Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Teacher Gives Economist the Smackdown on the Value of Education

For those who missed it, Bryan Caplan recently made headlines with his provocatively titled book The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.  The promotional materials explain:

Despite being immensely popular--and immensely lucrative―education is grossly overrated. In this explosive book, Bryan Caplan argues that the primary function of education is not to enhance students' skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity―in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee. Learn why students hunt for easy As and casually forget most of what they learn after the final exam, why decades of growing access to education have not resulted in better jobs for the average worker but instead in runaway credential inflation, how employers reward workers for costly schooling they rarely if ever use, and why cutting education spending is the best remedy.

Caplan draws on the latest social science to show how the labor market values grades over knowledge, and why the more education your rivals have, the more you need to impress employers. He explains why graduation is our society's top conformity signal, and why even the most useless degrees can certify employability. He advocates two major policy responses. The first is educational austerity. Government needs to sharply cut education funding to curb this wasteful rat race. The second is more vocational education, because practical skills are more socially valuable than teaching students how to outshine their peers.

I, honestly, did not pay the book much attention.  To me, it seemed like a book trying to do just that--get attention by making an outlandish claim.  Refuting the claim was more effort than it was worth for me.  This morning, however, I read a teacher's response.  It did more for my morning than two cups of coffee could have.

Steve Singer penned a short essay titled Economists Don’t Know Crap About Education, arguing that "economists need to shut the heck up."  Here is a sampling of his essay:

Never has there been a group more concerned about the value of everything that was more incapable of determining anything’s true worth.  [Economists] boil everything down to numbers and data and never realize that the essence has evaporated away. I’m sorry but every human interaction isn’t reducible to a monetary transaction. Every relationship isn’t an equation. Some things are just intrinsically valuable. And that’s not some mystical statement of faith – it’s just what it means to be human.

 . . . .

[Rather than fund education,] it would be far better in Caplan’s view to use that money to buy things like… oh… his new book “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”

His argument goes something like this: the only value of an education is getting a job after graduation. Businesses only care about school because they think it signifies whether prospective employees will be good or bad at their jobs. And students don’t care about learning – they only care about appearing to have learned something to lure prospective employers. Once you’re hired, if you don’t have the skills, employers have an incentive to give you on the job training. Getting an education is just about getting a foot in the door. It’s all just a charade. Therefore, we should cut education funding and put kids to work in high school where they can learn how to do the jobs they’ll need to survive.

No wonder economics is sometimes called “The Dismal Science.” Can you imagine having such a dim view of the world where THAT load of crap makes sense? We’re all just worker drones and education is the human equivalent of a mating dance or brilliant plumage – but instead of attracting the opposite sex, we’re attracting a new boss. Bleh! I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. This is what comes of listening to economists on a subject they know nothing about.

I’m a public school teacher. I am engaged in the act of learning on a daily basis. And let me tell you something – it’s not about merely signifying. I teach 7th and 8th grade language arts. My students aren’t simply working to appear literate. They’re actually attempting to express themselves in words and language. Likewise, my students aren’t just working to appear as if they can comprehend written language. They’re actually trying to read and understand what the author is saying.

But that’s only the half of it. Education isn’t even just the accumulation of skills. Students aren’t hard drives and we’re not simply downloading information and subroutines into their impressionable brains. Students are engaged in the activity of becoming themselves.

Education isn’t a transaction – it’s a transformation. When my students read “The Diary of Anne Frank” or To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, they become fundamentally different people. They gain deep understandings about what it means to be human, celebrating social differences and respecting human dignity. When my students write poetry, short fiction and essays, they aren’t merely communicating. They’re compelled to think, to have an informed opinion, to become conscious citizens and fellow people. . . . When the year is over, they KNOW they can read and understand complex novels, plays, essays and poems. The maelstrom of emotions swirling round in their heads has an outlet, can be shared, examined and changed.

Caplan is selling all of that short because he sees no value in it. . . . In a way, I can’t blame [Caplan] for that. For a carpenter, I’m sure most problems look like a hammer and a nail. For a surgeon, everything looks like a scalpel and sutures. But shame on us for letting one field’s myopia dominate the conversation.

No one seems all that interested in my economic theories about how to maximize gross domestic product. And why would they? I’m not an economist. However, it’s just as absurd to privilege the ramblings of economists on education. They are just as ignorant – perhaps more so.

It is a symptom of our sick society. We turn everything into numbers and pretend they can capture the reality around us.

 I less artfully explained in an earlier article:

The real problem is that education itself is not conducive to causal showings. The way that education is delivered, the way students learn, the various factors that affect that learning, and the basic way we measure learning frequently defy precise explanation. Because these aspects of education defy clear explanation, plaintiffs might demonstrate that a school or state has engaged in inequitable or prohibited conduct, but they are unable to demonstrate how they have been harmed.

With more in-artful detail, I wrote:

 Education eludes causal clarity in various different respects. First, how students receive education, what students actually receive, and how one demonstrates or verifies what students have received are not fully understood. Surely teaching fosters learning and that learning is later demonstrated by students, but our understanding of learning is far from a science. At best, we know that certain things tend to work well or work poorly.

Second, even when we know certain things tend to work, those things do not remain constant. Schools, administrators, teachers, and students can vary more than they coalesce. Thus, to speak of education, a school district, or even a school as “acting” or “learning” in a particular way is, on some level, to engage in fictional narrative. Policies, programs, and curricula unify educational units, allowing causal tendencies to emerge at the macro level, but causal factors also operate at much lower levels that defy larger narratives and measurement. In short, when we analyze education, we are often working with imprecise generalizations.

Third, education is continually evolving and changing. Education is a process rather than a finite and static resource that students receive. As such, there are nearly an infinite number of potential points of causation,193 and no point of causation alone is necessarily sufficient to produce an identifiable effect or significant outcome. This creates an internal conflict in measuring educational effects. Educational effects tend to be reliably assessed only at the cumulative level. Yet at the cumulative level, attribution is more complex because many more variables come into play--not all of which are measurable--and the measureable variables are not necessarily constant.197 In addition, as the number of variables increases, so too does the possibility that the variables will cancel each other out, which can result in otherwise important variables manifesting minimal effects.

Fourth, and implicit in the foregoing, certain aspects of education are polycentric. Policy changes can have secondary effects that counteract the primary policy. For instance, testing students exclusively on core subjects like math and science often leads to more instruction in those areas, but less in others. The reduced instruction in other areas, such as physical education and art can result in less emotionally and physically healthy children. Their diminished health can offset some of the gains they would otherwise have made in math and science. Similarly, states might increase teacher qualification standards to improve education. Increasing standards will exclude some poor teachers, but also dissuade other potentially good teachers from pursuing teaching at all. The result could be a near-term shortage of teachers and, consequently, larger class sizes, which can have counterbalancing negative effects. In short, education's polycentricism makes conceptualizing effective educational policy difficult. And education's prevailing ambiguity can make the effects of even well-crafted policy immeasurable.

Yet, with all those causal limitations, researchers can still increasing demonstrate that money does matter to education.

Well, Singer said it far better than I ever could.  He ended his essay with this: "If you want to understand education, call a teacher."


School Funding, Teachers | Permalink


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