edited Jul 11, 2022

Hi Freddie,

I thought the article was well-flushed out, addressed each possible criticism and fascinating. Thank you for taking the time to effectively lay out such a complex issue.

However, what I am genuinely confused by is the assertion that the achievement gap between white and black students is due to environment when the rest of the article, you are using data that refutes your own point. If environment accounts for only a small amount of the achievement gap between groups I am still left with the question: Is the achievement gap caused by inherent genetic differences? I am extremely apprehensive about that since the advent of genetics, people with suspect motives have used genetics, and the perceived inferiority it reveals, as a way to justify the continued exploitation and subjugation of African Americans and black people as a whole.

I also had one more question. Is the achievement gap still present between white, hispanic, asian, african american, etc. when comparing students in the same SES?

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My theory is pretty straighforward. Let's assume you have some reasonably smart kids whose parents don't support or value homework, who go to schools where lessons are continually disrupted, where success is openly derided by their peers, who have nobody in the family who went on to university etc etc. Most schools probably do an ok job here in the UK but really fail these kind of children. Michaela gives these kids a chance to shine and I think it is hard to argue with the results.

You ask why nobody is replicating these results and I think in some places they are. But I think you underestimate how much inertia there is in the system. For Michaela to work it needs a headmistress that provides strong leadership and for the staff to all buy in to the programme. There are plenty of head teachers who are frankly mediocre, have different ideas of how to do things or are just scared. And you have tons of teachers who have given up, disagree ideologically or whatever. And given it doesn't work unless everyone buys in it really doesn't much matter what one teacher does - it needs everyone to do it.

Another school I know about is Great Yarmouth that was transformed by an ex Michaela teacher (one of the founders) called Barry Smith. Violence against teachers was common, learning was non existent, bullying was off the scale. He turned it around in only a few months by applying Michaela principles and without claiming it became a finishing school for Oxford the possibilities for the kids was transformed.

If you like I'd be more than happy to try to set up a podcast discussion between you and Barry. He is a nuts and bolts person rather than grand theory so maybe it is a mismatch but I think you might enjoy it. And he can talk the hind legs off a donkey. Or just a discussion - no need for a podcast - if it would interest you.

And the thing I like about these schools is that leaving aside the personal benefits of education (it is good to know stuff) the people whose lunch they are eating are the privileged. The kids who haven't had to try so hard are now getting competition from people who until recently were stuck at the bottom.

I'm not sure that Charter/Free schools are the way to fix education but absent you or I becoming God Emperor they are at least something. And I am absolutely positive that Michaela really does make a big difference to the life chances of pupils from Wembley (again - one of the most deprived in London)

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Jul 11, 2022·edited Jul 11, 2022

Thanks Freddie.

1. On early grade outcomes predicting later grade outcomes

(NB: I accept your basic point here re: the remarkable stability of educational outcomes over time.)

a. You write:

“If you’d like to go short-term, student performance in third grade predicts student performance in fifth grade very well, as you would imagine.”

And link to this:


The paper makes this claim:

“As mentioned earlier, students’ perceived competence at 3rd grade predicted academic achievement at 5th grade, and 3rd grade academic achievement predicted 5th grade achievement (ß =.28).”

0.28 is significant, but not a particularly strong association? For what it's worth, a child's "perceived competence" in the 3rd grade almost predicted 5th grade achievement as well as their 3rd grade achievement did. (ß was .22, for "perceived competence.")

b. You write:

“If you prefer long-term, academic skills assessed the summer after kindergarten offer useful predictive information about academic outcomes throughout K-12 schooling and even into college.”

But the linked paper makes a different, I believe conflicting claim:

“Our second hypothesis was that early acquired academic…skills affect academic outcomes into young adulthood. Support for this hypothesis was limited. *Early academic skills did not directly affect middle school grades, high school graduation, or years of education completed by young adulthood.*”

IQ has some predictive value, as does SES and "inattention."

But the academics skills' tests in Kindergarten did not seem to have any relationship.

c. These are not to nitpick but rather to concede that, while powerful, let's say as an upper bound that "60% of individual differences in school achievement are explained by inherited differences in children’s DNA sequence,"* or something like that.

Isn't the recognition of this fact the first step in improving the 40% that is not related to inherited differences in DNA sequences? i.e., Doesn't it suggest that, in an equity-driven agenda (which one can be agnostic about the wisdom of), we should be more strategic re: kids who show early signs of reading difficulties and/or those who show signs of exceptional talent early on? You might point that we've already committed outsized expenditures on such students (partic the former group) relative to their counterparts over the past couple decades. But I wonder if a concession that a child who's struggling in 3rd grade is extremely likely to continue struggling might change the calculus on how we support her. Again I recognize that large investments have been made over the past 25 years in particular into special education services, and what's more, that a lot of those resources have been diverted to early elementary reading specifically. It's not as if we're not trying here.

Still I wonder if recognition that there's something significantly heritable at play here opens up some ingenuity in the sector about what we might do about it.

I guess my point is it's not *perfectly* heritable, not *perfectly* immutable, and that in consequence schooling doesn't necessarily have to continue "not working." There are tweaks, maybe even wholesale changes, we can make at different margins, maybe even in a cost-neutral way, that can take these basic facts onboard. Admittedly it sounds naive as I write it. But I think it's equally naive to declare that schooling cannot work (a claim you're not making, to be clear, but one that I think is a reasonable extension of your argument.)



2. On the value of absolute improvement -

You write:

“Why? Because it’s relative performance that results in college acceptance and labor market improvements, not absolute, and white kids have been learning this whole time too, so the absolute gains of Black students don’t result in sufficient relative gains.”

a. To your point, achievement gaps between groups-of-interest have remained more or less static for the past 30 years in math.

But while they may not result in *sufficient* relative gains, the Black/White gap, for example, has closed in Reading.

For 9 year olds it's:

-10 points less than it was 30 years ago

-21 points less than it was 50 years ago

For 13 year olds it's:

-5 points less than it was 30 years ago

-15 points less than it was 50 years ago



I'm not sure what to make of that, exactly.

b. One thing I can't figure out: aren't absolute gains, on the whole, a positive thing, even for the disadvantaged, even if relative gaps remain fully in tact? And aren't rising absolute scores over the past several decades at least partially attributable to schooling quality improvements? So ... does school deserve some credit for absolute gains in scores?

Hanushek seems to argue as much:

"In this essay, we document the long-term economic impact of a state’s student-achievement levels, which in turn permits us to calculate the economic returns from school improvement. First, we show that in the 40 years between 1970 and 2010, the spread among the states in their per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) widened considerably. Next, we show that the level of student achievement is a strong predictor of the state’s growth rate in GDP per capita over that time period, even after accounting for both the standard measure of school attainment and other economic factors."

Improvement in absolute scores by state was correlated with gains in GDP per capita (regardless of a state's starting point, and it was the gain in absolute scores that mattered.)

All else equal (i.e., controlling for everything), isn't it better to be in a state that will take you from 200 to 220 on average vs a state that will take you from 200 to 210, even if in both cases relatives gaps remain precisely the same? I would think so; I think that's what Hanushek is saying, but I'm not sure.



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A delightful read; the original post was decent enough, but shines brighter with the 2.0 polishing. Now I can bookend the entire issue with you on the left, and Bryan Caplan on the right with "The Case Against Education"; anyone who'd dismiss the latter as Conservative Talking Points might be amenable to similar points from a Marxist. (I'd hope.) "Experts Across The Political-Economic Spectrum Agree: Education Doesn't Work"

Progressives ask me why I don't support College For All, and...yeah. If they won't comprehend credentialism, maybe they'll understand absolute vs. relative differences. I do find it odd that these same people tend to be the ones most suspicious of aptitude tests and other measures of measuring actual absolute ability vs relative standing...

Also, I'm extremely grateful to get through a long piece on Education Reform without even once reading that damnable canard, "Teachers Spend Their Own Money On School Supplies". That alone made it a valuable expenditure of my reading time. Thanks for being heterodox, Freddie.

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HS math teacher here. I don’t think people realize how pervasive blank slateism is in teaching pedagogy. Every single teaching resource I am given from my district preaches over and over how every student can have the same outcome. Here is one excerpt from a book our department bought us:

“ If all students could learn by having us just

tell them how to do it, we would not have any of the problems that we have in mathematics education today. For over one hundred years the dominant pedagogy was teaching through telling. If that had worked, then all students would have been in our highest streams, and all students would have gotten the highest marks. But that has not been the result.”

As you can guess if we just follow the author’s novel approach Al disparity will vanish. I can show much more ridiculous stuff than this as well.

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