Kids These Days (?)

Tyler Cowen sends us to this very interesting post by Steve Postrel on higher education:

My hypothesis is that it is precisely the dumbing down of U.S. education over the last decades that explains the increase in willingness to pay for education. The mechanism is diminishing marginal returns to education.

Typical graduate business school education has indeed become less rigorous over time, as has typical college education. But typical high school education has declined in quality just as much.

Postrel offers up four links to support the decline in rigor at all levels of education. Given that the entire argument rests on this point, we should follow those links:

1. Dumbing Down High School English. Opens up with this quote:

A recent ALSCW ( Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers) study finds that

a fragmented English curriculum and a neglect of close reading may explain why the reading skills of American high school students have shown little or no improvement in several decades despite substantial increases in funds for elementary and secondary education by federal and state governments.

After that it’s all hand waving. Disappointing because Postrel is worried about the LEVEL of education and this link despairs over the rate of positive change. Not relevant.

2. Link to this book. I haven’t read it. In this review, they say the book refers to one study in particular (pdf here) with this abstract:

Using multiple datasets from four different time periods, we document declines in academic time investment by full-time college students in the United States between 1961 and 2004. Full-time students allocated 40 hours per week toward class and studying in 1961, whereas by 2004 they were investing about 26 to 28 hours per week.

Students spend less time studying. I believe that.

But one thing the study does not control for is major type. Are engineers less well educated than in the past? I sincerely doubt that. Cowen may not find answers to declines in productivity improvements in this line of inquiry.

3. The Math Wars. Short version: the quality of math instruction in high schools has declined. I suppose I buy that. But I don’t envy my grandparents’ math instruction. I am sympathetic to reformers here.

4. On MBAs. Here’s a relevant quote on the author’s memory of his MBA student days and what he thinks has happened:

So, we read 30-40 academic journal articles per class. We became capable of digesting their content and, thereby, able to access new ideas 10-20 years ahead of widespread practice. We traced the trajectories of core research streams and, thus, came to recognize that subtle thinking is required of complex issues. We jammed into Merton Miller’s class, not because he was entertaining or capable of summarizing complex ideas into exquisite 10-bullet lists, but because everyone knew he was a genius and felt damn lucky to sit in his presence and glimpse into his thinking about finance. Excerpts from books by Tom Peters and other management “gurus” were not viewed as examples of special wisdom but, more accurately, of sloppy, shallow, unsubstantiated pap. That was a bad-ass education — one that served us well throughout our careers, not just in our next jobs.

What happened? Well, Business Week rankings coupled with the “Northwestern Innovation.” BW rated schools on: (1) student satisfaction, (2) recruiter assessment, and (3) research ranking. Northwestern, which was not a contender back then, realized that moving (2) or (3) could only happen veeery slooowly. Item (1), on the other hand, well, that could be manipulated almost instantaneously. And thus began the race to the bottom of the toilet. As far as I can tell, anything approaching the education I got has long since been abandoned.

More hand-waving, mostly, but I accept his premise. I’d point out a few things:

  • Chicago is a special place. Not every school has super-duper-star instructors and highly motivated students.
  • MBA programs are a ridiculously easy target for this kind of argument. I happen to think quite a lot of management ‘theory’ is complete garbage. Economics can be nearly as bad. Rigor in these subjects can often obscure learning outcomes. Let stories be told where stories must be told.

I find the idea that bad high school quality drives the increase in the college premium persuasive. I’m more sympathetic in respect of math than other subjects, though we must remain ever vigilant against cognitive bias. Complaining about the “kids these days” is usually total crap.

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