Posts Tagged 'education system'

A Math Myth?

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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.

Just ask them: 9 out of 10 high school students are above average

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We often have a need to ask a question that relates to academic performance in studies – so we can analyze results across a range of academic achievement. We necessarily have to rely on self-reports, and kids and teens tend to paint a fairly optimistic performance of their academic performance.

I used to think that this sort of optimism associated with your grades tended to result from faulty memory more than anything intentional. I know that my high school GPA and my college track times have miraculously improved as I have aged. But our results suggest that this isn’t the case – that students will greatly overstate their academic performance while they are still in high school.

The question we ask is straightforward: Which best describes your academic performance so far?

What we find is the following …

  • 7% of students will say they are in the top 1% of the class
  • 17% will say they are in the top 5%
  • 38% will say they are in the top 15%
  • 61% will say they are in the top 25%
  • 90% will say they are in the top 50%

So, 90% of high school students feel they are above average academically.

Is this a problem? I tend to think not – having confidence and a healthy sense of self-worth can be a good thing as children move out on their own. However, when this inflated sense of performance moves towards narcissism or unrealistic expectations it can be setting our children up for failure.

It can be challenging to ascribe a cause to this. Most commentators agree that the Millennial generation is characterized as being over-protected and having adults in their lives who continually reinforce how special they are. Grade inflation in schools and colleges can engender this feeling. Youth sports have moved to encouraging and reinforcing participation at least as much as rewarding successful competition. I suppose this all yields a generation with a healthy ego, but not necessarily one that has learned to deal with failure.

When searching for causes, we need to look towards parents as well, as they set the context for their children. In a parallel study, we have shown that parents are even more likely to feel their children are above average than the children themselves are. Among parents …

  • 11% will say their child is in the top 1% of the class
  • 40% will say their child is in the top 5%
  • 63% will say their child is in the top 15%
  • 84% will say their child is in the top 25%
  • 93% will say their child is in the top 50%

Again, while there may be positives in parents being optimistic regarding the abilities of their children, it can also be a cause of complacency. Why does the US lag other countries in test performance? Perhaps when this many parents overstate their children’s academic achievement it is difficult to create any urgency behind the issue. It is quite common on surveys to see parents state that the nation’s schools are doing a poor job, but their local district is outstanding.

“Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” –Garrison Keillor

Whose Job is it to Close the Gap?

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There have been many studies released, from very credible sources, that indicate that a college education clearly pays back. A May 2014 New York Times article indicates that the pay gap between college graduates and non-graduates is widening, even as more students attend college. The College Board has indicated that both individuals and society as a whole benefit from increased levels of education. Pew Research has shown that although the pay gap is increasing, Americans are beginning to question the value of higher education and its affordability.

Today’s colleges face many challenges in helping prepare students for the workforce. As more students attend college and costs continue to rise, higher education institutions will be under increasing pressure to prepare students for the workforce. Gaps in workforce preparedness contribute negatively to employers’ views of graduates, the reputation of colleges, and the well-being of young adults. There is a sense that college curricula are struggling to keep pace with the changing needs of the workforce.

Crux Research recently conducted a study for Chegg which focused on workforce preparedness. We surveyed large samples of students, college faculty, and employers to explore beliefs around accountability and ownership in creating a hirable, attractive, ready-to-work population from U.S. colleges and universities.

This study sheds new light on issues of workforce preparedness, the unique perspectives of faculty and employers, and the need for a new approach to the way faculty and employers work together.

A summary of results of the project can be found at Chegg’s website here.

What has two eyes, one brain, and costs a quarter million dollars to educate?

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Publicly-funded education is perhaps one of America’s greatest triumphs. Education has been part-and-parcel to our democracy and the founding fathers realized early that if government was going to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, then the people better be well-educated.

The idea of compulsory public schools goes back to the founding of the nation but actually took some time to gain traction. This is likely because education was and (despite recent history) remains largely a local responsibility. Throughout the 1800’s States passed laws making education compulsory. It took some time for these laws to create a culture where education of children was largely left up to the State, sort of “outsourced” from parents.

In 1912, 72% of America’s children were in school. By 1930, this percentage had reached virtually 100%. I believe this is the main factor behind the dawning of American dominance in the 20th century. There were other factors, but the US had early success in making education compulsory, which gave us a head start in innovation and business. It led to almost a century of leadership of the world’s economy.

Yet, somehow this educational prominence has slipped, or at least has been perceived to have slipped. International comparisons tend to show that our students are not doing well compared to other developed countries. Although many of the prophesies of “A Nation at Risk” have not come to fruition, the concerns expressed more than 30 years ago are resurfacing.

Complaints about the educational system seem to flow with the business cycle and peak at times of economic uncertainty. And we shouldn’t ignore the economics: the resources we spend to educate our children are considerable. My local school district currently spends $12,684 per student per year. Some quick math implies that it cost about $165,000 to educate my child from grades K-12.  Since I have two children, it has cost about $330,000 to get them to a high school diploma. As a parent, I owe our local taxpayers a thank you.But, as a taxpayer soon to not have children in school, I have to be concerned about this level of public investment.

Take the case of a child in the school district where I live, which is a suburban district in New York State.Most students from this district end up going to a 4-year college. For demonstration sake, I picked the closest State college and closest private university to where I live. The annual tuition, room and board, etc. for these students runs $18,055 at the State college and $45,602 at the private university. I am assuming this captures the full cost of what it takes to educate a student for a year at these institutions. These costs might be paid by parents and students, or loans, or grants. For this example, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from.

Using these figures, the total cost of educating a child in our district from Kindergarten until he/she turns the tassel at college is about $237,000 for the State college and $347,000 for the private university. This is what it costs “society” to educate a child from my area, with society being a mix of tax dollars, parent and child money, scholarships, loans, etc.

This is likely an underestimate of the true costs of education. Costs are higher than this calculation for the State college, as they receive government subsidies that help keep their tuition costs down. And, there is an opportunity cost to not having the student in the workforce and contributing to the economic output of the nation until he/she is 21 or 22 years old.

This example shows that there is an understandable economic underpinning to current criticisms of our education system. At a time when we have pressed an increasing base of students to go to college, the college costs have risen substantially. That in itself is not problematic – more problematic is that the costs of college have been growing at a much faster rate than the benefits.

A recent piece by the Wall Street Journal indicates that since 2006, the cost of a 4-year degree has increased by 16.5%. At the same time, starting salaries have stagnated, and I have even seen calculations suggesting first year salaries for college graduates have fallen for the first time in history, when calculated on a real basis.

So, is this a bubble that will have to pop? I guess the definition of a bubble is that nobody really knows we are in one until it punctures. But, it is predictable that education institutions, both K-12 schools and colleges and universities, are going to be under even more intense pressure in the future.