Posts Tagged 'education system'

Sexual harassment/abuse among college students – new survey results released

Sexual harassment and abuse on college campuses has garnered increased attention in the media and by political leaders. Surprisingly, there is little research documenting what is actually happening among college students – what the levels of abuse and harassment are, who is being victimized, and how students feel their college administrators are dealing with these issues.

In the spring of 2018 Crux Research surveyed 717 current college students to learn more about the current state of these issues. An issue like sexual harassment can be challenging to get right from a polling standpoint because it can be difficult to define. As a general term, it can be too broad to interpret as different experiences may be construed by one person as harassment and as another as not being harassment. The best way to address this is to be specific in our questioning. To be sure respondents understood our objectives, we developed a list of statements under three harassment categories shown below:

Verbal/Non-Physical harassment

  • Being called gay or lesbian in a negative way
  • Being shown sexy or sexual pictures you didn’t want to see
  • Being verbally intimidated in a sexual way
  • Having someone make unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about you
  • Having someone flash or expose themselves to you

Online harassment

  • Being called gay or lesbian in a negative way online
  • Having someone spread unwelcome sexual rumors about you online
  • Having someone post unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or pictures about or of you online
  • Being sent unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or pictures electronically

Physical harassment

  • Being physically intimidated in a sexual way
  • Being touched in an unwelcome sexual way
  • Being forced to do something sexual you didn’t want to do

For each, we asked the college student if he/she had been a victim of the specific type of harassment since they had been a college student. We found that 54% of college students have been a victim of some form of verbal/non-physical harassment, 45% have been a victim of some sort of online harassment, and 32% have been a victim of some sort of physical harassment.

Importantly, this study finds that while victimization is usually thought of as an issue for college women, college men are also common victims of sexual harassment:

  • 55% of college females have been the victims of verbal harassment, compared to 52% of college males.
  • 42% of college females have been the victims of online harassment, compared to 47% of college males.
  • 32% of college females have been the victims of physical harassment, compared to 32% of college males.

There are some large differences in college males and females, depending on the specific form of harassment:

College females are more likely than college males to report that…

  • Someone has made unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about them (41% of females; 17% of males).
  • They have been verbally intimidated in a sexual way (27% of females; 17% of males).
  • They have been sent unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or pictures electronically (30% of females; 17% of males).

College males are more likely than college females to report that…

  • Being called gay or lesbian in a negative way (20% of males; 14% of females).
  • Being called gay or lesbian in a negative way online (20% of males; 8% of females).

Perhaps most surprising is that for the most serious abuse item presented (“being forced to do something sexual that you didn’t want to do”) there was no statistical difference between college males and college females. Overall, 13% of college students indicated this has happened to them since they have been at college – about 1 in 8 college students. Again, the most serious types of sexual harassment and abuse happening on campuses is not solely a female issue. College men are reporting being sexual abused in a physical way as well.

Although we have shown that victimization is not solely an issue for college females, it is clear from our study that the perpetrators of sexual harassment/abuse are predominantly male. Overall, victims report that 72% of the time their harasser was male, 16% of the time the harasser was female, and 12% of the time it was both.

Most commonly, victims report that their harasser was a fellow college student (53%) or a friend (26%). 12% report that their harasser was a romantic partner. It is rare that students will report that their instructors/professors (4% of cases) or another adult at college (3%) are the harassers. Sexual harassment on college campuses appears to be mostly peer-to-peer.

Unique to this study, we also asked college students if they had done anything since they had been a student that could be correctly interpreted as being sexual harassment. Seventeen percent (17%) of students said they had – including 28% of all college males. To repeat: more than one in four (28%) of college males admit that they have done something to sexually harass another student since they have been in college.

Perhaps most troubling is how infrequently instances of abuse are reported. This study indicates that just 37% of harassment gets reported. Females (reporting 24% of instances) are less likely than males (54%) to make a report. For every report made by a college female, there are three incidents that are not reported.  And, our study also found that instances where the harasser was a fellow student are the ones that are least likely to be reported.

This issue has been brought more front and center at colleges in the past few years. College culture is moving towards supporting the victim/accuser. Compared to a year ago, about half (52%) of students are more likely to believe someone that reports being sexually harassed and 15% are less likely to believe someone who reports harassment. About two-thirds (65%) of students think the greater focus on these issues will result in a long-term change in attitudes about sexual harassment at college. Three-quarters (74%) feel that unreported sexual harassment is a bigger issue than false reporting of sexual harassment.

College students are largely satisfied with how their administration has addressed sexual misconduct and harassment. Overall, just 6% felt that their administration is not taking this issue seriously. Seventy percent (70%) feel that their college provides enough protection against sexual harassment and abuse.

In sum, sexual harassment and abuse occurs at a troubling level at colleges – and both college females and males are victims. Students are rallying behind the accusers, yet far too few victims are reporting harassment incidences, especially when they happen student-to-student. It appears that students have confidence in their administrators to handle these issues and protect them.

Millennial College Students Are Torn Between Open Speech and Protecting the Vulnerable

We recently completed a poll of 1,000 college students on the topic of free speech on campus. Previous postings (here and here) have shown that students are reticent to support controversial speakers on campus and do not support any speakers who might have viewpoints that some students find to be uncomfortable.

In this final post on our poll results, we take a look at some contradictions in our data that demonstrate that today’s college students are torn between a desire to favor a campus that promotes free and open debate and an ethos that makes them want to protect the vulnerable from feeling uncomfortable.

There has been a long-held belief by conservatives that colleges are bastions of liberal thinking and perhaps indoctrination. Our poll results lend support to this viewpoint, as 52% of college students feel their professors tend to be more liberal in their thinking than the nation as a whole while just 23% feel their professors are more conservative:

Compared to the views of the nation as a whole, would you say that your current professors/instructors tend to be:
More conservative in their thinking 23%
About the same as the nation as a whole 25%
More liberal in their thinking 52%

Students tend to express a desire for their professors to be given a wide latitude to express their views and are largely not in support of administrators censoring how professors express their views to students.

Which statement below comes closest to your opinion?
College administrators should closely monitor what professors/instructors teach to make sure all students are comfortable 33%
College professors/instructors should be given a wide degree of freedom to express their views to students 67%

The result below shows that students report that colleges should encourage students to have an open mind to ideas that they may find uncomfortable. At first glance, college students seem to favor an atmosphere of openness on campus.

Which statement below comes closest to your opinion?
Colleges should attempt to shield students from ideas and opinions they may find unwelcome and offensive 25%
Colleges should encourage students to be exposed to ideas and opinions they may find unwelcome and offensive 75%

Millennial college students also recognize that free and open speech is central to university life. For example:

  • Two-thirds (66%) agree that the intellectual vitality of a university depends on open and free expression of ideas.
  • 63% agree that free speech, including controversial speech, is central to college teaching and learning.
  • 57% agree that student-run newspapers have a first amendment right to publish controversial stories without running afoul of college administrators.

That said, this poll also shows that Millennials also hold some views that run counter to the free speech ethos they express:

  • 57% agree that students should be encouraged to report instances of professor bias to administrators.
  • 48% feel that students should be provided warnings in advance to alert them to potentially troublesome readings.
  • 45% feel that colleges should provide intellectual safe spaces, where students can retreat from ideas and perspectives that are at odds with their own.

And, as we discussed in our previous postings, students shy away from permitting almost any type of speaker on campus that could potentially communicate anything that might cause a subgroup of students discomfort.

So, there are some contradictions in our findings that needs explaining. We feel that there is likely some nuance on Millennial opinion. The Millennial college student seems torn between realizing that exposure to ideas counter to their own is essential to their education and a strong ethos of protecting the vulnerable.

Which statement below comes closest to your opinion?
It is more important that colleges stick up for the vulnerable 50%
It is more important that colleges stand up for a spirit of inquiry 50%

This nuance is difficult for Boomer and Xers (who make up most college administrators and professors) to grasp. Older generations grew up not only at a time when free and open speech was held to a higher standard but also at a time where the college/university campus was the nexus of student opinion and influence. Today’s Millennial student has experienced more cultural diversity on campus and has established digital meeting spaces are their nexus for opinion and community. Millennials are exposed to diverse and controversial opinions constantly, to the point where their desire to protect the campus from controversy and discomfort may be a defense mechanism. It is an environment they can control.

What this all means for the university has yet to be seen. But, campus life is changing, and it will be key that the pendulum that is now swinging towards safety and comfort doesn’t swing so far as to limit student exposure to valuable viewpoints and a well-rounded worldview.

Students Are More Likely to Oppose Campus Speakers Than to Support Them

We recently posted a result from an in-depth poll we conducted among 1,000 college students last fall. In this poll we asked students about specific speakers they may or may not support coming to their campus. Among our conclusions was that students largely aren’t supportive of very many speakers – particularly individuals who might be considered to be controversial or present ideas some might find uncomfortable.

In this same poll, we asked students about types of speakers that might come to a college campus. We included speaker types we felt most observers would feel are appropriate as well as speaker types that we felt even the most passionate free speech advocates might question. Our goal was to see where “the line” might be for today’s college students. The answer is the line is very high – students largely don’t want campus speakers at all.

The table below shows the percentage of US college students who would support each type of speaker coming to their campus to speak:

Support
A leader from the Black Lives Matter movement 50%
An advocate for the legalization of marijuana 46%
An elected official with views that are vastly different than yours 22%
A publisher of pornographic videos 21%
An activist who has a different view on abortion than you do 19%
A speaker who strongly opposes the Black Lives matter movement 19%
A politician who is against gay marriage 17%
A speaker who believes that there are racial differences in intelligence 17%
A tobacco company executive 14%
A speaker who is known to have sexually harassed a colleague in the past 11%
Muslim who advocates hatred towards the United States 10%
A speaker who believes that the Holocaust did not happen 10%
A white supremacist 10%

Some interesting conclusions can be made by looking at whom students are willing to support coming to their campus to speak:

  • Even the most highly supported type of speaker (A leader from the Black Lives Matter movement) is only supported by half (50%) of students. Support for any type of campus speaker is tepid.
  • Two types of speakers stood out as having the most support: Leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement and advocates for the legalization of marijuana.
  • It is perhaps troubling that only about 1 in 5 students (22%) support an elected official with views different from their own.
  • Racially insensitive speakers (white supremacists and Holocaust deniers) are the least supported types of speakers.

We can also look at the same list, but this time sorted by the percentage of students who oppose this type of speaker coming to their campus to speak:

Oppose
A white supremacist 68%
A speaker who believes that the Holocaust did not happen 68%
A speaker who is known to have sexually harassed a colleague in the past 67%
Muslim who advocates hatred towards the United States 66%
A speaker who believes that there are racial differences in intelligence 51%
A politician who is against gay marriage 50%
A tobacco company executive 49%
A speaker who strongly opposes the Black Lives matter movement 46%
A publisher of pornographic videos 39%
An activist who has a different view on abortion than you do 27%
An elected official with views that are vastly different than yours 25%
An advocate for the legalization of marijuana 16%
A leader from the Black Lives Matter movement 16%

Here we see that:

  • In general, students are more passionate in their opposition to speaker types than in their support.
  • Speakers with racially insensitive views and those known to have sexually harassed someone are the most opposed types of speakers. Speakers who have sexually harassed are opposed just as much as white supremacists.
  • About half of students oppose politicians who are against gay marriage and tobacco company executives. This is about the same level of opposition as to a speaker who believes there are racial differences in intelligence.
  • About 1 in 4 students would oppose an elected official that has different views than the student.

Because there have been instances of speakers being shouted down and even physically confronted by college students, we posed a question that asked students what they felt were acceptable ways to protest against a campus speaker.

Which of the following actions would you take if you were strongly opposed to a speaker your college had invited to speak on campus?
Disagree with the speaker during a question-and-answer period 25%
Organize a boycott of the speech 22%
Stage a protest outside of the building where the speech is taking place 21%
Host a concurrent speech from a speaker with an opposing view 16%
Stage a sit-in at an administrative building 12%
Physically confront the speaker 8%
Disrupt the speech while it is going on 7%

For the most part, students don’t support any actions if they strongly oppose a campus speaker. While it is encouraging to see that they do not support disrupting the speech or physically confronting a speaker, it is perhaps just as disheartening to see that only 1 in 4 would be willing to disagree with the speaker during a Q&A period. So, not only do students not want most types of speakers, they aren’t willing to step up and do something if a speaker they find controversial does come to campus.

Just as we found when we looked at specific speakers, students seem to be shying away from not just controversial speakers, but also those that might make some portion of the student body uncomfortable. Based on these results, we predict that there will be fewer speakers invited to college campuses in the future and that attendance at these events will decline.

Who is an appropriate campus speaker? Almost nobody!

US colleges face many free speech challenges. Traditionally, colleges have been places where diverse viewpoints are encouraged even if ideas expressed are seen as controversial. But recently, there have been many instances of invited speakers to college campuses sparking protest, being shouted down, and even being physically confronted by students on campuses. It seems that a generational shift is taking place whereby Millennial students are highly concerned about inclusiveness and protecting vulnerable groups from potentially harmful speech. Prior generations of college students (Xers and especially Boomers) seemed to hold the concept of free speech in higher regard and seemed willing to permit more controversial speech on campus.

This is a fascinating issue and we covered it in depth in a poll of 1,000 US college students conducted last fall. This poll tackled a number of issues regarding how today’s college students view the balance between free speech and protecting vulnerable groups. We will be making a number of posts to share the results of this poll, and our first one relates to who today’s college students view as appropriate speakers to bring to campus.

We brainstormed a number of potential speakers, some liberal and some conservative. We listed government officials who, even though they have strong political opinions, we felt most of academia would say have a legitimate right to be heard. And, we listed celebrities accused of some reprehensible acts, speakers who have already generated controversy on college campuses, and foreign leaders considered to be rivals of the United States. Our goal was to see where Millennials draw a “line” – at what point is a speaker so controversial or so offensive that he/she would not have the support of students to come to campus to speak. In total, we listed 24 individuals.

The table below shows the percentage of US college students who would support each speaker coming to their campus to speak:

Person Support
Barack Obama 71%
Bernie Sanders 59%
Joe Biden 48%
Hillary Clinton 39%
Colin Kaepernick 35%
Elizabeth Warren 27%
Donald Trump 24%
Caitlyn Jenner 23%
Paul Ryan 21%
Mike Pence 20%
Louis CK 20%
Chelsea Manning 19%
Bill Cosby 19%
Vladimir Putin 19%
Al Sharpton 18%
Rachel Maddow 17%
Bill O’Reilly 17%
Kevin Spacey 16%
Milo Yiannopoulos 16%
OJ Simpson 16%
Ann Coulter 14%
Kim Jong-un 13%
Steve Bannon 13%
Betsy DeVos 11%
Harvey Weinstein 10%

Some interesting conclusions can be made from whom students are willing to support coming to their campus to speak:

  • Only two speakers, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, receive support from a majority of college students.
  • Liberal politicians lead the way – with 5 of the top 6 most supported speakers being leading Democrats.
  • Donald Trump, our current president, is only supported by about 1 in 4 (24%) college students as a campus speaker.
  • Celebrities accused of sexual harassment (Louis CK, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein) are among the least supported potential speakers.

We can also look at the same list, but this time sorted by the percentage of students who oppose them coming to their campus to speak:

Person Oppose
Kim Jong-un 61%
Donald Trump 53%
Bill Cosby 47%
Vladimir Putin 47%
OJ Simpson 45%
Harvey Weinstein 45%
Mike Pence 39%
Kevin Spacey 34%
Caitlyn Jenner 33%
Betsy DeVos 33%
Bill O’Reilly 28%
Steve Bannon 28%
Louis CK 27%
Hillary Clinton 27%
Milo Yiannopoulos 25%
Paul Ryan 24%
Ann Coulter 23%
Colin Kaepernick 18%
Al Sharpton 18%
Rachel Maddow 16%
Chelsea Manning 16%
Joe Biden 15%
Elizabeth Warren 13%
Bernie Sanders 12%
Barack Obama 10%

Here we see that:

  • Donald Trump is clearly polarizing among college students, with 53% saying they would oppose him coming to their campus to speak.
  • The most opposed speakers are foreign leaders/rivals (Kim Jong-Un, Vladimir Putin), Donald Trump, and celebrities who have been accused of serious crimes (Bill Cosby, OJ Simpson, Harvey Weinstein).
  • Surprisingly, some speakers who have had challenges when speaking at college campuses in the past (Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos) don’t have high levels of opposition in this poll.

These results are disheartening to those who feel that open expression of ideas is central to collegiate life. Perhaps the key conclusion from these data is how few speakers students support – showing a clear tendency of students to avoid perspectives they may find uncomfortable. This attitude has caused many college administrators to stop allowing potentially controversial speakers on campus as they worry about security and the unrest it may cause. Free speech advocates are likely to feel that today’s students are missing out on an educational opportunity – to listen to different perspectives to help shape a world view.

In either case, attitudes towards free speech on campus are very different than a generation ago – a topic we will be pursuing as we release other data from this poll.

Are Teenagers Widgets?

Many educational strategy proposals to better engage students assume that all students are similar in how they are motivated to do their best. Yet, students are likely to respond to educational challenges put before them very differently. Students may be engaged in different ways and perhaps not fit into a “one best model” of schooling. Ask any parent that has more than one child, and he/she is likely to tell you just how different their kids are.

Crux Research recently completed a project for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute entitled What Teens Want From Their Schools: A National Survey of High School Student Engagement. This project was based on more than 2,000 interviews and six focus groups of US High School Students. A central feature of the project was a segmentation model that highlighted that although there are many aspects of student engagement that students hold in common, students tend to be strongly associated with one of six primary engagement tendencies. In short, it is unlikely that one model of schooling can be optimal for all children.

A full report of this project is available here.

A Math Myth?

math_symbols_m

I just finished reading The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions by Andrew Hacker. I found the book to be so provocative and interesting that it merits the first ever book review on this blog.

The central thesis of the book is that in the US, we (meaning policy makers, educators, parents, and employers) have become obsessed with raising rigor and academic standards in math. This obsession has reached a point where we are convinced that our national security, international business competitiveness, and hegemony as an economic power rides on improving the math skills of all our high school and college graduates.

Hacker questions this national fixation. First, raising math standards has some serious costs. Not only has it caused significant disruption within schools and among educators and parents (ask any educator about the upheaval the Common Core has caused), but it has also cost significant money. But, most importantly, Hacker makes a strong case that raising of math standards has ensured that many students will be left behind and unprepared for the future.

Currently, about one in four high school students does not complete high school. Once enrolled in college, only a bit more than half of enrollees will graduate. While there are many reasons for these failures, Hacker points out that the chief ACADEMIC reason is math.

I think everyone can think of someone who struggled mightily in math. I personally took Calculus in high school and two further courses in college. I have often wondered why. It seemed to be more of a rite of passage than an academic pursuit with any realistic end in mind for me. It was certainly painful.

Math has humbled many a bright young person. I have a niece who was an outstanding high school student (an honors student, took multiple AP courses, etc.). She went to a reputable four-year college. In her first year at college, she failed a required math course in Calculus. This remains the only course she had gotten below a B in during her entire academic life. Her college-mandated math experience made her feel like a failure and reconsider whether she belonged in college. Fortunately for her she had good supports in place and succeeded in her second go round at the course. Many others are not so lucky.

And to what end? My niece has ended up in a quantitative field and is succeeding nicely. Yet, I doubt she has ever had to calculate the area under a curve, run a derivative, or understand a differential equation.

The reality is very few people do. Hacker, using Bureau of Labor Statistics data, estimates that about 5% of the US workforce currently uses math beyond basic arithmetic in their jobs. This means that only about 1 in 20 of our students will need to know basic algebra or beyond in their employment. 95% will do just fine with the math that most people master by the end of 8th grade.

And, despite the focus on STEM education, Hacker uses BLS data to show that the number of engineering jobs in the US is projected to grow at a slower rate than the economy as a whole. In addition, despite claims by policy makers that there is a dearth of qualified engineers, real wages for engineers have been falling and not rising, implying that supply is exceeding demand.

Yet, our high school standards and college entry standards require a mastery of not just algebra, but also geometry and trigonometry.

Most two-year colleges have a math test that all incoming students must pass – regardless of the program of study they intend to follow. As anyone who has worked with community colleges can attest to, remediation of math skills for incoming students is a major issue two-year institutions face. Hacker questions this. Why, for example, should a student intending to study cosmetology need to master algebra? When is the last time your haircutter needed to understand how to factor a polynomial?

The problem lies in what the requirement that all students master advanced math skills does to people’s lives unnecessarily. Many aspiring cosmetologists won’t pass this test and won’t end up enrolling in the program and will have to find new careers because they cannot get licensed. What interest does this serve?

Market research is a quantitative field. Perhaps not as much as engineering and sciences, but our field is focused on numbers and statistics and making sense of them. However, in about 30 years of working with researchers and hiring them, I can tell you that I have not once encountered a single researcher who doesn’t have the technical math background necessary to succeed. In fact, I’d say that most of the researchers I’ve known have mastered the math necessary for our field by the time they entered high school.

However, I have encountered many researchers who do not have the interpretive skills needed to draw insights from the data sets we gather. And, I’d say that MOST of the researchers I have encountered cannot write well and cannot communicate findings effectively to their clients.

Hacker calls these skills “numeracy” and advocates strongly for them. Numeracy skills are what the vast majority of our graduates truly need to master.  These are practical numerical skills, beyond the life skills that we are often concerned about (e.g. understanding the impact of debt, how compound interest works, how to establish a family budget).  Numeracy (which requires basic arithmetic skills) is making sense of the world by using numbers, and being able to critically understand the increasing amount of numerical data that we are exposed to.

Again, I have worked with researchers who have advanced skills in Calculus and multivariate statistical methods, yet have few skills in numeracy. Can you look at some basic cross-tabs and tell a story? Can you be presented with a marketing situation and think of how we can use research to gather data to make a decision more informed? These skills, rather than advanced mathematical or statistical skills, are what are truly valued in our field. If you are in our field for long, you’ll noticed that the true stars of the field (and the people being paid the most) are rarely the math and statistical jedis – they tend to be the people who have mastered both numeracy and communication.

This isn’t the first time our country has become obsessed with STEM achievement. I can think of three phases in the past century where we’ve become similarly single-minded about education. The first was the launch of Sputnik in 1957.This caused a near panic in the US that we were falling behind the Soviets and our educational system changed significantly as a result. The second was the release of the Coleman Report in 1966.This report criticized the way schools are funded and, based on a massive study, concluded that spending additional money on education did not necessarily create greater achievement. It once again produced a near-panic that our schools were not keeping up, and many educational reforms were made. The third “shock” came in the form of A Nation at Risk, which was published during the Gen X era in 1983. This governmental report basically stated that our nation’s schools were failing. Panicked policy makers responded with reforms, perhaps the most important being that the federal government started taking on an activist role in education. We now have the “Common Core Era” – which, if you take a long view, can be seen as history repeating itself.

Throughout all of these shocks, the American economy thrived. While other economies have become more competitive, for some reason we have come to believe that if we can just get more graduates that understand differential equations, we’ll somehow be able to embark on a second American century.

Many of the criticisms Hacker levies towards math have parallels in other subjects. Yes, I am in a highly quantitative field and I haven’t had to know what a quadratic equation is since I was 16 years old. But, I also haven’t had to conjugate French verbs, analyze Shakespearean sonnets, write poetry, or know what Shay’s Rebellion was all about. We study many things that don’t end up being directly applicable to our careers or day-to-day lives. That is part of becoming a well-rounded person and an intelligent citizen. There is nothing wrong with learning for the sake of learning.

However, there are differences in math. Failure to progress sufficiently in math prevents movement forward in our academic system – and prevents pursuit of formal education in fields that don’t require these skills. We don’t stop people from becoming welders, hair-cutters, or auto mechanics because they can’t grasp the nuances of literature, speak a foreign language, or have knowledge of US History. But, if they don’t know algebra, we don’t let them enroll in these programs.

This is in no way a criticism of the need to encourage capable students from studying advanced math. As we can all attest to whenever we drive over a bridge, drive a car, use social media, or receive medical treatment, having incredible engineers is essential to the quality of our life. We should all want the 5% of the workforce that needs advanced math skills to be as well trained as possible.Our future world depends on them. Fortunately, the academic world is set up for them and rewards them.

But, we do have to think of alternative educational paths for the significant number of young people who will, at some point, find math to be a stumbling block to their future.

I highly recommend reading this book. Even if you do not agree with its premise or conclusions, it is a good example of how we need to think critically about our public policy declarations and the unintended consequences they can cause.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the entire book, Hacker wrote an editorial for the NY Times that eventually spawned the book. It is linked below.

Is Algebra Necessary?

 

The Cost of Not Going to College Is Probably Not As High As You Think

Each year, there are a number of studies that show the same thing:  there has never been a time when the salary gap between high school graduates and college graduates has been higher. According to Pew, this salary gap currently averages $17,500. The College Board puts the gap at $21,100.The implication seems clear:  stay in school, go to college, and reap the benefits.

However, there is actually a lot of nuance to this story and the true causes of this wage gap are rarely discussed. First, the fact that an average college graduate makes, say $20,000 more than a high school graduate entering the workforce does not mean that if you coax a high schooler who was not going to go to college to attend, he/she will make that much more. In fact, you should expect that particular student to make a much lower wage premium. Why?

The data both Pew and the College Board cite suffers from what researchers would call a “self-selection bias.” In short, high school graduates who enter the workforce immediately after graduation aren’t a comparable base of individuals to those who choose to go to college. The result is an apples-to-oranges comparison that makes the economic value of going to college versus going straight to the workforce to seem greater than it actually is.

To get a true measure of the “college premium” we’d have to run an experiment. We’d take a large sample of high school seniors and assign them to either “work” or “college” randomly. The difference in the “work” and “college” group would be the true college premium, and would be much less than the $20,000 that is claimed. (Of course this experiment could never actually happen!)

Why? Because the high school senior who chooses to college has higher earning potential than the one who chooses to work and would earn more even if he/she did not go to college. Similarly, the high school senior who chooses to work rather than college would be expected to make less than the average that current college students make if he/she chose to go to college.

Another example of this same concept would be the salary figures colleges promulgate. The median starting salary for a Stanford graduate is $61,300 per year. The average starting salary for a 4-year college graduate is $45,370.

Does this imply a Stanford education is responsible for a $15,930 starting salary premium compared to an “average” 4-year college? Absolutely not. To understand the Stanford premium, we’d have to take all incoming college students and randomly assign them to colleges. Then, in four years we can compare the average starting salary of graduates and make a credible claim that the Stanford premium is the difference. It will be much less than $15,930. Why? Because the incoming Stanford student has a potential earning power that is higher than the typical incoming college student. Much of the current “Stanford premium” would be due to this self-selection of the student and not to the education they receive at Stanford.

The information that is put out there regarding the college premium has unintended, but serious consequences. First, it pushes many students to choose college who will not gain the salary premium they expect. Many of these students will take substantial loans, may drop out, and will left in a financial mess that takes much of their adult lives to recover from. It is a little known fact that just 53% of those who enroll in a 4-year college actually end up graduating.

Second, this thinking drives many strong students to go to more expensive colleges. Many don’t realize that the salary premiums they will command likely have more to do with who they are than where they choose to attend college. It is likely that the key determinants of a young person’s success will not be where he/she went to college but more their own talents, hard work, and ambition.

Finally, our political leaders jump on statistics such as the college premium. They perpetuate a myth that all students should go to college, establish programs to make this possible, etc. This has contributed to unemployment among college graduates, declines in starting salaries among those who do, a crisis in middle skills employment, and a mismatch of labor to available jobs.

This is not to say a college education is not a worthy pursuit. In fact, it is a good idea for most, and jobs should not be the sole goal of college. However, we don’t do right by high school students by overstating this gap and having a singular mindset that college is the only path to success.

Does Class Size Matter?

Reducing class sizes is a commonly discussed goal in education. However, there may not be a more consequential educational issue where the academic research available is a poorer match to anecdotal evidence than the issue of class size.

Ask any teacher, administrator, or parent you know what they would prefer, and almost all of them will say that smaller class sizes are more conducive to learning than larger class sizes. Peruse any higher education website and you will find most try to trumpet their low student to faculty ratio. And, intuitively, it just makes sense that students will learn better if there are fewer of them in a class.

But, there is actually very little academic evidence that class size matters. Our review of the literature indicates that there is some evidence (gathered long ago) that smaller class sizes have an effect at the youngest grade levels, but little or inconclusive evidence that smaller class sizes matter among older students.

Yet a debate rages regarding class sizes. Teacher unions are understandably in favor of lowering class sizes, as this makes the job of the teacher easier and increases the numbers of teachers that need to be hired. Administrators seem to also favor lowering class sizes, but are wary to do so without much evidence indicating that it will improve academic achievement. Politicians favor it as well, as reducing class sizes certainly sounds like ad admirable goal to pursue.

What is undebatable is that there are significant costs involved in decreasing class sizes. Reducing class sizes means building more classrooms, maintaining larger facilities, and hiring more teachers.  The costs of reducing class sizes are potentially large, which is why it is surprising the issue doesn’t have much academic study and thought behind it.

We feel the issue has been oversimplified. Like most things we study, there are likely decreasing returns as class size is reduced. In other words, there is likely an ideal level for class size. There is probably a point where a class size can be too small, as tiny class sizes don’t allow for student-to-student learning and collaboration, small group projects, etc. As class size increases, it likely hits an ideal point, where the learning efficiency of the classroom is maximized. And, invariably, a class size can grow too large, where supervision of students is compromised.

It is possible that the academic studies that are available have not investigated a wide enough range of class sizes and therefore have not been able to spot this ideal point. Since no school district could (by law) change its average class size by more than a few students, academic researchers are likely concentrating on class size differences that are not large enough to show much of an effect.

However, in the debate over class sizes, there is an important issue we have never seen discussed. It is that the ideal class size is likely not the same for all situations. Even within a school, the ideal class size likely varies by the subject taught, the academic capabilities of the students, the grade level, and importantly, the particular strengths and weaknesses of the teacher.

For example, why do we presume that the same class size is needed for English as is needed for Math, or Foreign Languages? Why do we presume that 7th graders need the same class sizes as 12th graders? Or that a first-year teacher will be most efficient teaching the same class size as a proven teacher with 20 years of experience? Or that every student benefits most from the same class sizes?

We ignore the variability that is inherent in the process.  And, we don’t give our school managers (School Principals) much leeway in how they can manage their resources to take into account this variability.

We’d like to see Principals given a lot more latitude over how to best utilize their staff. In any organization whose success is dependent on the capabilities and productivity of its workers, the main task of a manager is to understand his/her staff’s capabilities and knowing how to properly deploy human resources.

Currently, Principals are given almost no latitude regarding class sizes. The Principal is forced to take a cookie cutter approach – with all teachers being assigned virtually the same number of students. A teacher is largely given the same responsibility on his/her first day on the job as his/her last day. Regardless of his/her subject, experience level, talents, teaching style, grade level, etc.  The teaching staff is the most important asset a Principal has to achieve academic excellence, and it is time to give Principals more responsibility in this area.

Class size absolutely matters. Just not in the same way and same level for every school, teacher, and student.


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