Tag Archives: Education Reform

Gainful Employment and Education

Courtesy of College Insurrection and Instapundit, NBCNews has a story about student loans held my college drop-outs.

The article discusses a number of victims, but this one stood out:

Drew Scott, 26, registered for the for-profit Art Institute to study video game arts because he was attracted to the accelerated program.

“I didn’t completely understand what I was getting into,” he said. “I knew it was more expensive, but at the time, I thought, ‘they wouldn’t be charging more if it wasn’t better, right?’”

After two years of uneven teaching quality—“some of the teachers didn’t quite know what they were doing”—Scott concluded he wasn’t getting his money’s worth. He left the program earlier this year, owing $30,000 to the government and $15,000 to his parents. Scott now lives in Seattle and makes $11 an hour working part-time at a game-testing job. “I definitely didn’t need to go to school” to do this job, he said.

For profit-colleges have poor “optionality.” Instead of providing good opportunities with little danger, they provide mediocre opportunities with higher danger. The Department of Education’s new “Gainful Employment” is a first start, but it is took weak. The “gainful employment” rule should apply to all institutions that receive student loans.

wages_employment_majors_humanities_ghetto_mdA degree in the humanities ghetto from a Big State University or a private religious college is just as worthless as a degree in “game design” from the “Art Institute.”

We don’t know what the future holds. We need an educational system that makes learners resilient, even if the world changes. Our test scores are stagnant, our tests are broken, and top-down efforts can’t be the whole solution.


We need to close the road to dead-end non-bankruptable debt. We need a “gainful employment” rule to apply to all colleges and universities. We need to track graduates, to to the PhD level. The Department of Education’s new rules are a good start. But more needs to be done.

Closing off the Ghetto

The teaching ranks are loboomized. Administrators are bullies. We interpret and give tests in the wrong way. Our test scores are stagnant, and our bad schools trap parents in stressful jobs and expensive neighborhoods.

Our low performing students (low-socio-economic status and under-represented-minorities) do very badly, but others are merely average. Helping low-performing students is a different tasks, but we can help mediocre-performing students by fixing not just K-12 education, but also colleges.

One reason mediocre students get mediocre outcomes is the presence of the humanities ghetto: a nowhereville of few jobs and little income where most political scientists, historians, and sociologists end up. High school students are famously stupid, and see this ghetto as a promised land where they will make more money than they do in high school, have a socially acceptable job, only have to do fun stuff, and (most importantly) can actually reach.


So our goal should be to dissuade students away from the humanities ghetto, and into outcomes with greater return-on-investment that are more socially beneficial (or at least less socially harmful), like marijuana distribution or go-go-dancing.


To do this, we need to make the on-ramp to humanities ghetto a ghost ramp. It’s already a road to nowhere, but if we can severe it we can divert the flow of students to other places.


We need to decrease the visible attraction and increase the visible costs of getting onto the humanities ghetto on-ramp. To decrease attraction, we should make any humanities courses in high schools optional, and allow students to work in those hours instead. To increase costs, we should either end federal student loan all together, or at least for non-STEM majors. (Both of these approaches are imperfect, but they definitely tilt the playing field away from ghetto majors).

Education reform isn’t merely about better teachers and better tests, but changing the context in which education takes place. Demagogues like Diane Ravitch are right when they say teachers can’t do it all. Policy makers need to do their part, too.

Land Subsidies in Education

In areas of low population density and low population growth, it is difficult to keep schools open.

In other places there are many schools within a small geographic areas. In some of these places “public” schools serve to transfer wealth from parents to teachers unions. Often times, these union-funding mechanisms compete with charter schools.

But as Steve Sailer points out, the competition is rarely fair. In dense urban and suburban areas, public schools enjoy a land subsidy. While new charter schools must pay market rates for the land and building space they use, older schools are grandfathered in, often paying nothing for the use of their facilities.

Education policy in the United States, of course, is a corrupt area. Teachers unions are the only pigs at the trough, and some folks use the charter school movements to seize this land for their own benefit.

In places where it makes geographical sense, the following should be done to end the land subsidy of teachers unions

  1. Existing public schools (the land and buildings) should be sold off
  2. To make this wealth-neutral for the educational system, the proceeds from these sales should be spent on education
  3. Public schools should bid for land and building space, just like new charter schools have to do.

The teachers strike in Chicago should remind us how dangerous teachers unions are to education. Part of dismantling their power is dismantling their source of wealth. Taking away the teachers unions’ land subsidy is part of the solution.

Politics Never Stops

I like a lot of what education scholar Paul T. Hill writes, but this piece (from nine years ago) includes a line with which I strongly disagree.

The recommendations from A Nation at Risk assumed that educators—responding to pressure—would work hard to make a difference in children’s learning. These assumptions ignored three facts: first, local school boards are political bodies pursuing many agendas, of which educational effectiveness is only one; second, school districts allow resources to follow political influence, so that poor students end up receiving the least money and the worst facilities; and third, teachers with seniority and other attributes that make them attractive can usually avoid teaching the most disadvantaged children in a school district.

The system needs to change so that schools are free of politics. School boards should have one job: making sure every child is receiving a good education. This means closing bad schools and creating options for students who are not learning.

Schools in the poorest neighborhoods need the freedom to find the best combination of people and technologies for the children they serve, including access to dollars and good teachers. Schools that get the worst of everything are now frozen by rules and contract provisions.

I disagree because the goal is impossible. Politics never stops, where this much money and these many fates are intertwined.

Dr. Hill was writing in the context of the beginning of serious education reform — the first years of No Child Left Behind. At the time he was writing teachers still believed they were the central actor of the education debate. He was in fact writing in the very last years when anyone listened to teachers — before teachers were encircled

By failing to prepare workers for careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), teachers have alienated Large-Scale Consumers of Educated Workers. By not flattering State power, they have alienated States. By refusing to help Districts in political battles against States, they have alienated the local school boards, too. By virtue of their position as a consumer of education resources, they naturally alienate Publishers. And by refusing moves to allow the measurement of their performance, they have alienated the Federal-Academic Complex.

The politics must continue so change so that the research and experimentation benefit. This means empowering local experimental schools, and empowering the federal-academic complex.

We Don’t Know What To Do

In an daily report from the Hoover Institution published seven years ago, Paul T. Hill makes a profound statement on education reform.

The case for innovation is simple: less than half the schools in low-income areas of our big cities can meet the minimum state performance standards. Educators say, “We know how to make inner-city schools effective, but we can’t do it until we get [fill in the blank: more money, more political will, a higher class of parents].” Don’t let them kid you. We really don’t know how to educate millions of children whose preschool preparation and home supports are far different from the American middle-class norm. [emphasis in the original]

The students “whose preschool preparation and home supports are far different from the American middle-class norm” are a major challenge in education. To add to what Dr. Hill stated, their failure is often overdetermined:

  • In social psychological terms, these students often come from families with low socio-economic-status (SES), with few books in the home, few beneficial expert or peer models, poor nutrition, and so on.
  • In cognitive psychological terms, these students offer lack general intelligence, creativity, and future time orientation, which place them at a disadvantage in an increasingly mentally-oriented economy
  • In Marxist terms, these students often come from the lower proletariat or lumpenproletariat, minimally productive or even criminal class origins with a high degree of alienation of productive roles in the greater proletariat or bourgeoisie.
  • In ethnic or racial terms, these students often come from Non-Asian Minority (NAM) (black or hispanic) backgrounds, which are often ill prepared for scholarly activities.

Different types of students face different troubles. It is the students for whom failure is overdetermined — low SES, low intelligence, low creativity, low future time orientation, lower proletariat or lumpenproletariet, non-Asian minority — that we have let down the most.

We don’t know what to do.

We need to experiment, try, and innovate.

Paul T. Hill on the Craft of Education

Last month, I discussed my invited commentary in Teachers College Record. In that article In a draft, I emphasized that teaching should be a craft:

The reasons for these failures are many. When the American workplace was desegregated along sex lines, the subsidy of cheap female labor that American K-12 schools had received disappeared. Teacher salaries have not kept up, and the low-to-mediocre pay society provides to teachers is answered in the quality of education that society receives in return. Teaching is no longer a woman’s profession – a feminine analog to the legal field – but an artisan craft – in which apprenticeship counts for more than theory. Teachers are not professional who are entrusted to work without supervision for the best interests of their clients. Rather, they are artisans – skilled laborers – who use practical expertise and learned talent to practice their craft

In a recent column in The Atlantic, Education scholar Paul T. Hill voices similar thoughts:

Public education struggles with two conflicting facts. First, public schools are small craft organizations that require close teamwork and constant adaptation to the unpredictable development of students. Second, they are government agencies always subject to constraints imposed through politics and legal processes.

In the more than half-century since Brown v. Board of Education, the second set of facts has dominated the first. Public schools have been subject to court orders about how particular students must be educated; federal and state regulations that dictate how money is used, students are grouped, and teachers work; and labor contracts that force schools to employ teachers who are poorly matched to the needs of students and the strengths of other teachers.

Dr. Hill is on the advisory board of the National Council of Teacher Quality and a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution. It’s cool to see my article (inadvertently) echo one of his thoughts!

Teachers Colleges, Teacher-Artisans, and Education Reform

Last month I published an invited commentary in Teachers College Record, a peer-reviewed education journal from Columbia University. The content will be familiar to readers of this blog — I mention the political economy of education reform, the federal-academic complex, and our failure to educate young people.

An except:

The reasons for these failures are many. When the American workplace was desegregated along sex lines, the subsidy of cheap female labor that American K-12 schools had received disappeared. Teacher salaries have not kept up, and the low-to-mediocre pay society provides to teachers is answered in the quality of education that society receives in return. Teaching is no longer a woman’s profession – a feminine analog to the legal field – but an artisan craft – in which apprenticeship counts for more than theory. Teachers are not professionals who are entrusted to work without supervision for the best interests of their clients. Rather, they are artisans – skilled laborers – who use practical expertise and learned talent to practice their craft

Additionally, safeguards that made sense when teaching was a profession that attracted high-quality workers do not make sense now that many see teaching as a back-up plan. Academic tenure, a reliance on teachers writing their own lesson plans, the absence of individual accountability, the lack of pay-for-performance or even piecemeal reward schemes, and other accouterments from the past are not appropriate for artisans even if they were once appropriate for professionals. Given the increasing importance of the knowledge economy, something has to give.

Teachers colleges should not change how they conduct research. They are already brilliant at that. Rather, teachers colleges need to change how they teach. They do not produce world-class professionals now, so little is lost by changing teaching methods. But nor do they produce world-class artisans, so much can be gained.

Read the whole thing.

How Science and Academia Work


  • Science is not a cartoon
  • Science works by predicting variation
  • Science advances by exploiting human nature
  • Some science experiments have multiple outcome variables and multiple predictors

Science Is Not A Cartoon

The cartoon version of “science” — that definition that teachers who had no idea what they were talking about gave you — runs along these lines:

Science is a method for understanding Truth. To understand Truth, a great scientist thinks deeply, and using the tomes he has read along with his powers of reflection, generates a Theory. Then, with great care, an elaborate contraption is created test the Theory. If the test works, the Hypothesis is Proven, and it becomes a Fact. Otherwise, the Theory is Wrong, and the cycle begins again.

Of course, that’s ridiculous. That’s not science. That’s what children think of as science.

Science Works by Predicting Variation

Here’s a better definition of science:

Science is a method for predicting variation. To better predict variation, scientists construct Theories, which are mental models that allow brute facts to be put in some sort of framework. For instance, the theory of Gravity explains the brute fact of an apple on a tree in one moment, and the same apple on the great in the next, into a narrative. Theories are operationalized using hypotheses, which generate specific predictions. So gravity on Earth can be operationalized as predicting that gravity acts like an acceleration that forces all object to the ground at a rate of 32.2 feet per second per second. Run enough experiments and you will begin to see this simple hypothesis mis-predict events, which will force you to generate other hypotheses. Eventually you will have a set of hypotheses which predict events enough to be useful to you.

I say this because of a recent post by Diane Ravitch (who was recently fired from the Brookings Institution), criticizing a Gates Foundation grant to measure attentiveness through measurement of human the electrical system.

If you know what science is, and how it works, your immediate thoughts should be.

Scientists desire to predict variation in educational outcomes. These scientists doubtless have Theories of education, which are mental models that allow brute facts to be put in some sort of framework. These theories are probably operationalized using hypotheses, which have generated specific predictions. There probably is error in the these predictions, which are leading to follow-up hypothesis. These scientists must think by adding information on attentiveness measured through the electrical system, they can reduce error, and predict educational outcomes better.

If you know nothing about science, such as Diane Ravitch, your reaction differs, you’ll write a nonsensical post with only one declarative sentence: “Shades of Brave New World.”

Science Advances By Exploiting Human Nature

Now, given that, try to understand the study, as the historian Mark Safranski did, in this way:


Let’s start from the assumption that this GSR bracelet study is actually a scientific study without hidden agendas.

But before the end of his first sentence, Mark (who unlike Diane, is attempting to seriously engage in this issue) is already lost on irrelevant tangents.

Why would science be free of “hidden agendas”? Why would scientists be some cold automatons driven by computer programs with no feelings, emotions, hopes dreams, or goals? Science advances through Academia. This is done by rewarding professors for obeying the interests of peer-reviewed grant funding agencies.:

Professors, like most people, respond to the incentives of power, influence, and money.

The institution of tenure reduces uncertainty regarding money, and focuses the incentives on power and influence.

Power in academia comes from the number of bodies a professor has under him. These bodies might be apprentices (graduate students he advises), journeymen (post-docs who have a PhD and work at the lab, or staff researchers), or simple workers (lab technicians, etc).

Influence in academia comes from the extent to which one is successful in influencing one’s peers. This is typically measured in terms of influence scores, which are a product of how often the academic is cited, weighted by how important of a publication he is cited in.

The best route to both power and influence is to earn grant money. For example, consider a professor who receives grant money from a federal agency. Some of this money goes to equipment, but the majority goes to employing several graduate students to work on this large project. Likewise, with this funding, he and his team will be writing numerous articles using the latest techniques on very large data sets, and can be expected to quickly become influential in that area. Because these graduate students have him both as an employer and as an academic adviser, when they graduate with their own doctorates, they will be experts at creating ways to detect bad standardized tests (after all, it’s what they’ve been doing for years), in a few years his influence on their careers will be apparent, and they will likewise go about working on similar problems — citing him and each other as they go along.

Believing that science is free of hidden agendas is like believing that politics is free of hidden agendas: that belief is an idea that completely ignores the reality that science, like politics, takes place among human beings.

Some Science Experiments Have Multiple Outcome Variables and Multiple Predictors

Following that, Mark gives a fair summary of the research proposal, before stumbling on a subtle but important point::

Is a normal classroom setting (say 20 to low 30’s of students) recording arousal during a 40-50 minute lesson with different student and teacher behaviors a good experimental setting where variables are identified, isolated and controlled? No. There’s hundreds, maybe thousands of variables in this environment and the researchers need to separate all the “noise” from the moment of learning. To say nothing about interruptions coming from outside the classroom (ex. fire drill, students entering, leaving, PA announcements) skewing the GSR readings.
Is it a reasonable assumption that the ideal teacher state of arousal for instructing students is the same or should even correlate with student arousal levels? No. This would seem to be a separate hypothesis to be investigated.

Given that the important parts of this post are that science works through iterative experiments to predict variation, and that the social enterprise of science depends on scientists responding to incentives, I hesitate to include the following point, but Mark’s comments bring it up.

Implicit in Mark’s comment is the idea of predicting a dependent variable from an independent one, or to put it another way, basic algebra in the format.

y = mx +b

With y as the predicted variable, x as the predictor, m and b as the intercept.  Students and trainee researchers sometimes used this exact form (which they would have learned as children in elementary algebra), because this form, the simplest of all scientific forms, is also the most advanced most laymen or reporters actually grasp.

More advanced research — the kind that has hundreds to thousands of participants — uses the almost identical form.

Y = MX + B

That is, more advanced research uses matrix algebra to allow for multiple outcomes, multiple predictors, multiple slopes, and multiple intercepts.


If you can put together more than one declarative sentence in a comment talking about a scientific study that leads to implications you are uncomfortable with, you have a firmer grasp of the scientific method than Diane Ravitch.

The Money-Seekers

In the education reform debate, there are several dimensions of force, such as

  • Money, where the major players are Teachers and For-Profit Education Companies
  • Power, where the major players are States and Districts
  • Childcare, where the players are parents and employers

In the middle of all of these dimensions is the central actor of the education reform debate: teh federal-academic complex, that collection of bureaucrats, researchers, and scholars associated with the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, and the National Institutes of Health.

Bruno Behrend has also been writing about education reform, and he has used the term the “government-education complex.” Initially I thought by this he was simply describing the federa-academic complex, but in a recent column he defined his term as thus:

The “Government Education Complex” is the interlocking set of interests that control the vast majority of American education dollars, education policy, and the steady increase in unnecessary education job creation. The explosion of spending, debt, and taxation we’ve witnessed in the last 25 years was used to fund the growth of this Complex.

The complex is made up not only of associations of administrators and teachers unions, but an interconnected network of bond dealers, builders, architects, law firms, textbook companies, and other service providers who profit off of the overproduction of service contracts, debt, public employment and bureaucracy. This interlocking network has played a role in funding the campaigns of 1000s of elected officials at all levels and in both parties.

In other words, Bruno uses the term “government-academic complex” to refer to all players who primary interest in extracting money from the education system.

Indeed, Bruno continues:

The vast sum of political money raised by the “Government Education Complex” is used to write legislation at the state level to grow the complex while protecting it from any competition. State school codes are written by and for the complex and its members, and passed by the political class whose campaigns they fund.

Bruno is providng an important service, popularizing the notion that a major function of the educational system is provide extra wealth (insurance, lifestyle, etc.) to politically powerful interest groups, such as teachers or textbook publishers.

The CFR Report on Education Reform

I want to share some words on the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR’s) report on education reform. Like any report not supported by teachers, the CFR report notes, in so many words, that:

  • American schools do not educate young people effectively
  • American teachers do not understand how to do their jobs
  • Reforms which break the power of teachers are a necessary part of reforms

The first thing that should strike you about the report are the names on the cover.

Condoleeza Rice is the Republican Secretary of State during the Second Bush Administration. Joel Klein was the Department of Justice official who prosecuted “United States v. Microsoft” for President Clinton of the Democratic Party. He also served as Chancellor of New York City Schools for Mayor Bloomberg, an independent.

This is not a scientific or a technical report. It is not supposed to be. This report exists for three reasons:

  • That the CFR’s views on education are above partisan politics
  • To express empathy to other stakeholders that are suffering from the collapsed US public education system
  • To extend support to other stakeholders that are working with the federal-academic complex to rebuild the US public education system, which had been run into the ground by the teachers front organizations.

If teachers were successfully educating young people — if they had the empathy to know what is required of them and the ability to actually do it — it is unlikely this report would have been written. The CFR is reacting to a changing political environment where stakeholders (employers, states, and others) are bandwagoning along with the federal-academic complex to improve education in this country.