Thursday, October 7, 2010

Perils of Convergence

(The following post originally appeared in Observational Epidemiology.)

This article ("Building the Better Teacher") in the New York Times Magazine is generating a lot of blog posts about education reform and talk of education reform always makes me deeply nervous. Part of the anxiety comes having spent a number of years behind the podium and having seen the disparity between the claims and the reality of previous reforms. The rest comes from being a statistician and knowing what things like convergence can do to data.

Convergent behavior violates the assumption of independent observations used in most simple analyses, but educational studies commonly, perhaps even routinely ignore the complex ways that social norming can cause the nesting of student performance data.

In other words, educational research is often based of the idea that teenagers do not respond to peer pressure.

Since most teenagers are looking for someone else to take the lead, social norming can be extremely sensitive to small changes in initial conditions, particularly in the make-up of the group. This makes it easy for administrators to play favorites -- when a disruptive or under-performing student is reassigned from a favored to an unfavored teacher, the student lowers the average of the second class and often resets the standards of normal behavior for his or her peers.

If we were to adopt the proposed Jack-Welch model (big financial incentitves at the top; pink slips at the bottom), an administrator could, just by moving three or four students, arrange for one teacher to be put in line for for achievement bonuses while another teacher of equal ability would be in danger of dismissal.

Worse yet, social norming can greatly magnify the bias caused by self-selection and self-selection biases are rampant in educational research. Any kind of application process automatically removes almost all of the students that either don't want to go to school or aren't interested in academic achievement or know that their parents won't care what they do.

If you can get a class consisting entirely of ambitious, engaged students with supportive parents, social norming is your best friend. These classes are almost (but not quite) idiot proof and teachers lucky enough to have these classes will see their metrics go through the roof (and their stress levels plummet -- those are fun classes to teach). If you can get an entire school filled with these students, the effect will be even stronger.

This effect is often stated in terms of the difference in performance between the charter schools and the schools the charter students were drawn from which adds another level of bias (not to mention insult to injury).

Ethically, this raises a number of tough questions about our obligations to all students (even the difficult and at-risk) and what kind of sacrifices we can reasonably ask most students to make for a few of their peers.

Statistically, though, the situation is remarkably clear: if this effect is present in a study and is not accounted for, the results are at best questionable and at worst meaningless.

(this is the first in a series of posts about education. Later this week, I'll take a look at the errors in the influential paper on Harlem's Promise Academy.)

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