Sunday, January 08, 2012

Why choose less?

A recent story in the WSJ caught my eye, since it bears on a topic that is of much practical importance but hasn’t been much investigated. The issue is: why do college students choose the majors they choose?

As I have reported elsewhere, there is now a detailed economic study about what students of various college majors earn later in life. Not surprisingly, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors do better financially than, say, humanities majors. But this study only confirmed what was widely understood all along. It’s not as if students (and parents) hadn’t already understood the disparity of incomes, ranked by major.

But this recent WSJ piece reports that students are picking the easier majors, even though they know that those majors offer lower financial payoffs. It tells the tale of one young Chinese American who enrolled at Carnegie Mellon as an electrical and computer engineering major, only to switch to a major in psychology and policy management (whatever the hell that is!). Psych majors average about $38,000 a year less than computer engineering grads. She explained her decision by saying, “My ability level was just not there.”

The authors raise the issue of whether the continuing bad economy will persuade more students to major in the STEM subjects. But the trend hasn’t been good in that regard. From 2001 to 2009, while the number of college grads increased by 29%, the number of engineering grads only increased by 19%, and those with computer science degrees actually dropped 14%.

In fact, the full stats are even grimmer. As the estimable Sol Stern has recently noted, over the last 50 years, technological innovation was responsible for over half of all American economic growth. However, bachelor’s degrees in engineering (awarded to American students, not foreign nationals) peaked in 1985 and have dropped ever since. We are now down 23% from that peak. Only 6% of American college students major in engineering, compared with 12% in Europe and Israel, not to mention the 20% level in Japan and South Korea. We are near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to the percentage of college grads with STEM degrees.

Returning now to the WSJ article: it notes that one problem is the perceived disparity in difficulty between STEM courses and those in the humanities and social sciences. Ms. Zhou found that she went from earning C’s and B’s in engineering to A’s in psychology. There is nothing new here, of course. Students have noticed for decades how much easier it is to score much higher grades for much less work in non-STEM majors. Science and math majors average three hours more per week in study time. That difference may seem trivial, but students are increasingly less inclined to work. The article notes that the average time students spend studying has dropped by half since 1960.

It also notes, with evident approval, the efforts of some STEM departments to stem attrition by “modifying” their classes to make them — what? more palatable? — to students from other majors. In his class for liberal arts majors, one computer science prof cut down on the theory component in favor of practical programming. Now 85% of the students pass. What his pass rate was before this, the story doesn’t say. Presumably lots, lots lower.

Whether any of this constitutes dumbing down the subject, the story also doesn’t say.

It is also silent about what to my mind are the biggest issues here.

First, to what degree are humanities, social science, education, and other non-STEM departments inflating grades to attract students, or — given the pervasiveness of leftist thought in those departments — out of a loopy egalitarianism? Grade inflation, no less than monetary inflation, is a profound pricing problem.

Hayek and Kirzner urged us to understand pricing as a language. In a free market, if something fetches a low price, it tells the producer not to produce so much of it. I think that grading is pricing. If a student has to work and winds up with low grades, the grades are telling him that he may need to work still harder, or find another major. The STEM instructors are just doing their jobs and telling the truth to students.

But if (as I suspect) the grading standard has been inflated by many non-STEM professors, they are doing something immoral: they are lying to students about their real abilities. If I give A’s to all my philosophy students, I’m telling them that they are excellent at a subject, when most are not. I may encourage them to pursue a career when they shouldn’t, or — more to the point — not pursue a career they should.

Second, to what extent is this problem another example of the dismal failure of America’s public K-12 educational system — a failure that ramifies into the post-secondary educational system? I have suggested elsewhere that part of the reason many employers look to hire college grads for jobs that really require only a high school education is that a high school diploma from most urban public school districts no longer means a thing in terms of basic educational competence.

If students are switching to easier subjects, might that not be because so many of even the most technically talented young people were so badly instructed in math and science during K-12 that they face extra challenges learning the introductory college-level material? Similarly, if these students were never forced to work diligently in grade school or high school, might this not be the reason why they flee majors that require hard work, and in fact are studying less than ever before in college?

All of this is as disquieting as it is ignored by the mainstream media.


Poor teachers 'will slip through the net' under British reforms

Hundreds of poor teachers are likely to be allowed to remain in the classroom under Government plans to scrap the profession’s official regulator, it is feared.

Many cases of incompetence or misconduct will never be put before an official hearing because of proposals to devolve more responsibility for staff discipline to individual schools, experts warned.

New figures suggest the majority of the 323 cases referred to the General Teaching Council for England since August alone will not be considered under the new system.

Head teachers’ leaders told the Times Educational Supplement that the reforms were flawed and would make it harder for schools to deal with poor-performing staff.

But the Government warned that the existing system was already failing because only a tiny number of incompetent teachers have been struck off in the last decade.

The comments came as a Government adviser claimed on Thursday that the education system “shouldn’t worry so much” about getting rid of poor teachers.

Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of education at London University’s Institute of Education and a member of the Government expert panel reviewing the National Curriculum, said a small number of underperforming teachers did not have a major impact on results and sacking them was often “quite difficult”.

Addressing the North of England Education Conference in Leeds, he added: “Rather than starting a witch hunt for the least effective practitioners in our schools, saying ‘you're a good teacher and you're a bad teacher’ and rather than trying to work out who the best teachers are and pay them more money, I think we should create a culture of continuous improvement in every school.”

Teachers can be hauled before the GTC for serious disciplinary and misconduct issues, including criminal convictions, alongside cases of professional incompetence.

According to figures, some 211 teachers have been struck off for misconduct since 2001 but just 17 have been officially barred for incompetence. Hundreds more have been subjected to other sanctions such as formal warnings, suspensions or retraining.

Government insiders have criticised the performance of the regulator, claiming it is overly bureaucratic and fails to hold teachers to account.

In March, it will be axed alongside a series of other education quangos as part of a cross-Whitehall plan to cut red tape. Its duties will be taken over by a new body – the Teaching Agency.

Under the new system, schools will be expected to deal with more disciplinary issues themselves, with the agency only considering the most serious misconduct allegations, including sexual offences and other criminal convictions.

According to the TES, a majority of the 323 cases passed from schools to the GTC since August have not been deemed serious enough for transfer to the Teaching Agency. It raises concerns that many future cases of staff incompetence will slip through the net.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “There could be potentially dozens of cases referred by heads which now go no further. “Either a case is serious enough to justify referral or it’s not, and if it’s not taken forward, that’s a problem. If you introduce uncertainty, heads will wonder if they should make referrals, especially because of the stress and difficulty it causes.”

A DfE spokeswoman said: “No teacher whose standards fall below an acceptable level will go unpunished. "All serious cases of misconduct that could lead to teachers being barred will be transferred to the new Teaching Agency if the GTCE does not have time to conclude them. "Where appropriate, all other cases will have been dealt with at a local level.

“The existing system does not work – it constantly gets bogged down in the bureaucracy of minor cases instead of dealing quickly with the most serious referrals.

“The new system will ensure that serious cases are dealt with much more quickly by giving heads greater freedom to deal with incompetent teachers themselves. We’re bringing in clear, new standards for all teachers and there will be a new list of teachers barred from the profession available to employers and the public.”


Rules on infant class sizes 'should be axed'

Limits on class size in general are misconceived but in the case of infant classes there IS some evidence that smaller classes are helpful

Ministers are coming under pressure to reform laws banning large classes for infants amid fears over “unprecedented” demand for primary school places.

Councils in London are circulating a letter urging the Department for Education to consider “raising the ceiling” on maximum class sizes for five- to seven-year-olds.

Since 1998, schools have been banned from placing the youngest pupils in lessons bigger than 30 amid concerns they struggle for attention in large groups.

But the letter – originally sent by Liberal Democrat-controlled Sutton Council – calls for ministers allow schools to run classes of 32 pupils. The move comes amid mounting pressure on primary schools in some major cities including London, Birmingham and Bristol.

It is claimed that rising birth-rate combined with an influx of migrants in some areas have places significant pressure on schools – leaving some infants without a reception place at all.

Figures published last year showed almost 20,000 youngsters are now being educated in “supersized” primaries of at least 800 pupils – a rise of 43 per cent in just 12 months.

Niall Bolger, Sutton chief executive, said the council had already been forced to spend £7m to create additional classes for pupils starting school in September 2012 and feared further investment would be needed in coming years. “All London Boroughs are facing unprecedented demand for additional primary school places,” the letter said. “Sutton has been expanding primary schools for a number of years and so all easy options to meet demand has been exhausted.”

He added: “We do not wish to eliminate all parameters for class size, but we consider 32 to be a pragmatic compromise between educational viability and financial prudency.”

Regulations introduced by Labour when it came to power in the 90s ban schools from placing children in classes of 30 or more. Large lessons are only permitted in exceptional circumstances and such arrangements are supposed to be temporary.

According to official estimates, some 550,000 extra primary school pupils will enter the system by 2018. It equates to an additional 2,000 primary schools.

But any attempt to increase class sizes is likely to be strongly resisted by the Coalition amid concerns it prove hugely unpopular with parents. It is already investing £4bn in areas with the tightest squeeze on places.

A DfE spokesman said: “The law remains clear that it is illegal for infant classes to exceed 30 pupils – no parent would want their child taught in a huge class. “We’re dealing with the impact of soaring birth rates on primary schools – doubling targeted investment at areas facing the greatest pressure on numbers to over £4billion in the next four years.

"We are building free schools in areas where there are place shortages and letting good schools to expand without limits to meet demand from parents.”

Councillor Peter Walker, Merton Council's cabinet member for education, condemned any attempt to increase classes. "I strongly urge those with responsibility for education in London to oppose this regrettable initiative," he said. "Increasing class sizes in our schools at this time is short sighted, will threaten school standards, is unfair to our children and will endanger our economic prospects.”


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