It is normal for our economy to get a bump when new and promising things happen. Economic measures go up at the first of the year, when a new president is inaugurated and following tax reform legislation. People are generally more optimistic at those times and spend more freely boosting the economy.
Those events contribute to the marginally better economy we are experiencing, but there are some troubling blips on the radar. The smooth sailing may be over and we might be facing turbulent times.
First, the effects of the Trump tax cuts are diminishing. IRS policy changes for the 2019 and 2020 tax years will result in increasing taxes. Standard deductions will be going up in response to anticipated inflation, meaning that a larger share of income will be subject to taxation. This will have the effect of taking money out of the economy in 2019 without returning any real value. That might slow inflation, but at the expense of a decrease in the standard of living for most people.
Here is a chart comparing the rise of tax receipts with the rise in average hourly wages over the last couple of years:
Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Federal government current tax receipts: Personal current taxes [A074RC1Q027SBEA], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/A074RC1Q027SBEA, November 17, 2018.
The important thing to compare are the angles of the two lines. Generally the blue line, tax receipts, is stepper than the orange line representing hourly income. That means that taxes are increasing at a greater rate than income, lowering real income. Even though we might make more money the increases are eaten up by taxes that are increasing even faster than wages. The sharp dogleg in tax receipts is the temporary bump in paychecks we saw right after the Trump tax bill was passed.
Another troubling development is the increase in household debt and delinquencies on payments. Household debt reached a new record of $13.5 trillion dollars last quarter. Household debt is the aggregate of all personal debt arising from personal loans, credit cards, auto loans, home mortgages and student loans. Debt can be a good thing when it is being reliably paid down, but payments have become less reliable.
Student loans, credit card and auto debt delinquencies have been rising, especially student loan delinquencies which have increased from 8.6% to 9.1% in the last quarter. This implies that increases in wages are not keeping up with the ability to service debt.
The troubling thing about student load debt is that it does not result in a net wealth increase for people holding it. Education is not a good investment when jobs are scarce, yet that is when people tend to go to school. The chart below starkly illustrates the lack of a relationship between education and income. Education is a good investment only during good economic times. Going into education debt during a downturn only ensures more poverty.
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Real Median Household Income in the United States [MEHOINUSA672N], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MEHOINUSA672N, November 17, 2018.
Other signs of a weakening economy are jittery tech stocks. The FAAMG stocks — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet – have an outsize effect on the stock market. When the techs experience a downturn, so does the rest of the stock market.
Although the FAAMG stocks are generally healthy, trends are gathering that might have an impact on their volatility. Facebook is losing members and its stock value has been declining since the summer when foreign manipulation of public opinion came to light during the 2016 election. IPhone sales are down, and holiday buying expectations are guarded.
None of this means a recession is imminent. What is concerning, though is that our new economy is not nearly as resilient as the one that disappeared in 2008, and even a modest downturn could have catastrophic effects on so many members of our economy living and dying with poverty.
When we think about the value of a college education, it is usually in the context of making a living. We expect that a college education will result in higher earnings over the course of our lifetime. This idea has been drummed into us for the last thirty years. For decades, the education industry has been repeating the mantra that ever more education means ever more income.
There might be some truth to that, but it a relatively new view of the value of education. My parents and grandparents didn’t see things that way. Sure, higher education contributed to a higher standard of living, but that was not really the point of going to school. My parents put me on the college track when I was elementary school, not for the promise of a high income, but because an education built character and made individuals better citizens.
In their view, smart people have a civic duty to get an education because of the benefits it returns to society.
This wasn’t an idea created by the generation before mine. The Founders of the United States had a reverence for education. Concepts like equality, liberty and democracy are abstractions – they are intangibles, sometimes called metaphysical because we cannot see or even visualize them in our imaginations. Without an education, it is very difficult to understand sophisticated arguments about political theory and the rights of man.
Graduating from college meant I was educated and ready to contribute to moving my country past the convulsions of the 60’s and 70’s that was tearing it apart. I was very proud of myself for earning a bachelor’s degree.
That is, until I read the newspaper.
About a week after the formalities of the graduation ceremony, I was sitting on my parents’ couch reading an editorial. I don’t remember what the editorial was about, but I vividly remember a reference to The Scarlet Letter and having no idea what the editorial was trying to say because I had never read the book.
I was stunned.
Here I am, I thought, a week out of college with a newly minted diploma attesting to my new status as an educated American, and I don’t know what a newspaper editorial means because I have not read a well-known classic American novel.
I resolved to plug that hole in my education.
I began going to the city library, working my way through canyons of bookcases packed with classic works of fiction and highbrow literature that I had avoided in high school and college. I’d pick out a book I had heard about but never read, head to the overstuffed chairs at the ends of the bookcases, and start reading.
Some books I just could not manage.
Anything by Dickens or the Bronte sisters are just too slow and boring. And who would want to go to the trouble of writing a book and then title it The Scarlet Pimpernel? I never got far enough in that book to find out what a pimpernel is or why a scarlet one is noteworthy.
The unfamiliar names of characters in War and Peace confused me no end, but I made index cards with mini-biographies to keep everyone straight. Even then, I found the book just plodding along. Just the same, it brought the Russian history courses I took in college to life.
This got me excited about Russian history and I read biographies of Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. I even got to Nicholas and Alexandria, the story of the last Tsar and the revolution that brought communism and half a century of untold suffering to the Russian people.
That got me started on Russian dissent Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works.
The relevance of old stories to modern concerns was something else I discovered.
St. Elmo is one of the first romance novels. It was written in the 1880’s, I think, and is so full of archaic words that I kept a dictionary nearby as I read the book.
The plot was follows the formula of modern romance novels. Some things never change – and our appetite for romance novels is one of them.
The main character was a young woman nursing a broken heart who meets a mysterious wealthy stranger, who also lost at love. St. Elmo was the grief stricken mystery man and the narrator was the governess – the nanny — of his children. I found out that back in those days a “bluestocking” was an older, conservative woman who thinks young people have no discretion, decorum or respect for propriety.
Sound familiar? Human nature is very slow to change and books like St Elmo reminds me how similar we are to generations long past.
The Iliad and The Odyssey, both written by Homer almost a thousand years ago, might be the first novels ever written. In the last few years archeologists have found that people and events described in these books really existed. Homer describes the Trojan War in some detail, as well as the duplicity that spawned the famous wooden horse. Helen of Troy makes a series of appearances as well, and Homer explains her role in the conflict.
Something in The Odyssey frequently comes to mind when I see people openly wearing guns in public.
In the book, the main character, Odysseus, finally returns to his hometown after 20 years of adventures. He finds that although his wife had remained pure and true to him, men vying for her bed and her fortune surrounded her. He reveals himself to his son who wants to grab swords and axes to intimidate and scare off the interlopers. The old man immediately rejects the idea saying,
“Bare steel in sight draws men to fight.”
Instead of inviting a bloody confrontation, they hatch a plan to discreetly keep their weapons under their cloaks and use their intelligence and ingenuity to achieve their goals. That part of the book always comes to mind when I see people openly toting pistols in public. If Homer was to reincarnate in Walmart his modern advice might be, “Carry your gun discreetly and like Odysseus and his son, use your wits to avoid using it”.
Something truly amazing about The Odyssey is that the plot of 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? is based on it, although it is set in Depression era Mississippi and the main characters are prison escapees. Imagine, a poem written almost a thousand years ago made into a modern motion picture!
Finally, there is Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, the book is now the focus of racial conspiracy theories. Historical revisionists claim the books’ purpose is to glorify slavery and the antebellum South, but that simply is not true. Most people advancing that assertion have likely not read the book, although they might have seen the movie.
The famous move limits itself to the love story between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, but their romance is just a superficial subplot in the book. The real story is more complex and very relevant to what we are now experiencing in the wake of the collapse of the industrial economy in 2008. It’s as if the southern survivors of the Civil War left a time capsule detailing their struggles creating a new economy from the ashes of an old one.
The book actually explores the question of why, in the aftermath of the destruction of an economy, some people achieve success and others do not. In the beginning of the book author Margret Mitchell tells of listening to adults who were alive during the Civil War incessantly discussing this question.
Some people who were wealthy before the war were able to rebuild their fortunes afterwards, but many of their peers did not. At the same time, there were people who were very poor before the war, yet afterwards did quite well for themselves.
What is it that determines an individual’s financial fate when they live in the ruins of a formally vibrant economy? It not just the ability to work hard – Americans are notable throughout the world for their work ethic. Plenty of people work very hard, but never achieve much material success. We call them the “working poor”.
Why is it some do so well and others do so poorly? This is an especially relevant question today as we move past the collapse of the industrial economy of the 20th century and begin building a new economy.
Individually we are facing challenges very similar to what Mitchell heard her elders discussing when she was a child. Like them, now there are people who struggled in the old economy who are doing very well in the emerging one. On the other hand, some people who were doing quite well in the late 20th century are now living like Tom Joad, a character in Grapes of Wrath, another book, (and movie), examining the plight of people facing the aftermath of a collapse of a national economy.
Education is not just about getting a college degree and making more money than you would otherwise. It is about amassing a wealth of knowledge that makes the world more understandable. A broad wealth of knowledge helps us see important nuances and reveals connections and insights others have experienced.
I found out that in order to learn new things it is essential to have a foundation that new knowledge can build upon. Learning a new language or musical instrument is a good example of this. In the beginning, learning is very slow and difficult because there is no context for the new knowledge. As learning takes hold it becomes easier to add new knowledge to what we now understand. Every morsel of knowledge is a foundation for more knowledge. Every bit of new knowledge has a relationship with previously learned knowledge.
Education is the antidote to “fake news”, conspiracy theories mascaraing as insight, and emotional catchphrases that subtly undermine principles of justice and equality.
Education leverages the value of the struggles and victories of people who came before us. Their knowledge and experiences strengthen our cognitive insights and understanding as we grapple with our challenges and struggles.
A college degree is just the beginning of education. It is a foundation for the real education to come – a lifetime of intellectual excitement and exploration.
A few years ago, I was researching the value of bachelor’s degrees and discovered a research study for the Department of Education called Baccalaureate and Beyond (Cataldi, Siegel, Shepherd and Cooney 2014).
It is a longitudinal survey – one that follows a group of individuals over a long period. In this case, researchers looked at subjects four years after earning a bachelor’s degree. The thing I found interesting was that about 30% of the subjects did not have a single full time job.
This caught my attention because the education industry insists that the more education one has the better job prospects become and the more money made. That promise implies that college graduates would have “good” jobs – traditional 40 hour per week positions with some degree of job security.
This study certainly did not support that claim.
Of the thirty percent who did not have a single full time job, about half, or 15%, were working one or more part time jobs and the other half were unemployed. The other half had dropped out of the labor force, either returning to school or becoming a housewife/husband.
I found this so stunning that I called up the lead investigator of the study and asked him, rather bluntly, “If a bachelor degree is not a good predictor of socioeconomic success, what is?”
He didn’t skip a beat.
The best indicator of future social status is the social status you happened to have been born into, even more than education. socio-economic status is inherited, it seems.
In his still very relevant and interesting 2003 book, Somebodies and Nobodies, physicist and college president, Robert Fuller argues that social hierarchies are natural and needed but takes special aim at the unfairness inherent in them.
In one passage he shares the divergent life courses taken by him and his childhood friend, Gerald, whose family owned a chicken farm. Both boys were interested in math and they enjoyed a friendly competition for twelve years that sharpened their math skills.
“At a high school reunion a few years ago, I asked Gerald whether he regretted not developing his talent for math…With an unmistakable wistfulness, he explained that it had always been assumed he’d work the farm. None of his teachers took his mathematical talent seriously. No one ever encouraged him to aim higher. He never even considered anything beyond high school. I’m sure he could have become a college math professor…” (Fuller 2003, p. 36).
Both men started at the same place with the same interests and talents, one becomes a physicist and college president, while the other spends his life driving an egg truck. The only difference between the two was the social status of their families.
If your parents were wealthy and went to elite universities you will likely follow that path. On the other hand, if your parents went to land grant colleges and end up in the working class that is probably your fate as well.
That just rubs me the wrong way. So I started researching academic studies in order to bring some sense and clarity to the issue of the value of education.
Here is Alison Wolf, (2009), a leading UK professor writing in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning:
“In Britain, returns to degrees have already dipped badly for specific groups, especially those majoring in the liberal arts or attending low-status schools… You earn more…if you go to a highly selective institution, particularly if you go on to advanced academic or professional education and even more if is a world-renowned university (Harvard, Oxford).” (Wolf, 2009, p. 14).
There is no doubt that the choice of major has a lot to do with earnings, but notice that Wolf has added something new – the status of schools.
So, if the status of schools influences future earnings, what happens when aspiring students compete for entry into highly respected schools?
Just this month the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis released a study asking this very question. Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, (July 2018), performed a meta-study of 42 previous research papers and data sets going all the way back the early 20th century.
A meta-study does not involve any original research. The investigators combine all the data from previous studies and subject it to statistical analyses. The goal is to aggregate data from a range of previous studies to look for long-term trends or consistent results.
Here is what these investigators say about how intense competition for high quality education affects US colleges and universities:
“The key intuition is that although the rising demand for college accepts all types of students equally, it sets off a chain reaction …”
“…The result is a transition from an equilibrium where all students had access to colleges of roughly the same quality to an equilibrium where high-ability students had access to better colleges but low-ability students had access to worse colleges…” (Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, July 2018, p. 36)
In other words, the competition between colleges for good students has created a hierarchy of school quality. People aspiring to college try to get into the best schools, but the schools are “sorting” students by ability. Elite schools accept people with the best student skills, while people with lesser student skills go to less respected schools.
The path one takes to a bachelor’s degree signals social status to employers and graduate programs. A path starting with community college and transfer to a land grant college signals something much different from four years at an elite university or notable local institution.
This starts making sense.
If you know anything about social psychology or sociology you are aware of one very basic truth about human beings – we always arrange ourselves in a social hierarchy. It is such an automatic and inherent ability that we barely take notice. Our social circle usually consists of people very much like us – and that means people with similar socio-economic status.
So, what is it about our family of origin that anchors us so permanently into its socio-economic status?
Annette Lareau tells us all about it in her eye-opening book, Unequal Childhoods (2003). Lareau is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who took on a monumental study of how parents transmit social values related to class their children. She and her graduate student assistants observed interactions of poor, working class and middle class families over a period of years and came to some sobering conclusions.
Lareau identified two general differences in the way parents socialized their children, “concert cultivation” and “natural growth”.
Middle class families and “concerted cultivation”.
According to the observations Lareau and her team made, middle class families tend to see their role as nurturing their children. They have the resources to dominate and control their children’s lives with all sorts of structured experiences intended to enrich their lives. These parents are highly involved in managing their children’s after school time, with organized sports, music and dance lessons and other highly structured activities.
They interact with their children much like adults, explaining why things are best done in certain ways, reminding the kids about chores and homework, and negotiating conflicts with reason, logic and compromise rather than using their authority to end them.
According to Lareau, these middle class children tend to develop a sense of entitlement, but also learn sophisticated methods of interacting with adults who are in positions of authority, such as teachers and doctors.
Middle class children, even in the fourth grade, frequently succeed in requesting special attention and privileges from teachers and other adults in positions of authority. They learn this from seeing their parents reminding teachers to respect their children’s learning style, or encouraging their children to ask doctors or dentists specific questions. Lareau contends this grows out the sense of entitlement middle class children develop.
They learn middle class “rules of the game”.
Poor and working class families and “natural growth”.
Lacking the resources of middle class families, poor and working class parents see themselves as authorities keeping their children on the proper path to adulthood. They are less concerned with feelings, opinions and thoughts, and more concerned with compliance and respect.
Their parents are working overtime, or on a second job or using time consuming public transportation and do not have the time or resources to closely shepherd their children. For these families the focus is on simply staying on top of things such as jobs and transportation instead of teaching the “rules of the game” like middle class.
Poor and working class children have far more unstructured time. They spend far more time playing with other children, interacting with extended family like aunts and cousins, and considerable time in cooperative activity with siblings and other children.
School structure is very rigid compared to structure found at home. Poor and working class children very quickly developed a sense of constraint in schools. They readily accept directives by adult authorities such as teachers, but resent the loss of autonomy and self-direction they enjoy at home.
The result is “neck down compliance” – going through the motions of compliance, but not integrating into the education system. For these kids there is no value in school and the point of learning is lost to them.
According to Lareau, poor and working class parents teach their children powerlessness in the face of schools because they don’t know how to assert themselves to authorities any more than their children do.
Putting it all together
So what does all this mean?
First, we find that bachelor’s degrees don’t return the level of value promised by the education industry, at least not for everyone. A researcher reveals a variable – zip code – that seems to influence the outcome of education.
Next, Robert Fuller, physicist and college president, shares a story illustrating how powerful the socio-economic status of the family of origin can be in determining the course of ones life.
After that, an observation from a UK academic about how much more valuable a degree from an elite university is than a degree from lesser-valued schools.
Next, the meta-study from scholars at Minneapolis Federal Reserve supporting the observation that universities have a hierarchy of value. Further, they conclude that schools and students “sort” themselves into hierarchies with poor students attending poor schools at the bottom and excellent students attending excellent schools at the top.
Finally, Annette Lareau identifies the mechanism parents use to transmit assumptions of how the world works into values that determine socio-economic status.
If any of this is an accurate explanation of how socio-economic status passes from one generation to the next, it brings in to question how much influence we have over the course of our lives. See what Robert Sapolosky thinks here, and share a comment.
Here are the sources cited in this article:
Cataldi, E. F., Siegel, P., Shepherd, B., & Cooney, J. (2014). Baccalaureate and Beyond: A First Look at the Employment Experiences and Lives of College Graduates, 4 Years On (B&B: 08/12).
The Supreme Court has ruled that the nonsense phrase “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” is so threatening to schools that it is illegal to speak or display the words anywhere students might see or hear them. Really.
But that’s not all.
The community college where I work spends around $15 million dollars annually on remedial classes for high school graduates who cannot read or write well enough to participate in introductory classes. Every term I return email messages to students because their writing skills are so poor, I have no idea what they are trying to tell me.
Are public schools addressing their failures?
Instead, they are preoccupied with bullying students about nonsense phrases and monitoring them for signs of sexuality.
Oregon School District 24j contacts police if they suspect a student are sexually active. Why? Because under Oregon law it is illegal for people under the age of 18 to have sex, so school administrators have added this to their list of responsibilities. They have taken upon themselves to police their student’s sex lives, while issues like illiteracy and math anxiety flourish.
To understand why public school are failing to teach basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic in favor of concentrating on their students sexual activities we need to review just a little history and public policy.
First the public policy.
When government makes a law, it designates a bureaucracy to enforce it. Anything to do with vehicle registration or driver licensing goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and tax collection goes to the Revenue Department. Laws concerning public education go to public schools. These agencies then write the rules and procedures they will follow when they enforce the law. These are called Administrative Rules and are on the web sites of state attorneys general.
Elected political bodies pass statutes, or laws, and the agencies administering them write their own rules explaining how they will execute the laws.
It wasn’t always this way. Until the 1880’s or so, state and local governments administered laws in any way they wished. This led to widespread political corruption, especially in state and local government. It was said that an honest politician was one who stayed bribed, that is, he didn’t continue to accept graft after already selling his vote.
In 1904 muck raking reporter Lincoln Steffens was so outraged at the obvious buying and selling of political favors that he wrote a book called The Shame of the Cities. The book came out at the height of the reform movement and strengthened the argument for applying new management methods to fight corrupt government.
There had been factories before, of course, but they were generally assembly lines of workers assembling products by hand. This was the method of manufacture for Civil War pistols, rifles and muskets, for example.
The turn of the century saw huge factories in which machines did much of the work, but required workers to keep the machines running. This was the era of steel production, stamped sheet metal and automated production lines. Raw materials went in at one end of a factory and a finished product came out the other. For the first time in history, thousands of workers came to work at the same time and the management challenge was overwhelming.
Principles of Scientific Management solved that problem with regimentation, and gave us the concept of a worker being just an extension of the machine. The role of workers was to obey instructions to the letter, while supervisors’ role was to think and issue orders.
In 1880, Woodrow Wilson, future President of the United States, was a political scientist at Princeton and wrote a paper arguing that public policy was the proper topic for political scientists. That might just be a minor side note in the history of academia, except for the fact that Wilson became President of the United States at the height of public outrage over political corruption.
Max Weber, a German sociologist, combined Wilson’s 1880 paper defining the new idea of public policy with Taylors work on managing factories and came up with the modern bureaucracy. He applied methods described by Taylor for running a factory to running an office. Weber’s ideas were included as a chapter simply titled Bureaucracy in a sociology book, but it became famous as the solution to political corruptions.
The most prominent characteristic of a bureaucracy is process orientation. This means that the organization repeats a process or procedure repeatedly without deviation, like a machine. Results are not as important as process; in many cases results are irrelevant. The only concern is the procedure. Very quickly, the metaphor “machine bureaucracy” came into common use because office workers were acting like mindless machines.
Maintaining the status quo is one of the purposes of bureaucracy. There is little tolerance for anything new or different.
That might sound strange to our 21st century ears. We constantly hear about new ideas and innovation moving the economy ahead, but it is important that our institutions resist change. Imagine what life would be like if laws changed every day, or banks and lending institutions frequently experimented with different formulas for calculating interest.
Credit card companies are good examples of the need for clear rules governing a process. Rules for calculating interest and penalties are including in every credit card statement. It is important that credit card companies are consistent with the way it calculates interest.
We prefer it that way because it guarantees equal treatment of everyone.
Consistent procedure requires rigid rules. If the procedures are to remain consistent, we need to have rules that are also consistent. This means that inflexible rules drive bureaucracies. Clear, unambiguous rules are necessary to make sure that everyone performing the process does it the same very every time.
Employees within the organization are all subject to the same rules and procedures, as are customers, clients or service recipients.
So bureaucracies are rule driven, procedure oriented organizations with hierarchies of authorities acting as enforcers. Motivation is through coercion – workers do not receive rewards for doing what they are supposed to do, they face punishment for not following rules and procedures.
Obviously, bureaucracies are not the ideal organizational model for all things. They work best with simple tasks in a stable, predictable environment when exactly the same service is repeated indefinitely, and all inputs are identical.
Think for a minute about the work values people need to believe in bureaucracies.
First, unflinching respect for authority. That means never questioning anything the bureaucracy does. To do so is seen as disloyal and an attack on the bureaucracy.
People working in bureaucracies must also have a high belief in conformity and obedience. This leads to mindless unquestioning compliance. This is why one of the criticisms of bureaucracy is that it is undemocratic and lends itself to Fascism.
Social progressives believe that government is the proper vehicle for advancing social good, but since government uses inherently undemocratic bureaucracy to implement laws and policy, things can run amok.
This is why school administrators so easily slip into the role of adolescent sex police. If it’s a rule is has to be enforced. Never mind the results; the focus is on teaching obedience and conformity.
One of the things you might be asking yourself is how bureaucracy came to be the organizational style of choice for schools.
Taylors Principles of Scientific Management were gaining popularity in industry, and Weber’s bureaucratic principles were spreading to public policy, so schools were not long to remain independent.
Second, one of the features of bureaucracy is specialization. A move was afoot to replace non-professional parents and local leaders with educational specialists. “Professionalizing” the management of schools with superintendents, school principals and teaching specialists would improve education.
However, one challenge to specialization and professionalization was the social status of teachers. At that time even teachers of one room schoolhouses, (of which there were still 149,000 in America), were seen as socially elite professionals. “School marms” had a reputation of assigning rigorous academics to their students.
The movement to bureaucratize schools first diminished the power of teachers by infusing school management with administrative professionals. Professional school superintendents, principles as supervisors, and curriculum development specialists quickly displaced teachers as professionals.
Finally, the introduction of standardized tests was the end of the iconic one room schools house educator.
In 1915 teachers made up 95% of school personnel, today teachers make up less than 50% of personnel at most school districts. The school district where I live – Tucson Unified School District, (TUSD) – lists 3505 certified teachers on the payroll for a teacher student ratio of 1:12, and non-certified employees at 6816 for a non-teacher to student ratio of 1:6.
Between 1960 and 1990 the number of American public school students increase by 61% while school administrators had grown by 342%. Public schools have become a refuge for highly educated public education bureaucrats who had no place else to go besides school districts.
Teachers did not go quietly.
Dana Goldstein traces the rise of teacher labor organizing and the emergence of modern education and teacher organizations in Teacher Wars. Her book illustrates the lengths to which administrative control of the classroom under the guise of efficiency and standardization will go – the central ethos of Taylorism and bureaucracy.
She focuses on large cities on the east coast and traces the relationship between teachers and unions. She reveals how efforts to improve school instructions quickly become politicized, and explains the endless controversies of assessing teaching skills.
This should be no surprise given what we’ve learned about bureaucracies. The focus of bureaucracies is not on output, or the results of all the procedures, rules and polities. The focus is on the procedures, rules and polices themselves.
This is why graduating high school students often have such poor basic skills. High school focus on compliance and obedience and have little interest in education.
A new report out today from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve examines the recent trend of employers inflating requirements for jobs. “Addressing Bias and Equity in Hiring” is a literature review by Ashley Putnam, director of Economic Growth and Mobility Project at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. Literature reviews are a way for scientists to condense current knowledge on particular topic. Putnam didn’t do any original research; instead, she summarizes previous work on the topic.
“Upcredentialing” usually means demanding a college degree for jobs that do not require one. It’s expensive for both job seekers and employers, but the sort term gain is a powerful seduction for employers.
Economists measure upcredentialing by comparing education levels of people currently in a particular job with education levels required in job postings. For example, Putnam cites a 2014 study in which 64% of job posts for executive assistants required a college degree, but only 19% of executive assistants on the job at the time had one.
President Obama gave his first inauguration speech in the mist of the collapse of the industrial economy in 2008. In it, he urged Americans to go to school in order to be ready for the eventual recovery.
That recovery never came, of course. Instead, we find ourselves in a decade’s long project of building a new economy with little resemblance to the previous one. While the 3.8% unemployment rate is wall papered all over the media, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, (BLS), reports that record numbers of people are not in the workforce, the average workweek is only 33 hours and wages continue to stagnate.
The Great Recession was a boom time for the education industry. Admissions shot up by about 30% and there was a bumper crop of college graduates during President Obamas first term.
Unfortunately, the jobs of the 20th century no longer exist for these new graduates.
Katz and Krueger (2017) estimated that 94% of the jobs created between 2005 and 2015 were contingent jobs – “gigs” that generally do not pay a living wage. The National Employment Law Project finds that 60% of newly created jobs are low wage, low skill service positions. These are not the jobs that people responding to President Obamas call for education had in mind.
Old-fashioned jobs that legitimately required skills that a bachelor’s degree conferred have been in short supply, while at the same time the United States has a higher proportion of bachelor degree holders than ever before. About one third of Americans have a bachelor’s degree, and more than half have a two-year degree or certificate.
In spite of record numbers of Americans holding bachelor and technical degrees, employers complain of a “skills gap”. Potential employees do not have the technical skills needed in the workplace.
Peter Cappelli has studied this issue at length in his book, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs, and finds a number of reasons the “skills gap” is largely a myth. Cappelli points out that many of the skills employers have trouble finding are not the kind learned in a bachelors program. As surprising as it might be, most colleges and universities do not have basic computer skills as a general education requirement.
Often employers look for specialized skills; say the ability to code in Python, or WordPress experience. These skills are mostly self-taught, and consequently have no certificate associated with them.
Another trend among employers is to condense several technical jobs into one position. Cappelli gives the example of an engineer with thirty years’ experience, a master’s degree and a Professional Engineer certificate who could not get a position with an engineering firm because he could not type 65 words per minute.
“David Altig, research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, notes that this broadening of skill requirements is now commonplace. Where in the past a company may have had three positions and only one required computer skills, now ‘one person is doing all three of those jobs—and every job you fill has to have computer skills,’” (Cappelli, 2013, Kindle Locations 553-555).
Another under the radar development has been the success with which American companies have shifted the expense of education to employees. Like retirement and health care, employees are now largely responsible for financing their education. Education costs are one of the fringe benefits that disappeared with the industrial economy.
On the job training, apprenticeships and learning how to do a new job are outdated. We are now in an era of “onboarding” new employees with the expectation that they must be productive from day one on the job.
Both Putnam and Cappelli point to the bachelor’s degree as a “signaling” device. It may not confer specific technical skills needed to perform a job, but implies the holder has certain characteristics. Employers can infer race, social class and cultural values by a bachelor’s degree and not be concerned with charges of racism or elitism.
Academic studies on the relationship between bachelor degree holders and productivity have been inconclusive. However, recent studies show that “upcredentialing” and using education as a signaling device cost employers a good deal of money.
Adding unnecessary requirements makes it more difficult and time consuming to find candidates whose knowledge, skills and abilities, (KSAs), meet the inflated requirements of employers. Putnam cites sties a study indicating that IT help desk positons requiring a college degree take 40% more time to fill than the same position without the college requirement. Front line construction mangers require 119% more time to fill a vacancy with a bachelor’s degree is required
This translates into huge amounts of money. The Centre for Economic Research estimates that unfilled openings cost the economy $160 billion a year. Degree inflation also increases employee turnover. While one might argue that college graduates deserve a pay differential compared to non-grads, Harvard Business School contends that non-degree holders perform just as well on specific technical needs for particular jobs. Adding a requirement for a degree adds costs but does not seem to have a matching effect on productivity or quality of work.
Entry-level employees bear a disproportionate cost of upcredentialing. According to Putnam, costs at four-year institutions increased by 129% between 1987 and 2017 – far more than wages for degree holders, which have stagnated.
But not everyone who enters college completes it — only a few more than half of students who enter college actually graduate. The remainder has no degree, but carries student debt. The most common reason for dropping out of college is to keep a job; the second most common reasons are lack of affordability of higher education.
None of this will change any time soon. The glut of degree holders will remain as long as the economy does not expand enough to provide jobs for people who have left the labor force.
I have a part time gig at a community college teaching young people about business, psychology and statistics. I have been doing this for almost fifteen years and have a good idea of what makes students successful in college. Here are a few tips and suggestions.
The students who do well in my classes are the ones who have a concrete goal. They know what job they want, or what industry they want to be in.
So the very first thing to do is sit down with your adult child and ask them what they want to do. If they do not have a clear idea, suggest some alternatives to college.
So spend a year traveling.
Travel is no longer the extravagance is was for Baby Boomers and GenXers. Travel is now relatively inexpensive, and many young people are taking advantage of seeing the world. Students often tell me about their summertime adventure in Europe, Asia or the Mid-East.
This is not a trend isolated to the students in my courses. In his optimistic book, The Way We’ll Be, pollster John Zogby finds that young people use their passports more than any other generation.
It is very likely that your adult child has international travelers in his or her network of friends. For them global travel is normal. The idea of spending the summer in Oman may seem far-fetched to you, but such trips are typical for Millennials.
Alternatively, maybe your kid can go to work.
Learning how to work is harder now than in the past. That might be something else Boomer and GenX parents do not understand. Back in their day, young people learned how to work during high school with part time or summer jobs.
They picked farm produce, worked at gas stations and fast food places. More entrepreneurial young people solicited landscape jobs in their neighborhoods, washed cars, did baby sitting or cut and delivered firewood.
Today it is more difficult for high schoolers to find work. New laws intended to protect young people form exploitation limit the number and kinds of jobs available to young people and there are unintended consequences.
Although the teen unemployment rate is now lower than it has been in some time, so too is their labor force participation rate. There may be few teens who are unemployed, but that is because even fewer are looking for employment.
Instead, high schoolers spend their summers preparing for adulthood by taking classes to strengthen poor academic skills, doing volunteer work in their communities and attending SAT preparation courses.
The most common complaints I hear from small business people is that young people have no business etiquette. They talk on their cell phones while customers wait to for service. They cannot write, have only the most basic of math skills and have no clue about how to dress when interacting with the public.
Young people have to learn these things just like their parents’ generation did, only now they have to wait until they are out of high school.
Don’t forget the military.
It is harder to get into the military these days because things have become so technical that some technical training is often necessary just to join. Nevertheless, you should talk to your kids about this option. It might be that a year in technical training with an eye to joining the service later might be an option. Do not forget high school and college ROTC programs. Call your local recruiter for current information and advice.
Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett is a vocal proponent of military service as an option to college. In his surprisingly forthright book, Is College Worth It?, he points out that a stint in the military not only provides training and experience in a wide variety of fields, but also helps pay for higher education during enlistment and afterwards.
In my classroom, students with a military background stand out as mature, focused and motivated to learn. Time in the military provides the experience and values employers look for, as well as the means to complete formal education after discharge.
If your young person is insistent on college, spend this summer getting ready.
First on the list is journaling. And not on a laptop. By hand. With a pen.
The problem with laptops is that they lend themselves to distractions if the student cannot engage himself or herself in classroom activity. In other words, they get bored with what the teacher is talking about and surf the net instead. Studies find this is the primary reason for laptops actually decreasing academic performance.
Laptops offer more disadvantages than just acting as a distraction. When students use laptops to take notes in a lecture they usually just transcribe what they hear. Information flows into their ears and their fingers type the associated words. It is a sterile, mechanic process that does not really involve the cognitive areas of the brain.
Physically putting pen to paper does some interesting things in the brain. The motor cortex is obviously involved because that is where the directions to the muscles needed to write originate. However, the brain is a networked organ and many other areas become involved as well. This is important because the best learning occurs when the most brain areas are involved.
Manual writing allows connections between concepts to occur to a far greater degree than just pounding on a keyboard. Writers are better able to reflect, process and synthesize information when writing than when keyboarding.
Five hundred words a day is not too much to ask. In fact, if you are asking your child to journal every day for three months it would be a good idea for you to do the same. Not only are you acting as a positive role model for your child, but you are also enjoying all the benefits you are preaching. So start writing.
Next, the best students are the most well read.
People who do not like to read books, just for the simple pleasure it brings, are at a huge disadvantage in school. This is because a wide range of knowledge is so important when getting new information.
When we learn something new, we associate it with things that we already know. If I told you that the Russian invasion of Afghanistan led to civil war in 1863, you might have a hard time remembering that fact unless you already knew about the American Civil War. It was happening at about the same time, so the two events have something in common. If you also know that the Soviet Union again invaded Afghanistan in 1980, you would have another event with which to associate the 1863 invasion.
That is why simply knowing things is so important. It is not just that you can regurgitate a fact you remember; it is far more important to use the knowledge you already have to leverage the new knowledge coming your way.
So get your child to commit to going to the local library and checking out one book a week. Any book is fair game as long it is non-fiction, (with the exception of literary classics). Maybe put a book report in the journal.
Again, this would be a good thing for Mom and Dad to do as well.
Keep up with current events.
Today’s headlines are tomorrow’s long-term trends, so staying aware of the news is a good habit to develop.
The payoff for school next September is being able to demonstrate to teachers and everyone else that your child knows what is happening and can relate it to the topic of the class. If you are taking a class in geology, knowing a little about the eruption in Hawaii would be a good way to cement an association between a class lecture and previous knowledge.
Something related is looking for associations between disciplines.
Academic disciplines are not discrete topics that have not relationship with one another. Help your child make connections between science courses like chemistry and liberal arts classes like political science, for example.
Knowing a little about chemistry is good knowledge to have when candidates are running on platforms offering solutions to the opiate drug problem we now face. Knowledge of psychology and sociology is valuable in an era of school shootings and terrorism.
Be careful about online classes.
In small doses and for the right classes online coursework is a good substitute, but do not go overboard on them. Researchers from the State University of New York, working with academics at Furman University recently concluded an exhaustive study of the efficacy of online education at the community college level.
They found that students who took more than 40% of their courses, online were far more likely to drop classes, fail or take an incomplete.
The kind of classes your son or daughter takes online is crucial. Generally, it is a good idea to avoid online Science, Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) classes because there is no immediate support. Unlike traditional classrooms, students in the online environment cannot raise their hand and say, “Wait a minute! What are you talking about? This makes no sense at all.”
I have taken graduate level statistics classes online as a student and I have taught them in traditional classrooms. Traditional classrooms are much better for these kinds of courses.
An online setting might work just fine for a course that is heavy on reading and writing, like history or English. Take your son or daughters abilities and gifts into account when thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of online versus traditional settings.
Many of the things I am suggesting are just good habits for any child growing up in a literate society. It is best to start your child down the road to knowledge and education in toddlerhood.
That is not an exaggeration.
Developmental psychologists have proven beyond doubt that children in homes with books do better in all aspects of formal education. But it is not because books sitting on a shelf somehow send out smart waves to kids wandering by.
It is because parents read to their kids when they are very young, buy them books when they get a little older and talk to their kids about what they are reading all the time.
One other thing…
…The best way to learn something is to teach it. By teaching your kids the love of knowledge you are doing yourself a big favor as well.
Among industrialized nations, Americans have the worst relationship with arithmetic and math. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, in a field of 71 countries, American 15 year olds placed 28th in math scores.
Those 15 year olds grow up to be American adults who cannot do simple math.
A research study appearing in the journal Education finds that 71% of Americans cannot calculate gas mileage, 58% cannot figure a tip and 78% do not have the skills to compute loan interest.
How do people manage these routine calculations when they have no idea how to do them? Researchers find that they simply guess, then “pad” their answer. In other words, they overpay. Imagine how much money is lost by avoiding learning how to do these simple calculations.
Babies only a few months old have basic mathematical skills, but by the time these babies are old enough to enter college 80% will report math anxiety to researchers studying the topic.
How can this be? What is causing this epidemic of math incompetence?
Research shows that it is us — parents and teachers.
In one sense, math anxiety is contagious — parents and teachers who suffer from math anxiety easily pass it onto their children and students.
For example, researchers writing in the Journal of Cognition and Development found that parents suffering from math anxiety tended to have children also suffering from math anxiety — but only if parents helped the children with their homework. The more the parents helped, the more severe their children’s math anxiety became!
Some researchers find that more than half of people reporting math anxiety recall it beginning with a specific incident causing public humiliation. These were things like going blank while standing at the chalkboard in front of the class, being called dumb or stupid when having difficulty with a problem, or having a teacher or parent turn their back and walk away in frustration when trying to help.
Experiences like these result in “social pain”, the same sort of pain one experiences after a romantic break up, suspension from work or school, or when bullied by others.
When social pain related to math happens often enough, anything associated with math, such as numbers, formulas, even the sight of a math book, generates feelings of fear and dread. Just thinking about math brings on the fear response. When that happens, our brain goes into defense mode, or threat response. One of the major features of the threat response is hypervigilance — scanning the environment with all our senses looking for the source of the threat.
Normal brain function stops at this point, and one of the first things to go is working memory.
Working memory is our ability to hold discrete bits of information in our conscious or short-term memory. Most cognitive researchers believe that we can hold no more than four numerical digits at one time in our working memory.
This is why telephone companies present ten digit phone numbers as two groups of three digits and one of four digits, and financial institutions break up account numbers into groups of four. By creating “chunks” of data points, we combine numbers into portions we can keep in our conscious memory.
We use working memory when doing mathematical calculations by holding numbers while we attend to calculations. For example, when multiplying 23 x 2 in our mind we first multiply 2 x 3 and hold the product of six in our working memory while we then multiply 2 x 2 for a product of 4, then put the four and six together for a solution of 46.
In his fascinating book The Emotional Brain, neurologist Joe LeDoux explains what happens in our brain when we experience anxiety. When an individual encounters a situation — say, seeing a math quiz — working memory holds that image. Simultaneously it searches long-term memories looking for a match.
If strong negative emotions are associated with that image, the amygdala — the brains fear center — activates. Instantly a number of neurological events occur. Neural circuits to the Executive Functioning area of the brain in the prefrontal cortex activate and working memory immediately shifts to assessing the environment for threats. At the same time, the amygdala sends a signal to the thalamus releasing stress hormones initiating the fight or flight instinct.
Imagine working an algebra problem while trying to keep your fight or flight response under control!
Anxiety compromises working memory so that even the most basic arithmetic becomes a huge challenge. It is important to remember that these things are happening in a social context — most commonly in a classroom in front of an audience. The fear response in this setting is exactly the same fear response we experience when we think we are going to be in an auto accident or victim of an assault.
Neurologist Matthew Lieberman has written a wonderfully informative book about social relationships and the brain called Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect. Leiberman studies how the brain processes social pain, the discomfort that comes with rejection by others.
In a fascinating series of fMRI experiments Lieberman finds that the same brain structure involved in processing physical pain also process the pain of social rejection. Incredibly, he found that over the counter pain remedies, (that is, Tylenol), diminishes the sensation of social pain, measured by both subjective reports from participants and the objective measures of brain activity.
Lieberman tells us about Roy Baumeister’s experiments examining the relationship between social pain and cognitive functioning. All Baumeister did was give some subjects a fake assessment indicating they would never marry and would likely have few friends and then use IQ and GRE questions to detect changes in intellectual functioning. Subjects led to believe they would be socially isolated in the future scored about 20% lower on IQ questions and 30% lower on GRE questions than subjects who did not receive the prediction of social rejection.
If a subtle suggestion has such a dramatic effect on cognition imagine what years of math anxiety must have. That gives an idea of how powerful the negative experiences reported by people with math anxiety can be. Isolated episodes of embarrassment and humiliation associated with arithmetic can have devastating effects on the ability to do math many years after they occur.
The idea that social pain and physical pain are so closely related is probably the most important aspect of understanding people with math anxiety. Procrastinating and rushing though calculations are just ways to avoid the pain, not signs of character flaws like laziness or apathy.
Procrastination and rushing through math problems are the two biggest reasons for poor math performance and most common behaviors of people with math anxiety. These are also the two things that teachers report the most frustration in combating. When you think about it from the point of view of the person with math anxiety they make perfect sense
For them math is painful. It hurts. Exposure to any sort of math related activity dredges up memories of social pain — verbal abuse by a teacher in front of classmates, or the very public humiliation of going blank at the blackboard.
So how can we help people struggling with math anxiety?
One way is to educate our children and students about common myths about math.
Math Myth #1 Math Success Requires High Intelligence
We try to instill confidence by telling learners they are smart when they answer a math question correctly. Although teachers and parents have the best of intentions this feedback easily leads to the learner thinking that they are dumb the next time they get an answer wrong. Every wrong answer reinforces the idea that “I’m really dumb at math,” and sets the learner up for more failure.
Instead of associating math skills with intelligence, and lack of math skills with lack of intelligence, emphasize practice and study. When students get a correct answer, emphasize things they can control like study and practice, not something out of reach like innate intelligence.
“Right! Good job. You must be practicing. I can always tell.”
“Math is like everything else — ten percent theory, ninety percent practice.”
“Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.”
Myth #2 You Must Never Be Wrong
People with math anxiety have no tolerance for making mistakes. They berate themselves when they forget to carry a three, or are off by one decimal place. They see success and failure as the only possible outcomes of a math question. In their view, there is no other option, so every mathematical operation is an opportunity for fleeting success or plumbing the depths of new humiliations.
Teachers and parents can help learners overcome this myth by not allowing them to fail. Always find something positive in every failure. Find something to praise in every incorrect answer.
“So what if you are off by a decimal point? You did the computation correctly, and that is the hard part. Putting the decimal point in the right place is easy next to computing a formula. You’ll figure it out.”
“What do you mean you’ll never get math? Two weeks ago, you hardly knew what a fraction was and now you’re multiplying them! That’s pretty impressive even if you are making mistakes.”
“Every time you get a wrong answer you also get the opportunity to learn how not to repeat the mistake. It’s OK to make more than one mistake before you learn how to get it right. How do you suppose you learned to walk?”
Myth #3 You Must Be Fast
No, you don’t need to be fast. You need to be methodical. Do the problem, and then do the proof. The entire reason for doing the proof is to see if the original answer is correct. If it is not correct, look for an error in the equation and calculations.
Being in a hurry lends itself to feelings of anxiety, when the key to doing well in math is to be relaxed. There is no rush about this. Encourage learners to go at a slow, even leisurely, pace. This introduces the idea that math can be fun.
Also, it is OK to take breaks, whether they be short excursions to a social network site or a short walk. Our brain is like any other part of our body and gets fatigued with use. Encourage learners to study hard for no more than about 20 minutes at a stretch. Forcing yourself to study for longer than this just makes learning that much harder.
Teachers should avoid timed tests. What do times tests measure, anyway? Do scores reflect math skills or are they a better measure of anxiety levels and frustration management? Timed tests have no relationship to the challenges of math in the real world, and do more harm than good.
Timed tests do little more than create anxiety and lower scores. Avoid them and preach the virtues of a slow and methodical approach to math problems.
Myth #4 You Know How Good You Are By Comparing Yourself to Others
Researchers find that learners brake down into one of two orientations, a performance orientation and a mastery orientation.
Learners in the performance orientation measure their performance by comparing themselves with others or against set criteria. Learners with performance orientation tend to suffer from math anxiety more often and to greater severity than learners with a mastery orientation do.
Learners with a mastery orientation are motivated to learn by the intrinsic value of learning or for personal satisfaction of knowing useful skills.
Formal education evaluates learners exclusively from a performance perspective. IN this traditional view, students compete with one another and against set criteria. This approach almost guarantees that a good portion of students will face huge challenges in learning.
The good news is that parents and teachers can easily address this issue by helping learners to adopt a mastery orientation. Emphasis needs to focus on improvements in over time for individual students. The message to transmit is that the learner is not in competition with students that are more skilled or against unattainable standards.
Myth #5 Poor Math Skills Are a Sign of a Learning Disorder
The only proven learning disorder affecting math skills is dyscalculia. People with this condition often do not realize that a number represents how many things are present. They may not understand the concept of one quantity being larger than another is, or that the number 5 refers to five different things.
Dyscalculia is very rare. People who think they have it most likely have garden-variety math anxiety. The only way to be sure is through comprehensive testing. However, if a learner shows they can improve their skills even minimally they likely do not have a legitimate disability.
Study and practice are the only way to learn math, and the more fun and rewarding teachers and parents can make it the better learners perform.
A few closing tips:
Celebrate accomplishments, no matter how small.
Emphasize the importance of study and practice over innate intelligence.
Discourage long uninterrupted study sessions. We are good for only about 20 minutes of intense study.
Encourage a mastery mindset. The learner is competing with themselves, not other students, or a clock.
Check out the books mentioned in this article at Amazon: