Educational Reform

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Many people talk about the dire state of American education, Gregory Cochran notes:

Naturally, almost all of what they say is nonsense.  You would expect that, since they were educated in that awful system…

One common theme is that education has gone to the dogs.  Kids aren’t learning the way they used to.  College graduates aren’t as smart as they once were.   Blah blah blah.

All false. Average academic achievement has not changed much over the  years.  We have good, representative national results for the last 40 years (NAEP); not much change.  We have some regional results (Iowa, mainly) that go back further: not much change.

Within every ethnic group, there has been some improvement, but nationally,  that has been canceled out by increases in the fraction of students from low-scoring groups. This is unevenly distributed.  For example, in California: scores are a lot lower than they were in 1965 because the kids are demographically quite different – i.e. dumber.

Now and then I have had someone say to me that schools in Brooklyn have gone to the dogs: somehow Puerto Rican kids today score far lower than the Jewish kids of yesteryear.  Do tell.

As it happens, kids from low-scoring groups do poorly (on average) wherever they go to school, and kids from high-scoring groups do well wherever they go to school. For example, my kids are going to a low-scoring, mostly-minority high school, but do fine.

Jerry Pournelle used to tell me that the school system somehow went to hell in the middle of WWII, since hardly any draftees were excluded for low scores in 1942 while 10% were in 1952.  Of course,  in practice, nobody could figure out what to do with such low-scoring guys in WWII, so Congress passed a law excluding the bottom 10%. Jerry has also told me that when he was a kid, everyone in his county could read. The census says otherwise.

That reminds me of my upper-caste Indian-American colleagues explaining that everyone in India speaks English.


Since within-group scores have gone up, you might think that education is more effective than it used to be. Another point in support of the US educational system is that members of a given ethnic group almost always score higher in the US than they do in other countries: not enormously higher, but some higher (PISA results).

But the fact that kids are learning a bit more does not necessarily have anything to do with the educational system. It might, but there could be other reasons. Way more high school kids are taking calculus than did in 1970, and math scores are up. I’d guess that the school systems are responsible in that case. But other factors may predominate. Kids today, on average, have parents with more education than kids in 1970. Maybe that helps. For example, when my daughter asked for help with her combinatorics homework, I could help, sometimes — not without feeling the mental rust flaking off the hinges. On the other hand, my father was a high-school graduate and hadn’t taken any higher math. In the other direction, some studies seem to show a higher fraction of people with high verbal scores before the late 1960s, and I wonder if watching lots more hours of TV each day somehow cut into reading time. Between 1950 and 1970, TV changed far more than schools did. Another point: teachers are, on average, a good deal dumber than they used to be. Education majors score about a standard deviation lower than typical college graduates, which I don’t think was the case in the more distant past. It’s hard to see how this is compatible with better results, yet there they are.

We spend a lot more money on education than we used to, but I would guess that increased spending has had no effect at all. Higher salaries, for dumber teachers, combined with vast increases in administrative personnel ? nothing .

It is true that the average high school graduate is dumber than in 1940, but then we graduate a much higher percentage today than we did then. Most of that increase has been among weaker students. It may be that the average 18-year-old high school graduate knew more then than now: but that does not mean that average 18-year-old today knows any less. If I were king, which should happen any day now, and suddenly conferred a B.A. on everyone, the average degree-holder would know less, even though everyone knew just as much as they did the day before. Or, what if baseball expanded to three major leagues? The quality of professional ball would decline without any player forgetting how to hit a curve ball.

Often people quote some study showing that the average 17- or 21-year-old doesn’t know jack shit as evidence of educational decline: of course it would only show this if they also included evidence that some earlier generation knew more, which is generally not the case. At some future time I may discuss what people know: average people, college-educated people, and the Fools at the Top.

I also often hear about the awfulness of public education, compared to private schools. In general, that’s bullshit. As far as I can tell, adjusting for student quality, results are no different. Private schools get to kick out troublesome kids: as far as I can tell, that is their only advantage.

I find it odd that almost all private schools have settled on the exact same methodology as public schools — a few dozen kids in a room with a teacher for an hour at a time, etc. — with ever so slightly higher standards. Where’s the innovation?

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