Curmudgeon Me.

Il y a etait un fois, America had the best democratic public school system in the world, AND the greatest college and university system in the world.  More Americans went farther in education than did people in any other country.  In percentage terms, America had more and better “human capital” than did any other country in the world.  “We cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q49NOyJ8fNA&t=16s

Then, standardized tests revealed a terrifying decline in American educational attainment.  The generally-accepted, state-mandated, and Federally-funded response took the form of more standardized testing, accountability through assessment, the standardization of delivery models, and the proliferation of rubrics.

Here’s the thing.  When American education led the world, nobody did much standardized testing, nobody did much formal assessment[1], nobody insisted on standardized delivery, and no truly-educated person knew what the word “rubric” meant.  Schools and teachers didn’t do ANY of the things that now are supposed to cure “the prince of our disorders.”  This suggests that the origin of American educational problems lies elsewhere than in the educational system itself.

This applies to the American education reform experience of the last several decades.  Has anyone—other than me—ever been lost in the woods?  The hard-won lessons of millennia in this matter counsel certain behaviors.  First, Stop where you are!  Do not keep going forward!  Do not turn aside to the left hand or to the right to go bush-whacking through the brush!  You will fall over the edge of a cliff, bust your leg, and end up being mauled by some aggrieved Momma-bear.  Second, turn around and head back down the trail that you came up.  Eventually, you will come upon the place where you last knew where you were.  Third, stop in that place, consult your map and compass, and discern where you went wrong.  Fourth, get back on the trail you were supposed to be on before you missed the way-mark because you were looking down at your boots, trying not to trip over roots, when you should have been looking up to notice the white-painted blaze in a tree.

Thus, we need to stop bush-whacking through the educational underbrush.  We need to stop, turn around, and go back to whatever it is we were doing right before the wheels came off.

What was it we used to do when “once we were warrior kings”?  Historians have begun to explore what went wrong since the 1970s.  The early evidence suggests that complex social, economic, and cultural forces combined to wreck the foundations of American educational achievement.  The oil shocks of the 1970s put an end to an already troubled economic boom.  Families stopped valuing education as the pathway to success and stopped supporting the teachers who provided it.  Women’s Liberation took a lot of smart women out of career ghettos in teaching school (and nursing and bank-tellers and secetaries in offices), then replaced them with inferior substitutes.  They stopped buying encyclopedias and stopped subscribing to newspapers and magazines, and stopped taking their children to public libraries.  (Which have now become “social centers” with Ute and yentas grumbling at the top of their lungs.)  Divorces and re-marriages multiplied even though that meant that children had fewer resources and less family-support structures in challenging circumstances.  Trust in any and all institutions (understandably) declined.  (Hard to appreciate where those idiot anti-vaxxers come from otherwise.)  In short, the bourgeois social norms that had raised up individual “achievement” and collective “civilization” (along with its many injustices) went into a death spiral.

It would be un-fair to ask college administrators and faculty leaders at any one college or university to have the testicular fortitude to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”  So, I’m doing it.

That’s my straw-man.  Knock it to bits.

[1] Although teachers and professors wrote a good deal of commentary in the margins of blue-books and essays.  Less common now because many people just score a rubric.  Leave the student to figure it out on their own.

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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.”

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