Bryan Caplan  

Signaling in K-12

Inconvenient truths... The Fatal Conceit in Foreign P...
Whenever I write, "Education is mostly signaling," many readers hear "Higher education is mostly signaling." 

I'm sincerely puzzled by this subliminal defanging of The Case Against Education.  My K-12 memories include thousands of hours studying material I knew I'd never use after the final exam.  The three years in Spanish were especially traumatic, but they're only the tip of the signaling iceberg.  How many years did you study poetry, art, music, history, and civics during elementary, middle, and high school?  Even math often smells of signaling; honors math students usually have jobs that don't use advanced math.

Question: Why are people so willing to let K-12 off the signaling hook?  It could just be Social Desirability Bias: Criticizing high school makes you sound like you hate children or something.  But I suspect it's mainly lazy recollection.  If you went to college, college memories leap to mind.  You don't have to struggle to remember jumping through academic hoops.  Recalling K-12, in contrast, requires more mental effort because it's a longer time span in the more distant past.  As a result, people tend to substitute popular platitudes for first-hand experience.

Rival stories?

COMMENTS (42 to date)
Fabio Rojas writes:

People didn't understand what was happening in high school or weren't paying attention. Also, it was free so less desire to question it.

Jake Zielsdorf writes:

I remember much of history and "language arts" feeling pointless. I thought they were useless and my parents confirmed that they were useless. I remember spending an astonishing amount of time learning cursive, too. I cannot write in cursive now for the life of me. I can barely write my signature. But I used to write exquisitely!

Duncan Earley writes:

As a software engineer I routinely use say grade 8 maths. I dont use any of the calculus I learnt in grades 11 and 12 or the trig I learnt in 10 let alone the advance maths I did at university. So may be K thru 9 is human capital, but 10 thru collage degree is mostly signalling.

Although I am sure some software engineers do use very advance maths.

Pajser writes:

Prim. and sec. school are not meant to be completely practical. Poetry, art and history smell less like signaling and more as attempt to make sophisticated, knowledgeable, morally better people. Math is mostly exercise in reasoning. Perhaps it could be done better; but all that makes a lot of sense to me.

Jon writes:

My ah-ha moment came while being asked to memorize the dress of various ethnic groups from 4000 years of world history.

Jake Zielsdorf writes:

In 5th grade, a huge portion of the entire year was dedicated to the memorization of the capitals of all 50 states. Later in 7th grade I had to remember all the countries of Africa. Did they really expect me to remember this?

Gorgasal writes:

Fully agree with Pajser.

I'd much, much rather work with someone who has at least been exposed to the notion that there is more to life than software development than someone who went to school for the three Rs, left after sixth grade, today is the world's greatest Python or whatever developer... but thinks that world history started in the year 2000, is surprised that other people have other cultures and other preferences, and is bored to death by novels, since he never learned about character development. That is simply stunted.

Yes, of course you will forget the state capitals and the African countries. But it makes sense to at least know that different states have different cultures and that Africa is enormously complex, so you can make sense of the news? (Oh, I forgot: I assume there is a high correlation between "education is signaling" and "I don't need to care about or understand what's happening in the world, since I can't change anything about it, anyway".)

Humans are not animals, or plants. We are not on Earth only to feed, reproduce and die. We should strive to understand how the world works. And yes, that requires learning stuff that does not seem to make sense at first.

Stargirl writes:

A benefit of my lack of self control is I have spent very few hours studying things I did not want to study. Despite spending enough time in higher education to get a math PHD. Of course I am not as successful as Prof Caplan (I have a good job in tech but I had no real shot of a tenure track position).

I cut the vast majority of my classes in Hs and university and the essays I wrote for english classes were written during the period or two before they were due. Major projects were just not handed in. Luckily I find history ad math interesting so I had no need to ever study those subjects (AP history exams are very easy for someone with a legitimate interest in history). Though this all resulted in terrible grades in HS (running pity 65s in language classes for example) I still got into a "decent" university. Since mathematics courses do not usually require attendance I did well in university. But even in university and grad school my lack of self control probably had serious consequences.

On the other hand I didn't have to deal with hours of studying boring stuff.

Jonathan writes:

K-12 is babysitting with Trivial Pursuit preparation thrown in as an aside.
The most important talent I acquired from those years (and, seriously) was the ability to look busy and be respectful while doing absolutely nothing.

I can't help but think that if I had done more at school, applied myself more, been the perfect student; that would not have altered my life even slightly.

john hare writes:


I did not finish the sixth grade and have been working full time since I was twelve. I have read and studied only the things that have interested me since except for a semester of night school, a GED and some night classes in college engineering.

I am constantly surprised (I'm 58) at the allegedly educated people that have no idea of history prior to (roughly) their lifetime. No idea of the variation of cultures and geography of the world. And often no idea of the changes in their own work field with the notion that the way it was at some particular time is the 'right' way and the way it should always be. My personal interest in history and cultural differences, among other interests, has led to me being considerably more knowledgeable about many fields than most of the people I meet. It is basically the professionals and specialists that have more background in any field of interest to me.

Being forced to 'learn' stuff that doesn't interest you and has no application in the real world results in that particular group of things you 'learned' being forgotten and therefore useless to you and therefore society in general. General knowledge of history and culture comes from enough personal interest in learning it that simply doesn't exist in all people. Forcing people to pretend to learn stuff they individually perceive as useless is just a waste of time and treasure.

Shane L writes:

I have good memories of my primary (elementary) school days where I feel I was not only taught facts but also developed an important part of my identity. I had no idea what I would do as a career so I tried hard with every subject and pretty much enjoyed them. Secondary school had some good classes, some very boring and wasteful classes.

Incidentally I am reminded of this fascinating article on experimental schools in 1970s UK where children largely decided what and when they would learn. Former pupils have mixed feelings but many seem to have positive feelings about their time there. Bryan will be intrigued by this:

"A trawl of free school alumni won't turn up many brain surgeons or barristers. Why? They didn't do exams. It's a regret of John Ord's. The intention at the start was to equip them with qualifications but he never managed to convince the children it was worth it - and free schools never compelled the children to do things they didn't want."

JK Brown writes:

Signaling is more apparent in K-12. I don't know if anyone has done a formal survey, but my experience is that people react differently when told one of the following:

I graduated from ???? high school (outside of the local area, no one really knows if the high school was good or bad)

I got my GED. (can be mitigated with a tale of serious accident or illness and/or homelessness)

I was home/self-study schooled. (more acceptable but still better if the reason is due to training for the Olympics or working on a TV show or movie.)

and the new one

I got a certificate of attendance. (This is given when the student's sentence has been served in full but they failed the state tests. Oddly, it is often a surprise "graduation" present from the school district)

And yet, all are essentially equivalent in response to the question of are you a high school graduate.

Joseph Porter writes:

In answer to your question, a couple tentative thoughts:

  • Only in the past few decades has college become expected for pretty much all middle-class kids, so people somewhat dimly remember a time that the world got along fine without everyone's going to college.
  • Everyone (the thinking goes) has to take at least *some* important classes in high school (science, math), but you can go to college and *major* in something like art history.
konshtok writes:

professor caplan

people in your bubble rarely need to use their high school diploma for signaling so they don't see it's signaling value

and btw is there in your opinion a signaling mechanism that is better than education?

Philo writes:

Some people become mathematicians. Some people have jobs that require the use of Spanish. No high school student knows for sure what role s/he will play as an adult, so s/he is made to learn a variety of material that *might* be useful later. The only valid complaint would be that this scatter-shot preparatory period is too protracted.

SJ writes:

Forget the zero-sum signalling. I'd argue that high school math is a net positive for average students, even if they forget everything they learn and never use it again. The real point of those classes is to identify the one kid in 500 who has very high math aptitude, and then route him to academic and industry positions where he can do things that benefit the average Joe.

Think of HS Calculus as an iPhone tax. Without the annoying classes, the one smart kid ends up as a smart farmer, and the average kids never get modern technology. Despite their gripes about math, I don't think they'd take that trade.

Tom DeMeo writes:

Why do people do pushups? What possible good is it to be good at pushups? You rarely need to do pushups in real life. They are so useless.

Oh, wait. Maybe, just maybe, they aren't really going to look for a job doing pushups professionally. Maybe, some people do things like pushups to become more fit overall.

Never mind.

Kenneth A. Regas writes:

I don't know what to make of your dismissal of K-12 education. Would you prefer to not know how to read and write, and to reckon, and to tell time? Would you rather not know how natural and human history have unfolded on earth, creating the world you were born into? Not one foreign language, even though the deepest understanding of one's own language often comes from trying to learn another? Ditto as to religions not your own? No stories, songs, or dances that your family and friends don't know? For me school was a revelation: there were so many things to learn! I did my best. Signalling? Bah!

K-12, especially the lower grades, has to be one size fits all. And you, like most children, apparently had no interest in some subjects - different subjects for different children. So you just went through the motions. Your loss. Towards the end you certainly had to get into some signalling, to get into college and all that. That you didn't try to get the most out of the courses you didn't fancy speaks ill of you, not ill of the courses or of the requirement that you take them.


Jeff writes:

The original purpose of universal education of the K-12 sort, as founded in Prussia, was the indoctrination of children for the use of the state. The current structure of K-12 schooling is not much changed from the past, and thus we have to be suspect about any suggestion that the motives of schooling are to produce human capital generally.

Can I understand this post to mean that Prof. Caplan is in favor of the so-called "unschooling" movement?

Josiah writes:

K-12 isn't about signaling. It's about warehousing.

K-12 education isn't a great fit for signaling. Almost everyone does it, and it doesn't much matter to people which schools you go to, so there's not much to signal. On the other hand, what K-12 does do is keep kids off the streets.

David writes:

I guess I should be horrified by the views expressed by the author. The use of "newspeak", the apparent ignorance of the purpose of education. The creative license of language in inventing terms like "signalling" as some dramatic insight rather than the rather banal and obvious step of necessary communication between parties.

The goals and methods of education have morphed many times over the last century. The basic goals of literacy have continued over that period. That of "reading, writing, and arithmetic" have been the basic goals. Over time, the benefits of a "liberal" education were recognized in that this would produce a better citizen in a democratic state, where the people must judge their leaders on a variety of issues.

Still others believed that the erudition and joy of arts, letters, and sciences should not be reserved for the few, well-to-do, but should be available to all people. So, these were added to the curriculum.

Education is not solely for vocational purposes. Even vocational schools teach English and history, as these basic, survey core subjects are recognized as being essential to be considered an educated person.

The real critique in the author's article, seems to be that the quality or effectiveness of education is failing. Thus, we are left with a system of credentialing without the actual substance learned or retained by the students.

The author, and the "signalling" crowd appear to see this as a fraud on potential employers as they suppose that a degree means some level of achievement but that really isn't the case.

I agree that the credentials of education should represent the actual learning and achievement of the student and not be a mere "rubber stamp" for attending for a specified number of years. This should be the focus of the critique, to keep the educational system honest and working effectively to educate students.

CC writes:

I think there's a general misunderstanding in some of these comments.

Bryan is arguing that the value of K-12 education is not in "human capital", but rather in signalling. A lot of you are arguing that there are other benefits too. That's fine. Most of you haven't made a case for the human capital story though.

E.g. A lot of you are arguing that stuff you learned in 10th grade made you a better person somehow. That's fine, and it's not at all inconsistent with BC's claim. In other words, learning about African countries might have made you more aware of other cultures, but it probably didn't make you more valuable to your employer. (One guy argued that he'd rather hire someone with more cultural awareness and that's actually pretty interesting. Though I wonder if he's really prepared to pay up for someone with equal programming skills but better knowledge of Africa. Could be though.)

To take somebody else's example, learning push-ups is really good for physical fitness. But it probably makes you only slightly more valuable to an employer.

Just like how watching The Simpsons might benefit you in all sort of ways, but it probably doesn't make you a more valuable employee.

I think BC is making a narrower claim that many of you are assuming. Labor economists like to claim, "education increases people's wages and makes them more valuable as employees." BC is disputing that. That's all.

Alex writes:

I completely agree, Bryan.

Many of the commentators point out that, either (a) K-12 improves basic skills, generally (like reading comprehension, reasoning, critical thinking) - and so therefore builds productivity for many jobs; or (b) K-12 has to teach a lot of stuff that is mostly useless to individual kids because there is no way of knowing what they need to learn for the job market.

I think you'd say, in response to both, that k-12 actually just shows universities or employers which students possesses these skills - it doesn't really do a great job imparting them.

This reflects my personal experience: I received good grades, and went to university. But my high school was terrible. I actually didn't ever learn math or french; anything I did learn, I forgot soon after. I did well in some subjects like history, geography, philosophy, and english, but I had an aptitude for those subjects. The way I remember it: those classes allowed me to demonstrate that I could read well, or could write well, or remember some details about history etc... I got good grades in those subjects (despite not working very hard and skipping class on occasion), which showed universities I could probably do okay in their classes. The evaluation was the value added, not the instruction itself.

Tom DeMeo writes:

CC- concerning my pushup analogy, I wasn't arguing pushups make you more valuable as an employee, I was arguing that educational topics are exercises, and produce long term learning fitness more than than actual learning. Why does it matter how useful the learning is? It will fade without regular reinforcement either way.

The ability to do things takes both short term and long term preparation. You need both. The long term preparation gets you ready to tackle the short term preparation, which has a shelf life. School can really only have a major impact on long term preparation.

Thomas writes:

I'm an engineer. I'm convinced that everything you need to know about trigonometry, for virtually all practical purposes (including engineering and, for example, navigation) can be taught to someone of average intelligence in an hour, maybe two (to allow time to play with the ideas and consolidate the learning).

We spent months on trig.

Brad S writes:

I never thought of K-12 topics that might be underused after graduation as signaling. I thought of it as keeping options open.

AS writes:

@CC: You are exactly right. This is about whether the bulk of K-12 increases worker productivity. Not whether it makes youa better person.

My experience is that K-12 is probably 10% human capital and 90% signalling/waste. If we had private education systems it might actually impart more human capital gains. It is no surprise that the US ranks badly on K-12.

Brad S writes:

Also: in contrast to the idea that future techies need exposure to humanities, I have found that techies often broaden their horizons throughout life while non-techies rarely become more numerate (and it shows wherever "studies" are bandied about as proofs of ideological confirmation); non-techies need every bit of exposure to math and science that they are forced to swallow in K-12.

Bostonian writes:

I don't think K-12 education is entirely signalling, but I note that employers of high school graduates almost never ask for transcripts. They only care that someone graduated. The only way to get credit for a good high school transcript is to get into a selective college.

Chris Koresko writes:

Bryan Caplan: Whenever I write, "Education is mostly signaling," many readers hear "Higher education is mostly signaling."

I'm sincerely puzzled... My K-12 memories include thousands of hours studying material I knew I'd never use after the final exam.

You seem to assume that all of education can be categorized neatly as either
(a) Knowledge used to make money later, or
(b) Signaling

It seems to me that early exposure to a range of fields serves a lot of different purposes, such as:

* Getting a sense of what knowledge is out there, and having a taste of it. Figuring out what you're good at and what you enjoy.

* Having the ability to remember a little of a subject later on, so you can re-learn it or something similar to it quickly if you need to.

* Developing the discipline needed to focus on an academic subject.

* Most importantly, learning how to learn, which (I suspect) is a different skill for math than for history.

I'm sure there are other good reasons as well. This is not to say that all time in the classroom is well spent, but only that education may be valuable in a lot more ways than (a) and (b) above.

Joss Delage writes:

Most parents don't want to confront the fact because their admission would beg the question why. And the answer to the question why is that school is a convenient & safe place to put kids during a work day, which also teaches a few valuable skills, most of which of a social nature.

Jake Zielsdorf writes:

I agree that all of education can't be summed up as signalling or human capital. There's the daycare aspect and the "figuring out what you're interested in" aspect. Although education could arguably be much shorter if it was mainly for surveying what you possibly might want to pursue.

I think there is much upward-signalling in school, in that when you take middle school honors classes you are signalling that you are more eligible for AP classes. And then the AP classes signal that you are more eligible for better colleges. Passing each grade level is also a signal that you're ready for the next grade, even though much of the next grade is remedial education.

Eli writes:

More basic learning has more practical uses. Multiplication tables are more useful than calculus.

RPLong writes:

I have absolutely no data to back me up on this, but I'm pretty sure labor protectionism and unionism is at the root of the K-12 mandate.

I always thought of K-8 as being little more than glorified daycare. My grandfather, a farmer and the son of immigrants, left school to work on the family farm at age 14. I don't think that age was a random choice.

Grades 9-12 exist mostly to keep young people out of the workforce so that adults don't have to compete with them for manufacturing jobs and trades. As an added benefit, disadvantaged groups who could stand to benefit from having a couple of teenagers contribute to household income are locked out of the higher-paying low-skilled jobs forever, since they lack both a high school diploma and the ability to skip school.

Floccina writes:

Where Bryan and I differ is that I think Spanish could be taught in a way that it would have be less boring and left him speaking Spanish but for the signaling squeezing out real education that could go on.

Also to address some of the comments above:

My grand parents only went to school for 1 year but they were not ignorant. They read they listened and learned quite a bit just from living.

AS writes:

@Floccina: I think you're exactly right. School could be structured in a way to impart real learning, but instead it emphasizes mostly signaling. There's no theoretical reason why school can't be 100% human capital, but in practice we have schooling systems far from ideal.

hanmeng writes:

When I visit California and try to speak a little Spanish with the immigrant native speakers of Spanish, they're usually quite pleased. I even got a small discount on a purchase, once.

As for math, Are we ever gonna use this in real life?

Joe writes:
Why are people so willing to let K-12 off the signaling hook?

I think one reason for this is the same reason why signaling is so readily accepted for higher education. For college, we know the overwhelming importance of the degree, and how none of the actually learning matters without it.

For 9-12, signaling is also reasonable. For those intending to end their education there, a high school diploma is more important than what you learn. For those intending to go to college, the focus is getting good grades to get into a good college.

These are all outward facing goals. In each case, it's clear who we are signaling. Either employers or college admissions.

K-8 isn't so clear. It's not at all clear who the signaling would have been for. If we can't identify who we were signaling, it's not as easy to accept the argument.

And even if there was an intended target, it's not clear that the students themselves understand it as a case of signaling. In college, we definitely knew that the degree was the important part. In elementary school, I don't remember thinking in those terms.

So I think this could explain why people think of higher education when they hear about signaling and don't think K-12. It fits strongly with our experience with higher education, and it seems to fit poorly with our K-8.

john hare writes:

Has anyone noted that all the people defending K-12 assume that the students actually learn something from the classes? I have hired, and all too often fired, people with high school diplomas that couldn't do basic math or reading comprehension. Even in a concrete company a laborer must be able to understand enough math to read a tape measure with fractions and understand multiples of various numbers. They also need to be abler to pick up some information from the verbiage in a blueprint. Many with a diploma were either not taught, or got a BOGO on extra strength stupid. My money is on the former.

On the other hand, I have been able to teach Pythagoras to motivated drop outs with very little effort.

Robert Arvanitis writes:

First, there is always signaling. Life is like the Sorting Hat. And some say first impressions happen in a fraction of a second.

Second, Oliver Wendell Holmes spoke of A,B,C versus X,Y,Z minds. The former relate largely to concrete thought, while the latter are comfortable with the abstract. So beyond signaling, and apart of content use, the exercise of abstract reasoning has its own value.

Finally, creativity arises from analogies, metaphors and shifts in perspective. The broader the experiences, the wider the tools available. Oh, and stories. We communicate most effectively via stories, so again, best to have the widest collection of same.

Kenneth A. Regas writes:

Joe, you nailed it.

Daublin writes:

Just observe that people are really really happy to graduate, and never want to spend another year in the K-12 system. Recall this, and furthermore consider that the children involved are not personally paying for it. So they don't even want more K-12 if they get it for free.

From my own recollection, grades 4-8 or so seemed especially prone to wasting time. K-3 teach obvious life skills like reading and basic arithmetic. At the other end, 9-12 at least have *some* classes that are obviously valuable, like advanced math classes. It's grades 4-8 that were really tedious for me; it felt for all the world like I was being parked in a convenient holding zone.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top