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December 16, 2004

U.S. Education in the World

Stephen Darwall: December 16, 2004

Two recent items in the news about U.S. education should give us significant pause in thinking about the long-term health of the U.S. economy.  One concerns a substantial drop in the number of foreign students attending U.S. universities, especially, Ph.D. programs in science and technical areas, whose graduates will help drive economic activity at the cutting edge.  The other is about the continuing slide in performance in math and science by American high school students judged against their peers in other countires.

One place you can see the first worry is an op-ed piece in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago (11/30) by Joseph Nye.  Visa difficulties since 9/11 have made it more difficult for foreign students to the come to the U.S.  The Council for Graduate Studies reported a 6% decline in first-time foreign student enrollment from 2003 to 2004, with substantially greater decline in applications.  In October, the International Herald Tribune reported that European countries are eagerly stepping in to take up the slack, with Germany making substantial financial aid investments that have yielded almost 30 percent increases in foreign students each year since 2001 (most being science and math students from India and China).  And, increasingly, Chinese science and math students are finding attractive enough opportunities for advanced study in China for them to stay at home.  In my view, the ability to attract top international intellectual talent to universities that have become the envy of the world has been a crucial competitive advantage that the U.S. has enjoyed internationally.  From that perspective alone, not to mention the effects on continuously reinvigorating American culture, U.S. long-term prospects will be significantly dimmed unless our immigration policy and practice is changed.

The second worry stems from a recent report, for example, in The New York Times of 12/7, that in the most recent international comparison of high school students' skills in math, U.S. students were in the bottom half of industrialized countries.  And this despite the fact that American high school math students were towards the top internationally a generation ago.  Clearly part of the problem is grade inflation and diminished expectations.  72% of American students say they get "good grades" in math, whereas only 25% of students in Hong Kong think they do.  (Math students in Hong Kong are the highest performing in the world.)

Together, these two trends spell long-term worries for the competitiveness of the U.S. economy and for the economic prospects of our children.  Perhaps you don't have to worry so much about the farm system if you can continually bring in free agents, but if neither alternative is working, then you've got problems.

As I see it, there is enough blame here to spread all over the political spectrum.  Surely the Bush administration must bear much of the responsibility for post-9/11 immigration policy and other ham-handed policies toward science and universities.  But Democrats have also traditionally cast a blind eye at teachers' unions who have opposed measures such as merit pay and substantially greater teacher responsibility that, in my view, are necessary to improve public education.  I have never been able to see why the governance structures, mediated throughout by meritocratic judgment, that are so central to having made U.S. institutions of higher education so highly successful internationally, have been so fiercely resisted in K-12 education in the U.S.

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Comments

Posted by: stubbs

Sorry, but your first assertion that foreign students "drive economic activity at the cutting edge" is here unsupported by facts and seems to assume that US citizens cannot do the job. The visa difficulties foreign students now have relate to something that happened a few years ago in New York, but you minimize this downside to the unrestrained granting of student visas. You also do not account for the cost to Americans of educating foreign students. On the other hand, other news reports in the NY Times that you do not cite point out that universities are loudly crying "ouch" because a part of their market has been eliminated. I agree with your opinion of American math education and the source of its weakess, but you don't offer anything new here

Posted by: stubbs | Dec 17, 2004 12:17:47 AM


Posted by: Raymond

Also ignores the fact that academia is under the grip of leftist postmodern objects that cause projectile vomit like Noam Chomsky and Peter Singer.

To Wit: http://www.ibiblio.org/esrblog/index.php?m=200412#170
Left2Right — a critical appraisal

"I have immodestly set forth these qualifications here because my experience requires an even stronger indictment than David Horowitz's, let alone the mild one that Mr. Velleman will admit. I have encountered entire academic fields that have been effectively destroyed by Left politics, in the sense that they can no longer talk about anything other than power relations. Postmodern literary criticism is only the most obvious example; for that matter, postmodernist anything is reliably a nihilist swamp obsessed with 'agendas' and 'power relations' to the exclusion of its ostensible subject matter."

In this treaties, about this blog no less, he references what Tammy Bruce has called a totalitarian thought police that control campus

http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=11106
My Brush with the Campus Thought Police, Tammy Bruce

Or this:

it is harder to ignore the actions of left-wing, pro-Palestinian
militants on college campuses. At San Francisco State University
a crowd of demonstrators assaulted a Jewish prayer minyan
(gathered, in fact, to pray for peace in the Middle East),
shouting "Hitler didn't finish the job." Their officially recognized
campus organization circulated a poster showing a dead baby
with the words "Palestinian baby meat--slaughtered according
to Jewish rites."

Course nothing to see here, just the left returning to their Jew-hating roots

"We are socialists because we see in socialism
the only chance to maintain our racial inheritance
and to regain our political freedom and renew our
German state."

"We are a workers' party because we are on the side
of labor and against finance."

"As socialists we are opponents of the Jews because
we see in the Hebrews the incarnation of capitalism,
of the misuse of the nation's goods."
Joseph Goebbels, 1932

Yup, those lefties have always hated those evil capitalist Jews, nothing new to see here, move along.

Heres an idea, as new "teachers" (marxist indoctrinators) came out of these leftist brainwash centers with their politico correcto crap and their agenda of marxist social engineering infecting the schools,, the schools seemed to slide off into the ditch.

Not that the kids seem to blame, the homeschoolers taken out to avoid that marxocrap filth are scoring as the creame of learning by all measures, where a geography bee might see a almost total shutout of "pubic" school contestants (misspelling intentional).

This postmodern crackpot marxist filth that stopped kids from keeping score in playground games and all the rest of the junk that comes with it. perhaps you can look there for example of cause and effect.

Posted by: Raymond | Dec 17, 2004 12:54:16 AM


Posted by: Mark

I went to an engineering school. If I took personal experience as a guide, I would conclude that leftist domination of academia is a myth. Oh, I wouldn't be surprised if many of the professors were left-leaning, but it didn't come up much in my Digital Circuits class.

My point is that I don't think leftist-marxist-whatever orthodoxy has made much headway in the hard science and engineering fields that Darwall is talking about. For all I know, Eric S. Raymond is right that that postmodernism has destroyed literary criticism, but I don't think poor lit crit is hurting the U.S. economy much.

Posted by: Mark | Dec 17, 2004 1:33:12 AM


Posted by: Raymond

Mark:
Granted I should have excluded the hard sciences, since its hard to make political gains in the study of electrons and photons, but you should see what passes for "economics" these days, where the works of Heyak, confirmed correct by history, are looked on with as much disgust as a handout from the Stormfront vermin.

These postmodern wackjobs infect history, law, economics etc, they have long since escaped the confines of the insult to thought itself that inhabits the humanities.

There is the Bellesiles fraud intended to serve the gun control creeps etc ..

For humor:
"Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"
http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal

Well, thats not an "actual" example of postmodern quackjob invasion of the hard sciences, but its damn funny.

How about the leftist attack on the behavoral evolutionists, under attack because their finding undermines the leftist pillar that Humans are a fully programmable blank slate droid that can be programmed to be compatable with socialist slavery?

Anyhow, yes high tech seems to be more Immune, but on other fields that involve humans in some way, their marxist litmus tests have damaged or destroyed entire fields of thought.

What the "intelectually superior" leftist here dont understand is they are losing not because their message isnt getting out, they are losing, because the message is getting out. and its being rejected.

But they cant see where their arguments fall flat or look bizarre and alien, or regurgitate from the 1930s, depending, because of that groupthink echo chamber they exist in.

Their wacky ideas have been insulated from the body politics version of grassroots peer review.

Their ideas go down in flames out here in the real world, where they must survive scrutiny outside their thought control protective bubble.

Their new ideas are untested, and worse, spring from leftist roots that have been utterly totaly discredited. (Along with the 100+ Million lives liquidated in the process)

Posted by: Raymond | Dec 17, 2004 2:08:07 AM


Posted by: Mona

Ok, I'm confused. I've pretty much always been a libertarian "open boders" gal, but this decline in foreign enrollments at our universties impacts on domestic health how?

Posted by: Mona | Dec 17, 2004 2:20:11 AM


Posted by: Mark

Mona, If I understand correctly, Darwall is concerned that the U.S. will lose the benefits these students bring via (1) their contributions to university research, (2) contributions they make if, having been lured by our fine universities, they decide to stick around and enter the workforce.

stubbs raises the question of whether foreign students are really better than American students. I think a reasonable answer is that recruiting top research students for a university is like recruiting top employees for a company: The larger the pool of people to choose from, the better your chances of finding the people you need. Would you rather choose your post-doc researchers from this year's top 100 in America or the top 100 in the whole world?

Posted by: Mark | Dec 17, 2004 3:22:31 AM


Posted by: Andrew

Re: foreign students in US science - it's not entirely that simple. On the one hand, they bring benefits beyond simply being smart (which is, of course, a huge benefit on its own!) - they forge connections that later aid international collaborations; they bring a diversity of research interests (for example, an Indian meteorology student might want to study the monsoon or something); and perhaps most importantly, if they come to the US and then go home, they will bring some American values home with them, thus improving America's image abroad.

On the other hand, there is a workforce problem that no one seems to be talking about here. Foreign students have been like a free lunch: Faced with increasing demand for scientists, companies and universities have been able to satisfy this demand by drawing on foreign students and scientists. But as Stephen Darwall said, this isn't sustainable. Not just because of the 9/11 visa restrictions, though that's part of it - it's not sustainable because of serious, long-term, probably inevitable trends. Such as, as Stephen said, the increasing quality of graduate programs in China, which comes naturally with China's increasing economic prosperity.

The problem is that while we've had this free lunch, scientists' salaries have been able to stay constant because of increased supply of scientists. Universities haven't had to do anything to make graduate school more fun, because they have so many talented students coming in anyway. American students often take a look at the crap salaries and painful grad school and decide to skip out of science. (Lots of them stay in because they love science, of course. But those at the margins are turned away.)

So once the foreign scientists stop coming, there aren't enough Americans to replace them. Obviously, eventually supply will catch up with demand, once the reduced supply of scientists raises scientist salaries and generally makes a science career look more fun (it's not just money - it's also issues like "will I have to spend eternity in postdoc limbo? will I have to spend 10 years in grad school?"). But science education takes time, and the education path toward becoming a scientist begins in middle school or high school. We'd face a period of readjustment of several years, which might not be so fun.

Solution: start right away making science a more attractive career option for US students. Not through government enforced wage floors, but voluntary measures like making graduate school less painful, changing the career structure of academic science so that you no longer have to wait until age 35 to get your first "real job," etc.

Posted by: Andrew | Dec 17, 2004 4:34:24 AM


Posted by: jonathon martin

This thread is not to-date living up to the quality of some of the others, though the post itself is very interesting.

Mark is exactly right about what Darwall is saying, as I thought was obvious. I find it hard to believe that anyone actually read the post as saying "foreigners are better than us".

Raymond is also on very shaky ground when he chooses Economics as an exemplar of left-wing bias in academia. Economists have far more faith in the power of weakly constrained or free markets than anyone with the exception of vested interests. In any case, this thread is not about bias in universities but about the state of US universities and schooling.

On a more optimistic note, I would suspect that the brain drain to the US will pick up again if and when the geopolitical situation calms down a bit. People are pretty self-interested and there are only a handful of universities in the world that can compete with the faculty quality and resources of the top twenty or thirty universities in the US. European Universities are fine for undergraduate education but beyond that they can't compete.

Posted by: jonathon martin | Dec 17, 2004 4:35:15 AM


Posted by: D Baty

I find it interesting the Left finds the outsourcing of jobs to be an outrage, but at the same time think that importing “free agents” to fill jobs in the U.S. as desirable. Both spell the same thing: Repressed wage growth opportunities for American workers.

Posted by: D Baty | Dec 17, 2004 8:06:15 AM


Posted by: Dallas

I have never been able to see why the governance structures, mediated throughout by meritocratic judgment, that are so central to having made U.S. institutions of higher education so highly successful internationally, have been so fiercely resisted in K-12 education in the U.S.

A student who fails to meet minimum standards at the university level gets booted out. The wheat is winnowed through intense competition.

Not so in K-12.

Posted by: Dallas | Dec 17, 2004 8:06:25 AM


Posted by: Jeremy Pierce

I would have thought this had more to do with the decline of the American education industry with respect to places like China, which are improving in such matters.

The gap in how Chinese and American students view their grades is a long-standing social issue that has nothing at all to do with Bush Administration policy. If you look at the numbers for first-generation and second-generation Chinese Americans compared to white Americans, you'll get something similar. A study examining what grade U.S. parents of their children require before disciplining them showed that black parents tended to discipline for a grade lower than a C, white parents for a grade lower than a B, and Asian students for a grade lower than an A. This has absolutely nothing to do with economics.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | Dec 17, 2004 8:18:35 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

I'm all for giving visas to foreign students who wish to study, oh, say, nuclear engineering in the U.S. After all, what could it hurt?

But is this really a problem? Shouldn't we be glad that, for whatever reason, the gap between U.S. and foreign graduate schools has begun to close a bit? (I'm sure undergraduates who must understand their TAs in intro science classes must be glad!) Isn't the universal dissemination of knowledge a good thing? Or do I detect some undercurrents here of frustrated American triumphalism in higher education? As far as I know, there is no problem in the recruitment of foreign scholars to faculty positions in the U.S., if only for the simple reason that we pay more and scholars, amazingly enough, are inclined to act self-interestedly.

Similarly, the reason our government school system rejects meritocratic reforms is because of the vested interests on the part of school system incumbents who would suffer from a meritocratic system. Self-interest at work again.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 17, 2004 8:18:50 AM


Posted by: Steve

"I have never been able to see why the governance structures, mediated throughout by meritocratic judgment, that are so central to having made U.S. institutions of higher education so highly successful internationally, have been so fiercely resisted in K-12 education in the U.S."

Yes you do. Everybody does. A meritocratic system in K-12 would mean non-performers would fail. Add to the fact that in the US, failing non-performers would result in disproportionate failing by blacks and hispanics, and we all know exactly why there is resistance (by teacher's unions, by academia) to a meritocratic K-12 system.

Steve

Posted by: Steve | Dec 17, 2004 9:07:35 AM


Posted by: Matt

On teachers:
Harry Brighouse had an excellent post dealing w/ some (not all) of these issues on Crooked Timber a few days ago. It's here:
www.crookedtimber.org/archives/003002.html

On visas- most Americans have no idea the frustration and humiliation that goes with applying for a visa to come to the US, especially if you are from a poorer country. The process is unpleasent in the extreme and certainly doesn't fill people w/ joy for the country. It's also far from clear that it achieves its stated goals to a very good degree. I know best about the situation in Russia. All men must now fill out a moronic form, asking them if they've been a terrorist and the like. This sort of thing just annoys people, and doesn't do any good. Now all applicants for a visa must come to a consulate for an interview. For many people this means a very expensive trip taking 2 or 3 days. At the embassy in Moscow people applying for a visa are treated like animals in pens. The "interview" that the applicant must undergo almost always consists of an entry-level foreign service officer looking at the people, asking two or three questions, usually in fairly bad Russian, and then making a decision based on his or her gut feeling. This process is essentially unreviewable, and it's preposterous to claim that any real information is gathered here. In the past documentary information was relied on, and only those who raised flags were interviewed. But since the interviews are such a joke, and lead to caprious decisions, and are done by people who could not possibly make the sort of decisions they are expected to, they system is just a vast waste of time and a way to further make non-Americans dislike the US. It was a knee-jerk reaction that's been a huge failure, and should be overhauled.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 17, 2004 9:19:35 AM


Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

While the universities and secondary education share some of the same problems, I think that they need to be treated separately because they operate on such different models.

While the attractiveness of American universities to foreign students is an issue, I think it is really a secondary question. Far more important is the lack of interest and/or preparation in the hard sciences on the part of American students, especially at the elite universities and elite liberal arts colleges.

A related issue with comparisons at the secondary and beginning college levels is the question whether we are really comparing similar populations.

Traditionally, in comparing American and European educational systems, the conventional wisdom was something along the following lines:

1. The American system aimed at reaching a far larger proportion of the population with college preparatory secondary education, and with college education.

2. American students (except at some elite preparatory schools) at college entrance were generally 1-2 years behind their European counterparts.

3. By college graduation, American students were at a level equal to or higher than, European students. The increase in the difficulty level at American colleges and universities over the four years was much more pronounced than in Europe.

4. American graduate programs were more rigorous than most European programs. Many professional fields in the US required undergraduate degrees before graduate work, where European students (esp. in medicine, law, and the other learned professions) began specialized training straightaway.

5. A far larger percentage of American high school graduates attended and graduated from college than in Europe (in the '70s, I recall reading it was about 25% at 4 year institutions in the US (with 50% of high school graduates getting some sort of post-secondary education if one included junior colleges and vocational schools), more like 10-15% in Europe.

(Not having done primary research, I can't really vouch for the accuracy of the foregoing except on anecdotal evidence)

By a larger percentage of secondary school students taking college preparatory curricula in the US than in Europe, and a larger percentage of the pool of secondary school students with college preparatory educations attending college, even if one assumes absolute equivalence in the ability of the overal pool of teenagers in Europe and the US, the university student pool in Europe will be more selective, that is to say, all things being equal, you would expect European universities to require higher qualifications for entrance.

These kinds of disparities in the pools evaluated have always made me suspicious of comparisons of European (or Asian) and American students with respect to mathematics and science. An article I read on the recent low ranking of American students suggested that if you isolated the white and Asian students, their performance was much more comparable to that of European and Asian students. If that's true, then the problem may be less one of overall competitiveness than one of minority performance: which is a problem we have known about and so far have been unsuccessful in solving over the past 60 years.

In terms of engineering, accounting and related fields, and applied science, there seems to be no shortage of American students, especially the children of immigrants or first generation college students, in these fields.

One thing I have observed, during my own years in college and graduate school 25-40 years ago, and in watching the friends of my children, most of whom are at elite private universiteis or liberal arts colleges, is tha many students are very interested in science and mathematics in secondary school and leave for college planning to major in the hard sciences (often with pre-med in mind), only to switch out to substantially less rigorous liberal arts or social science majors during or just after their first years.

If one wants to understand why there are few American doctoral candidates in science and engineering, this would seem the place to start. Cutting through the self-justifictions, most of these students switch because they are not doing very well, or do not wish to work as hard as they need to to succeed. Is it because they're stupid? No, while some may have marginal ability, in most cases, these kids have math SATs over 650 (or especially at the elite schools) 700. Are the universities being to rigorous in the courses? I doubt it.

Rather, I suspect their high school preparation is inadequate (even at the best high schools) and that there has grown a cultural expectation of college as a place to have fun rather than as a place to begin serious adult work. (As an aside, one wonders if the disappearance of in loco parentis restrictions on student behavior in the late 1960s and 1970s had the effect of making students more frivolous, at the elite schools especially -- would students themselves and the universities be better off if students were a bit less free to do precisely as they please?)

The preparation issue is a thorny one. Not only for the minority students who test well below white and Asian students, but for even the majority students at the best high schools.

Are we expecting too much when we do not permit schools in troubled areas to expel troublemakers and the uninterested? Would minority students be better served by the older model that secondary school is a privilege, available to all who are willing to behave in accordance with traditional academic norms while in school and willing to work hard to study? That would be an interesting experiment: let a major urban minority-majority school district, with fair warning, kick out the kids who cause trouble or don't want to be there. With lots of remedial help available to those with inadequate preparation so far, but willing to work, and classes taught to students who really want to learn, I suspect you would see performance improve and, over time, the number of students who want to be in school increase.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 17, 2004 9:28:48 AM


Posted by: Klug


This is the first post on L2R that this conservative GOPer (card-carrying!) is in complete agreement. The number of domestic students going into graduate studies in the US is appallingly low. It is a matter of pure economics: why study hard in college for a science degree and then break your back in graduate school when you can get a similar job with a less work?

I have to agree with Andrew: science has been doing its best to attract young people, but those efforts simply have not be rewarded. We will have to change the paradigm somehow.

I also agree with Rob: there is some bizarre notion (of which I may have been guilty) that your freshman and sophomore years are for fun, not study. I think going back to your dorm room, realizing that you have to study while your Psych major buddy is playing on the computer may have something to do with that.

Posted by: Klug | Dec 17, 2004 9:46:30 AM


Posted by: Dan Velleman

...in the most recent international comparison of high school students' skills in math, U.S. students were in the bottom half of industrialized countries.

Part of the explanation might be found in the book "Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Teachers' Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China and the United States", by Liping Ma. Ma studied American and Chinese elementary school teachers, and found that the Chinese teachers had a deeper understanding of fundamental mathematics than the American teachers did.

Posted by: Dan Velleman | Dec 17, 2004 10:24:13 AM


Posted by: JennyD

On our poor performance in Math: Stevenson and Stigler pointed that out in The Learning Gap back in 1992, long before Bush II. The discovered that Asian parents believe their kids do well in school because they work hard, while American parents believe their kids do well in school because they are born smart. And...most Americans tend to believe their kids are above average. So we're fat, happy, and mediocre, and Asian kids are eating our lunch. No news there.

But what's really troubling is when you consider the knowledge and quality of teachers. That is probably where the problem lies. American teachers tend be less knowledgable about math in general, and less likely to know how to handle a student error compared with Asian teachers. (See Stigler's later book, The Teaching Gap.)

There's a lot of research about the lack on deep math knowledge among American teachers, and also research showing that American teachers don't know how to transmit the knowledge needed to do math to students. Teaching is a two-pronged problem--knowing and then teaching.

This whole problem of teaching and learning deserves its own post. I write about it on my own blog because that's what I'm doing for my dissertation.

Posted by: JennyD | Dec 17, 2004 10:31:48 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

"Chinese teachers had a deeper understanding of fundamental mathematics than the American teachers did." Which, even without any research makes perfect sense.

First, one suspects that job opportunities in China still (though perhaps not for much longer) are less favorable. (We had great public school teachers during the depression because they couldn't find jobs elsewhere. I trust we're not willing to pay that sort of price to remedy the situation now.)

Second, education schools are (let's be candid) a joke. Or, as we used to say at my undergraduate college, those who major in elementary education get one. Break the monopoly on teacher licensing. For that matter, break the de facto monopoly on public education. Let schools compete and parents choose and, over time, the overall quality of primary and secondary education will improve. Graduate schools in science and engineering will then no longer need to seek foreign students to fill their programs.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 17, 2004 10:37:26 AM


Posted by: pedro

People actually do not have any idea how aggravating the immigration process can be, even for those of us who have married an American citizen. An example of the inefficiency of the BCIS (formerly the INS): I need to report a change of address both to an office in Kentucky (everyone does) and to the specific office considering my immigration case, simply because the Kentucky office (considered the 'central' office for 'changes of address') does not communicate with any other offices. How in the world this lack of communication is supposed to reassure the average American citizen that immigrants are being monitored efficiently is beyond me, really.

Every time I wish to travel abroad, I have to dispense with close to 200 dollars for an application fee for 'advanced parole' (yes, the language is quite telling, isn't it?), and I have to send evidence (an official invitation letter, for example) that there's a reason for me to get out of the country. The application is processed in about 5 months. Basically, I will not be able to travel to my own country for any family emergency, since I have to wait five stupid months for my application to be granted. (One would think that after the first permission has been issued, a renewal would be a matter of days, considering that the presumed 'background check' had already been conducted.)

I'm an AbD in mathematics (a field among many dominated by foreign graduate students and foreign job-holders in the US). I love the US (well, I love the blue states, really). I am married to an American citizen who does extraordinarily smart research in the Humanities (and so am in a position to dismiss Raymond's comments as vastly uninformed), and I am looking for jobs. Were it not because other job markets are infested with even stronger nationalistic protectionism, both I and my wife would go elsewhere. So long as Canada and Europe insist on having thicker barriers for foreign labour, the US might be able to get away with their aggravating immigration policies without losing their footing in the sciences and engineering. Yes, the politically incorrect implication here is that the US relies heavily on foreign labour to keep its scientific and technological edge. In my experience, American graduate students enjoy all sorts of protections, but some self-selection process ensures that they aren't--on average--as competent as their foreign competitors, at least when it comes to research. Teaching is another matter entirely.

On the other hand, it really doesn't surprise me that the number of incoming foreign graduate students is diminishing perceptibly in the last few years. If I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn't.

Posted by: pedro | Dec 17, 2004 10:38:10 AM


Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

I have never been able to see why the governance structures, mediated throughout by meritocratic judgment, that are so central to having made U.S. institutions of higher education so highly successful internationally, have been so fiercely resisted in K-12 education in the U.S.
In my previous comment, I did not address this central question of Professor Darwell's post, except indirectly in an aside suggesting secondary schooling might be better approached on an older model of school as a privilege, rather than as an entitlement.

At least until WWII in this country, and perhaps later, the notion of education as a privilege rather than as an entitlement or a right dominated the structure of both secondary and higher education.

Private secondary schools, colleges, and universities available only to those who could pay was the purest expression of the 'privilege' model, and even those institutions traditionally had some scholarships available to promising candidates who lacked the means to attend. Nonetheless, it was a very elite model. From early in our nation's history, even before the Revolution, there have been efforts to make the privilege of education available broadly, from the free or almost free common schools of early America and the frontier, to public secondary schools and, by the mid-19th century, an increasingly large number of public universities, especially in the midwestern and far western states, with free or very low tuition.

In all cases, however, this public education was presented as an available opportunity: it was up to the student to take advantage of the opportunity presented, to behave appropriately as a student, and to get the most out of what was offered. Essentially, the model remained one of education as privilege, with a corollary that the opportunity was now available to many with more limited means.

I think it's fair to say that the privilege model, with an availabilty corollary now based more on financial aid than just public insitutions, remains the model for post-secondary education.

However, during the 20th century, the model for secondary education was transformed (whether through the efforts of people like John Dewey or otherse) to a model of entitlement or right: students have a "right" to a public secondary education (combined with a duty to attend, which probably preceeded the right, but that's another story). The primary consequence of this change, as far as I can tell, has been to prevent schools from sloughing off the students who don't want to be in school, or who are not willing to behave appropriately or apply themselves to the academic curriculum taught.

While I believe this model or paradigm change occurred with the very best of intentions in most cases, the results have been disasterous, and have most harmed the inner city urban minority students who were the intended beneficiaries of these changes.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 17, 2004 10:39:51 AM


Posted by: rtr

Allow me to chime in once again with the free market. Go sit in almost any undergraduate course on calculus. X amount of material is covered in Y time by the local mini Newton without regard to the varying abilities to grasp mastery even among similarly qualified students in the same course. Whether concepts that are necessary to grasping further deductions are understood is immaterial to the time constraints of the course.

We can cut out both the instructors and the T.A.s by holding classes online. Instead of having 500 instructors teaching the same thing in various universities across the continental U.S. the course can be streamlined to an internet site or relatively few competing internet sites. The learning process can be vastly improved by creating "games", listing innumerable help techniques on grasping the problems, showing recorded video examples, or better worded examples in the students' native language, having chat rooms for students to discuss questions that instructors can chime in and answer if the students cannot figure it out among themselves. When the concept is mastered, students can progress to the next concept. No individual needs to be held back until the rest of the class catches up. No individual needs to hold the rest of the class up.

Regardless, this is the way its going for civilization. Immigration barriers of different nations, different states (as in Indiana-Illinois), different counties, different neighborhoods, etc. become meaningless. University instructors are the horse and buggy whip makers of the nineteenth century. And I don't hear anyone of the left or the right arguing for subsidies to the horse and buggy whip industry. Mathematics is especially easy to replicate in this manner. And since the field of instruction has been farmed out to foreign instructors long ago, should provide immediate drastically improved results.

"No salary for you!"

Posted by: rtr | Dec 17, 2004 10:41:53 AM


Posted by: jonathon martin

On the topic of schooling Finland is a good example. They came top in the international PISA tests earlier this year for maths, science and literacy. In addition to comments above two factors struck me when compared to the UK (you can decide for yourselves how it compares to the US). In terms of status, teachers are nearly on a par with doctors in Finland and are on a par with lawyers. In the UK teachers are considered people who can't do anything else. Secondly, all teachers have a Masters degree (5 years full-time study) plus a year of teacher training. That includes primary school teachers.

Posted by: jonathon martin | Dec 17, 2004 10:48:42 AM


Posted by: Matt

To build on some of the ideas that at least some of the problem in teaching math starts at the elementary level- at least when and where I went to elemenary school, each class had only one teacher up through the 6th grade who taught all subjects. She (almost always she) was expected to be able to teach all of them. This seems unreasonable, even on the elementary level. Contrast this to Russia, where after the 2nd grade students have distinct teachers for all or at least most subjects, w/ the teacher expected to be an expert in the subject. This seems more likely to work.
(Note that there are huge problems w/ the Russian education system, including it essentially being unpaid for many teachers if we don't count "informal" payment. But, teaching math isn't one of the problems. So, perhaps something can be learned there.)

Posted by: Matt | Dec 17, 2004 10:59:49 AM


Posted by: pedro

rtr suggests centralizing the education of mathematics. In the past three years that has been the trend at my large public research university, ever since budget cuts have rendered small classes largely unaffordable. Having recently won a teaching award, I am fortunate enough to be one of few instructors who gets to teach calculus to a small group of students, 18 of them this semester. Would anyone care to guess which students have learned more mathematics? Ah, did I mention that I do not give lectures? My students come to class having read the relevant section from the book, get a quiz at the start of class on the reading material, and then I present them with significantly more challenging worksheets than anything you might find in a regular Calculus course--after all it is a merit program that I teach in. The work in smaller groups, they interact with one another, and they ask questions--both to each other and to me. The emphasis is on monitored self-discovery. Surely my students would--on average--kick rtr's Calculus and Mathematica online students' butt any day of the week (I gave them a Putnam competition problem during the final exam, and some of them got it). It's not only the number of students that matters, it's the quality of instruction, and the quality of interaction among students. (Research constantly shows that students that socialize outside of the class with their study partners do much better than students who study alone.) Believe me, the quality of instruction cannot go any worse than when all an instructor can do is lecture students. And the quality of the monitoring of students' progress is never worse than when left to an automaton (a computer).

Posted by: pedro | Dec 17, 2004 11:01:40 AM


Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

But what's really troubling is when you consider the knowledge and quality of teachers. That is probably where the problem lies. American teachers tend be less knowledgable about math in general, and less likely to know how to handle a student error compared with Asian teachers. (See Stigler's later book, The Teaching Gap.)

JennyD, I think you are right about this. How much do you think this problem is a result of the teacher training model in which prospective teachers typically attend (state) colleges with undergraduate majors in education and emerge with a credential, but no major in an academic subject? We often forget that until WWII, most states differntiated between their state universities and their teacher training institutions. (The elite universities and liberal arts colleges did not specifically train teachers for the most part.) While before teacher training was 'professionalized' any person (with or without a college degree) could set up as a teacher, formal teacher training in the 19th and early 20th centuries was in the hands of state Normal Schools, many of which became Teachers Colleges as the century progressed, only to emerge as "universities" after the 1950's.

A result of this history, is teachers without significant academic training in the subjects they teach, particularly at the secondary level, but also in mathematics and science at the elementary level.

Some states and their public universities (my own experience is with the University of California in this regard) took a different approach, requiring an undergraduate degree in an academic major before one undertook a fifth year of education work to obtain a teaching credential. Back when the available undergraduate majors were limited to the traditional liberal arts and sciences, that meant at least BA/BS level competence in a subject field on the part of teachers coming through that sort of program.

It is also worth noting that private secondary schools do not have the state credential requirements that public schools do, and often hire teachers who have degrees in the fields they are engaged to teach (very often from elite colleges and universities). Does this better knowledge of their fields account for some portion of private schools' success in teaching mathematics and science?

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 17, 2004 11:04:02 AM


Posted by: JennyD

Rob, something about private schools--they have a selective student body. If you control for socioeconomic status, you'll find that private school kids perform about as well as public school kids of similar background.

Ed Schools are, unfortunately, laden with problems. They need to be professional schools that prepare a teaching corps, much as nursing schools prepare nurses. Instead, they are about theories and competing ideas. Professors who teach them often teach critical theory approaches, rather than the difficult and practical work of how to solve problems, and how to explain to kids how to solve problems.

It's even more than knowing the math. Imagine that a student does two-digit multiplication, and gets the answer wrong. If the teacher simply says, "That's incorrect" then the student has learned nothing. The teacher needs to discover not only what the student did that led to the error, but also explain the process that would have resulted in a correct answer. That is a lot of work.

Chris Correa posts a lot on math instruction at his website. I tend more to the language arts, with a dose of history and policy.

Posted by: JennyD | Dec 17, 2004 11:39:06 AM


Posted by: rtr

Pedro, great post. I especially love the “my students would--on average--kick rtr's Calculus and Mathematica online students' butt any day of the week”. That’s the free market competition that brings better quality at lower cost.

You might be able to outperform the on-line average with a small 18 students sample. But for how long? As soon as I figure out your teaching techniques, they’re going on-line as near zero cost with a Hollywood actor dressed up as Sir Isaac Newton. The quality of instruction is worth *zero* on-line in the long run. And anybody and everybody can improve upon all aspects with free on-line competition. And just you wait until my on-line students as a team utterly destroy the Putnam competition problem represented as a dragon in a final fantasy online XI type of game. FFXI online. Check it out and imagine a more directly implied use of mathematics as “weapons”, “spells”, etc. “You’re going down buddy!” And so are all you K-12 students. I mention FFXI to show the social nature of the internet.

Posted by: rtr | Dec 17, 2004 11:40:34 AM


Posted by: slarrow

Rob hits the nail on the head when he talks about the shift from education as a privilege to education as a right. It also plays into the above analysis in which college is viewed as a place to have fun instead of a place to learn and prepare for a career. In effect, a given opportunity is not considered to be as valuable as an earned opportunity would be, and failure costs the student little or nothing personally.

This is a major complaint my wife (a teacher who will echo the point about teacher preparation and intellectual skill, though she herself is very intelligent and well-prepared) has against President Bush's No Child Left Behind program. If no child is to be left behind institutionally, then no action (or deficiency) on a child's part is sufficient for that child to suffer the consequencese. It's always the school's responsibility.

Still, the fundamental point is cultural expectation. In this I think I depart from the professor. I'm not worried about the diminished supply of American intellectual capital because once signs of it show up in reality instead of speculation, I think the pressure will cause a cultural change that will drive a new "excellence revolution." Indeed, the current supply of foreign intellectuals may have softened the blow and curtailed the signals that would have triggered real-world reaction already.

Posted by: slarrow | Dec 17, 2004 11:44:31 AM


Posted by: pedro

rtr,

How is your program going to interact with the students at home? How is it going to emulate my skills, if my interactions with students consist not of lecturing, but of monitoring and helping discover? How is your program going to compensate for the lack of socialization in the classroom, when the fundamental building block of the merit program style of instruction is student interaction? Simple answer: it won't. Your idea is built around a template of instruction that excludes the messy little details of how learning actually occurs. Specifically, you assume that there's this imparter of knowledge, and then there's an audience consisting of individuals not working in groups, and that all the communication occurs between instructor and audience. That's hardly what goes on in a classroom, let alone in an alternative classroom like the one I teach in (not K-12, btw, undergraduate). Incidentally, I don't lecture at all. Zero, zip, nada. How is the Hollywood actor going to 'not lecture'?

Posted by: pedro | Dec 17, 2004 11:50:45 AM


Posted by: Mike Sierra

Matt says: most Americans have no idea the frustration and humiliation that goes with applying for a visa to come to the US, especially if you are from a poorer country. The process is unpleasent in the extreme.... While stipulating this is true, can't it be argued that such a process is more likely to attract only the most motivated applicants? (I mean, my fellow Cubans are floating over on rum crates!)

Posted by: Mike Sierra | Dec 17, 2004 11:59:52 AM


Posted by: Herbert Browne

Re the allegedly nonexistent K-12 meritocracy- one potential difficulty that hasn't been addressed thus far is compensation to the meritorious. The pay for most public school employees comes from taxes. Where I live, the primary funding vehicle is property taxes. The people who have property often no longer have children in schools; and so perhaps feel that they have a less-vested interest in performance standards as compared to, say, keeping the little beasts off the street while their parents are making a living.
I was fortunate in my location as a HS student, in the years following Sputnik. I went to a 'public' school in a town of 30,000 in which everyone was a subsidized renter; and the company which collected rents was subsidized by the U.S. gov't in its pursuit of plutonium. Our school offered 5 foreign languages, an extra semester of 'advanced' chem, a much broader (& deeper) number of math courses, fulltime music & PE teachers in the local grade schools, well-equipped art depts, etc. One was encouraged to pursue a foreign language (or 2!) if one's future plans included college. I'm sure that all the teachers in the system were vetted by the FBI, just as the employees in the Project were. The results, of course, were quite good. Students went on to college in good numbers, the sports teams were perennially competitive, and Life in the Bubble was sweet. To do this across the country would probably demand just what one sees on those PTA bumper stickers about fully funding public education while forcing the USAF to hold bake sales in order to raise money for new B-2 bombers.
Perhaps the study quoted ("Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics;.." etc) indicates the pragmatic course, ie that public educationists do what Silicon Valley, agribiz, and others have done: recruit minority teachers (primarily women) from those places with proximity to English language training (eg Hong Kong, the Indian sub-continent, and other vestiges of the former British Empire); &/or set up satellites aimed at training and acculturating bright young latinas, to prepare them for importation as the vital element needed to bring national performance standards back up there with the rest of the world. Who knows?.. the plummy tones of the Raj and the umlaut-inflected lilt of Durban and Belfast just might catch on, here, and become another cultural touchstone of an ever-progressing melting pot. Our children need a PE instructor, Mr. Miyage... We would be honored! ^..^

Posted by: Herbert Browne | Dec 17, 2004 12:11:04 PM


Posted by: Matt

About the evils of the US visa application system, Mike asked,
_"While stipulating this is true, can't it be argued that such a process is more likely to attract only the most motivated applicants?"_
The answer is clearly no, for anyone who has another option- see the post above about more applicants going to universities in Europe or, among Russians at least, Canada. Cubans don't have a lot of other attractive options, especially since our silly law granting refugee status to nearly any Cuban who hits the shore (despite most not coming close to meeting the normal requirements to be a refugee) grants a lot of perverse incentive here.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 17, 2004 12:11:11 PM


Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

JennyD, yes private schools have a selective student body, but (other than money) I'll bet they are no more selective than the honors/AP tracked students at either urban public "academic" high schools (e.g. Boston Latin, Bronx Science or Stuyvesant in New York, or Lowell in San Francsico) that admit by examination or suburban high schools like New Trier (Illinois), New Canaan or Greenwich (Connecticut) or Menlo-Atherton (California). The common thread between those private schools and the honors/AP tracked public school students is that if you don't perform academically and meet behavioral expectations, you're history. At the public schools you're simply moved into less rigorous tracks, but it's the same thing, really. Tell the high school you have a "right" or are "entitled" to be in AP classes and you'll be laughed out of the office. If you meet the standards for admission, you're in, if you don't, you're not (though sometimes the school might give a borderline student a shot, with the understanding they would not stay in honors if they did not perform adequately). Both of the private school and the honors/AP track in public schools, then, retain a strong element of the privilege model, requiring performance to keep the opportunity available.

While I agree with you that knowing the material is not a sufficient condition for a teacher being effective, I submit it is a necessary condition. I think our primary duty in teacher training is to ensure the teachers thoroughly know their academic subjects.

The second duty is to make sure the teachers know how to teach, and I agree with you the education schools are a disaster and need to be more trade schools than theory schools. I once made the mistake of taking some graduate courses in early childhood education for reasons which seemed sufficient at the time. Egad. The readings were heavily weighted to Marxist or neo-Marxist theory, and taught by a professor who did not understand the material, or my course paper (which I found out when I got a call from the philosophy professor to whom she had referred it, who wanted to discuss some nuances in the argument). You know, it's a lot easier, and a lot more fun, to teach theory than it is to teach practical skills. You can evaluate the teaching of practical skills: either they work, or they don't (or work with a greater or smaller subset of the population), and a student-teacher either masters the skills sufficiently to use them, or doesn't.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 17, 2004 12:19:04 PM


Posted by: Craig Duncan

I see Rob's point in urging a return to the view that education is a privilege rather than a right. I doubt though this is the best way to express the point.

Why think a primary and secondary education is a right? Well, it used to be that whether one got a primary/secondary education or not depended entirely on whether one's parents were willing and able to pay for it. Inasmuch as receiving an education is key to possessing career opportunities, this meant that many children suffered from a lack of adequate economic opportunity through no fault of their own. Even those people with just a modest attachment to ideals of equal opportunity should see such a situation as unjust.

Hence the revolution in thinking that morphed education from a privilege to a right.

So I can't support Rob's call for viewing education merely as a privilege, if that is indeed what he is calling for.

Still, here is a way of phrasing it that makes (what I take to be) his main point more palatable, to my ears at least. Viewing education as a right does not by itself entail "You have to give me whatever I demand by way of education, regardless of how I behave." In principle the right is to educational *opportunites*; this leaves open in principle that grossly unreasonable behavior on your part can warrant a decision that to expel you; this would be a case of you squandering your opportunities rather than having them unjustly yanked from you.

I think the point can be put as follows: education is a right, but an *alienable* right rather than an *inalienable* one.

Of course, this is *in principle.* There are complications, and serious ones. Although Rob has a serious point, I for one with have to think more about it before signing on.

The complications I see are at least these:

1. What counts as "grossly unreasonable behavior," and who decides? Will this decision-making power be used responsibly?

2. What happens to the expelled kids? Will there be second-chances? If not, will this just make a life of crime more appealing? In pragmatic terms this would be counterproductive.

3. Most fundamentally, let us remember we are here dealing with *minors*. Minors by definition are not fully responsible agents. To say to a minor, "Sorry, you have decided to squander your educational opportunities, so no more for you ever" seems too quick. This is not an informed decision made by someone in the maturity of his or her faculties. But surely such a fateful decision should at least approximate these conditions before being treated as grounds for a permanent exclusion from school. That is a problem for the "alienable right" view.

Is #3 a decisive problem? I don't know. It's complicated. As kids get older, they certainly get nearer to being responsible agents; perhaps the cutoff is indeed before 18. (What determines the cutoff?) Also, one way to develop minors' capacity for responsibility is by treating them as if they were responsible, by "holding them responsible."

I'm certainly in favor of holding students responsible for much, much, much, especially in secondary school, and open to the idea that there is too little of this as things currently stand. I'm just not sure I'm going to go all the way to Rob's "OK, buddy, you've just forfeited all future educational opportunities."

Posted by: Craig Duncan | Dec 17, 2004 12:34:40 PM


Posted by: Terrier

Just some random observations: I hear often "Throwing money at the problem won't solve it." and yet my best friend who left business to begin teaching is literally making a fraction of what I make doing what is much more important work (even to my employer's bottom line.) The money that is thrown always seems to get eaten up by administration and never filters down to actual teacher salaries (so I shudder to think how bad K-12 would be if there was not a union to drive the salary up - though I think performance measurement could also help.) A small administration is one huge advantage that most private schools have. "Run things like a business" is another answer that is often offered, but in my many, many years experience in business the amount of incompetence I have seen is staggering. Some businesses I know of are only profitable because they make such giant wads of cash that their massive mismanagement cannot waste all the avaiable resources. American businesses, both large and small, fail every year. Can we afford failing to educate our children?

Posted by: Terrier | Dec 17, 2004 12:39:29 PM


Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

Craig, I'm not sure we disagree significantly as to substance, although my terminology seems to bother you a great deal. Actually, I think it's at least somewhat important to frame education in terms of privilege, rather than right, because I think the well-intentioned framing of education as a right over the past 60 years or so bears has led to the situation where you can't expel those who won't play. But, I'd qualify 'privilege' with a strong corollary of availablity and access for anyone who wanted it and was willing to behave, so I'm not looking at education as a mere privilege in any way. I like the way that kind of approach was embodied in the old 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education: a three tiered system, all tuition free (although there were some fees which tended to be a bit higher at UC): an elite university, a second level of state colleges for those who don't meet university standards, and a junior college system which served to provide 2 years of university level work for those who couldn't afford to live away from home, remedial work to give a second or third or fourth chance to those whose high schools were poor, or who just didn't care in high school, and technical/vocational programs for those who did not seek four year degrees. Tuition increases aside, it's still a good model.

Your points about the practical complications are non-trivial, and I recognize they would require serious thought for implementation. However, as long as there were avenues to earn one's way back in (such as the GED and (essentially) free junior colleges) after having been expelled, I would be more willing to err on the side of toughness to ensure a healthy academic environment for the students who wanted it. That is especially important for the minority students who are most dependent on public education! If their schools are safe and the student serious, it will be easier to attract teachers. Perhaps you could even form a corps of senior master teachers, otherwise retired, who would be willing to give a year or two or more in urban schools if they thought they'd really be making a difference.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 17, 2004 1:21:10 PM


Posted by: Marinewife

I don't know anything about foreign students and their impact on our economy but I do know about K-12 systems, teacher credentialing, and large school districts. I also think I have a fair handle on the grip that the unions have on school reform. As a Peer Coach-Staff Developer in the nation's 6th largest district, I am realizing that my super leftwing liberal studies education left me unprepared for the demands of teaching and the ability to be truly successful. The theories I learned were rock solid about competition and student expectations are without merit and the current gridlock in school reform has left me wondering if I should leave the public sector to forge paths in the private school arena (something I thought was sacrilegious while getting my credential).

There are many factors to an equation that produces successful learners (be they liberal studies or the sciences) and all of these factors must work in tandem (like an ecosystem--if one factor is weak the others suffer or must pick up the slack); teachers who are knowledgeable in pedagogy and the disciplines they teach, parents who place weight on student performance and behavior, administrators who are proactive and create school ethos, communities and districts that use research based policies. All of these factors (and many more) take conscience effort on all involved. But I think the greatest problem for school improvement is the powerful teacher unions (especially in closed shop districts). The unions have employed all kinds of tactics (which I won't go into but can be researched fairly easily) to convince their members that they are interested in bargaining for them and also improving student performance. They have a record for deceit and a lack of transparency in their finances. They have little faith or attraction to statistical data and research about school reform, and they have no real vested interest in improving schools or the pay of their members (if they were successful, they would be out of a job and a powerful lobbying block).
Rob is exactly right about the belief that students have a "right" to an education rather than a privilege. What we fail to understand is that "rights" come with responsibility and duty. You don't have the "right" of a stellar education without taking on the "responsibility" of working and fighting for it.

Unions and teacher credentialing programs have something in common--they both abhor competition. Yes, someone has to lose in a competition, but competition is the other thing that makes us better.

Posted by: Marinewife | Dec 17, 2004 1:33:57 PM


Posted by: Craig Duncan

Yes, Rob, that does shrink the distance between us, though I still prefer the language of "alienable right" to "privilege." Your comments on the pros and cons of expulsion are thought-provoking. I still worry about problem #3 I mentioned above, regarding responsibility. (BTW, I now see that David Velleman in his "local news" post makes a related point about responsibility.) My views are not really settled yet on this. Of course there has to be some amount of "holding responsible," but also some recognition that the youths we're talking about are not fully responsible beings yet. Striking the right balance is tough.

Posted by: Craig Duncan | Dec 17, 2004 1:35:22 PM


Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

Craig, regarding your problem #3: I would submit that the most important 'responsibility' is that of the community to provide the students who want to take advance of educational opportunity with an environment that is conducive to academic work. That means no disruptive kids. In so doing, you are favoring (rewarding) the kids who demonstrate more responsibility and disfavoring those who behave irresponsibly. That, it seems to me, encourages responsible behavior, which is a good thing. I take your and Dave V.'s point about minors not always being responsible, but I think as long as you allow the kids you've tossed out for irresponsible behavior a path back into the system once (and only so long as) they demonstrate responsible behavior, you have a fair and reasonable balance between giving opportunity to the responsible and an understandable desire not to give up on anyone too precipitously. The issue is whether it's fair to those who want to learn to bear the burden of the disruptive while we're trying to salvage them. Again, I'd argue the very last people who should have to put up with a disruptive kid are the minority students who don't have private school alternatives or environments that are otherwise as supportive of education as wealthy white kids.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 17, 2004 2:19:10 PM


Posted by: rtr

Students and parents interact at home. Students and students interact on-line. Students and teachers interact on-line. On-line games is just one aspect of learning of many and any that can be discovered and better. It won’t “just” emulate your skills, but incorporate millions and millions of thoughts and ideas that constantly feed back on the learning process. There’s no way any one individual instructor can compete. Simple economics. Which is why instructors from K-12 and in the university will be going the way of the dodo. The socialization is many times more so than in the traditional classroom and not constrained by class time and limited to student per instructor mouth until he moves on to the next student whether the first student has “really” gotten it or not given the constraints on instructor time. And not all students are the same. The internet will account for the different learning processes of different students.

“Imparter of knowledge”, are you referring to the boring textbook you assign your students before the beginning quiz at the start of class with far too many mathematical symbols and not enough cognitive instruction on harnessing mathematics? Are you there step by step when they are reading the night before witnessing how they get this and don’t get that? So your textbook lectures for you. Effort is required somewhere on the part of the students. The Hollywood actor “lecturing” is only one tiny aspect of the free coming educational model. How is your talent and salary going to compete with that? It won’t. When a student doesn’t get a step in the process of a proof he can post on-line and get relatively immediate feedback. No need to wait for T.A. sessions, or the weekly visiting hour of the professeur. There’s no difference between the K-12 and university model on-line. Though you will see a *lot* more K-12 finishing college calculus sequences at much earlier ages.

There is no static unchanging “program” subject to the inefficient laws of the bureaucracy and the anti-competition presence of the Unions. It’s whatever works and works quickest. It evolves according to the laws of the market. One person cannot monitor and help discover the way millions can with the dispersal of information and competing techniques winning out efficiently and quickly. I’m sure there’s many parents on this board who have bought “math” computer programs for their kids. It used to be flash cards. Soon today’s math programs will be much better. All that stands in the way of the change being sooner rather than later is an Aristocratic class with economic and partisan ideological interests in opposition to the educational interests of children.

Honestly, think back to your own education. How much effect did teachers have on what you learned? It was mostly a process of individual effort for the exceptional students. Anyway, we can now have both with the best teachers available to all at a minuscule cost of today's educational system lessoning the required effort through better methods. Much better quality. Much cheaper cost. That's the free market. And it's coming regardless of any denial that may exist on the left (or the right).

Posted by: rtr | Dec 17, 2004 2:24:13 PM


Posted by: Steve Burton

American secondary education these days represents the "difference principle" in action.

I recently spent a couple of deeply depressing years teaching math and physical science in a small rural high school.

The entire system is structured for one purpose and one purpose only: to maximize the minimum. The powers that be could hardly care less about the small percentage of talented students with the potential for meaningful careers in fields that require a serious background in math and/or science. Those wheels, after all, rarely squeak. What the bosses *do* care about is getting as many as possible of the bottom 10-15% of terminally bored and disruptive students to pass the state tests (this is Virginia I'm talking about) so that they can graduate - and go on to careers as supermarket checkers and road repairmen.

And I don't even blame those bosses! because, so far as I can tell, that is all the goverment and the public care about, too - and it's on the government and the public that their jobs depend.

Let me tell you - it is *far* more difficult, and a lot less fun, to get the bored and the disruptive successfully to add and subtract with negative numbers than to steer interested and talented students through the fundamentals of the calculus.

And - this is the crucial point - YOU CANNOT FIX THINGS BY BRINGING IN TEACHERS WITH GREATER MATHEMATICAL AND/OR SCIENTIFIC COMPETENCE - because they will be even more demoralized than I was by the utterly pointless job that it turns out they are actually expected to do.

Need I add that "No Child Left Behind" is the ultimate apotheosis of this madness?

Posted by: Steve Burton | Dec 17, 2004 2:45:54 PM


Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

Let me tell you - it is *far* more difficult, and a lot less fun, to get the bored and the disruptive successfully to add and subtract with negative numbers than to steer interested and talented students through the fundamentals of the calculus.

And - this is the crucial point - YOU CANNOT FIX THINGS BY BRINGING IN TEACHERS WITH GREATER MATHEMATICAL AND/OR SCIENTIFIC COMPETENCE - because they will be even more demoralized than I was by the utterly pointless job that it turns out they are actually expected to do.

I sympathize with your cri d' coeur, and agree that better teachers are not a sufficient condition for better education. I would argue, however, that more knowledgeable teachers are a necessary condition to improve education.

Likewise, I think getting rid of the disruptive students is also a necessary condition to improve education.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 17, 2004 2:52:22 PM


Posted by: Bill

If we train less foreign scientists and engineers because of visa issues, will our universities train more (though less qualified) American students? Or will businesses just hire more people trained at (say) German universities? At stake may be whether there is a decline in the number/quality of trained scientists world-wide.

To me the most important question is what effects, if any, on elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Intuitively, one would not think that competition from foreign-trained secondary students is increasing math/science college prep in our schools. But one might think that more American high schoolers would go into science and engineering at university if the competition weren't so tough (inferiority complex risk, etc.)

I'm not 100% sure that maximizing U.S. science and engineering university training is desirable. We may, as some suggest, have the best facilities (and thus best faculties and research opportunities) because we are the most captured by business interests whose priorities for research (and its ownership) don't match up with the public interest. (What I mean is that we have the money for the facilities because we're most willing to let the donors control the reasearch, have the patents, etc.) But I emphasize that this is just one hypothesis that must be considered. Also, even if (say) Dutch universities are currently less captured than U.S. ones, the research money might follow the visas (thus leading to their capture).

So much by way of somewhat informed speculation.

Of course, I do think that we should want to give international students the opportunity to study here. I'm skeptical that denying student visas broadly is necessary (or effective) to prevent terrorist entry.

Posted by: Bill | Dec 17, 2004 3:01:53 PM


Posted by: bakho

There are a very large percentage of tech companies in Silicon Valley that were founded by Asians (mostly Indian and Chinese). They have contributed greatly. But let's face reality. Getting a PhD at an American University pays great dividends for Asian students. It opens doors for them. Many American students can make more money with a BA in marketing selling dish soap. PhDs lose at least 5 years of earnings and are not always paid well enough to make up the difference later.

Our system has become dependent on foreign students. By making the USA unfriendly to foreigners, our current policies will do long term damage to the US economy. Australia is making a play to replace the US as an education destination. We have increased competition from foreign Universities. This is a huge issue. Students study what will earn them a living. If we want more students in some disciplines, then we should provide more scholarship money in those areas.

Posted by: bakho | Dec 17, 2004 3:19:05 PM


Posted by: pedro

rtr,

you are erecting a straw man. Nobody here is arguing *against* alternative ways of teaching. There are multiple ways of learning, and there ought to be multiple ways of teaching. It is the triumphalist fantasy of doing away with teachers that sets you up for criticism. The fact that classrooms are becoming unnecessary for learning does not imply that they will become useless. My original point is simply that you cannot hope to capture--in your cyberfantasy--*everything* there is to be captured about classroom experiences, and so it is incredibly bold (to put it mildly) to suggest that teachers can be done away with.

Incidentally, my point is not to rail against the use of technology in or outside of the classroom. I have taught Calculus & Mathematica courses before, and I have used Blackboard to have students communicate (of course, however, mathematics is not easy to type, nor is it easy to *write*). Surely, you don't mean to say that chatroom interactions, etc., are good substitutes for collaborative learning standing up on a blackboard solving problems, being monitored by an expert in real time, do you? As long as there are obvious differences between systems of teaching and learning, and as long as students are diverse in dispositions and attitudes, the free market shall continue to ignore bold assertions as to the eventual triumph of one form of teaching over all others.

Posted by: pedro | Dec 17, 2004 3:26:04 PM


Posted by: Steve Burton

Rob P.-M.: I half agree.

Getting rid of the disruptive students is a necessary condition to improve education.

*It is also a sufficient condition.*

Better qualified teachers are neither of the above.

I mean, heck - my only "qualification" is a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Michigan. But in my current job (tutoring Korean immigrant kids in math) I do just fine, and they can't get enough of me. In the public schools, on the other hand, one rarely even approaches the level where ones competence in the field makes the slightest bit of difference.

Would that it were otherwise.

Posted by: Steve Burton | Dec 17, 2004 4:13:59 PM


Posted by: rtr

My point is that everything and more that there is to be captured about classroom experiences *will* (whether I, you, or anyone wants it to or not) be captured in the “cyber-fantasy” classroom. Pilots right now train in flight simulators. How hard is it to replicate that on-line? Not very. If the topic of this thread was about limit theory rather than “U.S. Education in the World” we would already all be that more informed about limit theory. What? You going to hold out for $500/hour? $50/hour? Minimum wage? I’m sure it was a lot more bold to argue that the sun did not revolve around the earth, to argue that the world was not flat, to argue that man could fly in machines. This is not looking that far around the corner.

It is not just the use of technology, but Yes! there will be better substitutes, much better substitutes to standing up on a blackboard solving problems. How inefficient is that! The exceptional students get it right away and twiddle their thumbs for 20-30mins while the instructor encourages other students. Not to mention this can be psychologically damaging to slower students, even the slower tier of the AP calculus section or the slower tier of the honors advanced calculus section.

You missed my point. I’m arguing far away from a one size fits all triumph of *one* free market “system” of teaching. There will be many. And the competition of the many will make all better.
Video already exists on the internet. Teachers already use and pay incredibly uneconomic costs for History Channel and public broadcast channel educational material. I bet there’s a lot more people who have learned a lot more about history watching the History Channel. That is only one small aspect that will be available on-line for free. Do we need an instructor in the classroom to xerox dollar bills to demonstrate to the class how the government inflates the money supply? I think an on-line cartoon would work just as well.

Of course, there exists a tremendous anti-free trade government intervention in the form of Patents and Copyright, the protection of non-scarce, non-material, non-property *ideas*. But that protection is losing and will lose more as the music industry is learning right now.
Mathematics might not be that easy to type or write right now, but it will get ever easier. I can easily imagine a new "mathematician's keyboard". It will get more fun for those who need it to be more fun. It will speed up to the pace of the fastest and slow to pace of the slowest. There’s no reason to continue holding the children and the taxpayers hostage.

Posted by: rtr | Dec 17, 2004 4:43:58 PM


Posted by: Mike Sierra

I asked whether having an onerous visa system might attract only the most motivated applicants, and Matt replied: "The answer is clearly no, for anyone who has another option- see the post above about more applicants going to universities in Europe or, among Russians at least, Canada.." But that begs the question. Everybody has other options. If they are more likely to go to Canada or wherever, by definition they're less motivated to go to America, whose universities are considered more prestigious, with competition for slots more fierce. While we may lose out on some very smart people indeed, we may wind up with more motivated people, who may even outperform the smart people in the long run. ;-) Not sure what the answer is on this, BTW, but many groups become more excellent the more exclusive they are -- think Navy SEALs.

As for the Cubans, yes, there is no single standard. But I'm with P.J. O'Rourke on this one: I'd stand on the beach and hand out passports to anyone (non-terrorists, please) willing to get to America by rafting through shark-infested waters.

Posted by: Mike Sierra | Dec 17, 2004 5:48:14 PM


Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

Steve, I'm not sure just getting rid of the disruptive students is both a necessary and sufficient condition for effective learning, but I'll grant it goes well on the way. However, I have seen enough incompetent to marginally competent teachers even in our Fairfield County, Connecticut suburban school district, especially in mathematics and science, to be very concerned about the lack of academic competence by teachers. (Which also mirrors my own experience in a suburban California high school in the early 1960s.) While for the very best students, such as you must have been, even abysmal teaching will not stop learning, I will grant. But for students just below that level, the quality of the teaching often matters, IMHO after watching my two daughters go through school here in Greenwich.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 17, 2004 5:52:13 PM


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