Tuesday, May 27, 2014

If your children are not your children, does that mean they also aren't the schools' children?

A commenter on my recent post on The Nurture Assumption suggests that book's conclusions about the low influence that parents have on their kids also applies to schools. Here, again, is the book's nutshell conclusion:

Children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left them in their homes, their schools, their neighborhoods, and their cultural or subcultural groups, but switched all the parents around.
The analogous point about schools would be:
Children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left them in their homes, their families, their neighborhoods, and their cultural or subcultural groups, but switched all the schools around.
While this may well be a reasonable corollary to Harris' argument, it's important to keep a couple of things in mind.

First, in citing as evidence the studies of identical twins and adopted siblings, Harris is focusing on similarities in personality rather than in academic achievement. Her discussion doesn't rule out a significant influence by schools on, say, how prepared a student is to enroll in college physics or calculus.

Second, there's absolute influence and then there's relative influence. A particular school can have a big impact on whether its graduates can hack college math and science without differing that much in practice from another school. This is especially true if we're comparing schools in similar neighborhoods: a factor that Harris' conclusion holds constant. Within a particular neighborhood or school district (where the curricula, for better or worth, is often the same throughout), it may not make much difference which particular school a child attends; it's the child who doesn't attend school period who will get a very different education. Or, perhaps, the child who attends a selective magnet school.

Magnet schools raise another factor that Harris' conclusion holds constant: peer group. In practice, since schools are populated with peers, it's awfully hard to separate the peer factor from the school factor. And peers, Harris surmises, have an enormous influence on personality (and, I'd add, on academic achievement). In fact, it's peers, Harris proposes, that comprise the bulk of non-genetic influences on personality.

So schools do matter. They matter even if they are all the same. They matter even if they, say, are all using the same, crummy, Common Core inspired curricula.

Indeed, arguably, that sinister sameness makes them matter all the more.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

You suggest two contradictory things:

1: "Children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left them in their homes, their families, their neighborhoods, and their cultural or subcultural groups, but switched all the schools around. While this may well be a reasonable corollary to Harris' argument, it's important to keep a couple of things in mind."

and

2: "In practice, since schools are populated with peers, it's awfully hard to separate the peer factor from the school factor. And peers, Harris surmises, have an enormous influence on personality (and, I'd add, on academic achievement). In fact, it's peers, Harris proposes, that comprise the bulk of non-genetic influences on personality."

You can't really leave kids in 'their families, their neighborhoods, and their cultural or subcultural groups' while also switching all their peers. Who do you think makes up the groups?

I do find it interesting to hear someone say that the other kids at the school have a greater effect on a child than the teachers do, and I don't disagree with this surmise. Perhaps it would be helpful if more parents admitted the underlying meaning of their search for "good schools" is seeking a more prosperous peer group for their children, rather than papering it over with test scores and advanced curriculum.

Katharine Beals said...

"You can't really leave kids in 'their families, their neighborhoods, and their cultural or subcultural groups' while also switching all their peers."

Yup.

"Who do you think makes up the groups?"

Um...

"I do find it interesting to hear someone say that the other kids at the school have a greater effect on a child than the teachers do"

No one is saying that peers have a greater effect on children in terms of academic skills. (Perhaps they do, but, so far as I know, this hasn't been studied).

"it would be helpful if more parents admitted the underlying meaning of their search for "good schools" is seeking a more prosperous peer group for their children, rather than papering it over with test scores and advanced curriculum."

I'm not able to get inside the minds of parents, so I don't know to what extent peer group considerations govern school choice. I suspect, however, that few people are seeking schools for peer groups "rather than" academics; "in addition to," yes.

I do *suspect* (though I don't presume to have access to subconscious thinking) that peer group considerations figure subconsciously in decisions that are consciously about academics: people see a school full of smart, curious, and/or friendly children, and rationalize that the school is what made the difference, when in fact plenty of schools simply cherry pick and coast.

Anonymous said...

You can't really leave kids in 'their families, their neighborhoods, and their cultural or subcultural groups' while also switching all their peers.

But you can really leave kids in their neighborhoods, their cultural or subcultural groups, their schools, and with their peers while switching their parents?

Not so much.

If you've left kids in all those things, but switched the parents, then you've given them parents substantially like their previous parents in all important respects.

Katharine Beals said...

"If you've left kids in all those things, but switched the parents, then you've given them parents substantially like their previous parents in all important respects."

That's precisely the point of the Nurture Assumption!

Much of what the parenting advice industry claims is important, as Harris concludes from the twin plus adoption studies, isn't.

Schoolmistress said...

Does Anonymous have a point here? He reminds me of the endlessly contentious middle school student who merely “argues for the sake of arguing.” His fussy objections to everything Katharine says only digress from the truly substantive ideas of The Nurture Argument. I’m getting tired of his empty quibbling.

cranberry said...

I pulled out my copy of The Nurture Assumption. Turns out, schools are very influential. They provide the peer groups, which under her theory are more important than parents. Schools provide the groups children use to define their own characteristics.

Thus, switch kids between similar schools, say, good suburban schools in nearby zip codes, and the schools would not make as great a difference. Switch children between a good suburban school and a struggling rural school, and you would notice a difference.

Even in similar suburban schools, though, the types of peer groups available in a particular school would make a difference. If a school has a Goth subgroup, some kids will become Goths. If there are Emos, they might become Emos. So under the theory, as I understand the chapter, schools are more influential than parents, because that's where the peers are.

Katharine Beals said...

" If a school has a Goth subgroup, some kids will become Goths. If there are Emos, they might become Emos."

Great point, Cranberry!

Totally agree with what you (and Harris) say about schools influencing kids through peers.

Katharine Beals said...

I don't moderate comments on this blog, but for the first time since I started this blog, back in 2008, I'm having to delete comments, or parts of comments, that contain unfriendly name-calling and substance-free attacks.

Here is an edited comment from Anonymous:

"Anonymous has a point, but Cranberry made it better.

"Turns out, schools are very influential. They provide the peer groups… children use to define their own characteristics."

It's not the curriculum function of schools that's most important, but the casting function.

The significance of this point is that there is a corollary of parents not obsessing so much about perfection in their parenting style, because that's not the most important influence they have on their kids.

The corollary is that schools should not obsess so much about curriculum, testing, common core, constructivism, etc., because that is not the most important influence they have on their kids."

Katharine Beals said...

Quoting from my earlier post:

"in citing as evidence the studies of identical twins and adopted siblings, Harris is focusing on similarities in personality rather than in academic achievement. Her discussion doesn't rule out a significant influence by schools on, say, how prepared a student is to enroll in college physics or calculus."

Auntie Ann said...

"Turns out, schools are very influential. They provide the peer groups… children use to define their own characteristics."

That's how lots of private schools, which might not offer any better an education than publics, stay in business. People want to choose their kids' peer groups. When you hear of lots of kids at the publics who don't do their homework, mouth off at the teachers, and are generally disrespectful towards education; parents run for the nearest private or charter, where--they hope--the kids at least value school.