Category: Education

Why does Minneapolis have such extreme educational disparities?

A correspondent writes me:

I live in Minneapolis and have worked in education policy here for a few years. With all of the unrest going on here, I feel increasing urgency to learn more about a question that’s been puzzling me for many years, and which I can’t seem to find a satisfactory answer to: why is Minnesota one of the worst states in the nation for disparities between black and white students, both in education and other outcomes such as employment and income?

Of course, most of my liberal colleagues and friends will say something like, “structural racism”, which isn’t really an explanation. That doesn’t explain why we to do so poorly in disparities, when other somewhat similar states such as Michigan and Illinois do better than us in their educational disparities.

All of this makes me think – there must be a study of disparities among minority or historically marginalized groups that looks across countries and cultural contexts, to try and understand what specifically causes students from those communities to perform poorly in school. And surely there must be cases where poor minority groups perform better in school than would be expected.

Do you have any suggestions for reading that could start me on the path to figuring this out?

The comments section is open, please leave your thoughtful suggestions there.  And read this for general background on the economic side, and this.

Richard Davis requests

Here are some answers, I put his questions — from Request for Requests – in bold:

Melancholy among academics.

We’re a pretty sorry bunch, and many of us don’t have so much professionally to live for, at least not at the relevant margin — it is easy to lose forward momentum and never recover it, given the constraints and incentives in the profession and broader pressures toward conformity.  Rates of depression in academia, and especially in graduate school, are fairly high.  Many of the core processes are demoralizing rather than inspiring.  It is remarkable to me how much other people simply have accepted that is how things ought to be and perhaps they believe matters cannot be that different.  I view the high rates of depression in academic life as a “canary in the coal mine” that doesn’t get enough attention as an indicator of bigger, more systemic problems in the entire enterprise.  What are you doing with your lifetime sinecure?

Your favorite things Soviet.

Shostakovich.  And the Romantic pianists, most of all Richter and Gilels.  Constructivist art and ballet up through the late 1920s.  The early chess games of Tal.  Magnitogorsk.  War memorials, most of all in Leningrad.  Tarkovsky.  I admire the “great” Soviet novels, but I don’t love them, except for Solzhenitsyn, whom I would rather read then Dostoyevsky.  Probably the poetry is amazing, but my Russian is too limited to appreciate it.

The optimal number of math PhDs worldwide.

I would think fairly few.  I am happy having lots of mathematicians, with independent tests of quality.  But is the Ph.D such a great test or marker of quality?  Did Euclid have one?  Euler?  Does it show you will be a great teacher?  Maybe we should work toward abolishing the math PhD concept, but out of respect for the profession, not out of hostility toward math.

What historical works of art were anticipated to be great prior to creation, were immediately declared to be great at creation and have continued to be judged great ever since?

Overall it is striking how popular how many of the great revolutionaries have been.  Michelangelo was a major figure of renown.  Mozart was quite popular, though not fully appreciated.  Beethoven was a legend in his time, and every Wagner opera was an event.  Goethe ruled his time as a titan.  A significant percentage of the very best writers were well known and loved during their careers, though of course there was uncertainty how well they would stand up to the test of time.

The future of Northern New Jersey.

Much like the present, plus defaults on the pension obligations and over time the Indian food may get worse, due to acculturation.  The Sopranos will fade into distant memory, I am sorry to say, as will Bruce Springsteen.  So many young people already don’t know them or care.  I feel lucky to have grown up during the region’s cultural peak.

Who are the greats that still walk among us (other than McCartney)?

The major tech founders and CEOs, Stephan Wolfram, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and Richard Serra and Gerhardt Richter and Robert Gober, a number of other classic rock stars (Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jagger, Eno, etc.), Philip Glass, Richard D. James, and note most of the greatest classical musicians who have ever lived are alive and playing today (Uchida anyone?), at least once Covid goes away.  Many of the major architects.  Ferrante and Knausgaard and Alice Munro.  Many of the figures who built up East Asia and Singapore.  Perelman.  Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  Magnus Carlsen and all sorts of figures in sports.  A bunch of other people whom Eric Weinstein would list.


Why not?

A weird Lancastrian method for reopening higher education

I’m not sure this could work, but everyone else is doing weird ideas, so let’s consider another one.

Remember Lancastrian methods of education from 19th century England?  Part of the idea was to keep small group size, and economize on labor, by having the students teach each other, typically with the older students instructing the younger.

Here is my suggestion: have students use an app to arrange in-person meetings, in groups of five, for periods of a few weeks running.  Social distancing and masks can be applied as conditions at the time dictate.  The app will match students on the basis of stated interests, and sometimes by other methods too, such as levels of mathematical sophistication or if you wish cultural diversity.  The app also will tell them where to meet on campus, all classes being held outside.

Some classes would be led by professors, but there are not enough professors to go around so many others would be led by the more senior or otherwise better informed students.  Professors and TAs could rotate across various groups if so needed.

All students are given free iPads, connected to campus wireless, and sometimes those iPads would serve as collective blackboards for the small groups.

Central admin. or departments could impose curricular structure in advance, or within a topic area particular assignments might be generated by “Unconference” methods, for instance the students might agree to read a particular book or essay, or to all learn a particular skill.  To the extent overseeing faculty are scarce, you can try having the students themselves finding the relevant teaching materials.  Very good groups would have the option of continuing for further weeks.

Start in August, keep on going until its gets too cold, they did it at Valley Forge and people learn in the desert and tropics too.  Many of the meetings can be short — say 45 minutes — and you can privilege the more valuable majors with locations in the shade.  Put up as many tents as you can.

Every class has a supply of back-up YouTube material, and associated testing, for when the weather is bad, or for when the semester has to end.

For the final semester grade each student writes a 20-25 pp. paper about what he or she learned through these units.  Professors and sometimes TAs would grade those papers, and do note this is not an insuperable grading burden.  It rewards the “did you learn anything useful at all?” approach, rather than “did you manage to sit and suffer through through all of your boring classes?”.

I suspect it feels too much like chaos to a university administrator, but perhaps that is an argument in its favor?

You will note that this method, for all of its learning uncertainties, has two big advantages.  First, it really does prioritize the health of everyone involved.  Second, students still have lots of contact with each other and get to enjoy some version of the campus experience.  The interactive groups might even provide a more engaging campus experience than did the status quo ex ante, keeping in mind that some schools will combine this method with the abolition or radical paring down of dorms.

Addendum: Hand out free diapers, all other plans have that issue too.

Interview with Josh Angrist

From the Richmond Fed Bulletin:

EF: You’ve looked at the question of how much peers matter. Many parents obviously seek schools where they believe their children will have higher-quality peers, whatever they may mean by that term. You and your co-authors have looked at Boston and New York City selective public schools, and you concluded that peer effects don’t seem to matter much. Why is that?

Angrist: I’m always beating that drum. I think people are easily fooled by peer effects. Parag, Atila Abdulkadiroglu, and I call it “the elite illusion.” We made that the title of a paper. I think it’s a pervasive phenomenon. You look at the Boston Latin School, or if you live in Northern Virginia, there’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. And in New York, you have Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science and Stuyvesant.

And so people say, “Look at those awesome children, look how well they did.” Well, they wouldn’t get into the selective school if they weren’t awesome, but that’s distinct from the question of whether there’s a causal effect. When you actually drill down and do a credible comparison of students who are just above and just below the cutoff, you find out that elite performance is indeed illusory, an artifact of selection. The kids who go to those schools do well because they were already doing well when they got in, but there’s no peer effect from being exposed to higher-achieving peers.

We also have papers where we show that the elite illusion is not just a phenomenon relevant for marginal kids. This is in response to an objection that goes, “If you’re the last kid admitted to Stuyvesant, it’s not good for you because you’re not strong enough.” We can refute that with some of our research designs.

There are good stories and analyses throughout.

Are faculty myopic?

Facing devastating financial losses related to the coronavirus pandemic, colleges and universities are cutting costs just about everywhere they can. Increasingly, that includes faculty and staff retirement benefits.

Duke, Georgetown, Northwestern and Texas Christian Universities are some of the institutions to announce cuts to retirement contributions in recent days. Some of these decisions have been more severe and more controversial than others…

Georgetown president John J. DeGioia also announced that the university will suspend all contributions to its employee retirement plan for the coming year, starting next month.

Does this mean they think their faculty are myopic, and also liquidity-constrained low savers?  Are the faculty myopic?  Especially if faculty are myopic, isn’t this worse for faculty welfare than just cutting nominal wages a bit?  What would Cass Sunstein say?  How should we model this response in terms of an underlying dynamic for admin.-faculty relations?  If this “works,” what will the next move of admin. be, with or without coronavirus in the world?

What might this possible myopia imply about the associated defects of faculty research and teaching?

I thank Bryan for an underlying conversation relevant to this post.  Here is the full article.

Covid career advice for young workers

Given COVID-19 and its accompanying economic issues, what do you think people in their early-mid 20s should be doing or thinking about right now in terms of saving, spending, career planning, etc.? What’s overlooked or wrong in the most obvious or common advice? (I.e., “sit tight”, “spend some money at local businesses”, “give to charity”, “learn a new skill”, etc.) Obviously, employment status matters and different skillsets, talents, etc. affect what one can and should do. Candidly, I’m not sure how best to disaggregate young workers in relation to my questions.

That is an email from Gregory Irving.  I am not sure my point here is “overlooked,” but if I had to offer one piece of advice it would be this:

“Right now it is harder than usual to build out your “soft network” of acquaintances, loose ties, and other people who could help you or become your future partners.  You just can’t go out and meet people in the old ways.  Yet in spite of this greater difficulty, virtually everyone’s allocation of time has shifted pretty dramatically.  So there ought to be entrepreneurial opportunities to build up soft networks in ways that would not have been possible pre-Covid.  Try to take advantage of those opportunities.”

What do you all say?

The economics of college vs. the economics of private tutors

How can you possibly justify a $200,000+ college expense? How can you justify a $100,000+ college expense?

This is not necessary.

The average tenure hopeful adjunct makes $40 an hour. If you were to employ her as a private tutor at the cost of $60 an hour, and had four hours with her a week, and did that for 14 weeks (that’s the length of an average college course folks) that is about $3,400.

Were you to employ three such professor-tutors, that would be about $10,200, or a bit over $20,000 a year. In four years you would have racked up $80,000 in costs. But this is still $30,000 less than the total for the ‘cost conscious’ universities. It is a quarter of what you would pay for Trinity.

Remember: this $80,000 is for private tutoring, where individual attention would give you far and away a better and more thorough education than the 300-kids-in-a-lecture-hall style of classes that dominate undergraduate education today.

But it can get even cheaper. Let’s say you take the general principle of group classes from the university. Say you can find four other people to take all of these other classes with you. Just four. Well that equals out to $680 per class, or $16,000 a person for four years of classes.

To be fair, add in $1,000-$2,000 for textbooks and a subscription to JSTOR, for a total of about $17,000 to $18,000 for four years.

That is from Scholars Stage from 2018, still relevant today.  (He went to the very reasonably priced Brigham Young University.)  As I’ve said before, contemporary university study should have more of both on-line education and private tutoring, and less of what comes in between.

*The WEIRDest People in the World*

That is the new 655 pp. book by Joseph Henrich, due out September 8, and yes it is “an event.”  The subtitle is “How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous,” and that is indeed one of the very most important questions in all of social science.

“WEIRD” of course refers to “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.”  And is it not weird that we (some of us, at least) are WEIRD?

Here is an excerpt from the opening segment:

Let’s close by returning to the core questions of this book:

1. How can we explain the global psychological variation highlighted above?

2. Why are WEIRD societies particularly unusual, so often occupying the extreme ends of global distributions of psychology and behavior?

3. What role did these psychological differences play in the Industrial Revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries?

If you are wondering how this material might differ from Henrich’s previous output, there is above all much more on marriage customs and monogamy, for instance:

…I’ll make the case that monogamous marriage norms — which push upstream against our polygynous biases and the strong preferences of elite men — create a range of social and psychological effects that give the societies that possess them a big edge in competition against other groups.

Obviously recommended, and you will be hearing more about this both from me and from others.  You can pre-order here.

Some reflections on GRE scores

The evidence indicates that GRE scores predict graduate school success, general intelligence, and also that SAT scores predict later success in science.  Here is further evidence, and here is yet further evidence.

You don’t have to think that “high GRE score fields” are better than “low GRE score fields.”  Many of my friends, for instance, think string theory is intellectually bankrupt, despite many of its proponents being very, very smart.  I don’t have an opinion on string theory per se, but my friends might be right, and in any case I would rather read books from cultural studies, a lower GRE score field.

If you wish to understand the relative strengths and pathologies of theoretical physics and cultural studies, you cannot do that without knowing that the former is a relatively high GRE score field (or the equivalent) and that the latter is a relatively low GRE score field (or the equivalent).

There are many top economists on Twitter, most of them Democrats, who would never ever utter a word about GRE scores in a blog post or on Twitter.  Yet when on an admissions committee, they will ruthlessly enforce the strictest standards for math GRE scores without hesitation.  Not only in top ten programs, but in top thirty programs and even further down the line in many cases.  It is very, very hard to get into a top or even second-tier economics program without an absolutely stellar math GRE score, and yes that is enforced by the same humans who won’t talk about the issue.

Just in case you didn’t know that.

Personally, I feel it has gone too far in that direction, and economics has overinvested in one very particular kind of intelligence (I would myself put greater stress on the old GRE subject test scores for economics, thus selecting for those with an initial interest in the economy rather than in mathematics).

When I did graduate admissions for George Mason University, I very consciously moved away from an emphasis on GRE scores, and for the better.  My first goal was simply to take in more students, and a more diverse group of students, and in fact many of the later top performers were originally “marginal” students by GRE standards.  Looking back, many of our top GRE-scoring students have not done better than the peers, though they have done fine.  For GMU these admission criteria are (in my view) more like the Rosen-Roback model than anything else, though I would readily grant Harvard and MIT are not in the same position.

If you are afraid to talk about GRE scores, you are afraid to talk about reality.

Online Education is Better

The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating a long-term trend, the shift to online education. I’ve long argued that online education is superior to traditional models. In an excellent essay in the New York Times, Veronique Mintz, an eighth-grade NYC student agrees:

Talking out of turn. Destroying classroom materials. Disrespecting teachers. Blurting out answers during tests. Students pushing, kicking, hitting one another and even rolling on the ground. This is what happens in my school every single day.

You may think I’m joking, but I swear I’m not…during my three years of middle school, these sorts of disruptions occurred repeatedly in any given 42-minute class period.

That’s why I’m in favor of the distance learning the New York City school system instituted when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

…Distance learning gives me more control of my studies. I can focus more time on subjects that require greater effort and study. I don’t have to sit through a teacher fielding questions that have already been answered.

…This year I have struggled with math. The teacher rarely had the patience for questions as he spent at least a third of class time trying to maintain order. Often, when I scheduled time to meet with him before school, there would be a pileup at his door of students who also had questions. He couldn’t help us all in 20 minutes before first period. Other times he just wouldn’t show up….With distance learning, all of that wasted time is eliminated. I stop, start and even rewind the teacher’s recording when I need to and am able to understand the lesson on the day it’s taught.

Veronique’s online courses were put together in a rush. Imagine how much more she will learn when we invest millions in online classes and teach at scale. The online classes that Tyler and I teach, using Modern Principles and the Sapling/Achieve online course management system, took years to produce and feature high quality videos and sophisticated assessment tools including curve shifting (not just multiple-choice), empirical questions based on FRED, and adaptive practice–plus the videos are all subtitled in multiple languages, they can be sped up or slowed down, watched at different times of the day in different time zones and so forth. Moreover, technology is increasing the advantages of online education over time.

*Good Work if You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia*

That is the new Jason Brennan book, just out yesterday, here is a summary:

This candid, pull-no-punches book answers questions big and small, including

• Should I go to graduate school—and what will I do once I get there?
• How much does a PhD cost—and should I pay for one?
• What kinds of jobs are there after grad school, and who gets them?
• What happens to the people who never get full-time professorships?
• What does it take to be productive, to publish continually at a high level?
• What does it take to teach many classes at once?
• What does it take to succeed in graduate school?
• How does “publish or perish” work?
• How much do professors get paid?
• What do search committees look for, and what turns them off?
• How do I know which journals and book publishers matter?
• How do I balance work and life?

This realistic, data-driven look at university teaching and research will make your graduate and postgraduate experience a success.

Here is my blurb:

“In Good Work If You Can Get It, Jason Brennan tells it like it is. You will get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This is the one book to read about trying to become a professor.”

Self-recommended.  And here is Bryan Caplan’s excellent review.

Heat and learning

By Jisung Park, Joshua Goodman, Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith, in the latest issue of the AEA policy journal:

We demonstrate that heat inhibits learning and that school air conditioning may mitigate this effect. Student fixed effects models using 10 million students who retook the PSATs show that hotter school days in the years before the test was taken reduce scores, with extreme heat being particularly damaging. Weekend and summer temperatures have little impact, suggesting heat directly disrupts learning time. New nationwide, school-level measures of air conditioning penetration suggest patterns consistent with such infrastructure largely offsetting heat’s effects. Without air conditioning, a 1°F hotter school year reduces that year’s learning by 1 percent. Hot school days disproportionately impact minority students, accounting for roughly 5 percent of the racial achievement gap.

Here is the (gated) AEA link, here are alternate versions of the paper.

Blood Money

NYTimes: Around the world, scientists are racing to develop and mass produce reliable antibody tests that public health experts say are a crucial element in ending the coronavirus lockdowns that are causing economic devastation. But that effort is being hamstrung, scientists say, by a shortage of the blood samples containing antibodies to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, that are needed to validate the tests.

Recognizing a rare opportunity, some companies are seeking to cash in on the shortages, soliciting blood donations and selling samples at rich markups in a practice that has been condemned by medical professionals as, at the very least, unethical.

“I’ve never seen these prices before,” said Dr. Joe Fitchett, the medical director of Mologic, one of the British test manufacturers that was offered the blood samples. “It’s money being made from people’s suffering.”

I am reminded of Walter Williams who asks his students whether it is wrong to profit from the misfortune of others:

But I caution them with some examples. An orthopedist profits from your misfortune of having broken your leg skiing. When there’s news of a pending ice storm, I doubt whether it saddens the hearts of those in the collision repair business. I also tell my students that I profit from their misfortune — their ignorance of economic theory.

A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive so if you want a strong signal and a strong incentive you need to let prices rise. The prices in this case don’t even seem that high:

From March 31 to April 22, prices asked by Cantor BioConnect for its cheapest samples — always sold by the milliliter, the equivalent of less than a quarter of a teaspoon — rose more than 40 percent, to $500 from $350.

Bear in mind the costs of collecting the sample, including nurse time and PPE. Some samples which are especially rich in antibodies, do sell for prices that are well above cost which is not surprising as those samples are in high demand as they may offer a cure.

Do the firms willing and able to pay the highest prices necessarily have the best science? No, not necessarily, but on balance the decentralized allocation process offered by markets and civil society will likely be far more effective than centralized, political allocation. We also know from field experiments around the world that higher prices for blood increase supply, a key consideration.

As Hayek said the moral rules of the tribe which appear natural to us–like don’t profit from misery–cannot maintain a civilization so we struggle between what we think is right and what actually works to prevent misery.

There can be no doubt that our innate moral emotions and instincts were acquired in the hundreds of thousand years—probably half a million years—in which Homo sapiens lived in small hunting and gathering groups and developed a physiological constitution which governed his innate instincts. These instincts are still very strong in us. Yet civilization developed by our gradually learning cultural rules which were trans­mitted by teaching and which served largely to restrain and suppress some of those natural instincts.

Who wants to take UFO sightings more seriously?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Among my friends and acquaintances, the best predictor of how seriously they take the matter is whether they read science fiction in their youth. As you might expect, the science-fiction readers are willing to entertain the more outlandish possibilities. Even if these are not “little green men,” the idea that the Chinese or Russians have a craft that can track and outmaneuver the U.S. military is newsworthy in and of itself. So would be a secret U.S. craft, especially one unknown to military pilots.

The cynical view is that the science-fiction readers are a bit crazy and are trying to recapture the excitement of their youth by speculating about UFOs. Under this theory, they shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than Tolkien fans who wonder if orcs are hiding under the next stone.

The more positive view is that science-fiction readers are more willing to consider new ideas and practices. This kind of openness presumably is a good thing, at least in general, so why aren’t the opinions of more “open” observers accorded more respect? Science-fiction readers have long experience thinking about worlds that are very different from the current one, and perhaps that makes them more perceptive when something truly unusual does come along.

Some of the individuals who were early to see and point out Covid-19 risk, such as tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan, also have taken the UFO reports seriously, perhaps due to the same flexibility of mind.

Do read the whole thing, the column does not excerpt easily.