Category Archives: Education

Tenure as a Division of Power

A California judge recently declared tenure unconstitutional. A lot of people are rejoicing, because they think this means that bad teachers will no longer be excessively protected from being fired. While the public school system needs a remake, to put it lightly, people might be jumping the gun on tenure. It may have costs, but tenure also has benefits. The problem with public schooling isn’t tenure, anyways; the problem runs down to the roots, school administrations.

Tenure limits administration’s power on teachers. It can give teachers the independence to choose their own approach to educating their students. Sometimes it turns out badly. More often, it stops the administration from dictating the curriculum. It puts a limit on pressure placed on the teacher to change their curriculum for the worse. This element of the debate reminds me of the argument in favor of independent central banking. Some people noticed the Federal Reserve’s poor response to the recession and called for an end to central bank independence. The problem with that is a central bank directly controlled by government is one in a position to help that government at the expense of the people — such as when government uses its central bank to finance its spending. The benefits may outweigh the costs.

School administrations can be very political. I have first-hand experience through my dad, who is a high school teacher. Yes, I did let him know what most libertarians think about public schools. If it wasn’t for tenure, my dad would have probably been fired a long time ago. You might be thinking, “He probably deserved it because he was a horrible teacher.” You would be wrong. The administration pressures him to raise the grades of students who don’t do their homework, who don’t study, who fool around in class, and who generally just don’t care about their education. The administration wants to look good in front of the parents and they want their statistics to shine. These create perverse incentives. My dad is an AP Spanish teacher and to punish him they took away his AP Spanish Literature class. AP test scores in that class plummeted. The administration doesn’t always punish instructors for good reasons, they do it for very bad reasons.

Few people look at the administration. Maybe this might catch your attention: Sweetwater Union High School District, in San Diego country, was recently rocked by a corruption scandal. Top school administrators were caught siphoning “gifts” received for preferring certain contractors over others. That shows how much they care about the kids.

Oftentimes schools push sports rather than academics, because that’s what some parents want — some parents couldn’t care less about their children’s education, or they think that there isn’t a trade-off when they push for funding elsewhere. Yes, many parents are negligent; you see this a lot in lower income schools (see also “Have and Have Nots“). The administration wants to look good, and this creates perverse incentives. Removing an institution that limits their ability to control  teachers risks making our schools worse off.

I am not saying teachers are saints. I oppose teacher unions. I told my dad it was ridiculous that he was protesting the reduction in his salary after the economy collapsed. He doesn’t seem to understand that if there’s less money to pay him, he might have to take a salary reduction or else risk losing a job (actually, he has seniority — tenure aside —, so it would just be a hypothetical future hire who is now unemployed). I also disagreed with his decision to oppose a recent reduction in healthcare benefits. I thought, “Great for the taxpayer.” But, actually, no. As is turns out, most of the money saved from reduced healthcare benefit was just allocated somewhere else — and definitely not towards improving the quality of the schooling, because the teachers had to fight to reduce things like classroom size, as well.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that tenure, strictly speaking, doesn’t protect teachers from teaching poorly. Bad teachers can be fired. It might be more difficult, but that’s because the reasons for firing the teacher have to be legitimate and well documented. The thing is, the administration is so bad at doing its job that it’s negligent at the time of monitoring and documenting bad teaching. School administrations are a libertarian’s worst nightmare: extremely inefficient bureaucracies. Bad teaching is more common than it should be not because the administration has its hands tied, but because the administration is inept.

By the way, libertarians should be receptive to the notion that tenure is an institution that establishes some degree of “teacher independence.” In many cases, your favorite libertarian thinker is able to publish a constant stream of libertarian-oriented literature only because he or she has tenure. Otherwise, that person would be writing on some other topic — some topic that would keep that person employed —, at the expense of the libertarian movement. But, tenure doesn’t necessarily cause these professors to reduce the quality of their teaching. (Sometimes the worst teachers are the most liked by the administration, because they’re the ones who focus too much on their research and too little on their students. Publishing in top journals makes the school look good, though.) Oftentimes, tenure creates a positive effect on education, like the ability for a tenured professor to teach the students more on Friedrich Hayek or Robert Nozick than the curriculum normally allows for.

Blaming teachers is the easy thing to do. But, sometimes the easy way is the wrong way. Maybe the problem with public schooling runs deeper. We need to focus more on the machinery of the system, a machinery prone to corruption and waste.

If You Want the Best for Your Child…

…you’re a terrible person, according to Allison Benedikt. This paragraph was particularly rich,

If you can afford private school (even if affording means scrimping and saving, or taking out loans), chances are that your spawn will be perfectly fine at a crappy public school. She will have support at home (that’s you!) and all the advantages that go along with being a person whose family can pay for and cares about superior education—the exact kind of family that can help your crappy public school become less crappy. She may not learn as much or be as challenged, but take a deep breath and live with that.

The truth is that there can be as much segregation between students in public school as there is between private/public school students. For example, I went to public school, but I really didn’t associate myself with most of the school, because the majority of my classes were AP. It was almost like going to private school; it was definitely like going to school with a totally different group of students. And, when AP parents care about the school, they really only care about the classes their children take —  the AP and higher level (e.g. calculus) courses —, and whatever effort they put into improving the school will reflect this preference.

Market Education

Arnold Kling quotes Sugata Mitra and asks about libertarian schooling. In a comment, I bring up something which I haven’t figured out yet: how would private, non-compulsory education teach subjects which aren’t always popular, and their positive attributes not always recognized by parents? When I originally posted my comment I think I framed it the wrong way, because it’s a bit absurd to assume that a free society wouldn’t have schools that more-or-less imitate current public (and private) schooling. What I mean is that there would be schools that teach a set of subjects, independent of what the students want to be taught. But, the point stands that I’m not sure this type of schooling can ever be replaced — although, surely, the way these topics are taught and the environment they are taught in will change —, and society is better off when as many children as possible are subjected to it.

In the same vein, I don’t see a lot of merit in the idea that kids can pick and choose what they want to study. While I agree as much as anybody else that alternative forms of education, like Wikipedia and the internet more generally, are great, and absolutely constructive — it’s a different form of independent reading —, the problem is that most children aren’t completely aware of the costs and benefits of different subjects. For example, to many, mathematics has high costs and low benefits. I was surely one of these kids, which is why I am so far behind in my mathematical training. The same is true for different languages. Yet, these can be subjects that people grow into (as they often are), and it will turn out that their “forced” teaching is beneficial. This is also one reason why university programs aren’t built entirely on the basis of electives, but more often constrain choice to required core classes. The fact is, sometimes we don’t know “what’s good for us,” which is why we pay people to give us hints as to the direction we should go (and why parents pay for the schooling of their children).

Libertarians who concoct ideas of completely voluntary schooling fall into the same trap as radicals who want to completely deconstruct social hierarchies. Sometimes these hierarchies make sense, which is why they form in the first place. Parts of schooling are subject to the same principle: sometimes it makes sense that we’re forced to do something, because otherwise we wouldn’t do it on our own. Another analogy with more-or-less the same meaning: this is why we pay personal trainers to push us to exercise to an extent we wouldn’t have otherwise (I once got one free lesson and it was more tiring, but more enjoyable, than a day at infantry school). While independent study is great, there’s no reason to reject the conventional model as something which only holds with the state.

As I had originally framed my point, I used it as a mark against private schooling. As I suggested in the first paragraph, I obviously erred there. But, there’s a grain of truth. Children who are subject to a certain intellectual stimulus early on are probably going to be more productive than children without that stimulus. The logic behind public schooling, at least for younger people (let’s say elementary school), is that education provides this productivity boost that may not otherwise occur, partially because the benefits of schooling are externalized. Public schooling comes at a cost, and the question is whether the opportunity cost is low enough to justify the program. We should admit the benefits exist. The real argument against public schooling is that the costs aren’t justified, on average, and that the elimination of public school would allow the reallocation of capital to better ends, increasing productivity, and over the long-run making schooling increasingly affordable (not just because of a hypothetical fall in the price of education over time, but also as a result of an increase in real income by other means).

The two points I’m making are as follows: (1) conventional, “compulsory” schooling makes sense (it makes less sense as the individual ages) because there are real benefits attached to it; (2) with this in mind, sometimes the libertarian criticism of public education goes too far. Wikipedia and conventional education aren’t substitutes, they’re compliments.

P.S. In the comments thread to Arnold Kling’s post, someone mentioned that people can simply choose to learn a subject later, once they realize its benefits. It’s to say, rather than try to teach a partially unwilling kid basic mathematical operations when they’re young, let older people decide to learn it when they want to. I think there’s a good point to this idea, but it misses the true value of an early education. Kids who learn how to read early, or they learn second and/or third languages, et cetera, are developing their brains during an incredibly important part of their lives. Children who are less stimulated when they are really young are probably going to preform worse as they age. Likewise, someone whose brain develops early on will have an easier time voluntarily learning much more complicated subjects when they’re older.


Educational Achievement

This table was set up for a project I had as a final for a class on economics and data. The data is taken from the U.S. Census Bureau (table 3, here), but modified in order to aggregate certain breakdowns (educational achievement by grade and years in college), to simplify the table and analysis a bit. It’s non-rigorous, despite me including the standard deviations (at a 95 percent confidence interval). By itself, I don’t think it says much, but I think it’s interesting to look at,

educational achievement by race

Some comments,

  1. The figures for Hispanics with no GED or high school diploma probably reflects migrant populations, who may not have an equivalent diploma from sending states (or, may not know how to translate what they do hold for the purposes of filling out the census surveys);
  2. A relatively high percentage of Asians don’t hold a GED or a high school diploma (and Asians have the lowest probability of earning a high school diploma), but Asians have the highest percentage of undergraduate and graduate degrees — does this reflect migration, as well? Do many Asians come as adults?
  3. I think the figures for vocational associates degrees are telling; you might be able to rationalize an education gap by saying that some races may have a higher percentage of people going through vocational training, but the figures say otherwise. But, this data speaks very little about this.

I was asked, in the assignment, to make a normative policy recommendation. I concluded that there does exist an educational gap, even if the data is very ambiguous. But, I recommended rethinking affirmative action. My argument was that, by looking at the figures for college dropouts, there’s more to eliminating the education gap than just getting minorities into college (although, the same applies to the various programs that try to accommodate as many people as possible, regardless of race).

But, I’ve never been too keen on public education to begin with.

For-Profit Universities

Joseph Stiglitz claims that for-profit universities are better at “exploiting” than at educating (Huffington Post sums it up here).

I can buy that for-profit universities are taking advantage of the fact that student loans (now only issued publicly, I believe — all my debt was issued by the government) cannot be cleared through bankruptcy.  It is a good guarantee that your income won’t suffer from a sudden inability to pay from your clients.  But, here the problem with government policy, not for-profit universities.

However, I don’t buy the argument that for-profit universities necessarily deliver an education of lesser quality.  They might award the student with a degree that is worth less, but this is not the same as a bad education.  I don’t think it’s controversial that the weight of some school’s degrees don’t correlate with the quality of learning, and this is evident in that while a degree from Harvard might be preferred to a degree from San Diego State University, I don’t think the (average) student from the latter necessarily knows less or is less prepared for any given job.  So, when a degree holder from a  for-profit university finds that the paper doesn’t hold the same weight as the equivalent paper from UCSD, it’s not because of the quality of the education (the employer probably couldn’t tell you the difference) but because of how people perceive the different institutions.

And if the “exploitation” is so bad, I wonder why these universities’ clientele aren’t aware of it.  Or, why do they choose to be “exploited” rather than not pursue higher education at all?  Maybe many students make mistakes, but it’s hard for me to believe that there isn’t a good reason for so many people to opt to pay the high prices of for-profit colleges.  I know quite a few people who have chosen to go down this path, and they don’t seem to fit Stiglitz’ description of the “exploited.”

Simple-Minded Edison

Those we saw in chapter 1 that many of the innovators of the Industrial Revolution and afterward, like Thomas Edison, were not highly educated, these innovations were much simpler than modern technology.

— Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail (New York City: Crown Business, 2012), p. 78.

Modern technology is undeniably more advanced than that of the 19th century, but in the context the above-quoted sentence is used Acemoglu and Robinson act as if they themselves could have developed what Edison did, with the same knowledge.  They are talking about the advantages of education.  But, Edison was highly educated in the knowledge relevant to his discoveries; he was simply mostly self-taught.

Of course, Acemoglu and Robinson are right to argue that where people do not have the option of pursuing the accumulation of knowledge, especially where access to past knowledge it is difficult to garner, there is much talent going to waste.  But, in most cases, exceptional talent is natural and not a byproduct of education.  It is just that the former takes advantage of the latter, whereas the “normal talent” not as much.  I am a normal talent with as much access to advance knowledge as anybody else, but I am no Edison.

Online Databases for the Masses

Writing on the exorbitant prices charged my most online journal databases, Arnold Kling argues,

I think that the main problem here is that journals are funded by subscriptions from college libraries. If college libraries were de-funded, the journals would have to find revenue models that are consistent with 21st-century technology and economics.

Maybe I am thinking about this all wrong, but would we suffer similar pricing problems even if universities were funded privately?  I realize that that is not what Kling is saying; I am bringing up a tangential point, or at least making an observation.

Universities subscribe to these online databases to provide their students with access to a wide variety of journals.  I am not really sure why exactly universities do this, but I figure it is to promote an academic environment.  Professors usually assign journal articles from these databases, and students also tend to search through them to support their arguments in the papers they write and whatnot.  The point is that there is some reason for universities to subscribe to online journal databases.

If we assume that all universities are privately funded (for the sake of argument), would we not have the same pricing problem?  Universities, which require a certain amount in tuition from every student, are in a better position to buy these subscriptions.  No less, if the price to subscribe were cheaper, the likelihood is that most students would not subscribe (much like most students are probably not subscribed to the New York Times, which is only $15 per month).  So, we can look at tuition as a tax, and database subscriptions as a “public” investment (where the public is the university library, in this case).  Those who do not use the database are nevertheless “forced” to subsidize other students’ use, because that is just how the university decided to use their tuition. (One might argue that libraries may choose not to subscribe, but I think that there is an incentive to do so — if not all students are subscribed through the library, then professors cannot really assign their students certain readings, and students do not have a uniform research database.)

My point is that we would still see this university demand for online databases, and just like it is now, there is no reason for these databases to target individual consumers.  They make more money off universities, because universities enjoy the purchasing power of a forced tuition on thousands of students.  In other words, universities basically “coerce” (I use these words [i.e. force and coerce] very loosely, and I am not trying to imply a negative relationship) a very large population to subscribe to these databases — and when you divide the total cost of subscription by the number of students who can now use the database, the per capita cost is actually probably relatively low.

What this suggests to me is that if there is a problem with the cost of subscription then the problem is not found in library funding, but rather in the database market.  For some reason, there is very little competition and therefore very little downward pressure on prices.  Maybe this is the nature of academic publishing: there are only relatively few high-end academic journals.  Or, if the goal is really lower costs, then maybe the solution can only be found in “socializing” academic journals, in the sense of forcing them to contribute to a common database for university research (which, actually, is not a bad alternative to the current system we have now [since many university libraries are publicly subsidized anyways]).

Or maybe writers and editors, and the academic community in general, should start shifting to open databases — cutting the profit from the academic publishing game altogether.

I actually think that slowly but surely we are shifting to cheaper methods of publishing and distribution.  The slow pace is largely a product of university policies giving incentives to professor to publish in more highly respected journals.  So, professors do not really have an interest in moving to more open journals, because their jobs require otherwise.

I, obviously, have no experience in this area though.  These are just my thoughts from what I have read so far.