Category Archives: philosophy

More than Gotcha: Kamala’s Busing Blunder

So I should confess to begin with that I really can’t stand Kamala Harris. As I say quite often on Twitter, her voice is as grating as Hillary Clinton’s, and it’s astonishing she doesn’t remind everyone of their least favorite ex-girlfriend or a really obnoxious seventh grade social studies teacher. What everyone else saw as passion in her debate, I saw as a windup doll whose string had been pulled.

But never mind that. As I write this, the consensus opinion among GOP analysts (Jonah Goldberg being the only demurrer I’ve seen) is that Harris poleaxed Biden when she said:

Clearly, her team had planned this carefully, up to and including using an altered image that makes her look like a black child of poverty.

But more to the point, why wasn’t every GOP analyst and every conservative reporter up in her face about it?

Harris lied, for one thing. Or at least implied, that we all might infer.

She was not the second class to be integrated at Berkeley public schools. The Berkeley school district, like most districts in California since Mendez vs Westminister, enrolled by neighborhood. Berkeley High School had always been integrated because it was the only high school in the district. After nearly a decade of black community pressure, junior high schools had been integrated in 1964. Berkeley High had tremendous racial tensions throughout the sixties, caused not by white segregationists but demands by emboldened black radicals. (I’m not saying that’s a bad thing).

After the school board survived a recall vote by opponents, they decided to work more slowly to integrate the elementary schools. This gave white opponents time to leave, and many of them did. (Prior to this white flight, Berkeley was a primarily conservative town; the liberals banded together with blacks to gain control. )  However, many other progressive whites moved to Berkeley to support the idea of voluntary integration, so the white population stayed the same. Notably, the black population didn’t increase: blacks in unintegrated Oakland stayed put rather than move to Berkeley.

Four years later, in 1968, the elementary schools were integrated via busing, with the black children in the Berkeley “flats” traveling to the mostly white schools of the hills, and vice versa. Kamala Harris was in the second class of integrated elementary school students. (all of this is easily sourced, but this book  goes into the most detail) While the elementary integration is generally considered successful, it hasn’t done anything to improve the achievement gap or de facto segregation.

All she had to do was insert one word in between “public” and “schools”.  There’s no question that Berkeley’s elementary school integration was notable for its two-directional busing and its smooth implementation. 1960s Berkeley was still discriminatory; it’s unlikely Harris’s academic mom could have lived outside the flats, thanks to redlinining practices. High school students were tracked ruthlessly, although most reports suggest accurately. Blacks weren’t doing well at Berkeley High, and Berkeley itself wasn’t the enlightened tolerant place it is today.

But to acknowledge that she wasn’t breaking color barriers would have ruined the narrative. How else could she hint at the horrors of racism if not to suggest that even liberal Berkeley was forcibly keeping black kids in black schools until she and her peers boldly broke the color lines?

Harris could rest assured that no mainstream media outlet would object to her lie. Factcheck.org supported her lie, even as it revealed the truth. This way, Harris could pretend that there but for the grace of liberal courts, her legal career would have been denied her.

The second part of Harris’s claim is ludicrous as well as dishonest. Her parents were academics, not working class or uneducated blacks. Her father was gone by that time, but Harris lived a very nice life even if her mother chose to live in the Berkeley flats while working at Cal. Given her parents’ background, how likely is it that the Harris sisters would have gone to a bad school?

Denied a professorship at Cal, Harris’s mother uprooted the family and took them to Canada for a new job, also in academia. Harris graduated from a Quebec high school.

So Harris is lying about the environment that gave her a bus ride, and pretending that going to a partially white elementary school when she was seven is all that prevented her from being a dropout or, god forbid, a teacher.

None of this is terrible. It’s just irritating in that no one picked up on the lie. Everyone accepted it, even though the misstatement is well-documented. Everyone allows her to pretend that busing is why she’s AG and a Senator.

But what I’m more puzzled and aggravated by is all the Republican pundits gleefully celebrating, or at least enjoying, the purported slam dunk of Biden. Ha, ha! Look, there’s Harris, a black woman, taking Biden apart for opposing busing when she was bused! It’s perfect! Wow, what timing! What elan! Harris wins!

It’s all about the gotcha and its entertainment value.

And I’m sitting here thinking what the hell? Busing? Busing was a disasterMuch of the country hated busing. Joe Biden took the lead on busing because he’d have been a one-term Senator if he didn’t. Read about the anger and the white flight throughout the 70s that resulted when cities tried to forcibly desegregate neighborhood schools and end de facto segregation and Biden’s position becomes obvious.

No one else seemed to notice, though. Even conservatives like Mollie Hemingway, Comfortably Smug, and Hugh Hewitt were gleefully celebrating Harris’s body blow based, from what I can tell, purely on hahahaha she’s black, he’s old, she’s using his decades old vote to catch him out on changing times.

Every conservative I follow was rightly stunned at the entire slate’s support for open borders. As Ari Fleischer put it:

But most people were so wowed by this comment that they don’t seem to think about what it meant:

And there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed [sic] to school every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.

…..It’s a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was a part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.

That’s where the federal government must step in.

Look, Americans who aren’t dealing with immigrants every day often don’t completely grasp what it’s like, and go squishy on things like border control or amnesty.

In contrast, they are entirely clear on the intrusive, invasive ways the federal government can “step in” to order schools.  And they don’t like it one bit.

Go ahead, Kamala, you brave truth teller, you survivor of segregated Berkeley discrimination. Tell all those Dem voters how busing is what America’s schools need to achieve the necessary diversity. Tell them how you’ll appoint judges who’ll overrule Milliken, allow states to mandate integration across districts.

Tell  white working class voters the Dems still need in order to win, all those rich white progressives who purport to love people of color so long as some other school is being integrated, not theirs. Tell low income African Americans to forget about those charter schools they like so much, because your great integration plan means they’ll be unnecessary.  Trumpet your plans to mandate school systems like San Francisco, where racial quotas determine where and how far each child will be sent away from home. While you’re at it, explain how this system resulted in far more segregation. 

Go ahead and tell people that your plan will end segregation as the government sorts populations based on race, just like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 planned all along.

But best of all, go tell Asians all about your great plans. Tell all those parents at  those 80, 90% Asian public schools you plan to yank half of the kids out and send them into the inner cities with all sorts of poor black and Hispanic kids. Go ahead and tell Asian immigrants that they can’t cluster and dominate in certain schools, tested or otherwise.

This is a community that sent out a 12 year old girl  to say, in public: “If I work hard, shouldn’t I have an advantage over those who don’t even try?…It’s just not right for me to work hard and do my best while others are being lazy.”

And even after that, the New York legislature backed down on deBlasio’s plan to open up the schools to the kids that girl called lazy.

These are people who brought enormous, angry pressure on a Palo Alto school district when the board wanted to name a school after  a Japanese American who fought for his country.  As immigrants who think of themselves only as Chinese, the opponents looked at an American and saw only a hated enemy from Japan. They won, too.

Raise your hand, everyone who thinks Asian immigrants are going to give the smallest iota of a rat’s dropping about Kamala Harris’s guilt trips? Go grab some popcorn, I say.

I hope Andrew Ujifusa or one of the other Edweek reporters will run with this opportunity hound Harris relentlessly with:

“Senator Harris, you’ve opposed charters throughout your career. In the debate, you strongly supported busing. Are you planning on ending charter schools so you can more easily enforce busing mandates? Will you appoint judges who will overrule the ban on inter-district busing?”

She would have to choose. She could walk back her insistence that the federal government must intervene to enforce school integration. Or she could explain how she’s going to implement country wide integration by taking away all choice from America’s parents.

I don’t understand politics, I know, but for the life of me I don’t understand why every politician from Trump on down to dogcatcher isn’t tweeting about Harris’s plan. Then hound every other Dem candidate and force them to fight that battle for her. Harris will be oh so very popular.

“If you like your school, too bad. Democrats won’t let you keep it.”

Note: I teach in a school that may as well have been formed by Harris’s mandate, so integrated and diverse it is. I like it fine. I just live in a reality-based world most of the time.


Getting Smarter, or Getting Better at Using Smarts?

Influence of young adult cognitive ability and additional education on later-life cognition

Or, as Stuart Richie says:

Cool new PNAS paper about potential educational effects on IQ.

Previous work: control for age-11 IQ, still find edu-IQ correlation later in life.

This paper: control for age-20 IQ, correlation is gone. Suggests education has limited influence after age 20.

IQ measurement doesn’t interest me much, but IQ development or change over time does, for ego-driven reasons. As long-time readers know, I have a very high IQ (I qualified and participated in a research study for 3SD+), but my spatial abilities are very weak and I was stymied in advanced math (past algebra 1)  until, in my early 40s, I learned how to compensate using logic. I also was late to learn how I learned; my brain won’t acquire new information unless it’s tagged with all sorts of meta-data. Learning new concepts was so laborious that in my teens, I simply assumed I was incapable of learning; not until I was faced with job-related challenges  did I learn how I learned. My verbal skills are extraordinarily high, although it’s hard for me to compare to others because my particular combination of smarts would have required a more thorough classical education, which I don’t have.  I read 1000 wpm and can acquire extraordinary amounts of information through inference, which of course can sometimes lead me astray.

So. In 2001, I took the GRE and got 790V, 640Q, 690A. It was the last time the Analytical section was included. 640 quant was the 65th percentile that year, 690 analytical was in the 85th percentile–some logic games are brutally spatial. Anything over 700 Verbal is in the 99th percentile. I was very proud of that quant score.

In 2008, I took the GRE and got 780V, 800Q. (I’m still annoyed by the 780; if I’d focused in more, I might have gotten a double 800.) 800 Q is just the top 4% in any given year, but it’s probably more accurate to call it a top 10% score.

According to this GRE IQ estimator, my original GRE V+Q of 1340 is 99.452nd percentile, and my second GRE V+Q of 1580 is 99.993. But (forgive me IQ estimators), any IQ based on combining V+Q makes no sense, because an 800V-640Q  is considerably more difficult to achieve than an 640V-800Q, so how can they be identical, IQ wise? Plus, the decimal point specificity is just goofy.

Looking at my quant score alone, in seven years from the age of 39 to 46, I jumped from just above average in math to pretty close to 2SD.

Did I get smarter, or did I simply learn how to use my existing intelligence?

The quant section of the old GRE was extremely g-loaded. I used to tutor for the test and ran into dozens of people who’d majored in college in math, knew more calculus and all that nonsense about vectors and matrix determinants and ordered ring fields than I’ll ever know, yet scored in the high 600s. Which is not to say that it wasn’t relatively easy, just that lots of smart people would occasionally miss questions because they were more about g than math competency. The new GRE combines both. I can’t find an online GRE practice test, but I did the problems on the ETS site, and I think I’d still get in the top 10%.

The GRE Math Subject test is what used to be called an “achievement” test. God, testing lingo has changed so dramatically in so little time. g is involved in the sense that a certain level of intelligence is required to learn the material. But a 120 IQ who’s taken calculus and number theory would outscore a 145+ IQ  who has not.

I got 13 right out of 56. A 390. I wonder how many people get an 800 on the GRE General Quant and a 390 on the GRE Math? That’s a terrific illustration, really, of the difference between achievement and aptitude.  I knew none of the number theory, only some of the stats, none of the integral questions, but all of the limit and derivative questions, and random other stuff.

Every single one of the questions I answered correctly was using math I’ve learned in the past fifteen years.  Had I taken the test in 2005, I would have gotten zero correct. I took AP Calculus as a senior, remember none of it.  All the math I know today is from my tutoring days or my time in teaching.

Did I get smarter, or did I simply learn how to use my existing intelligence? Here, it seems clearer than in the first case. The GRE Quant (old form) is definitely an aptitude test, which makes my big score jump odd. But acquiring new knowledge isn’t the same as having a higher IQ. Right? (asking seriously). I could do much better on this test if I studied up on integrals and 3-dimensional systems. Hold that thought.

To contrast, I took the GRE English Literature Subject Test, all 230 questions. For me, this test is diametrically opposite the GRE Math Subject test. The latter requires actual math knowledge. But the English Lit test is about 70% interpretation, 10% terminology (literary terms) and 20% content knowledge (knowing the plot of Ben Jonson’s plays, or familiarity with Matthew Arnold’s poems). I missed 56 questions, scoring a 650, in the 86th percentile (although I’ve always distrusted the scoring on English lit tests). Two of the misses were analysis and both were careless errors I’d never make in a real test. All the other missed problems were content knowledge–not anything I’d forgotten, but things I’d never learned. My English degree wasn’t terribly rigorous, but what I learned thirty five years ago, I remembered. I recognized Shakespeare’s writing in a sonnet I’d never read before–ditto Donne and Milton. I even guessed my way through Derrida and Foucault. But Wiliam Caxton, Nikki Giovanni–eh. Never heard of them. I read a lot of Faulkner short stories, but avoided his novels. And so on.

Most of the high difficulty questions (less than 30% answered correctly) were literary analysis, and I nailed them. The only hard questions I missed were three content knowledge (obscure authors) and  one grammar question. The rest were in the 45-65% range, which is typical when the test is covering a broad range of material and no one knows everything. I think I could probably learn my way to a 700, but higher than that would require more interest in literature than I have.

So the GRE Math subject test requires specific knowledge, while the GRE Literature subject test allows people with high aptitude to do very well, even if their specific literature content knowledge is weak.

There aren’t many forty-something folks taking GRE Subject tests, but doesn’t it seem likely that it’s more common for someone to develop math content knowledge later in life than it is to suddenly develop excellent reading skills? Which suggests that reading comprehension, verbal ability, is more hard-wired to cognitive ability than math is. That might explain why math test scores have improved more than reading scores, generally. For all the wailing about math achievement, we do better at teaching students to improve their math abilities than we do at making them better readers.

From the study abstract: “Education does improve cognitive ability”

It does? That seems backwards to me. Cognitive ability improves educability.  If all we had to do was educate people to make them smarter, I wouldn’t have this blog.

Does education actually make people smarter, or does it just teach them how to use their existing intelligence?

I have no answers, so I’ll stop here.


Lawton Chiles Middle Academy: When the Cop Shows Up

Our school has a ritual, a long-standing one. We start the announcements with the pledge. For the first five years of my employment, it was an enjoyable thing. Everyone stood up. If a kid didn’t stand up, the teacher exhorted him or her jovially, and the kid stood up, whining. It took less than a minute.

Cue Colin Kaepernick and his foolish, self-destructive campaign. Many football players started “taking a knee”, which was fine. Stupid, but fine. But then other kids would just refuse to stand up.  Teachers would, as usual, exhort the kids to get up, and they usually would. Until a parent got the superintendent involved, and the superintendent sent out a note saying that under no conditions could a teacher require a student to stand up. These kids, by the way, are not even remotely interested in the NFL and why Kaepernick is taking a knee. They have all sorts of reasons from “I hate Trump” to “The flag’s racist” to “I just want to sit and look at my phone”.

To me, that’s bullshit. It’s our school ritual. If we can’t tell the kids to stand, or kneel, and the kid is allowed to sit on his or her phone during the Pledge, then what’s the point of the Pledge? So I take phones away from kids and they go screaming to the admins, but the admins are firm, so far–the teacher can’t tell you to stand, but the teacher can take your phones.

Most of the time it’s been ok, and I’ve gotten around it, but this semester I’ve got a class of kids who literally refuse to stand. Just 12 of 35 get up at all. That’s far too many to police, so now I just say the Pledge with the kids who stand and randomly remove phones, which keeps that violation in line.

Most teachers in our school agree; I’m not alone in arguing that if we can’t enforce minimum behavior for a school ritual, one that’s been going on for decades, then a) that’s a bad thing and b) we should stop the Pledge and “let the Commies win”, as a particularly right of center student of mine used to call it.

I used to be annoyed at the Pledge for “under God”–as an agnostic, I think the rebuke to non-believers is a deliberate slur that came out of the anti-Communist era and would still be happier if the phrase was dropped. But in today’s world, with an immigrant population that increasingly takes America for granted, the Pledge had become an enjoyable ritual until Kaepernick and the NFL ruined it all.

If schools are not allowed to insist that students simply stand or kneel respectfully during the Pledge, then it should be dumped. At this point, I hate the first five minutes of class, and have asked that the Pledge be dropped from announcements.

All that is prelude to this story about a Florida kid “getting arrested for refusing to say the Pledge”. Key details:

  • This was a substitute teacher.
  • The substitute teacher was a Cuban immigrant.
  • The kid refused to leave the room without disruption.
  • The kid was arrested for threats.

So the media headlines are, essentially, lying. The kid was not arrested for refusing to say the Pledge, unless the police want to speak to Jussie Smollett for buying a Subway sandwich.

The shocking part, to me, was the teacher’s comment to the kid, until I read well into the newspaper stories. As is usually the case when demographics conflict with the narrative, the media holds back or delays release of demographics. So it’s well into the story before you learn  the sub, Ana Chavez, is an immigrant, while the kid in question is, I think, a non-immigrant African American.

We come, once again, to the clash of “Who/Whom?”. Normally, immigrants can say things that white Americans can’t, so Ana Chavez probably thought she was secure in her ability to criticize a snotty little kid who wouldn’t stand for the flag. Notice that she actually put her comment in the report!

But no one warned Ana of the dire fate that awaits the loser of a narrative clash. On the plus side, Ana Chavez is a common name, so she can leave town and sub somewhere else.

The administrator decision to remove the student from the classroom isn’t surprising. We have a nationwide sub shortage. If the sub had said “remove this kid because he’s wearing a blue shirt that’s hurting my eyes”, he probably would have removed the kid and took him to another room saying “Sorry, don’t worry, this is no big deal.” Maybe dump the sub, maybe not, depending on the scarcity, the sub, and the kid.

What I don’t understand, and can’t without more information, is why the school resource officer was called in.  I can think of two possibilities off hand. First, the administrator came, the kid refused to go, and then the SRO showed up. Second, the administrator and the SRO came together, and I can only conceive of that occurring if the student was utterly out of control–or the substitute teacher made it sound that way.

Then I looked up the school and considered a third possibility:  Lawton Chiles is a fairly rich, very high-achieving middle school (supposedly ranked 11th in the entire state) and is also 15% black, with  most  blacks scoring proficient on state tests. Perhaps they don’t have many discipline problems, so the dean and SRO are twiddling their thumbs waiting for each call. Unlikely, but I offer it up.

However, this part seems quite clear:

The student was asked more than 20 times to leave the classroom by the dean of students and the school resource officer intervened, asking the student to leave the classroom and the student refused, the police say.

Police say the student eventually left the classroom and created another disturbance, making threats while he was escorted to the office at the school.

They didn’t walk into the room and arrest him. They asked him to leave. More than twenty times. Many, many school officials read about the events at Spring Valley and learned their lesson well. They made no effort to physically force the boy from the room.

Eventually, the sixth-grader did leave, probably making threats. But it took a long time, and during that time, that student had directly disobeyed a police officer. Once he left, he apparently made more threats.

Do I think he should have been arrested? Absolutely not, on the evidence.

But my primary reason for writing this short piece is to remind people, once again, that the underlying issue becomes irrelevant once a cop shows up. Students–particularly  black students, it seems–need to learn a fundamental truth: don’t treat a cop like a teacher.  The minute the cop walks into the room, the facts on the ground shift unalterably.

I wish more of the media coverage would focus on this, which is of course a foolish dream. The media wants to convince everyone that schools are racist, that black children are deliberately put on a school-to-prison pipeline because of white teachers’ intolerance and bigotry.

Perhaps consider this: the Lawton Chiles Middle Academy case is a big step up from Spring Valley. The dean and the SRO acted with restraint in removing the recalcitrant student from the classroom. Perhaps they arrested the young boy because they can’t allow students to holler violent threats with impunity. Whatever their reason, reports make it clear they didn’t just charge in and lock the kid up.

Perhaps people should tell Dhakira Talbot, the boy’s mother, that while she might wish the school had handled things differently, her most pressing responsibility is to tell her son that no matter what he feels about the flag, or his unjust treatment, he must understand the facts on the ground once a cop shows up to talk to him. Obey the cop. No matter what. Things will get straightened out later.

They can tell her white parents tell their kids the same thing, if it helps.


What I did in January instead of writing

Until 10:00 Thursday night, I really thought I’d get in one post. But then I fell asleep.

Making January the only month in the seven years of this blog that I didn’t get in a single post. I shoot for four. Half the time I make three.  But every month I make one or two. My writing has just fallen off a cliff. Just 28 articles in 2018.

I’m not less interested. I’m just finding it much, much harder to write.

So what did I do in January?

Well, I spent a lot of time researching two different pieces on direct instruction. A movie gave me some interesting insights and more data to research. I read Zig Engelmann’s book again. I tried and failed to organize a way to discuss either article.

I found out how to search the ACS for high school demographics by state (to keep it manageable, I made it populations of 400+). These are stats I’ve wondered about even before I started (and abandoned) Everybody’s Second Favorite. Dick Startz spurred me on with this rather anodyne wail about integration in public schools (which he confuses with opportunity). So that led me to make interesting charts like this: CaSchoolsraceprofNYSchoolsraceprof

But while that was interesting, I was already halfway through January and this takes more time than I had.

I also spent some time at the DMV. My brother has two cars, but he carelessly allowed the registration on one to expire, and then he ignored the followups, and then he ignored the warnings, until he started to worry about how much it would cost. So he bought a new used car from a friend for cheap. The other car was parked at the curb until the city labeled it as unregistered and threatened to tow it. By this time, the battery was dead, so he put the batter from his other car into that one–and it started right up.

“Aww,” I said. “It missed you. You should get it reregistered.”

Until then, he put it in the driveway, where the city can’t get it. But the driveway is my spot–and a non-trivial amenity I pay for with my higher rent. He gets the bigger part of the house, despite paying less.  A lot less. I’m not bitter. I make more.

But it’s now well over a year later, and I want my damn driveway back. It’s often hard to park in the streets; people can (and do) park right in front of the house. So I made an appointment for him to find out what it would cost to reregister a car that hadn’t been paid for in three years. I told him about it and everything.

And I knew he’d forget, so I made a second appointment, on a Saturday, for me. So when he forgot, I spent an hour or so with a surprisingly nice bureaucrat finding out how much it would cost. The answer was much better than feared. My best case was $500, worst case $2000. It was $625. Plus a smog test.  And a battery. Plus by now the tire’s flat, so he needs to fix that. Still, about $1000 to get a second car that he could give to his kids. He’s got the money. He owes me $800 that he has in an account. He doesn’t live large. I told him he could pay me later if he’d get the car done.

It’s 3 weeks later. No fixes. I told my nephew that if he got his dad to fix the tire and buy a battery, I’d pay him $20. Hasn’t happened yet.

I’m sympathetic to people who avoid. I did it for years. Still do. And I want my damn driveway back.

Anyway. That took some time.

Then I read Robert Pondiscio’s article on, among other things, killing education myths and remembered very apt parallels between that particular myth and an Asimov short story. That’d be easy to write. I looked up the text, and promised myself I’d get it started.

But first I opened my mail. That’s….not something I do often. Let me give you an example. At the bottom of the large box of mail was a letter from my financial manager’s company alerting me to a $2500 account that hadn’t seen any activity for three years, and was in danger of being put into the state account. Please notify us before it gets sent to the state. The problem was, the form letter was from December 2017. So I had to call the office and admit I hadn’t opened the letter for over a year, but everything was okay and my money wasn’t at the state, right?  His assistant called me back, chuckling, to assure me that it had been issued in error and my money was safe.

Another half day gone. Then I thought about some Great Moments in Teaching articles I’d postponed, or one on my pedagogy for number sets. Multiplication is the Death Lord. Things like that.

But the major time suck was….

Grading. Jesus. Grading took over January.  I used to like grading. I still like it, really. A whole day of January winter break grading. Then more tests, more grading, rinse and repeat.I don’t know why it kicked my ass so badly this year.

I’ve taken on a lot of fascinating, challenging responsibilities at school that take time and energy. So when I get home, all I do is fall asleep.

In fact, I may be slightly burnt out. My job is fantastic, but I’m usually pretty energized in January. Not this time.

In celebration of my tenth year teaching, I won’t be working this summer. The original plan was 6 week tour of the English-speaking countries of Europe, but my father’s health has been going up and down, and I’d rather stay close. Hopefully, he’ll be up for some trout-fishing or a trip into Canada. Either way, I hope to buy a used SUV and tour the US.

I will try to write more. Hope that’s not a threat.

Hey, under 1000.

 


Making Rob Long Uncomfortable

(Note: This is in the context of my multi-chaptered review of The Case Against Education, particularly the last, but I think it stands alone.)

I’m a big Rob Long fan; I listen to both his Ricochet  and GLoP podcasts. I’ve even subscribed to Richochet, and you should, too. I am not a Heather MacDonald fan, for reasons that puzzle others. But I like Long/Lileks/Robinson more than I don’t like her, so I was listening to their conversation a while back.

The three hosts were completely on board as Heather excoriated the college campus craziness documented in her new book. You can practically hear them nodding with approval as she outlines the various issues: the outraged feminist wars, the soft and whiny college students, the transgender insanities.

And then Heather turned the same withering sarcasm to race, talking about the delusional fools who think that African American disparities in college are due to racism as opposed to their low academic achievement….

Pause.

RobLongUncomfortable

I laughed and laughed.

You could practically hear Rob’s toenails shrieking against the tiles as he braked to a stop.  This was not the conversation he’d signed up for. He was there to lightly mock feminists and social justice nuts, not crack witty, on-the-nose jokes with Heather about the racial skills deficit.

Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

It runs all through the political and intellectual class, particularly on the right. So, for example, Charles Murray is a great social scientist and The Bell Curve an important work  (I agree!)–but  let’s blame crap teachers and low standards for black academic underperformance.

Recently, Megan McArdle added her voice to John McWhorter in calling for an end to research on race and IQ. This appears to be the new “informed right” position: if you’ve spent any time actually reading about race and IQ, it’s clear that only bad news awaits further research. So ban it.

Meanwhile, on the subject of recent campus craziness, Megan thinks that Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s formulation is one of “humanity’s noblest inventions” and John McWhorter routinely denounces the safe-space rhetoric on college campuses as absurd and “unhelpful”. Both of them are appalled at the idea that college students would want to shut down conversations they don’t like.

They’re reactionary fascists, you’re unreasonably censorious, I’m judicious in setting limits.

Ever notice how the same people who praise Caplan’s idea of restricting college are also those singing songs of praise about KIPP and “no excuses” charters in general–for sending more poor urban kids of color to college?

KIPP schools put their kids through hours and hours more school every week, all to get just 45% of them to graduate college “ten or more years” after 8th grade–that is, 6 or more years of college.

They’re the education blob who ignore reality to keep spending taxpayer dollars, you’re unduly optimistic about college readiness, I’m all for unqualified black kids going to college if it’s not unionized teachers sending them there.

I read many reviewers of The Case Against Education on the right or the intellectually honest left who discussed the book without ever observing the obvious implications of Caplan’s plan to cut back on college attendance. This perplexes me. I actually know a reviewer who gave a great analysis without mentioning race. I asked him why the omission. He replied the idea was  “far-fetched enough that the racial implications are a ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’ side issue.”

That sounds amazingly on point. Yeah, sure, Caplan’s proposal is pie in the sky, but it’s a great idea, you know? Interesting. Challenging. Controversial. Let’s engage it. Play with it. Not get into the nitty gritty details.

Of course, everyone’s totally into the nitty gritty when castigating the here and now.

“Failing schools” is an expression with bipartisan support–and the schools are always failing on the count of race. KIPP’s “Success for All” or Eva’s “Success” Academies are clearly talking about success by race. All the praise for Wendy Kopp giving Teach for America a chance to “expand opportunity” for kids is, again, talking about opportunities for black and Hispanic kids–and, by the way, pretty sure those opportunities include college. No Child Left Behind demanded that test scores be disaggregated by race, and only if all students of all racial and income populations achieved at the same rate could schools get out of academic probation. States dumped their test score standards and still couldn’t avoid putting all their schools in probation status, thus creating the need for waivers that allowed everyone to ignore the racial gaps while they Raced to the Top.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of my reviewer buddy. But come on. All the pro-charter, pro-voucher, anti-union policy wonks on the right are all about race when they can use it to beat teachers over the head. The nation itself defines its success in education almost entirely on how well it educates kids by race. But a guy writes a book proposing to restrict access to college and most public schools by choking off funding in ways that would be catastrophic to African Americans but hey, it’s just spitballing. No need to mention race.

Policy analysis a la Wimpy: I’ll gladly talk about race in today’s education if you let me ignore race in the education of tomorrow.

But despite my dismay, that is definitely how it goes. Everyone suffers from educational romanticism, as Charles Murray puts it:

Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.

In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion.

This silence from those who know better leaves the rest of the talking class, particularly those on the right, the ones who aren’t into policy, utterly unprepared for a serious discussion. They get very, er, uncomfortable with any mention of black underperformance that isn’t a de rigeur nod to shit teachers and corrupt schools. They haven’t really thought about it much or read the literature, but they quite like the basic GOP talking points (bad unions, bad! Charters! Choice!) and would much rather no one take away their comfort chew toys.

Fair to say I’d make Rob Long uncomfortable.

Notice that I did not (and do not) hold black culture  at fault for these academic results. As I mentioned once long ago when looking at the black/white gap in Praxis scores (teacher credential tests):

  • The white Millennial bonghitter with a 1.2 GPA who teaches sixth grade science after his parents booted him out of the basement ties the freshly-pressed hardworking black track star with a 3.8 GPA teaching special ed.*
  • The goofball wannabe [white] manicurist who loafed through Podunk U and went into teaching kindergarten after the tenth of her problematic boyfriends dumped her outscores the idealistic black welfare daughter success story on a full scholarship to Harvard who went into teaching sixth grade English to “give back” to her community.

Pace JD Vance, it ain’t culture. Your Middletown classmates who ended up dead or in dead-end jobs almost certainly outscored the rich black kids in, I don’t know, Delaware County, or wherever the wealthy black families live in Ohio.

As I’ve written before, all those placing great hope in KIPP are missing the big picture: the kids who need the hours of extra education and the forced discipline of No Excuses to get anywhere near 8th grade ability by 8th grade is simply not the same as the intellect that can eat Crispy Cocoa Puffs every day while watching TV or playing video games and bet at the 8th grade level by 4th grade.

MacDonald herself blames culture. In the podcast, she responded to Long’s plea with the offer of a thought experiment. If black kids have the same level of school attendance, same level of homework completion, and in ten years they still have lower achievement, she says, then and only then she’ll consider racism. Apparently MacDonald isn’t aware of the thought experiment known as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong who have the same dedication to education but wildly different academic results and graduation rates.

And given the frequency with which poor white kids outperform wealthier black kids, often at the same schools, it’s hard to reasonably argue that schools themselves are the result of black underperformance. Which doesn’t stop many people from unreasonably arguing it, of course.

What do I blame?

[Crickets.]

Look, it’s not a matter of “blame”.

But that’s an answer that gets one into hot water. People who talk about the test score gap without fingering responsibility–worse, who argue against the usual culprits–are giving the impression that there’s nothing to fix. Which isn’t true, but it’s closer to true than any hope of closing the racial achievement gap.

The discomfort has wasted billions to no real avail. Despite the demands to increase college readiness, we are sending far more students to college who are less prepared than ever. Colleges have responded not by tightening standards, but by ending them, giving college credit for classes teaching middle school skills. Employers routinely call for more unskilled immigrants to take on the tasks  “Americans won’t do” when in fact they mean jobs that won’t pay enough for Americans to do, and thus create more low-skilled populations we can let down in future generations–populations that are beginning to outnumber American blacks of slave ancestry, the people to whom America owes a great debt.

And yet. I can think of so many ways that accepting performance gaps and modifying education policy could create more problems–like, say, Bryan Caplan’s notion to end public education.

So it goes.  Bryan Caplan gets a book deal and fame for seriously arguing in favor of a policy that would block most blacks and many Hispanics from all advanced education. I’m anonymous, unpaid, and unbook-dealed, writing in favor of continuing public education for all. But Caplan ignores race, and I’m blunt about black academic results while refusing to blame acceptable scapegoats.

Despite his pose as a controversial intellectual, Caplan will never make Rob Long uncomfortable.

I wish I knew how to distill all this into something pithy. But I’m bottom up, not top down. Or is it the other way round?


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.

Huh.

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”:

capstudentdef

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

capstudentselfish

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.

2003NAALproscomprace2003NAALdoccomprace

(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)

chgbyrace92to03

What educational categories saw the most black improvement?

chgbyedrace92to03

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.

 

 

 

 


Memorization or Learning?

I originally started to write a post on a memorization technique I’m using for the unit circle, and went looking for representative jeremiads both pro and con. Instead, I found Ben Orlin’s piece When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning (from five years back):

memoryorlin

…which is the opposite of a standard, boring piece and serves as a good counterpoint to explain some recent shifts in my pedagogy.

It’s a good piece. In many ways, the debate about memorization runs parallel to the zombie problem–students regurgitate facts without understanding. Ben’s against that. Me, too. Ben says that testing requirements create tensions between authentic learning and manageable tests; I have various means of ensuring my students understand the math rather than just hork it up like furballs of unknown origin, so am less concerned on that point.

But I don’t agree with this sentiment as much as I probably did a decade ago: Memorizing a list of prepositions isn’t half as useful as knowing what role a preposition plays in the language. 

Not in math, anyway.

 

A couple years ago, after I’d taught trigonometry two or three times, I suddenly noticed that at the end of the year, my students were very fuzzy on their unit circle knowledge. (It’s no coincidence that Ben’s article and my observations are both focused on trigonometry, a branch of math with a significant fact base.) When working trig equations, they’d factor something like the equation above, use the Zero Product Property, solve for sin(x)…and then stop.

“You’re not done,” I’d point out. You’ve only solved for sin(x). What is the value of x?”

Shrug. No recognition. My tests are cumulative. Many students showed significant recall of concepts. They were using ratios to solve complex applications; they were sketching angles on the coordinate plane–both concepts we hadn’t revisited in months. They could sketch the unit circle from memory and eventually figure out the answer. But they had no automatic memories of the unit circle working backwards and forwards, even though I had emphasized the importance of memorizing it.

Upsetting, particularly at the end of the year. The name of the class is Trigonometry, after all. Solving for sin(x) requires not one tiny bit of trig. It’s all algebra. Trigonometry enters the picture when you ask yourself what angle, in radians or degrees, has a y to r ratio of 1 to 2.

The sine of π/2 is not among [the important things to memorize]. It’s a fact that matters only insofar as it connects to other ideas. To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is–or, for what matter, of what “kill” means.

Well, okay, but….if a student in a Trig class can’t work a basic equation without a cheat sheet, what exactly has he learned? He already knew the algebra. Does the same standard hold for SOHCAHTOA, or can I still assume the student has successfully learned something if he needs a memory aid to remember what triangle sides constitute the sine ratio? What else can be on the cheat sheet: the Pythagorean Theorem? The ratios of the special rights?

Ben describes memorization as learning an isolated fact through deliberate effort, either through raw rehearsal or mnemonics, both of which he believes are mere substitutions for authentic learning. He argues for building knowledge through repeated use.

Sure. But that road is a hard one. And as Ben knows much better than I, the more advanced math gets, the more complex and numerous the steps get. Most students won’t even bother. Those who care about their grades but not the learning will take the easier, if meaningless route of raw rehearsal.

So how do you stop students from either checking out or taking the wrong road to zombiedom?

I’ve never told my students that memorization was irrelevant, but rather that I had a pretty small list of essential facts. Like Ben, I think useful memorization comes with repeated use and understanding. But what if repeated use isn’t happening in part because of the pause that occurs when memory should kick in?

So I’ve started to focus in on essential facts and encouraged them to memorize with understanding. Not rote memorization. But some math topics do have a fact base, or even just a long procedural sequence, that represent a significant cognitive load, and what is memorization but a way of relieving that load?

The trick lies in making the memorization mean something. So, for example, when I teach the structure of a parabolas, I first give the kids a chance to understand the structure through brief discovery. Then we go through the steps to graph a parabola in standard form. Then I repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. So by the time of the first quiz, any student who blanks out, I say “Rate of Change?” and they reflexively look for the b parameter and divide by 2. Most of them have already written the sequence on their page. The memorization of the sequence allows them repeated practice.

But it’s not mindless memorization, either. Ask them what I mean by “Rate of Change”, they’d say “the slope between the y-intercept and the vertex”. They don’t know all the details of the proof, but they understand the basics.

I take the same approach in parent function transformations, after realizing that a third of any class had drawn parent functions for days without ever bothering to associate one graph’s shape with an equation. So I trained them to create “stick figures” of each graph:stickfigures

I drew this freehand in Powerpoint, but it’s about the same degree of sloppiness that I encourage for stick figures. They aren’t meant to be perfect. They’re just memory spurs. Since I began using them a year ago, all my students can produce the stick figures and remind themselves what graph to draw. They know that each of the functions is committed on a line (to various degrees). Most of them understand, (some only vaguely), why a reciprocal function has asymptotes and why square root functions go in only one direction.

So did they learn, or did they memorize?

I haven’t changed my views on conceptual learning. I believe “why” is essential. I’m not power pointing my way through procedures. I am just realizing, with more experience, that many of my students won’t be able to use facts and procedures without being forced to memorize, and it is through that memorization that they become fluid enough to become capable of repeated use.

Like Ben, I think a zombie student with no idea that cosine is a ratio, but knows that cos(0) = 1, has failed to learn math. I just don’t think that student is any worse than one who looks at you blankly and has no answer at all. And addressing the needs of both these students may, in fact, be more memorization. Both types of students are avoiding authentic understanding. It’s our job to help them find it.

So I’ll give an example of that in my next post.


The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Well Are Americans Educated?

Part four of my seemingly endless review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. Parts onetwo, and three.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I get very, very irritated whenever Pew releases a new poll about “Americans” and their increasingly positive feelings about immigrants, because they aren’t surveying Americans, but adults who live in America.


Cite: Same source Caplan used

As Mark Hugo Lopez of Pew confirmed to me, back in 2016, “We asked our immigrations of all U. S. adults, including non-citizens.” They don’t disaggregate the responses by citizenship or immigrant status. In fact, they even ask all the adults if they are Republicans or Democrats when immigrants can’t be registered voters. This is just spectacularly dishonest and I get mad every time I write about it, but I mention it here for another reason:

“In 2003, the United States Department of Education gave about 18,000 randomly selected Americans the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).”–Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education, page 41. (emphasis mine)

NAAL did not survey American adults, but rather adults living in America. 13% of those surveyed were raised in a language other than English and are very probably immigrants. Another six were raised in households where the parents were native speakers of another language, and we can probably assume most were children of immigrants.

Here’s how Caplan characterizes the overall results:

caplannaalpic

Only modest majorities are Intermediate or Proficient in the prose and document categories. Under half are Intermediate or Proficient in the quantitative category.

Eighty-six percent of Americans exceed “Below Basic” for prose; 88% exceed “Below Basic for documents; 78% exceed “Below Basic” for quantitative. For each of these categories, 13% are actually “proficient”. Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education, page 41. (emphasis mine)

Please note the use of “Americans”. You can decide if he’s lying or careless while I continue.

What does the data look like if you isolate native English speakers and compare them to non-native speakers?

naaloverallvsnative

Eliminating non-native speakers reduces the “Below Basic” prose scores by 35%, while “Intermediate” readers increase by 11%. “Proficient” readers increases by 15%. The document scores see less dramatic changes, but 1 in 4 of every “Below Basic” scores disappear.

You can rewrite Caplan’s text above:

Over three fifths of Americans are Intermediate or Proficient in the prose and document categories. [Note: quant scores weren’t made available for disaggregation.]

Ninety one percent of Americans exceed “Below Basic” for prose; 91% exceed “Below Basic for documents…

Not nearly as horrible, are they?

Of course, Caplan also wants to convince the reader that education has little to do with human capital but is primarily signaling. What better way to achieve this than by showing how little education improves the public’s reading scores?

caplannaalpic

“While today’s dropouts spend at least nine years in school, over half  remain functionally illiterate and innumerate. Over half of high school graduates have less than the minimum skills [intermediate] one would naively expect them to.” The Case Against Education (page 43)

This graph doesn’t match up exactly to the report (he cites pages 36-37), because he averages the three reading test averages and then selects only the results for the categories High School Dropouts, High School Graduates, and College Grads. So the data above is only for 53% of the surveyed population and averages prose, document, and quantitative.

So Caplan is, deliberately or carelessly,  due to sloppiness or dishonesty, inviting the reader to assume that all those tested are reading their native language. He constantly uses the term “Americans” when over 1 in 10 was almost certain born elsewhere and probably schooled elsewhere. He also never once considers different populations or suggests that we should have anything other than identical expectations for every segment of American society (more on that in another article).

Happily, each NAAL survey generates a lot of research. Six years after the NAAL,  another report dug deep into the non-English speaking results: Overcoming the Language Barrier: The Literacy of Non-Native-English-Speaking Adults. To confuse things, the researchers use the words “High Prose Literacy” and “Low Prose Literacy”, combining the four categories two by two.  But this new report provided score averages on both language and education levels, while the one Caplan used only provided scores for language or education levels. (From here on in, all data is Prose only)

naaloveralllangedabs

These graphs (I assume I could have combined them into one Excel chart but couldn’t figure out how), combines the data from the overall NAAL report and the non-English speaking drill-down. The chart on the left is Low Literacy Prose results (Below Basic and Basic) broken down first by language and then by education. The chart on the right is High Literacy Prose results (Intermediate and Proficient) in the same way.

So right away, it’s obvious that  native English speakers are providing almost all the high literacy results, while non-native speakers are contributing an enormous chunk of the low literacy results. Roughly 20% of the tested population, the non-native English speakers,  is responsible for a third of the low literacy scores. Nearly 7% of all responders were non-native speaking dropouts, comprising the overwhelming portion of low-literacy non-native speakers. Most of the latter group probably didn’t ever attend American schools, although that’s not provided by the data.

Also of interest: 20% of the the high literacy (intermediate and proficient categories) native  English speakers had no more than a high school diploma, while 27% went on to some college and an equal amount went on to graduate and post graduate degrees.

The other half of native English speakers who stopped their education after high school–scored Basic or Below Basic, comprising 42% of all the low literacy scores for that group. I was interested to see that high school graduation numbers aren’t much affected by the switch to native English speakers, suggesting that immigrants are overwhelmingly high school dropouts, followed to a much lesser degree by college graduates.  While their percentage contribution to low and high literacy populations vary, the actual number of high school graduates in each group is about the same (more on that later). Caplan finds it appalling that high school graduates who didn’t go on to higher education are roughly split between four categories. I’m actually encouraged at how many high school graduates are in the top half of the literacy categories.

Ironically, this data slice also clearly shows the flaws in the American system much more clearly than the rather simplistic argument Caplan is making. As I mentioned in the last chapter on college graduate quality, colleges are increasingly accepting people who have not demonstrated college readiness. Almost certainly, some non-English speakers would have both college degrees and poor prose skills. But 7% of native speakers with low literacy rates are college graduates. In absolute terms, nearly 9% of the low literacy population attended at least some college.

Here’s one last take on the data that I used to check my compilation. The orange line is the percentage of each category in the overall Kutner report (that Caplan used). You can see that it’s off slightly, which I’d expect, but mostly in line.

Each column is green pattern, blue pattern, solid green, solid blue. The blues are native English speakers, the greens non-native English speakers. The patterns are low literacy, the solids are high literacy.

NAALoveralllanged

This graph shows how much of each category is dragged down by non-native English speakers with low literacy–anywhere from 6 to 39 percent. Also clear is that non-native English speakers with high proficiency have very little impact on the overall results.

In particularly, non-native English speakers with low literacy are simply overwhelming the high school dropout category, punching far above their weight. Also observe how clearly this graph that substantial numbers of high literacy readers are  stopping education in high school while other low literacy readers are moving onto college and even graduating. Clearly, we aren’t doing our best to identify and educate our strongest students. This might explain why the returns to education are less compelling than they might be, which is again linked to college quality control, not failures in the act of teaching.

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Non-native English speakers may have gone to American schools, and there are some Indian, English, and Australian speakers in the native English results.  But the second group would be overwhelmingly found in the college graduate categories. And if we are to concede that American schools don’t always educate non-native speakers as well as native speakers, we should also grant that no other country in the world expects its schools to educate millions of non-native speakers, much less be judged on the results. So I think it’s quite fair that if we are to consider prose reading skills a proxy for the quality of American education that we consider how the schools educate the people they were originally intended for.

I can’t for the life of me imagine how Caplan was able to get away with including immigrants in his NAAL results. It’s the same utterly dishonest bias that permeates the Pew data, but Caplan’s an academic, this book was published by Princeton Academic Press, has been reviewed by a zillion reputable people, and he is either dishonest or incompetent regarding a key element of his case against American schools.

But that’s not all, as anyone familiar with Caplan understands. Caplan is a libertarian and the leader of the open borders fringe. He argues that America and other countries’ welfare states are an incentive and rationale to restrict immigration, and sees K-12 education as an “indefensible universal program”.

So Caplan wants to end what he considers wasteful public education.He also wants millions of the world’s poor to immigrate to America, and believes this idea would be less controversial if we weren’t obligated to provide welfare and education to the immigrants and the subsequent generations. Hence he argues to end public education as a means to his ends of open borders.

It’s a bit odd, isn’t it, that he just somehow doesn’t notice that he’s rigging his case against American education by including the scores caused by  very immigration policy he wants to expand?

naal99203compare

As Kutner report makes clear, pulling out non-native speakers demonstrates that native English speakers improved their scores over the last decade.  Those with mixed language backgrounds improved as well. Meanwhile, native Spanish speaker performance plummeted from its already low 1993 baseline, while the tiny Asian population improved either because the source countries changed or perhaps more Asian Americans grew up to improve the scores.

Incidentally, the other knowledge tests Caplan uses to demonstrate our useless education system are similarly biased. He uses the General Social Survey but doesn’t restrict the results to citizens. The American National Election Survey limits its sample to citizens, at least, but that would still include many people who hadn’t been educated in American schools.

I would like to believe the best of Caplan and that he was just careless or sloppy. But I keep bumping into the fact that Caplan couldn’t disaggregate without explaining why. Explaining that non-native English speakers skew the results would alert readers to the fact that immigrants were so numerous that they were skewing our educational results, making the country appear less capable. He can’t alert the reader to the cataclysmic results that our immigration policy is inflicting on our national education profile because he wants millions more immigrants to further obliterate our educational profile.

All of the bad data shows up in Chapter 3, where Caplan uses it as a foundation for his argument that public education is a waste of time, that Americans’ utter failure to supports his argument that education credentials are all signaling. It’s just one chapter, but it’s the foundation of all the subsequent ones, as he offers it as a given that Americans are stupid useless gits who can’t remember everything they’re taught, which is why education is primarily signaling, and why we should gut our public support for all education.

Once you take out immigrants, American education looks pretty good, and our challenges are clear. We need to seek to improve our educational outcomes for high school, convince our high school dropouts to stay in school (purely for signaling) and we need better paying jobs and more affordable housing to convince them that there are good futures out there for hard work.

Immigration doesn’t help us achieve either of those goals. I understand Caplan disagrees, but he shouldn’t juke his stats. He especially shouldn’t hide the fact that the very immigration changes he argues for leads to an educational profile he finds so ridiculously awful that he considers it evidence we should stop bothering to educate Americans.

(Final note: I have spent a month trying to get this data right and be sure I didn’t make a mistake. I might have anyway. One thing I know, though: I spent more time trying to make sure the NAAL data reflected something closer to American achievement than Caplan did. And I wanted this sucker done. I’m so exhausted of thinking about it. If something’s not clear, please email me or mention it in the comments.)


The Case Against The Case Against Education: Pre-Employment Testing

In the continuing saga…wait. Before I dive in, I want to reiterate something. Sending fewer kids to college is an excellent goal. But we need a realistic case to argue, one that understands how we arrived at this point, what the pressures are to keep it this way, and what are realistic alternatives. Caplan’s 0 for 3. That’s irritating, particularly since Caplan is personally in favor of killing all public education funding, which I absolutely do not support. He makes all these wild statements while many reviewers go the chinstroker route, pretending to take him seriously but actually cherrypicking some of his arguments they agree  or disagree with–yes, this is all very interesting and we should think about it–without engaging with the consequences of his proposals.

The most common explanation for the deep emphasis on credentialing in America is  that employers use college degrees as a proxy for cognitive ability for fear that they’ll be sued. In most circles, this is referred to as the Griggs problem, for the Griggs v Duke Power decision. In the past, employers routinely gave cognitive ability tests for jobs not requiring college degrees, to ensure the applicant has a baseline ability level–or even just to hire the smartest candidate. However, the  Griggs decision severely constrained their ability to test employees if it resulted in a disparate impact by race or gender, so employers began using education credentials as a proxy for ability. Caplan calls it “IQ laundering”; take the IQ, stick it in college for a few years, and then hey, presto, that dirty cognitive ability has been converted into a shiny new, entirely legal, credential, since credentials are not held to the disparate impact ruling.

Caplan thinks IQ laundering proponents are wrong. He thinks it’s obvious that employers “fear” high IQ people who don’t go to college–it signals non-conformity and low conscientiousness. He argues that IQ laundering has to face an “awkward fact”:

10-30% of large employers admit they use cognitive ability tests. (page 89)

Then he continues:

“…the total number of employment discrimination cases filed in federal court peaked at about 23,000 in 1998, then gradually declined to about 14,000 in 2007. The average cash award if you win a trial is large–about 1.1 million for 1990-2000. But only 2% of plaintiffs acutally go to trial and win, so annual awards sum to less than $600 million. Most plaintiffs–58%–manage to get an out of court settlement. Settlements are usually confidential, but the average settlement is about 5% as large as the average trail award. Annual settlements therefore sum to less than $800 million. If plaintiffs’ lawyers work for a 40% contingency fee, and defense outpsends them by a factor of three, employers’ legal costs still sum to less than 1.7 billion. Updating these mid-1990s figures for inflation, employers’ total legal burden sums to under $5 billion per year.

Compared to total labor costs, $5 billion is trivial…[But] Only 4% of federal discrimination cases brought between 1987 and 2003 alleged disparate impact. That amounts to under a thousand annual cases against any form of employment testing. If disparate impact cases cost the usual amount, employers’ total test tax is under $200 million a year. (page 89)

So to restate, Caplan thinks employers aren’t interested in finding high IQ people, but only people who have managed to go through college, which presumably signals a decent IQ. Employers don’t have any interest in cognitive ability testing. If they did, they would, because the pittance they’d pay in lawsuits would dwarf the savings they’d find in high IQ workers. They don’t do this. Ergo, they don’t want high IQ workers. They want conforming conscientious folks.

So first, on the 10-30% of corporations testing. I actually heard about this argument several months before, on Twitter,  and called bullshit. I’m amazed no one else noticed. The article, The Benefit of a Degree in I-O Psychology or Human Resources, lists 2 prior surveys and does one of their own:

  • Terpstra, Rozelle, 1993:  201 companies, 20% did cognitive ability testing
  • Drogan, Yancy, 2011: 122 credit unions, 27% did cognitive ability testing
  • Wang, Yancy, 2012: 94 credit unions, 11% did cognitive ability testing.

I do not see how Caplan can use these three papers to assert that 10-30% of all corporations do cognitive ability testing. The papers themselves make no such claims.

Next, Caplan thinks that, since corporations spend billions in labor costs, they should shrug off a few hundred millions in court settlements in exchange for more efficient hiring. But labor costs will be in the billions no matter what. Suppose hiring the perfect employee every time saves employers collectively $1 billion each year.  Tests are expensive. Developing a test that will pass muster in the event someone sues would be extremely expensive. The tradeoff isn’t billions against $200 million, but more like $1 billion against $200 million and the cost of developing a test that passes EEOC in the event of a lawsuit. Morever, $200 million might be the total test tax for all corporations, but it’s not spread out among them evenly. Just ask Target ($2.8 million) or Federal Express ($54.9).

But the gaping hole in Caplan’s case is government hiring. The Civil Service exam was one of the great achievements of the late 19th century governance, but it didn’t last 100 years before the federal government abandoned it under pressure of a consent decree rather than lose at trial because of the test’s disparate impact. Teacher credential tests are routinely challenged for disparate impact and although they’ve been winning for 30 years, every so often a test is rejected for disparate impact and content that can’t be directly linked to the needs of the position.  But teachers have it easy next to  firefighters and cops–in no small part because firefighters and cops get promotions that have to be defensible and racially balanced.

Caplan doesn’t mention the extensive case history on government employment testing and disparate impact, possibly because he is unaware of it, possibly because it interferes with his easy, brief dismissal or, most likely, because he has some glib reason that he’ll use to argue in favor of ignoring it. But I find it difficult to justify his failure to take into account the hundreds of government cases on testing and disparate impact. The cases weren’t cheap, certainly, and it’s quite possible many large employers are scared off testing because of the many times courts have thrown out even carefully calibrated tests for seemingly random reasons. Toss that in with the $200 million “test tax” and the huge expense of developing a test against the likelihood of a loss–which happens to governments all the time, reminding corporations of what they could be wasting–and it’s far more reasonable, contra Caplan, to think that perhaps corporations don’t want the risk of cognitive ability testing.

Caplan occasionally mentions the “defenders of the IQ laundering theory”–those misguided souls who think Griggs had any sort of impact. For those looking for an excellent argument otherwise, see  Griggs vs. Duke Power: Implications for College Credentialing (O’Keefe/Vedder).  As Vedder and O’Keefe point out, employment tests were ubiquitous in this country before the Griggs decision. Now they’re very rare, other than in the EEOC-approved college credential path. In contrast to this history, Caplan’s simplistic, skeletal treatment of Griggs‘ potential impact on the rise of college credentialism undercuts his already weak argument for the employment value of conformity and conscientiousness.

Furthermore,  Caplan erred in saying that Griggs was codified in the Civil Rights Act of 1991. It was codified in the Equal Opportunity Employment Act of 1972, a distinction that matters because the court cases immediately following this codification supported Griggs. But  (Note: The Equal Opportunity Act didn’t codify Griggs, it just expanded the scope. I was misled by wording in the Vedder/O’Keefe piece. Thanks to Robert Verbruggen for pointing this out.)

But those of us blaming Griggs are focusing on the wrong target. In 1989, the Supreme Court threw out key elements of Griggs in a case known as Wards Cove , restoring the original 1964 understanding of the requirement.

Congress was much better at getting things done back then, and President Bush was running for re-election. So Teddy Kennedy proposed an amendment that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, overruling the Supreme Court’s decision and reinstating disparate impact.

This strikes me as important for a several reasons. First, it shows again that Caplan’s not a reliable narrator. He read the O’Keefe/Vedder article; it’s in his (excellent) bibliography. But he presented the information in such a way that utterly evades the complexity and controversy behind the disparate impact requirement.  Naw, it’s just like the 55 mph speed limit–a formality. Everyone breaks it. And that’s just not true.

Next, the Supreme Court appears to be once again forcing the conversation back towards equity and away from reverse discrimination–and this time, Congress and the President aren’t inclined towards swift action. What happens if disparate impact is ruled discriminatory in some future case?

Because, finally, Congress’s reaction to the Ward’s Cove decision overruled the Supreme Court, which doesn’t happen very often. What made this case special? Similarly, employers flagrantly violate all sorts of laws, but most of them are very leery of taking on the cognitive ability test and disparate impact. It’s almost as if institutionally, there might be a powerful counterforce pushing political and business leaders away from cognitive ability testing.

Hmm. What on earth could that counterforce be? But I’m at 1600 words already, so that’s the next article.

I can’t prove Caplan is wrong about employers and disparate impact. Caplan doesn’t take the long view, and it’s quite possible that today, given the ubiquitous nature of college attendance, employers do see failure to attend college as a sign of either low intellect or low conformity. But because Caplan elides or omits a great deal of importance from his argument, he makes the issue seem simple  when it clearly isn’t. Again, I don’t get the sense he’s making a serious case. Griggs wasn’t decided by stupid people. They had a reason for trying to stop employers from using cognitive ability as a hiring criterion.

I learned a great deal in fact-checking Caplan in this section. Most importantly, I learned that those of us who blame Griggs aren’t telling the whole story. Griggs was declared unconstitutional and then its elements were explicitly forced back into law by Congress and President Bush I. Disparate impact might not be similarly rescued in the future.


The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Did We Get Here?

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”–John F. Kennedy, 1962

“That something is hard is not an argument against doing it.”

“I say it is. It’s not a decisive argument, but it’s one of the better ones.”––Sean Illing and Bryan Caplan, 2018

For at least four months, 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?

Bryan Caplan wants to eradicate public funding for education because he thinks most of the spending is wasted. He’d like to eliminate all public school, but will settle for killing all post-secondary education as a reasonable first step.  He thinks too many people spend far too much money to learn very little or nothing.

Now, much of this was caught up in a whole rather tedious economics debate as to whether education is signaling, ability bias, or human capital. I don’t care at all about this aspect; for what it’s worth, I think education historically built human capital and the level that one could benefit from it was based on ability and access. For about 20 years, we had something close to perfect–access for all races, incomes, and creeds. And then we blew it. For the past 20 years, our education policy has been, either by accident or design, focused entirely on eradicating human capital and eliminating the advantage given ability in order that that everyone, regardless of ability, can signal the same meaningless credential.

So Caplan–who likes to say he cares about history–cares about none of the history that got us to this point (and he doesn’t accurately capture “this point”, but more on that later).

It’s customary for liberals to decry America’s social safety net as obviously and uniquely inferior to other Western countries, but rarely does our country get credit for its obvious and unique dedication to public education. For most of our history public education–a facet of our society much remarked upon as early as de Tocqueville– was focused on providing basic reading and writing skills to everyone.  In 1910, that focus expanded to the “high school movement” an unprecedented investment in secondary education that Europe took the better part of the 20th century to catch up to. (Best read on the high school movement is Goldin/Katz, who went on to write a highly regarded book on the topic. Caplan barely mentions their work in the footnotes.)

Call me crazy for wondering why Caplan doesn’t mention this history. He treats public education as some flukish fad that we just took on because of Social Desirability Bias and by golly, no one ever realized that not all students were learning what we taught until he showed up to point this out. Maybe that’s the arrogance you need to get book deals.

But public education is thoroughly baked into America’s history, and Caplan is proposing a massive change in American policy without in any way considering how it is we arrived at this point.

Nor is he looking at the enormous transformation that occurred fifty years ago.

The high school movement, and all the tremendous investment in public education that predated it, was almost entirely a state and local affair. We have thousands upon thousands of school districts from little to large because communities formed to achieve common goals. State public universities were also first funded (by sale of federal lands) in no small part to provide teachers for public schools, but also originally to encourage industrial education. But apart from offering land, the federal government had stayed out of public education for a very long time.  Catholic interests, southern politicians, and anti-communists (as Diane Ravitch put it in my favorite of her books, “race, religion, and fear of federal control”) blocked all attempts at federal funding for years. Catholics and urban politicians refused to vote for federal funding unless their private schools were included, Southern politicians refused to treat students of each race equally, and I dunno, anti-communists thought teachers would turn everyone red.

So American investment in education was unprompted, unprecedented, and entirely uncoordinated at the national level. Goldin and Katz say the purpose was not to create a “literate citizenry”, but rather an “intergenerational loan”. It doesn’t appear to have been designed for employers; in fact, area economies strong in manufacturing saw less investment in education.

Then, Brown vs. Board of Education began the federal intervention into public education, followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and finally the big kahuna known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Ever since then, public schools have been crushed with demands, most of them entirely unrealistic and unfunded, many of them imposed by court decree,  and very few of them ever voted on by the citizenry, local or national.

It’s hard to study the history of public education and not be struck by all these contrasts. See the early generosity of local communities, the belief in an educated citizenry almost entirely for its own sake, with little debate about its purpose, and it’s easy to understand the resonance this issue has, the heart and the soul we imbue into this history. And yet inequity underlines the entire enterprise–inequality of funding, of access, of opportunity. But the grand effort to undo that inequity hasn’t succeeded to the degree that anyone expected it to and god knows we haven’t been learning from our mistakes.

But then, why would we? Every time we’d expanded education in the past, we saw the benefit. We didn’t have the same data we have today. We didn’t see the failures. We only saw the many people who benefited from access. Who can blame us for thinking this expansion would go on forever? I don’t think I’m alone in noting that the last fifty years of public education policy, the ones when the feds have been in charge, have failed not only the country, but the people we were most trying to help. By turning education into a massive federal program in which the public’s voice was almost completely eliminated, we’ve wasted a fortune and a great deal of good will in exchange for improved test scores that never seem to last through high school.

So maybe look at what our expectations are, and ask if they are realistic. Surely an economist who understands data might spend a page or two talking about the ludicrous nature of a federal education bill that demands everyone–literally everyone–must achieve proficiency in a dozen years. Perhaps he might ask whether a federal program that insists on  mainstreaming children with severe mental disabilities into regular classrooms might possibly lead to students feeling trapped and and bored in school.

But such nuances are beyond Caplan.  The problems he outlines aren’t new, and  if you want a real idea of the depth and breadth of our education system, to determine whether or not we should kill funding, I recommend Larry Cuban, David Tyack, David Labaree, Diane Ravitch, Goldin and Katz and a host of other serious scholars before coming to any conclusions.

I can’t remember when or where he did this, but at some point Caplan has complained that no progressive has taken on his book seriously (or few did, I forget which). But he’s clearly unhappy that his book hasn’t made even the slightest ripple in the education “blob”.

Speaking from within the blob, I can say that Caplan’s book never got close enough to the water to make a ripple. The book is utterly without any of the understanding that would cause the blob the smallest frisson of fear. If Caplan wants to make a serious argument about defunding public education, he needs to understand this history,  the belief in education that is hardcoded into America’s DNA. He needs to understand the degree to which public education has been straitjacketed, for better and mostly worse, for the past 50 years by court order. He needs to understand the mandates that ensure his simplistic proposal to defund education will go nowhere.

Having thoroughly trashed the higher end value of a high school diploma, our country is currently in the midst of doing the same to an undergraduate degree. It’s appalling and we need serious, honest people who aren’t afraid of disapproval to take on this problem and, I desperately hope, stop it. Caplan’s not that guy. He’s smart, and I think he knows what would be required to actually engage in this conversation. But he won’t. He once bragged that Steve Sailer’s views were much closer to the public’s than his were, but that Steve is treated “like a pariah”, but is “very sweet” to him. He says he finds this bizarre, but my guess he knows exactly why he gets the better treatment. He loves floating shocking ideas, but “float” is exactly what he does.

I included the JFK quote and the exchange not because I think public education is one of the “hard” things we choose to do, but because Illing and Caplan’s exchange should have spurred some…I don’t know, some ironic sense in either of them that they were touching on a famous speech. Alas, these two public intellectuals didn’t recognize the connection at all. Typical these days to use history in the shallowest possible manner. But their exchange is also interesting because it captures Caplan perfectly.  A genuine, realistic argument to rethink public education in this country in a way to address the problems Caplan reports would be hard. So he dodges it entirely.  Not only is this easier, but it insures he’ll still get kid gloved by the media.

I can’t even really recommend the book, because anyone who comes away thinking that public education is a waste of time and money for the reasons Caplan outlines is doomed to be disappointed. But the bibliography is great, so maybe see what you can get from the googlebooks index.

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I spent months trying to figure out how to capture all this in one review, and I just can’t. I’ve had a tough time focusing on writing this year–not sure why. But I decided to just chunk off the thoughts about Caplan as they come up. Consider this a long throat clearing, but also the context. In my next piece, I will be talking about the stuff that Caplan gets flatly wrong or incomplete. I hope to have it done soon. Wish me luck. Nag me.