How green was my valley: how professional were my parents?

Parents and education 2

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19 Responses to How green was my valley: how professional were my parents?

  1. Mayan says:

    It is quite common, almost the norm, in many of the Asian nations for children to be given (or subjected to, depending on your point of view) out-of-hours tutoring. I haven’t seen any data comparing the results for children who are tutored and who are not in those nations. Does anyone know of any such data?

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    No – but it’s a topical question with Asians maxing out as the high achievers in the Australian education system. And it’s interesting to think that perhaps the tendency to tutor if it’s also a common thing to do in Asia might give kids better access to ‘professionals’ even if the kids’ parents aren’t such ones.

    • conrad says:

      It’s a biased sample in Aus — It’s not like it’s the dumb East Asians coming out. Indeed, I’m willing to bet that the kids of most rich professional groups coming out, Asian or not, are doing well (the white kids do well in HK for the same reason). The main interesting groups in my books are the ones that start poor but still make it.

      On a different note, I like the idea of people using tutors since it is basically a cheap way to short-circuit the monopoly elite private schools have on teaching what is needed for exams. Perhaps one day they might actually have to start setting exams that force people to teach stuff rather than just get kids to remember the right things if it gets popular enough.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Conrad, you’d need to know more. The kids of the ambitious Asian parents mainly go to private schools already and if they can’t get in there they bust a gut to get into the selective government schools where they are massively preponderant. They then get accelerated further by lots of further private tutoring. I’m not sure how efficient it is either as one-on-one tuition doesn’t sound too efficient.

        Also it’s unclear to me what the significance of your comment about “teaching what is needed for exams” means. I’m not suggesting that the high school kids don’t get a bad deal, they do, but it’s not in teaching for the exams. The high schools can teach for the exams, and I expect that within their ability they do. But they’re on a level playing field (in the sense that the curriculum is known etc) and do a much worse job of it. So they’re just worse schools and that’s very unfair. I don’t see how “teaching what is needed for exams” needs to be brought into the picture. It seems largely extraneous to me.

        • conrad says:

          I’m not sure how efficient one-on-one tutoring is (this is really an empirical question), but it might well be cheaper than 30K of private school fees. Also, in terms of motivation, you don’t have causation in one direction. The reason some of these kids can put up with this sort of thing is because they’ve gone to primary schools in countries where what they have been taught has placed them in a much better position (especially in maths where Australia is doing more and more poorly — c.f., literacy). So they may well enjoy doing extra maths tutoring compared to kids that get nothing from it. No-one ever mentions this because no-one thinks about what primary school kids learn apart from in a few very restricted situations (it’s why it’s not a political issue). So instead we think it is all due to motivational differences between cultures caused by things that are more or less unchangeable (or intelligence differences, especially in the negative case), despite the fact that these scores vary all over the places across the decades.

          My point with the teaching for exams stuff was that everyone gets a bad deal. If you look at outcomes data in university (not that there is any real definitive data), you find that of the 8-10 points more kids in private schools get compared to public school kids in their final exams, perhaps half isn’t related to any real learning. But this is just the mean. If you’re going to a school that gets, say, 25 points more than the average public school, are you really learning 25 point more of real stuff? I doubt it (selective schools excluded). You’re just learning how to pass exams and are taught by people that know how to game the system well.

          All of this means that people are spending a lot of effort and money getting their kids to pass exams versus learn something useful. If private tutors can work this out, and I think that in some of these “cram” schools they have, and this becomes more commonplace, perhaps we might see a shift from teaching less useful things helping no-one which can be gamed easily to teaching things that matter more that cannot.

        • Tel says:

          You’re just learning how to pass exams and are taught by people that know how to game the system well.

          Teaching to the exam is a least-worst strategy. It’s very difficult to teach a large number of randomly chosen people to have a confident and intuitive feel for mathematics… but if you teach them the technique of solving exam questions then at least you can demonstrate you taught them something, and it’s achievable.

        • conrad says:

          Tel — I’m happy for teachers to teach to the test (especially at latter years). It’s just that you need to make the test such that you have to teach something useful to do it (e.g., how to write a document vs. how to memorize one), and you also need to make sure you don’t get rewarded the same amount for taking an alternative test (e.g., advanced versus business mathematics)

        • Tel says:

          Designing a good quality test is quite difficult, and has to be updated every single year. I’m sure there’s enough money in the education system as a whole to do this job but I’m not sure it’s glamorous enough to get money allocated.

          As with everything, who checks the quality of the tests themselves? How does this information get back to the customers?

  3. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Conrad,

    I think pedagogy in schools is pretty shit.

    Thinking particularly of English for instance it’s pretty clear that the game the kids are being taught is not really to engage with the text but to package stuff up into lots of adult categories. My kids are always taken aback with how much political chat there is at schools and how much confidence people are encouraged to express in their own views, when it’s pretty clear to them that they don’t really know what’s going on.

    Then there’s maths (and to some extent science) which is a kind of race to ingest as much technique as possible.

    Things do eventually get better – at least at uni. There for the better kids – or at least for me when I was at uni – virtually all the subjects change. History becomes an inquiry into the past and reflection on what one is doing doing history, rather than simply cramming facts from secondary sources. Maths, at least if you do pure becomes an intellectual adventure and on it goes.

    I’m not really sure what can be done about it, as I don’t think the core problem is ‘teaching to the test’. But perhaps it’s part of it.

    • conrad says:

      Teaching to the test is part of the problem, and it’s very school dependent. An obvious example of this is that you have some places that are basically getting kids to memorize essays for the last two years of their schooling, which means that when they go to uni they end up failing everything. Making the final exams unpredictable would force schools to give up on this strategy. There are lots of non-obvious examples also.

      I can also think of things that could make the system better.

      The first thing that needs to happen is that some of the state governments need to admit that the high-level bureaucrats they have now have basically failed. This is a priori true — you can see it from test scores over time. Australian kids shouldn’t be worse at maths now than 30 years ago — we’re richer, have better resources, and we know much more about the development of mathematical competence. So something has gone wrong.

      Second, after admitting this, they need to actually get decent people that really know stuff. There’s a big split between the edumacation people and people that actually care about data and measuring things and understanding how and why things are done differently in different places. This second group lost out in Australia and now just sit from the sidelines, whereas the second group won in the countries that are doing well.

      Third, once they have decent people, they need to make things completely transparent. In particular, they need to document why they are teaching certain things and not teaching others across years, and this needs to be available to the public (and not just what they are teaching). This is especially important in early years where you need to learn more general skills rather than more particular things.

      So, for example, at present they would have to post “we are not teaching times-tables in primary school because we think it is not relevant to a world with calculators”. Based on this, anybody that knows the slightest thing about early maths development could say: “This is rubbish. Kids need to develop spatial skills and automatize small sums in their heads as it forms the bases of more complicated mathematics”. These people could then provide references to this.

      In the worst case, if the edumacation people can’t at least provide reasons as to why they’re teaching some things and not others at certain times across the 13 years, it’s a clear way of identifying the fact that they don’t know what they’re doing and hopefully people would be appalled by it. In addition, if they are having to justify themselves to the public, they would also have to get over the use of the education mumbo-jumbo that they like to use with each other.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Thanks for that blast Conrad. I don’t know enough to know you’re right (except that it seems pretty obvious just looking from the outside) but you’re certainly playing to all my prejudices.

        I reckon you could do the same mutatis mutandis for lots of areas of what is laughingly called ‘public life’. Sounds like a lot of economic discussion to me.

        But the days when we had people in and told them they’ve failed is long gone it seems – unless they’re building a bridge or supervising a mine and something catastrophic occurs.

      • Patrick says:

        Hit a lot of my sweet a prioris too.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Oh and by the way, I’m probably being obtuse, but I don’t know what you’re intimating calling it “edumacation”

    • conrad says:

      Edumacation is a semi-derogatory term used to suggest poor quality in education. When it’s directed at groups, as in the way that I used it, it’s basically talking about a group of people that pretend to know a lot about how people learn but they really know very little. This isn’t necessarily their fault, as many actually wanted to learn something useful once (who wouldn’t?) but a lot but ended up in various education departments that are monopolized by these people who have their own journals, ways to describe things and so on. They’ve even got into neuro-education now, which some of the top people in the area do so appallingly it’s laughable. I just typed in “educational neuroscience” into google to confirm my own prejudices, and the first article that turned up was this. This is from ACER, a firm which is constantly contracted to do various things for education departments around Australia (generally poorly). It’s mild compared to some of the stuff you can find.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        I always smell a rat when I run into lies like this “to develop all students as effective learners”. “All students” indeed.

        Here’s the full statement:

        The Australian Curriculum introduces both a mandate and a mechanism to undertake a strategic shift to turn the rhetoric into action; to develop all students as effective learners with empowering transverse skills rather than ‘knowers’ and ‘doers’.

        Beats me what transverse skills are, but anyway, “all students” will be given them. And a pony.

  5. David Walker says:

    Hard to escape the irony: the original title on the graph – Some school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students, regardless of what their parents do for a living – looks pretty much wrong. There’s a fairly consistent gap, and certainly nothing you’d bet wasn’t due to the vagaries of measurement and classification.

  6. Tel says:

    Some school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students regardless of what their parents do for a living.

    Not the ones shown in that diagram.

    There’s a significant spread in almost every case, other than Albania and Kakakhstan. If I well stand back and squint a bit I can be confident that the spread is wider at the top of the graph and narrower at the bottom of the graph. Which is pretty much exactly what you would expect.

    Just on a side issue, I’d be guessing that on the whole the “Managers” get paid better than the “Professionals” so money doesn’t directly translate to test scores. More likely there’s a lot of background information that gets passed from parents to kids, and management-oriented parents pass down the sort of skills that don’t get high test scores.

  7. paul walter says:

    God bless Conrad and Nicholas.. that is a constructive conversation.

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    God has blessed us Paul. Well I don’t know about Conrad, but I was speaking with God just yesterday and his basic message was “keep up the good work”.

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