Thursday, April 30, 2009

Obama on education

From this interview with The New York Times:
And so to the extent that we can upgrade not only our high schools but also our community colleges to provide a sound technical basis for being able to perform complicated tasks in a 21st-century economy, then I think that not only is that good for the individuals, but that’s going to be critical for the economy as a whole.

I want to emphasize, though, that part of the challenge is making sure that folks are getting in high school what they need as well. You know, I use my grandmother as an example for a lot of things, but I think this is telling. My grandmother never got a college degree. She went to high school. Unlike my grandfather, she didn’t benefit from the G.I. Bill, even though she worked on a bomber assembly line. She went to work as a secretary. But she was able to become a vice president at a bank partly because her high-school education was rigorous enough that she could communicate and analyze information in a way that, frankly, a bunch of college kids in many parts of the country can’t. She could write —

Today, you mean?

THE PRESIDENT: Today. She could write a better letter than many of my — I won’t say “many,” but a number of my former students at the
University of Chicago Law School. So part of the function of a high-school degree or a community-college degree is credentialing, right? It allows employers in a quick way to sort through who’s got the skills and who doesn’t. But part of the problem that we’ve got right now is that what it means to have graduated from high school, what it means to have graduated from a two-year college or a four-year college is not always as clear as it was several years ago.

And that means that we’ve got to — in our education-reform agenda — we’ve got to focus not just on increasing graduation rates, but we’ve also got to make what’s learned in the high-school and college experience more robust and more effective.
President Obama is right, schools as a whole have declined in performance since his grandmother attended high school. It is also worth noting that since his grandmother was in high school the federal government spends far more money on education and there is no apparent link between spending and performance as these charts show:

Source: AlphaPatriot

It would make sense for Obama to rethink whether additional money or federal involvement is desirable or even necessary. Indeed, if money does not result in improvement then it would seem to suggest that the underlying problem is systemic in nature rather than a lack of resources. Tinkering at the margins is insufficient, rather the model must be completely rethought, including government's role as a primary provider of education services.

Obama is also correct that a large part of the function of a degree is credentialing, which in my view is a big mistake. Speaking from personal experience I would estimate that a minority of my classes in college and graduate school accounted for a majority of the knowledge I obtained, which is basically the Pareto principle. Our current approach seems to promote over consumption -- i.e. waste -- and makes little provision for autodidacts and the benefits of self-teaching.

I find myself in agreement with Charles Murray:
Even if forgoing college becomes economically attractive, the social cachet of a college degree remains. That will erode only when large numbers of high-status, high-income people do not have a college degree and don't care. The information technology industry is in the process of creating that class, with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as exemplars. It will expand for the most natural of reasons: A college education need be no more important for many high-tech occupations than it is for NBA basketball players or cabinetmakers. Walk into Microsoft or Google with evidence that you are a brilliant hacker, and the job interviewer is not going to fret if you lack a college transcript. The ability to present an employer with evidence that you are good at something, without benefit of a college degree, will continue to increase, and so will the number of skills to which that evidence can be attached. Every time that happens, the false premium attached to the college degree will diminish.

Most students find college life to be lots of fun (apart from the boring classroom stuff), and that alone will keep the four-year institution overstocked for a long time. But, rightly understood, college is appropriate for a small minority of young adults--perhaps even a minority of the people who have IQs high enough that they could do college-level work if they wished. People who go to college are not better or worse people than anyone else; they are merely different in certain interests and abilities. That is the way college should be seen. There is reason to hope that eventually it will be.

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