Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Education and American Progress

Gene Expression Classic had a post last week linking to a David Brooks column about America's history of educational excellence, and it's leadership in the world economy. Brooks set the stage as follows:
Why did the United States become the leading economic power of the 20th century? The best short answer is that a ferocious belief that people have the power to transform their own lives gave Americans an unparalleled commitment to education, hard work and economic freedom.

Between 1870 and 1950, the average American’s level of education rose by 0.8 years per decade. In 1890, the average adult had completed about 8 years of schooling. By 1900, the average American had 8.8 years. By 1910, it was 9.6 years, and by 1960, it was nearly 14 years.

As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz describe in their book, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” America’s educational progress was amazingly steady over those decades, and the U.S. opened up a gigantic global lead. Educational levels were rising across the industrialized world, but the U.S. had at least a 35-year advantage on most of Europe. In 1950, no European country enrolled 30 percent of its older teens in full-time secondary school. In the U.S., 70 percent of older teens were in school.

America’s edge boosted productivity and growth. But the happy era ended around 1970 when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl. Between 1975 and 1990, educational attainments stagnated completely. Since then, progress has been modest. America’s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment.

This threatens the country’s long-term prospects. It also widens the gap between rich and poor. Goldin and Katz describe a race between technology and education. The pace of technological change has been surprisingly steady. In periods when educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is flooded with skilled workers, so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.
Brooks goes on to discuss the "skills gap" which has allowed the US economy to continue becoming more and more productive, in great part as the result of technological innovation created and used by the educated elite. (Just under 30% of the US population aged 25-34 has a bachelor's degree or higher.) Brooks argues that the US educational system lost steam and direction in the 60s and 70s, resulting in our relative loss of global competitiveness since that time (the US remains one of the strongest economies in the world, but it's not as much stronger than the rest of the world as it used to be). I think his analysis on why this happened and what to do about it gets a bit more spotty, though:
...Using his own research, Heckman also concludes that high school graduation rates peaked in the U.S. in the late 1960s, at about 80 percent. Since then they have declined.

In “Schools, Skills and Synapses,” Heckman probes the sources of that decline. It’s not falling school quality, he argues. Nor is it primarily a shortage of funding or rising college tuition costs. Instead, Heckman directs attention at family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years.

Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.

I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists....
Brooks argues that for the long term, the "skills gap" is the largest single contributor to inequality and thus middle class angst, much more so than energy prices and globalization. However, since it's hard to fix the education system, no one is emphasizing it much, though he says:
...[I]t’s worth noting that both sides of this debate exist within the Democratic Party. The G.O.P. is largely irrelevant. If you look at Barack Obama’s education proposals — especially his emphasis on early childhood — you see that they flow naturally and persuasively from this research. (It probably helps that Obama and Heckman are nearly neighbors in Chicago). McCain’s policies seem largely oblivious to these findings. There’s some vague talk about school choice, but Republicans are inept when talking about human capital policies.
It seems to me that there's a serious lack of imagination here. If, as Brooks cites Heckman to say above, many of the educational/developmental problems that we're seeing appear by age five, it's hard to see how public education policies (including Obama's desire to have full 0-5 public education available) are going to make the difference. Public schools and public daycares (or private ones, come to that) are not well suited to forming the minds of those under five so that they will be good learners and stable personalities in the years to come. That's what families are for. So if we're seeing children who by age five are already seriously unsuited to learning and stability, what we're seeing is probably at least as much family and cultural break-down as an educational one.

TangoMan of Gene Expression points out that part of the problem in this regard may center around immigration.
Having an immigration policy which pulls in tens of millions of 6th grade educated, Spanish-speaking immigrants is a policy that creates inequality. Goldin and Katz would do well to control for immigrant status, legal and illegal, in the ranks of the low skilled.... [D]emography matters. When we celebrate diversity and when we hold all cultures to be equal then we discount the importance that cultural practices, traditions and views have on real world factors, like education and economic productivity. Heckman notes that "some children" benefit from family practices that promote human capital development, but that many don't. I'm willing to wager that racial and cultural factors correlate to a good deal of this disparity....It's fantasy to posit that the skills gap is independent of group measures of human capital stock. ParaPundit shows the dismal embrace of higher education by Hispanics even after 4 generations in the US.
This may be something of a factor, but frankly, there was plenty of immigration in the first half of the 20th century, and in the 19th, and those immigrants often had much less than a 6th grade education. But there is, clearly a stark difference. Schools thrived even among the immigrant communities (whether they were often seen as the means to improving your economic status) during the period that Brooks identifies as the boom time of American education and economic expansion. Not only the public schools, but the Catholic school system, Hebrew schools, etc.

Given the 60s/70s inflection point at which we seem to see a downturn in American education (and the appearance of the "skills gap") I can think of two clear areas for improvement:

Rediscovering Education -- By almost any standards, our public education system fell apart in the 70s. Educational theories came and went, and it became fashionable to suggest we should only teach what is "relevant" to students. Traditional ideas of the Three Rs and classical liberal education were left behind as wonky ideas ranging from the "new math" to "Afrocentric curriculums" were attempted. In many ways, the broader educational system has never recovered, in part because administrators and teachers are now almost all people who received non-educations back in the 70s, 80s and 90s. And anyone who deals with todays college students can attest that 12 years of education often results in someone with no logical skills, poor reading comprehension, and no writing ability. And that's among the half of high school students who actually go on to attempt college! We desperately need a return to basics: reading, writing and arithmetic in the early grades; the liberal arts and sciences in the later grades.

The Family as Foundation -- Just as importantly, however, we need to develop the cultural understanding that parents and families hold the primary responsibility for educating their children. Much of the education, after age five or so, may often go on in schools with teachers, but parents are still responsible for providing children with the understanding that education is important and worth doing, and providing them with the family support, motivation and help to be successful in education.

And for too many people, the two income family in which both husband and wife have full time "fulfilling careers" while raising their children is not only the normative way of life, but the only imaginable way of life. Some families may have little choice in that matter, in that where they live and how much they earn require both parents to work. But there is, I think, a need to recenter cultural expectation (especially for the earliest years of a child's life) to see child rearing and early education as something that deserves the full time attention of a parent if at all possible. (Something which, at least in the corporate world that I find myself in from eight to six, seems an alien concept to many.) Professional help is all very well, but it can never be as personal and as concentrated as that of a parent or other relative.

Clearly, there's much room for improvement in US education, both culturally and institutionally. However, I'd disagree with Brooks as to where we need to look for solutions on the political spectrum. First of all, our biggest problems are cultural, not policy. And so the solutions we need most involve cultural change which can perhaps be advocated by politicians, but can certainly not be ennacted by them. Much though we often wish to solve our problems by simply electing some particular politician, I don't think this is one that politicians can solve for us. And to the extent that it is, I don't see an emphasis on parents taking primarily responsibility for education and a return to classic liberal education as being something we're going to see out of the Democratic party any time soon. Seeing as what we need in our education is a rollback of much of the progressive educational theory of the last fifty years, it would seem an odd thing to come from the left. Also, too many proposals from the left (and, indeed, from the mainstream right) put the focus on the professionals: testing, schools, public daycare and pre-K, etc. These might be nice-to-haves, but they do nothing either to change our understanding of what education is, or to bring families back to the center of education. That, indeed, seems to be something that simply does not fit in the current political axis -- and which is advocated by occasional voices of both the intellectual left and right, but few in the political or party establishment.

Finally, I think we may need to ask ourselves: At what point does a "skills gap" become inevitable? I'm sure that we can do a much, much better job at education and culture than we do now, but is there some point we could take our technology and economy to where a significant percentage of the population is simply not capable of keeping up?

I don't really want to think that, as I find the idea of IQ and objectively limited intelligence unappealing. I would prefer to think that everyone is capable of being highly intelligent and educated if given the right upbringing and education. And yet, I'm not sure that this tabula rasa view has support in reality. Is it possible that in a highly technological society a "skills gap" becomes inevitable at some point?


Anonymous said...

I find much of the economic history to be dubious. Easily the most fundamental factor in U.S. achievement was the fact that the U.S. had the only industrial base after WWII that was left undamaged. Canada didn't have any invaders as well, and they also enjoyed pretty spectacular growth.

The bigger thing that bothers me though is the pretention that if only we would have more liberal arts majors, we would be better off. While you can find examples like Gates who had technical prowess, many of the captains of industry are not technically trained. (Both Gates and Dell dropped out of college it should be noted.) As I've lamented many times, there are big assumptions over what people need to know to work on cutting edge technology, and those assumptions just aren't true. I could (and am in the process of doing actually) teach my 7-year-old how to set up a computer. He doesn't need any knowledge of electromagnetism, transistors, Core2 tech, or even binary operator knowledge to do this. Likewise programmers today are blissfully ignorant of C, let alone Assembly Language.

Darwin said...


I wouldn't necessarily say more liberal arts majors -- in fact I'm thinking strictly in terms of K-12 education. (I'm dubious that most people actually need or want more than 13 years of formal schooling.) When I'm talking "liberally educated" and "classically educated" I'm thinking of a curriculum which emphasizes first reading, writing and basic math; then later history, arts/literature, sciences, logic and higher math.

Given that what Brooks seems worried about is the inability of many in society of function as what I've heard some call "knowledge workers", it seems to me that it's these basics that we really need to work on. (And that we used to be really good at before the 70s.)

Maybe I'm projecting our problems around here out a bit, but I routinely deal with BAs and even MBAs who have so much trouble with written expression (and reading comprehension) that they can't write comprehensible emails, and so much trouble with relational logic that they can't understand how to analyze data or use a database.

I'm pretty sure that most people could master these things just fine, but they'd need to be taught basic logical and verbal skills from a much earlier age. By 30, it's getting a bit late.

Anonymous said...

As is hinted in your reply, it is surprising how little knowledge of a person's intelligence in one area will be indicative of his intelligence in another. I was so shocked entering the business world and seeing the grammatically poor memos, etc. I can do complex database work involving multiple joins - things that seem rather intuitive to me but I'm told they are hard - but I struggle with setting up a router. This has mostly to do with me not doing a whole lot of work with routers.

I don't think anyone, or at least too many people, are against teaching the liberal arts. I was more teasing Brooks as he fashions himself among the educated elite. There really is a fundamental disconnect between the working elite and the common workers. It is always assumed that this gap is primarily represented in skills, and there is some truth to this. But we would also expect to see this gap replicated in Europe, and we aren't seeing it on the income side of the ledger. I think where it is most apparent though is where you and I see it: many of the elites are not all that smart; some in fact are quite dumb.

Darwin said...

things that seem rather intuitive to me but I'm told they are hard - but I struggle with setting up a router.

Yeah, I hear you there. Me too.

Though the thing is, because I'm in marketing analytics, I end up having to spend a lot of time trying to explain data methodologies to people. And a lot of them, though they've spent a lot of time in school, just can't seem to grasp this kind of highly detailed, systematic and analytical thinking. Maybe it's that some people just _can't_ get it, but it seems to me that if properly educated, most people can.

There really is a fundamental disconnect between the working elite and the common workers. It is always assumed that this gap is primarily represented in skills, and there is some truth to this. But we would also expect to see this gap replicated in Europe, and we aren't seeing it on the income side of the ledger.

Though there's an extent to which the education gap is probably not as wide in Europe. The couple people I've worked with who are products of the European educational system (and ditto for those from India) are much better educated than most of the run-of-the-mill public school and state university graduates around here -- better educated but not necessarily any smarter.

I dunno...

Two of the things I find it very hard not to believe are that I would be perfectly capable of doing (and getting to) most of the executive roles I see around here (and given that they're fifteen years down the road from me, I guess the jury will be out for a while on that one) and that there's nothing terribly special about me, and so just about anyone could do what I do. And so it usually seems to me like with a solid upbringing and education, most people can get almost anywhere.

However, many would argue that the evidence is against one or both of those being true.

Kyle Cupp said...

We would come a long way toward reforming education if we rediscovered what I take to be fundamental aims of education: the formation of virtue and vocation.

By virtue I mean the habitual dispensation toward the good, and we can further distinguish virtue into the intellectual virtues, the moral virtues, and the physical virtues. By vocation I mean the exercise of the particular talents and gifts we have in light of our particular strengths and weaknesses. By formation of virtue I grow to be what a human being should be; by the formation of vocation I grow to me who I should be.

Instruction in the intellectual virtues teaches us to think accurately. The study of reading, writing, and arithmetic form our minds to use words and mathematical symbols with accuracy, clarity, and precision. I agree that these subjects make up the basics, for they set the stage, the foundational framework, through which the mind seeks to know truth. The study of literature, music, art, history, science, economics, and so forth teach the mind to think literarily, musically, artistically, historically, scientifically, economically, etc, building on the basic framework.

Instruction in the moral virtues teaches us to act morally, respond appropriately to what is good and to what it evil. The development of the will, the formation of conscience, and the teaching of how to love would also fall in this category. I would also include the formation of appropriate affections and their proper ordering. T.S. Eliot wrote the prayer in Ash Wednesday, “Teach us to care and not to care; teach us to sit still.”

The habit of sitting still brings us to the instruction in the physical virtues. Here we train our bodies to grow stronger, faster, healthier, more vital, and more in our control. Included in the physical virtues might be the instruction on good eating and drinking and on the enjoyment of pleasure, the study of dancing, sailing, digging, gardening, fencing, and the mortification of the flesh.

One of the marks of modern education is the goal of making education easy. Unfortunately, we don’t grow in virtue by complete easy tasks. Considering how children individually learn is one thing, and fits with my idea of vocation, but robbing a curriculum of its challenges is another thing, and dangerous.

Human beings are not spreadsheets or machines, but our educational system largely treats us as such. If our educational institutions treated people as people, both in light of human nature and personal vocation, I think we’d progress a great deal in reforming education. Families have a natural sense to do this, but as Darwin notes, the family has been put on the sidelines in the game. Time for them to take the field.

bearing said...

I sense a little bit of confusion in this post -- a failure to distinguish between two quite distinct (not in conflict, just distinct) values.

(1) Valuing higher education: the skills that will help a child achieve highly in school and go on to college.

(2) Valuing strong families that raise their children with a good work ethic and good character.

The quote you pulled out that refers to Hispanic immigrants: OK, so maybe, as ParaPundit says, Hispanics don't tend to "embrace" higher education even unto the 4th generation. This does not, however, mean that they don't have strong families; maybe the opposite; and if so, it's not a "cultural breakdown" but the bringing in of a still-traditional culture stream.

I remember when I was a freshman in college, at orientation, a speaker told us that Hispanic males were the demographic group least likely to finish college, and most likely to take a long time when they do finish -- this was 16 years ago and I cannot attribute this, I am sorry -- and she, at least, attributed that directly to the still-strong family structure and sense of family obligation which conflicted with the (essentially individualistic) lifestyle of going to college full-time.

At the time, college freshman that I was, I thought, "That's too bad. They should get over that whole 'family values' thing and learn to live their own lives."

Older, married, with children of my own, I have changed my tune. Valuing "higher" education is, indeed good. And it does not necessarily exclude a strong family structure. But I look around my urban neighborhood, and I see plenty of immigrant families -- families that are intact, Dad and Mom living together with their own children, and most of the time Grandma and/or Grandpa, or a teenage aunt, lives there too, multiple generations living under one roof. If I have to pick one or the other, I'll take valuing the traditional family structure over valuing "higher education." In some ways these kids who play with my kids are building more human capital -- if you want to call it that -- than any suburban child stuck in high-end day care all day, living across the country from extended family (but, no doubt, where the schools are excellent).

Anonymous said...

Likewise programmers today are blissfully ignorant of C, let alone Assembly Language.

No programmer is blissfully ignorant of C. Ignorant, perhaps, but not blissful because C is a wonderful language. :) Now Assembly you can throw in the river.

Anonymous said...

I think anyone interested in this topic should read John Taylor Gatto’s book The Underground History of American Education (you can purchase it, but he offers it online for free as well), or listen to his online presentations where he covers basically the same material.

I confess that initially it strikes one as a bit conspiratorial, and I am sure there are valid criticisms of his work, but he’s got something very important to say on the topic and it’s worth listening too…for anyone who’s interested.

If you don't know who Gatto is, here's a quick bio (though I suspect most of this crowd may already be familiar).

Darwin said...


I don't think I did a good job of teasing this out, but it seems to me that Brooks isn't all that clear on what it is that he thinks is the problem. On the one hand, he treats it as a problem with education. On the other, he claims that many of the problems people are having are already evident at age five, by which point people haven't really progressed at all in education, but have been very much formed by their families and culture.

Clearly, the benefits that are normally derived from a strong family and culture are a prerequisite for learning and hard work later in life.

As for the Gene Expression writer's point about Hispanics -- I don't actually think there's a whole lot to it. (I was bringing it up to say that I don't think that's it, though glancing back I'm not sure I did a good job of that.) There has been a massive problem with family breakdown among some Hispanic sub cultures over the last 20 years -- but there's also a tendency for Hispanics to vanish into the mainstream culture and stop marking themselves down as Hispanic. (Which is pretty much the situation with me and even my mom's generation.)