Engineers' Dreams

Tough Choices, Tough Times
I read the executive summary. Sometimes I skipped a bit, as my eyes glazed over.

Consider four categories of sentences in this document:
1. Assertions as to fact
2. Value judgments
3. Inferences (from 1, 2, or 1 and 2)
4. Recommendations.

I agree with some of the assertions as to fact and disagree with others. For example, the authors note the role which expanded opportunities for intelligent women in the civilian employment market played in the decline of talent in the teacher workforce. I agree. They assert that expanded opportunities for minorities played a similar role. This I doubt: the government school school system discriminated against minorities not (as with women) in favor of them.

The authors implicitly equate "education" and schooling. Not ("education" = "schooling"). The authors contend that "education" (by which they mean "schooling") contributes to GDP growth. Not so much. Clear title and contract law, transparent and honest bureaucracy, and simple taxation at low rates contribute far more to GDP growth than does the number of PhDs in Women's Studies and Political Science per 100,000 of population.

The contention that low-skilled jobs will move overseas does not reflect reality. Most of the world's work is grunt-work, and most of this work cannot be done through the internet. Just try have your car washed by someone in Chengdu. The waitress in the Cascade Lodge, in Lutsen, Minnesota cannot do her job from Bombay.

I (mostly) agree with the (largely implicit) value judgments, although once you make them explicit, the problems become clear. Literacy enhances quality of life and productivity. Okay, but are there not decreasing marginal returns to investment in literacy? Where are they, for any particular individual? Can some State bureaucracy determine this any better than can the individual himself?

Make the same objection to mathematical skill, or any particular vocational skill.

The recommendations really raised my hackles. Freeman Dyson called this sort of grand planning "engineers' dreams". The authors recommend a vast expansion of State-supervised formal education at the expense of informal education and training which employers and others undertake on their own.
Step 1
Our first step is creating a set of Board Examinations. States will have their own Board Examinations, and some national and even international organizations will offer their own...A Board Exam is an exam in a set of core subjects that is based on a syllabus provided by the Board....The standards will be set at the expectations incorporated in the exams given by the countries that do the best job educating their students.
Will they now? The authors do not describe the politics which the determination of which countries "do the best job educating their students" will entail.
Students who score well enough will be guaranteed the right to go to their community college to begin a program leading to a two year technical degree or a two-year program designed to enable the student to transfer later into a four-year state college.
So success in school qualifies students for more school? Do the authors aticipate that any students will ever want to exit this treadmill?
Step 4:
Develop standards, assessments, and curriculum that reflect today’s needs and tomorrow’s requirements...
Government direction of investment used to go by the name "industrial policy". It failed. State planners could do no better than non-State actors in anticipating future demands for goods and services. Why expect that investment in human capital differs?
Step 5:
Create high performance schools and districts everywhere — how the system should be governed, financed, organized, and managed...
While you're at it, why not give every commuter a car with a 100 mpg carburetor, every child a flying pony, and your local power company a clean fusion reactor?
The schools would be funded directly by the state, according to a pupil-weighting formula as described below.
Bureaucrats have no clear way to assign weights to various conditions. What weight will they assign to a student who reached age 7 speaking Cantonese or Tamil? Is this a disability? People in China and India do not think so. Plato was not LD.
Provide high-quality, universal early childhood education For decades, researchers have almost universally concluded that high-quality early childhood education is one of the best investments a nation can make in its young people.
Early institutionalized childhood education does more harm than good. Studies which find a benefit from "high-quality daycare" compare the performance of children of deficient parents who receive high-quality care to the performance of children of deficient parents who do not. This result DOES NOT generalize to the population at large. By analogy: locate 500 people stranded in the Sahara, without foor or water. Divide this population into two groups, Treatment and Control. To people in group T we will give polluted water, spoiled vegetables, and rotten meat. People in group C get nothing. Assess longevity, post-treatment, of both groups. If people in group T live longer, on average, than people in group C, can we assert that polluted water, spoiled vegetables, and rotten meat will enhance the lifespan of people with access to a normal food supply? Advocates for early childcare say "yes". They lie.
Step 7:
Give strong support to the students who need it the most. The Commission’s proposals, taken together, should transform the prospects of disadvantaged
children. The proposal to abandon local funding of schools in favor of state funding using a uniform pupil-weighting funding formula, combined with the addition of $19 billion to the system as a whole, will make it possible, for the first time in the history of the United States, to have an equitable means of funding our schools, while at the same time leveling up the funding of the system as a whole, so that relatively well-to-do districts will not have the incentive to defeat the system that they would have if the existing funds were simply redistributed.
1. Define "need".
2. What "incentive to defeat the system" do "relatively well-to-do districts" have in the current system?

No comments: