Americans spend three to four times more time watching TV together than talking with one another

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

Jared Diamond argues (in Upheaval) that the US is facing a political and cultural crisis:

No one, in the 5,400-year history of centralized government on all of the continents, has figured out how to ensure that the policies implemented with enviable speed by dictatorships consist predominantly of good policies.

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I also acknowledge that democracy isn’t necessarily the best option for all countries; it’s difficult for it to prevail in countries lacking the prerequisites of a literate electorate and a widely accepted national identity.

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To understand the fundamental benefits of an immigrant population, imagine that you could divide the population of any country into two groups: one consisting on the average of the youngest, healthiest, boldest, most risk-tolerant, most hard-working, ambitious, and innovative people; the other consisting of everybody else. Transplant the first group to another country, and leave the second group in their country of origin. That selective transplanting approximates the decision to emigrate and its successful accomplishment.

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One friend of mine, nominated to a second-level position in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, withdrew his candidacy when he still hadn’t been confirmed after a year of waiting.

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Why has this breakdown of political compromise accelerated within the last two decades? In addition to the other harm that it causes, it’s self-reinforcing, because it makes people other than uncompromising ideologues reluctant to seek government service as an elected representative. Two friends of mine who had been widely respected long-serving U.S. senators, and who seemed likely to succeed once again if they ran for re-election, decided instead to retire because they were so frustrated with the political atmosphere in Congress.

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One suggested explanation is the astronomical rise in costs of election campaigns, which has made donors more important than in the past.

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As one disillusioned friend wrote me after retiring from a long career in politics, “Of all the issues that we face, I think that the skew of money in our political system and our personal lives has been by far the most damaging. Politicians and political outcomes have been purchased on a grander scale than ever before… the scramble for political money saps time and money and enthusiasm… political schedules bend to money, political discourse worsens, and politicians do not know each other as they fly back and forth to their districts.”

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Formerly, our representatives served in Congress in Washington during the week; then they had to remain in Washington for the weekend because they couldn’t return to their home state and back within the span of a weekend. Their families lived in Washington, and their children went to school in Washington. On weekends the representatives and their spouses and children socialized with one another, the representatives got to know one another’s spouses and children, and the representatives spent time with one another as friends and not just as political adversaries or allies. Today, though, the high cost of election campaigns puts pressure on representatives to visit their home state often for the purpose of fund-raising, and the growth of domestic air travel makes that feasible.

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Those of you American readers over the age of 40, please reflect on changes that you’ve seen yourself in American elevator behavior (people waiting to enter an elevator now less likely to wait for those exiting the elevator); declining courtesy in traffic (not deferring to other drivers); declining friendliness on hiking trails and streets (Americans under 40 less likely to say hello to strangers than Americans over 40); and above all, in many circles, increasingly abusive “speech” of all sorts, especially in electronic communication.

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American academic debates have become more vicious today than they were 60 years ago.

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Already at the beginning of my academic career, I found myself involved in scholarly controversies, just as I am now. But I formerly thought of the scientists with whom I disagreed on scientific matters as personal friends, not as personal enemies. For example, I recall spending a vacation in Britain after a physiological conference, touring ruined Cistercian monasteries with a nice and gentle American physiologist with whom I had strongly disagreed about the mechanism of epithelial water transport at the conference. That would be impossible today. Instead, I’ve now repeatedly been sued, threatened with lawsuits, and verbally abused by scholars disagreeing with me. My lecture hosts have been forced to hire bodyguards to shield me from angry critics. One scholar concluded a published review of one of my books with the words “Shut up!”

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All of these arenas of American life are facets of the same widely discussed phenomenon: the decline of what is termed “social capital.”

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“… social capital refers to connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called ‘civic virtue.’”

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But Americans have been decreasingly involved in such face-to-face groups, while becoming increasingly involved in on-line groups in which you never meet, see, or hear the other person.

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The telephone appeared in 1890 but didn’t saturate the U.S. market until around 1957. Radio rose to saturation from 1923 to 1937, and TV from 1948 to 1955. The biggest change has been the more recent rise of the internet, cell phones, and text messaging.

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Americans spend three to four times more time watching TV together than talking with one another, and at least one-third of all TV viewing time is spent alone (often on the internet rather than in front of a TV set).

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In a Canadian valley were three otherwise similar towns, one of which happened to be out of reach for the TV transmitter serving the area. When that town did gain reception, participation in clubs and other meetings declined compared to participation in that same town before TV arrived, down to levels comparable to participation in the other two towns already served by TV.

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In the remote areas of New Guinea where I do fieldwork, and where new communication technologies haven’t yet arrived, all communication is still face-to-face and full-attention—as it used to be in the U.S. Traditional New Guineans spend most of their waking hours talking to one another. In contrast to the distracted and sparse conversations of Americans, traditional New Guinea conversations have no interruptions to look at the cell phone in one’s lap, nor to tap out e-mails or text messages during a conversation with a person physically present but receiving only a fraction of one’s attention.

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One American missionary’s son who grew up as a child in a New Guinea village and moved to the U.S. only in his high school years described his shock on discovering the contrast between children’s playing styles in New Guinea and in the U.S. In New Guinea, children in a village wandered in and out of one another’s huts throughout the day. In the U.S., as my friend discovered, “Kids go into their own houses, close the door, and watch TV by themselves.”

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South Korean applicants for training as primary schoolteachers have to score in the top 5% on national college entrance exams, and there are 12 teachers applying for every secondary school teaching job in South Korea. In contrast, American teachers have the lowest relative salaries (i.e., relative to average national salaries for all jobs) among major democracies.

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All schoolteachers in South Korea, Singapore, and Finland come from the top third of their school classes, but nearly half of American teachers come from the bottom third of their classes.

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In all my 53 years of teaching at the University of California (Los Angeles), a university that attracts good students, I have had only one student who told me that he wanted to become a schoolteacher.

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For instance, Canada’s criteria for admitting immigrants are more detailed and rational than the U.S.’s. As a result, 80% of Canadians consider immigrants good for the Canadian economy—a far cry from the lacerating divisions in American society over immigration.

The influence of those Asian immigrants has been far out of proportion to their numbers

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

Australia has accepted many Asian immigrants, Jared Diamond notes (in Upheaval):

Under the Colombo Plan for Asian development, Australia accepted 10,000 Asian student visitors in the 1950’s.

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The despised dictation test for prospective immigrants was dropped in 1958.

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The Migration Act of that same year allowed “distinguished and highly qualified Asians” to immigrate.

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Between 1978 and 1982 Australia admitted more Indochinese refugees, as a percentage of its population, than any other country in the world.

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By the late 1980’s, nearly half of Australians were either born overseas or had at least one overseas-born parent.

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By 1991, Asians represented over 50% of immigrants to Australia.

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The influence of those Asian immigrants has been far out of proportion to their numbers: Asian students have come to occupy over 70% of the places in Sydney’s top schools, Asian university students appeared to account for a sizeable fraction of the students whom I saw strolling across the University of Queensland campus in 2008, and Asians and other non-Europeans now make up more than half of Australian medical students.

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In 1986 Australia ended the right of final appeal to Britain’s Privy Council, thereby abolishing the last real trace of British sovereignty and making Australia fully independent at last.

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In 1999 Australia’s High Court declared Britain to be a “foreign country.”

College students aren’t checking out books

Monday, June 17th, 2019

University libraries across the country, and around the world, are seeing steady, and in many cases precipitous, declines in the use of the books on their shelves:

The University of Virginia, one of our great public universities and an institution that openly shares detailed library circulation stats from the prior 20 years, is a good case study. College students at UVA checked out 238,000 books during the school year a decade ago; last year, that number had shrunk to just 60,000.

Before you tsk-tsk today’s kids for their lack of bookishness, note that the trend lines are sliding southward for graduate students and faculty members, too: down 61 percent and 46 percent, respectively, at UVA. Overall, across its entire network of libraries, UVA circulated 525,000 books during the 2007–08 school year, but last year there were only 188,000 loans — nearly 1,000 fewer books checked out a day. The Association of Research Libraries’ aggregated statistics show a steady decrease of the same proportion across its membership, even as student enrollment at these universities has grown substantially.

Maybe students aren’t checking the books out but are still consulting them regularly within the library? This also does not appear to be true. Many libraries also track such in-house uses, by tallying the books that need to be reshelved, and the trends are the same. At my library at Northeastern University, undergraduate circulations declined 50 percent from 2013 to 2017 — before we decided to do our own book relocation — and our logged number of books removed from shelves but not checked out also dropped by half.

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A positive way of looking at these changes is that we are witnessing a Great Sorting within the library, a matching of different kinds of scholarly uses with the right media, formats, and locations. Books that are in high demand; or that benefit from physical manifestations, such as art books and musical scores; or that are rare or require careful, full engagement, might be better off in centralized places on campus. But multiple copies of common books, those that can be consulted quickly online or are needed only once a decade, or that are now largely replaced by digital forms, can be stored off site and made available quickly on demand, which reduces costs for libraries and also allows them to more easily share books among institutions in a network. Importantly, this also closes the gap between elite institutions such as Yale and the much larger number of colleges with more modest collections.

The way to develop the best 20-year-old athlete is not the way to make the best 10-year-old athlete

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

David Epstein’s The Sports Gene was excellent. In Range he argues for generalism and against specialization:

I do find the Tiger Woods story incredibly compelling; there is a reason it may be the most famous tale of development ever. Even if you don’t know the details, you’ve probably absorbed the gist.

Woods was 7 months old when his father gave him a putter, which he dragged around in his circular baby-walker. At 2, he showed off his drive on national television. By 21, he was the best golfer in the world. There were, to be sure, personal and professional bumps along the way, but in April he became the second-oldest player ever to win the Masters. Woods’s tale spawned an early-specialization industry.

And yet, I knew that his path was not the only way to the top.

Consider Roger Federer. Just a year before Woods won this most recent Masters, Federer, at 36, became the oldest tennis player ever to be ranked No. 1 in the world. But as a child, Federer was not solely focused on tennis. He dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming, skateboarding and squash. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis and soccer (and badminton over his neighbor’s fence). Federer later credited the variety of sports with developing his athleticism and coordination.

While Tiger’s story is much better known, when sports scientists study top athletes, they find that the Roger pattern is the standard. Athletes who go on to become elite usually have a “sampling period.” They try a variety of sports, gain a breadth of general skills, learn about their own abilities and proclivities, and delay specializing until later than their peers who plateau at lower levels. The way to develop the best 20-year-old athlete, it turns out, is not the same as the way to make the best 10-year-old athlete.

The same pattern holds in other fields.

Fooling the men is the first principle of life

Saturday, May 25th, 2019

In the army in the United States, Dunlap says, “fooling the men” is the first principle of life:

The official stand is that all enlisted men are morons and must be treated at that level of intelligence, therefore all officers and a lot of non-coms will tell any soldier anything at all, regardless of truth. Consciences are parked with the intelligence. Training for the past war was as a rule conducted on the basis of peacetime training in past decades. A man could not be a good truck driver if he could not march well. He could not hold a rating as a tank mechanic if he did not know his military courtesy. He could not be a platoon sergeant in the line if he was not a whiz on the drill field. The old officers training the armies still believed there was “Nothing like drill to make a soldier.” The snappy, salute-happy lads, commissioned or enlisted, were not much good either in the line or in the shop, until they learned their job on non-union hours, which was often quite late in their lives. In war, only the results pay off, but they were of the tradition which dictated that not the result, but the way it was obtained was of greatest importance.

Toward the end of the war the infantry troops were given more sensible training which gave them a better shake for their money, but did not bring back the guys who died in Tunisia and Sicily and Italy, and the Islands. Even service troops got some realistic night training, mostly useless. I went through a few infiltration courses, crawling under machine gun fire, etc. when I came back from Africa. What irritated me was that our brass-hats were determined not to learn except the hard way — the British made every error we did, two years before, but after Dunkirk they realized it and reorganized.

They had written a lot of books and manuals about modern warfare, but none of our brass read them. Africa was a fine example; what Rommel’s boys did to Patton and his Fort Knox tank tactics was pitiful. For exact details, find a member of the original 1st Armored Division, if any are still alive. General Patton made a great name in Europe, with the Air Corps to knock out German armor ahead of him, but he was sure a chump in Tunisia. The colonels who led his his columns learned how through their own experience, and a lot of guys died before they got experience.

They would exclude foreign kids at higher rates

Friday, May 17th, 2019

The UK Department of Education has released the 2017 figures for suspensions:

By way of benchmarking, White British children are excluded at the rate of 5.23%. If British teachers were prejudiced against other racial groups, then they would exclude foreign kids at higher rates. Inspection of the rates show this is an unsupported assumption. For example, another benchmark is the Chinese exclusion rate of 0.56% which is what is attainable using Confucian principles, which presumably can be inculcated to the general benefit of all children, and all teachers. Indian children at 0.84% are doing almost as well.

UK School Exclusions by Ethnicity

If teacher’s animus is against Black foreigners, then they have got their prejudices the wrong way around. Black Africans are definitely foreign, while Black Caribbeans are British born and have been exposed to as much local culture, cuisine and weather as the White British, yet the Black Africans are excluded at the lower rate of 4.21% and the familiar Black Caribbeans at higher rate of 10.2%.

The purpose is to get to race without using race

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

The College Board plans to assign an adversity score to every student who takes the SAT:

This new number, called an adversity score by college admissions officers, is calculated using 15 factors including the crime rate and poverty levels from the student’s high school and neighborhood. Students won’t be told the scores, but colleges will see the numbers when reviewing their applications.

Fifty colleges used the score last year as part of a beta test. The College Board plans to expand it to 150 institutions this fall, and then use it broadly the following year.

SAT Score Distributions by Race

White students scored an average of 177 points higher than black students and 133 points higher than Hispanic students in 2018 results. Asian students scored 100 points higher than white students. The children of wealthy and college-educated parents outperformed their classmates.

Adversity Index

“The purpose is to get to race without using race,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Mr. Carnevale formerly worked for the College Board and oversaw the Strivers program.

Cheating by American celebrities is more fun

Sunday, May 5th, 2019

College admissions cheating by American celebrities is more fun, Steve Sailer notes, but cheating by Chinese nationals is a much bigger problem, Los Angeles Magazine reports:

According to prosecutors, Cai, along with four current and former UCLA students and another student at Cal State Fullerton, helped at least 40 Chinese nationals obtain student visas by fraudulently taking the TOEFL, an English proficiency exam, on their behalf. Cai’s ringers would show up to testing sites with fake Chinese passports bearing their own photos but with the names of the clients. Where Cai slipped — and where investigators caught up to him — was charging 39 test registration payments to his credit card.

Any other day the UCLA bust might have made national headlines, but the news got swamped by a bigger, sexier college cheating scandal: Operation Varsity Blues. (The UCLA investigation was dubbed “Operation TOEFL Recall.”) While the UCLA case is less shocking — bribes in thousands of dollars instead of millions; Chinese high schoolers instead of Full House cast members — it represents an equally notable underbelly of American college admissions.

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It’s hard to find data on cheating that is broken down by country of origin, but a survey of 14 public universities by The Wall Street Journal found that in the 2014-15 school year, those universities reported cheating among international students at a rate five times higher than among domestic students. In 2018 a professor at UC Santa Barbara told the Los Angeles Times that Chinese students comprise 6 percent of the student body but account for a third of plagiarism cases. A 2016 study conducted by United Kingdom newspaper The Times says that students from outside the European Union were four times more likely to cheat than U.K. and European Union students.

From now on we would need to find time to cultivate a hobby

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019

Tanner Greer has spent a great deal of time with Chinese teenagers:

When I lived in Beijing, I paid no rent: instead I lived in the homes of various Chinese families who allowed me to live with them free of charge on the condition that I help their children with English. In addition to writing, I earned a small sum through private tutoring and teaching high school seminars. My specialty were the high fliers aiming for the Ivy League. [...] The “highest fliers” were usually the children of Beijing’s rich and prominent. By living in their homes, teaching in their schools, and meeting with them often to customize the education of their children, I was exposed to the inner life of Beijing’s high society. It fundamentally reframed how I understand China.

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Consider, for a moment, the typical schedule of a Beijing teenager:

She will (depending on the length of her morning commute) wake up somewhere between 5:30 and 7:00 AM. She must be in her seat by 7:45, 15 minutes before classes start. With bathroom breaks and gym class excepted, she will not leave that room until the 12:00 lunch hour and will return to the same spot after lunch is ended for another four hours of instruction. Depending on whether she has after-school tests that day, she will be released from her classroom sometime between 4:10 and 4:40. She then has one hour to get a start on her homework, eat, and travel to the evening cram school her parents have enrolled her in. Math, English, Classical Chinese — there are cram schools for every topic on the gaokao. On most days of the week she will be there studying from 6:00 to 9:00 PM (if the family has the money, she will spend another six hours at these after-school schools on Saturday and Sunday mornings). Our teenager will probably arrive home somewhere around 10:00 PM, giving her just enough time to spend two or three hours on that day’s homework before she goes to bed. Rinse and repeat, day in and day out, for six years. The strain does not abate until she has defeated — or has been defeated by — the gaokao.

This is well known, but I think the wrong aspects of this experience are emphasized. Most outsiders look at this and think: see how much pressure these Chinese kids are under. I look and think: how little privacy and independence these Chinese kids are given!

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No middle-class Chinese teenager has a job. None have cars. The few that have boyfriends or girlfriends go about it as discreetly as possible. Apart from the odd music lesson here or there, what Americans call “extra-curricular activities” are unknown. One a recent graduate of a prestigious international high school in Beijing once explained to me the confusion she felt when she was told she would need to excel at an after-school activity to be competitive in American university admissions:

“In tenth grade our home room teacher told us that American universities cared a lot about the things we do outside of school, so from now on we would need to find time to ‘cultivate a hobby.’ I remember right after he left the girl sitting at my right turned to me and whispered, ‘I don’t know how to cultivate a hobby. Do you?’”

Nothing like drill to make a soldier

Monday, April 15th, 2019

After serving overseas, Sergeant Dunlap found himself training recruits stateside:

Theoretically, we were to give them the benefit of our experience and practical knowledge. Actually, we were not allowed to mention anything not in the training manuals, most of which had been written in the 1920’s. Except for the impromptu bull-sessions, the rookies got the same old marching-pup-tent-pack-rolling schedule the army had been putting on for years. This was late in the winter of 1944, February and March. Some attempts were made to modernize the training, but the rub was that most of the officers still believed that there was “nothing like drill to make a soldier.” None of them realized that this war did not need “soldiers” — it needed fighting and working specialists.

Minerva is an existence proof

Friday, March 29th, 2019

I’ve mentioned Minerva University a few times here. Arnold Kling calls it an experiment in centrally planned education:

I can applaud Minerva as an “existence proof” that it is possible to create a viable alternative to the standard university as it exists today. But I am concerned that Minerva’s emphasis on a highly-designed approach might give students the misleading impression that central planning is the best form of social organization.

Minerva started from a clear vision of how students should emerge from college. This vision included four core competencies, which were:

  • Thinking critically
  • Thinking creatively
  • Communicating effectively
  • Interacting effectively (page 24)

These core competencies were then broken down into dozens of what Minerva calls “habits of mind” and “foundational concepts,” each of which is given a hashtag abbreviation.

Habits of mind are cognitive skills that with practice come to be triggered automatically. (page 25, emphasis in original)

Foundational concepts are fundamental knowledge that is broadly applicable. (page 26, emphasis in original)

Two examples of habits of mind are:

Understand and use the emotional tools of persuasion. #emotionalpersuasion

Mitigate the role of conformity in group settings. #conformity (page 387)

Two examples of foundational concepts are:

Apply and interpret measures of correlation; distinguish correlation and causation. #correlation (page 381)

Identify ways that multiple causes interact to produce complex effects #multiplecauses (page 382)

The terms “habits of mind” and “foundational concepts” are examples of what I call Minerva-speak, a language that pervades the book. Another element of Minerva-speak is “far transfer.”

Far transfer occurs when students apply what they have learned in one context to a situation in a different time and place, one that, on the surface, does not resemble the original context. Far transfer is at the epicenter of what makes education effective. (page 51)

Another element of Minerva-speak is “active learning.”

Active learning requires students to engage with the material, relying on such activities as debate, role-playing, and group problem-solving. Active learning leads students to comprehend and retain much more information than do lectures. (page 135)

At most universities, it is up to each faculty member to design and implement a course. At Minerva, these processes are directed consciously from the center.

A Minerva syllabus is unusually detailed, often running to more than twenty single-spaced printed pages for a fifteen-week semester… As the author works through these details, he or she is able to discuss individual elements—everything from the overall summary of the course to the specific rubric descriptions used to evaluate student work on individual learning outcomes—with the course reviewer via discussion threads directly anchored to that element for context.

Once the reviewer is satisfied with the draft of the syllabus, Course Builder produces a shareable [document], which the course reviewer sends to an external reviewer for feedback, which the course author and reviewer later incorporate into the draft. (page 223)

Classes are conducted seminar style, albeit by computer conference rather than in person. Minerva uses a “radically flipped classroom,” with students expected to learn material, including what would be covered in lectures at other institutions, on their own before class. Class time is used for discussions and group problem-solving exercises that are carefully planned by the faculty in advance. Although there is room for spontaneity within these exercises, there is a lot of central control over what takes place in the classroom. Weekly meetings are held with all instructors teaching a particular course, in which they review the lesson plans to be used in advance.

Again, these lesson plans are pre-packaged and approved before the course even begins.

I think it’s fair to say that central planning is a bête noir of Kling’s, and the Minerva-speak is largely jargon they did not themselves create.

Making a difference rarely makes any difference at all

Friday, March 22nd, 2019

We haven’t been able to translate the research on growth mindset into practice with actual benefits:

In many cases, growth mindset theory has been misrepresented and miscast as simply a means of motivating the unmotivated through pithy slogans and posters. A general truth about education is that the more vague and platitudinous the statement, the less practical use it has on the ground. ‘Making a difference’ rarely makes any difference at all.

A growing number of recent studies are casting doubt on the efficacy of mindset interventions at scale. A large-scale study of 36 schools in the UK, in which either pupils or teachers were given training, found that the impact on pupils directly receiving the intervention did not have statistical significance, and that the pupils whose teachers were trained made no gains at all. Another study featuring a large sample of university applicants in the Czech Republic used a scholastic aptitude test to explore the relationship between mindset and achievement. They found a slightly negative correlation, with researchers claiming that ‘the results show that the strength of the association between academic achievement and mindset might be weaker than previously thought’. A 2012 review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK of attitudes to education and participation found ‘no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes, although there were several studies attempting to provide explanations for the link (if it exists)’. In 2018, two meta-analyses in the US found that claims for the growth mindset might have been overstated, and that there was ‘little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students’.

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Aside from the implementation problem, the original growth mindset research has also received harsh criticism and been difficult to replicate robustly. The statistician Andrew Gelman at Columbia University in New York claims that ‘their research designs have enough degrees of freedom that they could take their data to support just about any theory at all’. Timothy Bates, a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh who has been trying to replicate Dweck’s work in a third study in China, is finding that the results are repeatedly null. He notes in a 2017 interview that: ‘People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.’

SAT coaching and test prep isn’t important

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

I don’t know that I’m “seriously stunned” by these five facts about higher education in America, but I can imagine most people who haven’t read Caplan would be:

1. 4 out of 10 college students fail to complete their degrees. According to research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, only 58-percent of students manage to complete their degree programs within six years. Bill Gates has called this figure “tragic.” He has written, “Based on the latest college completion trends, only about half of all those students will leave college with a diploma. The rest — most of them low-income, first-generation, and minority students — will not finish a degree. They’ll drop out.” Sadly, community college figures are even more dismal. A recent study in California found that 70-percent of community college students fail out.

2. Attending an elite university doesn’t boost income. What matters is the ability to get in. Economists Stacy Dale and Alan B. Krueger looked at two groups, totaling about 19,000 students. One group gained admission into elite universities, attended, and graduated. Another group also gained admission into elite universities. But this group, rather than attending the elite schools, chose to attend less selective schools instead. More than 20 years after they graduated, Dale and Krueger measured their incomes. They found no difference. A student who got into Princeton but attended Penn State made as much as a student who got into, and attended, Princeton.

3. Graduating from a non-selective college doesn’t boost income. In a book about social class in America, researchers looked at how differently ranked colleges affected earnings. They found that students who attended the country’s most elite institutions earned about 84-percent more on average compared to those who had not graduated college. Graduates of “somewhat selective” private colleges and “leading state universities” earned about 52-percent more than non-graduates. However, they found “no income advantage” for those who graduated from a “nonselective” college compared to those who did not attend college.

4. A person with average academic ability has a higher than 50-percent chance of dropping out of college. For the general population, the average IQ score is 100. Research has found that, among white American college students, those with a 105 IQ score have a 50-percent chance of dropping out of college. They also report that the average IQ of a college graduate is about 114. But they also show that having a high IQ is no guarantee of graduating. Those who score 130 (very rare; about 2-percent of the population) still have a 10-percent dropout rate.

5. SAT coaching and test prep isn’t important. Many people have heard that private SAT prep courses and private tutoring produce substantial gains. Test prep companies tout that their users receive boosts of 100 points or more after only a few weeks of study. Research doesn’t support this. A meta-analysis from researchers at Harvard found that, on average, SAT coaching produces a 10-point gain. They conclude that this gain is “too small to be practically important.” More recent research from Stanford supports this. They found that students receive an 11-15 point gain from SAT coaching, which roughly corresponds to getting 1 or 2 additional questions correct. Perhaps even more surprising, a study from 2015 found that private tutoring has no effect on SAT gains. As the put it, “our hypothesis that more elite forms of test prep (private tutor) would predict higher SAT scores was not confirmed. The only form of that prep actually associated with higher SAT scores was participation in a private test prep course, which translated into an 11-point gain on the SAT when compared to students with no preparation.”

Their overriding goal is not enlightenment

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

The admissions scandal is an opportunity to separate the lofty mythology of college from the sordid reality:

Despite the grand aspirations that students avow on their admission essays, their overriding goal is not enlightenment, but status.

Consider why these parents would even desire to fake their kids’ SAT scores. We can imagine them thinking, I desperately want my child to master mathematics, writing and history — and no one teaches math, writing and history like Yale does! But we all know this is fanciful. People don’t cheat because they want to learn more. They cheat to get a diploma from Yale or Stanford — modernity’s preferred passport to great careers and high society.

What, then, is the point of sneaking into an elite school, if you lack the ability to master the material? If the cheaters planned to major in one of the rare subjects with clear standards and well-defined career paths — like computer science, electrical engineering or chemistry — this would be a show-stopping question. Most majors, however, ask little of their students — and get less. Standards were higher in the 1960s, when typical college students toiled about 40 hours a week. Today, however, students work only two-thirds as hard. Full-time college has become a part-time job.

If computer-science students slacked off like this, employers would soon notice. Most of their peers, however, have little reason to dread a day of reckoning — because, to be blunt, most of what college students study is irrelevant in the real world. Think of all the math, history, science, poetry and foreign language you had to study in school — if you can. Indeed, you’ve probably long since forgotten most of what you learned about these subjects. Few of us use it, so almost all of us lose it. The average high school student studies a foreign language for a full two years, but, according to my own research, less than 1% of American adults even claim they gained fluency in a classroom.

Why do employers put up with such a dysfunctional educational system? Part of the answer is that government and donors lavish funding on the status quo with direct subsidies, student loans and alumni donations. As a result, any unsubsidized alternative, starved of resources, must be twice as good to do half as well. The deeper answer, though, is that American higher education tolerably performs one useful service for American business: certification. Most students at places like Yale and Stanford aren’t learning much, but they’re still awesome to behold if you’re looking to fill a position. Ivy Leaguers are more than just smart; when tangible rewards are on the line, they’re hardworking conformists. They hunger for conventional success. From employers’ point of view, it doesn’t matter if college fosters these traits or merely flags them. As long as elite students usually make excellent employees, the mechanism doesn’t matter.

So why cheat your kid into the Ivy League or a similarly elite school? For the lifelong benefits of corrupt certification. When I was in high school, my crusty health teacher loved to single out a random teen and scoff, “You’re wanted … for impersonating a student.” If you can get your less-than-brilliant, less-than-driven child admitted, he’ll probably get to impersonate a standardly awesome Ivy League graduate for the rest of his life. Of course, the superrich parents the FBI is accusing could have just let their kids skip college and live off their trust funds, but it’s not merely a matter of money. It’s also about youthful self-esteem — and parental bragging rights.

No formal instruction was given

Friday, January 25th, 2019

Some of the most fascinating experiments in education occurred in the 1920s and ‘30s, Peter Gray notes, and almost nobody talks about them today:

Now here’s yet another bit of education research that nobody today talks about. It was published in 1930 in the academic journal School and Society under the title “An Experiment in Self-Directed Education,” by Herbert Williams, the teacher who carried out the research.

The practical problem Williams was trying to address was what to do about delinquent boys, who were frequently absent from school and were causing trouble in the community. For the sake of this experiment, he went through the Juvenile Court records for the city of population 300,000 and identified the “worst” boys he could find. To that group the school principals added a few more, whom they considered to be their “most serious problems.” He ended up with a group that “ranged in age from eight to nearly sixteen, in IQ from 60 to 120, and included colored, Polish, Hungarians, and native white Americans.”

The experiment was started in January, 1924, and lasted until the beginning of June that year. During that period the boys were excused from regular school classes and, instead, were assigned to a special room created for them in a technical school. The room was equipped with desks, blackboards, a large table, and a collection of books, including storybooks, nonfiction works, and textbooks for the various grades. The boys were given standard academic achievement tests in January and again, four months later, in May.

And now, I know no better way to convey what happened than to quote Williams directly:

No formal instruction was given. In the beginning of the experiment the children were told to keep busy and refrain from annoying any of the others. This was the only rule that was enforced. Otherwise, they were permitted to occupy themselves as they saw fit. The instructor [Williams] from time to time passed from one to another to see what was being done. One child might be busily occupied in copying a picture from one of the books; another might be reading a fairy story; another occupied with a problem in arithmetic; another reading a history; others might be looking up places on a geography map; and still others would be studying about some machinery.

Whenever a child was found manifesting an interest in some particular thing, opportunity and encouragement were given him to develop that interest…The child with an interest and aptitude for mechanical work was given an opportunity to do this sort of work in the high-school machine shop. The same was true for those interested in automobile mechanics, woodworking, printing and the like. Arrangements were made for recreation at the neighborhood YMCA…

Each child was told of his accomplishments on the achievement test and encouraged to make up for any deficiencies, but he was not forced to devote his time to these. It was a revelation to the writer how these children turned naturally from one subject to another. A boy might spend an entire day on some book that he was reading. The next day he might devote to arithmetic. One 10-year-old became interested in working square root problems and worked all of these he could find in the arithmetic book. A colored boy became interested in history and read all the histories we could supply. His accounts of interesting historical events kept the entire group keenly interested as he related them. Whenever one of the boys found something in his reading which he felt would prove interesting he was permitted to tell it to the group. However, they were not required to pay attention to the speaker if they wanted to continue what they were doing.

Many of the boys went to the blackboard to work arithmetic problems, primarily for the activity involved. They made up certain games involving arithmetic processes… For example, two or more boys would start at a given signal to add by seventeens to a thousand. The rivalry was often intense, and for some of the boys the increase in speed and accuracy in the fundamentals was striking. The reports of the various boys on interesting material read would stimulate other boys to read the same thing or something of like nature. It is quite possible, too, that the desire to obtain recognition from their fellows motivated them to do tasks that would not have been otherwise attempted.

Although a total of twenty-six boys were in attendance in this special experimental group for shorter or longer periods, only thirteen were present for both the January, Form A, and May, Form B, Stanford Achievement Tests. This was due to out-of-school adjustments, transfers and other causes. Social adjustment was given first importance, and completeness of the experimental records was not allowed to prevent placing a boy on a farm, for example, if this met a pressing need.

Here are the results from the achievement tests:

Over the 4 months period of this experiment, the thirteen children gained an average of slightly over 15 months in language age, 14 months in arithmetic; 11 months in reading; 11 months in science; and 6 months in both history and literature. By the end of the experiment all of these children were above grade level overall. The three boys who showed the least gains were also the three who, for reasons of health or family problems, were most often absent from the group. The average gains for the ten students who were regularly present were 17.4 months for language and arithmetic; 15.8 months for science; and 15.5 months for reading.