The Case Against The Case Against Education: Average Was Always Over.

Part 5. (Parts onetwo, and three, and four.)

In his book, Caplan goes on at great length about what level of academic achievement predicts probability of success in attaining a credential.  But he complete ignores the fact that the probability of low academic achievement is skewed based on demographic attributes. While it’s fashionable these days to pretend that income is the great demographic divider, the mother of all disaggregations in America is race.

Let’s examine Caplan’s discussion of race in educational achievement. Go get your copy of Case Against Education and check the index. I’ll wait.


Caplan mentions authors named “Black” about as often as he mentions blacks as a demographic category,  which he does three times .

What about Hispanics? No one has the last name “Hispanic”, or “Mexican” or “Puerto Rico”, much less “Dominican” or “Salvadoran”, so the sum total of their mention is uno.

And mind you, I mean mentions.  At no point does Caplan do anything so basic as discuss the  academic performance of different demographic categories. Blacks and Hispanics make a brief appearance in name only during the Griggs discussion and never show up again.

How do you write a book that argues for draconian cuts in our education system—and not discuss race?

Education policy in America is obsessed with race. Name a single problem in education and it’s a mortal lock that it was either caused by the achievement gap or caused by a policy put in place to end the achievement gap. Any attempts to solve educational challenges will be sued out of existence, or fail, or simply ignored to death because of its impact on the racial achievement gap.

But Caplan never once explores whether the implications of his proposals might unduly affect certain demographics. He simply uses median scores and percentages for the overall population. I am not a huge fan of Tyler Cowen’s dystopic fantasies but in education, there’s no doubt that average is over and has been for years. Averages hide too much. In Caplan’s book, averages hide the implications of his “ability archetypes”:


Caplan advises people to use “ability archetypes” to ensure they are realistic about their goals:


Let’s consider the racial implications of his advice.  Once again, we’ll use the  NAAL report that Caplan discarded after culling a few shallow data points.

Here’s the results broken down by race in the four ability categories, from Below Basic to Proficient, for Prose and Document. For example, white comprise 70% of the population and 7% of the tested white population scored below basic in the Prose category.  So 4.9% of the tested population was white and below basic in Prose.  White scores are in gray, black scores in blue.


(I’ve been working on this forever, and just now noticed I didn’t put the percentage of each race’s contribution to each category. Sigh.)

Asian and Hispanic results are skewed by the conflation of immigrant and native results.  But it’s instantly obvious that blacks, who were only 12% of the tested population, contribute far more to the lower categories and are almost non-existent in the skill categories Caplan considers suitable for college.

The columns in the graph below list the median score by race in each education category. The horizontal lines are the overall population percentiles. So 14% got Below Basic, while “Basic” scores went from the 14th to 44th, Intermediate from 44th to 85th, and Proficient above that. The “Excellent”, “Good”, “Fair”, and “Poor” classifications are those that Caplan defined and are at (very roughly) the corresponding percentile location. (“Good” is a bit low, I think.)

naal2003raceandedNotice that white high schoolers and high school graduates have roughly the same scores as blacks with 4 year degrees or more. This is a very consistent finding in most test score data.

Caplan argues that only students from the Excellent or Good categories should invest in college. The NAAL report finds that only two percent of blacks read at proficient levels,  31% score at the intermediate level.  If blacks or colleges took Caplan’s directive and only went to college with that qualification (which is actually broader than Caplan would like) just 4% of the overall population would be black college graduates.

NAAL doesn’t disaggregate by race, education, and performance category. But another survey, done three years later, gives us some insight: The Literacy of America’s College Students. This literacy survey tested 25 randomly selected students from each of over 1800 universities.

This survey uses the same assessment as NAAL, and the same categories, to assess  college students in their last semester of an AA or BA degree. Again, I’m restricting the comparison  to blacks and whites.

First, I benchmarked the literacy data to the NAAL data for college graduates. 2006colllitmedian

The literacy survey data is much higher for blacks than the NAAL data, particularly for black AA holders. But it’s pretty close for BA holders. Moreover, standards change over time so it’s at least possible that looking at brand new AA degrees would differ from the overall population.

Here’s the breakdown by score category. Black AA and BA candidates are on the left, whites on the right. Blue and green are intermediate and proficient categories. 2006colllitmedian

And consistent with the first graph, these results seem quite high for African Americans. Only 5% of  blacks in 4 year schools scored below basic?  Blacks in 2 year colleges had no below-basic scorers? Really?

Still, this is fine for my purposes. 1 in 4 blacks about to get a BA had basic or lower reading scores, while less than 1 in 40 whites had the same low ability.

Caplan asserts “we” should  be shocked that  “under a third” of those with a BA or higher achieve Proficient levels in numeracy and literacy.  But close to half of the white college BA holders achieved Proficient levels in the three categories  ( 42%, 45%, and 40%).  The same black proficiency scores are 16%, 17%, and 5%.

Whites are achieving considerably higher than the results Caplan sniffs at, while black scores are far worse than “under a third” but rather “under a fifth”. Moreover, Caplan argues that he’s giving this advice to prevent low-skilled people from failing in college–but clearly, these blacks are about to graduate and made it through with skills he deems too low to succeed.

The college graduate data above would almost certainly be replicated in all the other education categories. Whatever Americans Caplan decries as low-skilled and incapable of succeeding in education, rest assured that he’s skewering a group that’s considerably more African American than the overall population.

Remember, too, that Caplan regularly dismisses the idea that our education system might be able to improve results.  He spent an hour debating Ric Hanushek arguing this very point.

But NAAL results over time (below) suggest that our k-12 system has improved results for African Americans. Asterisked scores indicate significant improvement. Blacks saw significant improvement in all three areas. (note again Hispanic performance declined rather spectacularly, thanks to increased immigration)


What educational categories saw the most black improvement?


Well, hey now. Look at that. The blacks that graduated (or even dropped out!) of high school in the 10 years previous saw significant improvement in prose and quantitative skills.

Black proficiency scores on the NAAL survey are extremely low. But they have improved.

Caplan’s prescriptions run into all sorts of problems when evaluating black academic performance. If Caplan is correct about the skills needed for college, then why is the black college graduate average below the level that Caplan declares essential for college success? Certainly, as I’ve observed, colleges are lowering standards (for all admissions as well as blacks in particular). But while the average earnings of black college graduates are less than those of whites, black earnings increase with education nonetheless. So should they invest in more education even though they don’t meet Caplan’s criteria?

I pointed this out to Caplan on Twitter, and  he observed that the ethnic group improvements were marginal  and that the absolute level of basic skills were “terrible”. Which suggests he was aware of the ethnic group differences and just decided not to mention them.

Breaking down test scores by race can be incredibly depressing. No one likes to do it. But Caplan’s failure to include this information is simply irresponsible.

Caplan argues that people outside the top 30% of academic achievement should stop investing in school, the sooner the better. He sees this as both selfishly correct and also the correct government policy, so he thinks all funding for education past minimal skills should end. Those who are worth further investment can justify the expense to a bank or a parent. Meanwhile, we should end the child labor laws so that the very lowest academic achievers can get to work as soon as it becomes a waste of time to educate them.

Applying his policies to black Americans, around 25 percent would be in need of those changed labor laws, because Caplan wouldn’t spend a penny to educate them.

In his conversation with Hanushek, Caplan proposes giving low-skilled kids “more realistic” careers–the example being “plumber”, of course. Like most elites, Caplan uses  “plumber” as a low-skilled proxy when in fact the occupation is one of the more cognitively complex of blue collar jobs. But I think his focus on the job is also a tactical choice. “Plumber” sounds good, like a meaningful career. You can be self-employed or build a business.

Imagine telling a kid his best option is “janitor”. Now imagine telling a poor black kid his best option is “janitor”. Then imagine telling about 1 in 4 black kids that yeah, “janitors” where it’s at for them.

If you can’t imagine doing that, then don’t write a book arguing that Americans get too much education.

When people talk about the “bad old days” of American education, they are referring to the era when people did exactly what Caplan advises. School counselors looked at the students’ test scores and gave them a list of possible careers. White kids had higher scores and were advised to go to college. Black kids had lower scores and were advised to go to factories or custodial work. For a guy who spent several pages on the likelihood of Griggs lawsuits, Caplan doesn’t seem to have spent a single second looking at the case history of school district consent decrees.

But then again the kicker: Caplan wants open borders. So in Caplan’s ideal future, all those  teenagers of all races that have been kicked out of school because they aren’t worth educating  will be  competing for jobs and housing with millions or more adults from third world countries.

Earlier, I wrote:

I’ve been struggling with the best way to take on Bryan Caplan’s woefully simplistic argument about the uselessness of education. What do you do when someone with a much bigger megaphone takes up a position similar to one you hold–but does it with lousy data and specious reasoning, promoting the utterly wrong approach in seeming ignorance about the consequences?

Nowhere is this dilemma clearer than in Caplan’s utter refusal to engage with the racial implications of his proposals. I, too, want fewer people in college. The best way to keep unqualified people from investing in college is to make work worthwhile. But Caplan wants to devalue work to the point of worthlessness through open borders, all the while denying even the possibility of education to those who can’t afford it.

Caplan complains that no proponents of public education have seriously engaged with his book. That’s because no one has observed, in so many words,  “Bryan Caplan thinks most blacks shouldn’t go to college because they’ll fail. He thinks state funded education is a waste of time. Kids whose parents can’t afford education should have to be smart enough to get a scholarship.”

That’ll get him some engagement. But then, he knows that.

Caplan is often rather smug about his media popularity. “Steve Sailer’s policy views are much closer to the typical American’s than mine.  Compared to me, he’s virtually normal.  But the mainstream media is very sweet to me, and treats Steve like a pariah.  I have to admit, it’s bizarre.”

It’s not bizarre at all. Honesty usually goes unrewarded.





About educationrealist

21 responses to “The Case Against The Case Against Education: Average Was Always Over.

  • Anonymous

    You don’t actually say whether or not you think Caplan’s (non-immigration) ideas are right or wrong. You’re only saying that they’re politically unrealistic , which isn’t really addressing the issue directly.

  • Joel

    Race, Reality, Revenue

    The 9–0 Supreme Court decision of 1954, Brown v Board of Education, is famously credited with transforming American public education and civil society by mandating desegregation of all-black and all-white schools. Not only did it fail to actually have the intended effect, its impact is far less than the relatively obscure 5–4 Plyler v Doe decision of 1982. Unlike Brown, Plyler’s unintended consequences have been transformative, by granting illegal immigrant schoolchildren a right to a free education, same as citizens and legal immigrants, with no questions asked.

    30 years later, it’s taboo to note that black students have hardly moved the academic needle, and they are now being outnumbered in schools full of Hispanic students and, still, devoid of white students. Reagan’s modest ambitions for his 1986 amnesty were overwhelmed by the incentive for illegal immigrants to take advantage of America’s magnanimous offer of providing a citizen-funded education — expanded to include preschool through college — and other life-long benefits for their children.

    To be charitable, Americans’ hearts were in the right place, and they acted in good faith, accepting the premise that all kids are equal and so deserve equal opportunity, equal resources, and, logically, equal outcomes. Hard to criticize. But in the interim, American schools, communities, and institutions have been transformed, reflecting a demographic sea-change. You know.

    Perhaps the greatest effect on civic culture is the condemnation of anyone who so much as mentions the central reality of racial and ethnic differences and how those personal differences manifest in academic differences. Anyone citing established scientific facts is “de-platformed” for Hate Speech and deemed dangerous, deserving of immediate ruination, by terminating their employment and by inciting mob violence against them.

    Who is willing to risk their professional career, their family’s security, their personal safety? Answer: Pseudonymous bloggers. As if data-mining surveillance technology can’t connect the dots.

    Educators, from alternative school bottom-feeders to college all-stars like Bryan Caplan, are stuck. They know better, but they have to make a living. From Kindergarten to grad school, few educators can afford to question the conventional wisdom. We are not doing right by students or parents or taxpayers. We are science-deniers, and Nature always corrects an imbalance.

  • Jim

    According to Linda Gottfredson a person with an IQ below 75 has little chance of meaningful employment (at least legal employment) in the US economy. About 25% of the US black population has IQ’s below this threshold compared with about 5% of whites and 2% of persons of Northeast Asian descent. This is a serious problem which may well worsen in the future because of robotics and AI. But of course it is impossible to have a rational discussion of this issue in our society.

    • Jim

      Note that it’s actually worst than having a janitorial career as one’s only option. A substantial proportion of the US black population could not succeed as a janitor.

      • Jim

        Of course “open borders” is complete insanity. If implemented it would quickly destroy America as a First World country which I suspect is precisely what Caplan wants.

      • educationrealist

        That’s nonsense. Anyone with an IQ of 75 or higher could. The problem is that Hispanic illegal immigration has driven down the wages so low that blacks can’t afford to live on the salary.

      • Jim

        About 25% of the US black population have IQ’s below 75.

      • ms100

        That won’t be a problem in the very near future America. IQ is a white supremacy notion along with merit and conscientiousness among other nasty “white” values. See Carranza’s remaking of his minions in NYC. The black student with an IQ of 80 is the same as a white student with an IQ of 120 and the outcomes MUST be equal.

        To progressives, the data that shows black students from wealthy black families score the same as poor white students on the SAT displays two things: 1. That IQ means nothing and 2. Blacks are being held back by racist tests such as the SAT. How else to describe how these lower IQ blacks are able to make a lot of money? These blacks, via AA, were able to defeat the white supremacist system.

        The future, if we let it, will be a massive redistribution of wealth and jobs. Globally, South Africa will be the model, more locally, it’s Baltimore where, in both places, corruption and crime is rife and maintainiing infrastructure is impossible.

      • educationrealist

        I don’t agree that’s the future.

  • Mark Roulo

    But then again the kicker: Caplan wants open borders. So in Caplan’s ideal future, all those teenagers of all races that have been kicked out of school because they aren’t worth educating will be competing for jobs and housing with millions or more adults from third world countries.

    As nearly as I can tell, Caplan believes that “A strong consensus finds that large increases in low-skilled immigration have little effect on low-skilled native wages.” So Bryan thinks that adding 10-20M folks all competing for janitor/baby-sitter jobs won’t create enough competition to lower the wages. Maybe he thinks that there is an unlimited *demand* for these services at the current price (so no need to go below the current price) and very little demand at $1/hour more (so we have an explanation for what the wages aren’t higher now, with 10-20M fewer folks).

    What I do *NOT* see him address is: “Who pays for the public services required by the newly imported low-skill/low-wage folks? They clearly can’t pay enough in taxes to pay for their own public services (including public K-12 education) … so who pays? The answer is pretty obvious …”

    • educationrealist

      All economists believe the first. They’re wrong, though, as is demonstrated any time there’s a reduction in immigration.

      And yeah, he’s a libertarian. He’s pushing to end all public services because he knows he’ll never get open borders as long as we’ll have to pay for them.

      • Robert

        Libertarian ‘open borders’ for peaceful people is predicated on the spread of the US system of democracy and appropriate treaties. Libertarians think that properly endowed (non-tax) public services/social insurances could handle a lot more people and services. Right now most world Libertarian effort is in opening internal borders as in China.

        Kaplan is an informal small-l libertarian who plays around with the ideas but clearly has little understanding of what Libertarians actually are doing. His arguments sound more like small-government conservative than anything Libertarian to me. My reaction to Kaplan is meh. In general I think the OP has a very good analysis here.

        Most people confuse open immigration with invasion. Libertarians would take a harder hand on invasion then we presently see the others doing as in e.g. the EU. They’re certainly pro-education for anyone interested.

      • Jim

        The reason most people see little difference between “open immigration” and invasion is that there isn’t any.

      • Jim

        The spread of the “US system of democracy” is just a fantasy. Actually the survival of this system in the US in the future is highly unlikely.

      • Jim

        The Chinese are certainly smart enough to see what Western liberalism leads to. They are rejecting it.

  • Jay

    Education policy in America is obsessed with race.

    I suspect that Caplan thinks this is part of the problem, and that his silence is Straussian. Those who understand will understand, and explicitly raising the issue would only distract from the message he’s trying to convey.

    I would argue that telling a dumb teenager that he’ll probably be working fast food all his life is less cruel, in the long run, than telling him he can be anything and offering him nondischargeable student loans. At some levels of ability, the loans are much more likely to ruin his life than the education is to improve it. I know quite a few meatheads who would have been better off without college.

    • educationrealist

      Since I have said I agree we’re sending too many kids to college, I’m not sure why you think this is relevant to the article.

      The whole Straussian thing is bullshit.

      • Jay

        Fair point about the loans.

        On the other hand, it wasn’t too long ago that not everybody was expected to graduate high school. My paternal grandfather didn’t. Caplan’s argument works in reverse, too – when more people didn’t graduate high school, dropping out sent a much weaker signal of (low) quality.

        The other part is a question of priorities: for some people eliminating racial (and other) inequality is a must-have (even if academic standards slip), and for some people it’s a should-have (not worth sacrificing academic standards, which reflect the true core purpose of the schools).

  • Making Rob Long Uncomfortable | educationrealist

    […] This is in the context of my multi-chaptered review of The Case Against Education, particularly the last, but I think it stands […]

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