Study provides more evidence against the bad school hypothesis

A new study was released in the last week by MIT and Duke researchers about the efficacy of exclusive, magnet schools. In the working paper, the researchers compared the achievements of students who narrowly qualified for magnet schools in New York and Boston against those who narrowly failed to qualify for the same schools. The researchers found that — with the exception of a couple of marginal cases — the magnet schools had little effect on student achievement.

The clever methodological approach of this paper finally provides an apples-to-apples comparison to evaluate the purported effects magnet schools have on learning. It is usually taken for granted that magnet schools are better schools, and then efforts are made to explain why that is the case. Those explanations typically revolve around claims that magnet schools seek out and attract better teachers, and that the schools benefit from the positive peer effects of more motivated and better students.

The underlying assumption of these discussions — that magnet schools are actually better — has never been properly demonstrated. This assumption of superiority has typically been based on crude comparisons between the average achievement of students at magnet schools and regular schools, comparisons that are basically useless. Obviously magnet schools will on average do better than regular schools; magnet schools intentionally select students who on average do better than other students. This study cuts through that useless comparisons of averages, and shows more than any other study I have seen that better students make magnet schools better, not the other way around.

By itself, this study does not appear that significant, but when you consider the battle raging about education policy, it actually has major significance. This study provides more support against the idea that bad and good schools are the primary drivers of educational failure and success. If even magnet schools are performing no better than the often-criticized New York City public schools, the bad school hypothesis becomes even more implausible.

Despite its increasing implausibility, it is the bad school hypothesis — and the derivative bad teacher hypothesis — that is the operating assumption of the entire education reform movement. By modifying the way schools are administered and who teaches in them, education reformers try to argue that we can close the educational achievement gap without ending the socioeconomic inequality that has generated it.

Although this aim is somewhat noble and plays into the trope of the intrepid teacher getting through to disadvantaged kids, if the hypothesis upon which it is based is false, the efforts are ultimately in vain. We hurt poor students by funneling them into gimmicky schools that try to ameliorate the educational problems inherent in poverty without actually getting rid of poverty.

In some ways I understand the urge to find a way to achieve educational egalitarianism without achieving economic egalitarianism. After all, doing so might finally get us to a point where we can reach that elusive American Dream stage in which wretched poverty is acceptable because no one has a disproportionate chance of being the one who winds up living in it. That does not strike me as a terribly noble goal, but it at least strikes me as one that fits with dominant American cultural norms.

However, as much as reformers might not want it to be the case, it appears to be true that the leftists were right all along: equality of opportunity is incompatible with massive inequality of wealth and income. Unfortunately (not really) we cannot pay a janitor poverty wages without also negatively affecting her child’s life chances.

The sooner we realize this and abandon the bad school hypothesis, the sooner we can begin to move attention back to the more serious critiques of social and economic structure that might actually yield real solutions.