August 7, 2022

John Thompson: Raj Chetty’s New Study

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John Thompson looks at work from big data guru Raj Chetty.

A new study, “Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility,” led by Big Data specialist Raj Chetty used data on 21 billion Facebook friendships to study social capital. Chetty et. al found, “The share of high-SES [Socio-economic] friends among individuals with low SES—which we term economic connectedness—is among the strongest predictors of upward income mobility identified to date.”
This is important because social capital has long been a key to better education and lifelong outcomes. But, the study found that “Measuring social capital has proven to be more challenging than measuring other forms of capital, such as financial or human capital.” Chetty also found, “We find that the degree to which people with low and high SES are friends with each other (which we term economic connectedness (EC)) is strongly associated with upward income mobility, whereas other forms of social capital are not.”
It should be emphasized that such a finding doesn’t need to blame people with low SES; the connections are what works. Presumably, future analyses will reveal more insights about other forms of social connections. By the way, they note that “previous data-samples on social networks were too small to be broken down by schools.”A decade ago, however, Chetty announced that his study using of 2-1/2 million data points which supposedly showed the opposite – that teacher effectiveness, measured by test scores, provides methods for improving education outcomes and other lifetime effects. This rushed research significantly contributed to the dubious shortcut of using test score growth, measured by inappropriate algorithms to fire teachers, in the hope it “would raise lifetime income, increase high school graduation rates, prevent teen pregnancies, and have lifelong effects on students.”

Even before the study was peer-reviewed and even though many of their data samples were misused, it was used to attack teachers unions.  A co-author, John Friedman, concluded “If you leave a low value-added teacher in your school for 10 years, rather than replacing him with an average teacher, you are hypothetically talking about $2.5 million in lost income.” So, their message was “to fire people sooner rather than later.”

On one hand, the latest study is a continuation Chetty moving away from simplistic, quick fixes inside the classroom without paying attention to realities inside schools and problems with the education data he used. Since then, two of his projects emphasized interconnected, holistic social factors, even though his spin could be simplistic

His research in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) documented the health disparities of poor people across America. The New York Times reported that in some parts of America, “adults with the lowest incomes die on average as young as people in much poorer nations like Rwanda, and their life spans are getting shorter.” Chetty told the Times, “You don’t want to just think about why things are going badly for the poor in America. You want to think specifically about why they’re going poorly in Tulsa and Detroit.” If he thought about that finding, however, surely he would have seen how the importance of these different factors that students bring to school undermines his assumptions about the effects of teachers.

Another study documented disparities for poor children of color growing up in different communities, while making a simplistic recommendation. Since poor kids who grow up in Oklahoma County can expect to earn $1,470 less than the U.S. average for poor children, Chetty suggested they should “move to opportunity.” One such place would be Canadian County, OK, where poor kids have better economic prospects than children in 83 percent of the nation’s counties, and they can expect to earn $3,130 more than average. (I doubt Chetty has ever visited that exurban county to check whether that mass movement would be possible.)

I have long wondered what could have happened if corporate school reformers and their Big Data researchers had not tried to “deputize” teachers as the agents for breaking the cycle of generational poverty, and punish those who didn’t raise test scores. What would have happened had they listened to social and cognitive scientists, and collaborated with educators, instead of claiming that it was poor “teacher quality” that failed to overcome the lack of jobs, segregation, and other complex, interrelated factors?

As Chetty’s new research was published, the Washington Post published a commentary, “Six Things Kids Need in School in Today’s Politicized World,” by two teachers, Raechel Barone and Karen Engels.

Barone and Engels correctly cite the three things that students need the most, “love, trust, and belonging.” Perhaps Chetty’s deep dive into social capital could help educators devise better methods for promoting students’ “sense of agency and power.”

I would hope, however, that Chetty would listen to their observations that schools have been “singularly focused” on “academic proficiency, without sufficient attention to the prerequisite conditions that allow children and teachers to succeed.” The focus on “endless quantitative metrics,” “’teacher proof’ curriculum rollouts, computer programs,” and  “top-down decision-making — have landed us in a quagmire of stagnant student achievement and educator attrition.”

I also hope that the latest findings, also emphasizing connectedness, i.e. integration, prompt Chetty and corporate reformers to also rethink the way flawed data was used as the school choice weapon for attacking traditional public education. They should ask why they believed that segregation by school choice could have reversed the damage of racial, economic and social segregation.

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