Why We Need to Understand Nerds

The New York Times reports that students aren’t using the free tutoring offered by Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law:

City and state education officials and tutoring company executives disagree on the reasons for the low participation and cast blame on each other….

Officials give multiple reasons for the problems: that the program is allotted too little federal money, is poorly advertised to parents, has too much complicated paperwork for signing up, and that it has not fully penetrated the most difficult neighborhoods, where there are high concentrations of poor, failing students….

In addition, it is not entirely clear why so many students do not complete tutoring programs once they have enrolled. In New York City, 34,055 schoolchildren did not successfully complete the terms of their tutoring contracts last year after signing up. Most seemed to attend a few sessions and then never returned.

I’m sure there’s a lot of potential problems with this program, but I want to pick apart just that last sentence there. That’s the only sentence in the article that even makes any reference to how the kids are approaching this thing, though that seems like a crucial point to me.

Even if you can get the word out to all the parents about this program, and even if you make it easy for parents to sign up their kids, and even if you manage to get into the neighborhoods that are “most difficult,” you still have to get kids to go and to pay attention. And most kids resist this. Some really interesting education research has been done on “nerd harassment”—the very common social ostracism of the minority of kids who seem to use their free time to study. It’s not that getting good grades makes you a nerd, but that putting in any more time than the bare minimum calls into question whether you’re really dedicated to the popularity game that forms social hierarchies in high school.

There are ways around this. Not every culture defines its nerds by studiousness, and some schools have made studiousness the norm, and it has virtually eliminated nerd harassment (and maybe even “nerds” entirely). I’m not sure how such initiatives could be worked into public schools to make kids learn better; that’s not my area of expertise. I’m what people in my department call “a culture person,” so my job is to complain that people don’t pay enough attention to my area of expertise.

All kidding aside, though, I wish politicians would spend more time thinking about the cultural forces in a situation before throwing some money at it.

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Could the politicians actually make any cultural change? I don’t know… It seems that all politicians *can* do is throw money at stuff.

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(Sorry about the deleted post above, I had to remove incriminating details, names of deep-cover CIA agents, Death Star plans, typos, etc.)

I think cultural change from on high is quite possible (though of course it goes hand in hand with throwing lots and lots of money). Typical example for me is how the GI bill eventually bequeathed a baby boom and sprawling suburbia. Not the best change, perhaps, but change no doubt.

In general, it seems to me that the most fruitful area for govt influence on culture (in a democracy) is in the establishment of social welfare protections (like the GI bill, or universal health care) which encourage the growth of a large class of citizens accustomed to a comfortable standard of living. I’d say a robust educational system is one cog in such a system.

Just as a simple example I’ve heard bandied about, one could for example set up financial incentives for people who would otherwise work in industry to work as teachers, and moreover deliver bonuses for good teaching. It seems that if the military budget were reduced, one could, say, set up 80k starting salary, maybe rising to 120k with good teaching. More to the point, such a program could be focused on the difficult areas (paying more for harder and more dangerous work? shocking!) as a way to improve the quality there. Call it “No School Left Behind.”

Another example is described in a film I heard about on the radio (can’t remember the name just now). It was about a special school established by Americans but based in Africa, where they would take the biggest (but most promising) troublemakers in an inner-city school (in NYC iirc), and then in Africa they would be taught the same curriculum basically but outside of the corrosive environment they had lived in to that point. The kids, apparently, fluorished, and as far as I can tell felt fine about being “nerdy” by the end of it. Sadly, the school only lasted one year, but that doesn’t convince me that the matter is hopeless. Just that there is a lot of work to be done.

One thing is for sure. We won’t get very far with a government more interested in signs, slogans and acronyms than in actually designing (and funding!) effective and penetrating programs. Right now, the only cultural changes being encouraged by the federal government are divisiveness, ignorance, and deference to authority.

Josh said:
deliver bonuses for good teaching. It seems that if the military budget were reduced, one could, say, set up 80k starting salary, maybe rising to 120k with good teaching.

I am against all bonus systems I have ever heard about. I can think of three methods that can be used to determine who gets the bonus: (1) decision from supervisors, (2) students’ standardized test scores, or (3) evaluations from students. Each has drawbacks significant enough that I do not think they can be remedied: (1) encourages/causes cronyism while discouraging new teaching innovations; (2) rewards teachers in rich districts and in subjects that have standardized tests while penalizing those in less well-off districts; and (3) rewards teachers with lax standards – at the college/university level teachers who give higher grades and demand less work from the students have been shown to receive statistically higher student evaluation scores.

It may be possible to combine these three schemes into some fair method, but I haven’t heard any such suggestion. And if there’s another way entirely, I have yet to hear of it.

Jason:
I bet that if the teachers don’t get any students to their tutoring sessions, they get to go home early. Maybe if they were paid overtime depending upon how many students showed up… But again, that encourages faking a sign-in sheet.

We should just reinstitute corporal punishment. That would solve all our problems.

The teachers aren’t running the tutoring sections; the tutoring is all by private corporations, of course (remember who pushed for this legislation).

I agree that the bonus system is flawed, but I also agree that this money should go toward improving public education in the schools (including increasing teachers’ salaries) before it should go to private tutoring companies. I think that if actual education researchers were called in to overhaul the curricula wholesale and do something really different, we’d see improvement. Seriously, if these kids are getting “left behind” as it is, what do we have to lose by trying something that seems unconventional but has seen greater success in other research settings?

Regarding the flaws of the bonus system: The book “Freakonomics” talks about some study where they showed that in schools that used reward systems that *teachers* were much mroe likely to cheat by correcting the student’s papers before they were submitted for standardized grading.

I don’t know if anyone is following this thread anymore, but I just thought I’d put in that bonuses aside, I think the main new thing would be to detach school funding from property taxes, so that inner-city schools get reasonably funded and therefore (perhaps) recieve somewhat competitive teaching staff. Just as I decide to work comfortably in a research institution and accept a lower salary than I would receive as say a Google employee (where my work would more directly have positive effect, maybe), a teacher ought to be deciding between a lower salary at an cushier school to teach at (like Newton South) and a higher salary at a more difficult place. As it stands, the best high school teachers are naturally drawn to the richest neighborhoods. It’s a regressive cycle, because the quality of the schools will then draw property values (and property taxes) up, sharpening the incentives for teachers to come to the rich district, etc.

I think bonuses (if they are instituted at all) should be attached to the poorer districts exclusively, and judged not by any quantitative measure, but by some sort of quasi-judicial system, so that there is a hierarchy of judges with appeals available for those who feel like they have been unfairly denied a bonus (or those who feel as though a bonus has been unfairly granted). Complicated, sure, but the military has at least as many entrenched systems of promotion and so forth, so I say tough titty. It will be a good day when the schools get all the money they need, and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a tank…



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