We’ll be laughing about those three weeks of regular high school for the rest of our lives

Wednesday, September 15th, 2021

Bryan Caplan explains his family’s homeschooling Odyssey:

Six years ago, I began homeschooling my elder sons, Aidan and Tristan.  They attended Fairfax County Public Schools for K-6, becoming more disgruntled with every passing year.  Even though they went to an alleged “honors” school for grades 4-6, they were bored out of their minds.  The academic material was too easy and moved far too slowly.  The non-academic material was humiliatingly infantile.  And non-academics — music, dance, chorus, art, poster projects — consumed a majority of their day.  As elementary school graduation approached, my sons were hungry for a change.

So what did we do? In consultation with my pupils, I prepared an ultra-academic curriculum. Hours of math every day. Reading serious books. Writing serious essays. Taking college classes. And mastering bodies of knowledge.


While my sons’ objective performance and subjective satisfaction in middle school were both sky-high, my wife insisted that they try regular high school. Back in those days, the political brainwashing at FCPS was modest, but the anti-intellectual pedagogical philosophy was already overwhelming. I never liked high school, but at least in my day teachers actually taught their subjects. Not so at FCPS. With the noble exception of their calculus teacher, my sons’ high school teachers just showed videos and treated teens like babies. After three weeks, my wife gave a green light to resume homeschooling.

Silver lining: Since comedy is tragedy plus time, we’ll be laughing about those three weeks of regular high school for the rest of our lives. Yes, a kid in their Spanish class really did raise his hand and say, “Spain’s in… South America, right?”


I hired an excellent Spanish tutor to give them Spanish five days a week year-round. And I asked their tutor to use the immersion method: ¡No Inglés!

The results were phenomenal. In months, the twins started speaking exclusively Spanish to each other. The wishful thinking of, “You hate it now, but work hard and you’ll come to love it” came true for them.


In 12th grade, the college application process took over my sons’ lives. While they still prepared themselves for AP Statistics and Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, filling out applications consumed almost the entire first semester. Despite everything we’d accomplished, I was nervous. The most reliable researchers I cornered told me that discrimination against homeschoolers was now mild, but short of a major lawsuit, how can anyone really find out?

To cope, I gave my sons the same advice I give everyone in this situation: Not only is admission random; funding is random as well. So throw a big pile of dice.

In response, my sons maxed out the Common App, which allows you to apply to up to 20 schools. (They also applied to Georgetown, which stubbornly refuses to join the Common App).

The college application weighed heavily on my students. I raised them to think clearly and speak bluntly. They knew to pull their punches on AP essays, but the whole college admission process is simply drenched in Social Desirability Bias. If you write a personal statement that admits, “I want to attend your school because I need a strong signal to advance my career, and you’re selling the thirteenth-best signal on the market,” you won’t be getting in. This was the one time I had to push them to do their work. Tristan averred that the academic refereeing process (four rounds of revisions!) was easy by comparison. My many pep talks largely fell on deaf ears. Still, they soldiered on, and finally resumed their actual studies. Intellectually, the highlight of their year was probably auditing my Ph.D. Microeconomics class.

Soon, college acceptances started to come in. Once the University of Virginia admitted them to their honors program, I stopped worrying. Johns Hopkins, by far the highest-ranked school in the DC area, took them as well. Then in early February, Vanderbilt offered both of them full merit scholarships. No one else came close to that deal, so that’s where they decided to go. And that’s where they are this very day. (Hi, sons!) If you see Aidan or Tristan on campus, be sure to introduce yourself. They’re not attention hogs like me, but they have much to say about anything of substance, and are hilarious once you put them at ease.

My general read: I think the median school probably did discriminate against my sons for being homeschooled. Their SATs were 99%+, their AP performance was off the charts, they ran an impressive podcast, and they had a refereed history publication. (At many schools, five such pubs would buy an assistant professor tenure!) Yet they were waitlisted by Harvard and Columbia, and rejected by all the lesser Ivies. All public schools accepted them; I don’t know if this stems from lower discrimination or just lower standards. Nevertheless, the net effect of homeschooling was almost certainly highly positive. My sons used their immense educational freedom to go above and beyond, and several top schools were suitably impressed. The critical factor at Vanderbilt, I suspect, was that their faculty, not their admissions committees, hand out academic merit scholarships.


Yes, they missed their chance to have a normal high school experience. They had something much better instead. At least in their own eyes.

Men are abandoning higher education

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

Men are abandoning higher education in such numbers that they now trail female college students by record levels:

At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group. U.S. colleges and universities had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago, and men accounted for 71% of the decline.

This education gap, which holds at both two- and four-year colleges, has been slowly widening for 40 years. The divergence increases at graduation: After six years of college, 65% of women in the U.S. who started a four-year university in 2012 received diplomas by 2018 compared with 59% of men during the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man, if the trend continues, said Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse.

No reversal is in sight. Women increased their lead over men in college applications for the 2021-22 school year — 3,805,978 to 2,815,810 — by nearly a percentage point compared with the previous academic year, according to Common Application, a nonprofit that transmits applications to more than 900 schools. Women make up 49% of the college-age population in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.


The college gender gap cuts across race, geography and economic background. For the most part, white men — once the predominant group on American campuses — no longer hold a statistical edge in enrollment rates, said Mr. Mortenson, of the Pell Institute. Enrollment rates for poor and working-class white men are lower than those of young Black, Latino and Asian men from the same economic backgrounds, according to an analysis of census data by the Pell Institute for the Journal.

How do we build more exceptional institutions?

Tuesday, August 31st, 2021

In a world where functional institutions are now the exception, Samo Burja asks, how do we build more exceptional institutions?

A key component of institutional health is personnel — people who understand the social system. Every institution has an official “org chart” and set of protocols, but beneath the org chart lies a deposit of “intellectual dark matter” vital to the institution’s function: private social networks, unwritten plans, roles with more or less power than officially stated, and more. This institutional memory resides in the heads of people who know how to use it.

Such people are essential to the maintenance of existing systems. A healthy organization needs leaders who understand not only what is being done but also why it is being done, which allows them to see which areas are succeeding or failing. Departments may be succeeding according to internal metrics but failing to advance the general mission of the organization. It often takes unusual skill to tell these apart. Without enough such people to repair internal drift and respond to changes in the external environment, an organization will become corrupt and obsolete.

Once an institution has enough people who understand the social system, the second key component is effective meritocracy. Merit must be defined in accordance with the logic of the specific institution. Skilled people must end up in the right roles or their talents will achieve very little. Healthy institutions don’t need to achieve the philosophical ideal of perfection. Rather, they need to get enough good people into responsible positions and put highly capable people into the most demanding roles. In most domains, relationships, soft skills, and effective combinations of skills — such as Scott Adams’s concept of talent stacks — tend to be more relevant to success than marginal differences in pure skill. Moreover, an effective meritocracy does not ignore the problem of trust and coordination between its meritocrats. Trustworthiness, loyalty, and other people skills are as important qualities as narrow skill in a domain. The competent people in an organization have to get along, one way or another, or nothing will get done.

This is especially true in politics. President John F. Kennedy was highly capable as a politician, but his success also depended on his looks, charisma, and family resources. He appointed his brother, Robert Kennedy, to be attorney general. An ideal meritocracy would condemn this as nepotism, but it would hardly make sense for JFK to have combed the earth looking for the objectively “best” candidate when he had a loyal, capable brother who was a graduate of Harvard and conversant with his aims. The degree of trust and loyalty between them outweighed any considerations for a marginally more competent lawyer when it came to the question of coordinating on government policy. Historically, dynasties like this were unremarkable, as it was widely recognized that family members would be motivated to work together.

Counterintuitively, this type of meritocracy can sometimes coexist with a rigid class system. For example, Britain in the 1700s was a highly stratified society, with hereditary nobility at the top of the social pyramid. Nevertheless, many of the most powerful people came from the middle class and gentry. Government ministers like Robert Walpole, generals like Robert Clive, and industrialists like Boulton and Watt faced few barriers as they rose to greatness and contributed to the dominance of the British Empire, while less competent nobility retained social privileges without real power. Weaker class barriers could have increased the pool of potential leaders even further, but so long as the pool is large enough, a society can thrive.

Training and education are essential to institutional continuity. A new generation of skilled people must be intentionally cultivated. Autodidacts may sometimes rise on their own, but never in sufficient numbers to make education obsolete. There are no societies of autodidacts; society must instruct its future leaders. Education is indispensable, but credentialism can be a far greater barrier to professional success than a rigid class system and was historically not the dominant system.

The Roman Republic’s cursus honorum put young elites in a variety of military and civil positions to get hands-on experience with the mechanics of power. The Ivy League of the early 1900s taught a broad classical curriculum to young American elites that prepared them for effective leadership, not for a specific profession or area of expertise. Individual companies, professions, subcultures, and other institutions must also pass down their individual traditions of knowledge or see them decay.

Effective institutions must also solve the succession problem. As time passes and skilled people retire or die, an institution must find ways to preserve the knowledge and structures that allow it to function. Existing institutions must solve the succession problem and hand control to people of sufficient ambition and skill. As new power centers arise, elites must find a way to incorporate them into the system. A more recent example is the effort to integrate tech companies into the ruling elite.

It’s as if some of the A students and B students trade places when it’s test time

Saturday, August 14th, 2021

In the ninth grade, all Taiwanese children take the Basic Competency Test (BCT), Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing explains, which determines if they’ll get to attend senior high school:

The questions are much harder than American SAT questions, perhaps more equivalent to what Americans might see during a college final exam. And the testing takes two days. Only 39% of all Taiwanese ninth-graders manage to pass. It’s enormously competitive and stressful.


In regular classroom work, on a daily basis, the Worriers have the advantage. Thanks to high dopamine levels, they have better memories and attention and a higher verbal IQ. They’re superior planners and can better orchestrate complex thought. But as the BCT nears, the pressure intensifies, and the hours spent studying grow.


The Worriers become distressed and frustrated: they become unable to switch strategies or see something in a new way. They have trouble integrating new information. They are prone to panic when given new directions, preferring to stick to familiar ways of solving problems.


The Worriers score about 8% lower than the Warriors. The Worriers struggle the most on the academic subjects that tax working memory the hardest: science, social science, and math.

It’s as if some of the A students and B students trade places when it’s test time.

The future elites actually practiced less on average in their eventual sport than the near-elites through most of childhood

Friday, August 13th, 2021

If you look at the average number of hours of deliberate practice between elite and near-elite athletes, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), packing in practice is clearly important, but you need to look at the entire picture:

The future elites actually practiced less on average in their eventual sport than the near-elites through most of childhood. Only in the mid-teen years did they focus in on a single sport and begin racking up practice hours in earnest.

Age vs. Practice Hours per Week

It could be that some eventual elites were simply more gifted and didn’t have to focus in as early.

Or, given the circa-puberty timing of the crossover in the above chart, the future near-elites may simply have been early developers who ceased to stand out when peers caught up physically, and subsequently the near-elites started throwing in the metaphorical towel.

Another possible explanation for this pattern is that early specialization actually hinders development in some sports.


[NBA MVP Steve] Nash followed a pattern that shows up repeatedly in studies of the childhoods of elite athletes: he had a “sampling period” through about age twelve, where he tried a variety of sports, found the one that best suited him — physically and psychologically — and then focused in during his mid-teen years and got down to business.


A Swedish study of sub-elite and elite tennis players — five of whom were ranked top fifteen in the world — found that the eventual sub-elites dropped all sports other than tennis by age eleven, whereas the eventual elites continued playing multiple sports until age fourteen. Only at fifteen did the future elites begin to practice more than the future sub-elites.


A study of the childhoods of musicians shows a similar pattern. In a paper titled “Biological Precursors of Musical Excellence,” psychologists John A. Sloboda and Michael J. A. Howe found that teenagers in a competitive music school who were deemed of “exceptional ability” had, prior to gaining entry to the school, sampled instruments and practiced less and had fewer lessons than students who were deemed of “average ability.” The average students accumulated 1,382 hours of play and practice on their first instrument prior to entering the school, compared to 615 hours for the exceptional students, who only focused on one instrument and ramped up their practice activities later. The average players, the psychologists wrote, “spent more total time on instrumental activity, but devoted the vast majority of their effort to the first chosen instrument.” That is, they stuck rigidly to a single path rather than embracing the sampling period during which athletes and musicians alike apparently often find the route that best fits their inimitable bodies and minds.

This led Epstein to write his next book, Range, which I also recommend — and which I’ve mentioned here before a few times.

Cadets with lower grades improved academically if they socialized with cadets with high GPAs

Thursday, July 29th, 2021

Economists Scott Carrell and James West had noticed a pattern, a particular peer effect, at the Air Force Academy, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing explains:

Cadets with lower grades improved academically if they socialized with, and spent more time around, cadet friends with high GPAs. The high-performers rubbed off on the low-performers, dragging them upward. Having friends whose SAT scores were 100 points higher than yours led to a half-grade improvement in GPA.


Carrell and West started by identifying which of the 1,314 incoming cadets had lower SAT scores and GPAs. These were the students most at risk of dropping out. They were assigned to special squadrons with a makeup of extra numbers of high-achievers. Compared with normal squadrons, these socially engineered squadrons had a few more low-performers, many more high-performers, and — to make room — fewer middle-performers.


More of the at-risk cadets were crumbling, not fewer.


Within a test squadron, the low-performers were self-segregating into cliques, to insulate themselves from the endless ranking and comparison.


Remember those squadrons comprised of leftover middle-performers? It turned out that their academic performance dramatically surpassed expectations.


When the field is too large, and the chance to be near the top is slim, people don’t try as hard.

Progressive activists have found a cause even more unpopular than “Defund the police”

Wednesday, July 7th, 2021

Progressive activists have found a cause even more unpopular than Defund the police, David Frum notes, and are pushing it with even greater vigor:

Eighty-three percent of American adults believe that testing is appropriate to determine whether students may enroll in special or honors programs, according to one of the country’s longest-running continuous polls of attitudes toward education.

Yet across the U.S., blue-state educational authorities have turned hostile to academic testing in almost all of its forms. In recent months, honors programs have been eliminated in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Seattle. On Long Island, New York, and in Pennsylvania and Virginia, curricula are being rethought to eliminate tracking that separates more- and less-adept student populations. New York City’s specialist public high schools are under fierce pressure to revise or eliminate academic standards for admission. Boston’s exam schools will apply different admissions standards in different zip codes. San Francisco’s famous Lowell High School has switched from academically selective admission to a lottery system. At least a thousand colleges and universities have halted use of the SAT, either permanently or as an experiment. But the experiments are rapidly hardening into permanent changes, notably at the University of California, but also in Washington State and Colorado. SAT subject tests have been junked altogether.

Special programs don’t poll as well when the questions stipulate that many Black and Hispanic students would not qualify for admittance. But the programs’ numbers rebound if respondents are assured that students will have equal access to test prep. The New York Post reported earlier this year on an education-reform organization’s findings that almost 80 percent of New Yorkers would want to preserve selective testing at the city’s elite high schools if it were combined with free access to test-preparation coaching for disadvantaged groups.


The supervisors who led the effort to end academically selective admissions at Lowell now face not only a recall campaign, but also a lawsuit from groups including the Asian American Legal Foundation. Accusations of bigotry have flowed both ways. In March, supporters of the old admissions system surfaced tweets by one of the school’s pro-lottery supervisors that accused Asian Americans of anti-Blackness. Black students at Lowell complain of racist incidents; an Asian American Lowell alum told of being bullied at another, less selective high school.

People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers

Saturday, July 3rd, 2021

A second-edition of Why Don’t Students Like School has just been published, and it stands the test of time, Robert Pondiscio says:

My 2009 copy of Why Don’t Students Like School by Dan Willingham is among the most dog-eared and annotated books I own. Along with E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit (2006) and Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (2010), I’m hard-pressed to think of another book in the last twenty years that had a greater impact on my teaching, thinking, or writing about education.


Willingham set out to put between two covers a set of enduring principles from cognitive science (“People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers”; “factual knowledge precedes skill”; “proficiency requires practice,” et al.) that can reliably inform and shape classroom practice — a rich vein of ore that Willingham began to mine in his “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” columns for The American Educator starting nearly twenty years ago.

I mentioned the book 11 years ago, when Bryan Caplan was annoyed that it didn’t answer the question in its title.

Here are its nine principles:

  1. People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.
  2. Factual knowledge precedes skill.
  3. Memory is the residue of thought.
  4. We understand new things in the context of things we already know.
  5. Proficiency requires practice.
  6. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.
  7. Children are more alike than different in terms of learning.
  8. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.
  9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.

I enjoyed some of the comments on Caplan’s post

Boonton notes that people pretend that the students are the customers, or the parents are, but it’s really the taxpayers, who are paying to lock up troublesome kids. I don’t dispute this, but I must say that it’s an inefficient way to address the problem:

If schools aim to imprison students for the good of their true customers, the taxpayers, may I note that one attracts more flies with honey. New York spends $17,000 per student. An annual pass at Walt Disney World costs around $600.

Students at high-achieving schools exhibit much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse

Sunday, June 20th, 2021

Students at high-achieving schools exhibit much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse than those at lower achieving schools:

In the 1990s, [Suniya] Luthar was studying the effects of poverty on the mental health of teenagers. In research with inner-city youth from families well below the poverty level, she found high levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Then one of her graduate students challenged her by suggesting that these problems might not be limited to children in poverty, so she began conducting similar research with teens in affluent suburban areas. Remarkably, she found that levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse (including alcohol and hard drugs) were even higher among these presumably “privileged” young people than they were among the teens in poverty (Luthar & Latendresse, 2005).

In subsequent research, Luthar and her colleagues found that the most significant variable in predicting such problems is not family wealth per se but attendance at a high-achieving school (HAS). They found that the suffering among students at HASs is not limited to those from wealthy families (Ebbert et al., 2019). Students from families of more modest means at such schools also suffer. What matters is the degree to which the young people feel their self-worth depends on high academic achievement and success at the extracurricular activities, such as varsity sports, promoted and valued by the school.

In one study, encompassing nine high achieving schools, some private and some public, they found rates of clinically significant levels of anxiety and depression that were six to seven times the national average for people in that age range (Luthar, Kumar & Zillmer, 2020). They also found that the cause of these problems, for students at HASs, was very different from that for students in poverty. While students in poverty struggle for physical safety and survival, HAS students suffer from intense, unrelenting pressure to achieve (Luthar, Kumar & Zillmer, 2020).

Longitudinal research has revealed that the harmful effects of attending a high-achieving high school continue well beyond graduation. One study showed that rates of clinically significant alcohol and drug dependence, among graduates of HASs, were two to three times as high as the national average throughout college and for at least several years beyond (Luthar, Small, & Ciciolla, 2018). One very long-term study, begun in the 1960s, revealed that graduates of highly selective high schools were performing more poorly, at follow-ups 11 years and 50 years later, than were graduates of unselective schools matched for socioeconomic background of their family of origin (Gölner et al, 2018). Those who had gone to unselective high schools were not only psychologically healthier but were making more money and were more likely to be in high-status jobs than were those who had gone to selective schools.

The real currency of the professional elite

Sunday, June 13th, 2021

The Class Ceiling combines an analysis of earnings data from the large-scale Labour Force Survey with findings from the Great British Class Survey (an online questionnaire hosted on the BBC website in 2011) to explain why it pays to be privileged:

In the case of the creative industries, being told that their employment practices are classist, racist and sexist would irritate and anger most senior staff, even when they implicitly accept the reality. Take their case study of one of the major TV companies, which they disguise as “6TV”, who, in the words of one self-employed — and underemployed — working-class actor, are “all these middle-class people making…working-class programme[s]”.

The creative industries’ diversity problem is obvious from the outset. It is partly about behaviour, an easy switch between the demotic and more rarefied. Senior commissioners at 6TV can put their boxfresh trainers up on the desk and swear freely, but only because they know how to do it at the right time and in the “right” context.

Friedman and Laurison’s interviews illustrate the power of “studied informality” — essentially the way in which working class ways of being have been ruthlessly appropriated by the upper middle-class as a way to make money and cachet from authenticity. 6TV’s commissioners pride themselves on programming that connects with “real people”, living “real lives” in “real places”. At the company’s gladiatorial commissioning meetings, where programme ideas get thrashed out, the most coveted skill is a kind of highbrow banter. You can proclaim, as one commissioner does, that “We’re talking about TV…it’s not Hegel!”, but you still have to know who Hegel is and to know how to get a laugh out of bringing up his name.

In other words, the authors highlight the multiplying effects of factors that privilege the already privileged. It’s not just that having rich parents makes your upbringing well resourced, which in turn makes you less risk-averse, secure in the knowledge that you have money to fall back on. It means being used to dinner settings with more than one fork. It means going to schools where the stock in trade is the cultivation not of passionate argument but of dispassionate debating skills — because none of it really matters, does it Boris? Wordplay, wit, highbrow references, and above all, the display of lightly worn intelligence deployed to raise a knowing chuckle, are the real currency of the professional elite.

They’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities

Saturday, June 12th, 2021

R.R. Reno is not inclined to hire graduates from America’s elite universities:

A decade ago I relished the opportunity to employ talented graduates of Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the rest. Today? Not so much.

As a graduate of Haverford College, a fancy school outside Philadelphia, I took interest in the campus uproar there last fall. It concerned “antiblackness” and the “erasure of marginalized voices.” A student strike culminated in an all-college Zoom meeting for undergraduates. The college president and other administrators promised to “listen.” During the meeting, many students displayed a stunning combination of thin-skinned narcissism and naked aggression. The college administrators responded with self-abasing apologies.

Haverford is a progressive hothouse. If students can be traumatized by “insensitivity” on that leafy campus, then they’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities. And in any event, I don’t want to hire someone who makes inflammatory accusations at the drop of a hat.

Student activists don’t represent the majority of students. But I find myself wondering about the silent acquiescence of most students. They allow themselves to be cowed by charges of racism and other sins. I sympathize. The atmosphere of intimidation in elite higher education is intense. But I don’t want to hire a person well-practiced in remaining silent when it costs something to speak up.

The work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams

Tuesday, June 8th, 2021

A few days ago, on the way home from school, Paul Graham’s nine-year-old son told him he couldn’t wait to get home to write more of the story he was working on:

This made me as happy as anything I’ve heard him say — not just because he was excited about his story, but because he’d discovered this way of working. Working on a project of your own is as different from ordinary work as skating is from walking. It’s more fun, but also much more productive.


You have moments of happiness when things work out, but they don’t last long, because then you’re on to the next problem. So why do it at all? Because to the kind of people who like working this way, nothing else feels as right. You feel as if you’re an animal in its natural habitat, doing what you were meant to do — not always happy, maybe, but awake and alive.


Instead of telling kids that their treehouses could be on the path to the work they do as adults, we tell them the path goes through school. And unfortunately schoolwork tends be very different from working on projects of one’s own. It’s usually neither a project, nor one’s own.


It’s a bit sad to think of all the high school kids turning their backs on building treehouses and sitting in class dutifully learning about Darwin or Newton to pass some exam, when the work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams.


When I was picking startups for Y Combinator, I didn’t care about applicants’ grades. But if they’d worked on projects of their own, I wanted to hear all about those.

Some kids can color in the lines and others can’t

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

Born in 1981, Freddie deBoer is an English Ph.D., Nick Gillespie notes, and the author of The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice:

He is also a third-generation Marxist who believes that individuals are innately different from one another (probably due to inherited differences in intelligence and physical capacity) and that many of his fellow Bernie Sanders-loving, progressive inhabitants of Brooklyn are hurting the poor when they insist that all K-12 students take college prep classes and have access to higher education. “Education is not a weapon against inequality; it is an engine of inequality,” he writes, sounding like Dirty Jobs‘ Mike Rowe when it comes to promoting well-paying but low-status trade jobs. What deBoer calls “the cult of smart” — the valorization of test-taking and a belief that all of us are blank slates who can be remediated through the right sort of instruction and environment — not only marginalizes the poor and “untalented,” it ultimately blames them for their own condition.

Freddie deBoer gives his own brief primer on the text:

The Cult of Smart is not buttressed by evidence; in fact it is often directly contradicted by evidence. The idea that education is the key to a better economic future for individuals and our country has been promoted by every president going back at least as far as Reagan. Educational achievement has expanded at essentially every level, with better than 90% of American adults now holding a high school diploma, more than 35% now holding bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees exploding, with the number of people holding such degrees increasing by more than 100 people per 100,000 people in less than 25 years. And yet in the last 25 years while we were becoming a vastly more educated nation, working age poverty (the metric of relevance here) barely changed and income inequality rose dramatically. The troubling separation between productivity and real wages continued. The failure of rapidly-rising college participation rates to reduce poverty or inequality in the way typically argued reflect broader dynamics, or so the book argues: college creates inequality rather than reduces it, and if everyone got a college degree (as the policy apparatus often pushes for), the financial value of a college degree would fall to zero. What’s more, America has always sucked at international educational comparisons, including during the periods of our greatest scientific, economic, and military dominance, undermining the basic claim that we need to succeed in school to succeed in general.

The Cult of Smart is self-serving. If we get rid of the influence of environment and assorted, we’ll be left with a system that prizes… what the people advocating for that system think makes them look best. All of those think tankers and politicos and journalists and “consultants” that push education as our great economic sorting system are themselves people who flourished in education. In many ways these people seem unwilling to think deeper than “this worked for me, so it can work for everyone.”


First, and simply, different people are better or worse at educational tasks of all stripes. Some kids can color in the lines and others can’t; some kids learn the alphabet faster than others; some kids crunch through equations more accurately; some score in the 25th percentile on their state standardized tests and some in the 75th percentile. Nothing controversial there, and nothing contrary to a purely environmental vision of what produces educational outcomes. But it’s important to remember that we have never observed educational equality of outcomes, whatever that could mean, in any context.

The second observation is vital, blatantly obvious to most career educators, and conveniently ignored in a great deal of our educational debates. As I argue in the book, people tend to think that what we care about in education is absolute learning — can a kid who could not do long division/recite the state capitols/tie his shoes do so now? But in fact what we are more concerned with is relative learning — are the bronze reading group kids catching up to the gold group/is the racial achievement gap closing/what percentile did you score in on the SAT? People constantly complain about poor scores on standardized tests without knowing the slightest thing about the content of those tests. That would make little sense if they were primarily concerned with absolute learning, with content. Instead, they care about how different groups perform relative to each other, and about the relative performance of their own child to his or her peers. And what you find, again and again, is that academic performance relative to peers is remarkably static. That is, kids tend to sort themselves into a given ability band early in their academic life and they tend to stay there.

“Tend” is an important word; there are plenty of exceptions. Individual students exceed their previous academic standing (or fall back in the pack) fairly often. But at scale, from the point of view of the system, it’s remarkable how static relative educational position is. There are tests you can give to very young children that predict how well they’ll do in kindergarten. The grades students achieve in the earliest grades tend to produce performance distributions that persist all the way through their academic lives. Indeed, data gathered the summer after kindergarten provides useful predictive information about how students will perform in college. Third grade reading group (age 8/9), by itself, is a strong predictor of how a student will perform by the end of high school (age 17/18). SAT results don’t just give us quite accurate information about how well test takers will perform in their first year of college. They give us useful predictive information about whether test takers will ever hold a patent or write a bestselling book. Kids sort themselves into an educational hierarchy and they mostly don’t move. That this is not the first thing mentioned in every educational discussion is a function of the fact that it is not polite.

Ice Novice to Winter Olympian in 14 Months

Friday, May 21st, 2021

In August 2004, the Australian Institute for Sport, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), had a year and a half to try to qualify a woman for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, in the sport of skeleton:

The Aussie scientists had never even seen the sport, but they had learned that the beginning sprint accounts for about half of the variation in total race time. So they announced a nationwide call for women who could fit snugly on a tiny sled and who could sprint.


The women came from track, gymnastics, water skiing, and surf lifesaving, a popular sport in Australia that mixes open-water rowing and kayaking, surf paddling, swimming, and footraces in the sand. Not one woman had heard of skeleton, much less tried it.

Five of the ten spots were filled solely based on the 30-meter sprint, the other five by consensus of the scientists and AIS coaches, based on how well the athletes did in a dry land test during which they had to jump on a sled fitted with wheels.


Within three slides, the newbies were recording the fastest runs in Australian history, faster than the previous national record holder, who had had years of training. “That first week on the track, it was all over,” says Gulbin. “The writing was on the wall.”


Ten weeks after she first set foot on ice, Melissa Hoar bested about half the field at the world under-twenty-three skeleton championships. (She won the title in her next try.) And beach sprinter Michelle Steele made it all the way to the Winter Olympics in Italy.

The AIS titled their paper on the project “Ice Novice to Winter Olympian in 14 Months.”

Australia, a world sports powerhouse, has thrived off talent identification and “talent transfer,” the switching of athletes between sports. In 1994, as part of the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the country launched its National Talent Search program. Children ages fourteen to sixteen were examined in school for body size and tested for general athleticism. Australia, home to 19.1 million people at the time, won 58 medals in Sydney. That’s 3.03 medals for every million citizens, nearly ten times the relative haul of the United States, which took home 0.33 medals per million Americans.

Graf was at the top of every single test

Monday, May 17th, 2021

Psychologist Wolfgang Schneider had no idea in 1978, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), that he was being handed the study sample of a lifetime when the German Tennis Federation helped him recruit 106 of the top eight-to-twelve-year-old tennis players in the country:

Of 106 kids, 98 ultimately made it to the professional level, 10 rose to the top 100 players in the world, and a few climbed all the way to the top 10.


When the researchers eventually fit their data to the actual rankings of the players later on, the children’s tennis-specific skill scores predicted 60 to 70 percent of the variance in their eventual adult tennis ranking.


The tests of general athleticism — for example, a thirty-meter sprint and start-and-stop agility drills — influenced which children would acquire the tennis-specific skills most rapidly.


“We called Steffi Graf the perfect tennis talent,” Schneider says. “She outperformed the others in tennis-specific skills and basic motor skills, and we also predicted from her lung capacity that she could have ended up as the European champion in the 1500-meters.”

Graf was at the top of every single test, from measures of her competitive desire to her ability to sustain concentration to her running speed. Years later, when Graf was the best tennis player in the world, she would train for endurance alongside Germany’s Olympic track runners.


The future pros not only tend to practice more, but they take responsibility for practicing better.


“What we see in the shuttle sprints,” Elferink-Gemser says, “is that the ones signing a professional contract later are the ones that are on average 0.2 seconds faster when they are younger, at the age of twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. They are always on a group average about 0.2 seconds faster than the ones who end up on the amateur level. That really gives some indication that it is important to be fast. You need a minimum speed. If you’re really slow, then you cannot catch up, and speed is really hard for them to train.”


“We’ve tested over ten thousand boys,” he says, “and I’ve never seen a boy who was slow become fast.”