Should we scrap STEM in high school?

STEM topics are important (duh!). Finding the future scientists who will improve my health and quality of living is important to me. I want society to cast a wide net to find all those poor kids, minority kids, and girls we’re currently training to be cute who, in the right setting, could be the ones to save me from the cancer I’m statistically likely to get.

But how much value are we really getting from 12th grade? I’m pulling a bait and switch with the title to this post–I think we should keep the norm of teaching 9th graders basic science. But by 12th grade, are we really getting enough value to warrant the millions of hours per year of effort we demand of 16-18-year olds? I’m skeptical.

There are lots of things that should be taught in school. Ask any group of people and you’ll quickly come up with a long list of sensible sounding ideas (personal finance, computer programming, economics, philosophy, professional communication, home ec., and on and on and on). But adding more content only means we do a worse job at all of it. And that means an increased chance of students simply rejecting those topics wholesale.

Society is filled with science/econ deniers of all persuasions. Anti-intellectuals have been a major constituency for at least the last decade. It’s not like these folks didn’t go to school. Someone tried to teach them. What I want to know is how things have would been different if we’d tried something other than overwhelming these people with authoritatively delivered facts (which seem to have resulted in push-back rather than enlightenment)?

The last 6+ years of trying to teach economics to college kids against their will has convinced me that art (especially literature and drama) affects us much more than dissecting frogs or solving equations. And exposing kids to more literature and drama has the added benefit of (possibly) helping them develop their literacy (which we’ve forgotten is not a binary variable).

Although casting a wide net to find potential scientists is important, ultimately, we only need scientific knowledge in the heads of those who don’t flip through it. But literature can help us develop empathy, and that is a mental skill we need in far more heads. I suspect that replacing a 12th grade physics class 98% of students forget with a literature class where you read a good book would do more to promote an enlightened society.

Everyone understands what your GPA this semester means

In my industry there’s been a ton of discussion about how to handle grading for this spring semester. Campuses shifted to online instruction mid-semester. Students are losing jobs, struggling with home responsibilities, and otherwise being utterly thrown into the deep end of an unfair situation.

Here’s the thing: we all get it. C+ this semester will be a mighty impressive accomplishment for a lot of students this year. Nobody looking at and subjectively interpreting a transcript will fail to appreciate that. If I’m looking at your transcript, I’m going to look at your GPA for before this and heavily discount this semester’s GPA if it’s anything different than it was in the fall.

For some students, this pandemic will be a minor hiccup, or even a chance to rise to the occasion and excel. Good for them. For other students, it will be such a significant disruption that they won’t be able to learn the material they’re ostensibly in school for. And if they can’t pass the class, that sucks. Pandemics suck, and their impact on people’s educational progress is part of that suckiness.

We absolutely should look for ways to reduce the impact on those students. We need to grant exceptions for things like scholarships requiring certain timelines and GPAs (like my favorite NY state program). But life happens, and a if grades are worth having at all (which we should debate), then we shouldn’t abandon them now. We should just abandon the stakes we’ve attached to them.

Dumbing Down the World

Public education has been a slowly degenerating disaster throughout the West, and now it seems we’re exporting it to the rest.

At a United Nations meeting 15 years ago, the world’s governments agreed on the goal of enrolling every child on the planet in primary schooling by this year.

Indeed, they have nearly succeeded, with 2014’s reports indicating that 90 percent of children in developing regions now attend primary school. Presumably, the numbers for developed countries are above 95 percent.

But strangely, this lofty plan did not say anything about the quality of the schooling into which we have now driven more than 9 out of every 10 human children; the whole idea is to get children into government-approved classrooms, apparently regardless of what happens there.

The reports of UN agencies like Education for All (EFA) are full of ideas on how to get kids to go to school in developing countries: making education entirely taxpayer funded (commonly by taxpayers from richer countries), providing free medication or food to students who show up, or even just paying cash to the parents in return for kids’ attendance.

But are the pupils who spend more time at these schools actually learning more as a result? Has the goal of putting more kids into classrooms actually led to more kids getting a proper education? MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel reports, “Several programs which have raised participation, from providing worm medicine to free meals, show no evidence that children are learning more as a result.”

And EFA’s Fast Track Initiative admits, “In nearly all developing countries the levels of learning achievement are shockingly low.… In many low-income countries students learn virtually nothing and end up functionally illiterate.”

In fact, the situation is so bad that Jameel says one area to be improved is “more regular attendance of teachers.”

A crucial fallacy

The international education agencies seem to have been duped by what Austro-libertarian Murray Rothbard calls “a crucial fallacy … confusion between formal schooling and education in general.”

Promising to educate every child in every culture through primary schooling is a bit like promising to clothe every child in every climate by giving them a parka.

In fact, until recently, nearly all children learned the important skills of life largely outside of schools, through observing and joining in with the activities of adults. Rothbard writes with respect to American education, “Education is a lifelong process of learning, and learning takes place not only in school, but in all areas of life. When the child plays, or listens to parents or friends, or reads a newspaper, or works at a job, he or she is becoming educated.”

All the medicine handouts and free school lunches EFA proposes are attempts to offset the direct economic opportunity cost of the child spending a day at school instead of working on the farm or in a factory. While these handouts do take into account the child’s economic contribution to the family’s labor, what about that labor’s educational contribution to the child? What about the educational opportunity cost?

If students in many schools are learning very little and graduating “functionally illiterate,” if attendance doesn’t actually produce real education, and if teachers sometimes don’t even bother to show up, perhaps the parents and children feel that they would learn more outside the schools than in.

The presence of this educational opportunity cost may help explain why, despite all the subsidies and bonuses meant to drive kids into classrooms, the 2014 report on this goal laments, “high dropout rates [of children] remain an impediment to universal primary education.”

The kids are going into school, they and their families are seeing the results, and they and their families are deciding they are better off elsewhere.

But sadly, this important educational opportunity cost doesn’t seem to be on the global pedagogical philanthropists’ radar. Jameel says only that “there is no consensus on why so many poor children don’t attend school, or the best way to increase participation. If children’s labor is crucial to their family’s welfare … it may prove very difficult to attract more children to school.”

There is no mention of any learning that might happen while the child is outside the classroom.

For the moment, let us grant this assumption: Only schooling is education. No learning happens outside of schools.

Under this assumption, not only do children’s minds profit nothing from a day spent at home or in the bush, but most of the parents of children in the developing world are themselves totally un-“educated” — benighted savages whose heads are filled with cobwebs.

Thus, for our benevolent pedagogical overlords, it could make sense to get those kids away from their parents and into schools as soon as possible, even if, as EFA acknowledges, “in some countries nearly every aspect of the schooling system is seriously deficient — infrastructure, teaching materials, teacher availability and qualifications, lack of student assessments and lack of incentives for improving learning outcomes.”

Furthermore, in many poorer countries, the office jobs (the only ones for which schooling is actually required) are nearly all government and international NGO jobs. That’s because these countries have not (or at least not yet) developed a strong market demand for literate and numerate workers. So those kids who do succeed in school end up moving to the capital and writing reports on the importance of international funding for schools.

The kids who do not do well in school go back home to the farms or the factories, having spent years of their lives learning, in some cases, “virtually nothing.” But since the bureaucrats seem to believe that the traditional cultures the children might have spent those years immersed in held no knowledge anyway, this result might not be seen as much of a loss.

Setting young minds free

No doubt, some kids who would profit from schooling are being kept out of it by very bad things: wars, forced prostitution, and outright poverty. EFA’s programs to make schooling more accessible could have a huge positive impact on these children’s lives.

But instead of focusing on gimmicks to get kids into the classes governments want to teach, educators should focus on materials that kids want to learn — or that their parents are willing to invest in.

James Tooley has reported on the existence of an entire underground economy of black- and gray-market private schools in the slums of India and Kenya. Since these schools either hide themselves from the local authorities (to avoid being shut down) or are hidden by the local authorities from the national and international authorities (to avoid embarrassing the public schools), it’s difficult to know how prevalent they are.

What is clear is that these dirt-cheap private schools are operating with a profit motive under serious competition. Students’ parents often have to choose whether to pay for a loaf of bread or a day in school. How good would your kid’s school have to be for you to pay for it under those circumstances?

Meanwhile, these schools’ profits are being siphoned off in bribes to the local inspectors.

We could unleash these not-quite-legal schools from their government shackles by breaking the chain between government and education. Ending the drive for compulsory, state-run, subsidized schooling would, in Rothbard’s words, “give children their head” and let them seek out “a genuine and truly free education, both in and out of formal schools.”

This article was originally published in the Freeman online, and is based on an older article written for Mises Daily. Many thanks to Max Borders and BK Marcus for the opportunity to publish in the Freeman, and to Dan Sanchez for the opportunity to publish in the Mises Daily during his tenure.