Monday, September 2, 2013

Edufallacies: correlation vs. causation

It seems to me that many of the biggest fallacies in today's edworld boil down to mistaking correlation for causation.

For example, the notion that a higher percentage of students should take college prep and AP courses and get BAs. People who take college prep and AP courses and get BAs tend to be more successful than those who don't, so if more students do these things, more students will be successful.

Or the notion that acquiring certain "habits of mind" will make you a good reader. Good readers have certain mental habits like "metacognition"; encourage such habits in less good readers, and they, too, will become good readers.

Or the notion that involving parents in school functions will improve their children's success in school. Students whose parents are more involved tend to do better than those whose parents are less involved. Therefore, if the school encourages more parents to participate in school functions, their children will do better in school.

Or the notion that cooperative learning and hands-on projects are the best way to learn. Schools that emphasize projects and cooperative learning (which tend to have smaller class sizes and higher SES students) tend to have higher test scores. Therefore cooperative learning and hands-on projects will improve schools in general.

Or the notion that technology enhances learning. Schools that have lots of high tech equipment (which tend to be in wealthier, higher SES districts) tend to have higher test scores. Therefore, Smartboards and laptops and school-wide Internet access will raise academic achivement.

One could just as easily argue that uncertified teachers are good for schools. Schools with lower numbers of certified teachers (private and parochial schools) tend to perform better than those with higher numbers (public schools). Therefore you can improve schools by eliminating the certified teachers.


momof4 said...

I've been saying that the ed world is unable/unwilling to differentiate correlation from causation for decades. Eighth-grade algebra, Latin, modern foreign languages, debate team, algebra II/trig/precalc,and AP classes have all been cited as causative factors in higher performance on various measures, including SAT/ACT, HS graduation, college attendance and graduation etc. Such results have fueled the XYZ-for-all push. Unfortunately, such courses are simply correlation, not causation. In the real world, only the most able, prepared and motivated kids take these courses, which are a proxy variable for identification of such kids. It's idiocy, but that hasn't stopped schools/districts from pushing kids who can't do multiplication and division into eighth-grade algebra or kids reading at a fifth-grade level (or worse) into AP English. Insanity

Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking said...

When an IT person was in the building, excitedly telling me about the new iPad cart they were installing, I had to stop myself from shouting "Our kids don't need iPads, they need FATHERS."

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the mother of all educational correlation / causation confusions:

A school where students score low on standardized tests must have bad teachers, so they should be penalized and reshuffled frequently.

Auntie Ann said...

I don't get the shuffling thing! When an LAUSD school finally starts pulling itself together, when the head of the school shows talent and success; the first thing they do is move her to a different school!

You'd think they'd let success stand, instead of trying to break it apart.

Anonymous said...

Letting success stand would probably help the kids. But who wants praxis when we can have theory?

When they penalize and reshuffle teachers at schools whose student body tests low, they are inevitably penalizing students for being poor and penalizing teachers for teaching poor students.

'If you want to keep your job, don't teach poor kids' is the message they end up sending.

C T said...

Wouldn't it be nice if formal logic were taught? I think most Americans, if they even know the word "fallacy", think it just means "dumb argument". It's important to know WHY an argument fails; otherwise, it just looks like opponents of an idea are name-calling.
With all the calls for teaching students to be "critical thinkers", why don't we see the education world turning to teaching formal logic? It seems the K-12 world mostly thinks logic is just for math.