Student Achievement

Study Finds Out-of-School Factors Less of a Hindrance

By Sean Cavanagh — October 01, 2004 3 min read

It is a question that affixes itself to countless debates in education: To what extent do poverty, instability at home, and other socioeconomic factors undermine the ability of students and schools to prosper academically?

Now, a new study attempts to quantify the advantages and disadvantages students face outside of school—defined as “teachability"—and to evaluate how successful states are in helping them learn, despite those hurdles.

“The Teachability Index: Can Disadvantaged Students Learn?,” is available online from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

“The Teachability Index: Can Disadvantaged Students Learn?,” released by the Manhattan Institute last week, concludes that students are somewhat easier to teach, given socioeconomic factors, than they were 30 years ago.

The report shows that “student disadvantages are not destiny,” its authors say. “Some schools do much better than others at educating students with low levels of teachability.”

Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the institute, who co-wrote the report with his colleague Greg Forster, said the findings point to a “false sense of nostalgia” that pervades discussions about schools, in which the public imagines a past with fewer out-of-school distractions, when students were easier to teach.

‘Teachability’ Index

The report bases its teachability index on 16 factors that affect students’ ability to learn, and tracks them from 1970 to 2001. Those factors include preschool enrollment, the proportion of non-English-speaking students, levels of parents’ education, family poverty, and health measures. It also includes race, the authors note, because research shows minority students face particular disadvantages, such as potential discrimination. The researchers relied on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education, and other existing sources.

The authors then ranked each state on what they determined to be the teachability of its students. North Dakota ranks at the top, followed by Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and South Dakota. The District of Columbia ranks lowest, with New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana also near the bottom.

The study then couples the teachability index with an analysis of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to establish a “school performance index,” or a ranking of how well states are teaching students, given socioeconomic disadvantages. Montana ranks first as gauged by that measure, followed by Colorado, Kansas, Texas, and North Carolina. The District of Columbia is rated at the bottom, with Hawaii, Mississippi, Alabama, and California also ranking low on the index.

Mr. Greene, who heads the Manhattan Institute’s Davie, Fla.-based education research office, said states with the strongest performance rankings tended to have strong systems of testing and accountability and allow for school choice, through charter schools and other options. In previous research, Mr. Greene has argued that school choice benefits disadvantaged students and raises performance among regular public schools that face new competition.

But Larry Mishel, the president of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, said he doubted the findings of the new study. He questioned the conclusion that student “teachability,” or the ability to learn given their circumstances, remained mostly stagnant during the 1970s and ’80s, then leaped upward during the 1990s. The Manhattan Institute attributes that trend partly to more favorable economic conditions, student academic readiness, and family environments.

“Does anyone really think that something changed dramatically during the 1990s?” said Mr. Mishel, whose organization studies economic policy and its effect on low- and middle-income workers. Teachability is “something that should be studied,” he added, “but I don’t think [they’ve] done the job.”

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