Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Education Bubble, Thiel, and what needs to change

We're in an education bubble, and Thiel wants to deflate it.

I'd posted a little while back about unaccredited institutions and the education bubble.

This bubble has existed for some time, with online institutions getting billions in federally subsidized student loans. Recently, the well-known entrepreneur Peter Thiel also posited that we're in an education bubble:
“A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

[Housing and education] whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe. The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.

But Thiel’s issues with education run even deeper. He thinks it’s fundamentally wrong for a society to pin people’s best hope for a better life on something that is by definition exclusionary. “If Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?” he says. “It’s something about the scarcity and the status. In education your value depends on other people failing...
Thiel organized a $2M challenge and has selected 20 promising students to recieve $100,000 apiece to stop out of school, to be mentored and end up with awesome results ("stop out" means they have the option of returning).
Thiel is trying to prove a point, but his point is muddied by a lack of rigor. These stop-outs already have distinguished records, so I'm guessin most of them will do pretty well outside of school (although it seems like half of them already have college degrees). If Thiel wants to make a rigorous point instead of generating buzz around his idea, he should set up a control group, by finding 40 "winners" and randomly selecting 20 of those to stop-out. Better yet, if he really wants to prove college is overrated for everyone, they should pick 1000 random students from US schools (not just top ones), then mentor 500 of them. A few years (decades) later, compare the groups.

The benefits of college

Let's re-evaluate why college seems important to people. Americans are taught from birth by families and the federal government that they should go to college. College becomes an end in itself. It used to be the case that having a degree at all meant you were one of the few who put yourself through by sheer will and determination, or at least your parents were well-enough off to send you to school.

Now, we're facing huge numbers of enrollments, as students are taking out record levels of student-loan debt. School is no longer as much of a flag that you're employable, because everyone has a college degree, and many of them are not good hires. The result is already becoming clear: people who study non-scientific subjects are not paid especially well. To make matters worse, the US Department of Education encourages student apathy about college major by providing testimonials from inexperienced students:
"There is no reason to have to know what you want to do when you come to college. College is a place and time for you to explore all those avenues and opportunities."

Kansas State University

"Your choice of major depends on your interests and what you'd like to do after college. For example, I'm really interested in helping people, so I chose psychology..."
"There is not really a 'best' major. Remember to choose one that's interesting and enjoyable to YOU, not one that your friends and family think is best. After all, YOU will be taking the classes and doing the work!"
More importantly, we still need people to fix our cars, take out the trash, paint and build houses, take care of our elderly, and install electrical systems. These are necessarily not bad jobs, even though they do not require a college degree. Sending more people than necessary to school just to go to school is bad for the economy, since it makes white-collar jobs underpaid and siphons money into educational institutions. I could even be convinced that it increases wages of those jobs that don't require a college degree, because those with a college degree don't want to do those jobs.

The traditional value of a college education

Traditionally, schools might be seen as "country clubs for the young". Wealthy parents sent their kids off to whichever private college is known to their peers, to network with other wealthy parents' kids. A reasonable amount of learning happens, but remember that these students are also reading Chaucer, Homer, and Nabokov to become "well-rounded" individuals. Public schools offer a similar service, but based a bit less on the exclusivity part.

The value of the school to the student is at least fourfold:
  1. Information learned in the classroom.
  2. It looks good on a resume.
  3. Socialization. I learned how to live with roommates, for example, and I probably talk with a dialect more similar to the others at my undergraduate school than to my own brother.
  4. Networking. I met several professors who had an influence on my future and were able to write letters of recommendation. Perhaps future jobs will take advantages of friends I met.
The only one of these that an any school can provide to an arbitrary level is (1), and that assumes no limit to the quality of the teachers. (2), (3), and (4) typically will only work out if the school ranks highly and, hence, is somewhat selective.

But these schools must be well-known (and not just selective) to be useful for (2)-(4). Consider the following schools, which are among the most-selective 20 in the U.S.:
  1. Amherst
  2. Cooper Union
  3. College of the Ozarks
  4. Annapolis (US Naval Academy)
  5. Pomona College
  6. Claremont McKenna
Of course I'm oblivious, but I only recently learned that Amherst is one of the most-selective, and I've only heard fleetingly of a few of the rest (perhaps this is because I am a non-liberal arts person). And yet these are extremely expensive. Tuition at Pomona, for example, is $38,394 per year. Tuition at Claremont McKenna? $38,510. Room and board is another $11,000 or so at these places.

Despite these tuitions, a resume coming from one of these schools would look no better to me than U. Virginia ($9,872 in-state and $31,872 out-of-state), which accepts more students but has a pretty good engineering school. And, unfortunately, the similarly named West Virginia State University is not even accredited, and, hence, useless as a school.

Are colleges doomed? I imagine we'll see a considerable shrinkage in the next decade, as employers become jaded with the quality of students. From my earlier post, I'll repeat the tips for college-seekers (note that checking the accreditation is also important for hiring managers):
Also, make sure the school you attend is a well-known school, that people will recognize. If you're staying local, a major state school or community college that people will recognize should be fine. If you're going national or abroad, try to pick a top-25 school. And, if you're hiring, be scrupulous about checking the accreditation of your newhires' schools.
I'll also add some new advice: study something that will get you a decent job. Check out the link above (re. pay in scientific subjects), for example.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

End of the world

Harold Camping was the preacher who thought the rapture would happen today.

To justify this theory, he came up with a rather arbitrary mathematical formula:

Christ was crucified on April 1, 33 A.D., exactly 722,500 days before May 21, 2011. That number, 722,500, is the square of 5 x 10 x 17. In Camping's numerological system, 5 represents atonement, 10 means completeness, and seventeen means heaven. "Five times 10 times 17 is telling you a story," Camping said on his Oakland-based talk show, Family Radio, last year. "It's the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you're completely saved. I tell ya, I just about fell off my chair when I realized that." [End of the World: Top Doomsday Fears]

Harold's approach is disappointing because it seems to take advantage of his followers' (i.e., Americans') poor grasp on math and their frequent view that math formulas are arbitrary when, in fact, they're not. At the same time, his station notes in his biography that he has a degree in civil engineering from UC Berkeley. Presumably he is taking advantage of his position as an "expert" to push his agenda by obfuscating it with math.

Camping's approach seems a disgrace to the program, as the undergrad program at UC-Berkeley is ranked second in undergrad civil engineering (UIUC is first).

What else has Harold applied his crazy math to? From the same biography:
Harold Camping earned his living from his own construction business, which he began shortly after the end of World War II.

I'd actually be curious about projects Harold's business has worked on. What was the quality of their services? Were the buildings up to industry standards? The only thing I found on the Web about "Camping Construction Company" was a lawsuit about unions.Link
I should have posted this sooner to make it evident how kooky I thought Harold Camp was before 6pm in the U.S.. In any case, I think my point is clear.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Primary Education in America: pay and standardized tests

The NYT has an editorial today about how poorly U.S. teachers are paid.

I agree with the main idea of the article (I have a few issues with some of its points), although I think there would need to be a few changes for something like this to be very successful.

As it is, teachers' salaries are below-market for a given education level:
At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education.
This is based on weekly pay (which seems to be a known metric in the field, so I believe their Summer break is factored in), and it does ignore some things like the benefits in having a job that makes you feel good about yourself. That said, this suggests that those going into teaching are also not the best in the market. (Granted, many good people go into teaching because they are passionate about it, and this is wonderful; but it's not enough). What happens when great people go into education? I have a friend from college who was extremely bright, in the honors program at a top research university; within a few years of teaching inner-city youth, he had decided to quit his job for more reasonable pay. He definitely wanted to help these kids, but he gave me an example of the state of affairs: one of his 8th graders asked him how to spell "hit".

This means that, while there are some great teachers out there, there are simply not enough great ones.

In any case, for higher pay to work well, we need to be open to a few things.
  1. First, we would need to be open to laying off underperforming teachers. This is necessary if we are to pay teachers market- or above-market- rates for their education level, since it will increase the pool of talent. Naturally, we'll need to re-evaluate existing teachers in the new talent pool.
  2. Focus on standardized testing to calibrate and pay teachers. Many decent people still question standardized testing based on unfounded fears of things that are easily addressed. Unfortunately, teachers and teachers' unions often add to these concerns, when they should be the ones most embracing them. Standard concerns are:
    1. How can we fairly compare teachers when the student quality or school quality differ so much? The primary variable we should be using to measure teachers is aggregate improvement in students' test scores compared to peer students. This means we don't reward or penalize a teacher for teaching kids who have problems to start with or for teaching kids who learn more slowly; we reward or penalize them based on how much their students have improved, compared to peer students. It is possible -- nay, easy! -- to measure these things fairly. Several approaches include (a) building variables into a statistical model that account for typical school performance and how quickly students learn (see item-response models, for a simple example of what's possible) at a school; or (b) moving teachers around a district as a form of experiment. The latter would help to calibrate different districts (which, in turn, is used to calibrate teachers). Teachers don't want to move around? They will if it's local and if you're paying them $100k.
    2. Standardized tests makes teachers teach to the test. This is not a problem, if the tests are well-designed. In fact, with a well-designed test, that's exactly what we should be getting teachers to do! In particular, a well-designed test should be broad enough to make teaching to it meaningful to the student, and it should be narrow enough to measure coherent skills. Both are easy.
    3. Teachers and administrators can cheat on these tests. Then (a) make it a federal offense to cheat on these tests, and (b) fire teachers and administrators who interfere with this testing process. There are many ways to identify cheating test administrators; statistical models are just a few of them.
    4. Tests don't measure the important things. The argument here is that teachers can teach many important things that aren't captured by tests. I'll use a counterexample-by-anecdote: my fifth-grade teacher had won a number of Teacher-of-the-Year awards throughout the years. When I had her, we rarely made it to studying math and never made it to studying science. I discovered why this was the case: she did not understand fundamental math. For example, she couldn't solve a basic algebra problem posed in our 5th-grade textbook (A robot takes a number, adds 3, multiplies by 4, adds 2, and divides by 2. The result is 7. What is the input?). On the other hand, she had a way of getting students to like her. We spent our time in her class playing games and having her chat with us about whatever she felt like chatting about. When she told us that we'd be learning the 50 states and the Gettysburg address, I obediently memorized them, to find later that she never expected us to learn these things. She was good at getting kids to like her and sounding ambitious, which was good for getting her teaching awards. The only science we ever learned in that class was from substitute teachers.
    Some people actually favor written essays instead of multiple choice questions; I'd argue that such an approach must be done very carefully or not at all, since many such essays are about politically charged issues: "Take a side in the dispute about affirmative action and argue your side." "Should state schools teach the humanities? Take a side and argue it." To argue that an essay grader (who works in academia) can take an objective approach to grading the composition of such essays (on material with which the student is not familiar) is silly -- they're really just a way to see whether the student fits into the academic mindset. (For full disclosure, I tended to do worse on the written essays than on multiple choice questions.)
On the topic of standardized tests and education, I'll argue that we should be much more open to experimenting on kids. If we were to implement nationwide experiments in education, we could have coherent ways of improving curricula (examples might be, "if we teach geometry before algebra, how does that affect mean increase in scores 3 years down the road?" "if we minimize memorization in math and focus on applying core ideas like the Pythagorean Theorem and basic algebra, how does that affect scores?"). I envision this as being similar to the way Amazon and Google experiment with their Web traffic with A/B experiments.

Returning to teacher pay and summarizing: I'm a huge fan of increasing teacher pay, but I think it should come hand-in-hand with clear, objective metrics of success and critical performance reviews.