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making the grade(s)

Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (NY Times review) takes on the absurdity of the grading process below.

For instance, a group of researchers at Clarion University of Pennsylvania collected 120 term papers and treated them with a degree of scrutiny you can be certain your own child’s work will never receive: each term paper was scored independently by eight faculty members. The resulting grades, on a scale from A to F, sometimes varied by two or more grades. On average they differed by nearly one grade. Read the rest of this entry »


Filed under: Cognition, Education

bad education: math edition

My primary and secondary school teachers are very lucky that Paul Lockhart didn’t write his Mathematician’s Lament when I was still in school. I can only imagine the hell I would have raised with his article in-hand. Lockhart is a mathematician at Saint Ann’s School, where he teaches K-12. Recently, a blistering critique of mathematics education he wrote in 2002 was re-published. I would say that much of his criticism could be applied to a varying degree to ALL classes, but math may indeed be the most egregious offender. (I really hope that in 100 years we look at our current educational system the way we look back at the practice of medicine from 100+ years ago.)  Below are my favorite passages; believe it or not, I tried to parse them, but there’s a lot there. I’d suggest reading the original, as the whole thing is good. For example, I have ommitted the part where Lockhart theorizes what art class would look like if taught like math, as well as the type of mathematicians the current system creates (Lockhart’s not a fan).

Lockhart believes mathematical ideas to be “beautiful little poems of thought … sonnets of pure reason.”

This is why it is so heartbreaking to see what is being done to mathematics in school. This rich and fascinating adventure of the imagination has been reduced to a sterile set of “facts” to be memorized and procedures to be followed. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Education

quigley’s critique of the clerks of history

I’ve already posted my summary of Carroll Quigley’s narrative of historical development here, and now I’ll move straight to the end, where Quigley concludes the Evolution of Civilizations with takeaways for students of the social sciences to better frame inquiries into the past and present. Quigley is disturbed by the inconsistencies and contradictions running rampant in historical study, which he attributes to students focusing on knowing every detail of their area of historical expertise, while failing to carefully consider a deliberate analytical framework from which to understand their historical area.

The eager student would be slower to make bold assertions about the past if he appreciated the complexity of the system he studied. Understanding civilization, and social phenomena more generally, is intrinsically very difficult, as human experience is not static but dynamic: it is a continuum:

“A continuum is a heterogeneous unity each point of which differs from all the surrounding points but differs from them by such subtle gradations in any one respect that no boundaries exist in the unity itself, and it can be divided into parts only by imaginary and arbitrary boundaries.”

We are left to cope with the past the same way we deal with the colors of the rainbow, drawing arbitrary lines between red, orange, and yellow. These artificial categories or labels are necessary for discussion, but we must realize they are arbitrary.

Quigley asks students to be ‘executives’ of history, rather than simply its clerks. The distinction is that the clerk concerns himself with knowing the details of history, while the executive is interested in understanding history. The executive’s understanding is only as good as his analysis, and to this end he uses deliberate techniques to provide a systematic understanding of historical development.

These techniques will not be perfect – a fact Karl Popper and Nassim Taleb would insist upon more forcefully than Quigley – but only through the deliberate choice of one technique or another will the student be aware of the potential blind spots of his understanding. That is to say, every understanding of historical development depends on assumptions, whether the student deliberately makes them or remains blissfully unaware.

It is a tremendous err, however, to not deliberately pick a set of assumptions from which to interpret. By unknowingly operating off whatever assumptions make sense at the time, the student ends up with a contradictory and inconsistent assumptions (and interpretation of history). What’s more, he never even understands the assumptions implicit in his own garbled understanding.

Quigley also takes issue with the how historical phenomena are compartmentalized into incomprehensible units, such as “nations” or “the middle class.” For the purpose of studying historical development, it is necessary to study distinct groups; a nation-state may have more than one distinct group, or may contain part of a distinct group that exists in another nation-state as well. Defining distinct groups is not easy, but it necessary for rational study.

Quigley also objects to the language of history. Historical terms should be selected to correspond to the process being studied and the technique being employed. Instead, historical development is explained in a language devoid of consistency or meaning, e.g., periods classified as “medieval” and “classical.” At best, terms are descriptive, at worst they are highly misleading. The exact lines drawn to classify different periods or peoples will always be somewhat arbitrary, but that doesn’t excuse sloppiness.

For another example, the time period between 400 and 1400 AD is referred to as the middle ages, medieval period, and the dark ages (for the beginning). The first term provides the student with the knowledge that this period is in the middle of two other periods. Medieval describes the period as “outdated,” which provides the student with the knowledge that this period is less up-to-date than more recent periods. The dark ages provides the student with a similar perception.

None of these terms convey how the events within this period figure in the process of historical development. If anything, they suggest that historical development stopped for 1,000 years. Quigley breaks down the same time period into four parts – mixture, gestation, expansion, and conflict. Quigley deliberately chooses a set of consistent and relevant labels for historical phases that correspond with the process of historical development and the on-the-ground reality; therefore, his technique is better able to explain supposed exceptions to the dark ages or medieval period, such as the Carolingian Renaissance. This periodization is more than a small nuisance: it has led to a high degree of specialization limited within these arbitrary designations. Now the most fruitful studies are likely to come from those who study the gaps and borders of these false categories.

In sum, Quigley joins Arnold Toynbee in arguing for the importance of analytical technique in historical and social analysis. A systematic technique not only provides a more coherent historical narrative, but also provides the self-awareness needed to understand one’s own potential blind spots. Toynbee properly identified these problems in his studies, but failed to provide proper definitions for his own terms and indeed fell prey to the same sloppiness he condemned.

It would be silly to argue that Quigley’s technique of understanding the rise and fall of civilizations is perfect, but with the ubiquitous disclaimer to handle all post-hoc narratives with care, he offers a superior history, an insightful critique of popular history, and a sound reminder for students of history to carefully choose a technique – even if it’s not Quigley’s.

Filed under: Education

skills to pay the bills – the college years

We’ve covered the importance of education, and the problems with our current public school education policy. Next up is the university level.

To begin, our universities truly are the envy of the world. That said, we aren’t perfect. There are a few low-cost options: community colleges, online degree programs, and technical schools. But these alternatives are generally considered to be “second class” education with a very firm ceiling that rules out many well-paying careers.

In response, progressives have fixated on making it possible for every high school graduate to go full-time to a four-year college.

On one level this makes sense, even marginal college students can expect at least a 7% wage premium per year of college. This is because the bachelor’s degree has achieved a majestical stature for students and for employers, signaling (at the least) a basic capacity to be trained (and eventually perform) in a high-value, well-paying profession.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a degree acting as a signaling device; we depend on just such signals for societal trust and exchange.

The problem is that the bachelor’s degree is a very expensive signal, and there is reason to believe a very wasteful signal. And while it’s not a societal problem if rich people want to spend their money on extravagant signalling, it is a societal problem when our anti-poverty program depends on subsidizing the poor’s purchasing of this overpriced signal.

(This is what $60,000 apparently buys you! Apparently, they didn’t budget for a decent sense of humor.)

In theory, this problem should resolve itself as firms exploit this opportunity by hiring and training smart high school graduates themselves for less than they would pay the college grads. That is indeed what has happened in India: at least one software company is thriving by hiring young professionals whom others disregard. They don’t look at colleges, degrees or grades, because not everyone in India is able to go to a top-ranked engineering school, but many are smart. The firm goes to poor high schools, and hires kids who are bright but are not going to college due to pressure to start making money right away. They train them, and in nine months, they produce at the level of college grads.

This is not occuring in the US, primarily because of a coordination problem.

Good future workers know they need to go to college to signal their ability to firms and firms know that they have a much higher chance of finding good future workers in the college group. Furthermore, employers are much less likely to have their competence called into question if a hire with a degree doesn’t work out than if they hire a worker without a degree (because of the correct perception of the low likelihood of that hire being a wise choise).

The question is how to credibly signal to good future workers that a four-year college degree isn’t necessary to be considered as a candidate and to convince firms that there are enough good future workers without a four-year college degree to make it a wise investment to include them in their employee search.

The challenge is to develop viable alternatives to the bachelor’s degree that don’t confer a ‘second-class’ status. I’d like to see the proliferation of shorter, no-frills academic programs that focus on teaching professional skills and testing relevant capacity (take a lesson from master’s programs). In addition, I do believe that CPA-like exams for different professions (or areas of competency) will allow for a more fair and open competition.

There can be great value-added by a four-year liberal arts program, just as there can be value-added by a PHD or masters program; the problem is that the bachelors degree hasn’t become an option for those so inclined, but a requirement for a well-paying job – and an expensive requirement at that.

It would be wonderful if we could afford to send every child to a four-year sleepaway camp, where they could sleepwalk through four years of classes (if they so chose) and receive a magic ticket to a well-paying job — but that isn’t the case.

There is a lot of fat to be cut and changes in educational philosophy to be made. Perhaps rethinking the well-manicured campuses and live lectures, for instance. The academic lecture, by the way, has its roots in the medieval training of theologians in a time when one-book-a-course for four years of schooling would cost about $1.6M in book outlays. Back then, it made economic sense to have a lecturer (from latin lector – reader) read from a single book aloud to a hall filled with students. Yet despite the fact that nowadays students could read the contents of a lecture in an instant at virtually no marginal cost, or even watch a video of the lecture — the lecture remains at the foundation of university teaching.

Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. This is as true of history professors and business executives as of chefs and welders.

The challenge is to make both our advanced schooling and our advanced signaling more efficient and thereby, more accessible. A proper long-term strategy is not to subsidize students’ purchasing a $160,000 education, but to support the establishment of alternative means, be it CPA testing or shorter, low-cost advanced degree programs for students to prove their merit to potential employers.

Filed under: Education

no skills to pay the bills, pt. 1

I’m sure if you asked Barack Obama or John McCain directly about the importance of schools, they’d give you a rousing sermon (or at least a few firm talking points). Yet education reform has been notably absent from our political debate. The candidates love riling up voters’ economic nationalism, whether it’s talk of foreign oil, foreign cars, China (everyone’s favorite boogeyman), outsourcing, globalization, immigrants, or any other buzzword that places blame for American worker woes far from the doorstep of the American government and people.

Yet it’s not globalization or immigration or computers that have widen inequality and slowed wage growth for many Americans. It’s the skills gap.

And while there are plenty of expensive plans to alleviate American poverty to varying degrees, tax-and-redistribution will never provide the economic opportunity and security that we wish for all Americans.

Education should be the primary program to cure our social ills as the key to sustainable high compensation. It is both the key to advancing the welfare of the American poor, and also the means of securing America’s economic growth.

This post will focus on primary/secondary education, with a post to follow on college education. Some of the prettier lines from this post I’ve lifted either from my summaries (linked below) or the original articles (also linked below), but I’ve spent a bit more time for the sake of flow and coherency to reformulate these ideas.

First, let’s recount why education is more important than ever.

The labor market has expanded dramatically in the past 50 years — undoubtedly for the better of Americans and all mankind. That said, unskilled Americans have had a much, much, much smaller share of the bounty than their fellow citizens.

The problem is that employing unskilled American labor isn’t much more profitable than buying a simple machine or employing unskilled labor in a third-world country, yet many unskilled Americans will only accept wages that are much higher than a third-world laborer will accept or a machine will cost.

The value of unskilled labor is low. This sounds like a truism, but it wasn’t always the case. Before the machines took over the world and the cost of doing business far from market plummeted, an unskilled laborer simply giving you a few hours time could get a decent wage (of course, that is relative to his peers; relative to his 21st century counterpart his life would be shorter and more brutish). What’s more, the American laborer with a high school education likely still had an advantage over his global competition – that advantage has since disappeared.

Meanwhile, unskilled laborers have watched the skyrocketing wages of skilled laborers,. This shift in labor value has been jarring for many Americans, who are ill-prepared to compete for wages based on value-added by their labor, rather than simply time spent at work. And let’s be clear, the days of factories full of high-paying manufacturing jobs are gone forever.

Most means of fighting this growing inequality carry large costs that reduce the size of the economic pie (e.g., taxes on capital gains, rent control, large welfare programs). By contrast, investing in human capital encourages work and offers the potential for permanent increases in earnings.

It is no surprise we are seeing a divergence in income when the most valuable skills (soft) are only being attained by a minority of students who graduate college and high-school graduates lack both hard and soft skills.

The skill-wage hierarchy will always exist. Education -increasing skills- is the lone hope for the poor to actually improve their condition.

The wage premium for a high school degree has all but disappeared. There is little point in recounting the soul-crushing underperformance of American public schools, so let us instead look abroad to high-performing examples.

Two of the best primary/secondary schooling examples to learn from reside in Sweden and Finland. The Fins explain the key to their success is to develop excellent initial training for teachers (only ~10% of applicants are accepted for teacher training), start education late and gently (Fins start at 7), and don’t waste resources on national testing. The Fins’ biggest problem? Getting rid of bad teachers- even with alcohol problems.

While the Fins are more focused on testing achievement (…just not national testing), the Swedes are more interested in developing well-rounded thinkers, evidenced by their varieties of schools and competition, forcing schools to think more pointedly about quality as they risk losing 70k kronor if an unhappy student goes elsewhere.

Swedish reforms in 1994 allowed nearly anyone who satisfies basic standards to open a new school and take in children at the state’s expense. Schools can’t admit based on religion or entrance exams and nothing additional beyond the set payment by the state can be charged for – but making a profit is fine. Since the reforms, the share of Swedish children educated privately has risen significantly, leading to the proliferation of many “chain” schools.

In these chains, teachers update material on websites, utilize tutors, student-specific syllabi, and weekly student progress reports, and received performance monitoring and bonuses as personal tutors and subject teachers. There are no large school-owned facilities.

The schools are profitable despite only getting a fixed $8-12 thousand per student rate from the locality. The average returns on capital are 5-7% per year thanks to the adept, no-frills, IKEA-style management. I imagine its hard for Americans to imagine so little money can get you student-specific syllabi and tutors – but it can.

Back in the US, efforts to reform public education have centered completely on one thing: money. (One exception is the widely panned NCLB… Why is it panned? Big reason is lack of funding!)

Yet there is scant to any literature that shows increased spending leading to improved results, despite many court decisions mandating increased spending on the premise it is responsible for achievement gaps. That is not to say that less books are as good as more books, but it is to say that spending is not the binding constraint on academic achievement, and that dramatic increases in funding will not lead to the academic gains we’d like to see.

I believe that the public school organizational structure is incompatible with the flexibility and experimentation needed to attain the efficiency and productivity found in Sweden or Finland. Yet until recently, experimentation with other types of schooling has been verbotten. Thankfully, the crumbling public school empire couldn’t hold off the barbarians at the gate forever.

Free-market types have managed to carve out a few nooks and crannies for educational experimentation in the US, and we are beginning to see the first efforts to sprout out of these charter-school reservations.

The nation’s largest laboratory can be found in New Orleans, where 55% of public school students attend charter schools, by far the highest percentage of any city in the country. Dayton, Ohio and Washington, D.C. are second and third in charter-school market share.

It is still too early to draw firm conclusions on the New Orleans charter system, but there has been demonstrable achievement improvement in what was an entirely stagnant district. Classes are smaller, principals have been reshuffled or removed, school-hours remedial programs have been intensified, and after-school programs to help students increased. Much of the gains are attributed to the quality of instructors.

It would appear that government would be able to accomplish these aims, but it has not. New Orleans charter schools have capitalized on their flexibility to try different programs, allocate resources differently – to innovate. Surely, there will be success and failure in this process; the belief is that the successes will survive and reproduce, while the failures will whither away from disuse.

Top-down government management is ill-suited to support this process.

Meanwhile, in NY, charter schools are experimenting with increased principal autonomy, higher teacher salaries (with cutbacks elsewhere), and other education philosophies. In Washington D.C., there is a pilot program that will pay middle school students that meet academic and behavioral goals.

Are any of these ideas answer? Maybe, maybe not. But whether they work or not, the path to progress in education lies in entrepreneurial districts not national standards, empowered teachers not accredited teachers, and education markets not education mandates. Progressives are often quick to suggest we take notes from top performers around the world. I would love to see us take a page out of the Swedish playbook.

Next, we will look at what’s holding back America’s university system from reaching its potential.

Filed under: Education

NOLA — cutting edge of education

Alex Tabarrok over at MR finds some supporting evidence for the advantage and viability of charter schools and school choice in an unexpected place – New Orleans. With little fanfare, Hurricane Katrina’s destruction allowed for a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent public education.”

Stripped of most of its domain and financing, the Orleans Parish School Board fired all 7,500 of its teachers and support staff, effectively breaking the teachers’ union. And the Bush administration stepped in with millions of dollars for the expansion of charter schools—publicly financed but independently run schools that answer to their own boards. The result was the fastest makeover of an urban school system in American history.

The transformation hasn’t turned the kids into Einsteins, but there has been demonstrable improvement in what was an entirely stagnant school district.

Classes are smaller, many of the teachers are youthful imports brought in by groups like Teach for America, principals have been reshuffled or removed, school-hours remedial programs have been intensified, and after-school programs to help students increased… Mr. Vallas attributed many of the improvements in testing to the new teachers. ‘The biggest contributing factor was the quality of the instructors,’ he said.

A commenter at MR gets at the crux of the issue:

Smaller classes. Young, energetic teachers. More remedial programs. More after-school programs. Can’t government do this? If the answer is no, why not? If the answer is yes, why hasn’t it?”

Those are very fair questions for both sides of the private/public debate. I think the government cannot be relied on to do this because education, especially to low-income kids, is too dynamic for top-down management. No Child Left Behind has highlighted the difficulty in top-down accountability, and the low reported results demonstrate that we have not figured out how to relay even the basic concepts needed for success.

There’s a lot of experimentation that needs to be done. Teachers and principals need the flexibility to try different programs, allocate resources differently — in short, to innovate. There will be success and failure in this process.

I think government programs are ill-suited to support this process, as they are vertically-structured organizations that manage local institutions by ensuring they comply with certain processes, curricula, standards of practice, etc. They inherently stifle innovation and create incentives to stick to established practices, even when the established practice is not providing acceptable results to a large number of students.

I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible for any government managed school to be innovative or successful. The government (likely state level) might introduce market concepts (increase flexibility and accountability for principals, school choice, etc.) into the government-owned system; this artificial environment could certainly be better than what we have now.

Still, the artificial dynamism will never reproduce the dynamism of the actual market. Just as I would rather hire a consultant to teach me how to improve my business, I would rather have a professional, than a bureaucrat, in charge of teaching my kid how to write complete thoughts. If you don’t like how they’re doing, you can always hire a different one.

Filed under: Education

Beauty of Charter Schools

One of the reasons why I like Bloomberg’s education reforms in New York is that it allows for a much greater degree of experimentation, which is good, because I think most would agree that we haven’t figured out how to run a school most effectively and efficiently.

A recent New York Times Article, At Charter School, Higher Teacher Pay, detailed plans for a NYC charter school in Washington Heights, which hopes to attract high-quality teachers with a salary of $125,000 and bonus contingent on school performance — that would double the average NYC public school salary.

The question is “Whether significantly higher pay for teachers is the key to improving schools.”

The school’s creator and first principal, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, contends that high salaries will lure the best teachers. He says he wants to put into practice the conclusion reached by a growing body of research: that teacher quality — not star principals, laptop computers or abundant electives — is the crucial ingredient for success.

The school will open with seven teachers and 120 students, most of them from low-income Hispanic families. At full capacity, it will have 28 teachers and 480 students. It will have no assistant principals, and only one or two social workers. Its classes will have 30 students. In an inversion of the traditional school hierarchy that is raising eyebrows among school administrators, the principal will start off earning just $90,000. In place of a menu of electives to round out the core curriculum, all students will take music and Latin. Period.

It’s a great idea that indeed may have some practical issues. Perhaps they might want to pay everyone $110,000 and hire more social workers/staff to manage the kids? Still, the argument for paying the high dollar for the most excellent (rather than most senior) teacher needs to be demonstrated in the real world, and thankfully, charter schools serve as our nation’s laboratories.

Filed under: Education