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December 10, 2004

Teachers - They Simply Can't Win

Chris Correa does a good job of summarizing a paper by Deborah Stipek, the Dean of the School of Education at Stanford, in which she notes that teachers tend to instruct African American and Hispanic children differently than they do Caucasion children. I won't be repeating Chris's analysis so give it a read to get a better understanding of this paper.

Stipek goes into great detail in explaining her methodological constructs for this study which primarily distinguish between didactic and constructivist pedagogies. Here is another source which more succinctly summarizes these two differing approaches to education:

In the didactic approach, learning is passive, with students receiving an incremental, ostensibly authoritative, predetermined linear sequence of facts from a teacher acting in the role of sage. Passive learning often involves memorisation, rote, or delivery of material via lecture, slideshow, handouts, etc. Active learning, on the other hand, is learning by doing.

The notion of teacher as a guide does not imply the teacher has no control or is not in an active role. Actually, the teacher must be able to exercise great finesse in creating and controlling the learning environment. In the constructivist approach, the teacher often acts in the role of facilitator, as opposed to an ultimate authoritative dispenser of knowledge. The didactic and constructivist approach can be summed up in this respect by the analogy "the sage on the stage versus the guide on the side."

A comparison of two teaching methodologies
Teacher as sageTeacher as guide
Little or no student choiceSignificant student choice
Skills taught in isolationSkills taught in a relevant context

Now, many of will recognize the didactic approach as the one we had in school, and quite a bit of it in university too, for that matter. Also, the many parents who clamor for Back to Basics schools are voicing their support for the didactic method:

Calgary, Alberta: Imagine a classroom where a teacher snaps her fingers and students repeat what she just said all together. That's one of the teaching strategies of the Foundations for the Future Charter School. Charter schools are publicly funded, but put special emphasis on one style of education. For Foundations, discipline and structure, repetition and concentration are the keys.

For students, uniforms are mandatory. They learn as a class, and lessons don't begin until they are sitting in the ready position--feet on the floor, hands together on the desk.

Teachers are encouraged to stick to a strict formula on how to give information to students. Creativity is not encouraged. Some prefer the style. One says it allows him to be a teacher, not a social worker or a psychologist. One visiting teacher who helps kids learn in-line skating says his more loose, free approach to teaching confuses some students. He says while they work well in groups, some have trouble working independently.

The Foundations method shows results. The students consistently rank higher on provincial achievement tests. Eight hundred students have signed up in the last 5 years, 4400 are on the waiting list.

Clearly, the constructivist-didactic dichotomy is not a black and white one for didactic can produce startling results and is in great demand by parents seeking escape from constructivist instruction. (Full Disclosure - I'm in favor of the socratic method and the related Harkness Table which are closer to the contructivist pedagogy but which absolutely require having a teacher who is whipsmart, has a mastery of the content knowledge and is able to outthink the students.)

Stipek makes clear her position that the didactic method inhibits the progress of the students and further that teachers differentiate by ethnicity in how they teach.

Both a high proportion of low-income children and a high proportion of African–American children predicted didactic teaching. The effect of the proportion of low-income children disappeared when ethnicity was added to the equation, suggesting that ethnicity, not family income, was the more powerful predictor of didactic teaching.

After noting that the teachers who participated in this study do indeed teach African-American and Hispanic children differently than Caucasions she begins her quest for the why of this situation. First she looks to whether the teacher's goals have predictive value:

As predicted, teachers’ goals were highly predictive of their teaching practices, with teachers who stressed higher-order thinking engaging in more constructivist and less didactic teaching, and teachers who stressed basic skills engaging in more didactic and less constructivist teaching. Teachers’ perceptions of barriers to parent involvement predicted didactic but not constructivist teaching. Relatively high proportions of African–American and, to a modest degree, high proportions of Latino students predicted low levels of constructivist and high levels of didactic teaching, even after variance associated with teachers’ goals and perceptions of family challenges was eliminated.

Stipek notes that there is still a tendency towards didactic process even after accounting for teacher goals. She neglects though to construct her model to account for the teacher's goals being influenced by the students themselves, though she does note this in her discussion of the findings. It's quite plausible to posit goal forming via an iterative process where the teacher's goals are tempered by experience. Of course others could see this process as the solidification of racist prejudices. I however, find it more plausible that with the teaching profession, until recently, giving more credence to the "love to teach" segment over the "mastery of content" faction, would skew towards the idealists in the profession who would have finely tuned racist radar and bend over backwards to be impartial. However, as the teacher's experience grows year after year they may start to discover that particular approaches may work better for some groups. There need not be nefarious motives ascribed.

Next, Stipek looks at the student's level of preparedness for the curriculm:

The proportion of children below grade level was the strongest predictor of the amount of constructivist teaching, more so than the proportion of low-income children or the ethnic composition of the school. Teachers may have avoided constructivist approaches in schools in which children were substantially behind academically because they believed that constructivist approaches, which usually involve a fair amount of child choice and initiative, would be inefficient. The proportion of children who were below grade level did not predict the amount of didactic teaching observed, however, after the proportion of low-income and African–American children were eliminated, suggesting that different student characteristics may influence the degree to which teachers use constructivist and didactic instructional approaches.

A finding regarding the target children in the larger study may also be relevant to the present findings related to didactic teaching (Miles&Stipek, submitted for publication). Teachers rated African–American children, especially African–American boys, as significantly more aggressive than both Caucasian and Latino children. Perhaps teachers felt a need to impose stricter control and to implement more structured, teacher-dominated instruction to maintain order in classrooms in which they perceived children to be hard to manage.

Now in this study Stipek focused on the challenges unique to pre-dominantly low income schools and the performance of African American and Hispanic children and in the end points to teacher goals as being the dominant predictor of pedagogy employed. Chris notes in his conclusion, and I think he's simultaneously being too charitable to this study and also stating the obvious:

But it’s important to remember there are significant differences in teaching practice - even in early elementary classrooms - that can help explain differences in young children’s motivation, social development, and academic achievement.

Yes Chris, teaching practice can help explain different outcomes, but this study does nothing of the sort. Stipek ends up pointing at teacher goals without modeling the goal forming process and without testing her findings across a wider socio-economic spectrum. The academic gap persists when controlled for SES, even for the top African-American and Hispanic students. Look to this report from the New York Times:

Yet whites and blacks taking similar level courses report that they spend the same time on homework. It is just that the results are different: 38 percent of whites who spend two hours on homework nightly get all their work done; only 20 percent of blacks spending two hours finish their homework — the Gap.

It would be politically convenient for Professor Ferguson, a black man raising his two children plus a nephew in a Boston suburb, if the Gap could be explained away by economics.

It cannot. When he controls for income, half the Gap persists. Among the richest families, blacks average B+, whites A-. How to explain it?

How to explain it indeed? Perhaps the education researchers should start looking outside their field at the research being published in genetics:

The g factor has a normal distribution in the general population, suggesting g is probably a product of several genes that interact with the environment. Moreover, although g correlates with the parental value, it has a tendency to be closer to the population mean, suggesting a regression to the mean. These observations suggest that some genetic variants that influence g will vary between populations rather than within populations. For instance, certain Asian populations have a frequency of 0.60 in COMT Met158 allele, which predicts lower COMT-enzyme activity and thereby better cognitive performance, while Caucasians have a frequency of 0.42 for the same allele.

These research results, in conjunction with a large body of psychological research on regression to the mean can in part, and in conjunction with environmental influences, explain the performance gap we see even amongst the highest SES participants. The children of the talented and well-off regress:

The BW- IQ gap increases with socio-economic status (SES). Because IQ correlates with SES, parents of higher SES have a higher average IQ-score. This means, that the offspring in the higher SES categories will show more pronounced regression towards the population mean. But because the population mean for blacks is lower, regression towards the mean will produce a more pronounced IQ lowering in the offspring of black parents, thereby widening the IQ gap between white and black offspring in these SES-segments. This is exactly what we observe (Jensen p.469 and 358).

Siblings of bright black children have lower IQ-scores as compared to siblings of equally bright white children (p.470-471). Regression to the mean helds true for both black and white sibling pairs over the full range of IQs (approximately from IQ 50 to IQ 150). "These regression findings can be regarded, not as proof of the default hypothesis, but as wholly consistent with it. No purely environmental hypothesis would have predicted such results" (p.471).

While I frequently enjoy poking fun at the idiocy of the teaching profession and the fads they fall for, like the switch to purple markers because red is more stressful and demoralizes students, while purple, the preferred color, has a more calming effect, I think that Stipek, in this case, gives teachers a bum rap by concluding that teacher's goals are formed independently of their experience in dealing with different populations of students.

While a teacher's influence is indeed important they can't work miracles and lawsuits, the NCLB, and court decisions notwithstanding, the most important participant in the educational process is the student and it is a disservice to them to ignore research into differential approaches which prove more beneficial for different groups.

In the end I'm not sold on a causative relationship between ethnicity, teachers' pedagogical choice and student performance. When the educational establishment begins to incorporate the research coming from genetics labs then exciting new fields of research will open up and this will quite possibly improve the school experiences for millions of children. Such research would be a welcome supplement to the strictly environmental models we see being published in journals, and which form the basis of our public policy.

Posted by TangoMan at 02:54 AM