Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count by Richard Nisbett

3. Getting Smarter

  • Richard finds that research supports the notion that school makes people smarter. Since more people now attend school for more years, people are smarter than they use to be. This holds for people in both the higher and lower ends of the spectrum. Most of the gap between lower and higher SES children is due to the greater summer slump for lower SES kids. As for holding kids out of school, a year of school is worth twice as much as a year of age. Schools have pushed learning to read sooner, have kids memorize less, and have dumbed down textbooks for older children.

4. Improving the Schools

  • Richard looks at a number of factors that could be controlled. 1) Money: There is no evidence that more money creates better performance as many countries who outperform the US spend less per student. This doesn’t mean, however, that money never matters. 2) Vouchers & Charters: There doesn’t seem to be much benefit here on the average. The problem with reporting deals with the fact that kids who take advantage of either are self-selected by their parents. Some charter schools appear to be better while others do not. 3) Class Size: Most studies find a positive effect of smaller classes and the better journals are more likely to say so. Effects of smaller class sizes are bigger for poor and minority children. 4) Teachers Matter: Experience matters but only to a point. The message is to avoid rookies. (Note that Finland requires a full year of student teaching.) Certainly some teachers are better than others. Principals who do the best job of hiring and supporting teachers create the best schools. Anything we can do to improve teachers will pay dividends. 5) Effective Schools: They are characterized by principals that hire good teachers and who encourage poor ones to leave. They monitor student performance data and offer enriched curricula like good private schools. In short, good schools have good leadership.
  • Education Research Issues: Richard sees this as a scandal as very little of it rises to the level of being scientifically acceptable. It’s rare to find a randomized study with a control group, which is the gold standard. The are some interesting specifics here. As for instructional techniques, Richard finds that computerized integrated learning systems (ILS) are generally effective. Cooperative learning has also be found to be effective. The level of difficulty has to be just right and linked to other problems the student has seen. Foster curiosity, connect problems to the real-world, and never dumb down the content.
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