Arnold Kling  

Two Provocative Quotes on Education

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Both in Forbes blogs.
Rich Karlgaard:


Self-learning rules. We are at the beginning of the Death of Credentials. The ROI for 95% of college educations will be negative.

Bill Gates:

If I told you that the best math teacher was in 1860 you couldn't contradict me. The effect of R&D is near zero (in education). That is a market failure.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Gary Rogers writes:

To Bill Gates I would answer that this cannot be a market failure when education has always been provided as a government service. Call it what it is, a failure of government service.

Ryan D writes:

I really enjoy your blog. But the Bill Gates link just links to this page!

[I think I've fixed it. The link seems to redirect to a video, though. The original two links, in order, are
http://www.forbes.com/2010/08/12/cheap-revolution-winners-losers-columnists-rich-karlgaard-creative-destruction_3.html
and
http://blogs.forbes.com/quentinhardy/2010/08/11/bill-gates-on-science-education-the-future/
--Econlib Ed.]

Hyena writes:

Of course, Gates's statement is in tension with Karlgaard's.

I'd also argue that Karlgaard is deeply wrong, utterly misguided and hopelessly naive. College isn't about attending class. If that's what you did with all your time, you're a fool.

What you should have been doing is taking your vast swaths of free time, using the library, talking to professors, developing networks of interested peers and using all these resources to advance the cause of your education rather than your schooling.

@Gary Rogers

Yeah, because private schools were outlawed in 1834.

wlu2009 writes:

That is the problem with a measure like ROI for college education. Taking the NPV of future earnings and dividing it by the cost is a highly misleading figure. Sure, some of the utility of college is in increased future earnings, but a LOT of it is the experience and the utility gained by going through life a more informed, better educated, more critical thinker. Not all of these things translate into earnings, but they sure do enter into the cost benefit analysis when deciding when to go to college. It's like saying the ROI on eating a hamburger is negative because it doesn't give you any extra earnings and is therefore a bad investment. College makes you a higher earner but it also may make your life more enjoyable.

That said, maybe we should subsidize college less than we already do, so that prospective students can more make a more accurate comparison of marginal cost to marginal benefit. But that's a different argument and using ROI to further it seems a little disingenuous.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

I think Rich Karlgaard has an overly negative view of education because he views it as investment instead of primarily consumption.

Brian Clendinen writes:

From my experience personal experience I would say Rich Karlgaard was dead on with my MBA, however, my undergrad was in business so that was some of the issue. Only my advance stat class has had any meaningfully tangible use professionally. Although "advance business law" has had a decent intangible return on my understand in some areas, and "grant writing" help me improve writing some because I have poor writing skills.

I did not get anything out of it because it was my profession for 3 years but Managerial Accounting was worthwhile for 90% of the students. But again that was because the teacher was a former controller of a very large business unit who had reported to the CFO of a well run Fortune 100 firm.

In undergrad it was more like 85% if you compare it to teaching myself the subject matter. However, considering my self disciple is a little lacking, and I learn better with a lot of verbal discussions I would put it more 2/3 to 3/4 of classes had a negative ROI. I really only had one class in undergrad I would of ever recommend to most people (almost to the extent of a requirement for managers) for professional development (System Analysis and Design). Of course half of the reason was the teacher. I have worked with people that could of benefited from a few of the other classes I have taken but that is highly dependent on the person and their job.

I personally think the biggest problem with the low ROI for at lest business classes is business schools are run and taught by academia not mangers and professionals with years of managerial experience and decades of professional experience in the subject matters. There are exceptions but that is in the single digits. Then again a lot of professional classes I have taken taught by professionals have been a waste of time also. However, that is largly due to the teaching method being passive and or the teachers can't teach. An M.D. would not be very useful if they were taught by doctors who had never practiced or only had a few years a practice but not in the subject matter.

Yet this true for most business school teachers. For Profit schools seem to be the only exception to having professionally experienced teachers that can actually teach but even then they are still in the minority.

Matt Young writes:

According to Bill I have not learned a thing from reading this blog religiously for three years.

Two Things writes:

I'm not sure you chose the best Bill Gates education quote from that piece. Consider this one (from a few lines above yours):

“Math textbooks for every grade are now over 300 pages long, (they are) systematically three times longer than their Asia equivalents.” --Bill Gates

Would you like to know why? Because US math textbooks are now full of words instead of math (along with entirely irrelevant illustrations, as of smiling mixed-race groups sitting around tables, presumably working on math).

My own kids, currently in public elementary school, bring home "math" lessons, homework, and exam-practice material filled with stories to which are loosely tied simple arithmetic problems, like: "Tina comes from Guatemala. She has five friends at school. Her father works during the day and her mother works at night. She loves to eat arroz con pollo. Sometimes Tina makes cookies to share with her friends. She uses two cups of flour and eight tablespoons of butter. If she makes ten cookies how many will her friends get?"

The "math problems" are about "finding the pea"-- locating the relevant numbers in the torrent of words-- not about doing arithmetic. Perhaps kids benefit from training in parsing gibberish for relevant numbers, but I'm not sure we should call that "math."

Worse, the problems and the stories are often worded ambiguously That causes a lot of anxiety to kids who are smart enough to recognize the ambiguities. For example, is the answer to the question above "10" (Tina's friends collectively get ten cookies), or "2" (10 cookies / 5 friends = 2 each), or "1-2/3" because Tina shares (eats) with her friends (10 cookies / 6 kids = 1-2/3)? The teacher's answer sheet says "2" and lots of kids get that answer because they find the operands "five" and "ten" and do the obvious thing, but MY kids get upset that the whole thing makes no sense and my attempt to teach them how to game the question(s) violates their youthful eagerness to find logic and order in the academic world.

The books also have a lot of poorly-made graphs, such as bar graphs where the sizes of the bars are NOT proportional to the values they supposedly represent (and no, it's not that they're on a log scale or some such). The problems will then ask the kids to read numbers from a graph-- the numbers are printed on the graph-- and write them down. If there's any arithmetic, it will involve summing a few of the numbers. These exercises don't have any clear point, but they take up a lot of paper.

Finally, and most annoying of all, the books intentionally avoid standard math notation and terminology. It turns out this is a deliberate obfuscation to help teachers deflect parents' inquiries or complaints. Whenever a parent tries to discuss the math curriculum with a teacher or administrator, he is told that his (parent's) education is out of date, that the teacher is applying a new, better math curriculum which is beyond the understanding of fossils like the parent, and-- get this-- that the school uses the latest and most beautiful math textbooks! Why, the books must be good because look how thick they are! The fact that the child will arrive at college math like a shipwrecked European on the coast of Fiji in 1850, ignorant of the language and liable to be devoured by the natives, is of no concern to the public school teacher or administrator.

I blame the textbook committees, composed mainly of teachers (really teachers' union hacks who have long since left the classroom for political careers), which care a great deal about "diversity" (hence all the Potemkin-village illustrations) and a lot about "alternative teaching approaches" (which means keeping actual math out because high-diversity teachers and students aren't good at it) but don't care whether kids learn math. The textbook publishers supply exactly what the textbook committees favor, and we end up with very thick books full of words and pictures and not much math.

MernaMoose writes:

Well then. Maybe we know the reason why "Self Taught" could come to displace standard "Credentials". How far off the tracks can our educational system get before industry figures out, the only thing our public system puts out is idiots who know not?

And will there be anything left of the world we know by the time that day gets here?


Brian C.,

Along the same lines, in engineering we have an entire national university system full of professors who pride themselves on having never done "real" engineering (which is somehow beneath their Highly Research Oriented little Selves). The more useless the research seems, the more highly esteemed they are (amongst themselves).

There are a very few engineering programs where the professors have to have real world experience, but they're a tiny minority and do not get rated high in the standard rankings.

Meanwhile, in the highly rated engineering schools (where research funds are the primary measure of a professor's worth), teaching is an annoyance to the professor who would rather be chasing more grants. You can be a horrible teacher and still make full professor (and be held in high regard among your peers) as long as you a) bring in research grants and b) beat your grad students into cranking out papers.

I've long argued that we need to divide pure research, which is all the current system wants to do, from "real" engineering schools where teaching and real world experience are the two highest measures of a professor's worth.

You see how much my opinion counts for.....

ed writes:

More Bill Gates:

“They say nonprofits are wasteful, but the for profit world is a mess. Have you ever worked with a large company?…What the for profit world does is clean up its messes, de-fund its messes.”

Masonomics!

Troy Camplin writes:

We no longer educate. That's the problem. Going to school doesn't mean you got an education.

Babinich writes:
"If I told you that the best math teacher was in 1860 you couldn't contradict me. The effect of R&D is near zero (in education). That is a market failure."

So what? Teaching is a human endeavor; all the technology in the world cannot overcome an indifferent or disinterested teacher.

DK writes:

R&d has had a clear and large impact. My parents generation studied algebra in high school, mine studied calculus, and tge next has the best students taking classes beyond calculus. In college meanwhile, physics undergrads routinely learn quantum concepts not even discovered in Einsteins day. All of this is attributable to improvements in teaching, especially developing better examples and techniques to teach concepts only accessible to experts.

We have improved education for the smart, elite students with both the right motivation and the kind of learning styles schools favor. We have failed students with different kinds of learning styles, less motivation, less parental resources, etc.

Tom writes:

I wonder, in the next twenty years, will there be a college rating based on how many years experience the professors have had out of the classroom, in their field.

Jill writes:

I always knew he was smart; but what an awesome quote - Proud to be a Seattlite w/ you Bill!

mdc writes:

"My parents generation studied algebra in high school, mine studied calculus, and tge next has the best students taking classes beyond calculus."

It sounds more like you were in a top set and your parents weren't. Calculus is centuries old. It was taught to school children (at the best schools) in the 1800s. Before that it's more sketchy, because there weren't really such things as secondary schools, but to the same age groups at university, certainly.


"In college meanwhile, physics undergrads routinely learn quantum concepts not even discovered in Einsteins day. All of this is attributable to improvements in teaching, especially developing better examples and techniques to teach concepts only accessible to experts."

Teaching is responsible for the discovery of new concepts in physics? Rather, things were deleted to make way for the more important new ideas, which obviously weren't taught before anyone was aware of their existence.

(btw, "Einstein's day" is precisely the time QM was developed, some of it by Einstein himself, so I really have to doubt your understanding of modern physics).

Vangel writes:

If I told you that the best math teacher was in 1860 you couldn't contradict me. The effect of R&D is near zero (in education). That is a market failure.

Poor Bill is confused. Is it a market failure that modern playwrights are not as good as William Shakespeare? Or that epic poetry peaked with Homer? No. Instead of trying to get a marginal improvement on a well developed process intelligent creative people have moved on into other fields where the returns are much higher. He should know this because many of the people working to develop games for the X-Box would have been novelists, playwrights, poets, or movie directors during previous periods. The fact that they were attracted to a new field with a great deal of growth and large rewards shows that the market is working as it should.

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