Sunday, January 23, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Yale law professor Amy Chua has certainly raised a firestorm with her new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which shot to fame with this Wall Street Journal preview. A sample:
A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.
So far, so good, it seems to me. (OK, mostly good, and often just in theory as to my own family . . .) Nonetheless, many reactions to the book/article are very hostile, primarily because of vignettes in which she calls her daughter "garbage" for being terribly disrespectful, or threatening to burn another daughter's stuffed animals.

I got the book one afternoon last week, and devoured the whole thing by that evening, which is unusual for me only in that I don't usually have enough spare time to do that anymore. I was surprised to find myself constantly laughing over her self-deprecating and ironic remarks. I later saw that Chua herself told the Wall Street Journal that "much of my book is tongue-in-cheek, making fun of myself."

To take just a few examples:
  • Chua explaining why she made one daughter learn the piano:

    I wanted her to be well rounded and to have hobbies and activities. Not just any activity, like "crafts," which can lead nowhere -- or even worse, playing the drums, which leads to drugs -- but rather a hobby that was meaningful and highly difficult with the potential for depth and virtuosity. And that's where the piano came in.

  • Chua explaining why third-generation Chinese Americans turn out poorly:

    Finally and most problematically, they will feel that they have individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and therefore be much more likely to disobey their parents and ignore career advice.

  • Chua explaining why she ultimately decided not to focus too heavily on her dog:

    I had finally come to see that Coco was an animal, with intrinsically far less potential than Sophia and Lulu. Although it is true that some dogs are on bomb squads or drug-sniffing teams, it is perfectly fine for most dogs not to have a profession or even any special skills.

  • Chua explaining why she didn't fit in at Harvard Law School:

    But I always worried that law really wasn't my calling. I didn't care about the rights of criminals the way others did.

That last line was especially hilarious to me. I'll never forget one of the women I knew (and was actually good friends with) at Harvard Law School: She got into a heated argument with me once over her contention that rape was a systematic patriarchal tool that benefited all men, but then she would spend her spare time working for the Prison Legal Assistance Project (known as "PLAP") where one of her projects -- I kid you not -- was helping a local rapist to get out on parole.

Anyway, because the Wall Street Journal selected the most seemingly outrageous portions of the book in a way that made the self-deprecating tone less obvious, most of the reviewers seem to be completely missing out on Chua's real theme: that she ultimately had to transform her own ideas of motherhood when faced with a daughter who simply refused to comply. (One clue, from the book's very front cover: "This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year old.")

One non-ironic line that I liked very much, and that partially explains my visceral hostility to most children's television, was this:
America seems to convey something to kids that Chinese culture doesn't. In Chinese culture, it just wouldn't occur to children to question, disobey, or talk back to their parents. In American culture, kids in books, TV shows, and movies constantly score points with their snappy backtalk and independent streaks. Typically, it's the parents who need to be taught a life lesson -- by their children.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Should a Teacher's Value-Added Last Forever?

In the middle of a review of a recent Gates Foundation report on teacher value-added scores, economist Jesse Rothstein writes this:

An extensive literature makes clear that students assigned to high-value-added teachers see higher test scores in the year of that assignment, but that this benefit evaporates very quickly.

He cites, among other things, a Jacob/Lefgren/Sims paper arguing that:
the vast majority of the contemporary test score effect attributed to teacher value-added is transitory. This suggests that the teacher value-added literature overstates the effect of teachers on longrun learning and, therefore, the ability of policies that target teacher value-added to change ultimate student outcomes.
For some reason, the short-lived effect of teacher value-added scores is seen as somehow disproving their worth, and the worth of policies that would "target teacher value-added."

But to what other realm of human endeavor would such a standard be applied?

Consider another aspect of human development: physical fitness. Would anyone suggest that the value of vigorous exercise is somehow discredited because a vigorous exercise program has the most effect only in the year that it is actually followed, but its effects mostly disappear after the individual stops exercising? Of course not. Everyone who has ever exercised knows that if you stop for even a few months, you will lose much or most of your conditioning. Does that mean that vigorous exercise wasn't effective? No: it was effective as long as you kept exercising.

The same is true for medicines and vitamins. Would anyone find it important to observe that the effectiveness of medicines and vitamins disappears after you stop taking them for a year or more?

Or take weight loss. Would anyone be surprised to find that a healthy diet enabled people to lose weight only when they actually followed the diet, but didn't have permanent effects that allowed people to quit the diet and eat whatever they wanted therafter?

Shouldn't the same logic apply to teachers? A great teacher can have a powerful effect on your learning of a specific subject. If the effect of good teaching fades out over time, that may simply mean that teaching is like nearly everything else in life: it doesn't magically guarantee permanent improvement.

But it can still be important to figure out what good teachers are doing and who the good teachers are, just as it's important to know which weightlifting coaches produce Olympic champions and which ones are incompetent -- even if the effect of good teaching in either field fades out once an individual moves on and does other things.

Indeed, the fadeout of high value-added teachers may actually mean that it's all the more important to implement well-thought-out policies that encourage such teachers. Why would a 5th grade math teacher's effect fade out in 6th and 7th grade? Yes, it could be because the 5th grade teacher was artificially gaming her scores by teaching topics or problems that are completely idiosyncratic to the 5th grade math test in a particular state (although the blame really would lie with the state standards and tests in such a case). But it could well be because a great 5th grade math teacher was followed by mediocre 6th and 7th grade math teachers who failed to capitalize on the 5th grade teacher's accomplishments, and students' performance -- no surprise! -- wasn't magically and permanently raised.

In other words, the fadeout of high-value added teachers might just mean that we need to be finding the mediocre 6th and 7th grade teachers who are managing to erase their students' prior knowledge and achievement, and either helping those teachers to improve or else gently moving them into other professions for which they are better suited.

UPDATE: I'd apply the same logic to all of the other educational interventions whose effect fades out or disappears over time -- Head Start, class size reduction, rewarding students for reading books (Roland Fryer's experiment). In all these cases, why would anyone ever have expected a one-time treatment to have a permanent effect? Nothing about our bodies or minds works that way.


Statistical Architecture

I liked this passage from a 2008 article by Gary King and Eleanor Neff Powell:
There are fields of study that have not yet been revolutionized by increasing quantification and modern statistics, but its an easy prediction that this will eventually happen given enough enterprising scholars, wherever it would be useful (and unfortunately, at other times too!). Certainly the opportunities for intellectual arbitrage are enormous.

To take one example, for clarity outside our field, consider architecture. By far, the most expensive decisions universities make are about buildings and their physical plant. Yet architecture as a field is composed primarily of engineers who keep buildings up and qualitative creative types who invent new designs: quantitative social scientists do not frequently get jobs in schools of design.

Imagine instead how much progress could be made by even simple data collection and straightforward statistical analysis. Some relevant questions, with associated explanatory variables might be: Do corridors or suites make the faculty and students produce and learn more? Does vertical circulation work as well as horizontal? Should we put faculty in close proximity to others working on the same projects or should we maximize interdisciplinary adjacencies? (Do graduate students learn more when they are prevented for lack of windows from seeing the outside world during the day?) And if the purpose of a university is roughly to maximize the number of units of knowledge created, disseminated, and preserved, then collecting measures would not be difficult, such as citation counts, the number of new faculty hired or degrees conferred, the quality of student placements upon graduation, etc. A little quantitative social analysis in architecture could go a long way in putting these most expensive decisions on a sound scientific footing.