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Nature versus Nurture.
October 13, 2002 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Nature versus Nurture. A London teenager who had a bit of history and had been excluded from school was placed in public school by a television programme. He appears to have excelled, though how he is top of a class of 15 year olds at Latin is beyond me, unless he was a surreptitious Latin reader throughout his early childhood. I think there may be some ethical issues around this, but it does suggest that thousands of children are being systematically failed by the education system. Long live Rousseau. As it were.
posted by Fat Buddha (41 comments total)

 
For Americans, replace "public school" with "private academy".

I don't think there's any doubt that the bureaucratic procedures involved in mass education leave much to be desired for certain individuals -- I speak from personal experience, including two generations of my family and myself. Whether that means that those square pegs will fare better outside of round holes, with proper assistance, is harder to tell. It's also very difficult to predict how many second chances to give and when determined intervention will turn around a student otherwise lost.

I don't think this necessarily proves anything but that with enormous expenditure we can do it for a lot more people. The trouble is, who's going to pay for it?
posted by dhartung at 10:45 AM on October 13, 2002


'Instead of criticising the existence of private schools, people should be working out how we bring all schools up to the standards of the very best'

They have to work this out? The solution can be find a bit futher down in the article:

Class sizes are 16 pupils rather than more than 30,

But it costs money. Lots of it. I thought this was common knowledge.
posted by ginz at 10:53 AM on October 13, 2002


I'll reserve proper judgement till I see the programme, but it sounds like he was 'in with a bad lot' at his old school. Peer pressure's a mighty thing and if your peers are into getting good marks and playing sport, then that's bound to rub off.
posted by Summer at 10:55 AM on October 13, 2002


The article makes no specific mention of the "Latin" being studied
(classical period or Latin American), but it's obvious like the teenager's former instructors couldn't have been bothered with a pupil who was not only a minority, but may also have been hyperactive.
posted by Smart Dalek at 10:59 AM on October 13, 2002


The thing that turns inner city youth to crime is not race. It is poverty.
posted by the fire you left me at 11:02 AM on October 13, 2002


You mean failed opportunity, fire. I've grown up with kids from low income projects who flourished in school and have become very active in community projects. If an environment of futility is fostered and maintained, more people will find glamor in crime, as it becomes the only visible means of existence.
posted by Smart Dalek at 11:10 AM on October 13, 2002


Smart Dalek: As a former teacher in a poor school district (husband is still there), there isn't a hell of a lot I can do for a child who needs intense, individual attention to jumpstart his or her mind when I have 44 other kids in the same room, all essentially telling me in codified behavior that they get minimal to zero intellectual input in all aspects of their lives.
I have seen 'loser' and 'hyperactive' (not to deny the existence of hyperactivity, but to illustrate how quickly misdiagnosis can happen) kids move to a better district, or a private school, and within a matter of months, become students who simply pour out effort, and soak in input. One of my former students remarked to me (when I saw her at the mall) that she didn't know that there was *so much*- so much everything. It was painful for me, because I know there is 'so much', and as a teacher I tried to tell her, but I could not fight the overpopulation, the pressures to conform, the disregard for educational process, and all of that. I don't, at this point, need to be told that I didn't bother or care. You really, really have no idea how much I did.
posted by oflinkey at 11:11 AM on October 13, 2002


Kids tend to do better in schools that have top teachers and have small class sizes. This is true at both public and private levels. This can be accomplished with a lot of money, or sometimes, not so much money (for instance, public schools with good reputations attract better teachers without paying more).

In other news, the Guardian reports that the sun rises in the East and that gravity holds us down in a stunning indictment against nature.
posted by Kevs at 11:12 AM on October 13, 2002


To clarify, as oflinkey noted, there are a lot of great teachers in the poorer school districts, and certainly a feeling of unimportance attached by families to the educational process is one of the reasons for failure. But, again, it certainly says nothing about the all-around failure of schooling in general.
posted by Kevs at 11:14 AM on October 13, 2002


This can be accomplished with a lot of money, or sometimes, not so much money (for instance, public schools with good reputations attract better teachers without paying more).

It isn't the salaries that make education expensive. If people want better education for children, they should start paying more tax.
posted by ginz at 11:20 AM on October 13, 2002


To make myself more clear: small classes are expensive, because you need more personnel. And more buildings, classrooms, extra heating ect.
posted by ginz at 11:31 AM on October 13, 2002


Smart Dalek, it's great that you know one or two kids who were able to beat the odds, but the fact remains that impoverished children are more likely to do poorly in school, commit crime, get pregnant, become addicted to drugs, etc., etc.

This is a far cry from revoking personal responsibility altogether, but it's amazing how much more personally responsible someone becomes when their situation improves a bit.
posted by botono9 at 11:35 AM on October 13, 2002


It's worth noting here, too, that the Hawthorne Effect may be a factor -- it's basically the sociological version of the Heisenberg Principle: measuring something affects it.

With people, the fact that they're cared about enough to be a test subject can improve their morale enough to skew the results.
posted by baylink at 11:36 AM on October 13, 2002


Whatever this anectdotal account tells us, it does not add anything to the argument about Nature versus Nature. The student might have been very bright and not doing well till in a place that allowed for growth; he might have been average and blossomed because he became part of a system containing many with similar abilities.

To keep active I recently took on teaching a course at a local community college. My students, mostly, poor and from inner cities, have as biggest problemlack of discipline. I can teach them what they need to know. I can introduce themto materials they may not have studied. But I can not get them to show up with their work, can not get them to do makeup work. Can not get them to come to come to class regularly.

I had previously taught at 4 year school and did not have this discipline problem. My best student in the community college is younger than all the others (16) and has been home schooled till now.
posted by Postroad at 11:38 AM on October 13, 2002


It is very true that, this account hardly provides us with empirical evidence, but it is interesting nonetheless. The kid didn't become bright and interested all of a sudden, he always had that potential. While I agree that if the general culture of an oversized classroom is one of apathy and ennui, it will be difficult to motivate anyone. It is a bit distressing though that there seems to be a general view that if a child finds himself in these circumstances there is no hope.
The kid in the article will have had many teachers in his life and given the problems he seems to have caused will have come into contact with other education and welfare professionals. Yet, none of them spotted his potential, and everyone seemed happy for him to live his life out on the streets. I would not suggest for a minute that every disaffected kid from a poorer background is a potential genius, but society does appear to give up on too many kids far too easily. It does not take money, although it would be a great help.
I wonder if that kid would have done better in state school if someone had taken an interest earlier and encouraged what is clearly a very bright and inquisitive mind.
posted by Fat Buddha at 11:57 AM on October 13, 2002


Ginz hit the nail on the head. You only have to look at levels of entry to top universities, Oxford/Cambridge in particular, to see that public schools are better at pushing kids of any background to success. Molding, shaping, priming them for the future. The frightening self confidence and single-mindedness that public schools instill is what creates the divide, and more money for teachers and resources and a lower student/teacher ratio that gives students more attention is what allows it; state schools often hold back able students from achieving their full potential, public schools allow students with less potential to walk all over them in university interviews.

The system isn't fair, that's why people object. I find it disturbing that the programme-makers are claiming this reflects well on public schools, although it seems fairly likely that the good publicity was part of the deal the school negotiated. To me, the programme shows what we all know already - state schools simply cannot match up to public schools. Allowing public schools tax breaks and government subsidies funded by tax in a climate like this is sickening, and providing government funding for bright students to attend public schools through scholarships even more so - in particular since it's not the brightest students that need to be pushed hardest. Surely that's an argument for leveling the playing field and letting the Etonian brats trade on their wits rather than daddy's bank balance.
posted by zygoticmynci at 12:05 PM on October 13, 2002


It isn't the salaries that make education expensive. If people want better education for children, they should start paying more tax.

While money is one variable, it certainly is not the only one. In the US, for instance, at $10K - $12K per year per pupil, New York has one of the highest rates of expenditure on schools in the country. While the private Catholic schools in NY spend (if I remember right) less than half of that, however, their test scores for reading, math, and other basics are consistantly higher than those of public schools.
posted by MidasMulligan at 12:29 PM on October 13, 2002


I go to a community school postroad and I see the same thing, students with no ambition.

In my county anyone that graduates from high school with a gpa of 2.0 or higher is eligible for a full tuition grant at the community college for two years. At Cleveland State U a transfer student(from a school such as my community college) with a gpa of 3.5 or higher is eligible for a full tuition scholarship. Anyone in my area that is willing to work can have a free education. And, if a person is poor enough they more than likely will get a pell grant that will cover the tuition(at a community college) plus extra.

I recieved a pell grant for more than my tuition and got back a check for $1,000. I'm not even that poor. Paying more taxes is not solving much when your tax money goes to someone like me to buy things I dont need.
posted by Recockulous at 12:50 PM on October 13, 2002


Yet, none of them spotted his potential, and everyone seemed happy for him to live his life out on the streets. (snip) It does not take money, although it would be a great help.

Mmm, clearly not a teacher speaking here.
3 years ago I had 11 different classes of 28 to 32 pupils each. I saw them twice a week (50 minutes) I had another 6 lessons for 'remedial teaching' . Spotting the children who need more/extra/whatever attention is very easy. Finding the time to give them that is almost impossible.
Luckily I work for a different (state/community) school now, with smaller classes.
posted by ginz at 1:11 PM on October 13, 2002


MM: "While the private Catholic schools in NY spend (if I remember right) less than half of that, however, their test scores for reading, math, and other basics are consistantly higher than those of public schools.

Got any links for that?
posted by dash_slot- at 1:16 PM on October 13, 2002


The very best, most creative teachers can just get beaten down by the stifling bureaucracy and crippling workload attached to teaching at a public school. I'm watching it happen to two of my friends who are both committed public servants, gifted teachers, and sharp as tacks. You can't stick thirty-five kids in a classroom and expect either kids or teachers to be as happy or productive as they are in a class half that size. You can't give rich schools more money than poor schools and then throw your hands up in the air when things don't seem to be working out equally. Jonathan Kozol is a very smart man, and he's been writing about this stuff for years. It's not the kids, and it's not the teachers. It's the system.
posted by onlyconnect at 2:26 PM on October 13, 2002


Surely that's an argument for leveling the playing field and letting the Etonian brats trade on their wits rather than daddy's bank balance.

I don't know. A few kids getting an "unfairly" great education isn't optimal, but it's better than everyone getting crap. Playing fields should be leveled to match the highest points, otherwise you are taking opportunity away from someone, and who are you to do that?
posted by Nothing at 2:55 PM on October 13, 2002


anyone can be educated if you spend enough money on it.

If you havn't noticed yet, we do not have an infinite supply of money.
posted by delmoi at 3:02 PM on October 13, 2002


I enjoy a social experiment as much as the next guy but I'm not sure a sample set of 1 is large enough to drawn any conclusions.
posted by Bonzai at 3:10 PM on October 13, 2002


"They ask, "Can you really solve this kind of problem with money? Is money really the answer?" I always think it's an amazing question. As though it's bizarre to suggest that money would be the solution to poverty. . . . But that's what I always hear. They say, "Can you really solve this kind of problem by throwing money at it?" [They] love that word throwing. They never speak of throwing money at the Pentagon. We allocate money for the Pentagon. We throw money at anything that has to do with human pain."

and

"Typically, they say, "Well, our daughter, Susan, went to our local school and she was bitterly short-changed academically. It did her real harm." And, I say, "What harm did it do her? Is she on welfare now?" "No," they say, "but she's having the devil of a time at Sarah Lawrence." We've got to distinguish between injustice and inconvenience. Before we deal with an affluent child's existential angst, let's deal with the kid in Chicago who has not had a permanent teacher for the past five years."
posted by onlyconnect at 3:21 PM on October 13, 2002


Allowing public schools tax breaks and government subsidies funded by tax in a climate like this is sickening, and providing government funding for bright students to attend public schools through scholarships even more so - in particular since it's not the brightest students that need to be pushed hardest

I'm not sure I agree. Not all bright students go to private schools. More so, I feel that it is the bright students that the public school system is failing, in terms of maximizing potential. Something like 96% of a public school's resources are allocated to funding underperforming students, with with something like less than 2% going to 'bright' students, see The Bell Curve (the statistics are somewhere in there). Bright students do not nearly get pushed hard enough, and I'm all for sending them anywhere where their potential will even start to be tapped.
posted by cohappy at 4:09 PM on October 13, 2002


Let's get 'public' and 'private' straight, shall we? I propose the terms 'private' for schools that charge a significant fee for admission, and 'state' for the no-fee government schools. Both are subsidised by tax and (at least in Australia, probably elsewhere) private schools get a greater per-pupil share of tax funding than state schools do.

Don't assume that all private schools are good places to be, and all state-run schools suck. The private schooling tradition is only a few generations away from the hell-holes of Billy Bunter and Tom Brown. The single-sex private school system, where boys are concerned, is one of relentless, endless, pervasive and universal bullying. For every confident, bright-eyed little 'captain of industry' a private school turns out (and examine the conduct of wealthy lawyers and business executives to see the practical ethics instilled in these folk by their education), it shovels out hundreds of borderline neurotics, conditioned almost beyond hope to obey 'authority'. Don't assume they only have 'good teachers', either. Many private schools are havens for broken-down hacks who can't cope with teenagers without a rigid and terrifying system of discipline backing them up. And as soon as anything goes bad, they hush it up rather than dealing with it honestly, because they have their finances to think about.

Perhaps this school takes a better approach, perhaps it nurtures its pupils rather than squashing their spirits. To find out, I'd be wanting to interview past students, rather than tracking one very high-profile student whose progress at least one media outlet is very interested in.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:51 PM on October 13, 2002


See we have problems Huston:

a) we need a teacher that is succesful at teaching
b) we need money to pay teachers and infrastructure
c) we need good pupils that want to learn more


Good teachers you find by handpicking them like precious fruits. Remember that teacher that not only you, but the whole class hated ? (not just considered boring). He/She just can't teach, or must find another teaching style. Otherwise no matter how much money, he/she will fail miserably. Go listen to your kid's teacher lessons, more the one time, at least two.

Money ? Not a problem, money is readily avaiable. From State, from Private Corporations , who cares as long as it comes at a reasonable cost. Which means, I'll not trade off more money for less education or less skilled teacher, no sir. I'll look for other costcutting or fundraising.

Good pupils ? Teach your children that curiosity is good, that every question needs more the one answer, one right and one wrong maybe, teach them to find out which is right and which is wrong. It's your duty of parent, you can't quit it. Stop feeding the freedom bulls*it to me, you decided to have a kid, be responsible or stop having kids.
posted by elpapacito at 6:53 PM on October 13, 2002


Great post, Fat Buddha. It preempts one I'd been thinking of making, so I'll add the link here as a contribution to the discussion. Wonder how this kid would do with the kind of opportunity the London one got?
posted by languagehat at 7:40 PM on October 13, 2002


An interesting experiment, though if everyone went to an elite school it wouldn't be an elite school anymore.
posted by HTuttle at 8:35 PM on October 13, 2002


elpapacito: Couldn't agree more. I would have given a limb to come in to school and show some semblance of interest.... and I have plenty of teacher friends in the 'burbs, where the PTSA exists (we only hear rumors about it in the urban districts), and it is the same story there. Can't get parents to give a rat's ass about their kids.
I've been told over and over again that "_____ is YOUR job" (insert here anything from teaching a child to read in the 12th grade, to making sure that Little Jimmy's religious agenda is reinforced in the classroom, to managing any number of medical conditions), then at some later date being told that I cannot say/read/discuss a particular subject, or even insist that a student do library work outside of the classroom or have supplies at all times because "that is NOT my job".
Incidentally, my husband's smallest class this year is 34 Largest? 49.
posted by oflinkey at 8:55 PM on October 13, 2002


A class of 49? Sheesh, and I thought the British education system was bad.

I think what this story shows is that kids are very easily influenced. They look around and all the adults they know are unemployed or have boring, low-paid jobs. They don't see any hope of getting a better job themselves. They get no back-up from their parents. They think, "why bother?". Meanwhile all their friends are thinking the same, and the behaviour is reinforced by peer-pressure.

You could well argue that these pupils never have a chance, even though it's not like anybody is holding them back. The system is literally grinding them down. This kid was troublemaker, and expelled. How much of it you think was his own fault is probably what defines your whole political outlook.

I don't know what can be done to break out of this spiral of dispair. Ideally, no class would have more than 30 pupils, and there would be no shortage of basic facilities like books, but we know that people aren't willing to pay the extra taxes that entails.
posted by salmacis at 1:10 AM on October 14, 2002


I've gotta agree with the nurture > nature thing. My shitty secondary school is the reason I wanted to escape the state education system as soon as possible and quit school at 16. I would have liked to go to private school as I was an academic who didn't really get on with the social order of state education.

Doesn't matter now though, you don't need a degree to survive in this world anyway. Perhaps I'm just a little glad I didn't become an academic sheep.
posted by wackybrit at 4:36 AM on October 14, 2002


What this thread seems to be lacking is the idea that "inner city" and "poverty" are synonymous in western culture, but if you look over your shoulder, the East, (most notably Korea, Japan and Taiwan) has enormous school class sizes, an incredibly dense inner-city population and a uncountable horde of students who study their asses off to survive and compete, and they do it well.

And unbelievably, they do it without killing each other, making their living spaces virtual pig-sties, covered in grafitti and excrement, or whining that they weren't "nurtured" enough. What a crock!

"All he needed was a chance" is a bloated lie. If you want to learn, you learn. And you succeed. And you don't need patronising, bilious, racist, communist, collective claptrap like: "we put little black Amhed in a boarding school, and now he's a success-freak" nonsense. Western society provides the most and the widest-ranging opportunities in the entire world.

And you thought "Shrubya" was an "Idiotic Chimp"!
posted by hama7 at 5:22 AM on October 14, 2002


I don't know. A few kids getting an "unfairly" great education isn't optimal, but it's better than everyone getting crap. Playing fields should be leveled to match the highest points, otherwise you are taking opportunity away from someone, and who are you to do that?

Perhaps I should've let the red mist fade first. I agree, the point I was trying to make was more that private schools too often divert resources from state schools, i.e. by their presence they un-level the playing field. I'm not saying there are any easy answers though.

Bright students do not nearly get pushed hard enough, and I'm all for sending them anywhere where their potential will even start to be tapped.

Of course, but also by diverting bright students from mainstream state schools you damage the atmosphere in which other less able students learn. There's a lot to be said for placing bright students in an environment where they can influence others - otherwise you attach a stigma to state schools, for instance the old grammar school system in the UK. I wouldn't argue for a second it always works, but compounding the situation by sending bright students to study with other bright students is a mistake.
posted by zygoticmynci at 8:03 AM on October 14, 2002


let the red mist fade first

Matt should put this prominently on the "guidelines for posting" page.
posted by languagehat at 8:22 AM on October 14, 2002


It's not the teachers, it's not the students, it's not the budgets, it's not the buildings. It is the PARENTS.

Schools where a critical mass of students have parents who are committed to education and constructively active in their children's education, from birth onward, will have generally positive results. Schools lacking that critical mass almost certainly will not.

Children who lack such parents but attend schools which have the critical mass have the chance to free ride, if their own reserves of ambition and intelligent are sufficient, and more power to them for doing so.

Any solution which does not have the effect of concentrating the children of committed parents and diluting those of uncommitted parents is doomed to fail.
posted by MattD at 8:28 AM on October 14, 2002


kinda reminds me of finding forrester :) "you're the man now dog!"

HBO recently showed a documentary about rural poverty btw :) the parts about the superintendent's quest to get his school district off academic probation were excellent!

"These kids deserve better," he says, noting that the district suffers from a dearth of qualified teachers, low- paying jobs, and children who frequently skip school, often in order to help out with work at home. The result is an inferior school system that won't attract industries looking to relocate.
posted by kliuless at 9:00 AM on October 14, 2002


DS ... "MM: Got any links for that?"

This study is a recent one. (And it controls for a number of variables - e.g., it compares the direct spending on students, ignoring things like the large costs the public system incurs for its huge administration functions).

More interesting is the wide variance amongst states.
posted by MidasMulligan at 9:05 AM on October 14, 2002


"We get kids in kindergarten who don't know their names;

A line from the HBO site. That's pretty sad.
posted by Recockulous at 4:14 PM on October 14, 2002


Here's another slightly different American perspective by Ken Hamblin, entitled: "Don't feed the blacks"
posted by hama7 at 9:36 PM on October 14, 2002


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