We should spend less

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Arnold Kling shares what he believes about education:

1. The U.S. leads the world in health care spending per person, but not in health care outcomes. Many people look at that and say that health care costs too much in the U.S., and we should be able to get the same our better outcomes by sending less. Maybe that is correct, maybe not. That is not the point here. But —

2. the U.S. leads the world in K-12 education spending per student, but not in student outcomes. Yet nobody says that education costs too much and that we should spend less. Except —

3. me. I believe that we spend way too much on K-12 education.

4. We spend as much as we do on education in part because it is a sacred cow. We want to show that we care about children. (Yes, “showing that you care” is also Robin Hanson’s explanation for health care spending.)

[...]

8. I do not expect educational outcomes to be any better under a voucher system. That is because I believe in the Null Hypothesis, which is that educational interventions do not make a difference.

9. However, a competitive market in education would drive down costs, so that the U.S. would get the same outcomes with much less spending.

You always have to have a plan B

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

Everybody fails, but not everybody responds to failure the same way, Mike Riggs notes, as he interviews Megan McArdle about The Up Side of Down:

Mike: You use the writing profession as an example of this.

Megan: You have to accept that being bad is part of learning to write. Most people who end up approaching professional writer status were always better at it than other kids. Then they get into the professional landscape and realize everyone else in the industry was also better at it than the other kids. This can be very traumatic for a lot of writers, and I’ve seen some of them just freeze. They don’t turn stuff in because as long as they haven’t turned it in, it’s not bad yet.

How do you hack that thinking? You say to yourself, “Look, I can rewrite garbage, I can’t rewrite nothing.”

Mike: It’s the iteration paradox. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, but you also miss a ton of the shots you do take when you’re first starting out. You have to do a thing over and over to get good at it, while somehow dealing with the fact that it’s really embarrassing and discomfiting to try hard at something and still be bad.

Megan: And the only way around that is to accept that failure is an essential part of the process.

You are not supposed to sit down and be Proust on your first pass. Proust wasn’t even Proust on the first pass. That means you have to see doing something badly as better than not doing anything at all. I won’t get fired for handing in 1,000 bad words. I will definitely get fired for not handing in anything.

After that, the next step is learning to recognize where and why you’re bad without rolling around on the floor, saying, “This is terrible, I’m obviously the world’s worst writer.” And you do that by looking at your bad work as a dipstick that measures where you can improve rather than one that measures your innate talents.

Mike: This speaks to the idea that learning how to do something new is good for you even if it doesn’t necessarily turn into a career.

Megan: We learn by doing stuff not well. That’s how people learn to play tennis. You don’t become good at it by creating a really elaborate theory of tennis ball physics, or else MIT would win Wimbledon every year. You hit a ball, you try to guess where it will go. It doesn’t go where you expect and then on the 100th time you finally hit it right. By hitting it wrong all those times, you learn to hit it right.

If you’ve never done anything you weren’t good at, you can’t learn the valuable skill of sucking at something but continuing to do it, which is how people get good at anything. And we have to make ourselves do it because doing something you aren’t good at is usually less rewarding than things that come more easily.

[...]

Mike Riggs: It seems like the best way to hedge against that kind of collapse at the institutional level is to be as diversified as possible at a personal level. Try things that are difficult, save as much as you can, contribute to a 401k. But even that is hard for lots of people.

Megan McArdle: The fact is you can’t assume nothing bad will happen. You could get hit by a truck tomorrow. Your company could go under. We should prepare for failure, which is why I always tell my readers to save 20% of their gross income. As you can imagine, this is not a popular suggestion with my readers.

I also advise people to have a year’s worth of expenses in an emergency fund. This was viewed, even by financial advisors, as quite conservative. But I spent two years being unemployed after getting what was supposed to be the golden ticket to a guaranteed job, which was an MBA from a top-five school. And that taught me there’s no such thing as a golden ticket. You always have to have a plan B. You always have to be thinking about what you’ll do if your company fails. Where will you go next? You should be maintaining connections in that industry, but you should also be living below your means. You should have a smaller mortgage than what you can afford. You should have more savings than you really need.

If you end up dying of cancer at the age of 40, you’ll have over-saved. But if you die of cancer at the age of 40, your biggest regret is not going to be that you didn’t spend more money while you were healthy. Your biggest regret is going to be about relationships and the people you didn’t call, so call your mother.

Introductory psychology textbooks lean left

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

Introductory psychology textbooks lean left:

Writing in Current Psychology, Christopher Ferguson at Stetson University and his colleagues at Texas A&M International University conclude that intro textbooks often have difficulty covering controversial topics with care, and that whether intentionally or not, they are frequently presenting students with a liberal-leaning, over-simplified perspective, as well propagating or failing to challenge myths and urban legends.

[...]

Ferguson and his team examined textbook coverage of seven areas of research consisting of findings which might be considered particularly appealing or unappealing to textbook authors with liberal leanings, and/or which could be prone to alarmist interpretation. This included research on whether media violence incites aggression; the stereotype threat (the notion that performance differences between groups are exaggerated by the fear of conforming to stereotypes); the narcissism epidemic (the idea that today’s youth are more narcissistic than youth in the past); that smacking/spanking children leads to aggression and other negative outcomes; that there are multiple intelligences; that human behaviour is explained by evolutionary theories related to mate selection and sexual competition (in this case, the authors assumed liberal authors would prefer not to cover this research); and controversy around antidepressant medication.

The researchers looked to see if textbook authors presented the evidence as more definitive than it is in these areas, or only presented one side of the arguments. They found that there was biased treatment of media violence and stereotype threat by half or more of the books, and of multiple intelligences and spanking by a third. A quarter of books failed to deal with controversy around antidepressants. Evolutionary theories were neglected by a fifth of the books and presented in biased fashion by one quarter. “We believe that these errors are consistent with an indoctrination, however intentional, into certain beliefs or hypotheses that may be ‘dear’ to a socio-politically homogenous psychological community,” Ferguson and his colleagues said.

They also looked at textbook treatment of various psychology myths and urban legends, including the frequently exaggerated story of the murder of Kitty Genovese, which is often cited as a perfect example of the “bystander effect”: our reduced likelihood of intervening to help when in the company of a greater number of other people who could help. Nearly half the books perpetuated the myth that 33 witnesses watched the killing of Genovese without doing anything to help her. Meanwhile, nearly three quarters of the books failed to challenge the popular misconception that we only use ten per cent of our brains, or that listening to Mozart makes us smarter. And 70 per cent of the books gave the French neurologist Paul Broca undue credit for localising speech function in the brain: the researchers say that the theory of the cortical localisation of speech was first put forward by Ernest Auburtin. “It is surprising to see so few textbooks addressing common misconceptions about psychology,” they said.

[...]

After all, in recent years, we’ve also covered research by Richard Griggs at Florida State University that’s found biased textbook treatment of Milgram’s classic studies on obedience, outdated accounts of the story of Phineas Gage, biased coverage of Asch’s studies of conformity, and of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. Psychology students: if you’re looking for a rounded and accurate introduction to the field , you could consider supplementing your textbook reading with regular visits to our Research Digest blog. Or maybe you do that already.

People just give up trying to improve

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Anders Ericsson — of deliberate practice fame — began his career helping to push the boundaries of working memory:

Most people can repeat back a seven-digit phone number, but not a ten-digit one. He recruited Steve Faloon, an average Carnegie Mellon University student, and they set about systematically working to get better. After about 200 hours of effort, Faloon could repeat back 82 digits, by far a world record at the time. Faloon wasn’t destined for such greatness. Rather, Ericsson’s takeaway is that performance has no inherent limit. “Instead, I’ve found that people more often just give up and stop trying to improve,” he writes. Work constantly at the edge of your ability, though, and your brain changes in a way that makes better performance possible.

They need to learn about the world

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

I haven’t seen Captain Fantastic, but Bryan Caplan’s favorite scene from the movie amused me:

Subtle it’s not, but for me, awesome always beats subtle. The stage: Homeschooling dad Captain Fantastic and his six kids are visiting his mundane sister and her two kids (Justin and Jackson). The sister lets her brother know she’s not too happy with his child-rearing…

Sister: They’re children! They need to go to school. They need to learn about the world.

Captain: [shouting] Justin. Jackson? Would you please come down here for a second?

Jackson: What?

Captain: How old are you now, Jackson?

Jackson: Thirteen.

Captain: Can you tell me what the Bill of Rights is?

Jackson: Um, what something costs, I guess.

Captain: That’s a good guess. Justin, you’re in high school?

Justin: Yeah.

Captain: Do you like your school?

Justin: It’s whatever.

Captain: Do you know what the Bill of Rights is?

Justin: It’s a government thing, right? Like, rights that people have in America and stuff.

Captain: Yep. [shouting] Hey, Zaja?

Zaja: [Captain's 2nd-youngest kid] Yes?

Captain: Would you please come down here a moment, sweetie? I wanted to ask you a quick question. Zaja’s just turned eight, by the way. The Bill of Rights.

Zaja: Amendment one: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; Or abridging the freedom of…

Captain: Stop. Regurgitating memorized amendments isn’t what I’m asking for. Just tell me something about it in your own words.

Zaja: Without the Bill of Rights we’d be more like China. Here, at least, we don’t have warrantless searches. We have free speech. Citizens are protected from cruel and unusual punishments…

Sister: That’s enough.

The very bottom 14% have very simple skills

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

If someone you know doubts intelligence differences, James Thompson says, show them the functional literacy data that Linda Gottfredson references:

That is right. Only 4% of the white population can do all the tasks in the list.

NALS Levels

21% get to the 4th level but cannot do carpet cost type problems, and at the very bottom 14% have very simple skills, which do not include locating an intersection on a street map. For many of you reading this, the finding will seem incredible. It is incredible. Human differences are hard to believe, but they are matters to be demonstrated, beliefs notwithstanding.

The mistake isn’t not guessing right

Friday, January 27th, 2017

I don’t follow association football (soccer), but a (fairly) recent Guardian piece noted that Shrewsbury’s Mat Sadler was about to face his old under-17 teammate Wayne Rooney, of Manchester United, until Rooney got injured, and this was especially interesting because so few players from that young men’s team made it in the big leagues:

Only five of the 18 members of an England squad who finished third in that tournament in Denmark are still playing professional football, with several slipping into the non-league scene, such as the former Nottingham Forest midfielder Ross Gardner, who now turns out for West Auckland Town and works for British Gas, while others have walked away from the game altogether.

[...]

Sadler’s story started at Birmingham City, where the left-back made his Premier League debut at the age of 17 and was extremely well-regarded, so much so that when the Football Association’s technical department organised a “Player Audit” in 2003, his name was one of 25 considered as “certainties” for full England honours.

Fascinated by a list he was never aware of until now, Sadler scans through the names of which only seven — Jermaine Jenas, Michael Carrick, Aaron Lennon, Glen Johnson, Michael Dawson, David Bentley and James Milner — vindicated the FA’s judgment. “There are a few that did get there but more that didn’t. It’s nice company to keep, though,” Sadler says, smiling. “I might frame that.”

Doug Lemov points out that present skill is easier to spot than future skill — or talent:

We think we see the future but we don’t. Learning curves, physiological growth curves, attitudes, health, commitment, psychology — they are all too unpredictable. The mistake isn’t not guessing right. It’s betting too heavily on the guess.

Grouping athletes or students by achievement level only works if the grouping is fluid, if it’s constantly changing and responding to progress.

Allocating dwellings, schools, and health facilities without regard to social class had no effect

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

The city of Warsaw was razed at the end of World War II and rebuilt under a socialist government. As this 1978 Science paper notes, the socialist government’s policy of allocating dwellings, schools, and health facilities without regard to social class had no effect on the association of social and family factors with cognitive development:

Of the 14,238 children born in 1963 and living in Warsaw, 96 percent were given the Raven’s Progressive Matrices Test and an arithmetic and a vocabulary test in March to June of 1974. Information was collected on the families of the children, and on characteristics of schools and city districts. Parental occupation and education were used to form a family factor, and the district data were collapsed into two factors, one relating to social marginality, and the other to distance from city center. Analysis showed that the initial assumption of even distribution of family, school, and district attributes was reasonable. Mental performance was unrelated either to school or district factors; it was related to parental occupation and education in a strong and regular gradient. It is concluded that an egalitarian social policy executed over a generation failed to override the association of social and family factors with cognitive development that is characteristic of more traditional industrial societies.

The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

NPR calls Jordan Peterson’s self-authoring the writing assignment that changes lives:

Experiments going back to the 1980s have shown that “therapeutic” or “expressive” writing can reduce depression, increase productivity and even cut down on visits to the doctor.

“The act of writing is more powerful than people think,” Peterson says.

[...]

Recently, researchers have been getting more and more interested in the role that mental motivation plays in academic achievement — sometimes conceptualized as “grit” or “growth mindset” or “executive functioning.”

Peterson wondered whether writing could be shown to affect student motivation. He created an undergraduate course called Maps of Meaning. In it, students complete a set of writing exercises that combine expressive writing with goal-setting.

Students reflect on important moments in their past, identify key personal motivations and create plans for the future, including specific goals and strategies to overcome obstacles. Peterson calls the two parts “past authoring” and “future authoring.”

“It completely turned my life around,” says Christine Brophy, who, as an undergraduate several years ago, was battling drug abuse and health problems and was on the verge of dropping out. After taking Peterson’s course at the University of Toronto, she changed her major. Today she is a doctoral student and one of Peterson’s main research assistants.

In an early study at McGill University in Montreal, the course showed a powerful positive effect with at-risk students, reducing the dropout rate and increasing academic achievement.

Peterson is seeking a larger audience for what he has dubbed “self-authoring.” He started a for-profit company and is selling a version of the curriculum online. Brophy and Peterson have found a receptive audience in the Netherlands.

At the Rotterdam School of Management, a shortened version of self-authoring has been mandatory for all first-year students since 2011. (These are undergraduates — they choose majors early in Europe).

The latest paper, published in June, compares the performance of the first complete class of freshmen to use self-authoring with that of the three previous classes.

Overall, the “self-authoring” students greatly improved the number of credits earned and their likelihood of staying in school. And after two years, ethnic and gender-group differences in performance among the students had all but disappeared.

The ethnic minorities in question made up about one-fifth of the students. They are first- and second-generation immigrants from non-Western backgrounds — Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Eugenics for music

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Didi Kirsten Tatlow is living in China, where her daughter is in second grade. When the music teacher told them, “We’ve chosen your children according to their physical attributes,” she considered it eugenics for music:

Teacher Wang proceeded to describe a program by which a group of 8-year-olds, selected purely on the basis of physical characteristics rather than interest, would build the best band in the world that would travel overseas and wow audiences with the flower of Chinese youth.

“For the best band, we’ve chosen the best students and the best teachers,” Teacher Wang continued.

Mr. Wang, whom parents addressed only as “Teacher,” (a sign of respect common here) stood before a giant white screen on which he projected a power point full of instrument images. “I’ve chosen your kids, one by one, out of a thousand kids.” Mr. Wang was referring to band C, the third in the school which trained the youngest students, some of whom would eventually rise through the ranks to band B and on to A, at which point they would perform at overseas gigs.

“I’ve looked at their teeth, at their arms, their height, everything, very carefully,” Teacher Wang said. “We don’t want anyone with asthma, or heart problems, or eye problems. And we want the smart kids; the quick learners.”

“Your kids were chosen not because they want to play this or that instrument, but because they have long arms, or the right lips, or are the right height, say for the trumpet, or the drums,” he said.

[...]

Two other non-Chinese, 8-year-old friends of my daughter were among the chosen. The Italian mother of one said her daughter had been chosen for saxophone because the girl was strongly built.

“The other girl playing the sax is a Russian, and she’s also pretty built up and strong,” said my friend. (I have omitted their names out of respect for their privacy and that of their children.)

My friend recalled that some of the parents had asked Teacher Wang why he was choosing children in grade 2 now, rather than earlier when they were in grade 1. Teacher Wang’s reply: “Because in grade 1 their teeth are falling out,” she said. My friend said that Teacher Wang had personally inspected each child’s teeth, as if, she said, “they were horses in the market.”

There was discussion of what kind of lips worked best for the trumpet.

And in a statement that shocked both of us profoundly, Teacher Wang said something about how Africans had long arms and so would be good at particular instruments, such as the cello.

The American father of the third girl said a dentist had visited the school to see which students’ teeth were best suited to play wind instruments. His daughter, braces-free, passed and is learning to play the clarinet.

My daughter, who has some wonky teeth and braces, is a drummer. Apart from the teeth, I can see why; she has the mad energy of Animal in The Muppets and loves what the Chinese call “renao,” or “hot noise,” excitement.

Next thing you know, they’ll start recruiting the tall kids for the basketball team and the tough kids for the wrestling team. Crazy!

Africa and the cold beauty of Maths

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

PISA has the capacity to spread embarrassment far and wide, in rich as well as poor countries, and Dr. James Thompson is “all in favour of that” — but that means that many countries opt out of it (and TIMMS), especially poorer countries in Africa, but a new working paper from the Center for Global Development gets around this:

Internationally comparable test scores play a central role in both research and policy debates on education. However, the main international testing regimes, such as PISA, TIMSS, or PIRLS, include very few low-income countries. For instance, most countries in Southern and Eastern Africa have opted instead for a regional assessment known as SACMEQ. This paper exploits an overlap between the SACMEQ and TIMSS tests—in both country coverage, and questions asked— to assesses the feasibility of constructing global learning metrics by equating regional and international scales. I compare three different equating methods and find that learning levels in this sample of African countries are consistently (a) low in absolute terms, with average pupils scoring below the fifth percentile for most developed economies; (b) significantly lower than predicted by African per capita GDP levels; and (c) converging slowly, if at all, to the rest of the world during the 2000s. While these broad patterns are robust, average performance in individual countries is quite sensitive to the method chosen to link scores. Creating test scores which are truly internationally comparable would be a global public good, requiring more concerted effort at the design stage.

The results are grim:

Substantively, the results here are daunting for African education systems. Most of the national test-score averages I estimate for the thirteen African countries in my sample fall more than two standard deviations below the TIMSS average, which places them below the 5th percentile in most European, North American, and East Asian countries. In contrast, scores from the SACMEQ test administered to math teachers are much higher, but fall only modestly above the TIMSS sample average for seventh- and eighth-grade pupils, in line with earlier analysis by Spaull and van der Berg (2013). African test scores appear low relative to national GDP levels; in a regression of average scores on per capita GDP in PPP terms, average scores in the SACMEQ sample are significantly below the predicted value using all three linking methodologies. Furthermore, there is little sign that African scores were improving rapidly or converging to OECD levels during the 2000s.

Really grim:

In some African countries teachers seem to have lower abilities than students in Europe or East-Asia!

Raising scholastic attainment is unlikely to be a simple question of investing money, Dr. Thompson notes:

A summary of investment in education suggests that the pay-off is front-end loaded: the first $5000 has a big effect, and then it tends to plateau thereafter. Another way of looking at it is to note that once countries get to $16,000 GDP per capita then schooling in those countries accounts for only 10% of the variance of student attainment. So, poor countries (most of Africa is well below this level) should have plenty of scope for educational gains.

Pac-Pro Football

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

The NFL relies on college football for its minor league, but that may change:

Don Yee, better known as Tom Brady’s agent, is launching a professional football league that will target young players who don’t qualify for college or just want to make money sooner rather than later. In limiting the player pool to those between 18 and 22 years old, the venture will challenge a nearly century-old system in which the National Football League relies almost entirely on colleges to prepare its future workforce.

[...]

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has steadfastly refused to pay athletes but has begun supplementing their scholarships with a monthly living stipend. The amount depends in part on whether an athlete lives on campus but can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000. Also, Northwestern’s football players lost their bid to unionize and be treated as employees of the university.

In light of those developments and an NFL rule that requires players to be three years removed from high school to be eligible, Yee and other advocates for athletes have argued for an alternative route for players who want to make it to the highest level of the sport.

[...]

Yee hopes to avoid joining a long list of failed professional football leagues, a group that includes the World Football League, the United States Football League, and the XFL. The NFL folded its own alternative league called NFL Europe in 2007 after 15 seasons. These leagues collapsed amid declining interest and mounting expenses. Beyond paying a minimum of 45 players, owners need training facilities, equipment, coaches and insurance policies — expenses that can reach $5 million to $10 million annually.

“Pac-Pro Football” as its executives refer to it, will have a single-entity structure rather than a franchise model, with the league controlling all team and personnel decisions.

[...]

The Pac-Pro league, McCaffrey said, will target players with NFL-level talent that require additional seasoning. Among those players who could fit the bill are those who struggle with academics or lost their scholarships for disciplinary reasons, or junior-college standouts not yet ready for the NFL.

Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, for example, spent a year playing at tiny Blinn College after a series of problems forced him to leave the University of Florida. Though Newton later thrived at Auburn, he is the type of athlete the Pac-Pro founders hope will see the new league as a viable option.

Those athletes will be able to get jump on learning the professional style of play, which requires a different skill set than big-time college football.

Well, there is a decent pool of players, I suppose. Fans though?

A “beautiful vision” for the new and improved SAT

Monday, January 9th, 2017

After taking over the College Board in 2012, new CEO David Coleman circulated an internal memo laying out a “beautiful vision” for the new and improved SAT:

Literary passages for the new SAT should be “memorable and often beautiful,” he wrote, and students should be able to take the test by computer.

Finishing the redesign quickly was essential. If the overhaul were ready by March 2015, he wrote in a later email to senior employees, then the New York-based College Board could win new business and counter the most popular college entrance exam in America, the ACT.

Perhaps the biggest change was the new test’s focus on the Common Core, the controversial set of learning standards that Coleman himself helped create.

The roll-out hasn’t gone well. “It was a bad year, and I’m sorry,” Coleman said in September.

There might be something amiss with our institutions of higher education

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

There might be something amiss with our institutions of higher education, Paul A. Rahe suggests:

Forty years ago, when I was in my last year as a graduate student at Yale, I taught in a program called Directed Studies. It was a one-year boot camp for the very best entering freshmen. It consisted of three year-long courses: History and Politics One, Literature One, and Philosophy One. In each class, the students started at the beginning — with, say, Herodotus, the Jewish Bible, and the pre-Socratics — and ended in the 20th century — with, say, Heidegger, T. S. Eliot, and Wittgenstein. Twenty years ago, I returned as a visiting professor to teach History and Politics One in the same program. I was by no means the only visitor. The director could not find in the Yale faculty enough instructors ready and willing to do the job. Teaching the very best students in the college a survey of the tradition of political rumination was beyond the capacity of all but a handful of those on the Yale University teaching staff. The old liberal arts curriculum, which is still intact here at Hillsdale, produced citizens with a broad range of knowledge and a general familiarity with our cultural tradition. Today you cannot assume such knowledge on the part of a distinguished university’s faculty.

Teenagers and the Education Apocalypse

Friday, January 6th, 2017

While discussing The Education Apocalypse, Glenn Harlan Reynolds talks a bit about teenagers

It’s very interesting because if you look at history, we tended to treat adolescents as sort of junior adults and we didn’t — teenagerdom is a fairly recent invention and in fact we didn’t really start talking about teenagers until we had kids in school and we took kids who used to hang out with adults in adult settings, doing adult tasks where if you wanted to be respected, which everybody does, you are going to be respected by adults for being good at doing adult things.

Then we took all those kids and instead we segregated them into schools where they were around a bunch of other teenagers and you still want to be respected by the crowd you’re part of, but now your crowd is all people your own age. So you do the stuff that impresses people your own age and the problem with that is teenagers are idiots.

So the stuff that impresses teenagers is usually idiotic. So instead of being really good at bailing hay or fixing a plough or something like that that you might have done a hundred years before, you want to be good at drinking or dating or playing football or other things that are fundamentally more trivial but that appeal to your peer group.

I recommend reading the whole conversation transcript, but I’ll excerpt one more point that I’ve noticed, too:

If you have the experience as I’ve had of just driving through town driving past schools and then driving past prisons, they really often look a lot alike.