"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Debunking Dawkins: Religion and Education

I’m baaaaaaack.  And this time my interest has been drawn to a set of statements by Richard Dawkins.  He argues that the best way to wage war against religion is to educate people.  Once they’re educated, they obviously won’t be religious.  He’s not alone in this, needless to say.  Click around the atheist blogosphere and you’ll see this claim made over and over again in various forms.  I’m not in this post commenting on the tone of such claims or what they say about those making them.  I’m here to address a straightforward question: is it actually true education in antithetical to religion?

In answering this question, I must first offer some caveats.  The scope of the question is huge, covering the entire world.  Most research won’t look at the entire world, but only at one country, or at certain groups within a country.  The definition of “education” is also broad and encompasses many levels.  Most research will only look at one or two levels of education.  How well the results extrapolate to all people everywhere is an open question, though I may address it later.  I’m not here to prove anything, as much as to respond to what Mr. Dawkins said.  If I can show that in some places, by some measures, Dawkins’ claim is false, I will consider that satisfactory.  I will try to stick to good, formal research.  I wll provide links to online copies when possible.

Research Surveys.  We look first at sources who have surveyed the literature and provided summaries from multiple studies.

Iannaccone, Laurence. Introduction to the Economics of Religion. Journal of Economic Literature, 1998.

In numerous analyses of cross-sectional survey data, rates of religious belief and religious activity tend not to decline with income, and most rates increase with education. … Over the past 40 years, scores of sociological studies have investigated the empirical relationship between income and/or education and numerous measures of religiosity—see, for example, Lenski (1963), Stark (1972), Wade Roof and William McKinney (1987), and Ross Stolzenberg, Mary Bair-Loy and Linda Waite (1995). Since the mid-1970s economists have weighed in, estimating models more sensitive to nuances of economic theory. Their basic results, however, mirror those of the sociologists: education is a weak but generally positive predictor of religious participation.

Regnerus, Mark. Religion and Positive Adolescent Outcomes: A Review of Research and Theory. Review of Religious Research Vol. 44, No. 4 (Jun., 2003), pp. 394-413

I review recent research published in academic journals concerning religious influences on several positive outcomes during adolescence: physical and emotional health, education, volunteering and political involvement, and family well-being. Though much less research exists on these outcomes when compared with risk behaviors such as drinking, drug use, and sexual activity, the high-quality studies that do exist point to modest positive influences of religious involvement. That is, more extensive religious involvement is generally associated with positive outcomes during adolescence.

C. Simon Fan, Religious participation and children’s education: A social capital approach. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 2006

There is substantial evidence showing that religion has a significant positive impact on children’s educational attainment and future earnings.  Also, sociologists’ extensive research indicates that youth raised in religious homes are less likely to engage in criminal activity, use drugs or alcohol, and so on.  Indeed, many religions emphasize hard work, honesty, seriousness, and responsibility, all of which are conducive to children’s acquisition of cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

Patrick F. Fagan, Ph.D., Religious Practice and Educational Attainment: A Research Synthesis.

The social sciences show religious practice has very beneficial effects on the educational attainment of children. It may well trump income in its effects on
educational outcomes. The direct positive effects of religious practice by the student include:
• Higher grade point averages,
• More time spent on homework, and
• A significant decrease in high school drop-out rates.
All these hold even more so for children from low-income neighborhoods. Religious practice benefits the poor more than it does those children who are relatively well-off, likely because religion is one of the very few wellfunctioning institutions the poor can readily access and rely upon.

Individual Studies.  These are reports from researchers investigating the question directly.

Lehrer, Evelyn. Religiosity as a Determinant of Educational Attainment: The Case of Conservative Protestant Women in the United States. Review of Economics of the Household, Springer, vol. 2(2), pages 203-219.

This paper examines the role of religiosity as a determinant of the educational attainment of women raised as conservative Protestants in the United States. A human capital model based on the demand and supply of funds for investments in education is used to develop hypotheses about various causal links between religiosity and years of schooling. The hypotheses are tested using data from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth, a large-scale survey addressed to a representative sample of women in the United States. Among respondents raised as conservative Protestants, those who attended religious services frequently during their adolescent years are found to complete one more year of schooling than their counterparts who were less observant. The gap is smaller, but still sizeable and statistically significant, when other factors are held constant in a multivariate analysis.

Lehrer, Evelyn. Religion and High School Graduation: A Comparative Analysis of Patterns for White and Black Young Women. Papers on Economics of Religion 06/04, Department of Economic Theory and Economic History of the University of Granada.

Table 4 shows that the probability of high-school graduation is 0.93 for a typical mainline-Protestant respondent (with average characteristics for other variables); the estimates for Mormons (0.91) and Catholics (0.93) are in the same range. In contrast, the probabilities are only 0.86 and 0.84, respectively, for conservative Protestants and the unaffiliated, respectively. … The estimates for white youth show that for the three affiliations considered, members of the high participation group are significantly more likely to complete high school than their counterparts in the low participation group, consistent with the hypothesis that religious involvement has a beneficial effect on high-school graduation. The gap between the high and low participation groups is 10 percentage points for conservative Protestants, 8 percentage points for Catholics, and 6 percentage points for mainline Protestants. It is noteworthy that a favorable effect of religious participation is observed for conservative Protestants. … In the black sample, patterns of high school graduation by high versus low religious participation can only be studied for the conservative Protestant group, and a similar result is found here: a gap of 7 percentage points. As noted above, the corresponding gap in the white sample is 10 percentage points.

Bruce Sacerdote and Edward Glaeser, Education and Religion. NBER Working Paper No. 8080 Issued in January 2001

In the United States, religious attendance rises sharply with education across individuals.

Chandra Muller and Christopher G. Ellison, Religious involvement, social capital, and adolescents’ academic progress: Evidence from the national education longitudinal study of 1988. Sociological Focus, 2001, vol. 34, p. 111

Using the second and third waves of NELS, this study examines three questions concerning the links between religious involvement, social capital, and academic achievement of public school students: First, what are the relationships between adolescents’ religious involvement and their access to social capital within families (parental expectations and parent-child interaction) and communities (intergenerational closure and peers’ academic values) Second, is adolescent religious involvement associated with academic progress, including self-concept (locus of control), attitudes (educational expectations), effort (time spent on homework and truancy), opportunities and demands (advanced mathematics course work), and rewards (high school graduation) Third, to what extent are the positive relationships between religious involvement and academic progress due to enhanced access to social capital We find that adolescents’ religious involvement at grade 10 is consistently and positively associated with various forms of social capital and with each of the adolescent outcomes. Those estimated effects of religious involvement on academic progress are explained largely by family and community social capital. However, religious involvement remains modestly but significantly linked with desirable outcomes even controlling on the effects of social capital.

So thus far we’ve seen eight sources testifying to a positive relationship between religion and education.  There’s more to come when I have the chance to post it, but I think it’s already clear that things aren’t looking good for the Dawkins hypothesis.

More on NCLB

Following up the not-so-dramatic revelation that the No Child Left Behind Act is failing drastically, I decided to post some more facts about the state of public education in America.  Unfortunately, I cannot do so, because of another failure of the same piece of legislation.  NCLB, you’ll recall, was supposed to make information about education readily available.  By any standard, I think it’s safe to say it hasn’t done so.

For example, let me take the public high school nearest to me: Rappahannock County High School, in Rapphannock County Virgina.  With a simple search, I can find the school’s website.  The front page of the site gives me fascinating information about the calendar, school lunch prices, and office hours, but no visible information about the school’s academic performance.  I look to the list of tabs on the left, and I click the one labeled “Academics”, but that only leads me to the transcript request form.  Nothing wrong with a transcript request form, but I don’t see any information about academics there.  I click the most promising of the other tabs, but none of them give me any information about the school’s performance on standardized testing or anything other solid, factual measure of how the school performs.  It’s safe to say that most public schools in this country follow the same pattern.  They are not eager to give parents direct information about how well they’re doing their jobs.

Searching a little bit farther afield, I find the site greatschools.com, run by a private nonprofit group, which has a page for Rappahanncok County High School.  They do have some actual data, all coming from the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, the testing regimen that Virginia created to meet the mandates of NCLB.  They do tell the percentage of students that pass each test each year.  But that’s it.  Parents cannot, as far as I can tell, get any information more specific than that.

Obviously there’s a great deal more that a parent would probably want to know about their school beyond merely whether their child is likely to pass a certain test.  Parents might want to know the distribution of actual scores that students got on that test.  They might want to know how many students go on to college, and which colleges they go to.  Parents might want to know which areas the school is most successful in, what the pass/fail rates are in every class rather than just overall, and how experienced the teachers are in various areas.  Parents might want to know a great many other things.  This information may, for all I know, be available somewhere, but it should be readily available to anyone who looks.  It should be gathered in one place and presented clearly.  A section on the school’s website would certain suffice.

So why isn’t it.  Well, the answer isn’t too difficult to figure out.  Nobody associated with the public schools–teachers, administrators, unions, or politicians–wants this information to be readily available.  Too much of the information reflects negatively on those exact groups of people.  If word got out about how bad America’s public schools are, the public might actually demand serious change.  That’s why they do their best to hide the information.

How to turn failing schools into succeeding schools

I’ve been blogging for over a year and I’ve written 162 posts, and yet I’ve written little about a subject of great interest to me, which happens to be my chosen profession: education.  I am a teacher, and as such a follower of trends in education.  My attention was grabbed by a recent newspaper headline with the self-explanatory headline: Half of U.S. Schools Fail Federal Standards.

Let me give you a brief history.  For decades we’ve known that America’s public school system is failing, with test scores and other measures for our public school students lagging behind private school students, behind previous generations, and behind students from other countries.  In 2001 Congress and then-President Bush finally did something in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act.  The idea was that every state would have to implement a strict testing regimen for its public schools, by which it would measure whether each school was ‘failing’ or not.  For schools that were failing, there would be consequences.  Of course, as with most federal legislation, a lot was left blurry and ambiguous.  States had a lot of leeway in how to create their tests, how to evaluate schools, and how to respond once any school was found to be failing.

The result, 10 years later, is summarized in the headline above.  Almost half of schools are failing.  That means half of schools will face consequences, right?  No more passive acceptance of mediocrity, no more pretending not to notice, no more leaving any child behind?

Actually not.   As the article explains, our Education Secretary Arne Duncan has a response.  The failures are “an alarming trend that Duncan hopes to address by granting states relief from the federal law.”  Yes, that’s right, if half our schools are failing, we should just change the law that was instituted to prevent them from failing.  But it gets better:

The numbers indicate what federal officials have been saying for more than a year — that the law, which is four years overdue for a rewrite, is “too crude a measure” to accurately depict what’s happening in schools, said Jack Jennings , president of the Washington, D.C.-based center. An overhaul of the law has become mired in the partisan atmosphere in Congress, with lawmakers disagreeing over how to fix it.

“No Child Left Behind is defective,” Jennings told The Associated Press. “It needs to be changed. If Congress can’t do it, then the administration is right to move ahead with waivers.”

So now our “federal officials” are telling us that the federal government’s own law is a bad thing.  Really?  It’s too bad they couldn’t have figured that perhaps ten years ago, before the federal government passed the law that they’re now badmouthing.  It’s too bad that even while everyone from teachers to parents to local governments was well aware of NCLB’s many large failings, the federal government wasn’t willing to listen until a year ago.  But I guess that’s just too much to ask from the federal government.

Day 26: A book that changed your opinion about something

Near the end of my second year of graduate school, Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy converted me to Christianity.  I was naturally eager to read more Chesterton.  What’s Wrong with the World was among the next Chesterton books that I read.  (It’s also, incidentally, the first book that I read entirely online.)  Of all the books I’ve ever read, this one has the clearest and most self-explanatory title.  It is, indeed, about what is wrong with the world.

Fundamentally there are two fields in human experience: the individual field and the social field.  Many great observers of humanity have one well-known book in each field.  Augustine covered the individual field in the Confessions and the social field in The City of God.  Aristotle had the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.  Chesterton covered individual issues in OrthodoxyWhat’s Wrong with the World covers social issues.

Bluntly what’s wrong with the world is that people these days care about institutions rather than humans.  Capitalists have decided that we must have big businesses.  They judge all policies, programs, and ideas by whether or not those things benefit big business.  Socialists care about big government, and likewise judge all things by their relation to big government.  Neither side puts human beings first.  In the century since Chesterton wrote these books, both sides have fiddled with the details but the underlying message that we must have either big business or big government remains the same, and still drives almost all punditry and political campaigns.

A right and reasonable approach would put human beings first.  It would begin with ordinary, individual human beings.  It would have a strong awareness of their wants and needs, the characteristics, their strengths, and their weaknesses.  It would then build a set of philosophical, political, and economic thought based on what is good for humanity.  It would not try to change humanity to meet the needs of any dogma, but would instead craft the dogma around the needs of the humans.  This book explains how we might do that.  As always, the best introduction is a sample:

A book of modern social inquiry has a shape that is somewhat sharply defined. It begins as a rule with an analysis, with statistics, tables of population, decrease of crime among Congregationalists, growth of hysteria among policemen, and similar ascertained facts; it ends with a chapter that is generally called “The Remedy.” It is almost wholly due to this careful, solid, and scientific method that “The Remedy” is never found. For this scheme of medical question and answer is a blunder; the first great blunder of sociology.  It is always called stating the disease before we find the cure.  But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease .

The fallacy is one of the fifty fallacies that come from the modern madness for biological or bodily metaphors. It is convenient to speak of the Social Organism, just as it is convenient to speak of the British Lion. But Britain is no more an organism than Britain is a lion. The moment we begin to give a nation the unity and simplicity of an animal, we begin to think wildly.  Because every man is a biped, fifty men are not a centipede.  This has produced, for instance, the gaping absurdity of perpetually talking about “young nations” and “dying nations,” as if a nation had a fixed and physical span of life.  Thus people will say that Spain has entered a final senility; they might as well say that Spain is losing all her teeth.  Or people will say that Canada should soon produce a literature; which is like saying that Canada must soon grow a new moustache.  Nations consist of people; the first generation may be decrepit, or the ten thousandth may be vigorous.  Similar applications of the fallacy are made by those who see in the increasing size of national possessions, a simple increase in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.  These people, indeed, even fall short in subtlety of the parallel of a human body. They do not even ask whether an empire is growing taller in its youth, or only growing fatter in its old age.  But of all the instances of error arising from this physical fancy, the worst is that we have before us: the habit of exhaustively describing a social sickness, and then propounding a social drug.

Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason. Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs.  The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.

But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say “I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan,” or “Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism.” Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal.  The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health No one says “I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache,” or “The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles,” or “Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism.” But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease. Mr. Belloc once said that he would no more part with the idea of property than with his teeth; yet to Mr. Bernard Shaw property is not a tooth, but a toothache.  Lord Milner has sincerely attempted to introduce German efficiency; and many of us would as soon welcome German measles.  Dr. Saleeby would honestly like to have Eugenics; but I would rather have rheumatics.

This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes cut.  We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing.  We should not by any means all admit that an active aristocracy would be a good thing. We all feel angry with an irreligious priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one.  Everyone is indignant if our army is weak, including the people who would be even more indignant if it were strong.  The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case.  We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health.  On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health . Public abuses are so prominent and pestilent that they sweep all generous people into a sort of fictitious unanimity.  We forget that, while we agree about the abuses of things, we should differ very much about the uses of them.  Mr. Cadbury and I would agree about the bad public house.  It would be precisely in front of the good public-house that our painful personal fracas would occur.

I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal.  We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity?  I have called this book “What Is Wrong with the World?” and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated.  What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.

Chesterton on the Khan Academy

I’ve been slacking off a bit on posting Chesterton excerpts over the past couple weeks.  Fear not, however.  Now the man comes back with a roar to comment on the Khan Academy,  ‘flipped classrooms’, and other recent trends in education.

The trouble in too many of our modern schools is that the State, being controlled so specially by the few, allows cranks and experiments to go straight to the schoolroom when they have never passed through the Parliament, the public house, the private house, the church, or the marketplace. Obviously, it ought to be the oldest things that are taught to the youngest people; the assured and experienced truths that are put first to the baby. But in a school today the baby has to submit to a system that is younger than himself. The flopping infant of four actually has more experience, and has weathered the world longer, than the dogma to which he is made to submit. Many a school boasts of having the last ideas in education, when it has not even the first idea; for the first idea is that even innocence, divine as it is, may learn something from experience. But this, as I say, is all due to the mere fact that we are managed by a little oligarchy; my system presupposes that men who govern themselves will govern their children. To-day we all use Popular Education as meaning education of the people. I wish I could use it as meaning education by the people.

– G. K. Chesterton, What is Wrong with the World

Algebra is a Dish Best Served Cold

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of posts about kids learning math and science from the Khan Academy.  Now I’m sure that to many people, including myself, this brings to mind images of Ricardo Montalban dressed in rags at a starship control panel saying, “From the heart of trigonometry, I stab at thee!”  It’s actually something quite different, though.  It’s about Salman Khan, an entrepreneur from California who’s going to single-handedly revolutionize our failing education system.  Now you may be skeptical.  You may point out that at any given time in the past forty years, there have been a dozen revolutions going on in our education system, and yet somehow the results have just gotten worse and worse.  You may even think that the surplus of revolutions is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  If so, I say unto you, this time is different.  Khan actually has the ability to teach our kids something.  Specifically, he can teach them how to distinguish between actual facts and hype.

Just consider these snippets from the article in the Washington Post which I linked to above: “be more creative”, “an optimal experience for students and teachers”, “hailed as revolutionary”, “a useful tool to individualize learning”, “has caught on like wildfire”, “a world-class education for everyone”, “have struck a chord among students and educators”, “world-changing ideas”, “a grass-roots, bottom-up thing”, “taking ownership of our learning”, “it opens doors to new resources and learning techniques”, and the list goes on.  All of that is pure hype.  Nowhere in the article is there any scrap of solid evidence that the Khan Academy helps kids to learn more.

But obviously we should not be satisfied with just one article explaining the concept of empty corporate hype.  Fortunately Khan and his movement are spinning off numerous examples.  For example, over here we have a list of the many advantages of the “flipped model”, which is where students watch video lectures at home and do ‘homework’ in class.  Among them:

  • Establishes dialogue and idea exchange between students, educators, and subject matter experts regardless of locations.
  • The content becomes more easily accessed and controlled by the learner.
  • Prepares students for a future as global citizens. Allows them to meet students and teachers from around the world to experience their culture, language, ideas, and shared experiences.
  • Allows students with multiple learning styles and abilities to learn at their own pace and through traditional models.

Now if that isn’t hogwash, I don’t know what is.  A video “establishes dialogue”?  You can talk to a video screen all you want, but it won’t hear you.  The content is “controlled by the learner”?  True enough, and I imagine most learners will start by not watching the video.  Watching videos constitutes “experiencing the culture”?  I can’t even come up with a witty response to that one.  Video lets students “learn at their own pace”?  Don’t we want all students learning at a fast pace, regardless of whether or not its their own?

I could bash the concept more broadly, but I’ll focus on the second point.  Those wise people who write the Washington Post and other leading venues apparently think that it’s wonderfully new for students to have access to school material at home.  In fact, we already have a way for students to access material at home: it’s called a textbook.  It’s worked just fine for tens of millions, but the problem is that kids these days don’t read textbooks because they don’t care about the material.  If they don’t read textbooks, what makes anyone think that they’ll watch videos.  Has it ever occurred to anyone that there’s no way teachers can force the students to watch videos any more than we can force them to read textbooks?  Is this not obvious?

So I once again stand atop the train of events and try to make the “experts” stop and think for a minute, presumably to no avail as always.  But if we do have to have science fiction villains teaching our children mathematics, then may I suggest:


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