Posts tagged ‘economics’
Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast, Revisionist History, recently included a mini-series about the inequities in society that higher education perpetuates. Higher education is a necessity for a middle class life in today’s US, but not everyone gets access to higher education, which means that the economic divide grows larger. We in higher education (an according to Richard Tapia in his foreword to Stuck in the Shallow End, we in computer science explicitly) may be playing a role in widening the economic divide. David Brooks wrote about these inequities in 2005, in his NYTimes column, titled “The Education Gap“:
We once had a society stratified by bloodlines, in which the Protestant Establishment was in one class, immigrants were in another and African-Americans were in another. Now we live in a society stratified by education. In many ways this system is more fair, but as the information economy matures, we are learning it comes with its own brutal barriers to opportunity and ascent.
Gladwell has written about higher education before. In David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants, he told the story of Caroline Sacks who loved science since she was a little girl. When she applied to college, she was accepted into both University of Maryland and Brown University. She chose Brown for its greater prestige. Unfortunately, that prestige came with a much more competitive peer set. Caroline compared herself to them, and found herself wanting. She dropped out of science. Gladwell suggests that, if she’d gone to Maryland, she might have persisted in science because she would have fared better in the relative comparison.
Gladwell’s three podcasts address who gets in to higher education, how we pay for financial aid for poorer students, and how we support institutions that serve poorer students.
In Carlos doesn’t remember, Gladwell considers whether there are poorer students who have the academic ability to succeed but aren’t applying to colleges. Ivy League schools are willing to offer an all-expenses-paid scholarship to qualified students whose family income is below a certain level, but they award few of those scholarships. The claim is that there are just few of those smart-enough-but-poor students. Economists Avery and Hoxby explored that question and found that there are more than 35,000 students in the United States who meet the Ivy League criteria (see paper here). So why aren’t they applying for those prestigious scholarships?
Gladwell presents a case study of Carlos, a bright student who gets picked up by a program aimed at helping students like him get access to high-quality academic opportunities. Gladwell highlights the range of issues that keep students like Carlos from finding, getting into, and attending higher education opportunities. He provides evidence that Avery and Hoxby dramatically underestimate the high-achieving poor student, e.g., Avery and Hoxby identified some students using eighth grade exam scores. Many of the high-achieving poor students drop out before eighth grade.
As an education researcher, I’m recommending this podcast to my graduate students. The podcast exemplifies why it’s so difficult to do interview-based research. The title of the episode comes from Carlos’s frequent memory lapses in the interview. When asked why he didn’t mention the time he and his sister were taken away from their mother and placed in foster care, Carlos says that he doesn’t remember that well. It’s hard to believe that a student this smart forgets something so momentous in his life. Part of this is a resilience strategy — Carlos has to get past the bad times in his life to persist. But part of it is a power relationship. Carlos is a smart, poor kid, and Gladwell is an author of international bestsellers. Carlos realizes that it’s in his best interest to make Gladwell happy with him, so he says what he thinks Gladwell wants to hear. Whenever there is a perceived power gap between an interviewee (like Carlos) and an interviewer (Gladwell), we should expect to hear not-quite-the-truth. The interviewee will try to tell the interviewer what he thinks the world-famous author wants to hear — not necessarily what the interviewee actually thinks.
The episode Food Fight contrasts Bowdoin College in Maine and Vassar College in New York. They are similar schools in terms of size and academics, but Bowdoin serves much better food in its cafeterias than Vassar. Vassar made an explicit decision to cut back in its food budget in order to afford more financial aid to its poorer students. Vassar spends almost twice as much as Bowdoin in financial aid, and has a much higher percentage of low-income students than Bowdoin. Vassar is explicit in the trade-offs that they’re making. Gladwell interviews a student who complains about the food quality, but says that she accepts it as the price for having a more diverse student body.
But there’s a tension here. Vassar can only afford that level of financial aid because there is a significant percentage of affluent students who are playing full fare — and those affluent students are exactly the ones for which both Bowdoin and Vassar compete. Vassar can’t balance their budget without those affluent students. They can’t keep providing for the poorer students unless they keep getting their share of the richer students. Here’s where Gladwell starts the theme he continues into the third episode, when he tells his audience, “Never give to Bowdoin!”
The third episode, My Little Hundred Million, starts from Hank Rowan giving $100 million to Glassboro State University in New Jersey. At the time, it was the largest philanthropic gift ever to a higher education institution. Since then there have been others, but all to elite schools. Rowan’s gift made a difference, saving a nearly-bankrupt university that serves students who would never be accepted at the elites. It made a difference in providing access and closing the “Education Gap,” in exactly the way that David Brooks was talking about in 2005. So why are such large gifts going instead to schools like Stanford and Harvard, who don’t play a role in closing that gap? And why do the rich keep giving to the elite institutions? Gladwell continues the refrain from the last episode. Stop giving to Harvard! Stop giving to Stanford!
The most amazing part of the third episode is an interview with Stanford President, John Hennessy. Gladwell prods him to defend why Stanford should get such large gifts. Hennessy talks about the inability of smaller, less elite schools to use the money well. Do they know how to do truly important things with these gifts? It’s as if Hennessy doesn’t understand that simply providing access to poor students is important and not happening. Hennessy is painted by Gladwell as blind to the inequities in the economy and to who gets access to higher education.
I highly recommend all of Revisionist History. In particular, I recommend this three-part mini-series for readers who care about the role that higher education can play in making our world better. Gladwell tells us that higher education has a critical role to play, in terms of accepting a more diverse range of students through our doors. We won’t do much to address the problems by only focusing on the “best and brightest.” As Richard Tapia writes in his foreword to Stuck in the Shallow End, that phrase describes much of what we get wrong in higher education.
“Over the years, I have developed an extreme dislike for the expression ‘the best and the brightest,’ so the authors’ discussion of it in the concluding chapter particularly resonated with me. I have seen extremely talented and creative underrepresented minority undergraduate students aggressively excluded from this distinction. While serving on a National Science review panel years back, I learned that to be included in this category you had to have been doing science by the age of ten. Of course, because of lack of opportunities, few underrepresented minorities qualified.”
Closing the Education Gap requires us to think differently about who we accept into higher education, who we most need to be teaching, and how we pay for it.
The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’: Personalized Instruction and Teaching Machines aren’t new
When I was a PhD student taking Education classes, my favorite two-semester sequence was on the history of education. I realized that there wasn’t much new under the sun when it comes to thinking about education. Ideas that are key to progressive education movements date back to Plato’s Republic: “No forced study abides in a soul…Therefore, you best of men, don’t use force in training the children in the studies, but rather play. In that way you can also better discern what each is naturally directed toward.” Here we have learning through games (but not video games in 300BC) and personalized instruction — promoted over 2400 years ago. I named my dissertation software system Emile after Rousseau’s book with the same name whose influence reached Montessori, Piaget, and Papert decades later.
Audrey Watters takes current education reformers to task in the article linked below. Today’s reformers don’t realize the history of the education system, that many of the idea that they are promoting have been tried before. Our current education system was designed in part because those ideas have already failed. In particular, the idea of building “teaching machines” as a response to “handicraft” education was suggested over 80 years ago. Education problems are far harder to solve than today’s education entrepreneurs realize.
Many education reformers today denounce the “factory model of education” with an appeal to new machinery and new practices that will supposedly modernize the system. That argument is now and has been for a century the rationale for education technology. As Sidney Pressey, one of the inventors of the earliest “teaching machines” wrote in 1932 predicting “The Coming Industrial Revolution in Education,”
Education is the one major activity in this country which is still in a crude handicraft stage. But the economic depression may here work beneficially, in that it may force the consideration of efficiency and the need for laborsaving devices in education. Education is a large-scale industry; it should use quantity production methods. This does not mean, in any unfortunate sense, the mechanization of education. It does mean freeing the teacher from the drudgeries of her work so that she may do more real teaching, giving the pupil more adequate guidance in his learning. There may well be an “industrial revolution” in education. The ultimate results should be highly beneficial. Perhaps only by such means can universal education be made effective.
The reality is that technology never has and never will dramatically change education (as described in this great piece in The Chronicle). It will always be a high-touch endeavor because of how humans learn.
Education is fundamentally a human activity and is defined by human attention, motivation, effort, and relationships. We need teachers because we are motivated to make our greatest efforts for human beings with whom we have relationships and who hold our attention.
In the words of Richard Thaler, there are no Econs (see recommended piece in NYTimes).
My colleague, Amy Bruckman, wrote a blog post about the challenges that nonprofits face when trying to develop and maintain software. She concludes with an interesting argument for computing education that has nothing to do with learning programming that everyone needs. I think it relates to my question: What is the productivity cost of not understanding computing? (See post here.)
This is not a new phenomenon. Cliff Lampe found the same thing in a study of three nonprofits. At the root of the problem is two shortcomings in education. So that more small businesses and nonprofits don’t keep making this mistake, we need education about the software development process as part of the standard high-school curriculum. There is no part of the working world that is not touched by software, and people need to know how it is created and maintained. Even if they have no intention of becoming a developer, they need to know how to be an informed software customer. Second, for the people at web design firms who keep taking advantage of customers, there seems to be a lack of adequate professional ethics education. I teach students in my Computers, Society, and Professionalism class that software engineers have a special ethical responsibility because the client may not understand the problem domain and is relying on the knowledge and honesty of the developer. More people need to get that message.
The below-linked article by Jill Lepore is remarkable for its careful dissection of Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” (Thanks to Shriram Krishnamurthi for the link.) As Lepore points out, Christensen’s theories were referenced often by those promoting MOOCs. I know I was told many times (vehemently, ferociously) that my emphasis on learning, retention, diversity was old-fashioned, and that disrupting the university was important for its own sake, for the sake of innovation. As Lepore says in the quote below, there may be good arguments for MOOCs, but Christensen’s argument from a historical perspective just doesn’t work. (Ian Bogost shared this other critical analysis of Christensen’s theory.)
I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, and I see similarities between how Lepore describes reactions to Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” and how Lewis describes the market around synthetic subprime mortgage bond-backed financial instruments. There’s a lot of groupthink going on (and the Wikipedia description is worth reading), with the party line saying, “This is all so great! This is a great way to get rich! We can’t imagine being wrong!” What Lewis points out (most often through the words of Dr. Michael Burry) is that markets work when there is a logic to them and real value underneath. Building financial instruments on top of loans that would never be repaid is ludicrous — it’s literally value-less. Lepore is saying something similar — innovation for its own sake is not necessarily valuable or a path to success, and companies that don’t disruptively innovate can still be valuable and successful.
I don’t know enough to critique either Lewis or Lepore, but I do see how the lesson of value over groupthink applies to higher-education. Moving education onto MOOCs just to be disruptive isn’t valuable. We can choose what value proposition for education we want to promote. If we’re choosing that we want to value reaching students who don’t normally get access higher education, that’s a reasonable goal — but if we’re not reaching that goal via MOOCs (as all the evidence suggests), then MOOCs offer no value. If we’re choosing that we want students to learn more, or to improve retention, or to get networking opportunities with fellow students (future leaders), or to provide remedial help to students without good preparation, those are all good value propositions, but MOOCs help with none of them.
Both Lewis and Lepore are telling us that Universities will only succeed if they are providing value. MOOCs can only disrupt them if they can provide that value better. No matter what the groupthink says, we should promote those models for higher-education that we can argue (logically and with evidence) support our value proposition.
In “The Innovative University,” written with Henry J. Eyring, who used to work at the Monitor Group, a consulting firm co-founded by Michael Porter, Christensen subjected Harvard, a college founded by seventeenth-century theocrats, to his case-study analysis. “Studying the university’s history,” Christensen and Eyring wrote, “will allow us to move beyond the forlorn language of crisis to hopeful and practical strategies for success.” … That doesn’t mean good arguments can’t be made for online education. But there’s nothing factually persuasive in this account of its historical urgency and even inevitability, which relies on a method well outside anything resembling plausible historical analysis.
According to the article linked below, there is a large effort to fill STEM worker jobs in Northern Virginia by getting kids interested in STEM (including computing) from 3rd grade on. The evidence for this need is that there will be 50K new jobs in the region between 2013 and 2018.
The third graders are 8 years old. If they can be effective STEM workers right out of high school, there’s another 10 years to wait before they can enter the workforce — 2024. If they need undergrad, 2028. If they need advanced degrees, early 2030’s. Is it even possible to predict workforce needs out over a decade?
Now, let’s consider the cost of keeping that pipeline going, just in terms of CS. Even in Northern Virginia, only about 12% of high schools offer CS today. So, we need a fourfold increase in CS teachers — but that’s just high school. The article says that we want these kids supported in CS from 3rd grade on. Most middle schools have no CS teachers. Few elementary schools do. We’re going to have to hire and train a LOT of teachers to fulfill that promise.
Making a jobs argument for teaching 3rd graders CS doesn’t make sense.
The demand is only projected to grow greater. The Washington area is poised to add 50,000 net new STEM jobs between 2013 and 2018, according to projections by Stephen S. Fuller, the director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. And Fuller said that STEM jobs are crucial in that they typically pay about twice as much as the average job in the Washington area and they generate significantly more economic value.
It is against this backdrop that SySTEMic Solutions is working to build a pipeline of STEM workers for the state of Virginia, starting with elementary school children and working to keep them consistently interested in the subject matter until they finish school and enter the workforce.
I recently watched the documentary Why we fight, and was struck by the prescience of President Eisenhower’s warning. So many of our educational decisions are made because of the harsh economic realities of today. How many of these are guns-for-butter choices might we have made differently if education was considered? Here in Georgia, computer science curricular decisions are being made with a recognition that there will be little or no funding available for teacher professional development — certainly not enough for every high school CS teacher in the state. What percentage of the DoD budget would it cost to provide professional learning opportunities to every CS teacher in the country? It’s certainly in the single digits.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms in not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.
It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.
It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
via Cross of Iron Speech.
Wall Street Journal just ran an article (linked below) about people “flocking to coding classes.” The lead for the story (quoted below) is a common story, but concerning. If coding is all extra-curricular, with the (presumably expensive) once-a-week tutor, then how do the average kids get access? How do the middle and lower kids get access? Hadi Partovi and Jane Margolis talked about this on PRI’s Science Friday — CS education can’t be an afterschool activity, or we’ll keep making CS a privileged activity for white boys.
Like many 10-year-olds, Nick Wald takes private lessons. His once-a-week tutor isn’t helping him with piano scales or Spanish conjugations, but teaching him how to code.
“I always liked to get apps from the app store, and I always wanted to figure out how they worked and how I could develop it like that,” Nick says.
As the ability to code, or use programming languages to build sites and apps, becomes more in demand, technical skills are no longer just for IT professionals. Children as young as 7 can take online classes in Scratch programming, while 20-somethings are filling up coding boot camps that promise to make them marketable in the tech sector. Businesses such as American Express Co. AXP -0.57% send senior executives to programs about data and computational design not so they can build websites, but so they can better manage the employees who do.