Josh Haas's Web Log

Education: Not better, different

with 6 comments

One of my biggest personal pet peeves is that the American education system is basically useless in terms of preparing students for life.

One of the cliches about the value of a liberal arts college education is that it’s supposed to teach you to “learn how to think”, as opposed to the rote memorization of knowledge. Okay, so my first problem with that: what is the twelve years of education leading up to college supposed to teach? How to hold your pen? And then my second problem is that once you actually get to college, you’re taught how to think a little bit, but as measured by volume, that’s only a tiny fraction of the contents.

There are various cynical theories about how public schools are basically glorified daycare centers to keep children out of the way of adults. Whether or not that’s true, the net result is that the primary things schools teach are: a) a level of basic literacy in language, mathematics, science, and culture that’s woefully un-competitive with the rest of the world, b) how to anticipate what authority figures want, and c) how to sit still, shut up, and raise your hand when you have something to say.

Seth Godin recently wrote a really great blog post that sums up a major trend: the era where you could guarantee yourself a comfortable economic future by coloring within the lines is basically over. The rise of the internet is wiping out a lot of career paths, and the new opportunities that are opening up are ones that require creativity and entrepreneurialism, attributes that are completely un-correlated with getting a 2400 on your SATs. (This is probably related to why a lot of top graduates from Ivy League schools take jobs in finance: investment banking is one of the rare lucrative pockets of the economy where this trend hasn’t taken over yet).

Speaking personally, the thing that’s gotten me the most job opportunities — my ability to develop software — is something that I learned almost entirely outside the classroom. I did learn valuable things in school (how to write, for instance), but on an hour-for-hour basis, when I look at the time I spent in class and doing assignments, and when I look at the lessons I’ve learned that I consider important, the whole thing has been criminally wasteful.

There’s a lot of innovation going on in the education space — the charter school movement, for instance — but I’m worried that most of it is oriented at doing a better job against our current goals: getting more kids into better colleges with higher test scores. What I really think we should be doing is changing the yardstick. What we need are graduates who know how to think for themselves, set and achieve goals, and engage with the changing world flexibly and creatively. Happy, healthy, and sane would be good too. Right now those are all peripheral to what education focuses on, which is tragic.

I have a question for everyone: if you got to be a substitute teacher in a middle or high school for a few days, and got to teach whatever you wanted, what would you teach? What one lesson is the most important thing you could convey? I’ll share what I would do over the next few days…

Written by jphaas

April 26th, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

  • Eric Reed Nielsen

    Hi Josh,

    This post is pretty misguided. In both the U.S. and around the world, the measured returns to education have been rising enormously over the last several decades. This is true at all points in the education distribution (high school/no high school, college/high school, graduate degree/ college) and across gender and race. You could argue that these results are contaminated by ability bias: smart people are doing better and smart people tend to get more schooling since its cost is lower. Fine. But pretty careful attempts trying to correct for this bias have found equal, if not larger, returns to education. I agree, looking back on my own education, that it seems most of what I learned I taught myself, but I don’t think personal reflection is a good way to answer large empirical questions of this sort. I don’t know exactly what school does for people, but it manifestly does something. If it did not, we would not see rising enrollments in the face of higher fees and opportunity costs and higher measured returns to completing schooling.

    I do have a theory about what school actually does: it teaches you how to get new information and process it. When economic roles/careers are less well-defined, this skill is probably more valuable.

    • Anonymous

      By “measured returns”, you mean, net income of people who have education
      tends to be higher than people who don’t (controlling for everything else)?
      I would definitely agree that education generates returns in that sense.
      First, there’s the purely competitive advantage it confers: all else being
      equal, people are going to hire someone with a higher level of educational
      achievement over people who don’t have that, regardless of what education
      teaches, and I would expect that as manufacturing / blue collar jobs go
      overseas that becomes more and more important.

      But even putting aside the zero-sum advantages of getting an education, I
      definitely think education is worthwhile in terms of increasing what you’re
      able to produce and contribute. So if my post sounds like I’m saying it’s
      better to skip school, that’s not what I mean at all. But there’s a huge
      difference between “provides value” and “provides value relative to the
      potential value it could be providing”. I’m not saying education isn’t
      valuable, but I am saying — and I don’t know if there’s any empirical way
      to evaluate this claim — that it’s not providing anywhere near the amount
      of value that it could provide. Moreover, I think America faces a lot of
      challenges right now, and I think those challenges would be easier to
      navigate if more people had the ability to function in an entrepreneurial,
      rapidly changing world.

      • Eric Reed Nielsen

        I agree that education could certainly do much more for us than it is. Especially in poor communities schools are often pretty atrocious–by the time someone is illiterate as a senior in high school its almost impossible to intervene sufficiently to allow that person to catch up. I think the first-order concern for education reform is not figuring out how to improve on the kind of education you or I received–its how to get more people access to the kinds of educations we did receive.

        When I say “measured returns” I mean not just net income, but the internal rate of return taking costs (expansively defined) into account. I dispute your assessment of this form of gain as “zero sum”. If anything, the trends in the wage premia suggest that growth in demand for skilled labor has consistently outpaced supply growth. If skilled labor is consistently more productive than it was in the past, its just not true that in the medium to long term wage gains from increasing education constitute a zero-sum transfer of wealth. If total output grows with the share of educated people, everyone, including the less educated, can gain in absolute, if not relative, terms. Of course, in practice the gains will be unevenly spread around, but its still wrong to view the supply of skilled jobs as fixed and education as a zero-sum signaling game.

        • Anonymous

          Re: “I think the first-order concern for education reform is not figuring
          out how to improve on the kind of education you or I received–its how to
          get more people access to the kinds of educations we did receive.” — They
          aren’t mutually exclusive goals. I’m more interested in the former problem
          because I think it’s overlooked and I think there is a lot of potential
          upside from solving it. I have less of an opinion on the latter problem
          because I personally have less insight into it, and I know that there are a
          lot of smart people working on it.

          Yeah, I agree it’s not just a zero-sum transfer of wealth… I was just
          pointing out that that’s one component of what’s going on. But I completely
          agree with your point that the demand for skilled-labor jobs is not fixed.

  • Travis Usinger

    If I were to teach as a substitute teacher, I would do Rapid/Free writing exercises, time management and habit forming worksheets, and writing exercises that emphasized the individual students desires and goals for themselves(Not based on what their parents, other teachers, or society wants them to do). Then I would end the day with yoga and Qi Gong exercises to help them get more in touch with their body, and how they feel within themselves.

     I agree that the current public school system is misguided to say the least. Where was my “how to pay bills and review my finances so that I don’t go into debt” class, and my “There are many options other than college” lecture, and the “Start a business!” Entrepreneurial class where we start our own service or product based business and get together to mastermind about our individual experiences with our personal business.
    Instead I got enrolled in the “Figure out X and Y in these equations which don’t show any practical reason for completing” and “write two pages comparing and contrasting these two authors and books that you aren’t intested in” classes.

    To be fair though, my last two years in High school I was able to take marketing, and video production classes that I found useful, compelling, and inspired to create and work with.

    Education in general needs to become more practical. Give students projects that actually accomplish something. Give them a design project that creates fliers for a student run event, where the film production students are giving a presentation of their videos, and let the Marketing students promote the event at local businesses and online. Then the Accounting students can figure out the potential costs and how much money they will have to charge for the event.

    Anyways, just my 2 cents.

    • Anonymous

      Yeah I completely agree about making it more practical. There’s so many
      awesome opportunities to work on real-world things… it’s really silly that
      the predominate social expectation is you don’t do “actual” work until
      you’re 22 years old! I really like your hypothetical film event, it’s a
      great example of something that’s perfectly within the capabilities of high
      school or even middle school students to pull off, in line with the various
      courses of study people take, and something that would actually teach real
      lessons (as I learned organizing similar events in college).