A whopping 19 out of 20 principals were replaced in the Houston experiment

Sunday, September 25th, 2022

Connie Morgan believes that Dr. Roland Fryer may have cracked the code on how to eliminate the academic gap between races:

White students score about 30 points higher on math tests than black students. Fryer implemented a strategy at a failing Houston school district that closed the gap. He did it by applying to elementary and secondary schools in the Houston district the five tenets of school success that he discovered in researching the habits of highly successful charter schools. Theories on how to close the academic achievement gap vary from “fix the home” to “fix the school” to “fix the community.” Fryer’s results make a compelling case for “fix the school.”

The five tenets are clear-cut:

  1. Increased Time in School
  2. Good Human Capital Management
  3. High Dosage Tutoring
  4. Data Driven Instruction
  5. Culture of High Expectations

Increasing time children spend in school may be unpalatable for parents concerned about indoctrination but this concern is addressed with the human capital management tenet (more on this in the following paragraph). Others may balk at longer schooldays, citing conflicting research on foreign schools pointing to shorter days as a tenet of student success. However, research on small homogenous countries like Finland is unlikely to reveal practices easily transferable to the United States. Fryer’s experiment confirms, in contrast, that when time in school is spent well, it’s good to spend more of it, particularly when the alternative might be a home environment non-conducive to children’s learning. Fryer had treatment schools in the Houston district increase time on task in various ways, including eliminating breaks between classes, expanding the school day by one hour, offering weekend classes, and adding days to the school year.

Human capital management is probably the most obvious tenet of improving education. In other words, get rid of teachers who won’t embrace the mission and hire ones that will. This tenet is likely the most difficult to execute. Politics and scarcity of resources are the challenges. A whopping 19 out of 20 principals were replaced in the Houston experiment. It took over 300 interviews to find 19 principals to replace them. Of the teachers, 46% were replaced. The district spent more than $5 million buying out teacher contracts. Additionally, feedback to teachers was constant. In the treatment schools, teachers received ten times more observations and feedback than those in the control group. Principals regularly lead staff development and training sessions.

Few schools tutor the number of students for the length of time that Fryer recommends. Remember that extra hour added to the school day? This is where it’s put to work; daily, focused small-group tutoring. In the Houston experiment, low performing fourth graders and all sixth and ninth graders were intensively tutored.

Like their teachers, students in the experiment were constantly being evaluated. Many schools collect data, but few are good at adjusting instruction in light of data. In Fryer’s experiment, treated schools held assessments every three weeks as well as benchmark exams three times in a school year. These results informed tutoring and allowed teachers to set highly specific performance goals with students.

A culture of high expectations is the trickiest tenet to measure. The tenet goes beyond posters that say “Nobody Cares, Work Harder.” Indicators that a real attitude shift has occurred may include things like professional dress codes for teachers, posted achievement goals and/or contracts between parents and schools agreeing to honor expectations.

Math achievement rose significantly in the schools that implemented Fryer’s tenets. Assessment scores increased by 0.15 to 0.18 standard deviations in a year. In layman’s terms, under this program, there is potential to close the math achievement gap between black and white students in less than three years. Even more important than comparison between groups and closed gaps is the absolute good of increased math proficiency among students who have been too long neglected.

The original paper notes that “injecting best practices from charter schools into traditional Houston public schools significantly increases student math achievement in treated elementary and secondary schools — by 0.15 to 0.18 standard deviations a year — and has little effect on reading achievement.”

(Hat tip to Arnold Kling, who expects any gains to fade out.)

Napoleon did not recommend the study of battles, but of campaigns

Saturday, September 24th, 2022

Napoleon did not recommend the study of battles, but of campaigns:

Campaigns before the twentieth century are in many ways the opposite of case studies. The latter thrusts us into a specific scenario, at a certain time and place, with a certain number of troops and resources, and with an immediate objective in mind. In set-piece battles of yore, as in modern operations, most of a commander’s mental efforts took place before things even begin: gathering an intelligence estimate of the enemy, selecting the best scheme of maneuver, matching troops to task, arranging logistics, etc. Once the action commenced, there were only a limited number of decision points where he could influence the course of events—to grossly simplify, the results came down to a series of rolls of the dice. This naturally focuses our attention on the mechanism of victory: what predetermined course of action gives the best probability of success in a scenario, accounting for a limited range of possible enemy responses.

Campaigns, on the other hand, were fundamentally more open-ended. When armies marched out of their winter cantonments for the season, they did not always know in advance which fortress to attack or where to fight a decisive action. Even when they did have a definite objective in mind, the entire challenge lay in precipitating conditions which would allow them to accomplish it; just as often, however, enemy action or the accidents of fate forced them to reconsider their intermediate steps or even the final objective itself.

This open-endedness created a very different decision-making structure. Plans had to account for a far greater degree of uncertainty, and the ability merely to remain in the field as a coherent force was at least as important as the pursuit of an objective. Sheer accident could moot one’s present course—Napoleon’s own staff was famous for issuing a steady stream of countermanding orders as circumstances evolved—and it was quite common for armies to stumble into a decisive engagement without realizing it. In short, decision-making was a far more continuous process.

This remained true even when both sides were clearly heading toward a decisive clash. Most of a commander’s focus had to remain outside the object itself: heeding his own vulnerabilities, considering the enemy’s intervening actions, ensuring that he was not detracting from his own efforts elsewhere, and getting enough men and supplies to the right place. And looming above all that was the risk of failure: what would the immediate consequences be? Was there a safe line of retreat? How would failure change his overall position? Naturally enough, the decision whether to engage in battle was just as important as the battleplan itself.

These questions shine through in narratives and memoirs from past campaigns. Many sources record war council debates over objectives, contingencies, marching routes, and supply considerations. It is by engaging with these debates and working through the decision-making process that a student can develop an intuition for the principles of war—not as a list of rules, but as a way of conducting operations in the face of uncertainty and risk. Even when the sources don’t reveal a commander’s thoughts, it can be just as instructive to try to figure out what he might have been thinking, or whether a failed action might have been somewhat justified by some non-obvious factor.

At its best military history is like a problem set with a partial answer key.

The instinct was to curate a culture

Thursday, September 8th, 2022

Henrik Karlsson helped Erik Hoel comb through the literature on the upbringings of historical geniuses:

But what has struck me, more than anything else, is the insane quality of the cultures they internalized. The pedagogies their guardians employed differed radically; they had differing temperaments; they mastered different disciplines, but they all had this in common: they spent their days around highly competent people.

Most who grew up to become geniuses, pre-1900, were kept apart from same age peers and raised at home, by tutors or parents. Michel Montaigne’s father employed only servants who were fluent in Latin, curating a classical culture, so Montaigne would learn Latin as his mother tongue. J.S. Mill spent his childhood at his father’s desk, helping his father write a treatise on economics, running over to Jeremy Bentham’s house to borrow books and discuss ideas.

Blaise Pascal, too, was homeschooled by his father. His father choose not to teach him math. (The father, Etienne, had a passion for mathematics that he felt was slightly unhealthy. He feared mathematics would distract Pascal from less intrinsically rewarding pursuits, such as literature, much like modern parents fear TikTok.) Pascal had to teach himself. When it was discovered that Pascal, then a young teenager, had rederived several of Euclid’s proofs, the family relocated to Paris so father and son could participate in the mathematical salons of Mersenne. The instinct was to curate a culture, not to teach, not primarily.

You are always internalizing the culture around you

Wednesday, September 7th, 2022

Chimpanzees, who are born into the habitat their genes expect, get by largely on instinct:

We cannot. We have to rely on what anthropologists call cultural learning.


If you measure two-and-a-half-year-old children against [same-aged] chimpanzees and orangutans, they are about even in their capacity to handle tools and solve problems on their own. Only when it comes to observing others and repeating their actions is there a noticeable difference.

Two-and-a-half-year-olds can extract knowledge from people just by watching them move about a room. They start to desire what those around them desire. They pick up tacit knowledge. They change their dialect to match their peer groups. And after a handful of years of hanging about with people more skilled than themselves, our babies — these tiny, soft-skulled creatures — can out-compete chimpanzees in all but close combat.

This ability is not something you can turn on and off. You are always internalizing the culture around you. Even when you wish you didn’t. So you better surround yourself with something you want inside — curate a culture.

This was a world where the humanities mattered

Saturday, September 3rd, 2022

In the 1960s, when history and English majors were among the most popular on campus, America was a very different place, T. Greer explains:

This was an America where most kids memorized reams of poetry in school, where one third of the country turned on their television to watch a live broadcast of Richard III, and where listening to speeches on American history was a standard Independence Day activity. The most prominent public intellectuals of this America were people like Lionel Trilling (literary critic), Reinhold Niebuhr (theologian), and Richard Hofstader (historian). This was a world where the humanities mattered. So did humanities professors. They mattered in part, as traditionalists like to point out, because these professors were seen as the custodians of a cultural tradition to which most American intellectuals believed they were the heirs to. But they mattered for a more important reason—the reason intellectuals would care about that birthright in the first place.

Americans once believed, earnestly believed, that by studying the words of Milton and Dante, or by examining the history of republican Rome or 16th century England, one could learn important, even eternal, truths about human nature and human polities. Art, literature, and history were a privileged source of insight into human affairs. In consequence, those well versed in history and the other humanistic disciplines had immense authority in the public eye. The man of vaulting ambition studied the humanities.

Living in walkable neighborhoods alone does not do the job

Friday, August 19th, 2022

There was a viral tweet recently saying something like “Americans only obsess over college so much because it’s the only time they get to live in a walkable neighborhood,” and Ben Southwood thinks there’s something to this:

But living in walkable neighbourhoods alone does not do the job. Most Americans do not choose to live in walkable neighbourhoods, developers do not maximise profits by building walkable neighbourhoods, and walkable neighbourhoods don’t usually have the highest location-adjusted prices. (Though see many admirable projects trying to change this on Coby Lefkowitz’s Twitter feed.)

Americans rarely live on walkable streets. There are some very high rent neighbourhoods that are walkable &mdsah; Manhattan, Georgetown, and so on. There are bungalow courts and assisted living areas for older people. These two neighbourhood types involve clustering, based around affordability or other restrictions, and are often desirable.

Then there are trailer communities, and there are some neighbourhoods of public housing that are in some sense walkable, although the walks tend to be across bleak windswept open spaces or within poorly kept up towers and blocks. These two neighbourhood types tend not to be people’s first choice, and are generally seen as less desirable.

As will be clear if you read my first post, or the title of this very Substack, I think the reason people loved their college days so much, apart from the fact they were young and beautiful, with perfectly functioning brains and livers, is that at university one has all one’s best friends within two minutes walk. And they’re almost always free to hang out.

Compared to the small town example I looked at before, people at a given university are probably more like potential friends. Most importantly, the students all chose to be there — unlike prisoners, who also live in walkable neighbourhoods. And they chose to be there in part because of an organising feature of the university, probably making the intake similar to each other in some way, possibly fitting some cultural type.

In short: it’s also about clustering.

Grades and test scores should be top factors in college admissions

Thursday, August 18th, 2022

The U.S. public continues to think that grades and test scores should be top factors in college admissions:

More than nine-in-ten Americans (93%) say high school grades should be at least a minor factor in admissions decisions, including 61% who say they should be a major factor. Grades are, by far, the criteria the public says should most factor into admissions decisions. This is followed by standardized test scores (39% major factor, 46% minor factor) and community service involvement (19% major, 48% minor), according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted March 7-13, 2022.

Nearly half of Americans (46%) say someone being the first in their family to go to college should be either a major (18%) or minor (28%) factor in admissions decisions, while a similar share say athletic ability should factor into these decisions (9% major, 36% minor).

By comparison, nearly three-quarters of Americans or more say gender, race or ethnicity, or whether a relative attended the school should not factor into admissions decisions.

The relative importance of each of these factors is unchanged since 2019.

Dr. Raymond Kuo shares the Statecraft and Negotiations simulations he created for his class

Monday, August 8th, 2022

Dr. Raymond Kuo created a Statecraft and Negotiations course when he was a professor, and he has shared his Statecraft and Negotiation Simulations:

I created about a dozen original simulations that:

  • Could be played in ~1 hour or less.
  • Examined 1-3 concepts at once (I find the commercially available sims too sprawling and pedagogically confusing).
  • Could be scaled for many different class sizes, but with teams no larger than 4.
  • Ideally don’t use points.

They are listed and linked below. You might need WinRar to open the zipped files. A few notes/caveats:

  • Please attribute them to me.
  • If you modify the design, please let me know! I’m not a professional game designer, so many things need improving. I’d love to see what you’ve done and would be happy to host new, better versions here.
  • They are purely a teaching aid. Feel free to substitute fictional countries if you’d like. I think (?) the learning goals and teacher’s guides are in the negotiation packages, but please let me know if not.

Aid and Development
Three players (USAID, USTR, DRC) negotiate an aid package for the DRC. Explores aid conditionality.

Electoral System Design
Design an election system for an ethnically fractionalized country emerging from civil violence.

Human Rights
Acting as specific countries, players create the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Negotiate over wording and try to exclude certain rights to align the declaration with your domestic political, legal, and economic systems.

Nuclear Weapons
Go nuclear! Or try to mutually disarm. But don’t get tricked. A simple game requiring only 1-2 decks of cards for the whole class.

War Initiation
Can the players avoid starting World War 1? My largest sim, 5-6 countries, ideally represented by teams, not individuals.

War Termination
Companion to “War Initiation.” Players relive the Versailles conference, attempting to end World War 1 on the most advantageous terms. Can you do better than the real diplomats?

COIN and Laws of War
A four-stage tactical decision game that requires some instructor moderation/adjudication. Can you defend a town without violating the laws of war?

NOTE: A couple of my students designed this simulation, and I think it’s better than my trade sim. Negotiate NAFTA!

In 1820, Harvard paid lip service to meritocratic virtues while producing aristocrats

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022

America’s elite universities have long fused the myth of meritocracy with the reality of aristocracy:

As early as 1820, critics accused Harvard — then a bastion of the Boston upper-class — of elitism, a charge to which administrators responded by introducing difficult entrance exams. These tests did not change the institution’s makeup, and deliberately so. From Latin and Greek to political philosophy, Harvard’s faculty selected themes and questions that no one but students from a handful of preparatory schools could address. In fact, the function of the new admissions process had little to do with access, and much to do with legitimacy. Hiding behind the convenient veil of meritocracy, Harvard could claim the mantle of equal opportunity while remaining exclusive.

Every time public schools managed to adapt and prepare their middle-class students for the entrance exam, the university would change the test’s structure to make it impossible for commoners to compete. In 1850, the exam lasted eight hours; by 1865, it lasted three days and covered twice as many subjects. Harvard justified these changes by re-affirming their desire to become more meritocratic. Far from a gatekeeping tool, the ever-changing exam would prevent the undeserving sons of the elite from corrupting an institution wherein achievement alone prevailed—or so the administration claimed. Of course, the leaders of the college knew that Harvard would remain as aristocratic as ever. But they understood the need to use the meritocracy narrative to protect the university from attacks in the name of democratic consistency.


On paper, every institution of elite production is accessible to all who deserve access. But the players who control the definition of merit and the metrics of achievement have evident incentives to limit the democratization of status. There lies the genius of meritocracy as we know it: the public mind does not grasp that a handful of institutions shape our perception of merit, that the selection processes change to protect dynastic privileges, and that meritocracy at-large consists of little more than a legitimating mechanism by and for elites. Dressed in the garb of equality, meritocracy allows hidden bastions of aristocracy to thrive in democratic societies.


Obsessed with erasing distinctions in rank, we run the risk of elevating mediocrity, failing to produce distinguished statesmen to steward the political order, and thereby endangering our own success.

The founding generation understood this inescapable tension. For them, aristocratic institutions were the best allies of democracies. To aspiring elites, the likes of Harvard provided a positive view of the good life, a sense of noblesse oblige, and a stellar education in the humanities. More than factories of statesmen, bastions of aristocracy served as a counter-cultural force, preserving sophisticated traditions of excellence against the vulgarization of popular culture. The hereditary character of these institutions facilitated their insulation. Responsible for the transmission of aristocratic virtues among a select set of families, elite universities ensured that a distinctive, functional approach to stewardship survived the corrosive entropy of time. Liberated from the pressures of society-at-large, distinguished colleges would act as incubators of elite creativity and talent.


In 1820, Harvard paid lip service to meritocratic virtues while producing aristocrats. In 2021, Harvard pays lip service to aristocratic virtues while producing meritocrats.


The managerial class’s relentless credentialism, obsession with expertise, disdain for leisure, unwillingness to marry before the age of 30, and workaholic disposition all constitute facets of a broader way of life.


Like the American framers, Confucians realize that functional elites integrate talent from non-elite circles, balancing functionality with continuity. Still, the frame of virtue politics departs from the liberal tradition in one central respect. Where liberal philosophers build systems to restrain the power of potentially vicious rulers with strict procedures, theorists of virtue politics elevate the selection of rulers over the restriction of their power.

The Confucian legacy still underpins many of China’s institutions, where the ideal of functionalist aristocracy often translates into an imperfect form of functionalist meritocracy. For centuries, Confucian theorists worked on a stack of institutions—selective examinations, evaluation by peers, modes of promotion, and so on—whose main objective was not to restrain state power, but to elevate the right people to wield it. In a post-communist China shaped by the intellectual influence of Mao, Confucians have not yet managed to impose an aristocratic model in which the system selects for real character virtues, as opposed to mere competence. Still, Confucian thought provides a roadmap for reform towards functionalist aristocracy, one from which both China and America would benefit.


Historically, functionalist meritocracies emerge in uncertain times during which the state’s survival demands raw efficiency. The British navy, for instance, began to select for hyper-competence when hereditary cadres could no longer preserve the empire on their own. Similar situations explain the rise of meritocracy in Napoleonic France and Imperial China. In every case, the urgent needs of the moment—be it a war, an expansionist foreign policy, internal conflicts, or the management of complex societies at scale—lead sclerotic ruling classes to open their ranks to the competent few. These systems are functionalist insofar as meritocrats justify their political power by their contribution to the common good, but they remain non-aristocratic since meritocratic institutions select for brute-force competence, not refined character.

Conversely, while desert-oriented systems can be meritocratic or aristocratic, they inevitably accompany times of decline. When aristocrats can no longer justify their privileges by pointing to the ways in which their superior character serves the common good, they construct narratives of desert — divine rights, hereditary titles, and so on — that hide their lack of virtue, tame popular discontentment, and delay the emergence of revolt.

Merely excellent teachers aren’t terribly valuable in a principal’s currency

Saturday, July 16th, 2022

Layfolk have little clue what principals do all day, Ed Real reminds us:

For example, principals spend very little time evaluating teachers and that’s how they like it. Most of them aren’t terribly interested in outward metrics of student learning, like test scores.  Most school administrators only worry about problematic teachers on an exception basis: they don’t hear, they don’t care.

School administration is an intense, brutal management position that has a limited relationship to teaching. Issues that are largely unconsidered in the public perception are of fundamental and compelling importance to a school and its districts, dwarfing such piddling concerns as teacher quality. Merely excellent teachers aren’t terribly valuable in a principal’s currency.


The top tier is peopled with the coordinators of school-wide initiatives: student activities, ELL testing, Title I.

Day to day operations combined with a series of one-offs rule the administrator world. Student discipline. Answering a tiny slice of the thousand emails received since 8 am. Parent phone calls. Meetings. Facility emergencies. District visits. Attending every single sporting event. Routine yearly or regularly scheduled events that nonetheless require planning, which at the high school level might look like: the master schedule, state tests, graduation, accreditation. Most of the intense planning occurs during the summer month when teachers and students are gone.

But these interrupt-driven tasks are actually a luxury permitted because the district manages the really important school responsibilities, the hulking beasts known as federal and state education mandates. These obligations are so essential and failure so threatening that the tasks are automated and audited by clerical or administrative staff at an expense of millions per year.

For example: attendance reporting is critical to school funding, audited at the district, county and state level. Principals aren’t usually evaluated on test scores. They are evaluated on whether or not their teachers take role. As in, if 90% or more of teachers in a school aren’t identifying any missing students on the expensive online attendance system and clicking “Save”, the principal will get some negative attention and an evaluation metric on that point for the next year.

Another important requirement: a credentialed human being has to be in each classroom nearly every minute of the school day. As in the case of attendance management, districts spend millions each year to take this off individual administrators, usually with a teacher absentee system that allows substitute teachers to sign up for logged teacher absences. This frees principals from a task that would otherwise dominate their day–and, in fact, has dominated their days since the return from the pandemic occasioned a catastrophic sub shortage.

Then there’s the food issue. School researchers and reporters academically and casually use the term FRPL–the usual criterion for Title I designation–but far less attention is spent to the logistics of lunch time or, god spare me, breakfast time, particularly in elementary schools. It’s not just the money for food, but the scheduling, the hygiene standards, the workers, their pay, their hours, their substitutes….it’s a whole thing. No point in blaming federal mandates for this, mind you: school lunch had been in place for over fifty years in 1946, when Truman signed the National School Lunch program. (To this day I wonder why we never decided just to give school kids coupons for meals at local diners. Maybe just add the food cost onto SNAP cards? Sure would have been cheaper and more efficient.)

But the most significant requirement lurking at the edge of every principal’s worry horizon is special education. A behemoth of legal responsibility created by the unexpected collision between 1975’s special education law and 1991’s ADA, the legal mandate of IDEA and the civil right statute known as 504 have effects that were exacerbated by collisions created by medical advances and the APA’s ever-expanding DSM. The original special education law was intended for mildly “retarded” students but for the past 30 years, ever since it was retagged IDEA, the monster has created a whole slew of rights for kids who are a) severely mentally disabled, b) physically disabled (from minor to severe) and c) kids who have learning disabilities that were after the fact categorized as disabled. These are rights that only accrue to those with the magic three letter document known as an IEP, or the less-impressive but still powerful 504. (I would repeal IDEA in its current form, so take my pith with some salt.)

They were Twentysomethings with a lot of time on their hands and nothing better to do

Friday, June 3rd, 2022

An interesting pattern recurs across the careers of great scientists, Dwarkesh Patel notes, an annus mirabilis (miracle year) in which they make multiple, seemingly independent breakthroughs in the span of a single year or two:

Einstein had his annus mirabilis in 1905. While he was still a patent clerk, he wrote four papers that revolutionized our understanding of the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and special relativity.

Newton’s annus mirabilis came to him between 1665 and 1666, when Cambridge responded to the Bubonic plague by sending its students home to quarantine. During that time, Newton, aged 22, developed the theory of gravity along with the language of calculus required to express it.


Many other great scientists — Copernicus, Darwin, von Neumann, and Gauss — also seem to have had an annus mirabilis.

Miracle years happen outside of pure science too. In his memoir, Linus Torvalds talks about how he spent the summer before turning 21 reading an operating systems textbook cover to cover, how later that year he built a terminal emulation program just for fun, and how he spent all his time working on this program until pretty soon it morphed into a full operating system called Linux. That was his annus mirabilis.

Even writers have miracle years. Just recently, the popular fantasy author Brandon Sanderson announced that in the year or two since the pandemic began, he has secretly written five extra novels in addition to the ones his fans knew he was writing.

Perhaps, he suggests, there’s a brief window in a person’s life where he has the intelligence, curiosity, and freedom of youth but also the skills and knowledge of age:

These conditions only coincide at some point in a person’s twenties. It wouldn’t be surprising if the combination of fluid intelligence (which declines steeply after your 20s) and crystalized intelligence (which accumulates slowly up till your 50s and 60s) is highest during this time. Stephan and Levine (1993) find that most Nobel laureates do their prize winning work in their late 20s or early 30s.

During his miracle year, Einstein was a patent clerk, Newton was a college student dismissed for quarantine, and Darwin was a trust fund kid who had just finished a long voyage aboard the HMS Beagle and still didn’t know what to do with his life. They had no obligations to research some old professor’s hobby horse using his particular technique or paradigm.

Given how many of the great scientific discoveries have come about during miracle years, he argues, we should do everything we can to help smart Twentysomethings have an annus mirabilis:

We should free them from rote menial work, prevent them from being overexposed to the current paradigm, and give them the freedom to explore far-fetched ideas without arbitrary deadlines or time-draining obligations.

It’s depressing that I have just described the opposite of a modern PhD program.

The way we teach literature signals that our society no longer has a coherent story about the purpose of education

Saturday, April 30th, 2022

As I recently mentioned, Marc Andreessen shared a “very interesting piece on the current thing” by James McElroy, and I found it had too many interesting bits for one post:

In an influential essay on how traditions solve questions of truth, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that instrumentalism appears when a tradition can no longer explain its older practices. The way we teach literature signals that our society no longer has a coherent story about the purpose of education. Everyone agrees with practical concerns about reading, writing, and the need for future doctors, but there is no justification for the vestiges of our older tradition. Why teach Shakespeare instead of compilations of top-notch corporate memos? At the high school level there is no answer, and so the way English is taught circumscribes how society views storytelling.

When high school students read novels, they are asked to identify the theme, or moral, of a story. This teaches them to view texts through an instrumental lens. Novelist Robert Olen Butler wrote that we treat artists like idiot savants who “really want to say abstract, theoretical, philosophical things, but somehow they can’t quite make themselves do it.” The purpose of a story becomes the process of translating it into ideas or analysis. This is instrumental reading. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent years meticulously outlining and structuring numerous rewrites of The Great Gatsby, but every year high school students reduce the book to a bumper sticker on the American dream. A story is an experience in and of itself. When you abstract a message, you lose part of that experience. Analysis is not inherently bad; it’s just an ancillary mode that should not define the reader’s disposition.

Propaganda is ubiquitous because we’ve been taught to view it as the final purpose of art. Instrumental reading also causes people to assume overly abstract or obscure works are inherently profound. When the reader’s job is to decode meaning, then the storyteller is judged by the difficulty of that process.


College is characterized in two contradictory ways: it is the only firm path to the upper-middle class, and it is a time of Animal House antics. This is so familiar that we often forget it doesn’t make sense. Want to be a respectable member of the upper class? Quick, bong this beer. Campus decadence is a sorting mechanism that elevates people who pay lip service to permissiveness, but don’t fully participate — a preparatory performance of the fake counterculture.


College has become a reputational Ponzi scheme, and the effects of this can be seen across culture. Upper-class fashion once tied back to luxury activities: sailing, tennis, polo. Now, it’s $300 cotton T-shirts and $400 sweatpants. Status is being a willing patsy.

Abstract categorizers were rare and looked smart

Thursday, April 28th, 2022

If James Flynn (of the Flynn Effect) is right, John Barnes suggests, standardized tests have improved our conceptual sorting skills and atrophied our common sense:

Back around 1900, when Terman, Binet and Spearman were pioneering the IQ concept, talented and developed abstract categorizers were rare and looked smart, so it was a natural mistake to assign the highest scores to people who thought like professors of rhetoric or philology.

As standardized tests became more important, our education system shifted toward emphasizing abstract thinking; as people became better at abstraction, they substituted it for applicational thinking.

High schoolers are taking tougher classes, getting better grades, and know less than students did a decade ago

Thursday, April 14th, 2022

High schoolers are taking tougher classes, getting better grades, and know less than students did a decade ago:

In the four decades since the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education published its landmark report, “A Nation at Risk,” there’s been a sustained effort to push high schoolers to take more rigorous courses, with the sensible expectation that tougher classes will mean more learning. Well, consider that experiment half-successful. According to the recently released 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress High School Transcript Study, students are taking more rigorous classes in science and math and they are getting better grades in those classes. The problem? They actually know less than students did a decade ago.

During the decade between 2009 and 2019, the share of 12th graders who took a rigorous or moderately rigorous slate of courses rose from 60 to 63 percent, and the average GPA of high school graduates climbed from a 3.0 to a 3.11—an all-time high. So far, so good. When we turn to how 12th graders actually fared on NAEP (the “nation’s report card”), though, we see that science scores stayed the same and that math scores actually fell by about 3 percent.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen counterintuitive results like these. In 2009, Mark Schneider, now the commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, found that decades of efforts to boost the number of students taking higher-level math classes had led to the dilution of those very classes. In particular, Schneider noted that, between 1990 and 2005, average math GPAs rose, as did the average number of math credits completed by high-school graduates. Furthermore, while only one-third of students completed algebra II in 1978, more than half did in 2008. And yet, despite all of this, NAEP scores for students in algebra I, geometry, and algebra II declined between 1978 and 2008.

In other words, more students were taking more advanced math and getting better grades—and yet our students knew less in 2008 than they did 30 years earlier. Schneider termed this phenomenon the “delusion of rigor” though it could equally well could be termed the “dilution of rigor.”


It’s actually not that hard to figure out what’s going on: Schools have a lot of incentives to get students into more rigorous-sounding classes. Many states require that more students take such classes; equity-oriented advocates urge schools to enroll more low-income and minority students in advanced-sounding classes; and, perhaps most significantly, parents want schools to ensure that their children can enroll in courses that look good on college applications (this pressure only increases as colleges put less weight on the SAT or ACT). In short, there are lots of reasons why students are taking more high-level courses that have nothing to do with whether students are actually prepared for those courses.

But the problem isn’t just that schools are incentivized to stick students into classes they aren’t ready for. The problem is also that schools are incentivized to make those classes easier. Even as more students take more challenging courses, school and system leaders are under a lot of pressure to ensure that graduation rates keep rising. This puts pressure on schools and teachers to soften classes by simplifying instruction, shortening units, skipping difficult concepts, or just slapping an impressive-sounding name on a class that doesn’t deserve it.

An economy is a system for generating and trading solutions to problems

Sunday, April 10th, 2022

Robin Hanson once wrote about how intelligent people tend to overestimate how smart everyone else is, and Anatoly Karlin elaborates on this, with support from PISA test scores:

Fortunately, the PISA website has sample math questions from the 2012 assessment, corresponding to each of the six different levels of difficulty, as well as statistics on the percentage of 15-16 year old students from each of the participating countries that is capable of correctly answering it.

Here is the sample question from Level 6, the hardest level:

Helen rode her bike from home to the river, which is 4 km away. It took her 9 minutes. She rode home using a shorter route of 3 km. This only took her 6 minutes.

What was Helen’s average speed, in km/h, for the trip to the river and back?

Karlin notes how few people get this right:

This problem requires a multi-step approach, an understanding of rates, and the intelligence to complete it in the correct order.

Though not especially hard, even at this level. I suspect that many of you can do it in your heads within a minute.

But a majority of all the tested teens begged to differ.

OECD average: 3% (!!). Korea: 12%, Japan: 8%, Germany: 5%. The US, Italy, Sweden, and Russia were all at 2%; the Mediterranean was at 1%.

Some countries where a big fat 100% (rounded up) were unable to do this problem: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Qatar, Tunisia, Uruguay.

The number of people at this level, the highest measured by PISA, is dwindling away into insignificance in Latin America and the Middle East.

And yet this only translates to an IQ of 120-125. We’re nowhere even near genius level yet.

This matters:

The classical definition of an economy is a system for the production and exchange of goods and services. However, I will argue that you can view it even more fundamentally as a system for generating and trading solutions to problems.


Some of these problems, such as subsistence farming and trucking, are pretty simple and can be accomplished with reasonable efficiency even by relatively dull workers. This is because problems in this “Foolproof sector” (as Garett Jones calls it) require few steps and have only a minimal threshold difficulty, so production in this sector is governed by the standard Cobb-Douglas equation. More highly skilled workers are only modestly more productive, and are thus awarded with modestly higher salaries. Labor differs by productivity, but is substitutable — one experienced waiter is worth two novice ones.

Other problems are very complex and require teams of competent workers to perform multiple complicated steps to create a successful solution. The best are paired with the best for maximum productivity. Moreover, many O-Ring problems might have a threshold limit for IQ, below which no productive work can be done on them in principle (as per the Ushakov-Kulivets model). To be commercially viable, the risk of failure on any one link of a long production chain needs to be kept low. Examples of these “O-Ring” tasks may include: Aircraft manufacturing; corporate merger planning; computer chip design; machine building; open-heart surgeries.