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The Wastefulness of Schools
A reply to Infovores' reply to Caplan and Parr
I’m back, and I love to reply to a good essay, especially when it is broken up into convenient numbered reasons!
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Some of you may not be familiar with’s book “The Case Against Education.” If that is you, dear reader, I will echo Infovores and recommend you read the summation version Caplan wrote in the Atlantic. To summarize the over all point, Caplan isn’t so much against education (teaching people things) but the strange process we call education that mostly involves people sitting in chairs learning nothing for years on end. Lots of studies show that students don’t learn much, don’t retain what they learn, and generally are only signaling internal qualities they already had, such as conscientiousness, conformity and intelligence. One way of looking at that is that doing well in school is a function of already being the kind of person who does well in school, not anything you actually learn, in much the same way as “growing up to be over 6 feet tall” has as lot to do with starting out as the kind of kid with the genetics to grow up to be over six feet tall and very little to do with, say, jumping up and trying to touch the tops of door frames; just because taller kids tend to do a lot of the latter doesn’t mean they are tall because they did.
The lack of value of schooling is a very unpleasant idea for most people, who very reasonably want to think their time in school was very beneficial, and have warm memories of teachers who taught them a lot, or showed them the joys of a new subject. However, such people should reflect on how many teachers they had that taught them nothing, or turned them off a subject they might have loved.
For people like me who have taught recent high school graduates through college seniors and worked with and trained new grads in industry settings, the argument that “high school doesn’t teach kids much, and college kids don’t learn much, either” matches our experience pretty closely.
It is worth noting, however, that the statement isn’t universal: schooling does function as education for some small percentage of students. The problem is that for most students, say any in what we might think of as an “easy major”, the actual value is really low; for high school students it is harder to say, but there is a lot of wasted time there, too.
With that said, let’s turn to Infovores’ arguments for why school is less wasteful than you think, available here!
1: Bryan has the Burden of Proof
Caplan and Infovores both agree that Caplan, as arguing for a dramatic change in the status quo (cutting spending by as much as 80%) bears the burden of proof. Ives Parr disagrees, pointing out that “Those who advocate continuing to spend exorbitant amounts of time and money on a program should establish beyond a reasonable doubt that it is working. Since markets tend to weed out costly and unworthwhile endeavors, I believe the current education system survives through coercion and subsidy.”
Now, I am going to argue that all three are right, in their own way. Caplan goes above and beyond what most of his interlocutors provide when it comes to evidence that school is not terribly useful, as he really should. This is one of Caplan’s great strengths as a writer and thinker: he takes ideas seriously, and doesn’t simply write off arguments for or against without considering their truth and mustering facts. Speculation doesn’t cut it!
However, Ives Parr is also correct, for the simple reason that we have spent nearly a century on universal public schooling in the USA, with many decades of data gathered. Why does that shift the burden of proof? Because if our education system worked, there would be no burden to prove it! It should be incredibly easy to demonstrate that we as tax payers are getting what we are paying for. So not only should proponents of our current system demonstrate that the system they advocate is doing its job, it should be a cake walk to do so. Muster your facts, people!
Consider a similar case, that of state mandated safety inspections for automobiles. For those who don’t deal with this, in most US states car owners are required to pay a licensed mechanic to do a safety inspection of their car to get a sticker saying they are allowed to operate it on public roads. Make sure it has headlights and brakes, that sort of thing. Now, if I were to argue that this is a waste of time and money and amounts to nothing more than a minor subsidy to auto mechanics someone might well argue that the burden of proof was on me to prove that, because we have long done it this way. However, in evaluating the evidence, one should consider how easy that evidence should be to get. If I, the incorrigible grump, can point out “Minnesota doesn’t require safety inspections, and they have no worse safety outcomes despite being in the frozen Chaos Wastes” that is incredibly damning for the simple reason that, if the program worked the way it is claimed, evidence should be thick upon the ground to that effect exactly because most states have required safety inspections for so long. If those supporting the program can’t easily demonstrate the value from the program’s long track record, that should make you highly suspicious that it has any.
Put another way, if something is measurable, is working and has worked for a long time, it should be very easy to demonstrate that is has been working. If someone says “Hey, our program works, we just force you to pay for it and take part because it is in everyone’s best interest” it makes sense to apply more scrutiny, particularly if that someone can’t seem to come up with a strong demonstration that the program works.
2: The Sheepskin Effect Isn’t Just Signaling
The “sheepskin effect” is the odd effect that students who get their diploma/degree from school earn almost the entire education premium compared to students who drop out the day before who earn only a tiny percent. In other words, if college graduates earn an extra $30,000 a year above high school graduates, college students who pass all their courses and are otherwise identical but quit before receiving the degree receive only say $3,000 a year above high school graduates. Caplan (and others) interpret this to mean that employers don’t care what your grades were in your classes, or what you learned, nearly so much as they care that you finished that last, pointless step.
Infovores quotes a counter from Nick Huntington-Klein as a sensible alternative explanation:
What schools actually *do* when they allow you to continue in your education is, effectively, measure what you’ve learned and see if it passes some minimum standard. If you don’t, you drop out. We end up with those failing the (lax) minimum populating the dropout years. They’ve learned little, so they earn little. In the final year, you see everyone who passes the minimum, whether they learned just enough or WAY MORE than enough. The final year contains a wide range of big learners, so on average there’s a big jump in earnings that year.
Intuitive, based on literal actions people perform, and a totally-HC explanation of sheepskin effects.
Is this a sensible alternative explanation, based on “literal actions people perform”, however? I think not.
Nick H-K’s argument centers on the idea that getting your degree is the result of being measured and found to have passed a minimum standard, and those who do not get the degree did not pass the minimum.
However, Nick’s argument only works if the measuring to see if you learned the minimum to continue happens only just before you get your degree, and not anywhere along the line. Yet, as we college grads all know, the opposite is the case: you pass individual courses each semester, with no special finals or overall exams required after you pass your last course but before a degree is conferred. Indeed, most undergraduate programs require only that you pass the individual classes, leaving graduation timing to the student’s whim after the requirements are met. The student has been measured the entire time, to see if they meet the minimum; it is all right there on the transcript. This is why we would expect to see a student who finished something like 90% of the course work to earn something like 90% of the salary if they stop then, as they would have learned roughly 90% of what the student who finished all the course work learned, assuming the grades are equivalent.
So Nick’s explanation fails, precisely because it is not based on literal actions people perform, but rather some different system that isn’t our current system.
As a side note, Infovores also references Noah Smith’s response to Caplan’s response to Smith’s response to Caplan’s book. He of course argues that the sheepskin effect is not signaling at all, but actually purely human capital driven.
However, firstly he misunderstands the signaling model, asking why students who complete 7 of 8 requires semesters would ever stop attending college just because they were giving up on the signal? Surely it must because they simply couldn’t hack the last semester’s classes. Except that if you hold GPA constant (as Caplan’s research does) you still find the sheepskin effect, even if students do complete all eight semesters. As it turns out, there are many reasons students do not complete enough to collect the degree, and all of those students face a huge drop in the return for their schooling. Ran out of money? Had a kid? Sick relative to care for? These can all make finishing that last semester vastly harder than the first seven, but you aren’t getting 7/8ths the college return for all you did learn. Hence, signaling.
Secondly, Smith confuses the treatment, what students actually are supposed to learn, muddying the waters by throwing in things that maybe they learn that we coincidentally can’t measure, but hey, let’s call it human capital.
Employers try to tell whether the treatment worked. They look at GPA, for example. But if many of the human capital benefits of college don't come from grades, but from social networks, personal growth, etc., GPA doesn't tell you all you need to know about whether the treatment worked. So as an employer, you'd try to look for other clues as to whether college improved a student or not.
Dropping out of school is one such clue. It could mean that you didn't build human networks valuable enough to keep you hanging around. It could mean that you have some emotional problem, and that college therefore didn't give you the emotional maturity that it tends to give most people. In other words, even if the treatment typically works, dropping out - including dropping out right before the finish line - could indicate that the treatment didn't work for you.
So… GPA, which is supposed to measure something along the lines of what someone learned, doesn’t tell you enough that is useful, so employers assume that lots of other great things like social networking and personal growth happened if you graduate, and they really value this as the capital they are looking for.
So, right off the bat, Smith is accepting that the measure of what students learned in terms of actual studies (math, science, history etc.) is near worthless to employers. Whether this is because employers don’t care about the subjects students are supposed to have learned (suspicious, but possible in a signaling heavy story where employers just care that you could jump through hoops) or because employers do not think the GPA accurately measures learning (perhaps having met new college grads before), this is a big admission of defeat for the human capital argument. The whole point of school is to learn what is supposedly being taught in those classes! If the goal is to network or have personal growth there are almost certainly better ways to do that cheaper and for less money, and even measure whether it is happening along the way.
But is the touchy feely stuff students are supposed to be learning even relevant? Are employers really paying all that extra cash for social networking and personal growth? I am skeptical. Most employers seem annoyed that new hires spend time on their social networks instead of working, and I have never had a job interview where someone asked “So, did you make a lot of friends in school? Do you still keep in touch?” and I have had both a lot of schooling and a lot of job interviews.
Personal growth is more difficult, and I am not willing to throw it out entirely. Children spend a long time being children, well into their 20’s, and evidence that students at some point started to grow up and take responsibility is valuable. I expect that is one reason why military vets also do well on the job market. However, is “taking responsibility” really what schools are actively trying to teach kids? Everything I have seen in education has been to move away from requiring students to take responsibility, e.g. hand in homework on time, prepare for tests, actually have to pass things to proceed to the next grade, etc. If GPAs are inflated and increasingly meaningless as a measure of learning that implies that personal growth isn’t happening much either. Employers are not looking for “most improved GPA” as a sign students grew as a person, otherwise every student would be sandbagging the first few semesters and then aiming high at the end.
I also would point out that most recent college grads are considered insufferable for the first few years they are on the job. Not a great sign for personal growth.
So again, we are back to the sheepskin effect being almost entirely (and possibly entirely) signaling innate traits students already had and not reflecting actual human capital development students get through schooling. What human capital they manage to develop is secondary to what they are doing, and frankly could be gained in much less expensive ways. (Which is exactly Caplan’s point as well, if I recall.)
3: Schools Teach Conformity
I mean, ok, he doesn’t mean that the point of school is brow beat children into all thinking the same and being good little indoctrinated automatons. I am pretty sure, anyway. Rather conformity is how much people follow the rules, do what they are told, etc. Employers like that because the bulk of jobs require doing things the right way, every time, in a reliable fashion. Creativity or looking for ways to game the system are not really desirable.
The question though is whether schools really do teach this or is it a pretty immutable personality trait, and if it is teachable is there a better way to get it?
I am not really sure on that first question. Caplan’s research seems to suggest it is pretty much a genetically influenced personality trait, with little room for nurture. We might teach students on the margin to respect the rules a little more, or follow ethical principles regardless as what we see as the easy way to get ahead, but the evidence I have seen and the experience I have had, both as a slight troublemaker and dealing with other troublemakers, is that the effect is small and not one directional. We certainly don’t spend much time teaching ethics and principle, and I have seen as many people turned off of rule following by the asinine school system than I have seen people become avid followers.
Assuming schools can affect conformity as a personality trait, we then have to ask “is there an easier way to get this?” I can think of a few off the top of my head that would be faster and cheaper. Maybe summer boot camp for high schoolers?
Less extreme, require all students to wear specific uniforms and punish harshly deviations from that. Yet most schools do not require that sort of conformity, nor punish students who dress inappropriately.
Hell, here’s an idea: punish kids who break the rules! A good way to teach conformity to rules would be to punish people for breaking them, I should think. Yet, as Infovores mentions later, schools seem entirely indifferent to students cheating. If your school doesn’t demand that students conform to the rules around the apparent primary point of your institution, why should we expect that the school is teaching them to conform in other ways?
Of course, schools do enforce certain types of conformity, but that gets us back to the political indoctrination point…
4: Cheating is Scarcely Punished
It is a little strange that cheating isn’t more seriously punished, particularly in college where students are expected to know better. However, having worked in academia at a small university, I have a pretty good idea why it never happens: schools need kids’ money more than any particular kid can hurt their reputation. I recall faculty meetings where our dean pushed retention because if we lost ~8 students we would have to borrow from the endowment. Not 800, not 80, 8. Retention takes a lot of forms, from making students feel they can succeed, fit into the student campus culture, form attachments to faculty, etc. It also takes the form of “we don’t kick you out for cheating, or even fail you.” When colleges are competing hard for students they aren’t going to throw an ambulatory five year annuity away just because they copy an essay.
Further, the signaling model doesn’t imply a lot of vigilance against cheating eroding the reputation of the school. That is merely one strategy. Another functional strategy is to simply pretend that no student ever cheats. We see the same strategy happening all the time in the faculty themselves: readers ofwill be very familiar with the lengths academic departments and universities will go to defend and cover up the cheating of their professors. Admitting that you harbored cheaters that you expelled still looks bad, as people will start to wonder how many there are that just didn’t get caught. Swearing up and down that no cheating could possibly have happened at least fools some people.
Further, even if vigilance against cheating is required to keep up your reputation for signaling purposes, the question remains as to whether you still have a good reputation. If employers do not take GPA numbers seriously, as we have already established, clearly they do not think it measures whether the student learned the subject. Whether the number is inflated because of easy grading or cheating is irrelevant. Most all schools apparently just do not have the reputation that GPAs reflects what is actually learned in classes.
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5: Fadeout is Weaker than Advertised
The key point here is that students who go on to take college level calculus retain most of their algebra and geometry, and only those people do. This is probably true, and fits my experience: my dad didn’t take college level math and is not good at algebra, while I took a lot of college level math and am very good at algebra (although I so rarely use calculus that I need to double check I am doing it right these days.)
Of course there is a very obvious counter to this point: maybe the people who take college level math do it because they find math easier and more interesting than those who don’t, and that’s why they remember it so much better.
Another alternative: maybe people who take college level math go on to get jobs that require more high school level math, and so have more routine practice compared to those whose jobs require almost zero high school math. This still leads to the “have more aptitude/interest in math” problem however, where fadeout is still undoing all the effects of our shotgun approach to course selection.
Now, Infovores is quite correct that if ignorance is pervasive then it is reasonable to believe that people would know even less if we didn’t have them spend 12+ years in school. However, that is a very different claim than “every one of the 12 years students spend in school is worthwhile and full of learning.” If students only retain, say 50% of what they are taught, and even then that 50% is determined by their aptitudes, interests and eventual jobs, that implies that there is a huge amount of waste we could cut out of the process. At the very least it suggests that our current one size fits none model of education could be vastly improved, perhaps through introducing a German style apprenticeship system or other more focused system.
Just because what system we have now might be better than nothing doesn’t mean that it is better than a wealth of other possible systems.
6: Signaling vs Human Capital Can’t Truly Be Settled
Hey, it is Huntington-Klein again, and again, I think he is wrong. I am fine with the statement that we can’t tell if the returns to education are 60-40, 70-30, 80-20 signaling to human capital. However, that is only a work around to avoid the educational establishment motte and bailey of “We teach valuable skills like math, science and English! Oh… well it doesn’t look like we do when you look, but hey, we also teach… what can’t be measured… right! We teach love of learning!” If you want to see whether schooling actually serves as a signal of inherent traits or actually increases useful human capital, it is pretty easy: write down what you expect students to learn over X years or in Y classes, then test them at the end to see how much they retained. If e.g. college freshmen econ majors take an exam, and then as graduating senior econ majors take the same exam, you can figure out how much each individual student learned and retained. It would be pretty easy.
So easy, we could even do that as a fixed part of our school system. What if to pass any college course level you had to take a standardized test, no matter who you had. So say your department has 5 different people teaching Econ 101, those 5 people would sit down and determine what a student who passes Econ 101 should know and agree to a test. Do the same for Econ 201, 301, 401, etc. Then just have one final graduation exam for all econ students to graduate. Hell, you could even have 5-6 different versions of each exam and rotate them. That way you could let students take exams ahead of time to see what is in store, and see how much they are learning year to year.
Suggest that some time in a faculty meeting. My personal experience suggests it won’t go well.
Public schools k-12 have similar tests and yea… it never looks good.
From the 2019 NCES report showing the percentage of students who scored at or above Proficient in a given year and subject:
Reading 2017: 4th grade (37%), 8th grade (36%), 12th grade (2015) (37%)
Math 2017: 4th grade (40%), 8th grade (34%), 12th grade (2015) (25%)
Now, that isn’t tracking the same students on the same questions every year. The questions are not difficult, however, and roughly 2/3rds of students never get to Proficient at their grade level. Do we see 60% of high school students failing to graduate for not being proficient? Of course not. Being merely Proficient in the material is not even the requirement, so why are we pretending that graduating shows how much amazing human capital you have gained, instead of just demonstrating you have your life barely together enough to slump across the finish line?
7: Signaling != Waste
Ok, this heading is misleading. Infovores knows Caplan isn’t claiming that every drop of signaling is waste, but rather that extra signaling past what is required to do the job is waste. That is, once you have sorted people into groups and rankings based on whatever traits you are looking for, extra signals don’t change things except to make things more costly. If time spent in school is mostly about signaling how conscientious you are, how willing to follow the rules and jump through hoops obediently, you can get there a lot faster than 12-20 years of school, and for much less spent in dollars, too.
Even though matching markets do benefit from more signaling than one sided markets, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t excess signaling waste.
Again, remember the moat and bailey move here. We do in fact want schooling that actually teaches people things, and schooling that provides some signaling of someone’s difficult to measure qualities is good, too. Those arguing for the current school system claim that it is mostly or entirely human capital enhancing, with only a little signaling, maybe. Moving from that to “well, signaling isn’t bad, actually, and we want that too” is the sneaky move, because we want very little signaling, just enough to get by. Every bit of signaling past that low threshold is wasteful.
Sure, going to school for 16 years to get a college degree is great if every year adds a lot of useful human capital. Hell, we might even want to subsidize it! But we aren’t getting that human capital, it is pretty obvious to see, only a little capital and a lot of signaling. So we want to lower the time and money spent on education to the point that costs exceed benefits in capital and signal. Spending huge amounts of time and money in a Red Queen’s Race of signaling is in fact the really awful outcome. Pulling a “It is mostly human capital development! Well… ok it is mostly signaling, but signaling is good!” move doesn’t change that.
8: Learning on the Job isn’t that Great
Yea, but it is just about the only learning we have. Teachers might be more patient, nurturing and empathetic than your average person assigned to train you for your new position, but empirically on average they seem to do awfully poorly when it comes to actually teaching things needed to do jobs. The fact that anything gets done is a testament that on the job teaching works pretty well.
Not perfectly, I will be quick to say. I have worked with people who were promoted past their capacity, or into jobs they had no formal training for and were not prepared for. That is totally a thing, and schooling is useful for addressing some of those concerns for those who need it.
However, almost all of what people are supposed to learn in school is useless for their jobs. Unless you go to a vocational program, or major in something like accounting that is very tightly tied to your new career, you are going to be doing a ton of learning on the job. This kind of learning is very likely to be achievable by anyone who is conscientious and intelligent, regardless of educational background.
With regards to the “dreadful propaganda in the service of avoiding lawsuits” that Infovores references, yea, that stuff is the worst. But it is also just HR drivel, and not what we are talking about here. On the job training consists of things like “here is how to use this machine to put these pieces together” or “here’s how access this data to run these reports, and how you read them to know if you need to put in an order.” Let’s not confuse the two.
9: Context is that which is scarce
Ok… Infovores, you are better than this. Stop scraping the bottom of the barrel, it is ok to just have 8 points. If you are claiming that having students sit through and work on foreign language classes even though they never will learn the language that way is worth it because “Foreign language mainly teaches you that it’s possible to learn a foreign language, that there are other cultures out there and you can learn about them, that this is something gringos actually do sometimes, etc…” then it is time to go home, because you are drunk.
I will say it again, if you are sitting people through four years of high school foreign language classes, then a few more years in college, just to teach them it is possible to learn a foreign language (just not, you know, this way), that there are other cultures out there and you can learn about them, and this is something gringos actually do sometimes, well, you need to have all your access to educational funding decisions taken away because there are way cheaper and easier ways of doing that.
And frankly, if your students didn’t know there are other cultures out there and you can learn about them before they started the course, maybe you should check their pulses. Or whether or not they are, in fact, meercats, not humans.
10: Role Models, Peer Group, and Identity
schooling provides an ongoing coordination mechanism to motivate learning above and beyond what many of us are likely to do on our own and directs such efforts toward a coherent, organized sequence of topics and materials to study.
Does it? Does our current school system really, in fact, do this?
I agree that a schooling system totally could do this, but I don’t think that the one we have actually does, in fact, do this.
At any rate, our current system doesn’t seem to motivate more than 40% of students to achieve Proficiency in grade level math or reading. That’s pretty sad.
So sad, that it almost seems like any alternative system of providing education would be better. The Amish send their kids to school only until 8th grade, yet within a few years they have jobs and run their own businesses. Maybe we could try that system.
Hell, maybe we could just investigate ways to streamline our own system, and cut out some of the ever increasing waste inherent in it.
Ask me why I took two economics classes in college, then didn’t touch the subject for over a decade before going back to graduate school to get a PhD in it.
Caplan will likely respond to Infovores here as well, and I will try and toss up a link if I see it and remember.
In fact it is so bad that I have a really hard time taking anything Nick HK says seriously at this point. I apologize to you, dear reader, for my failing.
In Nick Huntington-Klein’s defense, he might be thinking of something like doctoral programs, where you have to pass individual classes but also have field exams to continue to candidacy and then a dissertation before getting your degree. From my experience vanishingly few undergraduate programs operate like this, and zero high schools.
A student might delay due to seeking a second major or minor, for instance.
To be fair, Caplan addresses this at length in his book, which leads me to believe Nick HK didn’t actually read it very carefully. It is unclear to me how one considers this to be a point of contention otherwise.
I love the internet for these discussions, I really, really do.
That is to say, it isn’t driven by signaling things about the student that don’t get changed, but by demonstrating the changes happened, that they learned things.
A PhD puts me in the top 1-2% of years of schooling/degrees completed, and I move around jobs a fair bit, including changing careers entirely twice; I have probably sat in ~200 interviews over the past 25 years. Just to give you a sense of what I am talking about.
See also Caplan’s other book “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids”; as it turns out, most of the evidence points to our personalities being pretty well fixed by genetics. We grow up to be a lot like our parents are, regardless of who raised us.
Which is, frankly the vast majority of jobs.
Again, I think this is a flaw in how Caplan framed the debate via his title. He isn’t against education per se, but against our education system, which does remarkably little educating. As I am told Mark Twain said “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” We seem to be letting schooling get in the way pretty badly.
I have pointed out to an academic economist that that schools apparently can’t reliably teach students to perform above “Below Basic” in English, and her response was that “School is really about teaching a love of learning.” I then pointed out that apparently it wasn’t teaching students to love learning enough that they thought being able to read was worth the trouble. The conversation went downhill from there.
Example questions are in the full report at the NCES site.