Two Bad Ideas on Student Loans, Part 1

There are various proposals for the federal government to deal with student debt. I’ve seen two main ones. The one I’ll deal with here is the proposal to bail out people who have student loans.

I came across this post from Justin Wolfers, written in September 2011. I debated Justin about lockdowns in Apriland We differed on that, but I agree with his bottom line here. I’ll note his thoughts in highlight and then give my comments after each.

He wrote that we should look at the issue “through five separate lenses.”

Distribution:
If we are going to give money away, why on earth would we give it to college grads? This is the one group who we know typically have high incomes, and who have enjoyed income growth over the past four decades.  The group who has been hurt over the past few decades is high school dropouts.

I agree. I would tweak the language a little. “We’re” not giving it; the federal government would be the entity that gave it and it would take from us to do so.

Macroeconomics:
This is the worst macro policy I’ve ever heard of. If you want stimulus, you get more bang-for-your-buck if you give extra dollars to folks who are most likely to spend each dollar. Imagine what would happen if you forgave $50,000 in debt. How much of that would get spent in the next month or year? Probably just a couple of grand (if that). Much of it would go into the bank. But give $1,000 to each of 50 poor people, and nearly all of it will get spent, yielding a larger stimulus. Moreover, it’s not likely that college grads are the ones who are liquidity-constrained. Most of ‘em could spend more if they wanted to; after all, they are the folks who could get a credit card or a car loan fairly easily. It’s the hand-to-mouth consumers—those who can’t get easy access to credit—who are most likely to raise their spending if they get the extra dollars.

This is Justin’s unreconstructed Keynesian perspective. His view is that one should stimulate the economy by having the government give money to people who will spend it. I think a better way, and a much cheaper way, is with monetary policy. But I agree with him that from either vantage point, this is not good macro policy.

Education Policy:
Perhaps folks think that forgiving educational loans will lead more people to get an education. No, it won’t. This is a proposal to forgive the debt of folks who already have an education. Want to increase access to education? Make loans more widely available, or subsidize those who are yet to choose whether to go to school. But this proposal is just a lump-sum transfer that won’t increase education attainment. So why transfer to these folks?

I agree. But I also think it would be a bad idea to have any level of government further subsidize college students. That’s a subsidy from a broad cross section of people to people who will be relatively wealthy. It also distorts incentives. Let people go to college by comparing the costs and benefits, not by subsidizing the costs.

Political Economy:
This is a bunch of kids who don’t want to pay their loans back. And worse: Do this once, and what will happen in the next recession? More lobbying for free money, rather than doing something socially constructive.  Moreover, if these guys succeed, others will try, too. And we’ll just get more spending in the least socially productive part of our economy—the lobbying industry.

Yes. A bunch of kids and a bunch of non-kids. There are a lot of 30-somethings with substantial student loan debt.

Politics:
Notice the political rhetoric?  Give free money to us, rather than “corporations, millionaires and billionaires.”  Opportunity cost is one of the key principles of economics. And that principle says to compare your choice with the next best alternative.  Instead, they’re comparing it with the worst alternative.  So my question for the proponents: Why give money to college grads rather than the 15% of the population in poverty?

Agreed. I don’t want the government to give it to people in poverty either, but that would be less bad.

Conclusion: Worst. Idea. Ever.

Well not literally and I’m sure Justin doesn’t mean it literally. But it is a really bad idea.

And I bet that the proponents can’t find a single economist to support this idiotic idea.

I hope he’s right. We’ll see.

Next up: Ben Shapiro’s bad idea.

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Redeeming Tenure

Tenure is terrible.  Well, it’s awesome for those of us who have it.  The tenure system, however, is nonsense on stilts.  Economists’ rationalizations for tenure are flimsy indeed.  Just consider: Virtually all semi-prestigious professors have tenure, yet virtually no one in the for-profit sector has anything close.  I know, we can construct fanciful scenarios where this chasm makes sublime economic sense, such as: “Professors are willing to sacrifice vastly more in salary than normal humans to eliminate the last vestiges of job insecurity” plus “Giving professors enormous job security has far less effect on their productivity than it would on normal humans.”  But neither claim is remotely plausible.  Lots of non-professors intensely value job security, and lots of professors heavily slack off once they get tenure.

Still, no individual professor is responsible for this corrupt system.  And it’s hardly reasonable (or even useful) for an individual professor to renounce his tenure, whatever that might mean.  It is reasonable, however, to ask: “How can my tenure be redeemed?”

The obvious starting point is: Don’t shortchange your students merely because you have tenure.  Take pride in your teaching.  Strive to edify and inspire even though the career rewards are trivial.

Next: Produce excellent research even though you totally don’t have to.  Take pride in your contributions to human knowledge.  Push yourself on both quantity and quality.

When you ponder these norms, however, they’re more rigorous than they look.

Suppose you’re teaching labor economics.  Can you “strive to edify and inspire” if you gloss over intensely controversial subjects like the economics of discrimination?  Absolutely not.  You can’t take pride in your teaching while muttering, “Students can’t handle the truth.”   The forthright yet friendly exploration of vital yet sensitive topics is part and parcel of great teaching.  And while untenured teachers can plausibly protest, “I’ve got to think about my family’s security,” those of us with tenure know where our next paycheck is coming from.  While there’s a small chance the administration hassles you, that’s a minor cost in the broad scheme of things.  If tenured professors won’t voice awkward truths, who will?

Much the same hold for research.  Slightly extending human knowledge on a topic no one cares about is rarely a worthwhile intellectual contribution.  In a world of anxious conformists, most of the best research opportunities are mired in controversy – especially in the humanities and social sciences.  If you want to create research that really matters, you should boldly proceed.  Tenure takes care of your family, but who will put food on the table of ugly truths?  Most of the time, the answer is: You or no one.

So make it you.

If you use your tenure to teach and research with integrity, you’re well above the bar.  Yet if you’re earnest about redeeming tenure, you should also deploy it to defend the integrity of teaching and research in general.  Untenured faculty can forgivably give their mouths shut and their heads down.  Those of us with tenure, however, are the obvious candidates to “give back”: To aggressively defend the rights of faculty and students to explore controversial ideas without fear.  And bear in mind: for we professors, the only “controversial ideas” worthy of the name are ideas that are controversial on university campuses.  Noam Chomsky may be more controversial than Milton Friedman in the broader world, but in academia almost no one needs to look over their shoulder before praising Chomsky.

Admittedly, the duty to stand up for the right to explore controversial ideas without fear is an imperfect duty; no one has time to stand up for everyone.  Nevertheless, you have ample time to at least stand up for your own friends, your own colleagues, and your own students.  Some anti-intellectual university functionary might get mad at you for doing so.  If even a dream job for life doesn’t give you a backbone, though, what will?

 

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Unschooling + Math

One popular variant on homeschooling is called “unschooling.”  The practice varies, as practices always do.  The essence, however, is that the student does what he wants.  He studies what he wants.  He studies for as long as he wants.  If he asks you to teach him something, you teach him.  Yet if he decides to play videogames all day, the principled unschooling response is: “Let him.”

Almost every parent is horrified by the idea of unschooling.  Even most homeschoolers shake their heads.  Advocates insist, however, that unschooling works.  Psychologist Peter Gray defends the merits of unschooling with great vigor and eloquence.  According to unschoolers, the human child is naturally curious.  Given freedom, he won’t just learn basic skills; he’ll ultimately find a calling.

On the surface, unschooling sounds like Social Desirability Bias run amok: “Oh yes, every child loves to learn, it’s just society that fails them!” And as a mortal enemy of Social Desirability Bias, my instinct is to dismiss unschooling out of hand.

One thing I loathe more than Social Desirability Bias, however, is refusing to calm down and look at the facts.  Fact: I’ve personally met and conversed with dozens of adults who were unschooled.  Overall, they appear at least as well-educated as typical graduates from the public school system.  Indeed, as Gray would predict, unschoolers are especially likely to turn their passions into careers.  Admittedly,  some come across as flaky, but then again so do a lot young people.  When you look closely, unschoolers have only one obvious problem.

They’re weak in math! In my experience, even unschoolers with stellar IQs tend to be weak in algebra.  Algebra, I say!  And their knowledge of more advanced mathematics is sparser still.

Staunch unschoolers will reply: So what?  Who needs algebra?  The honest answer, though, is: Anyone who wants to pursue a vast range of high-status occupations.  STEM requires math.  CS requires math.  Social science requires math.  Even sophisticated lawyers – the kind that discuss investments’ Net Present Values – require math.

Won’t kids who would greatly benefit from math choose to learn math given the freedom to do so?  The answer, I fear, is: Rarely.  For two reasons:

First, math is extremely unfun for almost everyone.  Only a handful of nerds sincerely finds the subject engaging.  I’m a big nerd, and I’ve done piles of math, yet I’ve never really liked it.

Second, math is highly cumulative.  Each major stage of math builds on the foundation of the previous stages.  If you reach adulthood and then decide to learn math to pursue a newly-discovered ambition, I wish you good luck, because you’ll need it.

What’s the best response?  Mainstream critics of unschooling will obviously use this criticism to dismiss the entire approach.  And staunch unschoolers will no doubt stick to their guns.  I, however, propose a keyhole solution.  I call it: Unschooling + Math.

What does Unschooling + Math mean?  Simple: Impose a single parental mandate on unschooled children.  Every day, like it or not, you have to do 1-2 hours of math.  No matter how boring you find the subject, you’re too young to decide that you don’t want to pursue a career that requires math.  And if you postpone the study of math for long, it will be too late to start later on.

While most people don’t wind up using much math on the job, ignorance of basic math is still a severe handicap in life.  And when smart kids don’t know advanced math, they forfeit about half of all high-status career opportunities.

We should have a strong presumption against paternalism – even the literal paternalism of a parent for his own child.  “Maybe the kid is right and the parent is wrong” is a deeply underrated thought.  The value of math, however, is great enough to overcome this presumption.  To be clear, I don’t mean that the government should force homeschoolers to teach math.  What I mean, rather, is that homeschoolers should require their kids to learn math.  Guilt-free.

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Open the Schools and the Playgrounds

A group of researchers, spearheaded by Brown University Professor Emily Oster, have created and made available the most comprehensive databaseon schools and Covid case rates for students and staff since the pandemic started. Her data—covering almost 200,000 kids across 47 states from the last two weeks of September—showed a Covid-19 case rate of 0.13% among students and 0.24% among staff. That’s a shockingly and wonderfully low number. By comparison, the current overall U.S. case rate is 2.6%, an order of magnitude higher.

Other research has shown that hospitalization and fatality rates for school-age children are also extremely low. People 19 and younger account for only 1.2% of Covid-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. during the peak of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that of all Covid-19 deaths up to Oct. 10, only 74 were of children under age 15. During the 2019-20 flu season, the CDC estimates, 434 children under 18 died of the flu. Yet we don’t shut down schools over the flu.

This is from David R. Henderson and Ryan Sullivan, “End the School Shutdown,” Wall Street Journal, October 20 (print edition: October 21).

30 days from now, which is November 20 (the day before my 70th birthday),  I’ll post the whole thing.

A friend on Facebook asked me about the issue of compulsory schooling. He knows I oppose compulsion. I don’t know my co-author’s view on that and I wanted to stick with issues we agree on. So I didn’t raise it. But my view is that any parents who want to keep their children out of school should be able to do so. I predict that this will be under 10 percent of parents.

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Don’t Pickpocket Your Students

Imagine you’re a professor somewhere.  You here rumors of the creation of a new Office of Student Property Security.  “Whatever,” you think.

Yet before long, you’re summoned to a brand-new mandatory training session run by certified officers of Student Property Security.  At this session (in-person back in the old days; now Zoom of course), they give you a tortoise-paced 90-minute Powerpoint presentation on the student property crisis and the appropriate faculty response.  And the whole spiel can be readily summarized in a single commandment: “Don’t pickpocket your students.”

To me, such a training session would be insulting, pointless, and unhinged.

Why insulting?  Because I would never consider pickpocketing my students in a million years.  I don’t need a self-styled anti-pickpocketing “expert” to remind me of this elementary obligation.  To quote Uncle Junior in The Sopranos, “Where does he get the effrontery?”

Why pointless?  Because any professor who did pickpocket his students would probably not be dissuaded by a training seminar.  Wrong-doers already know the rules; they just don’t care.

Why unhinged?  Because there is no ongoing pickpocketing “crisis.”  Sure, the media can pinpoint a few egregious scandals in a country with over 300 million inhabitants.  But no matter how much outrage such scandals spark, they show next to nothing about real life.  And outrage directed at those who doubt the true severity of the alleged crisis shows less than nothing about real life.

What would motivate an institution to impose this insulting, pointless, and unhinged training?  It could be an effort to diminish the school’s legal liability; if a pickpocketed student ever sues the school, the school can protest, “Don’t blame us, we run a first-rate anti-pickpocketing training program!”  But it’s hard to imagine that a jury would find such protests convincing.  The real motive, I suspect, is not that the administration is protecting their school from lawsuits, but that administrators are protecting themselves from complaints.  Once the student pickpocketing availability cascade gets off the ground, the administrator who refuses to “do something” to “address the crisis” troubleth his own house and inherits the wind.

Now to be fair, no American university currently requires faculty to attend mandatory anti-pickpocketing training.

As far as I know.

And that’s great, because it would be truly Kafkaesque if any university did.

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Three Economists Walk Into a Discussion, Part 2

Last week I posted Part 1 of my observations on the discussion between Kevin Hassett and Austan Goolsbee. This is Part 2.

I left with the issue of the federal deficit and debt.

35:30: Goolsbee doesn’t think we’ll be Greece. We have low income tax rates, no VAT, and better demographics.

He argues that tax rates on grandkids will need to he higher. He thinks we need immigration to offset the aging of the population.

DRH comment: I’m disappointed that neither Hassett nor Goolsbee discussed refinancing the debt to 10 to 30-year bonds, thus saving on a potential time bomb if interest rates rise by even 2 percentage points.

38:00: Goda says that the chance of kids today outearning their parents in the long run is less than for my generation outearning our parents.

39:00: Goda follows Goolsbee’s lead and turns to inequality.

39:45: Hassett talks about Trump’s opportunity zones and also notes Trump’s efforts on prison reform.

41:30: Hassett emphasizes that charter schools should not be curtailed.

42:00: Goda links the California fires and climate change. She doesn’t justify this.

42:30: Hassett emphasizes Trump’s “regulatory budget.” He also points out that Trump’s economists finally started including the deadweight loss from raising taxes to fund enforcement of regulation. (I think he confuses it by making a claim at first that even the cost of enforcing the regulations wasn’t included as a cost. That’s hard to believe.)

45:00: Goolsbee claims that Trump’s economists did cost/benefit analysis wrong. Hard to believe, but I don’t know.

47:30: Goda asks about trade.

48:00: Hassett points out that trade deals are thousands of lines and that he learned this from Goolsbee. Hassett says that trade deals were asymmetric in the past, with the U.S. conceding more than other countries. But this seems (to DRH) like a protectionist argument. “Conceding” to other countries presumably means dropping our tariffs and quota restrictions more than they drop theirs, so that our consumers gain more than their’s do.

50:30: Goolsbee says Trump’s approach is muscular declaration of trade wars with our allies: Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea, Germany, the EU, and Australia. And with China.

52:25: Goolsbee surprises me by saying that the USMCA is better than NAFTA. For my view see “NAFTA 0.0,” Defining Ideas, December 20, 2019.

53:00: The U.S. is putting agriculture on the welfare payroll.

53:30: Hassett goes back to the asymmetry point.

54:40: Goda asks them to share their data, based on input from listeners.

55:10: Goda asks question from the audience about immigration. What’s the appropriate policy?

56:00: Hassett says that when he was in the White House, Jared Kushner and others put together a reform that would make U.S. immigration policy like Australia’s.

56:45: Goolsbee’s best moment. Without robust immigration, we’ll have problems with safety net (presumably Social Security and Medicare) due to baby boomers. Points out how actively hostile Trump is to legal immigration also.

58:40: “This is not the American way.” I could hug Goolsbee.

59:00: Goda asks about Biden’s tax policies.

To be continued in Part 3.

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Case and Deaton on Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism

In their recent book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Anne Case and Nobel economics prizewinner Angus Deaton, both emeritus economists at Princeton University, show that the death rate for middle-age whites without a college degree bottomed out in 1999 and has risen since. They attribute the increase to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Their data on deaths are impeccable. They are careful not to attribute the deaths to some of the standard but problematic reasons people might think of, such as increasing inequality, poverty, or a lousy health care system. At the same time, they claim that capitalism, pharmaceutical companies, and expensive health insurance are major contributors to this despair.

The dust jacket of their book states, “Capitalism, which over two centuries lifted countless people out of poverty, is now destroying the lives of blue-collar America.” Fortunately, their argument is much more nuanced than the book jacket. But it is also, at times, contradictory. Their discussion of the health care system is particularly interesting both for its insights and for its confusions. In their last chapter, “What to Do?” the authors suggest various policies but, compared to the empirical rigor with which they established the facts about deaths by despair, their proposals are not well worked out. One particularly badly crafted policy is their proposal on the minimum wage.

This is from “Blame Capitalism?“, my review of The Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” in Regulation, Fall 2020.

Another excerpt:

To understand what is behind the increase in the death rate, the authors look at state data and note that death rates increased in all but six states. The largest increases in mortality were in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Mississippi. The only states in which midlife white mortality fell much were California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. All four of the latter states, they note, have high levels of formal education. That fact leads them to one of their main “aha!” findings: the huge negative correlation between having a bachelor’s degree and deaths of despair.

To illustrate, they focus on Kentucky, a state with one of the lowest levels of educational attainment. Between the mid-1990s and 2015, Case and Deaton show, for white non-Hispanics age 45–54 who had a four-year college degree, deaths from suicide, drug overdose, or alcoholic liver disease stayed fairly flat at about 25–30 per 100,000. But for that same group but without a college degree, the deaths in the same categories zoomed up from about 40 in the mid-1990s to a whopping 130 by 2015, over four times the rate for those with a college degree.

Why is a college degree so important? One big difference between those with and without a degree is the probability of being employed. In 2017, the U.S. unemployment rate was a low 3.6%. Of those with a bachelor’s degree or more, 84% of Americans age 25–64 were employed. By contrast, only 68% of those in the same age range who had only a high school degree were employed.

That leads to two questions. First, why are those without a college degree so much less likely to have jobs? Second, how does the absence of a degree lead to more suicide and drug and alcohol consumption? On the first question, the authors note that a higher percentage of jobs than in the past require higher skills and ability. Also, they write, “some jobs that were once open to nongraduates are now reserved for those with a college degree.”

I wish they had addressed this educational “rat race” in more detail. My Econlog blogging colleague Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, argues in his 2018 book The Case Against Education that a huge amount of the value of higher education is for people to signal to potential employers that they can finish a major project and be appropriately docile. To the extent he is right, government subsidies to higher education make many jobs even more off-limits to high school graduates. Yet, Case and Deaton do not cite Caplan’s work. Moreover, in their final chapter on what to do, they go the exact wrong way, writing, “Perhaps it is time to up our game to make college the norm?” That policy would further narrow the range of jobs available to nongraduates, making them even worse off.

On the second question—why absence of a degree leads to more deaths of despair—they cite a Gallup poll asking Americans to rate their lives on a scale from 0 (“the worst possible life you can imagine”) to 10 (“the best possible life you can imagine”). Those with a college degree averaged 7.3, while those with just a high school diploma averaged 6.6. That is not a large difference, a fact they do not note.

And note their novel argument for why improved health care, better entertainment through the internet, and more convenience don’t count in people’s real wages:

So, what are the culprits behind the deaths of those without college degrees? Case and Deaton blame the job market and health insurance. Jobs for those without college degrees do not pay as much and do not generally carry much prestige. And, as noted above, Case and Deaton mistakenly think that real wages for such jobs have fallen. Some economists, by adding nonmonetary benefits provided by employers and by noting the amazing goods we can buy with our wages such as cell phones, conclude that even those without a college degree are doing better. Case and Deaton reject that argument. They do not deny that health care now is better than it was 20 years ago, but they write that a typical worker is doing better now than then “only if the improvements—in healthcare, or in better entertainment through the internet, or in more convenience from ATMs—can be turned into hard cash by buying less of the good affected, or less of something else, a possibility that, however desirable, is usually not available.” They continue, “People may be happier as a result of the innovations, but while it is often disputed whether money buys happiness, we have yet to discover a way of using happiness to buy money.”

That thinking is stunning. Over many decades, economists have been accused, usually unjustly, of saying that only money counts. We have usually responded by saying, “No, what counts is utility, the satisfaction we get out of goods and services and life in general.” But now Case and Deaton dismiss major improvements in the happiness provided by goods and services by noting that happiness cannot be converted to money. That is a big step backward in economic thinking.

 

Read the whole thing.

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Loyalty Oaths Compared: An Orwellian Exercise

A key tenet of American’s civic religion is that the McCarthy-era persecution of Communists and Communist sympathizers was both paranoid and immoral.  Academics are especially strident in their commitment to this tenet.  And since they are academics, they’re especially dismayed by academia‘s persecution of Communists and Communist sympathizers.  The most infamous form of this persecution: the loyalty oaths many universities imposed on their employees.  Sign the oath, or lose your job.

What exactly did these loyalty oaths say?  Here’s UC Berkeley’s Loyalty Oath of 1950.


Constitutional Oath (Constitution of the State of California, Article 20, Section 3)

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of my office according to the best of my ability.”

As passed by the Regents, April 12, 1950

“Having taken the constitutional oath of the office required by the State of California, I hereby formally acknowledge my acceptance of the position and salary named, and also state that I am not a member of the Communist Party or any other organization which advocates the overthrow of the Government by force or violence, and that I have no commitments in conflict with my responsibilities with respect to impartial scholarship and free pursuit of truth. I understand that the foregoing statement is a condition of my employment and a consideration of payment of my salary.”


Notice the mild wording of this Loyalty Oath.  A person who personally advocates the violent overthrow of the government could truthfully sign it as long as he belongs to no organization that shares his position.  A philosophical communist in full sympathy with Stalin could truthfully sign it as long as he is personally an “impartial scholar” in “free pursuit of truth.”  Needless to say, every species of democratic socialist could readily sign, as could every kind of anti-anti-Communist.

By way of contrast, let’s compare UC Berkeley’s new Diversity and Inclusion Oath.  Well, it’s actually much more.  An Oath merely requires you to parrot someone else’s words; what Berkeley now mandates is a self-authored Diversity and Inclusion Vow in order to determine eligibility for employment.  The university then scores your Vow for orthodoxy.  Part 1 of its rubric, “Knowledge About Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” assigns you a prohibitively low score if your statement contains stuff like:

Little expressed knowledge of, or experience with, dimensions of diversity that result from different identities. Defines diversity only in terms of different areas of study or different nationalities, but doesn’t discuss gender or ethnicity/race. Discusses diversity in vague terms, such as “diversity is important for science.” May state having had little experience with these issues because of lack of exposure, but then not provide any evidence of having informed themselves. Or may discount the importance of diversity.

That’s right, merely “discounting the importance of diversity” virtually bars you from faculty employment.  Imagine if the 1950 Oath required you to, “Affirm the great importance of the fight against Communism.”  Or sanctioned those who merely “discussed anti-Communism in vague terms.”

The rubric continues:

Seems not to be aware of, or understand the personal challenges that underrepresented individuals face in academia, or feel any personal responsibility for helping to eliminate barriers. For example, may state that it’s better not to have outreach or affinity groups aimed at underrepresented individuals because it keeps them separate from everyone else, or will make them feel less valued.

This would be akin to a 1950 Oath that mandated support for current anti-Communist tactics.  Something like: “For example, may state that it’s better not to support right-wing dictatorships because it creates the false impression that capitalism and democracy are incompatible.”

What’s afoot?  Orwellian doublethink of the highest order. Sure, the hated 1950 Loyalty Oath seems far less onerous than the new Diversity and Inclusion Vow.  But the people who refused to sign the 1950 Oath were heroes standing up for freedom of conscience.  The people who question today’s orthodoxy, in contrast, are hate-mongers who need to be excluded from high-skilled employment.

Newspeak-to-English translation: Full-blown Stalinism is no big deal, a mere difference of opinion.  Yet even tepid doubts about whether mandatory discrimination against high-performing groups has already gone far enough are anathema, anathema, anathema.

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A Portrait of My School

If I created my own school, what would it be like?  Picture something like this:

1. The school has two goals: to (a) prepare students for independent adult life, and (b) give them a fun childhood.

2. Pursuant to 1(a), all students do at least 90 minutes of math every day.  Most high-status jobs require good math skills, and that’s unlikely to change.  So even if you don’t enjoy math, I insist on it.

3. Pursuant to 1(b), this is a traditional face-to-face school, where kids talk and play together.  Without masks.  Since I envision a very small school (5-15 students total) I deem the risk acceptable.

4. I admit only highly-motivated high school students, and extremely highly-motivated younger students.  My pedagogical approach only works well for kids who are eager to learn.  And teaching kids who aren’t eager to learn works poorly for me.

5. All students have a detailed schedule, for my benefit as well as theirs.  Younger students have a schedule handed down to them; as they advance, they gradually take over their own scheduling.  I revise these schedules as more information about students’ performance and interests arrives.

6. Every student gets personal feedback with their math every day.  If they’re struggling, they get extra practice.  If they’re excelling, they move on to the next level.

7. The rest of the curriculum depends on the student.  All students spend ample time reading and writing, but what they read and write is up to them.  When the student has a good draft of a writing project, they get personal feedback on content, style, spelling, and grammar.

8. General rule: If students are struggling with their work, they start by googling.  If that doesn’t work, they ask more knowledgeable students.  If that doesn’t work, they ask me during standard feedback time.

9. I give students near-zero homework – and parents no work of any kind.  And no lame projects.  Instead, we do the real thing.  If you want to learn Spanish, you don’t make an English-language poster on Ecuador.  You do daily language immersion.  ¡No inglés!

10. I supply all textbooks.  They’ll often be a few editions old because that cuts costs by 90%+ with near-zero learning loss.

11. For structure and external certification, all students train for at least one high-quality standardized test.  I am especially fond of the Advanced Placement tests; my older sons took their first in 7th-grade, and completed thirteen APs each by the end of 11th grade.

12. After mastering tested material, students spend at least a month on full-time test prep.  During this time, I give students next-day feedback on their performance, especially essays.  I fully support “teaching to the test” when the test is a well-crafted effort to measure deep understanding of the subject.  See e.g. all of the Advanced Placement tests in history.

13. Philosophically, my school focuses on mastery of intellectually demanding material.  “Mastery” means you can apply the material creatively in new contexts – and explain it well to others.

14. At the same time, my school studiously avoids the latest moral fads and moral panics, and require politeness and calm.  I tell my students the same thing I tell my kids: be friendly and don’t be touchy.

15. Do I merely replace mainstream indoctrination with my own?  The typical observer would probably say so, but they’d be wrong.  Yes, I freely share my controversial views when they’re germane.  But I also carefully explain the normal view, my critique of the normal view, the normal view’s response, and so on.  And I do so without the moral blackmail of, “You’re a benighted soul if you disagree” or the obtuse, “What do you mean, you disagree?”

16. I raise my kids without Social Desirability Bias.  I do not respond to earnest questions with sugarcoated answers.  I do not parrot fashionable platitudes.  I either speak the plain truth or tell them, “Ask me when you’re older.”  I treat all my students the same way.

How much demand would there be for such a school?  Probably not much, but I wouldn’t want more than fifteen students anyway…

P.S. To repeat, I am only toying with the idea of sharing my educational model with non-family members.  But if you are a prospective customer, please email me.

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