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.

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.

Educational Equality: The Civil Rights Struggle of Our Day

When I taught a unit on child development, I would tell a story a professor once told me: : His young son talked up proudly to him one day and announced “Cars are alive but trees aren’t.” “Why not?,” asked the professor. “Because trees only move when the wind pushes them, but cars can move all by themselves!”

The child in the story was not stupid. Indeed, as far as brute facts go, the son was not even ignorance. The child made a natural mistake along the way to develop an understanding of what “living” and “not living” meant.

I say this because I am fascinated by a recent blog post, “The Strange Genesis of ‘Education Reform’- How a Crackpot Theory Became National Policy,” which appeared on Mark Naison’s blog, With a Brooklyn Accent. The first two paragraphs are indicative of the rest of the post:

In future generations, historians are likely to tell the following story. Some time during the early 21St Century, a cross section of the top leadership of American society began to panic. They looked at the growing chasm between the rich and poor, the huge size of the nation’s prison population, the growing gulf in educational achievement between blacks and whites and poor and middle class children and decided something dramatic had to be done to remedy these problems.

But instead of critically examining how these trends reflected twenty years of regressive taxation, a futile “war on drugs,” the deregulation of the financial industry, the breaking of unions and the movement of American companies abroad, America’s leaders decided the primary source of economic inequality could be found in failing schools, bad teachers, and powerful teachers unions.

So much of this beginning is right-on: the understanding of the cross-elite nature of the education reform movement, the deep distress of the political class at the nature of America’s public school, the willingness to take radical measures, and so on.

But the author also thinks the reason for this was a focus on “equality.” While the word equality does come up in the education reform debate, it is a coded word, which means nothing at all like what the author thinks it means.

Within the context of education reform, stakeholders are arranged along three dimensions of force. Employers and parents care about child development; Districts and States care about power; Teachers and publishers care about money. Behind this debate states the federal-academic complex of bureaucrats, researchers, and politicians.

But why in the world would anyone care about “equality”?

The only people who care about “Equality” as an end in itself are those that are weak, and thus are least able to influence the debate.

I suspect people who think “equality” matters in the education reform debate also think “equality” mattered in the civil rights debate. Of course it didn’t, policies weren’t changed out of moral desire. The major civil rights policies (whether rules, laws, or rulings), were made by a cross-section of the elite that supported an interventionist foreign policy and recognized the captive nation of African-Americans provided the only intractible source of nationalist opposition against the Federal government possible in the United States at the time. (For context, the British, French, and Portuguese were being torn apart in the post-war world by the forces of natioanlism, as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires had already been, and the Soviet empire soon would be.)

America wasn’t the first multinational economic and political union — but the Federal Government also didn’t want to be the follow the British Empire into becoming a broken union.

The day of “states rights” as a force capable of starting a revolution were over by the 1940s. The day of nationalism as a force capable of starting a revolution had begun. Men such as Earl Warren helped lead America’s first attempt at breaking a potential sub-nationalism by interning the Japanese.

Men such as Earl Warren helped lead America’s second, smarter, attempt at breaking a potential sub-nationalism by enforcing desegregation. At the same times, patriots (from the Federal perspective) or quislings (from the perspective of would-be black nationalists) such as Martin Luther King were fetted with honors by the elite for their part in this “awakening” moment.


There were other forces at work too, of course, but those forces were provincial, self-interested, and soon to fall back into the noise of everyday political tumult. On a grand scale, the story of the Civil Rights era is a story of the abortion of a internal threat to the Federal government.

In our own day, the national security of the United States is at risk by our terrible public education system. This is because our broken education system means that our critical infrastructure is run by Chinese (and Indians, and Russians, and other foreign nationals).

When “equality” is used in this debate, it is not used to refer to closing the achievement gap between different groups, or any other nicety that would feel good but not flatter major forces. Rather, it is used in the sense that Steve Jobs used it when he said, “Equal opportunity to me more than anything means a great education” — in other words, nothing at all like addressing economic inequality.

There are other players at work too, provincial and self-interested ones such as teachers or parents, but on a grand scale, the story of Education Reform is the story of an attempt to abort an internal threat to the Federal government.

Let’s hope they — we — succeed.