Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Magic of Education

Bryan Caplan

I've been in school for the last 35 years - 21 years as a student, the rest as a professor. As a result, the Real World is almost completely foreign to me. I don't know how to do much of anything. While I had a few menial jobs in my teens, my first-hand knowledge of the world of work beyond the ivory tower is roughly zero.

I'm not alone. Most professors' experience is almost as narrow as mine. If you want to succeed in academia, the Real World is a distraction. I have a dream job for life because I excelled in my coursework year after year, won admission to prestigious schools, and published a couple dozen articles for other professors to read. That's what it takes - and that's all it takes.

Considering how studiously I've ignored the Real World, you might think that the Real World would return the favor by ignoring me. But it doesn't! I've influenced the Real World careers of thousands of students. How? With grades. At the end of every semester, I test my students to see how well they understand my courses, and grade them from A to F. Other professors do the same. And remarkably, employers care about our ivory tower judgments. Students with lots of A's finish and get pleasant, high-paid jobs. Students with a lots of F's don't finish and get unpleasant, low-paid jobs. If that.

Why do employers care about grades and diplomas? The "obvious" story, to most people, is that professors teach their students skills they'll eventually use on the job. Low grades, no diploma, few skills.

This story isn't entirely wrong; literacy and numeracy are a big deal. But the "obvious" story is far from complete. Think about all the time students spend studying history, art, music, foreign languages, poetry, and mathematical proofs. What you learn in most classes is, in all honesty, useless in the vast majority of occupations. This is hardly surprising when you remember how little professors like me know about the Real World. How can I possibly improve my students' ability to do a vast array of jobs that I don't know how to do myself? It would be nothing short of magic. I'd have to be Merlin, Gandalf, or Dumbledore to complete the ritual:

Step 1: I open my mouth and talk about academic topics like externalities of population, or the effect of education on policy preferences.

Step 2: The students learn the material.

Step 3: Magic.

Step 4: My students become slightly better bankers, salesmen, managers, etc.

Yes, I can train graduate students to become professors. No magic there; I'm teaching them the one job I know. But what about my thousands of students who won't become economics professors? I can't teach what I don't know, and I don't know how to do the jobs they're going to have. Few professors do.

Many educators sooth their consciences by insisting that "I teach my students how to think, not what to think." But this platitude goes against a hundred years of educational psychology. Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them... if you're lucky.

Other educators claim they're teaching good work habits. But especially at the college level, this doesn't pass the laugh test. How many jobs tolerate a 50% attendance rate - or let you skate by with twelve hours of work a week? School probably builds character relative to playing videogames. But it's hard to see how school could build character relative to a full-time job in the Real World.

At this point, you may be thinking: If professors don't teach a lot of job skills, don't teach their students how to think, and don't instill constructive work habits, why do employers so heavily reward educational success? The best answer comes straight out of the ivory tower itself. It's called the signaling model of education - the subject of my book in progress, The Case Against Education.

According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows ("signals") about the student. Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist - three crucial traits for almost any job. When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he's likely to be a good worker. What precisely did he study? What did he learn how to do? Mere details. As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you'll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.

In the signaling story, what matters is how much education you have compared to competing workers. When education levels rise, employers respond with higher standards; when education levels fall, employers respond with lower standards. We're on a treadmill. If voters took this idea seriously, my close friends and I could easily lose our jobs. As a professor, it is in my interest for the public to continue to believe in the magic of education: To imagine that the ivory tower transforms student lead into worker gold.

My conscience, however, urges me to blow the whistle on the system anyway. Education is not magic. Professors can't make students better at whatever job awaits them with learned lectures on arcane topics. I'm glad I have a dream job for life. I worked hard for it. But society would be better off if taxpayers saved their money, students spent fewer years in school, and sheltered academics like me finally entered the Real World and found a real job.


Australian Islamic College bans Afro hairstyle

For disciplinary reasons it has long been held that schools have the right to set standards of dress and presentation for their pupils so I fail to see anything that this school did wrongly. I think the school was rather tolerant in putting up with it as long as they did, in fact. If it is good enough for Obama to keep his hair short, it should be good enough for this kid. And why does Obama keep his hair short? Because an Afro is widely seen as unattractive

IT was the fro that had to go - but the fuzz about this teenager's hairstyle has gone all the way to the Supreme Court as his father claims he was cut off from friends at the Islamic school even after he trimmed his afro.

Mazen Zraika is taking the Australian Islamic College in Rooty Hill to court over the treatment of his son Billal, 13, who was ordered away from the school earlier this year until he changed his afro hairstyle, The Daily Telegraph reported.

After six months of asking him to cut his hair, the Year 8 student and his parents were sent a letter in April advising them that he would be suspended from school until he cut his hair into a style that wasn't in breach of its appearance code. Principal Yasmin Gamieldien told the family the hairstyle was deemed a "mop" and needed to be cut shorter.

But Mr Zraika says Billal - who is of Lebanese and Ethiopian descent - was simply being punished for his natural hairstyle. "His mum Mary is Ethiopian so it's not his fault he's got the fuzzy hair," Mr Zraika said following the school's order.

"They said it's a mop hair- style but that's something Zac Efron has. "He doesn't have to style it or anything. When he gets out of the pool and shakes his head a few times it automatically comes back into shape."

Billal returned to classes following the Easter holiday break, but the family claim they were then sent another letter by staff saying he would be expelled if it wasn't cut within a week, while Billal was left sitting in the front office in "isolation" from his friends.

The teenager had a crew-cut in order to avoid expulsion, but the family claim that he was still forced into "isolation" and kept away from classmates while being told to "catch up" on schoolwork he'd missed.


South Australian private schools six times safer for kids

PUBLIC school students are six times more likely to be assaulted than private school students.

Figures released through Freedom Of Information show there have been 2049 assaults (1 for every 81 students) reported to police in state government schools since 2006, compared to 195 (1 per 472 students) in non-government schools.

Last year, 65 assaults in government schools involved weapons, compared to seven in non-government schools.

The figures follow the vicious bashing of Hamilton Secondary College schoolboy Callan Wade last week. The 14-year-old was so badly bashed that his spleen was ruptured and he was treated at the Women's and Children's hospital intensive care unit.

Opposition Education spokesman David Pisoni said school safety had deteriorated to unacceptable levels under the Labor government.

He said the disparity between the number of assaults in public and private school proved the best results come when communities are allowed back into schools and principals are given the autonomy to decide what works best.

"Under Labor there has been a significant drift in the number of South Australian students choosing to attend non-government schools over government-run schools," Mr Pisoni said.

"A Liberal Government would tackle school violence head on by ensuring principals and school communities are adequately resourced to deal with bullying and violence."

The number of students attending private schools has increased 10 per cent in the past decade while public school numbers have decreased about five per cent.

Education Minister Grace Portolesi said every student and teacher had the right to go to school or work in a safe environment and the government would not tolerate people who acted in a violent or disorderly way.

"The drift from public to the private sector had slowed in the past two years and figures show government school enrolments have increased consecutively each year since 2008," she said.


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