Monday, August 9, 2010

More education investment should be in K-12, not college

Bob Herbert, columnist for the NY Times, writes on Aug 7 some oft-heard views about the downsliding of American education.  The central complaint for this has come to be represented by the percent of the population with a college education.  President Obama waves this figure around often. By that metric, the US is now 12th in the world.   This is said to be evidence of the need for quick remedial action, if not actual panic.

The basis of the panicky reaction is that we're not able to compete in the world.  Other countries are outpacing us.  Industry will falter -- geez, we might even produce fewer investment bankers!

But is that the right reaction?  Or is this a misrepresentation of the real problem that we face?

College degrees have progressively become items of status display, and our society more credentialist.  You need a degree to get jobs that pay more than minimum wage, you mention your degrees at parties (and groan at the insistence by which others there make sure you know of theirs).  Actual achievement sometimes takes a back seat to this kind of score-counting.

At the same time, colleges and universities have progressively become industries, advertising and reinforcing these attitudes about how important and necessary their product is, and doing their best to lure customers.  Even online quasiversities are doing a land-office business.

But the real problem is the lack of earlier education, and lack of stress on the importance of training, at young ages, of people for many of the jobs for which there is a real demand.  Not all of them require what we think of as a 'college' degree.  With proper reform of K-12 we would 'need' a lot fewer college degrees.

A college degree is not so obviously what its image, carefully fostered by the university industry, makes it seem.  Many if not most college degrees involve rather minimal formal or rigorous training.  Classes have become increasingly events to entertain student-customers, attendance dropping or not rigorously insisted on, students majoring in the softer or more quick-money based subjects, remedial courses for the unprepared, and the core technical parts of many subjects (perhaps what industry most needs, but harder to learn and teach) have been watered down to suit these poorly K-12'ed students.

If you want properly trained, industrious graduate students, you'd better recruit them from China or India.  Don't bother with Americans, especially black, Hispanic, or Native Americans who've been through our public education system.  They simply aren't up to speed or aren't interested, and they won't help out on your grants nearly as 'productively'.  And, again partly because of our poor investment in K-12, we're not investing nearly enough in those parts of our society at the college level either -- not to mention that as the cost of college continues to increase, its accessibility to the poor continues to decrease.

Of course these are generalizations and there are certainly exceptions to each of these issues.  Every class in every college or university has skilled, interested students.  But what we need are more people with more technical skills, including computer programming, mathematics, electronics, manufacturing technologies and the like -- even repair and maintenance.  Some of these require post-high school training, or even college degrees (if the college insists on rigor, but not all of them do).

The post-WWII boom in US college training occurred in a day when colleges and universities had much higher standards, and had only been enrolling a small fraction of the population.  Perhaps also, and debatably, a broad liberal arts degree prepared you for analytical thinking and hence all sorts of not purely technical employment.  But colleges were not just tuition-mills; they didn't hesitate to flunk out students who didn't measure up.

By the time one was a senior, s/he was at least something of an expert in her major field, and often broadly knowledgeable beyond that.  It wasn't Nirvana, of course, and there's a ton more to learn now, in the case of science particularly.  But the weakening of standards is at least as important as the number of degrees.

In genetics, molecular, developmental, and evolutionary biology various skills are important.  Among them are statistical tools and understanding of probability.  So much is now computational, that mathematics and computer programming should also be part of life-science majors -- and indeed students should learn at least some of this in high school.  But many upper level students even at good universities claim they chose to study biology so they wouldn't need to do any math.  Try teaching them as seniors!

It's even true that standards for getting a PhD or other higher degrees have declined widely if not universally.  Getting, or keeping, a faculty job rests ever more heavily on bean-counting and formal credentials: number of publications, lists of 'research', amount of grant money brought in.  Yet it is trivially easy to show how little most published research is cited by anybody but the authors and their friends. Meanwhile, in many 'research' universities, teaching is given lower status relative to career advancement and, you guessed it, getting grants and paper-counts more.

Higher education is important in the age in which more of our lives hinge on science and technology, on interpreting research data and acting in 'empirical' ways ('evidence based medicine' for example), and on rigorous education, in classes you can actually flunk if you don't do the work well or show up to class.  We do have a real need for higher education, but skill and ability can come along in many forms, and many types of school.

And that means we need to be training teachers in real subjects, not just bulletin board technique and counseling -- and paying them better, so that better students choose to become teachers.  That is a major part of our problem. 

Every system has its false fronts, and it's always easy to find real faults because they always exist.  If our national needs could be served by making college mandatory, they might be satisfied if the standards were higher.  But if the standards were higher, we wouldn't need to rely on, much less idolize, formal credentials, like college diplomas.  And we wouldn't think we simply needed more of them.

The university industry might suffer, for example, by having to shrink while tech schools grew and K-12 received more of the nation's education funds.  But every industry can become self-satisfied and bloated, and the college industry is that way these days.  So it's misplaced to simply say we need more college-educated citizens.  Just delete the word 'college' and you're closer to the truth.

Here we've not mentioned any of the over-arching objectives of college education: exposing students to things they'd never think of otherwise and hopefully enabling them to be better citizens or having more richly edifying lives.  Those are lefty political considerations, perhaps.  We happen to believe in them, but they are partly beside the points we want to make in this blog, which is about science.


Zachary Voch said...

Excellent post, Dr. Weiss.

This is my favorite point:

"College degrees have progressively become items of status display, and our society more credentialist. You need a degree to get jobs that pay more than minimum wage, you mention your degrees at parties (and groan at the insistence by which others there make sure you know of theirs). Actual achievement sometimes takes a back seat to this kind of score-counting.

At the same time, colleges and universities have progressively become industries, advertising and reinforcing these attitudes about how important and necessary their product is, and doing their best to lure customers. Even online quasiversities are doing a land-office business."

The very idea of treating "relevantly-educated status" as accurately represented by "nature of credentials" is rather silly, at least when applied to degrees as opposed to a record reflecting experience or references from those with experience.

I also liked the emphasis on math... but then, I'm partial to math.

At the university level, I propose that undergrads in technical majors like math and science should be treated as residents in a manner similar to the treatment of grad students/post-doc students, at least once the first or second year is over. In order to separate the results from the current credentialism, the emphasis could be on collaborative projects similar to Gowers's Polymath. Ideally, everybody should have an informal erdos number of 1 or 2 by the time they leave school. Then, potential employers, consulting the relevant faculty, would be making decisions based on "guy we've worked with" rather than "guy with degree X and list of publications Y".

This might be easier for math than some forms of science outside of the theoretical side, but you'd have to let me know. I think that this would help reform the rather comically competitive nature of academia.

As a bonus, such projects would not necessarily require "attending university" as a credential. Instead, it would only require the sustained interest, social efficacy, and intellectual capacity required for the job. Concrete credentials would not be needed to justify a given hiring.

Hm... I should stop lurking at Polymath and actually focus on contributing...

Ken Weiss said...

Many sciences would be similar. I would greatly increase the requirement for probability and statistics, statistical modeling, and computer programming, for all science majors (if not beyond).

Right now, the tendency is to find some online computer package, and they are many and very fine, and do what they allow you to do. The problem is that this clearly puts thinking in the box of available algorithms and concepts. Even when the latter are good and appropriate, point-and-click does not encourage original thinking but instead encourages intellectual laziness and high-throughput-thinking.

Throughput has its place and not everyone can or will be able to think out of the box. Indeed, some degree of standardization is needed for science, especially when it's an industry as it is now.

Still, training in the underpinnings is waning but should be boosted, I think.

Ken Weiss said...

A story in today's (Monday's) NY Times repeats Obama's panic over college 'graduation' rates. But to be competitive a sports analogy may be better. Nobody thinks the a baseball team would be better if they reduced the rate at which they cut players from the roster. The roster is limited, and baseball is a skill sport.

College level education is, or should be and used to be, something like that. It is a skilled endeavor and the quality of the graduates would be improved if the dropout or flunkout rates improved--presuming this is done by virtue of the rigor of the course material.

This is not elitist, but if anything meritocratic. College should not be a cost issue for anyone skilled and dedicated enough to handle the work.

And for different, less 'academic' skills, there are other kinds of higher level education, and they should be supported better than they are, and nurtured at earlier ages. That, in fact, should include sports as well as mechanical, artisanal, and other skills.

Anne Buchanan said...

And Paul Krugman in today's NYT writes that one money-saving move in many cash-strapped states is to lay off teachers. Exactly the wrong thing to do.

Texbrit said...

I think you can't go wrong beefing up K-12, whereas you might go wrong focusing on higher ed. The point about early education is giving young people the skills to know *how* to learn and to be interested in learning. Then, they will find their own paths in "higher" education. It is too late to make Dr. Einsteins (or Dr Weisses!) out of them if they can't read when they are 18.

Conversely, a young person with a solid foundation in basic skills, learning and research methods, will find ways to hone those skills at higher (university or otherwise) levels. Plus, we then have the benefit that all people in society have a higher baseline of knowledge.

In the UK, the update of university education amongst the whole population is still way behind the US, but we too suffer from the "dumbing down" of the university qualification as a whole. Whilst university enrollment keeps going up and up, most of them are going into Media Studies; while chemistry and physics departments up and down the country are shutting their doors due to lack of students choosing those fields.

Perhaps the French system of different higher education tracks makes sense, so long as we can avoid the rigidness of that particular system.

Ken Weiss said...

The issues are subtle, here, as always. Universities used to be mainly acculturation centers for the male aristocrats. They learned how to quote the classics and poetry, crook their fingers at tea, punt on the river. They were trained for the priesthood, military, or civil administration.

Being idle rich was good for those who were also intelligent and curious, and led to some of western history's greatest scientists, leaders, thinkers, and artists.

The posh still get preferential admission to august universities, and some can still think their way enough to find home. So the good ol' days when mainly wealthy kids could go to college were not uniformly good. But in the US the post-war meritocratic era in college education, things were very effective.

Ken Weiss said...

The Brits Reaganized, or we Thatcherated, our educational systems in monkey-see monkey-do fashion. As I see it, the trend towards universities and research brothels started here but then spread to the UK.

The French system is, as I understand it, not entirely great. Everyone can get into to at least some major universities, a legacy of 20th century socialization. But I think the quality is mixed. France does, of course, produce highest-quality scholars and scientists, so perhaps their way of doing things works.

But we produce many top-notch producers (and the UK does, too). The question really is what would raise the numbers, and whether formal education, or achieved abilities, would be the best path.

Certainly some of the dropouts are due to lack of funds, not lack of grey matter. Affordability's another of the issues.

Zachary Voch said...

"Throughput has its place and not everyone can or will be able to think out of the box. Indeed, some degree of standardization is needed for science, especially when it's an industry as it is now."

Certainly, and I think that this standardization could be better achieved through interaction with the professional community as opposed to solely through textbooks/a single professor. I know that in mathematics, understanding current and important conventions requires direct experience. I would not be surprised if this was even more true for the sciences. If anything, understanding something like a convention or the reasoning behind the particulars of a standard protocol would be achieved more efficiently in this manner. Memory of X is strongly associated with the ability to place X in a meaningful context, is it not?

"This is not elitist, but if anything meritocratic."

The two are conflated with worryingly frequency, are they not?

Texbrit said...

If more and more non-technical and non-academic jobs "need" a university degree, surely it must mean that our education system is horribly inefficient if it takes until you are 21-22 years old to gain sufficient communication and reasoning skills and depth of basic knowledge to equip you to be...a phone salesman or manager of a car service garage. Surely it means that we are wasting those K-12 years. Like you said, maybe if primary ed was better than people could get on with the business of being productive earlier, and universities could re-specialise in teaching highly technical or research-orientated things. Then technical institutes could be set up to teach programmers, engineers and pilots, etc.

Ken Weiss said...

Elitism and meritocracy are confounded, certainly, and partly because the wealthy have access to better schools. But we don't have to just sit by and accept it. Democratization of education has worked wonders in the past, but it's been allowed to be watered down.

The problem with too much standardization is that it puts people in in-the-box mode, to get through school, get jobs, get research published, get grants, etc.

Acculturation is part of life, and part of what Kuhn called 'normal' science. Only a few can really step out of the box. But we should have a system that enables rather than stifling that.

It sounds elitist to speak about non-acedemic jobs, as if we're patting auto mechanics and electricians paternalistically on the head. But these days they can make more than some teachers, and their skills are really needed. Likewise, various kinds of math-related, programming-related, and so on skills are needed but the status system puts them in short supply.

Texbrit said...

It's tough: when U. of Oxford was young, there were only four professions possible in life: peasant, aristocrat, priest, or soldier. Now, our supposedly limitless choices of careers (to be chosen like choosing a flavour of ice cream - now THAT'S democratisation for you!), combined an apparent "credential inflation" (again, result of democratisation of education) means that more and more people feel forced to attend U. in order to join that arms race - thereby adding yet to the devaluation of the qualification. Add to that times of high unemployment when employers can be very choosy, it means that people enroll in college for lack of anywhere else to go, and because now even the Volkswagen garage can require that their salespeople have a college degree. And for what?

Ken Weiss said...

Well, yes. And employers follow our credentialist culture in looking for the signs (baubles?) of ability rather than the more difficult task of evaluating potential employees for the actual ability. Even universities are rigid in their degree requirements, so that many talented odd-balls can't get through!

Any positive-feedback system, in this case the credentialist arms race as you put it, is a danger. Just like any form of exponential growth, it has to crash sometime.

Anne Buchanan said...

Hold on. The percentage of people with a college degree in the US is still a minority of the population -- it has increased some in the last 50 years, but it's both slowing and still only around a quarter. Here's a Wikipedia quote:

"In 2005, the proportion of the population having finished high school and the percentage of those having earned Bachelor's degrees remained at an all-time high, while the growth in both categories has slowed down over the past two decades. The vast majority of the population, 85.2%, had finished high school and over a quarter, 27.7%, had earned a Bachelor's degree. The percentage of both college and high school graduates continued to increase since 2000. Since 1983 the percentage of people graduating from high school has increased from 85% to 88%. The greatest increases in educational attainment were documented in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. In the 1950s and much of the 1960s high school graduates constituted about 50% of those considered adults (25 and above). The young adults aged between 25 and 29, percentage of high school graduates was roughly 50% in 1950 versus 90% today."

We in academia, or with college degrees -- actually a fairly rarified segment of the population -- naturally see the world through college-educated glasses, but most people don't have a college education. Whether or not they feel pressure to go to college, I don't know, but most people haven't.

Which of course only strengthens the argument in favor of improving K-12 education. And the argument in favor of technical education.

But the idea that such a dual track system could be separate-but-equal is akin to the argument that a teaching track at universities can be equal to a research track. By and large, the college-educated will still earn more money, just as professors who bring in grant, rather than 'just' tuition money, get more of the rewards that universities have to offer. Whether or not the college-educated earn more respect is a separate question.

Texbrit said...

The outgoing Labour government declared a target to get "50% of British school-leavers into University" by such-and-such year. Thank god that policy was not carried on by the new government. Can you imagine what a catastrophe for education (and subsequent employment prospects!) that would have been!

Jennifer said...

I think that one problem with K-12 is attitude. People in this culture are not expected to like school. It seems that I read and hear about other cultures where people really value their educations.

Also, I believe that people are handed way too much in this society which discourages people from valuing hard work / studying.

Trade and vocational schools are very good and economical options that I think are underutilized. My son said when he graduated from high school and headed for college that he was disappointed that no one had mentioned to him that he had that option. I imagine that there are alot of high school students who don't bother putting in alot of effort and who are pessamistic about their futures because they know they can't afford college, and because they don't learn a marketable skill in high school.

Colleges and universities need to be restructured, I believe. They need to revolve around the student more. And need to be more affordable. I get very frustrated with liberal arts educations that send the graduate out into the world knowing how to think but without any real skills. Often recent high school graduates have no clue what they want to spend the rest of their lives doing, so don't pick a specific area. Then alot of money is spent teaching them how to learn - helpful but not always marketable.

Anyway, I guess I feel that the whole thing would benefit from being restructured. High school (and college) needs to prepare students for what comes next - either college to prepare for a career or to be a valueable member of the work force. The students need to take their education more seriously and not just take it for granted and try to slide by. Party schools should crack down on those who are not taking their education seriously - and make room for more serious students who weren't admitted simply for lack of space.

Gotta go - have to go practice my trade!

Texbrit said...

It's getting way off topic, but as ever there is a healthy class component. There is a class of people (let's call them the educated class) for whom education is important, even to the kids. These families will find a way to get a decent education for their kids by hook or by crook, even if the schools are crumbling around them. They will move to another town, if necessary.

Then there are the others, for whom the mere idea of education is a far off dream, not a part of their existence. The rare kid who wants to learn in spite of this is ridiculed and ostracised by his friends, and possibly even his parents. Fixing the school in his neighbourhood will not help the low esteem in which education is held in that community. This happens a lot in the minority communities referred to in this article, but god only knows why. I would imagine that two hundred years ago even a slave would be desperate for his child to have a chance at an education, and the slave child desperate for it too!!! So having an education, or even knowing somebody with an education, is not necessary to value it, we can prove that.

Perhaps what has happened is that a) it is easy to prosper (by historical, not relative) standards even without an education; and b) the (seeming) lure of easy money being a hip-hop star seems both more fun and more within reach, and better paying than working your ass off to be an astrophysicist!

Ken Weiss said...

There are definitely class-related aspects that go beyond just money. Some families are driven to seek successes of a certain attainable kind--academic, entertainment, athletic, etc. And some classes, as a generalization, seem to accept that those things are not for them.

Leelynn King said...

OK K-12 or college our education system is outdated. The last figures I heard was that our level of technology doubles every two years, which would mean that everything students learn this year will be completely outdated and worthless to them two years from now before they even have a chance to prosper from the knowledge. So WHY WHY WHY do we put SOOOOO much emphasis on the the need to memorize and repeat soon to be useless information. Even science is advancing at a marvelous pace and while an understanding of science and math is necessary computers can now do in fractions of a second what we spend 3 years teaching our children how to do.

Since we live in such a fast pace world teaching people information that will worthless garbage usually by the time they get it is a colossal waste of time. What we need, and the world needs, to keep pace is more people that known how to solve problems. People that have had their creativity developed that know how to think and create. "imagination is more important than IQ" We need people that know where to get the information that they need and know how to use it effectively to do something useful and prosperous for the world and stop wasting precious time learning the info.

We need to train children to succeed, they must be challenged, taught to fail aiming for the moon and to get up again and keep shooting until they succeed. Rare is the young man or woman that graduates HS with any remote understanding of how to live and succeed in the fast paced competitive world we live in. Now most begin to realize this around 7th-8th grade and we wonder why no one is motivated to excel in a school system that they can see is teaching them irrelevant dribble.

K-12 could just as easily be taught in K-6 and children could be pushed challenged, trained to think and ask questions. Trained to create and gather and use relevant information to solve the world's bigger problems. We need to develop "IDEA MEN" 'Yes men' are worthless.

Ken Weiss said...

I agree with most of what you say. I think there really is more to learn than there was, because our society is so dependent on technology and is so complex. I teach genetics, where things really to become obsolete. But the problem isn't just things becoming obsolete, but that there is so much more to known, or at least understand.

I agree about memorization, but I think if we rely on computers to do everything, we're dependent on what the programmer programmed, and can't do as much ourselves. Lack of programming ability means a lot of great ideas are locked out of the system. Of course, to a great extent, but not entirely, things are so complicated that specialization is necessary.

Certainly your ideas of challenging students to think, take themselves seriously, believe in themselves and the possibilities for their future, and to stimulate their imaginations would be important.

I don't think we can do it in K-6, but we could certainly do a better job of that in K-12 and then have various kinds of training (including on-the-job training) after that.

For some, university education is needed, such as in math and chemistry. But for many fields, probably most fields, the key is knowledge and general thinking ability, and the knowledge can come from experience, not textbooks.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Leelynn. You might be interested in the story John Hawks links to over at his blog (, about Bill Gates predicting that college will be replaced by the web within five years.