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Dr. Paul G. Wyckoff, Hamilton College - Predicting Student Performance


Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Paul Wyckoff of Hamilton College explains why holding teachers and students responsible for poor school performance is to ignore the single greatest factor that determines individual educational outcomes.

Paul G. Wyckoff is a professor of government and the director of the Public Policy Program at Hamilton College. An economist by training, Wyckoff's recent book Policy and Evidence in a Partisan Age: The Great Disconnect, focuses on the empirical foundations of public sector decision-making. Wyckoff also serves as executive editor of Insights, Hamilton's undergraduate social science journal.

About Dr. Wyckoff

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In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress asked for a study of racial inequities in schools. Sociologist James Coleman conducted a massive nationwide study, surveying 600,000 students , and stunned Washington by concluding that the chief factor affecting school outcomes was not class size or teacher salary or any other school-related factor, but rather the income and education of the student's parents. Americans believe in the equalizing power of education, but Coleman suggested that educational outcomes are largely predetermined. It was, to borrow Al Gore's phrase, an "inconvenient truth."

Each subsequent generation has tried to forget this troubling finding, but it keeps resurfacing in numerous empirical studies. For example, in 1987, researchers from the University of Illinois and the U.S. Department Education found that the effect of economic status on school performance was six times the size of the most powerful school-related variable. In 2001, a Harvard University economist found that family variables are 11 to 14 times as powerful as school variables and neighborhood effects combined.

Our current approach to educational policy focuses on holding students and teachers accountable for meeting specific, universal, test-based standards. But what if the most powerful elements for success aren't in the school? Then the situation is much like requiring all children, whether tall or short, to jump over a hurdle of the same fixed height. If a short child can't clear the hurdle, it's unfair to blame her or her coach for not trying hard enough, or for using the wrong coaching techniques. Nevertheless, our current approach continually blames inner-city students and their teachers for factors that are largely beyond their control. James Coleman died in 1995, but we still struggle to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth he uncovered.

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