Great Scientists

A friend of mine posted a Carl Sagan quote that reminded me of something.

Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.

A few years back we saw Fourth of July fireworks from the causeway across Lake Carmel. I think the Big Sister and the Little Sister were four and two, respectively. We had a conversation that went something like this.

Big Sister: Why don’t the sounds match the fireworks?

Me: Why do you think?

Big Sister: I think the light is faster than the sound.

That’s my girl!

Time Enough

Apparently President Obama remarked on education yesterday.

For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline.

Obviously Washington hasn’t been involved enough in education, so he proposes more interference. The specific policy proposals are not horrible, except for the increased Federal interference in a local matter, though others could probably cite studies contrary to the studies he mentions. Unfortunately for the President, I happen to have numbers to hand about one proposal in particular: the length of the school day and year.

[L]et’s also foster innovation in when our children are learning. We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed for when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. That calendar may have once made sense, but today it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children — listen to this — our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea — every year. That’s no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy. That’s why I’m calling for us not only to expand effective after-school programs, but to rethink the school day to incorporate more time -– whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it. (Applause.)

Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas. (Laughter.) Not with Malia and Sasha — (laughter) — not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom. If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America.

Education at a Glance 2008: OECD Indicators has more comparative data than you might ever want to wade through, which makes it helpful for validating assertions like the above. Let’s look at Indicator D1: How much time do students spend in the classroom? Oh, wait, data is not available for the United States. So, Mr. President, how do you make the claim that South Korean students sit at their desks longer than American students?

I expect the U.S. Department of Education provided some numbers. I’ve found the statistics for private schools, but nothing yet for public schools; the Digest of Education Statistics 2007 is not exactly well-organized. If we take the average of the private school data, we’re sitting about 200 hours longer each year than the Koreans. Interestingly enough, Korea is on the low end of the OECD’s comparisons of classroom time.

What we can look at in in the OECD data is Indicator D4: How much time do teachers spend teaching?, which contains this helpful chart.

D4: How much time do teachers spend teaching?

Whoa! Leader of the Pack!

So what, exactly, is it that we’re short on?

Four Years Too Many of College

Is a four-year college degree excessive for most? Charles Murray, writing at Cato Unbound, thinks a bachelor’s degree is unnecessary for most professions, has little bearing on success in a field, and suspects that college attendance rates are artificially high.

Cato has structured the Cato Unbound journal as a series of dialogues. The response from Pedro Carneiro contains this interesting chart from “Human Capital Policy”, in Inequality in America: What Role For Human Capital Policies (MIT, 2005).

This leads one to wonder what factors cause the flat trend lines in the graph since approximately 1950. A very brief glance at related papers and the related books (as judged by Amazon) seems to presuppose that equality of outcome is desirable, so research focuses on identifying the differences in inputs which determine those outcomes, and suggests methods to alter the inputs so as to alter the outcomes. Heckman and Carneiro suggest that the differences in outcome are the result of very early differences in cognitive and non-cognitive skills of individuals from different backgrounds. Some of these differences are likely environmental; others, I would suspect, innate.

While there may be strong correlation between success in school and success in life, I do not think it wise to confuse success in school with success in life. Further, one would not want to confuse success in a career with success in life. High school and college are preparatory, in a sense, but they are not a requisite for success. In some careers, certain degrees are used officially to restrict entry to those careers, and have little actual bearing on the ability of the individual to succeed at the tasks required in that career. In others, the degree is simply unrelated to the career. The work performed in determining what causes failure in school and later careers is important, but a desired outcome of 100% high school graduation and college attendance is not. Schooling is a means to an end, and not the end itself. One way we might enhance the prospects of those who are not attending college, or not completing high school, would be by removing artificial barriers to entry to productive careers. Otherwise we are only attempting to achieve what Lake Wobegon has: everyone above average.

A second response from Bryan Caplan, who needs a shave as desperately as I do, raises an important point about the text of Mr. Murray’s essay.

So far, Murray and I are on the same page. But when he tries to explain how useless studies translate into big bucks, his story gets fuzzy. On the one hand, he tells us that “The BA really does confer a wage premium on its average recipient, but there is no good reason that it should.” On the other hand, he insists that “Employers are not stupid.” How can both be true?

Maybe some employers are stupid.

[Employers] have a strong incentive to see through academic hype. When firms overpay the overeducated — or needlessly “stigmatize” applicants without a BA — the market charges them for their mistake.

If they are in a competitive market. For example, a certain large corporation with which I am familiar has a tendency to assign relatively menial tasks to college graduates. These tasks could be completed by anyone with the ability to read and follow instructions. What appears to happen after years of this is that the skills to complete the nominal job for which the individual is paid are either undeveloped or atrophy, as they are no longer required, making the formerly highly educated and experienced employee unfit for anything other than making doughnuts.

Mr. Caplan suggests that Mr. Murray would have been better off remarking that the bachelor’s degree is a signal, and that this signal is flawed. But employers find it works. He suggests that government cease subsidies for higher education, thus increasing the value of a college degree and providing incentives for employers to find other ways of determining whether a potential employee is desirable. Meanwhile, I’m of the opinion that a high school diploma would work sufficiently well as a signal if its value were not diluted by compulsory attendance.

Mr. Murray concludes,

Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of history professors and business executives as of chefs and welders.

Summer School

There’s been some concern among the professional educators about skills lost over the
Summer since I was a small child, and that concern has not abated. Well, duh, of course some children are not as proficient in September as they were in May: they didn’t practice those skills for three months. I’ve not practiced differential equations for 15 years now; do you think I can do them? The same goes for calculating the area of anything not a rectangle, or playing “Minuet in G.” Practice, as my parents reminded me often enough, makes perfect.

Use it or lose it.

But do I think children should attend school year-round? No. I think they should be given opportunities to use the things they’ve learned.

Are Guidance Counselors Superfluous?

The Arlington Central School District sends out a newsletter every now and again — oddly enough around budget season. This time it includes a piece titled “Arlington’s Investment Paying Off,” which discusses how additional guidance counselors have dropped the student to counselor ratio from 375:1 to 210:1.

Now, three years into the plan, our commitment to guidance services is clearly paying off. At its all-time high, the guidance counselor to student ratio was 375 to 1. Within the last two years, the counselor to student ratio has dropped to its current average of 210 to 1, a ratio similar to most successful suburban schools.

That’s an awful lot of guidance counselors! 210 to each student?! Wow.

OK, so bad English and math skills aside, what is the return on investment of adding these additional guidance counselors? Apparently, having more of them allows the students to meet with their counselors more often.

When guidance counselors were serving 300+ students from multiple grades, contact with students was infrequent and irregular with some students seeing their counselor only once or twice a year. Members of the Classes of 2010 and 2011 will meet with their guidance counselors five to six times this year.

Granted my high school experience was unlike Arlington’s — the Highland High School student population was, if I recall correctly, 172 souls from grades 7 through 12 — but meeting with one’s guidance counselor seems to me to be entirely unnecessary for most students.

What is it they do? How do we measure their effect? How do we determine whether or not an additional counselor is cost-effective? And without knowing that, how can we say that the investment is paying off?

Compulsory Education

via Arnold Kling, we learn that the State of California does not like home-schooling by parents who are not also teachers, on the assumption that certification ensures quality. Mr. Kling pulls out this quote from the article.

“Parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children,” wrote Justice H. Walter Croskey in a Feb. 28 opinion signed by the two other members of the district court. “Parents who fail to [comply with school enrollment laws] may be subject to a criminal complaint against them, found guilty of an infraction, and subject to imposition of fines or an order to complete a parent education and counseling program.”

I’m not sure what interest the State has in compelling schooling, but I am sure that I have an interest in not being compelled.

Use English, not Jargon

My elder daughter is in first grade. She loves to read almost as much as she loves math. She’s just started the thirty-third book in The Magic Tree House series, Carnival at Candlelight. She was reading Misty of Chincoteague, but Carnival at Candlelight was more important.

The New York State Parent-Teacher Association has a reading program called Parents as Reading Partners, or, as everyone else calls it, PARP. This program encourages parents to read with their children, by making a game of it, for the simple reason that

Studies show that children who read at home are better prepared to succeed in formal education.

What they mean to say is that practice makes perfect.

The school system here, and the one in Mahopac, has trouble using English. Instead, they use a mish-mash of English and Bullshit. Blather among yourselves with your crapronyms if you’d like, but don’t inflict them on the children.