GPA+.

Ten years ago, 32 percent of graduating seniors received some form of “Latin honors” from the University of Southern California.[1]  This year, 44 percent received “Latin honors.”  Way to go Southern Cal!  Recruiting all those extra smart kids!  I bet the Ivy League schools will be taking their meals standing up after that spanking.  Oh, wait.  Turns out Harvard granted “Latin Honors” to more than half its graduating seniors.[2]

Granting “Latin honors” isn’t based on the subjective direct judgement of individual merit by the faculty members.  It’s based on the more objective quantifiable judgement of Grade Point Average.  So, Southern Cal and all the many other schools granting “Latin honors” to a growing share of graduates is just an artifact of long-term grade inflation.  According on one expert, a 3.7 GPA (on a scale of 4.0) “is just a run-of-the-mill student.”[3]

It starts in the schools.  In 1998, 39 percent of high-school seniors graduated with an “A” average.  In 2016, 47 percent graduated with an “A” average.  Over the same span, the SAT Critical Reading scores fell from an average of 505 to an average of 494; the Math scores fell from an average of 512 to 508.[4]  Students expect to continue their high-school experience in college.  Elite schools claim that they haven’t studied the trend, and don’t know how to explain it.[5]  The situation probably differs at tuition-driven, not-selective schools.  Too many schools pursuing too few students has led the recruiting effort look like feeding time at the shark tank: “Throw in another goat.”  After the admissions office has done what it can, the faculty face a heavy emphasis by their employers on retaining the students who have been admitted.

Grade inflation is like monetary inflation.

It is fueled by a weak authority in charge of controlling the volume of the unit of exchange.   In the case of the schools this could be parental pressure applied through the influence of a school’s reputation on housing prices.  In the case of colleges and universities, it is the desire to attract student dollars.  A strong authority might tell students that they aren’t particularly distinguished, or well-prepared, or hard-working.

It distorts incentives.  Thus, if you can get the same or more money for less work, then you’ll do less work.  If you can’t trust the money to have real value, then you’ll pursue other stores of value.  One form of this could be a flight to non-public schools with a reputation for greater rigor, or to home-schooling.

It favors people, better positioned to exploit the nominal value of a unit of exchange/measure and disfavors people poorly positioned to do so.  Employers, for example, lack any reliable means to evaluate the educational attainment of potential employees.  High GPAs fog over individual differences in both ability and work ethic.

The historical record shows that breaking an inflation is very painful and politically difficult.  People are willing to try this only after conditions have become intolerable.  We aren’t there yet.

[1] That is “cum laude,” magna cum laude,” and “summa cum laude.”

[2] Down from 91 percent in 2001.

[3] Melissa Korn, “You Graduated Cum Laude?  So Did Everyone Else,” WSJ, 3 July 2018.

[4] See: https://blog.prepscholar.com/average-sat-scores-over-time

[5] See “Captain Henri” in “Casablanca.”

Advertisements

City Lights.

The “Baby Boom” (b. 1945-1963) formed the first memorable demographic mouse to pass through the institutional-cultural snake of American society.  Then “Gen X” (b. 1977-1987) marked a low-birth saddle between the high-birth “Baby Boom” and “Millennial” generations.  .  The “Millennial” generation (b. 1980-2005) has stretched the snake even farther than their predecessors.  Neither big generation has fully run its course so far.  Yet both have had profound impacts.[1]

One feature of the “Baby Boom” appeared in the flood tide toward the suburbs.  In a sense, the children of the “Boomers” motivated this migration.  The “Boomers” wanted bigger, newer houses with yards to play in and good schools.[2]  The life-blood drained out of older American cities as a result.

The “Millennials” reversed this course to some extent by moving back to urban cores in search of a more cosmopolitan life style.  They wanted walkable neighborhoods, other young people who shared their own culture, and—for people on the far side of many rights movements–diverse communities.

Moreover, a sharp fall in the violent crime rate made cities seem much safer than when their parents fled in previous decades.  Violent crimes—and not just homicide—has been falling since 1991.[3]  Studies have begun to reveal that people with higher incomes and more education are alert to changing crime rates.  They have shown a greater willingness than other groups to “gentrify” re-claimed areas.[4]

Apartment houses, starter houses, and many services thrived as a result.  City governments that benefitted from this population movement crowed over their present revival and contemplated their future prosperity.

Now, however, there are signs that this process may be cresting.[5]  Two factors may be at work.  First the number of “Millennials” moving into cities has fallen short of rose-tinted projections.  Second, the in-flow of younger “Millennials” is being off-set by the out-flow of older “Millennials”—those who are married with children and in their Thirties.  Many “Millennials” entered the job market during the “Great Recession.”  They’ve faced slow income growth and tight competition for affordable housing.  Many of them may have delayed starting families.  As they do, however, they may well hear the siren-song of more affordable housing and better schools in the suburbs.  Piling on to these forces, at least in some cities like San Francisco, are sharp rises in rents as the very well-off crowd out the only moderately well-off and everyone lower on the income ladder.[6]

It remains to be seen whether the urban renaissance of the early 21st Century will be sustained or will begin to retreat.  Sustaining the renaissance probably will require a complicated mix of school funding coupled with school reform, effective policing that keeps crime rates down without alienating people predisposed to see the police as a problem, and a thoughtful approach to keeping housing prices within reach of ordinary people.

[1] Conor Dougherty, “Cities May Be Starting to Run Out Of Millennials,” NYT, 24 January 2017.

[2] It seems foolish, if indelicate, to ignore the reality of “white flight” as an important factor.  See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/05/21/white-flight-from-baltimore/

[3] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/01/16/legacies-of-the-violent-decades/

[4] Emily Badger, “To Predict Gentrification, Look for Falling Crime,” NYT, 6 January 2017.

[5] Still, nothing’s set in cement except Bo Weinberg.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Weinberg

[6] See: What Government Can Accomplish 1.  https://waroftheworldblog.com/2016/12/29/what-government-can-accomplish-1/

The Least Generation.

A BA may not guarantee you a job, but not having a BA will guarantee that you don’t get a job.  Since the 2008 recession, the American economy has created 11.6 million new jobs.  Of  those new jobs, 99 percent went to people with at least some college and predominantly to people with a BA.[1]  A lot of those jobs probably were as managers, supervisors, and support staff.  Between 1983 and 2014, those job titles increased in number by 90 percent, while other occupations grew by only 40 percent.[2]

Since 1981, more than half of all BAs have been earned by women, rather than men.  Thirty-odd years of that trend has shifted the balance in the population at large.  Now, 29.9 percent of all men hold BAs, while 30.2 percent of all women hold BAs.  Obviously, at this rate the gap will become ever more stark.[3]

Back in 2005, about 40 percent of the graduate students studying science and mathematics in the United States came from foreign countries; in 2015, about 50 percent of the graduate students studying engineering came from outside the United States.[4]

According to the bipartisan commentator Juan Williams, the public schools have failed minority children.[5]  In 2015, 18 percent of black and 21 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders scored as “proficient” readers.  Among those aged 25-29 years, only 15 percent of Hispanics and 20 percent of blacks had BAs.  The Dallas sniper, Micah Johnson, had a high school GPA of 1.98.[6]  In turn, 2.00 is a “C” grade or “Average.”  At the same time, the Micah Johnson, graduated 430th out of a class of 453 seniors, in the bottom 5 percent of his class.  So, 95 percent of students in his class had a GPA of 2.00 or higher.  His GPA is emblematic of things that have gone wrong with American education.  A lot of grade inflation has taken place.  It looks like grades are almost entirely meaningless as an evaluation of work-ethic, knowledge, or intelligence.  Problematic kids get passed along by teachers.

However, two-thirds (68 percent) of Americans do not have a college degree.[7]  When the “Great Recession” hit in 2008, employment slumped.  Kinfolk said “Jed, improve your skills!” So, college enrollments jumped by 25 percent, from 2.4 million in Fall 2007 to 3 million in Fall 2009.  By Fall 2015, 52.9 percent of these students had graduated with either an AS or a BS.[8]  But why didn’t the others graduate?   Over a third (38 percent) of people with college loan debt didn’t graduate.  Almost half (45 percent) of people with college loan debt think that college wasn’t worth the price.[9]  Better than three-quarters (78 percent) of those who think that the game wasn’t worth the candle earn less than $50,000 a year and better than two-thirds (68 percent) are having trouble paying their debt.

You need a BA for success.  Women do college better than men.  Whites do college better than blacks or Hispanics.  Americans don’t do math, science, or engineering.  Money shouldn’t be a barrier to talent, such as it is.  It would be easy to join the pack and throw all this on the schools and on the teachers.  However, there is a lot of parental malpractice evident.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 16.

[2] “The bottom line,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 31.

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 30 October 2015, p. 16.

[4] “Noted,” The Week, 15 July 2015, p. 18.

[5] Juan Williams, “The scandal of our failing public schools,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 12.

[6] Dan Frosch and Josh Dawsey, “Dallas Shooter Bought Weapons Legally,” WSJ, 12 July 2016.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 16.

[8] “The bottom line,” The Week, 4 December 2015, p. 36.

[9] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 July 2016, p. 17.

Millennial Falcons.

“Gen X” are the people born between 1965 and 1980.  “Millennials”—often thought of as “Gen Z”[1]–are the 75 million Americans born between 1980 and 2000.[2]  They out-number the famous “Baby Boomers.”[3]  Stereotypes regarding “Millennials” abound: they have a sense of entitlement; they are self-indulgent; they are work-shy[4]; and they are rule-breakers.  Their presence and interests demand a response.[5]  Colleges and businesses are obsessed with the market power of this “demographic.”

Farhad Manjoo[6] begs to differ.  First, “Macroscale demographic trends rarely govern most individuals’ life and work decisions.”  That means that any “generation” is actually just a big collection to individuals.  You can’t really tell anything about the particular individual in front of you from their birth year or “cohort.”

Second, generational succession is always accompanied by a sense of unease among the older generation and a sense of suppressed ridicule of their elders by the younger generation.  The “Greatest Generation” undoubtedly had grave reservations about the “Baby Boomers.”  That unpleasant truth gets lost in the narrow focus on the right-now.

Still, there are common (if not universal) characteristics of “Millennials”: they are socially liberal (they get married later after cohabitating, they are more than OK with marriage equality, white people claim to know black people (and may even do so in a work-related context); they are 420-neutral-to-friendly; they are post-Snowden and post-“Searchlight” suspicious of institutions.  Even so, Republican “Millennials” are more socially conservative than are Democratic “Millennials.”

All this makes sense on a certain level.  However, as the critics of “macrodemographic” thinking say, the categories are just containers for many individuals or sub-categories.  For example, none of this explores the beliefs of the Republican “Millennials.” Similarly, polling data seems to suggest that Donald Trump pulls a certain segment of young people, even while the national media portrays his voters as—well, those tattooed guys with grey pony-tails on Harley-Davidsons that you see on Sunday drives in the far suburbs.

One particularly fascinating figure here is Victor Lazlo Bock[7], the head of human resources at Google.  The company runs all sorts of empirical data on its employees, who range in age from sweaty recent college graduates to geezers bored with retirement.  Bock claims that there isn’t any significant difference in personality types across the generations, just between personality types across the generations.  “Every single human being wants the same thing…” says Bock.  “We want to be treated with respect, we want to have a sense of meaning and agency and impact, and we want our boss to leave us alone so we can get our work done.”  How do we accomplish this in a small college?

[1] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqQ8Y9Sjp7o

[2] Farhad Manjoo, “Companies In Pursuit Of a Mythical Millennial,” NYT, 26 May 2016.

[3] On the other hand, the “Boomers” have a lot more money.

[4] Or what the Nazis would have called “asocials.”  See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBn3FVWkuWM

[5] “And so say all of us.”

[6] I know, sounds like an ISIS recruiter or that kid played by Dev Patel in “Marigold Hotel.”  In reality, he’s a media correspondent for the New York Times.

[7] HA!  Is joke.  His name is Lazlo Bock.  Paul Henreid played the Resistance leader “Victor Lazlo” in “Casablanca” (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942).

More Young People.

If we look at the history of the last quarter century, we see two dominant and inter-related trends.  Radical Islam isn’t one of them.  First, the collapse of Soviet Communism inspired other followers to abandon the controlled economy for participation in the world market.  Second, information technology destroyed many old barriers.  Upheaval and opportunity resulted.   Currently, about a quarter of all the people in the world are aged 10 to 24.[1]  That is, they were born between 1992 and 2006.  The world in which they have grown up is that same world that older people have often found so disorienting.   Now young people face their own problems.

Those billions of young people are not equally distributed around the world.  They account for only 17 percent of the population in economically developed countries; for 29 percent in less-developed countries, and 32 percent in the least developed countries.  In the United States, the median age is 37; in Russia, 39; in Germany, 46.  In Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, the median age is 18.  China offers a particularly interesting case of a transition.  Faced with a swiftly rising population, China declared a one-child policy for married couples.  It worked so well that the youth base of the population narrowed to a frightening degree.  A shortage of workers to replace those who are approaching retirement loomed.  At the same time, young couples found themselves providing care for up to four aging parents, while trying to work and raise their own child.  Recently, the government ended to one-child policy.

A disproportionate share of young people lives in the countries least well able to provide them with either an adequate education or a decent standard of living.  Take the example of India.  There are more than 420 million Indians between the ages of 15 and 34.  The median age is 27.  Desperate measures to expand primary education have had mixed results.  Although almost all Indian children now attend primary school, half of fifth graders can neither read at a second grade level nor do subtraction.[2]

Then, India needs to create 12-17 million new jobs every year to absorb the population growth.  In India and in other countries in similar dire straits, young people are forced into spotty, badly-paid just to get any jobs at all.  India’s reluctance to end the carbon-burning that drives economic growth in that country is easier to understand in light of that imperative.  The here and now weighs more heavily in the balance of decision-makers than does the future.[3]

Migration from “young” countries to “aging” countries might offer a solution.  However, there are several big barriers here.  First, even in the developed countries there is a problem of youth unemployment: in the United States, almost 17 percent of people between 16 and 29 are not in school and not working; in the European Union the youth unemployment rate averages 25 percent.[4]  It will be difficult to make the case for expanded immigration of young people when a country cannot even provide work for its own young people.  Second, the poor quality of education in many developing countries means that only some people will be viable migrants.

Even so, migration from the Lands of Inopportunity to the Lands of Opportunity may be inevitable.  There are 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.  The current refugee crisis in Europe shows just how difficult it can be to keep out hordes of determined people.

[1] Somini Sengupta, “The World’s Big Problem: Young People,” NYT, 6 March 2016.

[2] The wretched state of education can be glimpsed in Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (2008), and Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013).

[3] A third problem is anti-female sex selection.  There are 17 million more Indian males than females aged 10 to 24.

[4] Sengupta argues that the high European rate results from a combination of a slow economy and the absence of economically valuable skills.  The same may be true in the United States, although some economists would argue that the skills-deficit argument is false.

Edjumication 2.

The Wall Street Journal ran this interesting—and terrifying if you give a rip about our country—story.[1]  Back in 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ran a big survey of a lot of member states.  The International Assessment of Adult Competency tried to figure out how well different advanced counties do at “problem-solving in technology rich environments” (AKA “using digital technology to perform practical tasks”).  The U.S came last among 18 advanced countries.

Japan, Finland, Sweden, and Norway headed the list.[2]  Poland came 17th, just ahead of the U.S.  (On the other hand, Poles have a tremendous work ethic that has made them deeply unpopular in much of Western Europe.[3]  In contrast, car thieves in the U.S. will not steal American cars made in the 1970s and 1980s because the cars are garbage as the result of poor workmanship.  Foreign cars, like a Honda or a Mercedes?  That’s a different matter.[4])

Why is this?  A Harvard B-School professor opined that “when you look at this data it suggests the trends we’ve discerned over the last twenty years are continuing and if anything they are gaining momentum.”  What are those trends? American workers demonstrate “flagging literacy and numeracy skills, which are the fundamental skills needed to score well on the survey.”  Many Americans have a lot of trouble with any kind of math problem.

Why does this matter?  It matters because most middle-class jobs in the future will require numeracy and literacy skills.  What we think of as “manufacturing” jobs, for example, are simple, repetitive, boring jobs on an assembly-line.  The substitution of machines for manpower by management and investment allowed both high wages and high profits.  The rise of cheap labor in Asian economies entering the global market since the collapse of Communism has destroyed those jobs.  American manufacturers have adapted by introducing far more mechanization and computers.  Future manufacturing in the U.S. will involve far fewer workers with far greater skills.[5]

It isn’t just blue-collar workers who are “in a queer street.”[6]  For those aged 16 to 34, the study found that “even workers with college degrees and graduate or professional degrees don’t stack up favorably against their international peers.”  So, taking on a lot of debt to get a college degree in order to gain some safety isn’t necessarily a wise move.

What are the sources of our malaise?  Without any doubt, they are many.  However, perhaps one of them is “cultural,” rather than institutional.  “This is the only country in the world where it is acceptable to say ‘I’m not good at math’.” said one observer.   The same is probably true for reading.[7]  One measure: is there a “no shush” rule posted in your local library?

Perhaps there is something to be said for a reassertion of traditional values.

[1] Douglas Belkin, “U.S. Ranks Last in Tech Problem Solving,” WSJ, 10 March 2016.

[2] OK, but when is the last time you saw a Scandinavian block-buster movie about a crime-stopping hero in a spandex suit?  No, Scandinavian crime-stopper movies are full of aging, morose alcoholics and enraged victims of sexual abuse.  So there!

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_Plumber  Or talk to people who prefer cheap, high-quality, readily-available Polish workers to the lay-abouts who make up much of the French and British labor force.

[4] See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/12/upshot/heres-why-stealing-cars-went-out-of-fashion.html?_r=0

[5] See: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/20/business/us-textile-factories-return.html?pagewanted=all

[6] It isn’t a sexual-orientation reference.  In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the protagonist’s father recalls—during a dinner-table conversation of the son’s poor job prospects—that his Uncle Malachi “got into “a queer street.”  As a result, “He had to go to Australia.  Before the mast.”

[7] It is difficult to nail down just how many books the average American reads in a year or owns.  However, some research backs up intuition.  See: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100520213116.htm

Sell Order.

The American public schools are in trouble by several measures. (See: “Edjumication.”) One measure is public confidence in the public schools. Only 37 percent of Americans say that public school students get a “good or excellent education.” In contrast, 60 percent say that children who are home-schooled get a “good or excellent education”; 69 percent say that children who attend a parochial school get a “good or excellent education”; and 78 percent say that children who attend a private school get a “good or excellent education.”[1] On Wall Street this would be called a “sell order” for public schools.

How can we interpret these figures?[2] Well, curriculum for all schools are pretty much the same because they are mandated by state Departments of Education. So, that isn’t the key. Public school teachers and parochial school teachers are drawn from pretty much the same pool of job candidates. So the “quality” of the teachers isn’t the key. So, why do 37 percent of people believe that students get a “good or excellent education” while 69 percent believe that students in parochial schools get such an education?   I conjecture that there are two factors/beliefs that play a role. On the one hand, public schools have to take anyone who comes along, then try to get them through. It’s difficult in the present environment to permanently expel or fail a troublesome or weak student. They just disrupt or slow-down the progress of whatever classroom they happen to inhabit. In contrast, the parochial schools can either reject or shed problematic students. What constitutes “problematic” is up to the schools themselves.

On the other hand, parochial school really means “Catholic school” in almost every instance. In 2014, 48 percent of Americans believed that government should “promote more traditional values,” while 48 percent thought that government should not “favor any values,” and 4 percent didn’t know. In 2015, 43 percent thought that government should “promote more traditional values,” while 51 percent think that government should not “favor any values,” and 6 percent didn’t know.[3] “Spotlight” aside, the Catholic church stands for “traditional values,” while—in the mind of many people—the public schools stand for no values or corrosive values.[4]

What explains the high regard for home-schooling? I conjecture that it is motivation. Home-schoolers may be deranged or fanatical, but they’re also committed to doing the best they can for their students because they are also their children. This may reflect a judgement by home-schooling parents that public school teachers are under-motivated and under-prepared, but also that the environment in both the public schools and the Catholic schools are toxic. On the one hand, many home-schooling parents are evangelical Christians to whom a secular or Catholic environment is obnoxious. On the other hand, many are secularists who think the current obsession with testing and preparation for being a “productive member of society,” rather than an independent thinker, is obnoxious.

Finally, what explains the very high regard for private schools? That’s simple. They are the most selective institutions other than home-schooling. They are rigorously academically-oriented. The teachers usually are not products of mud-sill teacher preparation programs. Rather they are people with real BAs in academic subjects from real places. They get paid a lot less than do public school teachers, but have much heavier demands on their time. The trouble is that they are few in number, really picky about who they let in, and they cost an arm and a leg.

So, there are several possible lessons here. One is that the public schools are the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of larger social forces. A second is that picking on public school teachers isn’t going to solve the problems. A third is that the public schools bleed public support for the schools in parallel with their loss of students. A fourth is that trying to coerce students back into the public schools isn’t going to work unless and until the schools address the issues that caused so many people to despise the public schools.

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 September 2012, p. 19.

[2] My own perspective is shaped by the following factors. I went through the Seattle public schools from K through 12. I teach at a little Catholic college, where I serve on the Teacher Education Committee. As a result, I meet a lot of Education students. Some of the students in the program go on to teach at public schools and some go on to teach at parochial schools. I don’t see a dime’s worth of difference between the two sets of teachers. One of our sons went through the public schools from K through 12; the other spent his last four years at an “elite” private school. Public school teachers today don’t seem to me to be much worse than when I was in school.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 16 October 2015, p. 17.

[4] There’s this Gahan Wilson cartoon from a ways back that shows some balding guy in a tweed jacket and horn-rimmed glasses getting sworn in as a witness. The clerk holds out the Bible and says “Do you swear to tell the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth—and not in some sneaky, relativistic way?”