You Can Deny the Truth of My Critique of Broader, Bolder Theory, But Why Can’t You At Least Spell My Name?

In an article for Education Next released a few days ago, I critiqued an education theory advanced by a group known as the Broader, Bolder Approach (BBA), a coalition of teacher union leaders and others, including Helen Ladd, a professor at Duke University, who co-chairs the group.  The coalition denies that schools are failing in their responsibilities to the next generation. Instead, they blame the achievement problem on income inequality, saying that family income has a “powerful” impact on student achievement.

Ladd elaborates the BBA theory in a lengthy paper in which she says school reforms—accountability, merit pay, school choice—are nefarious and harmful.  It would be much better, she says, to boost student performance by reducing the “incidence of poverty.”

In my critique of BBA theory, I show that much of the association between family income and achievement is a byproduct of other factors. Income’s causal impact is modest, smaller than the impacts of many reforms now under consideration.

In an ill-considered rebuttal, blogger Valerie Strauss denies that BBA disparages the value of school reform.  She even denies that either BBA or Ladd ever meant to say that income had much of an impact on achievement. She insists “Harvard’s Paul E. Petersen” has “mischaracterized” Ladd’s argument, “accusing her of saying things she didn’t say.”

“There’s no such thing as bad press, as long as they spell your name right,” said circus master P. T. Barnum. So I could have forgiven Strauss her error-prone post had she taken the trouble to figure out how I spell my name.  All Scandinavians may look alike, but Pedersen was the name given to my grandfather in Denmark, and Peterson was the name assigned to me when I was born and baptized, and it remains so on my American Express card to this day, but Petersen I was not, am not, nor will be, despite what Strauss says—not just once but five times within the space of three pages.

Since she can’t get my name right, she’s probably out of whack on other things as well. Let’s see.

Strauss denies that Ladd ever said that “the income of a child’s family determines his or her educational achievement.”  Instead, Ladd “speaks of income as one of many factors that characterize educational disadvantage.  [Ladd’s] entire argument is framed around the issue of economic and other types of disadvantage.”

Strauss even denies that BBA opposes the school reforms on the nation’s agenda.   The coalition, we are told, “doesn’t say schools and teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for how well they do their jobs.  In fact, its mission statement notes that school improvements should continue to be a priority though it doesn’t take sides on what those improvements should be.”

In fact, says Strauss, “there is not a particularly strong casual (SIC!) link between income and outcomes.”  Wow!  Read that sentence again!  If one corrects Strauss’s additional spelling error so it reads “causal,” not ”casual,” then Strauss summarizes  the very argument I am advancing, namely: THERE IS NOT A PARTICULARLY STRONG CAUSAL LINK BETWEEN INCOME AND OUTCOMES.

Does Ladd actually agree that “there is not a particularly strong causal link between income and outcomes?”  I wish that were true, but if that is indeed her belief she has done a fabulous job of hiding it.

Consider the following passage from Ladd’s essay: The “logical policy response [to low performance by students from low-income families] . . . would be to pursue policies to reduce the incidence of poverty….Many considerations…make a compelling case for the country to take strong steps to reduce income inequality.”

If the solution is to reduce income inequality, the cause must be the paucity of dollar bills in the hands of the poor.  There are not many other ways of interpreting the passage above.

Of course, Ladd is too trained a social scientist not to realize she skates on the slimmest of ice when she presses her poverty argument to the extent she has. She is well aware of the research literature that shows little evidence that family income has a large causal impact on student achievement. To protect herself, she refers to “correlation” even in contexts where she is making a strong case for a causal impact.

But that sleight- of-hand fools only those who either want to be deceived or who do not quite understand the meaning of   “correlation” (a relationship which may or may not be causal). Elsewhere, Ladd routinely slips into causal language.  Consider, for example, the passage in which Ladd characterizes school reformers as “deniers” of the “effects of poverty.” Here she makes it absolutely clear she is making causal claims, for if poverty has an effect that is being denied, then poverty must certainly be the cause of that effect.  Or consider the opening paragraph of the BBA mission statement, which claims to have identified “a powerful association between social and economic disadvantage and low student achievement.” How can an association be powerful unless it is causal?  Or consider Ladd’s accusation against school reformers that “denying the correlation is nefarious.”  It could hardly be nefarious if reformers were not ignoring an important cause!

Strauss further denies that BBA says “school choice or school accountability are ‘dangerous.’”  But Ladd, the group’s spokesperson, clearly said the following:  “Current policy initiatives are misguided because they . . . have contributed little—and are not likely to contribute much in the future—to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps…. Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm.”

As mothers well know, things that have the “potential to do serious harm” are dangerous, whatever Strauss might say.

Strauss tells us that BBA supports reform.  But Ladd says:  “Evaluations that place heavy weight on student test scores are likely to do more harm than good.”  “Governance changes [such as charters] do little . . . to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children.”  She denounces the “punitive test-based accountability that we now have in this country.”   Ladd concludes: Education reform policies “are not likely to contribute much in the future—to raising overall student achievement or to reducing [gaps in] achievement.”

It is true that BBA does not actually do much to advocate redistribution of income. It is more interested in growing jobs for public sector professionals. But Ladd makes it clear that she would prefer to reduce income inequality.  Alas, she says, it “is not in the cards, at least in the near term…unless the current protests in New York City and elsewhere…[put] income inequality back on the policy agenda.”

So Ladd and her union friends instead propose to fund a host of new social services as well as educational services outside the regular school day, such as summer school, pre-school, and after-school.  All that was done in the 1970s with Medicaid and Head Start and summer recreation programs and much more.  If those programs were the solution, why didn’t they lift the achievement of students from low income families?

A likely explanation is the stark increase in the number of single-parent households, a matter about which Ladd has nothing to say. Nor does Strauss like being reminded of that bitter fact.  “So it’s not apparently consequences of poverty, but the consequences of living with a single parent. Hmmm.”  How are we to translate that hum?  Does Strauss mean to say: “I know you are right, Peterson. If a child does not have two parents, that child is at risk—at risk of poverty and at risk of dropping out of school. But I don’t like your bringing up politically incorrect facts.”

In sum, Strauss denies that BBA and its ranking intellectual leader, Helen Ladd, oppose school reform and think poverty is the root cause of our current educational discontent. If she can deny that, she can deny most anything.

Still,  Strauss does an absolutely superb job of introducing the co-chair of the Broader Bolder coalition as “Helen Ladd, the Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics at Duke University who has spent years researching school accountability, education finance, teacher labor markets, and school choice.” Despite our disagreements, Ladd remains a good friend, so I do not begrudge any accolade which comes her way.  But if Strauss is inclined to introduce professors fulsomely, she might let her readers know that I am the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, who has spent years researching school governance, school choice, school accountability, and teacher effectiveness rather than referring to me as “Harvard’s Paul E. Petersen.”

But, then, in these days of online erasures, she could just deny she misspelled my name.

-Paul E. Peterson

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