Category Archives: Education

“We are shouldering it.”

The NYT reports that India’s poorest are turning to private schools to escape poverty.

“The responsibility that the government should shoulder,” Mr. Hakeem said with both pride and contempt, “we are shouldering it.”

In India, the choice to live outside the faltering grid of government services is usually reserved for the rich or middle class, who can afford private housing compounds, private hospitals and private schools. But as India’s economy has expanded during the past two decades, an increasing number of India’s poor parents are now scraping together money to send their children to low-cost private schools in hopes of helping them escape poverty.

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Filed under Asia, Education

Puppetry vs. Engineering

A few years ago, Joe Therrien, a graduate of the NYC Teaching Fellows program, was working as a full-time drama teacher at a public elementary school in New York City. Frustrated by huge class sizes, sparse resources and a disorganized bureaucracy, he set off to the University of Connecticut to get an MFA in his passion—puppetry. Three years and $35,000 in student loans later, he emerged with degree in hand, and because puppeteers aren’t exactly in high demand…he’s working at his old school as a full-time “substitute”…[earning less than he did before].

…Like a lot of the young protesters who have flocked to Occupy Wall Street, Joe had thought that hard work and education would bring, if not class mobility, at least a measure of security…But the past decade of stagnant wages for the 99 percent and million-dollar bonuses for the 1 percent has awakened the kids of the middle class to a national nightmare: the dream that coaxed their parents to meet the demands of work, school, mortgage payments and tuition bills is shattered.

This is fairly uncommon example of wasted educational dollars – puppetry should replace basketweaving in our standard example of a useless college major – but offers a salient point: not all education is worth the price. In fact, the price of education has outpaced inflation due to both government subsidies for education and our mistaken belief that if some education is good, more must be better. That is not always true. We believe that if college is good for some, then it must be good for all. While the average college graduate makes more lifetime earnings than one with a high school degree alone, that scale may be tipping. And it should. (China is having the same problem.)

If the average college student was studying the works of classical Greece, the literature of the Western Canon, hard sciences like chemistry and physics, and advanced mathematics, the argument for more college for more students would be a strong one. But that is not the average college experience, which is usually associated with alcohol, drugs, sex, “finding yourself,” and classes slightly more rigorous than puppetry but a far cry from the rigor of an engineering curriculum. $200,000 to learn electrical engineering is a sound investment, if it is learned well. But $150,000 for a degree in sociology or “critical theory” (which for the un-indoctrinated is Marxism)?

When talking heads speak of how the rise of China and India’s educated classes will challenge our international and economic strength, they are not referring to China’s production of 24-year-olds with MAs in education or, to take the five examples Time used for their article on student debt, “I Owe U,” specialized studies, multimedia design, English, history, and global studies. China and India may overtake us, however, if they take the lead in educating top-rate engineers, scientists, and those with degrees in technical fields. This is not to deny the value of English, history or specializations – wait, what exactly is “specialized studies?” – but rather the returns on those investments, for an individual or society, will not be the same as a degree in biochemistry or chemical engineering.

A letter to the editor at Time put it this way:

Of the five young adults featured with large portraits in your article, there was not one with a major in science or math. Specialized studies, multimedia design, English, history and global studies? Give me a small break. Nothing wrong with an interest in these areas, but it’s pretty predictable that the people who major in them are unemployed or underemployed.

Three additional notes on higher education. 1, the myth of Chinese and Indian engineers overtaking us is just that, a myth. 2, We have the best technical graduate schools in the world… that do a fine job of educating foreigners. Those foreigners are often sent back home in what has been called a “reverse brain drain.” They should be allowed and encouraged to stay. 3, Charles Murray has argued for more education, which is different from more schooling.

“Nearly everyone needs more education after high school,” Mr. Murray said. “What they don’t need is to chase after this fraudulent, destructive, antediluvian thing called a B.A. The B.A. is really the work of the devil.”

The source of the quotation on puppetry was The Nation via Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. His comments are worth reading.

And for the record, my MA is in economics – somewhere between global studies and engineering in both rigor and value. As a financial decision, grad school was, as of now, not worth the money. Besides two years lost wages and the price of tuition, I returned to the job market at a lower salary then when I left due to a career change. I value the education I received though, which is more important to me than the money. It was an individual decision though, not one made because I felt I had to get an MA. Thus I have no right to complain about my “crushing” student loan payments.

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Monday Smorgasbord

I don’t have time to post these by themselves. They’ve been sitting in my “to do” pile for too long, but I find them all to be interesting reads. Read what interests you.

“How to Prevent a Depression” by Nouriel Roubini.

France imposes a “fat tax” on sugary soft drinks to combat obesity.

CNAS publication: “Hard Choices: Responsible Defense in an Age of Austerity,” by LtGen David Barno, Nora Bensahel, and Travis Sharp.

Megan McArdle: “By 2020, cases of throat cancer caused by the human papillomavirus may outnumber those of HPV-caused cervical cancer.”

Hitch on the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Maurizio Viroli: Silvio Berlusconi and the moral malaise of Italy.

“The Value of Values: Soft Power Under Obama” Mark P. Lagon

A debate on whether too many students are in college. (My answer is yes.)

Cliff May, “Autocracies United: Why “reset” with Russia and “engagement” with Iran have failed”

A journalist on the argument for better football helmets, and an economist on the trade-off.

Lot of stuff going on here. Enjoy.

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Filed under Economics, Education, Europe, Foreign Policy, Health & Nutrition

The Impact of Obama’s Student Loan Legislation

I previously blogged about how Obama’s student loan legislation proposals will have short-term benefits with long-term costs. Daniel Indiviglio examines the three major pieces of the proposed legislation – consolidation, payment limits, and loan forgiveness – and how they will affect the average borrower. The answer: not much. I may have been far too generous in saying it will have a short-term benefit. Perhaps it only offers long-term costs.


The first would clearly be the most significant, because it is aimed at helping more student loan borrowers. How much would an interest rate reduction of up to 0.5% affect payments?

For the average borrower, the impact would be small. In 2011, Bachelor’s degree recipients graduating with debt had an average balance of $27,204, according to an analysis done by, based on Department of Education data. That average has ballooned from just $17,646 over the past decade.

Using these values as the high and low bounds of average student debt over the last ten years, the monthly savings for the average student loan borrower would be between $4.50 and $7.75 per month. Clearly, this isn’t going to save the economy. While borrowers with bigger balances would save more, this is the average. And even someone with $100,000 in loans would only cut their monthly payments by $28.50.

The provisions on payment limits and loan forgiveness will have an even smaller impact. Indiviglio concludes:

By calling for these measures, President Obama seeks to respond directly to young Americans stressed about their student loans. Indeed, one of the vague objectives of the Occupy Wall Street movement is for student debt forgiveness. But from a practical standpoint, these executive orders won’t have much of an impact on the economy. To take on the student debt problem more aggressively, the president would need some actual legislation that would shake the fundamental framework of the student loan system.

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Filed under Domestic Politics, Education

Short-term Stimulus with Long-term Problems

As in the housing bubble, cheap credit on easy terms increases the amount of money chasing the product (in this case a diploma) allowing schools to increase prices. This inflation makes it harder for middle-class families to afford paying their own tuitions, driving them into the government financing program, which, you guessed it, drives up costs further still.

Obama’s goals, aside from continuing to encourage young people to spurn the private sector in favor of service jobs, is to try to juice the economy. Those who participate in the program could see their monthly incomes rise by hundreds of dollars, thereby increasing the money they have to buy stuff and try to juice the economy.

Young people generally don’t save, so money no longer spent on tuition loan repayments will most likely go to dining out, food, room furnishings, iPods, and other consumer goods. This increased is good for the economy and necessary for recovery.

But the long-term effect will only be to further increase the costs of education. The best way to control those costs is for the government to get out of the business of providing loans. Universities have increased their costs at four times the rate of inflation over the past 30 years and are notorious for wasteful spending. Students pay for that waste, as do the taxpayers via subsidized student loans. Under this new plan, they will pay more in the name of loan forgiveness. If students have less to pay off, they will be tempted to borrow more. If they are more willing to borrow and spend, the schools will surely raise their prices, with those costs passed on to the taxpayer.

The president is also advertising that this program will pay for itself: without the yolk of such heavy student loans, the young graduates will be able to earn, spend, and invest, which will stimulate the economy and lead to more tax receipts than expenditures. Plausible, but every other economic forecast of his has been wrong. I’m slow to believe his economic predictions, and would like to actually see the analysis that determined, as the article states, that “the president’s student loan action will ‘almost certainly reduce’ deficit spending because of the savings the administration says will be achieved by a 2010 federal college lending takeover and what the administration believes will be a lower rate of default among student debtors due to lower lending rates.”

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Filed under Economics, Education

Of All the Things to Fire a Teacher For


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Filed under Education, Humor

New Haven’s Teacher Improvement Plan

A NYT editorial today applauds the new New Haven, CT, teacher improvement plan. While their success should be applauded, the question of what took so long still remains.

The plan works as such:

The New Haven system rates teachers individually and gives them the specific help they need. To do that, it focuses on three areas. It considers growth in student learning, as measured by progress on state and local tests and attainment of academic goals. It examines the teacher’s instructional abilities, as measured by frequent observations by principals and other instructional managers. It rates teachers on professionalism, collegiality and whether they have high expectations for all students. Perhaps most important, the system gives teachers almost constant feedback, so that they are fully aware of where they stand and what they need to do to improve.

Teachers who receive the highest rating on a 1-to-5 scale are eligible for stipends and promotion to leadership positions, in which they share skills with colleagues. Those rated lowest on the scale are given intensive coaching and, if they fail to improve, can be dismissed as soon as the end of the school year.

So, in effect, it now works like any other business. Employees are graded based on effectiveness, not effort. Leaders and managers council their subordinates and set expectations and measures to meet them. Professionalism and professional standards are also judged, and the worse either improve or are sent packing. The cream rises.

Isn’t that what education reformers have been demanding for years? This is not a novel idea, but perhaps a novel practice given the strength of teachers unions and the reluctance of politicians to challenge such a strong interest group. But the Times editorial board sees fit to give them a share of the credit.

The first year’s promising results show what can be done when the two sides commit to reform.
New Haven’s path demonstrates that it is possible to hold teachers accountable without crushing morale and wrongfully dismissing good teachers.

In an urban school district that serves disadvantaged children, results matter. And they now have preliminary results because of this plan that seeks to remove the weak teachers for the sake of the children, for whom the schools exist. And to think such plans were delayed as the unions sought to protect teacher morale! Improving the quality of the average teacher and the average student will do far more to improve morale of all parties than tenure, smaller classes, higher pay, and every other excuse proffered by the unions and politicians.

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A Pervasive Mismatching

When Pete Davis questions the Washington, DC elementary school students who he regularly tutors what they want to be when they grow up, the often say a professional athlete. When he tells them the odds are 1 in 1,000 that will happen, and that they should have a Plan B, it falls on deaf ears. They have very narrow ambitions.

Unfortunately, college sports are exploiting these ambitions in a fashion that comes close to slavery.  Young minority players are recruited into schools at which they are totally unprepared to succeed academically and at which they aren’t paid for their labors, let alone their high risk of career ending injury, and they are cast off as completely expendable after they fail to WIN!  We even throw in tax-exempt status for the colleges and universities on their multi-billion dollar incomes from exploitation of these athletes.

Leaving aside the unnecessary slavery analogy, Davis makes a very strong argument… about affirmative action. In the 1960s Yale Law Professor Clyde Summers wrote about the “pervasive mismatching” of minority students and institutions in which they would not succeed. Students that could succeed in a local state school might well fail miserably in an MIT or University of Chicago. This is why athletes, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, have high dropout rates. They are put into a school for reasons other than academic merits. If the bar is not lowered, they fail. If it is lowered, they succeed. Potential employers know such “success” was not really earned. Furthermore, if academically soft classes – as opposed to hard sciences, rigorous history and rhetoric, etc. – were the means to graduation, they will still be left without the skills needed for success – sans quotation marks – in a competitive world.

This is not to say that sports don’t offer important life lessons for young people. They do, and among them are the values of hard work, team work, investment, sacrifice, and the devotion to the mastery of a craft. It is to say that such a pervasive mismatching of students and schools has downsides, and unforgivingly bad ones when they are subsidized by the government which bears no costs for such decisions.

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Filed under Education, Role of Government