« Fairness | Main | Guilty Pleasure »

April 02, 2012

Setting Students Up for Failure

Rick Sander, on evidence that affirmative action sets students up for academic failure:

Some of the most significant recent work on affirmative action concerns a phenomenon called “science mismatch”. The idea behind science mismatch is very intuitive: if you are a high school senior interested in becoming, for example, a chemist, you may seriously harm your chances of success by attending a school where most of the other would-be chemists have stronger academic preparation than you do. Professors will tend to pitch their class at the median student, not you; and if you struggle or fall behind in the first semester of inorganic chemistry, you will be in even worse shape in the second semester, and in very serious trouble when you hit organic chemistry. You are likely to get bad grades and to either transfer out of chemistry or fail to graduate altogether.

This idea was first advanced by Dartmouth psychologist Rogers Elliott (and coauthors) in 1996, and using data from several Ivy League schools, he demonstrated that, indeed, attrition rates from the sciences were highly associated with comparatively lower academic preparation, which in turn was highly associated with receiving an admissions preference. His data suggested that a given student was far more likely to achieve a science degree if she attended a school where her pre-college credentials were close to the median science student.

Virginia psychologists Frederick Smyth and John McArdle provided an even stronger demonstration of these points in a 2004 article. Making use of the same data Bowen & Bok used in Shape of the River, they were able to compare similar students who were interested in “STEM” fields (an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math), and who attended schools with either similar peers, somewhat more prepared peers, or much more prepared peers. Smyth and McArdle found strong evidence of science mismatch. Among their key conclusions: had all the black and Hispanic students in their sample enrolled at schools where their credentials were close to the class-wide averages, then 45% more of the women minorities, and 35% more of the men minorities, would have completed STEM degrees.

Duke economists Peter Arcidiacono, Esteban Aucejo, and Ken Spenner last year completed a study that looked at a number of ways that differences in admissions standards at Duke affected academic outcomes. In one of many useful analyses they did, they found that 54% of black men at Duke who, as freshmen, had been interested in STEM fields or economics, had switched out of those fields before graduation; the comparative rate for white men was 8%. Importantly, they found that “these cross-race differences in switching patterns can be fully explained by differences in academic background.” In other words, preferences – not race – was the culprit.

In research conducted by FTC economist Marc Luppino and me, using data from the University of California, we have found important peer effects and mismatch effects that affect students of all races; our results show that one’s chances of completing a science degree fall sharply, at a given level of academic preparation, as one attends more and more elite schools within the UC system. At Berkeley, there is a seven-fold difference in STEM degree completion between students with high and low pre-college credentials.

What astonishes me is that there's not more discussion of the other major unintended consequence: the dumbing down of post secondary coursework to accommodate un- or underprepared students.

I saw this every day as a math tutor when I went back to school as an adult. Teachers struggled with unrealistic mandates from the administration to keep their D/W/F rates below a one size fits all rate that didn't take the difficulty of the coursework or student preparedness into account.

Most often, students were in trouble because they weren't putting in enough time but a significant number of them also had huge gaps in their basic skills that were almost impossible to overcome quickly enough for them to keep up with the new material. I advised more than one of my students to drop back and take (or re-take) introductory math courses until they had mastered - not merely scraped by on - the basics. What some of these students really needed was to go back to high school level math and get that down.

The real culprit here is the idea that students aren't succeeding because we haven't made it easy enough for them.

Some disciplines are more challenging than others. Some require a narrow set of aptitudes that aren't evenly distributed among the general population. STEM subjects in particular require a significant time investment. There is no way to bypass these requirements, and well intended social engineering policies that fill students with false confidence in their ability or skills aren't much good when it comes time to take a final exam that demands mastery of the subject matter.

Students aren't withdrawing or failing because they lack confidence. They're withdrawing or failing because they haven't mastered the course material.

But there's a more serious problem: if teachers pitch their classes at the median student and the median is lowered by the presence of underprepared students, then more challenging coursework will be watered down or eliminated entirely. This sounds incredibly obvious - and I'm sure most people understand it on an intuitive level - but for some reason it's not kosher to say that this is an unacceptable cost of the diversity crusade.

In a global economy American countries must compete with countries that make academic achievement - not diversity - their top priority. Diversity does nothing to help students solve difficult engineering problems or differential equations. It is no substitute for hard work or careful preparation.

I've often wondered why more schools don't have qualification exams for particularly tough majors or classes - something similar to the A level exams in the U.K. I think that would go a long way towards reinforcing better preparation for STEM subjects, but on the other hand there's evidence that even rigorous exams can be dumbed down.

Posted by Cassandra at April 2, 2012 09:23 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


...if teachers pitch their classes at the median student and the median is lowered by the presence of underprepared students, then more challenging coursework will be watered down or eliminated entirely.

And this cheats (cheats, I say) the students who are prepared, do work hard even/especially when less talented, are heavily talented out of the teaching and learning, both, to which they're entitled by dint of having paid for it.

Maybe we should start insisting on their affirmative action rights.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at April 2, 2012 07:20 PM

1. What do you know?
2. How hard can you work,and do you care?
3. How is your brain wired, and how well?

I attended a small private engineering / science college. My observation is that success could be best determined by number 3, then 2 and then 1.

I had had better physics, math, and computer classes (1973 high school basic programming!) than many, which helped the first semester. The advantage was gone after one semester. Some students simply had exceptional brains that were tuned to the tasks. Some had to work very hard, and did, including retaking classes to improve their average (this was allowed, & the old grade disappeared).

In the end, the brain may be best for some careers after college, while the work ethic learned, as it was necessary, is more important for other job descriptions.

I only know of one student, whom I knew later in life, who simply said that she should never have been let into a graduate program she enrolled in, as she did not have the background for the material, and could not catch up.

In work life, I had a class where work groups would be composed of similar brained and different brained people. Or combinations. Wow.
Who are you guys?

BTW, we used to beat the crap out of Dartmouth at hockey. Good times.

Posted by: tomg51 at April 3, 2012 08:55 AM

I've always said that one reason why I'm glad both my kids got engineering degrees is that they learned that it doesn't matter if the engineering group that built a bridge included black lesbians or not or that the steel was produced in an ecologically sound way - if the wrong design is used or the wrong steel is used the damn thing is going to fall down.

Posted by: RonF at April 4, 2012 03:05 PM