Valuing Education: The Biggest Hurdle to Improving Education

Thomas Sowell’s column, Charlatans and Sheep: Part III is worth reading.  In it, Sowell describes his childhood experiences that led him from not valuing education to valuing it.

Here are some key excerpts:

There is no economic determinism. People choose what to spend their money on, and what to spend their time on. Cultures differ.

Jewish immigrants who arrived in New York, generations before me, seized upon the opportunities provided by public libraries and later their children flooded into the elite public high schools and free city colleges. This was consistent with the values of their centuries-old culture.

For most of the black kids of my generation, those things might as well not have existed, because nothing in their culture would have pointed them toward such things.

There is much discussion about what can be done to improve education, mostly focused on what schools can be change.

There’s little attention given to what I think is the biggest cause of failing schools: families who do not value education.

If you compare quality schools to failing schools and look past the standard stats used to differentiate them like socioeconomic status or racial composition, I think the key difference can be boiled down to one thing: What is the predominant view on the value of an education held by the families of the students?

With successful schools, the predominant view is that education is important. With failing schools, it’s not.

Sowell illustrates this with public libraries. They are open to anyone. Nobody stands at the door to restrict the access of any group. Some people use them frequently, others never think to step foot.

Education is similar. There is quality education out there for free ready to be had, if you want it. Everyone is welcome. But, the school can’t do everything. Students and their families have to meet the school half way and do their part, too.

I believe personal preference bias is a barrier that keeps people from seeing this. Most of the people discussing how to improve education already value education. They cannot understand that others do not share their bias. They simply assume they do.

I have my own personal story to share here, as well. I coach youth soccer. Over the years I’ve coached several dozen kids. There are a lot of factors that go into whether a player will improve and be able to contribute on the field, but I think there is one factor that overshadows all — how much they value the sport.

When the child and family do not value the sport much, they won’t improve. They may see it just as a place to dump their kid off for an hour to keep them off video games.  When the child and family do value soccer, it’s a different story.

To personalize this, think about a restaurant that you have wondered how it stays open. You don’t value what it has, for whatever reasons. Maybe the service is spotty or the food isn’t what you prefer. Every time you drive past it, you wonder, “How does that place stay in business?”

The answer is that not everyone shares your personal preference. You may not value it, but others do.

Now, imagine if the people who do value it wanted more restaurants to be more like that one and they formed government restaurant boards and accreditation agencies to expand that restaurant’s practices to more restaurants.

As other restaurants adopted those practices, you would value those restaurants less.

That’s what has happened in education. People who value a certain style of education have nearly monopolized the education industry and can’t figure out why some people don’t share their personal preferences.

Money talks

The Pope thinks capitalism is responsible for the problems of the poor?

I wonder how the magnitude of donations to the church in countries that are more capitalist compares with those that are less.

Failure is not an option, it’s a requirement

Those who would like to reduce the number of trials to limit the number of errors will be left with mostly errors.

My view is that you have to try lots of things to find what works. Systems that limit trials and don’t clean out the errors are less likely to discover as much good stuff as systems that allow for lots of trials while cleaning out the errors.

I think of this when discussing education. Allowing for trial and error in education is often unacceptable to my discussion opponents.

They say, There’s no room for experimentation when it comes to education. Failure is not option. No kids should have to suffer from a failed experiment. We just have to figure out what works and do that for everyone.

Then they go onto support some sort of quasi-top-down solution. Some single department of education just has to figure out what works and make all schools do that. Something like the Federal Department of Education and the common core curriculum.

Sounds simple and doable. But, there’s a few holes in that.

Hole #1: How exactly do they figure out what works? It seems there has to be some level of experimentation that goes on to do that.

Hole #2: What about the kids in schools that fail to teach but don’t fail to survive?

If they are so vehemently opposed to the potential error of the trial-and-error process, why aren’t they as vehemently opposed to the errors that have continued to survive for decades? These are “failing” schools (in the sense that they don’t educate children), but they don’t “fail” (in the sense they keep their doors open) because they are funded by tax dollars whether they educate well or not.

Hole #3: They assume there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to education that will work for all students. They fail to see that one-size-fits-all solutions exist nowhere else.

Hole #4: They fail to realize that even in a trial-and-error process, failure will be limited. Most of education is pretty good. We know, for example, that if kids practice math and spelling, they get better at it. That doesn’t seem that hard.

What the trials will allow us to discover is how to do it even better or how to fix the school district that are already failing. They likely won’t cause any more failure than is already happening.

A difference between the Great Depression and Great Recession

I attended a recent discussion about consumer trends. The Great Depression and Recession was discussed.

I commented to my colleague: During the Great Depression, people learned how to get by with very little food. During the Great Recession people learned how to get by without cable TV. Well, then, Netflix came along. 

Some pet peeves

I didn’t realize August 10th was my last post. I must’ve been busy.

Pet peeve: When I visit a website and I’m immediately asked for an email address or to take a survey. You haven’t even won my business yet and you want me to give up something? How rude.

Thanks Microsoft for upgrading my computer to Windows 10. That took more time that I would have liked. I liked it even less when I logged back in and was asked to take a survey.

Here’s the answer to my survey: Every time you interrupt me with an upgrade or update or a request to take survey, it annoys and distracts me. I just want to use the computer for what I intended and not have to wade through a bunch of updates and surveys to get there.

Same goes for you Apple. As soon as I finished updating Windows, all my Apple devices got a notification that the OS needed to be updated. The last update wasn’t long ago.

Domain Independence

This tale reminded me a bit of my friends and family. It’s a tale of domain independence.

That means that something that you deem unacceptable in one domain you see as acceptable, and sometimes admirable, in another domain.

This isn’t something like, it’s okay to belch in your home (one domain) but not in public (another domain). It’s more like, you think it’s not okay for a burglar to steal from someone (one domain), but it’s okay for the government to do so (another domain).

The source of domain independence is that those who have it don’t see it that way. They don’t see government taxing as stealing. Or, if they do, they justify it in that at least there was a political process behind it and it wasn’t random.

That may be well and good, but there is a good litmus test that fades this mirage of rationality. That test comes when they see their money being taken and used for something they disagree with.

A family member of mine illustrates this well. He was always for the government taking money and using it for things he supported.

I’d ask, What if someone else disagrees with you, should they be forced to support it? 

His response would typically be, Heck yes. They’re just being irresponsible and I know I’m right. They have to give back. If we don’t make them, they won’t give enough.

That, however, went out the window one day when his city was spending gobs of money on a project that he vehemently opposed. Suddenly, he felt like his money was being stolen from him.

Yet, when I asked him if he could now empathize with the people that he felt should be made to pay for his priorities, the answer was still a resounding no.


Mark Perry has a nice post about creative destruction in the movie rental business on his blog, Carpe Diem.

Retail jobs in movie rentals declined by 90% in 15 years. Ouch.

Why didn’t politicians push to save those jobs like they do with so many other businesses feeling the effects of creative destruction?

Also, I think it’s misreading what happened to just say that digital beat bricks-and-mortar. I think there was more to it.

I believe Netflix changed the value proposition of renting movies in a way that consumers didn’t expect to be better, but once they tried it they discovered it was.

It was a simple innovation: the queue, subscription and keep-movie-until you’re ready changed the incentives and experience.

Much of my experience with Blockbuster was roaming the aisles that smelled a bit like stinky feet, bumping shoulders with others, trying to decide between two or three movies that I sort of wanted to see, but not really, and weighing that against the $4 fee I would pay to rent it and then have to drive back and return within a couple days.

Netflix improved on that experience. With the subscription service, I no longer evaluated each movie by the $4 fee. Whether a movie was worth $0.50 or $8 to me, it went on my queue.

The queue solved the problem of having to decide in the moment. As soon as I thought about or heard about a movie I wanted to see, it went on my queue. Thinking done.

I received it in the mail and had to watch to it to get my next movie.

Blockbuster could have done all of those things, and tried, but it was too late. They were following by the time they tried it.

The final thing to consider is that Netflix wasn’t solely responsible for the demise of Blockbuster. RedBox put the final nail in the coffin.

My guess is that about 90% of Blockbuster’s revenue came from about 20 – 30 titles at any given time. RedBox found a way to serve that demand much more efficiently. Again, Blockbuster tried to follow that model, but it was too late.