Why Scott Alexander is wrong about schools

Are schools 'child prisons' because they won't let kids microwave burritos whenever they want?

Scott Alexander has been in the newspapers recently - specifically, the New York Times. Alexander (a pseudonym) was the author of Slate Star Codex, a popular blog that I used to dip into and that I have recently learnt was part of a some ‘rationalist movement’ about which I know little. Last year, the New York Times decided to write an article on Alexander and told him that as part of it, they would disclose his real name for lols. Alexander, a practising psychiatrist at the time, concerned about how the publicity may affect his work, complained about this doxing threat and closed down his blog and the New York Times then sat on the story. Now, Alexander has re-emerged on Substack under his real name and the New York Times have finally published their piece which turns out to be something of a hatchet-job, weakly attempting to link Alexander to the alt-right and everything that’s considered bad in their weird universe (you can read Alexander’s rebuttal here).

Given that I quite liked Slate Star Codex, I decided to give Astral Codex Ten, Alexander’s new Substack newsletter, a go. The first article I read was on Vitamin D and COVID-19. I don’t know much about Vitamin D and COVID-19 and I found Alexander’s take to be intelligent and measured. There’s an interesting discussion where he compares two randomised controlled trials, a small one that shows a huge impact of giving Vitamin D to COVID-19 hospital patients and a much larger one from Brazil that found no effect. Alexander is minded to dismiss the Spanish study due to its small size and large effect, but admits he has few grounds to do so. Reading this discussion, you feel in the presence of Someone Who Knows What They Are On About.

And so it was with this lingering impression that I read Alexander’s review of a new book, The Cult of Smart, by Fredrik deBoer. Firstly, it is worth pointing out that I agree with the majority of what Alexander writes. I have not read The Cult of Smart but according to Alexander, deBoer makes the well-worn argument that educational outcomes are pretty much determined by genetics and all attempts to improve school education through education research or innovation are a waste of time. Instead, we should accept the situation as it is and mitigate it somehow. Unusually for the genre, in deBoer’s case this mitigation seems to involve luxury communism.

The idea of genes determining educational outcomes was tossed around in the education blogosphere in 2017 and I addressed it as ‘genetic fatalism’ at that time. Unimpressed, I noted that, “The fact that variation in outcomes is predicted more by genes than schools can be explained if schools tend to have a relatively uniform effect.” Such an observation implies the need for more innovation and research (although I do agree that most education research is useless). And those of us familiar with the field know that within the data there are outliers that seem to be able to have an extraordinary effect that is lost when we look at education systems as a whole.

Alexander makes similar points and casts aside deBoer’s main thesis.

As part of this thesis, deBoer finds it necessary to throw shade on the achievements of charter schools. If they have a positive effect relative to regular public schools then that evidence refutes his it’s-all-genetics argument. I have recently written about charter schools for Quillette and I will be the first to admit that the evidence is messy and complicated, as much real-world evidence tends to be. You cannot do randomised controlled trials, but you can get close. For instance, many charter schools are oversubscribed (which alone should tell us something) and so operate admissions on a lottery basis. If the effect of charters is all down to the kids that attend them having savvy parents who are particularly interested in their child’s education then children of parents who opt for a charter and win the lottery should fare the same as those who opt for a charter and lose. That does not seem to be the case, at least with ‘no excuses’ charters.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of pretty average charters that are little different to regular public schools. And as I wrote in Quillette, I am still not satisfied with the more successful charters because I think most of them continue to ignore the evidence on the importance of teaching domain knowledge in favour of overemphasising reified skills such as reading comprehension. But that’s a rant for another day.

In his response to deBoer’s comments on charters, Alexander gets mad and starts writing in capital letters. He really dislikes deBoer’s argument, partly for similar reasons to mine - he thinks charters may have an effect - but also for a more visceral reason. Alexander thinks regular schools are ‘child prisons’ and charter schools, such as Montessori charters, along with homeschooling, represent the only ways out for parents who may feel the way he feels. Schools are institutions (bad) because they fail ‘the burrito test’ - “if a place won't let you microwave a burrito without asking permission, it's an institution”. And schools force kids, “to spend their childhood - a happy time! a time of natural curiosity and exploration and wonder - sitting in un-air-conditioned blocky buildings, cramped into identical desks, listening to someone drone on about the difference between alliteration and assonance.”

This is pure nineteenth century educational progressivism. I wonder if Alexander has heard of Herbert Spencer or John Dewey and how that all worked out? He has heard of a superintendent who, in 1929, decided to not teach maths to students until the sixth grade. That all worked out fine, apparently. Does Alexander couch this unusual finding in his trademark scepticism and measured evaluation of experimental data? Oddly, no.

One of the reasons Alexander so dislikes schools is because of the problem of bullying. Some of this is related to the kids Alexander meets as part of his work as a psychiatrist.

“I sometimes sit in on child psychiatrists' case conferences, and I want to scream at them… I have heard stories of kids bullied to the point where it would be unfair not to call it torture, and the child prisons respond according to Procedures which look very good on paper and hit all the right We-Are-Taking-This-Seriously buzzwords but somehow never result in the kids not being tortured every day, and if the kids' parents were to stop bringing them to child prison every day to get tortured anew the cops would haul those parents to jail, and sometimes the only solution is the parents to switch them to the charter schools.”

There is a lot to unpack here. Firstly, Alexander is selecting on the dependent variable. His sample of school students in not representative of the population at large. Ask a bunch of kids in psychiatrist’s case conferences about their experiences of school and you are likely to get a pretty skewed picture (albeit one that may resonate with the personal experiences of bookish bloggers).

However, the main issue is a fundamental contradiction between Alexander’s ‘burrito test’ and the call to be more effective at managing bullying. If you give kids lots of freedom, what do you think they will do with it?

Many charters have concluded that the answer to issues like bullying is to be much tighter and more explicit in the rules they set. Some charters even require students to walk from one classroom to another in silence. As I wrote in Quillette, “If you are sipping a soy latte in a prosperous exurb and you read that a charter school has instituted a policy where students are expected to walk through the corridors silently, it is almost a reflex to adopt the mantle of Rousseau and bemoan the need to control students or seek their compliance with petty rules. Yet, if you have ever worked in a challenging school you will know just how unsafe corridors can be. If not literal warzones, they can bear a striking resemblance.”

That’s why parents of bullied children want to send their kids to charters. It’s not so that they may microwave burritos but in order to keep them safe.

Anyone who has ever thought about education for about five minutes has concluded that schools need to adapt more to children’s natural curiosity and let them explore and wonder about the world because then, hey presto, they will learn stuff! However, This plan just does not work very well. A small subset of children with outlier working memory capacities who happen to be interested in just the right things will learn what they need regardless. For the rest, they need a lot more structure and guidance. Learning academic subjects appears to be fundamentally different to learning to play, hunt, navigate your local area or speak your mother tongue. This may be because academic subjects are based upon the technology of writing which is a pretty recent invention and probably too recent to have affected human evolution a great deal. Faced with a combinatorial explosion of informational elements and no evolved blueprint for putting them together, kids tend to need a lot of support.

Nevertheless, I still find myself ultimately agreeing with Alexander. DeBoer would apparently impose a monolithic system on all children, safe in the knowledge that it was worthless. Alexander wants options. I can work with that. After all, I may be wrong about all of this and so who am I to impose my solutions on Alexander’s potential future kids? If in his judgement, they need to frolic in the meadows or go to a funky boutique charter where they can microwave burritos or flip pancakes without permission then why should he not have the right to choose? And why shouldn’t all parents, not just those with means, have the ability to choose too?

“‘You can go out this morning, my dears, with Mr. Spencer,’ said the governess to her pupils, after listening with pursed-up lips to one of the philosopher’s breakfast tirades against discipline… the philosopher found himself presently in a neighbouring beech wood pinned down in a leaf-filled hollow by little demons, all legs, arms, grins and dancing dark eyes, whilst the elder and more discreet tormentors pelted him with decaying beech leaves.” Beatrice Webb discussing Herbert Spencer in her autobiography.