Good point on inequality and education

Here’s Mark Perry, of Carpe Diem, regarding John Goodman’s post: If you really care about income inequality, you need only focus on one thing: the inequality of educational opportunity.

As Goodman puts it:

Poor kids are almost always enrolled in bad schools. Rich kids are almost always in good schools.

As they point out, the left seems more concerned with protecting teachers unions than providing quality education.

But, I think it’s worth pointing out that the blame of bad schools doesn’t fall only on the administrators and teachers, though they are partly to blame.

As one commenter on Mark Perry’s blog post pointed out, what do you think would happen if you switched the kids in the good schools with the kids in the bad schools? Do you think the reputation of the schools would remain intact? No.

I think it’s worth considering why that is. It’s not because of inequality. It’s because different people value education differently, just like any other product or service.

Even in a country that provides publicly for education, people still get to make choices based on a number of factors. Those who value education more tend to choose to live in areas where their neighbors value it as well. Those who don’t value education as much are left in the bad schools.

Charters a good way to give more choice to the people who do value education, but happen to be stuck in the areas where their neighbors don’t value it as much.

But, charters won’t convince those who don’t value it, to value it more.

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Two more good ones from Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan thinks it’s inconsistent for the left to believe the poor shouldn’t be blamed for their predicament, but Republicans can be blamed for a host of things like not helping the less fortunate or ignoring evidence of global warming.

He also points out that the predatory pricing practiced by public schools yields only a 90% market share after decades, not a monopoly as folks believe.


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Middle class is okay

One sign of lackluster American education is that politicians who use the shrinking middle class prop get votes instead of laughs.

Post title from Carpe Diem: “Today’s new homes are 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973, and the living space per person has doubled over last 40 years”

Weathermen are smart enough to look out the window to make sure that what they see with their own two eyes matches with their models and instrument.

If you believe the shrinking middle class myth, I suggest spending more time looking out your window and paying attention. Not only have house sizes grown, but middle class homes also include many more amenities than even 15 years ago such a bathroom (or at least bathroom sink) for everyone, walk-in closets, jetted tubs, three car garages, finished basements and the new trend, outdoor living spaces, to name a few.

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Taleb on education

I’m currently reading Nassim Taleb’s Antifragility: Things That Gain From Disorder. I’m enjoying it and recommend it. There is much to discuss.

I ran into this today:

Authors theorize about some ancestry of my ideas, as if people read books then developed ideas, not wondering whether perhaps it is the other way around; people look for books that support their mental program.

Agreed. That sets up a section about education that ties in with a recent discussion about education on this blog. He introduces what he calls epiphenomenom, which is

…mistaking the merely associative for the causal; that is, if rich countries are educated, immediately inferring that education makes a country rich, without even checking.

He refers to work from Lant Pritchett (recent EconTalk guest) and Alison Wolf that supports that education is a marker of a wealthy country, not necessarily a cause (wealthy countries can afford education). I liked this story:

I once ran into Alison Wolf at a party (parties are great for optionality). As I got her to explain to other people her evidence about the lack of effectiveness of funding formal education, one person got frustrated with our skepticism. Wolf’s answer to him was “real education is this,” pointing at the room full of people chatting.

Taleb is clear in that he is not saying that education and knowledge are not important to an individual, it’s just oversold as a cause of a nation’s wealth. I also agree with this (emphasis mine):

…note that I am not saying that universities do not generate knowledge at all or do not help growth (outside, of course, of most standard economics and other superstitions that set us back); all I am saying is that their role is overly hyped-up and that their members seem to exploit some of our gullibility in establishing wrong causal links, mostly superficial expressions.

That puts into words something I’ve often thought about credentials. In so many areas credentials play on our gullibility and the folks with the credentials seem okay with that, which is a reason I have an inherent distrust for someone who rests on their credentials. You don’t often hear people qualify their credential and caution you to not put that much weight into it. They usually appeal to it.

The spider and the starfish


starfish = bottoms-up (Photo credit: kevinzim)

I enjoyed listening to this EconTalk podcast with guest Lant Pritchett about education, specifically in poorer countries. I recommend it.

He begins with a nice discussion about bottom-up and top-down systems using metaphors (emphasis added):

…the basic distinction is between a top down organization where the metaphor of a spider is, all of the resources of the spider web, however spread out they are, merely serve to transmit information to one spider, who synthesizes that information and responds with the resources of the system. So, if there is a bug, the spider crawls out and gets it. But kind of all the web is kind of an ancillary to the brains of the top. The starfish is a creature that actually has no brain. It’s neurally connected, but a starfish moves because the individual units of the starfish sense something and if they sense more food they try and pull that way. And if the other side isn’t pulling as hard, the starfish moves. So it’s really a metaphor of a decentralized system, where individual units responding to local conditions create the properties of the system. And the beauty of a starfish is if you cut a starfish up into 5 bits, you get 5 starfish. The danger of a spider is that when the spider dies, it’s dead. The whole system therefore falls into dysfunction [single point of failure].

Later, he proposes why bad school systems may persist:

…one of the conjectures I put in the book is that it persists partly by camouflage. It pretends to be something it’s not and then can project enough of the camouflage that it maintains its legitimacy. So, sociologists of organization have a term called ‘isomorphic mimicry’, which is adapted from evolution where some species of snakes look poisonous but aren’t, but get the survival value of looking poisonous. So, one of the things that’s happened is by this pressure to expand schooling and by the governments’ desire to control that socialization process, they have created all the appearances of schools that provide education but without actually doing it. But have at the same time not produced the information that would make it clear that they weren’t doing it. So they produce enrollment statistics, numbers of buildings, numbers of toilets, numbers of textbooks, numbers of everything. But have, you know, all of which can project the image that there’s a functional system and providing real learning there. But they don’tprovide metrics of learning or incentives for learning or feedback on learning or accountability for learning at all.

There’s much more good discussion throughout, but I’m fond of something Pritchett said near the end:

You know, the United States has always been much more of a starfish system. And the starfish system has enormous strengths, and I think those enormous strengths have led America to be a leader in education in many ways. And one of the examples I use in my book is, if there’s a scaled example of a starfish education system, it’s American universities. And it’s just unbelievable from the data the extent to which America dominates quality universities. It’s just unbelievable compared to Europe, which always took the same approach to universities that other countries want to take to their basic education. And you see the consequences of it. America’s universities–in the book I have numbers of the top 200 universities in the world, what fraction of them are in Anglo countries, and it’s just way disproportional to the population size. And even wealth. Because Europe, which is equally sized and equally wealthy, continental Europe, just has nowhere near. And it’s the result of a starfish system, in my view.

I’ve made the same point several times on this blog. Here and here are a couple of examples.

I do appreciate the spider and starfish metaphors. Those roll-off the tongue better than top-down and bottom-up.

Enough with the education olympics

Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for All, suggests in the Wall Street Journal that we call off the education arms race.

I agree. She’s referring to viewing education system effectiveness, as measured by standardized test scores across countries as a competition.

We should be happy that other countries are doing so well. Isn’t that good for us to live in a more educated world? Perhaps we might even be able to learn something from them, if we care to.

Or maybe we’ll just discover that they’re really good test takers.

The Wall Street Journal also offers this piece today about the education arms race, which says:

Since 1998, the Program for International Student Assessment, or Pisa, has ranked 15-year-old kids around the world on common reading, math and science tests. The U.S. brings up the middle—again—among 65 education systems that make up fourth-fifths of the global economy.

I have a few other thoughts to consider.

How well do PISA scores on reading, math and science correlate with prosperity now and in the future? Perhaps there’s a threshold that is good enough and, for whatever reason, the other countries are, to their own detriment, are far surpassing that.

For years I’ve heard that U.S. doesn’t have government health care and it results in sub par medical care performance vs. countries that do.

We do have government education, yet that still seems to result in sub par performance. So, maybe whether the government provides something isn’t the key to success. Maybe there are other factors.

Though, I must say that I do see as one bad outcome of our education system our inability to be able to put such results in proper perspective.

Good education links

Both from the Wall Street Journal:

1. Finally, it seems they are figuring out that educational attainment is not necessarily a good performance measure: Pay Raises for Teachers With Mater’s Under Fire.

I have a couple of thoughts on this article:

Someone in the article wonders how educators can consistently tell students that education is important, while removing raises for more education for teachers. I think that answer is simple. Education is important to a certain extent. But, experience is more important.

While educators crank away at trying to find good, statistical measures to quantify teacher performance, I think they could do some good if they learned about The Net Promoter Score. Simply ask parents and students if they would recommend a teacher to others and why or why not.

2. (HT: Mark Perry @ Carpe Diem) Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results. Perry also links to a Letter to the Editor that points out that we remember those tough teachers that fairly held us to a high standard, but we don’t so much those wishy-washy, want-to-be-your-bestie teachers.

The key problem with education…

…is that not everyone values it.

The cost-benefit that sells publicly provided “free” (to the user) education is that there are lots of benefits to living in an educated society. That’s probably true.

But, for someone to receive (or become educated) a free education, they must value it. The subtle assumption that the free education logic rests on is that everyone values education enough to willingly receive it.

It’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t want it.

Yet each of us have plenty of things that we value so little that we wouldn’t want it even if it were free, even things that others value highly.

What do we do when we are given things we don’t value? We give them away, throw them away or pass. A rock music fan will turn down free tickets to the orchestra. A Diet Pepsi drinker passes on a free Coke.

But few people seem to understand this. So, if there are bad schools, it has to be that we can’t fire the bad teachers…or the teachers don’t try hard enough…or there’s some cultural barrier…etc.

It can’t be that the students and parents in those bad schools simply don’t value education that much.

Of course, when they don’t care, all the other problems above occur and are then mistaken for the cause. Bad teachers tend to go to schools where the parents won’t complain about them, for example. When parents don’t care, it’s easier for school boards and administration to become corrupt.

If we’re really interested in fixing failing schools, I think it’s important to start addressing why some people don’t value it.