Reply to Samuelson: It Is an Engineering Problem

In today’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson argues that the performance of U.S. public schools is at least adequate, and that the relatively low achievement of black and Hispanic students is to be attributed to history and culture rather than to our education system. These claims are not new, and I might well have ignored them if he hadn’t got my Irish up with the off-hand comment that “what we face is not an engineering problem.” (More on that in a second.)

First, let’s dispatch the claim that public schooling is off the hook for the poor performance of low-income minority children. I’m currently undertaking a statistical study of the performance of 78 separate charter school networks in California, relative to one another and to the state’s traditional public schools. To foreshadow the results, the performance differences within socioeconomic groups are enormous even after controlling for school-wide peer effects. Among low-income Hispanic students, across grades, schools and subjects, average scores at two of the top charter networks (American Indian Public Schools and Oakland Charter Academies) are roughly 4 standard deviations above the statewide traditional public school mean. Quatre. Quattro. FOUR.

To put that in perspective, effect sizes in social science research are normally evaluated based on Jacob Cohen’s rule of thumb that 0.2 standard deviations is “small”, 0.5 is “moderate”, and anything bigger than 0.8 is “large.” To put it further in perspective, the low-income Hispanic effect sizes of two of California’s most elite and academically selective public schools are closer to 2 S.D. So the top charter networks, which accept every student who applies, massively outperform elite public schools that actively select their students based on prior test scores. Consistently. Across grades and subjects. [Note that there’s also wide variation in performance among charter school networks, with many performing below the mean of traditional public schools. Further details when the paper is published in a few months].

So, no, public schooling is not off the hook. We know it is possible to dramatically raise the achievement of low-income minority students above the current public school level. The problem is that we lack a system for reliably replicating the good schools and crowding out the rest. And what kind of problem is that? Even Wikipedia knows the answer:

Engineering is the discipline, art and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge to design and build… systems… and processes that safely realize solutions to the needs of society.

Engineering is just a broad set of tools for finding practical solutions to complex problems. One of the most useful of those tools is an aversion to reinventing the wheel, so engineers always ask how the kind of problem they’re addressing has been approached previously, in other places, even in other fields. When possible, they adapt proven solutions to the problem at hand.

So let’s all be engineers for a day on January 28th and hear what education experts from Sweden and Chile have to say about how their nations have been encouraging the replication of good schools. You can register for this unique lunchtime event here.