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The Cold That Wouldn’t End

with 6 comments

And it won’t, either, although this morning I’m in better shape than I was a few days ago.

I have been thinking, over the last few days, about Michael’s article, the one from the NYT about how the Chinese are outpacing us, and also the slide show that he posted to go with it. 

For those of you who think I’ve been too fuzzy already lately, this is probably going to be worse, but here goes:

Most of the analysis and policy suggestion in the slide show seemed to me to be largely post hoc fallacies, causation/correlation mistakes and wishful thinking.

“Income inequality” is the big fad these days, so of course “income inequality” must be the cause of our woes. 

But I think it’s possible that it’s the other way around–that we have rising income inequality because different segments of our population are diverging as to their work and other habits.

Immigrants who come here seem to have no trouble at all finding work.  We’re told they “do the jobs Americans won’t do.”  Then we’re told that Americans can’t do those jobs, because they pay so little that nobody could live while doing them.

In the meantime, immigrants are living while doing them.

And they’re not all living in hovels and nearly starving to death, either. 

What’s more, if my area is any indication, a fair number of them manage to work their way up a considerable way over the years.

There are arguments to be made, of course, that nobody should be required to take the kinds of jobs under the kinds of conditions that immigrants do–but I also think that if you won’t take such a job (or jobs), the fact that your income isn’t very equal shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Then take the question of the dearth of people qualified to take lower-level engineering jobs.

Surely, yes, we could improve public education to make sure that more people are offered the basic training for those jobs–but that doesn’t mean that such an improvement would lead to more students taking the necessary courses or doing the necessary work.

And if you don’t think there is enormous resistance among American high school students to taking advanced courses in math and science, you’re delusional–and by “advanced” I mean “pre Algebra.”

We could, of course, reconfigure high school graduation requirements so that nobody could graduate without taking at least a year of lab science and math up through, say, Algebra 1–but if we did, we’d see our high school graduation rates go down in a way that would cause a political explosion.

Hell, we can’t even require our high school graduates to be able to read and write competently in English.  One of the places the US has lost jobs to in the last 15 years is Ireland, where companies find they can hire people to write letters and not have to worry that the letters will be illiterate and unreadable.

In the meantime, the people at the other end are working their butts off even in high school–taking AP courses, doing six kinds of volunteering and extracurriculat activities, coming in early to do extra courses in things like Attic Greek and CGI programming.

If these two student populations diverge in life so that there’s lots of “income inequality” between them, I’m not surprised, and I don’t think there would be any justice is changing the outcome by fiat.

And then there is the reality of the fact that at least some talent is genetically based, and all the income redistribution in the world won’t change that.

So I’ll return to my original question–given the facts in the original Times article, what could possibly be done about it?

And how do you know that those things would do anything to alleviate the situation (how do you know you’re not just confusing correlation with causation)?

And is any of it politically feasible.

About a week ago, some people on FB put up a little thing that went “in what other profession…” and went on to say that teaching is the only profession where the trained people are not considered to have as good an idea of how the field should be run as nonexperts, etc.

But schools of education are, universally, the academically weakest on any college campus where they exist, and on those campuses they admit the students with the weakest academic backgrounds.  Those backgrounds are often so weak that the student would not have qualified to enter any other division of the same university.

The content of education courses is notoriously pedestrian, repetitive and just plain wrong, consisting at least as much of instilling proper attitudes (don’t listen to the psychologists! of course cognitive ability isn’t inborn! bullies bully because they’ve been bullied themselves! letting kids fight back against bullies just leads to more bullying!) as in imparting actual knowledge.

Bright students who look into education usually drop out after a semester or two, unwilling to put up with the mindnumbing stupidity of the program. 

So, we can certainly provide more money for K-12 public education, but what do we do with the “professionals” who have been trained this way, and who have been largely sorted for their LACK of intellectual ability?

Here’s what we could do to fix the situation as it sits, that might really help:

1) provide a SINGLE educational standard for graduation from high school that includes mathematics through Algebra 1 and a rigorous introduction to standard English grammar, usage, reading and writing. 

Let the chips fall where they may–if there is “disparate impact” between various ethnic populations, then so be it.  Respond by providing remedial work to bring them up to speed, NOT by watering down the standard so that more of them “graduate” with an empty piece of paper.

2) End illegal education at the same time we tighten up what counts as a “disability” in order to get government benefits. 

If there are jobs Americans won’t do, then maybe they shouldn’t be done.  If there are jobs and Americans won’t do them, then that’s a choice they’re fully welcome to make. 

3) Make education cheaper by:  reducing the number of jobs that require a “college” degree; opening more alternative paths to credentials outside the school/college nexus; and removing the “schools privelege” by requiring all students to pass independent tests, written and administered by institutions OUTSIDE schools and colleges, demonstrating their skills at everything from English composition to Algebra to auto mechanics. 

No more “he graduated from high school, so he must know it.”


I’m obviously in no mood.

I’m going to go teach.

Written by janeh

February 7th, 2012 at 9:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'The Cold That Wouldn’t End'

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  1. That plan sounds fairly uncontroversial to me, which doesn’t mean it would be politically viable in either the US or Canada.

    You can do a bit with definitions of terms, though. My memory’s getting a bit fuzzy but I think locally you get/got a ‘diploma’ if you’d graduated high school with an array of courses recognized as acceptable for admission to a post-seconary institutions (including college, which here means ‘vocational institution’ awards certificates and diplomas instead of degrees and has requirements ranging from, at one time, Grade 8 graduation (for commercial cooking) to quite advanced math (for 3-year technician’s programs)).

    And if you’d spent your high school years struggling with ‘life skills’ you got a certificate of school completion instead of a diploma, I think it was. Anyway, everyone got recognition, everyone got a bit of paper and everyone who wanted attended the end-of-school celebrations. And anyone who knew the system knew what each bit of paper represented in the way of education.


    7 Feb 12 at 10:09 am

  2. I trust you didn’t mean “illegal education” but “illegal immigration?” Though in fairness, some of my education OUGHT to have been illegal.

    The program sounds good to me, though I might vary the uniform standard a bit in favor of a uniform test with standardized scores, so an employer might say, for instance “the position requires an English score of 125 or above: no math minimum” or some such.

    One other out: cost and flexibility of the labor force are not the only factors in business location. The country which has honest government, clear simple laws, low crime and a good transportation net can get more for the labor of its employees at the same skill level.

    Sadly, I think you might find it easier to reform education than to talk our politicians into clear, simple regulations. All the money seems to be in special clauses and exemptions.


    7 Feb 12 at 4:33 pm

  3. “All the money seems to be in special clauses and exemptions.”

    Suggest you amend that last sentence by deleting “clauses and exemptions” and inserting “interests”.


    7 Feb 12 at 6:40 pm

  4. One man’s special interest is another’s simple justice. And the line between bribery and extortion is pretty hazy. But if you had, say, a tax code with three brackets and four readily understood exemptions, there’s be a lot less interest in hiring former IRS officials, paying “lobbying fees” to the relatives of politicians, and paying both types extortionate “speaking fees.” Same thing for environmental law, or many other types. The complications are the point.

    It’s the ability to make one law for your friends and another for your enemies which wins for our rulers so many generous friends.


    7 Feb 12 at 7:05 pm

  5. I suggest that the US is slowly adapting to world changes. It used to have 5% of the world population but used 25% of world resources. Now China and India are both developing their education and industry and the US will no longer be able to use so many resources.

    But the failure of your education system and the political neglect of your infrastructure are certainly making things worse than they could be.


    7 Feb 12 at 8:28 pm

  6. Well, jd, we weren’t exactly foreign aid recipients. No one seeems to have objected to us PRODUCING a quarter of the world’s stuff. But a Texan striking oil took nothing away from a Basque. And though I try with both hands, I cannot see how the United States is poorer because China opens a steel mill or India makes its farms more efficient.

    There is no big pile of stuff to be divided each morning. And wealth is not a zero-sum game.


    7 Feb 12 at 10:26 pm

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