Education is more than a Mind Game
This past week, renowned Psychologist Richard Nisbett published an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, “Education Is All in the Mind.” While I’ve come to respect Nisbett for his research and advocacy against polemics such as The Bell Curve, his recent piece misses the mark. The central issue is that Nisbett privileges psychological factors over other factors and leaves the reader to think what it takes to repair schools essentially are “mind games.” This is not to suggest that there is not validity to some of the claims that he makes. However, I argue that the work he cites speaks to improving psychological processes which can have an impact on test performance, but these tell us little about what is necessary for educational reform. Nisbett’s argument and logic is one that is shared by a number of people advocating change in policy towards education that concentrates on “the mind”, but overlooks the schools, neighborhoods, and families that kids are nested in. Transforming educational opportunity takes both psychological effort but also in-depth systematic reform in schools and communities.
The reality is that the bulk of educational reforms have done little to affect the achievement gaps between students along lines of race, language, poverty, etc. Some argue this is because schools do little to affect the unequal lives that children walk into schools with. While I understand this and has been substantiated by some key research (namely the Coleman Report), I come from a different perspective. While the unequal social worlds that children live in affect their school performance, schools remain some of the most important institutions in our society. Not because they provide “rags to riches” opportunity, which they usually do not, but because they are the one location that we have the ability to tinker with to produce social change. Legally, all children under 16 must go to school and US public schools must education everyone who walks through their doors, which makes it probably the most difficult institution to ensure high performance in. Tinkering and reforming to produce sustainable results in education, in my estimation, is probably one of THE MOST difficult of social engineering tasks.
So what’s the big deal? To some, Nisbett has pointed out that there are programs that “eliminate the gap” or “reduce the gap” quickly. That’s the catch, the quick elimination of a gap does not necessarily mean the effective elimination of a gap. The programs that he cites do deal with improving or manipulating psychological variables to increase performance. This is basic educational psychology where the better or more efficacious one feels about one’s self, the more likely they are to perform well. But this does not mean that gaps in education can be reduced by this manner for three main reasons:
1) Single tests of achievement may be unrelated or weakly related to overall school performance
2) There are multiple forms of achievement gaps
3) There is not just an achievement gap but also a skills gap
On point one, it is totally possible for someone to perform well on a laboratory administered test, not pass math, and perform below grade level on a state-standards test. Psychometricians and education evaluators have a long tradition of finding differing performance between metrics for the same people. Even finding differences in performance in laboratory setting and in non-laboratory settings. To assume high performance on one evaluation in one setting will be closely correlated to the next is actually fallacious.
On the second point, while the No Child Left Behind Act has placed the idea of “the achievement gap” front in center, in reality there are many different forms of achievement gaps. There are those that happen, between schools, within schools and they can fall along race, ethnicity, gender, poverty, language or a host of other lines. While psychological interventions can improve the performance of small groups at a time, there is little to no evidence that “large scaled” psychological interventions will provide similar results. Additionally, Tom Cook’s work from long ago (Sesame Street Revisited) suggested that when all students receive an equal treatment/intervention, gaps in performance can still widen because “all boats rise with the tide” and there is really no such thing as an “equal treatment.”
On the third point, to suggest that performance can be “gamed” by mental exercises is a dangerous idea. Having spent copious time in schools by way of researching and speaking, I can assure you that not all observed gaps are simply artifacts of tests. There are variable skill levels that students posses. While some students may have the skills that they do not fully engage, I have not seen full evidence that gaps are simply “effort” or “culturally” based. While I do this with much caution and caveat, I take a page from Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom who argue that observed gaps have a basis in differing levels of skills that students bring to the table such as reading ability, computational ability, etc. While I disagree at the magnitude of the skills gap they suggest, it is unequivocal to the me that, on average, students’ from disadvantaged backgrounds carry fewer skills into and out of school. The assumption that simple psychological intervention or, to be trite, “mind games” will substantially impact the gap is both dangerous and rather unfounded.
But alas, this is an editorial right, it’s not necessariliy connected to real world policy. Not true at all! I find a conspicious link between Nisbett’s argument about psychological interventions netting positive and real gains to the work of Roland Fryer, economist and Cheif Equity Officer of the New York Public Schools. The Incentive program that is being run in NYC presumes that students already have the skills necessary or that an incentive will make them “work harder” to gain the skills necessary to succeed. These types of programs worry me because they assume a baseline of non-effort for youngsters. While my teacher colleagues and I disagree on this often, I find that children do work hard and it appears programs like the incentive one are drawn from a deficit model where we presuppose children lack effort and will to succeed.
As the nation’s political landscape changes we must also be vigilant at documenting what does not change among the most vulnerable. I applaud Nisbett for re-surfacing this issue despite my disagreements. In the end, it takes more than simply “incentives”, “mind games” or “tinkering” to transform the schooling of children, particularly Black children. What do you think it will take?