Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Truth About Education: It Mostly Doesn’t Matter

Most jobs only require a basic solid high-school level education, and a lot of people are simply unsuited to the academic life. 

If we could train everyone to be a PhD computer programmer (and we can’t, not if standards are to be maintained), there would be a lot of un- and under-employed PhD computer programmers.  Having truck drivers with PhDs in truck driving won’t make the trucks go any faster or carry more freight.  ‘Educating’ everyone is not a panacea.

People who are talented and motivated enough to excel at academics will find a way to do so (as long as they have a solid base in high school, and as long as they aren’t living in a third-world country and are too malnourished or forced to work in the fields etc).  It was not that long ago that you didn’t need a PhD to do research: just get the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree and find someone doing interesting work in a lab or company and work with them (that’s really all a PhD is, we’ve just formalized it).

As far as public education goes, the major factors are:
1. The native ability of the student
2. The socioeconomic status of the parents
3. The socioeconomic status of the other children in the school

That’s it.  Sure, you need the teachers to be basically competent and professional, but they don’t need to be superhuman.  Throwing money at administrators and fancy buildings etc., having teachers with PhDs in educational pedagogy etc. does basically nothing.

To the extent that private and charter school have an advantage over public schools, it’s more because they have better students than better teachers.

As far as our increasing fetish with standardized testing, this is becoming a zero-sum game.  Sure, if you train a child from birth to take standardized tests, they will get better at taking standardized tests.  And so will everyone else’s child, and the net result will be zero, except that massive effort will be wasted. 

Albert Einstein did not spend his first 16 years being drilled in standardized test taking and I think he turned out just fine.  But today someone like Einstein would first have to get perfect exam scores or they would be condemned to working the fields.  That’s not really raising the intellectual level of a society. 

The problem now is that, with the job market so horrible, people are being forced into ever greater zero-sum competition with their peers, hoping to be the one person to rise to the top as the rest fail.  It’s like if there are a hundred people drowning in the middle of the ocean: perhaps one can survive by clambering on top of everyone else, but that’s not a strategy that everyone can succeed at simultaneously.  It’s also not a constructive strategy: it does not increase the overall level of the society.  The solution to a hundred people drowning in the ocean is not, I think, to train people to better compete at climbing on top of each other, but to provide lifeboats with enough seats.  Or to not have them dumped into the ocean in the first place.

If we had a better labor market, people with less academic talent would not be under so much pressure to boost their test scores or become what they are not: they could just make a decent living driving trucks and filling out customs manifests.  People with more academic talent would still compete with each other, of course (as did Einstein), but they could be more focused on things of true value and less on test taking per se.

This simple reality, however, has been clouded by vested interests. 

We are increasingly outsourcing jobs to poor countries, and insourcing workers from poor countries, in order to drive wages for the many down, and profits for the few up.  Which is the major reason that wages are falling.  But that doesn’t sound very good.  So the rich blame the victims: oh we have to import foreign workers, because American schools are so bad that they are not producing enough skilled workers.  And wages aren’t falling because we have radically increased the labor supply, no, it’s because American children aren’t getting a good enough education to be competitive in the jobs of the future (like waiter or Starbucks barista).

Of course this is rubbish.  A truck driver in Japan makes a lot more money than a computer programmer in India.  Education is fine, and for an industrial society it’s important that everyone be numerate and literate.  However, other than meeting the basic standards, the overall standard of living is not set by educational attainment.  If today everyone in India could magically be given a PhD in neuroscience, there would be 500 million chronically malnourished PhDs in neuroscience.

Ah, but the educational bureaucracies and unions have bought into this.  They like pushing the idea that schools are more important than they really are.  ‘Oh if the inner cities are collapsing it’s not because there are no jobs and no money, no, it’s because we haven’t thrown enough money at the schools!’ 

In the short run the educational mafias made some bucks off of this fantasy of teacher as miracle worker.  They got big raises, and lots of juicy high-paying positions in administration (where you have the added advantage of not having to do all that grubby work of actually lecturing and grading papers etc).

But now the jig is up.  The inner cities are still failing, real wages are headed down, American corporations are still importing massive numbers of foreign workers ‘because there just aren’t enough skilled Americans’ (hahaha), etc.  The teachers are now being blamed for what is not under their control, but they have so long pushed the idea that it is under their control, that they are screwed.  A backlash is coming, and teacher’s unions are going to be broken, and public schools starved of funds in favor of crony-capitalist ‘Charter’ schools, etc. 

Nevertheless, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the teachers.  They should have realized what a toxic bargain it was to join forces with big business in blaming so many of the ills of society on the quality of the schools.  They should have realized that ultimately it would turn around and bite them. 

They also should have realized what it meant to join with big business in favor of cheap-labor immigration policies.  In the short run a massive boost in school-age children would increase the demand for teachers, and the size of the base of the pyramid upon which the educational administrators can build their bureaucracies.  However, this forced population growth also impoverishes the society at large upon which the teacher’s salaries ultimately depend.  You can’t get blood from a stone.  As lower wages drive down per-capita state and local tax revenues, there will be less and less for the teachers – and as wages and benefits for non-teachers keep falling, it will be so easy to attack the educational unions as being overpaid (when the reality is that everyone else is underpaid, but that’s a hard argument to make nowadays).

Look at what teachers make in places like Guatemala and Haiti and Pakistan.  Slowly but surely, American teachers are going to learn what that feels like.