Tag Archives: Bryan Caplan

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.

 

 

 

 


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.

********************************************************************

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: Toe Fungus Prevention

Part Three of my Caplan thoughts.

caplantoefungus

–Caplan, The Case Against Education

In Caplan’s world, toe fungus stands in for the “disease” of no education. The fungus cream is public schools. Caplan believes he’s proved that public school hasn’t worked, and thus we should stop funding public education. Live with the illiteracy and innumeracy that is only slightly mitigated, and then temporarily, by failing public education.

Caplan screws up the analogy. He says the obvious remedy is  “don’t use the cream”  (end all public education) but then explores “use less of the cream” (end subsidies) or “buy a cheaper cream” (curriculum austerity).

But I digress. Caplan uses some extremely old data–the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). The NAAL results are categorized as Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient (the survey had originally wanted to use “Advanced”, but considered it too value-laden. As if “Proficient” isn’t.) Caplan uses this data to argue that Americans are incredibly uneducated and therefore American education is terrible–the toe fungus that can’t be cured.

There’s a lot wrong with his analysis, some of which I’ll hold off until the next chunk, and he misrepresents NAAL’s connection to public education. Besides, static education snapshots are pointless. Change over time and disaggregation, baby, or it’s nothing. So I disaggregated by education category and found change over time, using the same report Caplan cites.

NAAL has three categories of assessment: prose, document, and quantitative. The adults surveyed were captured by their highest level of education: still in high school all the way through graduate degree.  So I broke the scores into two categories. First, on the left, are the scores of those whose highest education was vocational school or lower. On the right, those with some college through graduate degrees. In each case, the graph shows the average score for that category in 1992 and then in 2003. I’m terrible at data display, but I made the axes the same–the actual scores go from 0 to 500, but that was too small.

naal2003prosechgHS naal2003prosechgCO
naal2003docchgHS naal2003docchgCO
naal2003quantchgHS naal2003quantchgCO

She average reading ability of an individual with post-secondary education declined significantly from 1992 to 2003, while the decline in high school educated reading abilities declined less significantly or not at all. Quant scores were unchanged.

Here’s another take on the data, using a graph straight from the report. The percentage of “proficient” readers declined significantly for most college categories, while remaining largely unchanged for the high school only educated groups.

At the low end, the “less than/some high school” reading abilities dropped in the prose category, but the rest remained largely unchanged.

chgbyedcat92to03

Caplan doesn’t look at change over time, and so doesn’t take on the challenge of explaining why the average college graduate living in America became less proficient at reading over a decade.

Caplan’s opponents in the economics field argue that education builds human capital. Human capital is, or should be, reflected in the score gaps between different education categories. Those with some college should have higher scores than those with none, and so on.

So I calculated the change in the gap between “adjacent” education categories from the 1992 NAAL to the 2003 study.

naal2003gapprose

naal3003gapdoc

naal2003gapquant

So in one decade, the human capital improvement of education dropped in all but one college category.

From 1992 to 2003, high schools produced the same caliber of student. Colleges produced lower quality students that had built less human capital with their increased education.

It will come as no surprise that colleges produced more graduates than before.

naal2003edpops.

Caplan goes on about inflated credentials, the perils of increased access. But he doesn’t acknowledge a simple truth: it’s colleges, not high schools, that have significantly deteriorated in their ability to build human capital.

Why?

Because they are increasingly reaching further down into the barrel, accepting everyone. They’re accepting kids who can’t read at an eighth grade level, who can’t do middle school math. They have no standards beyond what’s on the high school transcript (giving high schools tremendous incentives of the wrong sort). For the past several decades, post-secondary education have been accepting transcripts at face value, then testing the students to establish how truthful the transcript was, then putting the students whose abilities didn’t match the transcript into remediation. Every state has its tale of trying to increase access, only to learn how shockingly unprepared and incapable students were, and how their efforts at remediation ended in failure.

All these efforts have only depreciated the value of a college degree. But not content with accepting unqualified students and trying to remediate them before, sadly, flunking them out, colleges kept reaching further down. It’s now quite possible to get accepted to college with Algebra 2 on the transcript, demonstrate that you have only elementary school math, take middle school math classes for credit, and earn a degree. No more remediation. Math was the last holdout; English and grammar requirements have been much easier to ignore.

Caplan argues that most cost benefit analyses for college education fail to account for dropouts. But colleges are reducing the risk of dropping out by lowering standards even further. His own college accepts unqualified students every year; 25% of George Mason’s freshmen enter with SAT scores below the “college ready” standard.  Now that colleges are ending remediation and giving credit for middle school ability, the risk of dropping out will continue to diminish. Those who want to “signal” will have to get graduate degrees–and of course, some academic will come along in a few years and deem “graduate degree” a “path to success”, and then everyone will do that.

“Would you rather have a Princeton degree without the education, or the Princeton education without the degree?”  Caplan asks, and readers go oooooh and aahh.

But that wasn’t always the case. Back when a college degree had meaning, a degree from a decent public university meant an education that would take one further than a Princeton diploma with no knowledge. Unfortunately, colleges have unilaterally obliterated all faith in their ability to educate, leaving  competitive admissions  on test scores–tests not administered by colleges in any way–as the only indicator of potential intelligence.

Caplan’s fix is to deny all educational funding. Applying that solution simply to colleges won’t solve anything. Colleges will still have the incentive to lower standards. The free market won’t fix the signalling problem. Ending public funding of education won’t stop colleges from lowering standards and giving degrees to anyone who can buy them. It will just deny any chance of education to those who can’t afford it. Over time, America under Caplan’s rule would be a country where rich people got educated, not smart people. We spent generations giving opportunity to those who could achieve. Our error was not spending too much money, but forgetting the meaning and the demands of education itself.

In Caplan’s view, “We would be better off if education were less affordable.” He wants to deny education to everyone who can’t afford it.

Why make it about money? Why not about ability?

We could prevent  or minimize toe fungus, the failure to successfully educate,  at the college level by setting a standard for college entry. Those who meet the standard can still qualify for public funding. I suggested a standard, back when I was an optimist who couldn’t even imagine colleges abolishing remediation.

Setting a standard for college entry would reduce the risk of failure as well as increase the human capital earned by even an incomplete education. Going to college wouldn’t just be another educational choice, but a choice only available to those who have the ability to develop and use the education.

Understand that I’m not some purist, calling for the days of Latin and Greek. I’m saying that colleges should accept students who can read, write, and calculate at an agreed-upon level. The levels we used in the 30 years after World War 2 would do nicely.

There are obviously–oh, so very obviously–political problems that go along with restricting access to higher education. But Caplan, man, he’s bold. He’s fearless. “In any other industry, a whistle-blower would be an outcast.”

So why call to eliminate public funding, denying education to qualified people who can’t afford it, while not bothering to fix the obvious standards problem in college admissions?

Maybe Caplan’s political ideology suggests the nail to which libertarianism has the hammer. I dunno.

What I do know is that people have been complaining about “too many kids are going to college” for forty years or more. It’s not new. It’s not bold. The devil is very much in the details. Which Caplan avoids.

 


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.

****************************************************************************

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.


Escaping Poverty

Bryan Caplan asks: “Suppose a 15-year-old from a poor family in the First World asked you an earnest question: ‘What can I do to escape poverty?’ How would you answer?”

I doubt he wants an answer from a teacher/test prep instructor/tutor, but what the heck:

Caplan doesn’t indicate the cognitive ability or race of the poor 15-year-old. Strangely enough, it doesn’t matter too much until the last few steps in the process. So here’s what I’d tell the kid:

  1. Cut your family loose. I don’t mean you have to abandon them, or hate them, but their needs are secondary to yours. If they’re making demands, you have to say “No”. All the time. No, you can’t stay home to babysit because your little sister is sick. No, you can’t go pick your father up at work at 2 in the morning. No, you can’t drop your niece and nephew off at school and be late to class. No, you can’t miss a morning of school to drive your mother to the utility company to help her tell a sob story that gets the power turned back on until she has money to pay the bills. No, you can’t work extra shifts just because the family’s broke. No, you can’t lose an entire weekend to visiting your dad/brother/sister/grandfather in jail. I don’t care if your parents are bums or hardworking joes. They made their lives, and if you want a chance of getting out and making your family’s life better, you don’t get sucked in by their problems. If your parents share your goals, then they’re already making this happen. Otherwise, they are millstones round your neck.

  2. If you live in a city or suburb: within a ten mile radius of your school, there are fifteen to twenty organizations dedicated to helping at risk youth. You are at risk. Go check them out and pick the best one. If your school has an AVID program, sign up for that. There is a bunch of do-gooder money funding a whole host of programs that will give you, for free, everything you need to prepare for college. They will give you daily snacks, mentors, tutoring support, monitoring, care, test prep, college visits, free college admissions tests, and anything else you need. All you have to do is show up. Reporters will periodically feature one of these organizations as if they are unique or their services are rare and surprising. They are neither. Counsellors may not even know of their existence. You must find these places. If you live in a rural area, I can’t be as helpful here, but I suspect your school will be much more knowledgeable about existing support than suburban and urban schools are, and may even be more involved in coordinating these programs. So start with your school. Ask your church. Consult the phone book. If you end up having to do without this support, be certain that it wasn’t out there waiting for you to show up. And worst case, every single fee you can think of has a waiver form and you will certainly qualify.

  3. Stay away from anyone your age who doesn’t share your goals.

  4. Stay away from anything illegal: drugs, boosting cars, sex with anyone outside the approved age range, whatever. I’ve lived a clean life; I have no idea what the temptations are. Avoid. If you ignore this advice, memorize these words: “I WANT A LAWYER. NOW.” While screwing up on this point is dangerous, it’s not necessarily fatal. I know a Hispanic kid who graduated from high school while in jail (boosting cars); he then went to a junior college and graduated as valedictorian and went to Columbia. No, I’m not making this up. I tutored him for his SATS when he was in his second year of community college. Yes, he’s an exception.

  5. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get anyone pregnant. Don’t pretend that you aren’t your own worst enemy if you ignore this advice. I have no happy anecdotes for this rule. Jail has less of an opportunity cost than a kid.

  6. Get good grades. Most teachers grade on effort, not ability. Use this if you need to, which means you can get good grades simply by doing your homework and making the teacher happy. If you get a teacher who grades on ability, take the opportunity as a valuable benchmark. Are you doing well? Your abilities are strong. Are you in danger of failing? Buckle down and take the opportunity to improve to the best of your capabilities. That opportunity will be worth the grade hit. Grades are an area in which your mentoring organization can help. A lot. They are designed around helping you get good grades. Use them.

  7. Don’t believe the people who tell you that you need X years of math or Y years of English to get to college. Race determines your transcript and test requirements. If you’re white or Asian, then you need an impressive transcript and decent test scores, no matter how poor you are. If you’re black or Hispanic, you’ve got a decent shot at the best schools in the country if you have SAT scores of 550 or higher per section, and a decent GPA (say 3.0 or higher). Blacks and Hispanics who can read, write, calculate at a second-year algebra level, and care enough about school to have a 3.0 GPA are an exceptionally rare commodity (about 10% of blacks, 20% of Hispanics).

    But what if you can’t hit that ability mark? What if you aren’t very intellectual, work hard but don’t do very well on tests, can’t score above 500 on any section of the SAT, despite all your test prep? All is not lost. Whatever you do, don’t lie to yourself about your abilities, and don’t let anyone else lie to you. If you are a low income black or Hispanic kid, many people are uninterested in your actual abilities. You are a statistic they can use to brag about their commitment to diversity. That’s fine. Use their self-interest to your advantage. But if you can’t break 500 on any section of the SAT, then college is going to present a considerable challenge. Don’t compound that challenge by choosing a college where your degree would be a case of overt fraud. Start thinking in terms of training, not academics. Find the best jobs you can, and build good working relationships. Put more priority on acquiring basic skills, and find the classes that will help you do that. Tap into your support group mentioned above, tell them your goals. This doesn’t mean college isn’t an option, but it’s important to keep your goals realistic. If you are a low income white or Asian kid with little interest or ability in academics, no one will lie to you, and no one is interested in helping you because you represent the wrong sort of diversity. However, the advice remains the same. And for all races, if your skills aren’t too low, don’t forget the military.

    Remember that colleges only use grades for admission. Once you’re in, they give you placement tests and grades don’t matter at all. This is great news for high ability kids who screwed around in high school; bad news for low ability kids who worked hard. Remediation has derailed a number of dreams. Be prepared, know what to expect, and minimize your need for it by taking advantage of every minute of your free high school education. And remember: no matter how bad your school is, it has teachers there who can teach motivated kids. Be one of the kids and find those teachers.

  8. Do not overpay for college. Set your goals based on the advice I’ve given here, as well as the advice of those you trust. Get a job to offset expenses. To the extent possible, find jobs that look good on a resume. A secretarial job looks better than a stint at Subway; a tutoring job looks better than a custodial one. Bank your money; if it’s at all possible to accept an unpaid internship that looks good on a resume, you want the option. If you’re studying for a trade, learn everything you can about the job opportunities: from your college, from seminars, from employers in the field. Try to know what you can expect and what sort of positions you want. But if you don’t know what you want, then don’t drift. Find a job, even if it’s not perfect, and see what happens.

If you’ve managed to achieve everything up to that point, you will have escaped poverty. How and by how much are yet to be determined, but you’re on your way.

It’s too easy to say “Get a good support system, go to school, don’t get knocked up or locked up, go to college.” All are optimal, most are necessary, but they sure aren’t sufficient if you don’t understand the game and jump through the right hoops. I’ve tried here to point out some hoops. Good luck.