Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Today’s Times details the extensive donations that Michael Bloomberg has made to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University — over 1 billion dollars! This is totally nutso. Yet, it is relatively common for highly selective universities to get giant donations from rich alums.

This is bad for a variety of reasons:

  1. College is probably not the best place to use your dollars if your goal is societal improvement. By the time you get to college, your life track, income, etc. is pretty much set within a narrow range of outcomes. It’s probably better to spend your money improving early childhood and elementary schools.
  2. If you assume that college is still quite important for other reasons, don’t fund Johns Hopkins (or Harvard or Yale or wherever). Your return-on-investment there is pretty bad, since these institutions coast on reputation. Why not give to community colleges instead — which are always hurting for cash and have lower attrition rates than four-year colleges? Additionally, the students that attend Hopkins or Harvard or Yale already have lots of breaks in their favor? Why not give a break to the students at the margins of success who need it more?
  3. Additionally, the highly selective undergraduate institution relies on cartelization to keep its prestige. Harvard, with its $34B endowment, could reasonably educate a lot more people than it does now. Instead, it limits who can attend with unnecessary precision. Can’t dilute the brand! If that’s the case, why keep giving so much to an institution that will do so little with your money?

So, if this is so bad, why do we do it?

  1. Sentimentality (or availability bias): Michael Bloomberg got a lot out of Hopkins; he wants to show his appreciation. He loves the place and has fond memories. As such, he wants to give money.
  2. Our tax code: By giving the money away, Bloomberg gets a legacy that he doesn’t have to lose upon death (estate tax). Additionally, he gets to deduct those donations from his massive income.
  3. Prestige: Rich people love giving away money when they can slap their name on it. (Not so much when they can’t, see, e.g., Donald Trump.) Additionally, we shower people with attention for their donations.

All these factors lead to a quite inefficient distribution of wealth to higher education. Hopkins has a $3B endowment; it educates 5,000 undergrads and 2,000 grad students a year. The University of Maryland-College Park has a $792M endowment; it educates 26,000 undergrads and 10,000 grad students a year. I can’t find statistics, but I would hazard that the parental income of a Hopkins student is higher than the parental income of a Maryland student. I would also hazard that the percentage difference in income of a student who was waitlisted at the university and got in vs. a student who did not is bigger at Maryland than at Hopkins.

Which is all a long way of saying that donations are vastly inefficient ways to redistribute wealth, and we should just tax people a lot more. I’m not saying that central planning is a better way to distribute wealth; plenty of this money could just be block-granted to states/municipalities with some strings (i.e. required income reporting, tracking students after graduation, etc.).

Philanthropy may sound good, but a system with a lot of big-dollar philanthropy probably isn’t equitably distributing wealth in the first place.

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A new study shows that homeless young people use Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks as often as college students. The author of the study (available here; subscription needed) hypothesizes that this means that the “digital divide” is overblown, and primarily a generational, rather than income-based, one.

But this assumes that simply using technology is where the divide exists. When I taught high school, my students struggled with the very basics of word processing: touch-typing, setting the margins, spellcheck. When it came to online research, copying and pasting from Wikipedia was par for the course. They could play plenty of Flash games, but they had trouble accessing information useful in their lives — banking, local resources, scholarships.

We need to think about the use case for technology and how to make it useful for low-income families and young people, rather than just patting ourselves on the back for having access across demographic and income groups. How could we better connect them to job training and placement, political groups, continuing education (that isn’t a scam), etc.?

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Part of the business-inspired charter school model that I find strange is the attempt to equate schools with businesses generally. Certainly there are similarities between organizations, and paths to success may be similar, but they are organizations aimed at fundamentally different goals with very different social roles. So when I see an article like “Why School Principals Need More Authority,” well, I’m not so sure.

In the article, Finn notes that unlike CEOs, principals don’t have much control over schools. But in the business world, where CEOs do have a fair amount of control, small businesses fail all the time! OK, so maybe not a fair comparison. Surely, there would still be power from the district to mandate certain curriculum, standards, etc. But if that’s the case, in what sense is the principal really more like a “CEO”? Principal autonomy sounds like it frees principals of crippling mandates and regulations, but it also releases them from a variety of obligations that we might want to keep. Really, a principal more resembles a branch manager of a franchise or maybe a franchisee, where the company/district sets out some set of standards, and the individual managers/principals attempt to meet those standards within constraints set by both market and central office.

Yet, even here, it’s worth wondering whether simply increasing autonomy does anything to boost performance. Historically, budget control has zinged back and forth between schools, district offices, and increasingly, federal grant money. Yet, there are always movements to pull it back the other way. When people worried about the quality of schools within a district, they clamored for district offices to take more control of the pursestrings. When people worried about the bureaucracy of the central office, they clamored for schools to have more control. Schools are torn in two directions — in one, reformers try to create autonomous schools (as with Joel Klein in New York or John White in New Orleans); in the other, reformers try to create reforms from the top-down by attaching them to district, state, or federal funding.

Giving principals more autonomy vs less autonomy doesn’t solve a lot of fundamental problems. If you think that by tweaking their budgets a bit and wriggling out of regulations, principals can turn their schools into successes, then by all means, go for it. But I doubt the managerial capacity of most principals, the sufficiency of resources to actually meet loftier goals, and the efficacy of “creativity” to overcome big budget gaps. For a corporate analogy (which seems to be all the rage), with or without restrictions, branch manager success depends on a lot more than mere autonomy. And failure of a branch for a corporation has a lot fewer negative third-party effects than, say, the failure of a school for multiple years.

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The Times Magazine has a neat piece last week about how Target and other retailers use psychological analysis of habits to predict and affect people’s buying behavior. In extremely brief summary, your brain has certain habits that it generally follows — what to buy, what to eat, etc. But Target went out of its way to try to find moments when your habits change drastically — usually coinciding with major life decisions. Much has been made of the article’s description of Target’s semi-creepy sending of baby advertisements to pregnant mothers based on their buying patterns, but I find the habit-changing material more potentially useful in the long run:

But when some customers were going through a major life event, like graduating from college or getting a new job or moving to a new town, their shopping habits became flexible in ways that were both predictable and potential gold mines for retailers. The study found that when someone marries, he or she is more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When a couple move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they divorce, there’s an increased chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.

Consumers going through major life events often don’t notice, or care, that their shopping habits have shifted, but retailers notice, and they care quite a bit. At those unique moments, Andreasen wrote, customers are “vulnerable to intervention by marketers.” In other words, a precisely timed advertisement, sent to a recent divorcee or new homebuyer, can change someone’s shopping patterns for years.

I was thinking about this in the context of areas other than purchasing goods and services. I thought of this as I played the piano, where bad habits inculcate themselves with surprising ease. One plays something wrong once, and then continues on, creating the stimulus->response->reward feedback loop that develops all those bad habits.

In the realm of education, so many bad habits get ingrained — study habits, reading habits, after-school habits, etc. How can we change our behavior in a positive direction? How can we combat obesity, or get kids to study math? When shifts in kids’ lives happen, good habits can be lost and bad habits can develop. I think this is part of the success of the KIPP schools and their ilk; rather than just changing curriculum, they are trying to create and take advantage of those “unique moments” when people are vulnerable to changes in habits.

In many ways, we have tried to envision people as complicated actors, with deep-seated root causes for our behaviors, which is absolutely the case. But in making decisions about our daily lives, we may be simpler than we thought we were, and that may not be such a bad thing if we know how to use it ourselves.

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“National Signing Day” is among the worst things ever created in the history of bullshit media creations.

If you thought Lebron James’s narcissistic “Decision” was bad enough, the “National Signing Day” provides teenagers the chance to bask in the same spotlight as they choose… which college they will attend.

Now, I know, college sports is big-time business, so it makes sense for highly-touted high school players to be heavily recruited. Whatever.

But the phenomenon of “National Signing Day” is entirely one created by ESPN and its conversion of the day into an all-day media event–an orgy of interviews, TV cameras, etc.

I don’t know what makes me feel so disgusted when I see ESPN’s frontpage slathered with NATIONAL SIGNING DAY in all caps: is it the further perpetuation of the “me-first” culture? Is it the over-inflation of 18-year-olds to god status? Is it the fact that many of these kids, even the highest touted recruits, will end up injured, unprepared, or unsuited for professional football and end up without their college education? Something about the whole affair feels slimy, like those countdown clocks for the Olsen twins turning 18.

It may be the inevitable outcome of the recruiting business, but maybe that should make people think twice about the recruiting business and college sports generally.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great reply to Andrew Sullivan’s rather tone-deaf regurgitation of an unsourced story on a “p.c. egalitarianism” stranglehold on so-called “intelligence research.” He writes a takedown as it should be written — with respect for the author and no tolerance for bullshit.

The problem with Sullivan’s suggestion that researchers continue pursuing race-based intelligence is that it ignores what it is that “intelligence research” is supposed to find in the first place. Context matters, and the search for the elusive g — a measure of “general intelligence” — has largely led to skewed results in favor of the dominant ruling class of well-educated white males.

Let me give you an example. Here’s a common IQ test type logic puzzle that has a clear “right” answer (the Wason selection test, for those interested).

You are told to check if the following statement is false: “If a card has a vowel on one side, the number on the other side will be even.”

You are then given the following cards: A, G, 7, 4.

Which cards do you have to flip over to check if the statement is false?

The answer is to flip over card A (obvious) and card 7 (not as obvious). It doesn’t matter what’s on the other side of G, and if card 4 had a vowel or consonant on the other side, the statement could still be true.

But let’s frame the question a different way:

You are told to check if the following rule is false: “If a person is drinking alcohol, they are over 21.” You either know the beverage they are drinking or their age.

The four people you see are: age 16, age 22, drinking a beer, and drinking a Coke.

Who do you need to check?

Most people get this one correct. (See the paper here.) Why? Because we have experienced events like these and adapted our brains to understand them. I would bet that the 10 percent of people who get the vowel/number version correct have taken formal logic courses or have wrestled with such logic puzzles before.

When I was teaching, one of the standardized tests that the book included had an extended reading sample about a family’s experiences with skiing and snow. For my students, many of whom had never left the city of Chicago, such a reading sample was totally foreign. The test wasn’t testing their reading comprehension; it was, in many ways, simply testing their familiarity with skiing and its terms.

The search for g is a search for something that doesn’t exist — no intelligence is “general”; it shifts with the context of the activity and the world we live in. I’m not a big believer in the woo-woo Gardner multiple intelligences, but I think we should be honest when we discuss intelligence. We were not born with intelligence; our culture created it. Performance on cognitive tests is as artificial as anything else we can cook up.

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One of the problems with college athletics is their highly secretive nature (as Penn State and Syracuse have revealed). This secrecy is driven by the economic model of college sports — powerful independent organizations parallel to universities with their own cashflow under the banner of “amateur athletics,” with no accountability to anyone except the NCAA, as toothless (and incompetent) a watchdog as there ever was.

How do we solve this? I propose two solutions, each probably equally implausible.

1. The Free-Market Solution: This is the solution pushed by Taylor Branch (among others) in his long-form Atlantic piece. In short, pay the players. College sports operate in a weird cartel system, in which coaches are compensated in the tens of millions, universities make substantial revenue from football and basketball, and players make… well, nothing. Labor is not compensated appropriately for the value put in, and at far lower rates than they would receive on the open market. (Cam Newton’s salary at Auburn? $25,000 (cost of a full academic scholarship with book stipend). Newton’s salary at Carolina? $4 million.) This distorted labor market hurts the players, because they are both replaceable and cheap. If colleges had to compensate players with market wages, players could also unionize in order to demand rights collectively, particularly health benefits. Plenty of students work part-time or full-time as university employees; the players here would be no different.

Yes, players should be getting their degrees and using their scholarships, but you try learning when football practice starts at 5 and ends at 9, beginning in July and ending in May (if ever). The working conditions essentially make it quite difficult to achieve academic success.

2. The Pure Amateur Solution: My beef with the Branch free-market approach is that it further elevates the money and power of the athletics department, which I think still creates a tail-wagging-the-dog problem. Insular and powerful sports teams would still hold outsize power on campus because of their outsize money.

My ideal solution would be a return to truly pure amateurism — no more academic scholarships, and athletics departments folded back into the academic part of the university. Rather than being an independent entity reportable only to the university president (and sometimes not even), they would be collapsed into the basic student activities side. Sports should be a part of the academic experience, but they should not be the dominating one. Consider the Ivy League, which has eliminated all academic scholarships, yet continues to admit excellent athletes (dumb though they may be, see this guy). Even Vanderbilt, toiling away in the SEC, has no athletics department, yet plays the big boys close in football and does quite well in basketball.

Of course, this solution then permits the major sports leagues to start recruiting right out of high school, which I’m actually OK with. At least they’ll get paid, and the university institution won’t become subservient to the sporting one. At the same time, baseball, which already works like this, has plenty of shady practices. (Anyone who saw that scene in Moneyball where Billy Beane forgoes his scholarship for a chance in the bigs knows how cringe-inducing these conversations can be.) I wonder whether the current system (or a free-market system described above) is any better; college players inside the bubble of athletics are no wiser than a high school senior in making major life decisions.

I’m open to ideas, but there can be no moral justification for the status quo, in which college sports are money-makers for universities, coaches, sponsors, and merchandisers, with rabid demanding fanbases, while leaving the actual players as mere meat to be churned through the machine.

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