The case against the case against “The Case Against Education”

the-case-against-educationI beg forgiveness for jumping into the Caplan-Ubell debate uninvited. But it’s such a great topic. And if nothing else, it’s such a great blog post title.

In a recent EdSurge article entitled “Why college is not an employment agency,” Robert Ubell, vice dean emeritus of online learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, takes George Mason University professor of economics Bryan Caplan to task for the latter’s book, “The Case Against Education.”

A caveat: I haven’t yet read Caplan’s book. If I were on balance agreeing with Ubell, I’m not sure that that would be fair. But since I’m on balance agreeing with Caplan.

My comments on Ubell’s article are in indented green below. 

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Why College Is Not an Employment Agency
By Robert Ubell | Feb 6, 2018

A new book makes “The Case Against Education.” It’s decidedly not something to give to a high-school junior looking to get into college.

College is important. It’s important because of its cost. And because of its opportunity cost. Anyone planning to attend college should do so with fully open eyes. I encourage readers to use the comments section of this post to indicate whether they would have done their college experience any differently. I know that I would have. At the time of my application to college, I was fortunate to have sufficient resources both to make the decision and to pay for the decision. And even still, I didn’t make the decision well. Because really, how many 18 year olds have the perspective to make such a decision well.

The author, Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, draws a picture of college as a bleak and miserable place, a Dickensian ordeal, peopled with distracted students, taught by mediocre faculty who, apart from mathematics, science and English, have nothing worth teaching their bored and listless students. In his telling, higher education is all a big, expensive scam—such a dark place that you imagine that students are housed in a prison, not on campus. “The harsh reality,” argues Caplan, “is that most students suffer in school. Nostalgics who paint their education as an intellectual feast are either liars or outliers.”

It’s not clear to me the extent to which Ubell’s description echoes Caplan’s book or caricatures it (I know, I know, I need to give it a read …). If anything, college, at least for many, leans more Hedonistic than it does Dickensian. Are students distracted? Most likely–that’s a worthy problem to address. Are faculty mediocre instructors? It would be more accurate to say that they too often fail to receive training in and be measured on instruction. Is higher education a big, expensive scam? Well, it’s certainly expensive, as is screamed by the US’ nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt (almost twice that of US credit card debt).

Caplan says that a college degree is largely useless, claiming that it does not show that students learned anything useful for their future in the workplace. “We have to admit,” Caplan assures us,” academic success is a great way to get a job, but a poor way to learn how to do a good job.”

College degrees are far from useless, but at the same time, they are ripe for improvement. If nothing else, college degrees are a signal to the workplace of effort and completion. They are not, however, a signal of competencies gained.

Companies take it on faith that that a college degree is worth the handsome salaries graduates command; in contrast, dropouts suffer with little to show for their aborted time in school.

Craftily, Caplan pretends to discredit education because it’s a worthless training ground for industry, but his aim is more insidious, making the case for the withdrawal of state support from public education. “Stop throwing good money after bad,” he commands. “Cut education budgets. Shift the financial burden of education from taxpayers to students and their families.”

Here is where I depart from Caplan and side with Ubell. Higher education can be a better “training ground for industry” than it currently is. But in parallel with this improvement, the state should be doing more to support public education, not less [The crazy notion of free college].

Caplan, a conservative libertarian, doesn’t demand the same austerity from private or for-profit schools, but instead, he targets the very place where students from families without means can achieve something and can go on to live decent, fruitful lives. Caplan would deny them that opportunity.

In his argument against the efficacy of education, Caplan marshals impressive-looking pseudoscientific bar charts on almost every page, standing like tall, upright soldiers defending his claims. But in his unsupported case for privatization, curiously, his armor disappears. Not a single chart or graph is displayed showing the benefits of defunding higher education. That’s because the actual data would undermine his case.

I love Ubell’s turn of this phrase: “Caplan marshals impressive-looking pseudoscientific bar charts on almost every page, standing like tall, upright soldiers defending his claims.”

The nation has tried for-profit higher education and it failed.

The excellent documentary “Fail State” makes this case in compelling fashion.

“Publicly funded education has an awful track record,” Caplan claims, “wasting hundreds of billions every year.” However, shutting down state education is a disastrous idea, not only for reasons of ensuring equity in education, but also for its long-term effects on the economic health of the country. Universities are among the key driving forces in our thriving state economies—in California, Texas, Florida, New York and elsewhere—where colleges are the vibrant intellectual centers driving research and business development.

While Caplan dismisses the possibility that universities offer society any real economic benefit, data shows otherwise. After studying new data from UNESCO’S World Higher Education Database, covering 15,000 colleges and universities across 78 countries between 1950 and 2010, Anna Valero, a London School of Economics scholar, found that “the expansion of higher education from 1950 onwards was not just the product of growing wealth, it has also helped fuel economic growth around the world.”

Take a look at the 20 finalist cities in Amazon’s search for a second headquarters—universities are located at the heart of nearly every one. “All these places have something in common—nearby reputable universities that can churn out the young and the hopeful straight into Jeff Bezos’s welcoming arms,” observes Chris Matyszczyk, a consultant, in Inc.

America is supposed to be the Land of Opportunity, where a son of a Jewish tailor from an impoverished shtetl in Poland—as well as millions of other children from immigrant and other poor families—can go to college and learn “useless” things like poetry and art history, as I did at Brooklyn College, then a free city school. Neither poetry nor art history—a waste of time for Caplan—will get most graduates a job after graduation, but we should be proud of a society that educates its citizens broadly and not just trains them as docile workers.

Many other economists tell us that the solution to the coming crisis in the workplace is more education, not less. As Harry Anthony Patrinos at the World Bank reports, “Post-secondary education graduates are at the lowest risk of losing to automation. Those with high levels of education are less likely to be in automation-prone occupations. ”

But Caplan believes that the university fails completely in preparing students for jobs. His assumption is that higher education is the place where students should gain the skills they need to get them good jobs. But universities are not employment agencies. His mistake is that he confuses procedural with conceptual knowledge.

Here is where my pendulum swings back toward Caplan. While I love the idea of the luxury of spending four (or six, or ten) years in the full embrace of learning, we simply can’t avoid the practical impact of spending a quarter of a million dollars on a college education. For most people, higher education MUST prepare students for careers (which aren’t quite the same thing as jobs).

In my new book, Going Online, I clarify the difference:

“Procedural knowledge means knowing how to manipulate a condition or how to perform a task; for example, how to run a science experiment or solve a mathematical equation. Procedural knowledge is also a measure of our skills, tasks we know how to complete, and techniques we know how to follow. Training is designed to give workers procedural knowledge in order for them to do their jobs effectively. Conceptual knowledge, on the other hand, refers to our ability to appreciate major parts in a system, understand complex relationships, or categorize elements logically. At their best, universities are expected to equip students to excel at conceptual knowledge.”

Ubell’s examples of conceptual knowledge are of equal value to the workplace as his procedural ones.

Caplan smirks about the U.S. higher education dropout rate, arguing that his bored students are voting against college with their feet. “Excruciatingly bored students fill classrooms.” he laments. “Well, ‘fill’ isn’t quite right, because so many don’t bother to show up.”

But students drop out for all sorts of reasons. Boredom may be one, but surely it’s not the principal impediment that drives them away—a suspicious claim Caplan repeats continuously, vilifying students for slumping in their seats with ennui. But the most devastating reason why students drop out is not lethargy, but high tuition.

For most, college is a luxury product, equal to buying a Mercedes every school year at many private schools. One of the most shocking consequences of the steep price of higher education is that some 40 percent of students who actually get accepted don’t even show up because they can’t pay the admission price.

“College is a luxury product.” My point exactly.

Peterson’s college guide says that the number one reason students drop out is because of lack of funds to keep them going. “Many students take out school loans, but that isn’t always enough,” reports Peterson’s Brian Pivik. “Between the costs of classes, books, rent, and just trying to survive, students are more and more learning that while worth it in the long run, the cost of education is high.”

If Caplan’s book was your only guide to what matters in college, you’d never come across ideals that secure a more just and honorable society—that enlighten thoughtful citizens. In the brief section Caplan devotes to “values,” he dismisses them out of hand, claiming that higher education has little or no effect on conveying them to students. You’d conclude that education has no place in democracy. It’s only what you can take to the bank that seems to matter to the author. If you look up “democracy,” “ethics,” and “wisdom” in the index, you won’t find them. None of these ideas on which education has been founded since ancient Greece are even mentioned in passing.

It turns out, however, that education does play a decisive role in our democracy. Nate Silver, the data journalist who founded FiveThirtyEight, calculated the effect of voter education in the last presidential election. Soon after results were in, Silver studied all 981 U.S. counties to see how they voted, sorting the numbers by least and most educated, among other slices of the data, especially income and race. His conclusion? Education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump and who wouldn’t.

As an economist, Caplan is surely familiar with “commodification,” a concept at the heart of Karl Marx’s case against Capitalism. Marx theorized that under Capitalism, everything is measured in terms of monetary value, even knowledge. Doubtless, Caplan teaches the concept to his students at George Mason University. In The Case Against Education, Caplan has so thoroughly embraced the idea, he is convinced that hardly anything taught in today’s classrooms has any intrinsic worth. Caplan takes commodification to an absurd extreme—that only skills that can be turned into high-paying jobs after college are of any value. The rest—art, music, history, literature—he deems worthless. If it weren’t so grotesque, it would be funny, more Groucho than Karl.

My fear is that Caplan’s prescription for American higher education will not be laughed off, but will be taken far too seriously. While Caplan believes he is a contrarian, expressing views thoroughly at odds with mainstream thought, regrettably, he is not alone. Jane Karr, former “Education Life” editor of The New York Times, warns that “State funding of public universities is on a track to reach zero in less than 20 years in some states and as soon as six in Colorado and nine in Alaska.”

State legislatures are already way ahead of Caplan, savaging state support for public education, shifting the burden from taxpayers to families—just as Caplan advocates.

Higher education faces three challenges:

1. The learning experience needs to be better aligned with the capabilities that career and life demand.

2. The instruction needs to be improved and measured.

3. The cost to the learner needs to be reduced.

Caplan likely agrees with the first and second, Ubell with the third. I’m on board with all three–these are addressable challenges, not ones from which we should run.

The crazy notion of free college


During the 2016 US Presidential campaign, populist candidate Bernie Sanders among others notably sounded the call for free college. Voices on the right quickly and repeatedly denounced the idea. With 4-year private school tuition bills having already shot past the quarter of a million dollars mark, any program government program providing for free college would clearly break the bank.

Or would it?

To answer that question, it’s instructive to deconstruct exactly what “free college” of the sort espoused by Senator Sanders would entail.

  • Sanders were not talking about private higher ed.
  • Sanders were not talking about out-of-state public higher ed.
  • Sanders were not talking about every expense–just tuition and fees.
  • Sanders were not talking about free college for all–rather, based on need.

A back-of-the envelope calculation taking into account tuition and fees for need-based attendees of both 2-year and 4-year in-state public institutions yields an annual cost of less than $50B.

$50B may sound like a lot, but it’s less than 1% of our annual $7T government outlay. By comparison, the government spends on the order of 20% each on health care and social security/pensions respectively as well as roughly 10% on defense.

Maybe it’s not the money. Maybe it’s the notion of free. But is free education really all that radical a notion?

As it stands today, we already offer 13 years of free education. “Free college” in any practical sense merely adds another 2-4 years for a small subset of our high school graduates.

Education is the key to national competitiveness and societal advance. Investing a bit more in in effective higher education isn’t the crazy notion that it might seem.

Everyone Knows that Ed Tech is Expensive. But is it?

Education technology offers the promise of better outcomes at lower cost. Lower cost? How can that be–networks and devices and software come at real expense.

If ed tech can enable these better outcomes while allowing a higher student:teacher ratio, and if the savings in personnel more than offsets the cost of the ed tech itself, then its a win on both fronts.

So what does ed tech cost?

For the past 20 years, I’ve served a town in the Boston Metrowest region as a Finance Committee member, a School Committee member, and a technology task force member. As such, I’ve had a front row seat to the implementation of ed tech in a small district (of fewer than 3,000 students).

Over the span of the last 10 years, the district has moved from a relatively ad hoc deployment of ed tech to a much more thoughtfully developed, streamlined, and integrated system.

  • The first step in this modernization was the development of a network infrastructure. A data center at the high school connects to the Internet and via optical fiber to the other four buildings in the district.
  • The second step was the distribution of laptop computers to the educators and the provision of professional development to support their use.
  • The third step was the rollout of a student one-to-one computing initiative. First at the high school level (laptops) and this year at the middle school level (Chromebooks), each student is issued a device.
  • Step four is currently in its early stages: the deployment of instructional technology on top of the infrastructure layer.

A reader might be forgiven for thinking, “Of course the leafy and relatively affluent suburbs of Metrowest Boston can afford an effort like this, but what about school districts with fewer resources?”

Before taking that stance, it’s worth examining what the effort outlined above actually costs.

The budget shows a technology expense just into 7 figures. Yes, that puts us in “million” territory. And this is only for a small district–what about large cities like Lowell or New Bedford or Worcester or Springfield or Boston?

Let’s dive into the numbers. The budgeted ed tech operating cost for the 2015-2016 school year comes in at $1.04M. Add an allocation of ed tech capital at $130k and the total approaches $1.2M.

Expensive, right?

Not exactly. Here’s how that $1.2M breaks down on a per student basis.

  • Ed tech staff: $180
  • Software: $35
  • Equipment: $200
  • Other expenses: $30
  • TOTAL: $445

There are several caveats worth noting. Were the district to expand one-to-one to the elementary level, costs will go up. As the district expands instructional technology, software will go up. So let’s allow for $600/student/year.

What does the district spend overall in a year? A bit more than $16,000 per student. As such, the future ed tech spend represents a bit less than 4% of the total budget.

Meaningful? Yes. But bank-breaking? No, especially if an outcome of the technology deployment allows a higher student:teacher ratio.


A promise partially fulfilled

learnlaunch2015The occasion of LearnLaunch’s just-completed 3rd annual conference, “Across Boundaries: Delivering on Edtech’s Promise” (Jan 23-24, 2015, at Harvard Business School in Boston) reminded me of a white paper I’d written while at Lexia Learning almost a decade ago.

I revisit that white paper here.

Breaking through the school productivity ceiling:
the promise of education technology

Unlike almost every other field of human endeavor, education has not seen productivity gains, and as a result finds itself in a perpetual funding crisis that fundamentally limits its ability to improve student learning.

“Productivity” in the context of education merits a bit of elaboration. I originally wrote it in the literal numeric sense of students per teacher. To be sure, a graduating high school senior today knows considerably more than he or she would have a century ago.

Per pupil expenditure is an important measure of school productivity that—while admittedly not measuring relative education quality—has not increased over the last century or so. Take the teacher of the early 1900s, adjust that teacher’s salary for inflation, factor in class sizes that if anything have gone down, and acknowledge that productivity has at best been flat.

I don’t have a source at my fingertips, but I recall coming across statistics showing average high school class sizes in the 1900s being on the order of 40+ versus sub-25 today. And this article from the right-leaning Newsbusters uses Census Bureau data to show a 40% decrease in class size (and therefore productivity) since 1960.

Education technology that will deliver a combination of instruction, practice, and assessment has for years offered the promise of breaking the productivity ceiling.

By “combination,” I was referring to what I call “closed loop” adaptive instructional technology in which the technology itself serves up the next piece of learning based on how the prior piece of learning was received. This is in no way an argument for the removal of the teacher from the loop.

One model is to allow students to work with engaging and effective technology in a relatively unsupervised setting while freeing up a smaller number of teachers (through normal attrition) to work with smaller groups where their expertise is most valuable.

 As an aside, I see educational technology as being the combination of “platform” technology (network infrastructure, hardware, operating and learning management systems, and office and other productivity tools) and “instructional” technology (software that instructs).

Advances in the pedagogy underlying software content coupled with the evolution of hardware and infrastructure allow that promise to be realized within the next five years for any school district willing to pilot and then implement a technology-centric educational system.

Five years would have been 2010, and sadly, we didn’t quite get there. That said, in 2010, numerous examples of instructional technology existed, and the number has only increased since. Upon re-reading, “technology-centric educational system” was poorly phrased. “Technology-powered” or “technology-enabled” would have been far better.

These school districts have the potential to substantially alleviate their funding crises for at least the near and perhaps into the medium term.

In brief, here’s the model. If a teacher with a class of 25 students using conventional approaches can use technology to get better educational outcomes with a class of 30 students, there would be a cost reduction of 20% (less the added technology cost, of course). To put the numbers in perspective, consider that districts in the Metrowest area outside of Boston spend more than $16,000 per student, and that on the order of 2/3 of this cost is in the form of teacher compensation. Call that $10,000. A 20% savings would be more than enough to cover the cost of platform and instructional technology.

To realize this success, a relatively narrow education technology path is necessary.
a. The technology path cannot add operational costs in the form of IT staffing.

Actually, that’s not really the case–the cost of added IT staffing just needs to be factored into the overall cost picture.

b. The evolution of networks and network security are making school software implementations more rather than less complex, driving up the need for unacceptable IT staffing.

Given the many platform and instructional technology options facing schools, complexity is certainly part of the landscape. As the next point outlines, however, the web-based nature of these options dramatically reduces the potential IT burden.

c. Web applications (including “light” downloads with Web-stored data) get away from the expensive and not always reliable network model by putting the implementation burden on the software publisher and not the school district or its IT staff.

d. To date, the relative unavailability of reliable-enough Internet connectivity has slowed the movement from network-based applications to web-based applications.

Contradicting the next point, connectivity continues to be a problem.

e. However, the connectivity problem is diminishing reasonably quickly over time.

f. The viability of Web applications will enable an education technology-driven school model that will improve outcomes and decrease cost. Print and software publishers that fail to embrace this model will lose importance over time as measured in single digit years.

 I probably wasn’t too far off here. The big publishers, having seen their textbook “empires” put at significant risk, have been investing heavily in educational technology. Whether this investment (in the form of internal development and external acquisition) will be enough to allow them to maintain their market share remains to be seen.

Who will be the last to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a college education?

college-costReposted from Medallion Learning blog

At the nation’s most expensive college, a four-year education now costs upwards of a quarter of a million dollars (Northeastern, we’re looking at you). Debates about the value of this education continue to rage. Most recently, the 2014 PayScale College ROI Report [1] allows readers to rank nearly 900 undergraduate institutions based on metrics including 20 year net ROI and annual ROI.

Let’s set aside for a moment the necessary simplifications embedded in the report’s methodology. Harvey Mudd College tops the 20 year net ROI ranking at just shy of one million dollars. At nearly 12%, the Georgia Institute of Technology leads the way on annual ROI. At the other end of the spectrum, Shaw University trails the 20 year net ROI pack at NEGATIVE $156,000 and the annual ROI list at -11.9%. That’s if you graduate—only a quarter of its students do.

Overall, the average 20 year net ROI for the ~900 schools comes in at about $230,000 with an ROI a shade less than 5% a year. Sadly, only half of all students embarking on this expensive path even graduate. Imagine that you’re one of these fortunate students. Just what is it that you’re getting?

The Lumina Foundation, working with Gallup, tackled that question as part of its 2013 study, “What America Needs to Know About Higher Education Redesign” [2]. The message from colleges and universities to its students rings positive—96% of chief academic officers at these institutions assert extreme or somewhat confidence “in their institution’s ability to prepare students for success in the workforce.”

Great news! Or is it? What do those doing the hiring think? That storm cloud rolling in brings the opinion of business leaders—only 11% strongly agree that “today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies that their business needs.”

Clearly, a disconnect exists between what colleges and universities offer and what employers need. What’s a poor student to do? Six figures is a lot to pay for a degree that doesn’t deliver … but don’t try getting a white collar job without one.

While it’s fair to be skeptical of Lumina’s finding that only 9% of business leaders claim “where the candidate received their degree is very important in hiring decisions” (sorry, Harvard; bad news MIT; you’re out of luck, Stanford), one cannot avoid the fact that a full 84% share that “the amount of knowledge a candidate has is very important in hiring decisions.”

Where are students turning to bridge the gap? More and more, online. Online courses and certifications offer students the chance to efficiently and effectively replace some or all of their brick and mortar “hours in the seat” with competency-based learning that appeals to employers. More than half of all employers (54% per Lumina) now report the likelihood of hiring “a candidate who has a degree from an online higher education provider OVER a candidate with the same degree from a traditional higher education institution.”

No doubt, the higher education experience offers more than just access to the workplace: a protected step away from the family home, illuminating interaction with peers and mentors, acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, well-rounding as a human being. For far too many, however, the price of that education exceeds the ability to pay. The all too common failure of that education as career preparation just adds injury to injury.

For reasons of content and cost, higher education finds itself poised on the cusp of major change. Not all that many tomorrow’s from now, someone out there is about to become the last one to pay a quarter of a million dollars for yesterday’s higher education.



Educator pay and improving student outcomes

Originally posted to Wayland eNews Discussion Forum

A study reported on in yesterday’s Boston Globe (9/22/2010) concluded that bonus payments to teachers did not improve student outcomes. There’s enough nuance in the article to make it worth a quick look–I won’t try to capture the pros and cons here.

For the most part, teachers already work hard to improve outcomes. It’s hard to see how the prospect of a distant end of year bonus might cause a teacher to do something different in the classroom on a given day. If we’re going to spend more for improved outcomes (and in the current financial climate, that’s a huge “if”), I think that there’s a better way.

Instead of tying the money to outcomes, I propose putting it toward resources that could affect those outcomes. Namely, I’d spend it on extra professional development. More so than most fields, teachers simply don’t get enough time to learn together and improve their collective craft.

Collaborative in-service training during the school day can be impossible to schedule without using substitutes to cover classroom time, and using substitutes in that way may reduce outcomes as much as improved teacher effectiveness increases them. So, why not pay teachers an hourly rate for extra professional development time outside the school day?

For this to work, of course, the professional development can’t just be a series of one-off seminars–it needs to be cohesively designed to span the school year and tie directly to actions in the classroom.