The State and education – Part IV: Conclusion

On August 17, 2018, the BBC published an article titled “Behind the exodus from US state schools.” After taking the usual swipes at religion and political conservatism, the real reason for the haemorrhage became evident in the personal testimony collected from an example mother who withdrew her children from the public school in favour of a charter school:

I once asked our public school music teacher, “Why introduce Britney Spears when you could introduce Beethoven,” says Ms. Helmi, who vouches for the benefits to her daughters of a more classical education.

“One of my favourite scenes at the school is seeing a high-schooler playing with a younger sibling and then discussing whether a quote was from Aristotle or Socrates.”

The academic and intellectual problems with the state school system and curriculum are perfectly encapsulated in the quote. The hierarchy of values is lost, not only lost but banished. This is very important to understand in the process of trying to safeguard liberty: the progenitors of liberty are not allowed into the places that claim to incubate the supposed future guardians of that liberty.

In addition to any issues concerning academic curricula, there is the problem of investment. One of the primary problems I see today, especially as someone who is frequently asked to give advice on application components, such as résumés and cover letters/statements of purpose, is a sense of entitlement vis-à-vis institutional education and the individual; it is a sense of having a right to acceptance/admission to institutions and career fields of choice. In my view, the entitlement stems from either a lack of a sense of investment or perhaps a sense of failed investment.

On the one hand as E.S. Savas effectively argued in his book Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships, if the state insists on being involved in education and funding institutions with tax dollars, then the taxpayers have a right to expect to profit from, i.e. have a reasonable expectation that their children may be admitted to and attend, public institutions – it’s the parents’ money after all. On the other hand, the state schools are a centralized system and as such in ill-adapted to adjustment, flexibility, or personal goals. And if all taxpayers have a right to attend a state-funded institution, such places can be neither fully competitive nor meritocratic. Additionally, Savas’ argument serves as a reminder that state schooling is a manifestation of welfarism via democratic socialism and monetary redistribution through taxation.

That wise investing grants dividends is a truth most people freely recognize when discussing money; when applied to humans, people start to seek caveats. Every year, the BBC runs a series on 100- “fill-in-the-blank” people – it is very similar to Forbes’ lists of 30 under 30, top 100 self-made millionaires, richest people, etc. Featured on the BBC list for 2017 was a young woman named Camille Eddy, who at age 23 was already a robotics specialist in Silicon Valley and was working to move to NASA. Miss Eddy’s article begins with a quote: “Home-schooling helped me break the glass ceiling.” Here is what Eddy had to say about the difference between home and institutional schooling based on her own experience:

I was home-schooled from 1stgrade to high school graduation by my mum. My sister was about to start kindergarten, and she wanted to invest time in us and be around. She’s a really smart lady and felt she could do it.

Regarding curriculum choices, progress, and goals:

My mum would look at how we did that year and if we didn’t completely understand a subject she would just repeat the year. She focused on mastery rather than achievement. I was able to make that journey on my own time.

And the focus on mastery rather than achievement meant that the latter came naturally; Eddy tested into Calculus I her first year at university. Concerning socialization and community – two things the public schools pretend to offer when confronted with the fact that their intellectual product is inferior, and their graduates do not achieve as much:

Another advantage was social learning. Because we were with mum wherever she went we met a lot of people. From young to old, I was able to converse well with anyone. We had many friends in church, our home-school community groups, and even had international pen pals.

When I got to college I felt I was more apt to jump into leadership and talk in front of people because I was socially savvy.

On why she was able to “find her passion” and be an interesting, high-achieving person:

And I had a lot of time to dream of all the things I could be. I would often finish school work and be out designing or engineering gadgets and inventions. I did a lot of discovery during those home-school years, through documentaries, books, or trying new things.

In the final twist to the plot, Camille Eddy, an African-American, was raised by a single mother in what she unironically describes as a “smaller town in the US” where the “cost of living was not so high.” What Eddy’s story can be distilled to is a parent who recognized that the public institutions were not enough and directly addressed the problem. All of her success, as she freely acknowledges, came from her mother’s decision and efforts. In the interest of full honesty, I should state that I and my siblings were home-schooled from 1stgrade through high school by parents who wanted a full classical education that allowed for personal growth and investment in the individual, so I am a strong advocate for independent schooling.

There is a divide, illustrated by Eddy’s story, created by the concept of investment. When Camille Eddy described her mother as wanting “to invest time in us and be around,” she was simply reporting her mother’s attitude and motivation. However, for those who aspire to have, or for their children to attain, Eddy’s achievements and success, her words are a reproach. What these people hear instead is, “my mother cared more about me than yours cared about you,” or “my mother did more for her children than you have done for yours.” With statements like Eddy’s, the onus of responsibility for a successful outcome shifts from state institutions to the individual. The responsibility always lay with the individual, especially vis-à-vis public education since it was designed at the outset to only accommodate the lowest common denominator, but, as philosopher Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind,witnessed, ignoring this truth became an overarching American trait.

There are other solutions that don’t involve cutting the public school out completely. For example: Dr. Ben Carson’s a single-, working-mother, who needed the public school, if only as a babysitter, threw out the TV and mandated that he and his brother go to the library and read. As a musician, I know many people who attended public school simply to obtain the requisite diploma for conservatory enrollment but maintain that their real educations occurred in their private preparation – music training, especially for the conservatory level, is inherently an individualistic, private pursuit. But all the solutions start with recognizing that the public schools are inadequate, and that most who have gone out and made a success of life in the bigger world normally had parents who broke them out of the state school mould. In the case of Dr. Carson’s mother, she did not confuse the babysitter (public school) with the educator (herself as the parent).

The casual expectation that the babysitter can also educate is part of the entitlement mentality toward education that is pervasive in American society. The mentality is rather new. Allan Bloom described watching it take hold, and he fingered the Silent Generation – those born after 1920 who fought in World War II; their primary historical distinction was their comparative lack of education due to growing up during the Great Depression and their lack of political and cultural involvement, hence the moniker “silent”[1]– as having raised their children (the Baby Boomers) to believe that high school graduation conferred knowledge and rights. As a boy Bloom had had to fight with his parents in order to be allowed to attend a preparatory school and then University of Chicago, so he later understandably found the entitlement mentality of his Boomer and Generation X students infuriating and offensive. The mental “closing” alluded to in Bloom’s title was the resolute refusal of the post-War generations either to recognize or to address the fact that their state-provided educations had left them woefully unprepared and uninformed.

To close, I have chosen a paraphrase of social historian Neil Howe regarding the Silent Generation, stagnation, and mid-life crises:

Their [Gen X’s] parents – the “Silent Generation” – originated the stereotypical midlife breakdown, and they came of age, and fell apart, in a very different world. Generally stable and solvent, they headed confidently into adult lives about the time they were handed high school diplomas, and married not long after that. You see it in Updike’s Rabbit books – they gave up their freedom early, for what they expected to be decades of stability.

Implicit to the description of the Silent Generation is the idea, expressed with the word “handed,” that they did not earn the laurels on which they built their futures. They took an entitlement, one which failed them. There is little intrinsic difference between stability and security; it is the same for freedom and liberty. History demonstrates that humans tend to sacrifice liberty for security. Branching out from education, while continuing to use it as a marker, we will look next at the erosive social effect entitlements have upon liberty and its pursuit.

[1]Apparently to be part of the “Greatest Generation,” a person had to have been born before or during World War I because, according to Howe, the Greatest Generation were the heroes – hero is one of the mental archetypes Howe developed in his Strauss-Howe generational theory – who engineered the Allied victory; the Silent Generation were just cogs in the machine and lacked the knowledge, maturity, and experience to achieve victory.

Evidence-based policy needs theory

This imaginary scenario is based on an example from my paper with Baljinder Virk, Stella Mascarenhas-Keyes and Nancy Cartwright: ‘Randomized Controlled Trials: How Can We Know “What Works”?’ 

A research group of practically-minded military engineers are trying to work out how to effectively destroy enemy fortifications with a cannon. They are going to be operating in the field in varied circumstances so they want an approach that has as much general validity as possible. They understand the basic premise of pointing and firing the cannon in the direction of the fortifications. But they find that the cannon ball often fails to hit their targets. They have some idea that varying the vertical angle of the cannon seems to make a difference. So they decide to test fire the cannon in many different cases.

As rigorous empiricists, the research group runs many trial shots with the cannon raised, and also many control shots with the cannon in its ‘treatment as usual’ lower position. They find that raising the cannon often matters. In several of these trials, they find that raising the cannon produces a statistically significant increase in the number of balls that destroy the fortifications. Occasionally, they find the opposite: the control balls perform better than the treatment balls. Sometimes they find that both groups work, or don’t work, about the same. The results are inconsistent, but on average they find that raised cannons hit fortifications a little more often.

A physicist approaches the research group and explains that rather than just trying to vary the height the cannon is pointed in various contexts, she can estimate much more precisely where the cannon should be aimed using the principle of compound motion with some adjustment for wind and air resistance. All the research group need to do is specify the distance to the target and she can produce a trajectory that will hit it. The problem with the physicist’s explanation is that it includes reference to abstract concepts like parabolas, and trigonometric functions like sine and cosine. The research group want to know what works. Her theory does not say whether you should raise or lower the angle of the cannon as a matter of policy. The actual decision depends on the context. They want an answer about what to do, and they would prefer not to get caught up testing physics theories about ultimately unobservable entities while discovering the answer.

Eventually the research group write up their findings, concluding that firing the cannon pointed with a higher angle can be an effective ‘intervention’ but that whether it does or not depends a great deal on particular contexts. So they suggest that artillery officers will have to bear that in mind when trying to knock down fortifications in the field; but that they should definitely consider raising the cannon if they aren’t hitting the target. In the appendix, they mention the controversial theory of compound motion as a possible explanation for the wide variation in the effectiveness of the treatment effect that should, perhaps, be explored in future studies.

This is an uncharitable caricature of contemporary evidence-based policy (for a more aggressive one see ‘Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials’). Metallurgy has well-understood, repeatedly confirmed theories that command consensus among scientists and engineers. The military have no problem learning and applying this theory. Social policy, by contrast, has no theories that come close to that level of consistency. Given the lack of theoretical consensus, it might seem more reasonable to test out practical interventions instead and try to generalize from empirical discoveries. The point of this example is that without theory empirical researchers struggle to make any serious progress even with comparatively simple problems. The fact that theorizing is difficult or controversial in a particular domain does not make it any less essential a part of the research enterprise.


Also relevant: Dylan Wiliam’s quip from this video (around 9:25): ‘a statistician knows that someone with one foot in a bucket of freezing water and the other foot in a bucket of boiling water is not, on average, comfortable.’

Pete Boettke’s discussion of economic theory as an essential lens through which one looks to make the world clearer.

ICE as Education Planners

Yale recently reclassified economics as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and other schools may follow suit. It’s a public-spirited regulatory arbitrage–by reclassifying to “Econometric and Quantitative Economics” they make it easier for international students to continue working in the U.S. after graduation. But by capitulating to regulatory nonsense, they’re sacrificing the long-run vitality of the field.

Here’s how this whole classification thing works: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a “STEM Designated Degree Program List” that specifies which programs on the Department of Education’s list of degree programs qualify as STEM. Students with degrees in these fields get special status as far as immigration. ICE’s list includes (among others) several psychology programs and three social science programs: Archaeology; Cyber/Computer Forensics and Counterterrorism; and Econometrics and Quantitative Economics.

What can we infer from this? That the feds are defining STEM narrowly, with a greater emphasis on engineering than science. STEM is about training people to do science-y work with practical applications. Basic research gets lip service, but only really matters so far as it’s likely to have clear applications in the future.

Economics has some parts that fit into such a view of STEM. Even I’ll admit (controversially for Austrians and Anarcho-Capitalists) that positive-sum social engineering a) is possible (in modest increments), and b) has something to learn from economics. But to include all of econ in STEM would require using a broader definition of STEM.

So what’s the upshot? High profile departments will focus more on a narrower part of economics pushing much of the field to the periphery. This is a retreat into more isolated academic silos. “Economics, general” leaves a vague space around a department, but taking a more specific designation means they can be held to more specific expectations. It might have little impact on the day-to-day life of a department, but in the long run they’re hamstringing themselves.

The problem these departments are trying to address is that ICE has too much power. But by playing this game they’re letting ICE play central planner in the education industry!

On the point of quantifying in general and quantifying for policy purposes

Recently, I stumbled on this piece in Chronicle by Jerry Muller. It made my blood boil. In the piece, the author basically argues that, in the world of education, we are fixated with quantitative indicators of performance. This fixation has led to miss (or forget) some important truths about education and the transmission of knowledge. I wholeheartedly disagree because the author of the piece is confounding two things.

We need to measure things! Measurements are crucial to our understandings of causal relations and outcomes.  Like Diane Coyle, I am a big fan of the “dashboard” of indicators to get an idea of what is broadly happening.  However, I agree with the authors that very often the statistics lose their entire meaning. And that’s when we start targeting them!

Once we know that this variable becomes the object of target, we act in ways that increase this variable. As soon as it is selected, we modify our behavior to achieve fixed targets and the variable loses some of its meaning. This is also known as Goodhart’s law whereby “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” (note: it also looks a lot like the Lucas critique).

Although Goodhart made this point in the context of monetary policy, it applies to any sphere of policy – including education. When an education department decides that this is the metric they care about (e.g. completion rates, minority admission, average grade point, completion times, balanced curriculum, ratio of professors to pupils, etc.), they are inducing a change in behavior which alters the significance carried by this variable.  This is not an original point. Just go to google scholar and type “Goodhart’s law and education” and you end up with papers such as these two (here and here) that make exactly the point I am making here.

In his Chronicle piece, Muller actually makes note of this without realizing how important it is. He notes that “what the advocates of greater accountability metrics overlook is how the increasing cost of college is due in part to the expanding cadres of administrators, many of whom are required to comply with government mandates(emphasis mine).

The problem he is complaining about is not metrics per se, but rather the effects of having policy-makers decide a metric of relevance. This is a problem about selection bias, not measurement. If statistics are collected without an intent to be a benchmark for the attribution of funds or special privileges (i.e. that there are no incentives to change behavior that affects the reporting of a particular statistics), then there is no problem.

I understand that complaining about a “tyranny of metrics” is fashionable, but in that case the fashion looks like crocs (and I really hate crocs) with white socks.

What classes are worth subsidizing?

A friend of mine has a great phrase that captures what’s wrong with about 1/3 of the population. They’re “people who would make good Nazis.” These are the obedient people who are ready to follow orders without thinking without having sufficiently high standards for whose orders they’ll follow.

My question is “what can I do to help my students not fall into this category?” The trouble is that these folks aren’t drawn to intellectual arguments. I need to get them in a more visceral way. I think the answer is art. These kids need to be watching TV shows and movies/shows like Donnie Darko and The Handmaid’s Tale (tell me your favorites in the comments!). They need something that will grab them by the lapels, shake them, and shout “question authority!”

Pragmatic folks (the sort of people who are normally excited to hear what a libertarian economist has to say) would usually think that schools should focus on pragmatic things. It’s certainly a good idea for kids to leave school with some ideas about how to manage their personal finances and research important issues. But the economic justification for subsidies rarely favors such pragmatic topics. Petroleum engineers don’t need their schooling subsidized because they’ll end up getting paid enough to pay off their student loans.

I like to think of myself as a pragmatic person*, but I’m increasingly coming around to the idea that art is worth subsidizing. Even (perhaps) if that means giving money to ridiculous people who argue incoherently against freedom.

Bildergebnis für ned flanders parents

As subsidies go, art is cheap. You don’t need to build anything as complicated as a particle accelerator. You just need to grab some kid out of the nearest Starbucks and give them a few bucks to make something.

You’ll end up paying for a lot of garbage, but life is full of waste (I’d bet good money that any good project involves a good amount of unrealized potential savings that are only obvious after the fact). For that matter, you’ll almost certainly do some degree of harm. If we threw money at art departments (the way we did with STEM departments during the cold war) the money spent on Che shirts could easily fuel the western hemisphere by attaching a generator to Guevara’s spinning corpse.

And the benefits will be vague and arguable. I’m not in the business of selling bonafide snake oil; this idea isn’t a magical cure-all.

In fact, the more you try to measure the benefits, the less benefit you might get. If we could measure important but intangible things like decency and thoughtfulness, we’d already have those things. But when we try to come up with proxies for important things, those proxies quickly become bad proxies. All the more so if we try to reward people for measurable achieving our goals. Funding should be unconditional (and focused on production rather than selection) if we want to avoid funding propaganda. We almost certainly will be funding propaganda, but if humanity is really worth saving, it’s a baby/bathwater tradeoff.

I’ve just spent three paragraphs convincing you that this might be a terrible idea. But I still think the net benefits could justify the cost. Imagine some imperfect estimate of the impact and an even more imperfect measure of the value created. What will we get out of this (on average)? In a word: more. More novels, web comics, paintings, podcasts, and films.

And with more art, there’s more cream to rise to the top. The best art typically encourages thoughtfulness and empathy. This is a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach that would (at relatively low cost) saturate the public sphere with enough semi-thoughtful stuff to force usually-thoughtless people to think more clearly about the world around them.

If** we can subsidize free thought, this is how we’ll do it. And if it’s possible, it’s worth doing in a world where we clearly have too many people who would make good Nazis.

*If that was really true I’d work in a bank.

**Do I really think this would work? I’m not remotely sure. But I think it’s an idea worth discussing. I teach economics because I hope the marginal return (in terms of improving the “civic quality” of my students) is high. But it feels Sisyphusian at times, and some students are clearly not ready to get it. I worry that they’ll go out into the world ready to follow any maniac’s orders. In terms of the stability of a free and peaceful society, doing something about those people seems important.

How school choice can benefit teachers

Betsy DeVos was narrowly confirmed as US Education Secretary this week. Of all Trump’s nominees, she seems to have attracted the most rancor, which is a shame considering Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is an outspoken supporter of the US’s brutally racist drug war. Concerns with DeVos’s background and experience are very well-founded. Concerns with her support for school choice, however, are not.

Others, including Nick Gillespie, have already covered the important student-centric case for school choice, pointing out in particular how greater choice benefits minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I will focus instead on the benefits to teachers as I see them based on my research in school choice systems in the United Kingdom and Sweden.

A great deal of opposition to school choice is based on the perception that it is necessarily an attack on the teaching profession (it is certainly the way teaching unions portray it). Indeed, it is too easy for generically anti-state advocates of school choice to fall into the assumption that there is a pitched conflict between the supposed special interests of publicly-funded teachers and the interests of students. On this narrow account, the purpose of school choice is to compel teachers to work harder, for longer, in order to produce better results for their students.

The reality is that teachers and students share a lot of common interests, namely having a safe, productive and enjoyable working environment. The broader case for school choice is that a competitive framework allows for these environments to emerge more readily than with a monopoly public provider. This does not necessarily mean importing a ‘competitive ethos’ inside the school gates. If anything, it is school administrators, or proprietors in the case of private schools, that need to be exposed to competition, not the teachers themselves.

How do teachers benefit from school choice in practice? First, schools exposed to competition are encouraged to devote more money to teachers’ salaries (for teachers both in public and private schools). Arguably, this is because retention of quality teachers is more important than more visible expenditure that are often more attractive to policymakers. These include new buildings and electronic classroom aids that officials think can give the public the impression of long-term ‘investment’ in a way that simply paying teachers more does not, even if that is, in fact, what works best.

Second, such schools can allocate training resources more effectively to teachers. I found in Sweden, which has an extensive school choice system, that one private network of schools had developed and provided their own continuing professional development curriculum rather than outsourcing it to consultants.

Third, multiple competing providers combined with the possibility of establishing new schools give more career options for teachers. Conversely, a public monopoly can easily succumb to group-think. This ends up excluding good teachers who happen to disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy. The career trajectory of British teacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, is a useful illustration. She was a successful state-school teacher who made the mistake of appearing at a Conservative Party conference in order to advocate for a more traditional pedagogy and to discuss problems of discipline in the school system. She was suspended from teaching as a result and essentially forced to resign her position.

Under a purely public school system, an outspoken teacher who disagrees with the way the majority of schools are run might be frozen out from further employment indefinitely. They would have to move to the fee-paying private sector instead in order to continue teaching at all. In the United Kingdom, however, we now have array of state-funded but independent schools called free schools. This allowed Birbalsingh to open a new school, the Michaela Community School, which so far appears to be enjoying some success. It is also an attractive employer for other teachers seeking an environment that supports greater discipline in the classroom. Thus she was able to continue contributing to public education. In this sense, a diverse range of schools, based on different pedagogical principles, does not only benefit students who can find a school that better matches their needs. It also gives teachers a wider range of environments in which to work.

A Bad Teenager

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

…..I repeated my senior year in a high school closer to home that was not nearly as good as the first. I don’t know why I did that. I was like a sheep walking insouciantly and sure-footed to the slaughterhouse. There was no reason to think I would do better the second time than the first. I had not failed from bad luck, or because I did “not test well,” in the mealy-mouthed gobbledygook of today. Rather, it was because vast blank, empty steppes overlaid my mind. I doubt one year would have been long enough to fill up the blanks even if I had tried. At any rate, my heart wasn’t in it. Someone should have yanked me out and sent me to work full-time. I could have learned something useful, like the basics of charcuterie, for example. Perhaps everyone around me got caught short and no one had an alternative plan. At this distance in time, I have trouble evaluating to what extent my parents would have thought such a pragmatic solution to my aimlessness socially unacceptable. I went back to high school as the default solution. I performed just as badly the second time around. That second senior year would have been a total waste except that it changed radically the trajectory of my life. I was the beneficiary of a positive injustice. (I went to California a first time, on a scholarship.)