The Tyranny of Meritocracy

I thought this Megan McArdle essay was well worth a read. As a bonus, her post attracted a range of stimulating comments — see example below. The over-credentialing that has developed in the US due to the surplus of over-educated but under-skilled graduates has produced personal tragedies. Such as the student loans that are going into default because the “graduate” cannot earn enough to repay the loan. A few of this cohort (who seem to have given up job hunting) are among the OWS crowd (occupy wall street).

I don’t care about income inequality. I care about the absolute condition of the poor–whether they are hungry, cold, and sick. But I do not care about the gap between their incomes, and those of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Nor the ratio of Gates and Buffett’s incomes to mine. And I’m not sure why anyone should. Other than pure envy, it’s hard to see how I could somehow be made worse off if Bill Gates’ income suddenly doubled, but everything else remained the same.

But while I do not care about gaps and ratios, I do care about opportunity.


There are a number of informed comments on company recruiting pipelines based upon intensive testing (think Google). On credentialing, I liked this comment by “johnson85emphasis mine.

That’s still better assuming they are being tested for actual skills. Much better to be forced to learn actual skills or knowledge to satisfy some credentialing function than to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on schools.

The other advantage is resetting the arms race. Right now, with a few exceptions, even smart people are stuck with at least three years of college, even if they have the capacity to learn all of it in one year, because the classes only advance so quickly. With test based credentialism, there’s no reason to increase the number of years you spend in school, just increase the number of tests you take, which hopefully will involve learning some skills, or if not, gaining some useful knowledge.  

Much better than what we have now, and to some extent reduces the problem that our current credentialism selects in part for the ability to waste four or more years in school without an real job (which is largely correlated to socioeconomic status).

Stanford offers ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ free online to anyone

Many thanks to Alex Tabarrok for the heads-up on Stanford’s online offering. I hope this free course will be a prototype for many more of the same caliber. Though I’ll be traveling during the course period I’m very tempted to sign up just so I can monitor the effectiveness of the course. I’m keen to evaluate the courseware. As I’ve written in previous posts, I think the future of education has to move towards connecting the star teachers with large numbers of students – such as in South Korea where the leading free-market tutor made $4 million lecturing to some 50,000 students.

You can’t get much more high profile than co-teaching by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Whether either is a star teacher I do not know – but they are superstar researchers.

Here’s Alex’s commentary:

From Metafilter:

Stanford’s ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ course will be offered free to anyone online this fall. The course will be taught by SebastianThrun (Stanford) and PeterNorvig (Google, Director of Research), who expect to deal with the historically large course size using tools like Google Moderator.

There will two 75 min lectures per week, weekly graded homework assignments and quizzes, and the course is expected to require roughly 10 hours per week. Over 10,000 students have already signed up.

In 2003, I argued that professors were becoming obsolete, giving a 10 to 20 year time for a big move to online education. Later, I pointed out that the market was moving towards superstar teachers, who teach hundreds at a time or even thousands online. Today, we have the Khan Academy, a huge increase in online education, electronic textbooks and peer grading systems and highly successful superstar teachers with Michael Sandel and his popular course Justice, serving as example number one.

One of the last remaining items holding back online education is a credible system to credential and compare student achievement across universities. Arnold Kling has that covered with a new business model.

For superstars and strong researchers, life in the ivory tower remains good. But for most teachers the cushy life is gone; tenure is just a dream for a majority of university teachers, salaries are low and teaching requirements have risen.

As in other fields what we are seeing is an increase in teaching inequality, at the top are high-salary superstars surrounded by apprentices who work long hours at low pay for a lottery ticket that for most will not payoff and at the bottom are lots of mid-skill adjuncts who do the drudge work of teaching remedial English and math.

Addendum: Tim Worstall points to the UK’s University of London as a model for the future.

[From The Coming Education Revolution]

How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education

Salman Khan is changing education in a very big way for “just one guy” — because he has really good ideas. This excellent Wired article concludes with this excerpt:

…For his part, Khan says he’s now considering starting his own private school, as a way to see just how much you could wrap learning around Khan Academy. His ideas are intriguing: Among other things, his school wouldn’t divide kids by age; teenagers would mix in with kindergartners. “I have no research to back this up,” he says, “but younger kids act more mature around older kids, and older kids act more mature around younger kids.” If the classrooms were fully flipped, students could spend more of the school day doing creative activities. He’d use board games to teach negotiation, and he’d teach history backward. (“Why are the Israelis and Palestinians pissed at each other? Let’s go back a couple of years. Wait—they were pissed at each other even then! So you go back even further …”) He also thinks he’d teach kids subjects that have more real-world applicability—like “statistics, law, accounting, and finance. Why are you teaching people civics? Teach them law. That’s more relevant, and you learn civics at the same time.” He calculates that it would cost only $10,000 per child, “affordable for professional couples out here.”

If Khan does start such a school, he’ll have a powerful advantage. He’s been posting videos online for five years and students have answered more than 50 million questions in his software: Khan and his team are now sitting on a massive pile of data about how people learn and where they get stuck. He plans to mine the information to discover previously invisible patterns. How many times do students need to view the statistics video before they can answer questions about the subject? If you examine all the kids who stumble on, say, fractional division and basic algebra, can you predict what other subjects they’ll have trouble mastering? In the long run, Khan believes, such data mining could help him create customized lessons that are perfectly keyed to each kid’s learning style.

Will the magic still work when Salman has other people generating the video lessons?

School of One: It’s About Differentiation, Not Technology

Bill Tucker has a two-part article up, offering some useful perspectives on this NYC Schools innovation. Example, differentiation is central to the strategy:

…While technology undergirds School of One, the core problem that the program is trying to solve is age-old: how to effectively teach all students, especially when each enters with a variety of different math backgrounds, skill levels, and interests. The solution is differentiation — not only for students, but importantly, also among teaching roles.

During our tour, Chris Rush, the program’s co-founder, emphasized that the key cultural mindset that changes with School of One is not the technology, but the way in which the program thinks about student progress. The approach attempts to meet each student at her current level and create as much growth as possible. For a 7th grader working at a 4th grade level, instruction focuses on 4th grade, attempting to lay the foundation so that as the student progresses, he has the fundamental understanding going forward. It’s a big change for many teachers and parents, since it means that 7th grade students are not necessarily getting 7th grade content. And, while each school determines its own grading scheme, Rush notes that grades reflect progress, not absolute performance: “If they are doing what we put in front of them, they get the grade.”

This progress mindset has important implications for how we judge the performance of both teachers and schools. Rush says that first year proficiency scores are not the correct benchmark, since passing the 7th grade test is not the goal for the student starting at a 4th grade level. Yet, making up ground is essential. So, the approach changes conversations with families. If a student needs to catch up, or is moving more slowly than expected, then teachers can provide options. At Boody, for example, some students have elected to forgo a few of the school’s magnet classes to catch up in math. Others learn during after school programs and some are even coming in before school, during a so-called “period zero,” for additional instruction.

Joel Rose resigns as head of School of One

Rose resigned in March to start up a new non-profit foundation to advance the concepts developed by School of One. Why couldn’t he build the foundation directly in the NYC schools? Andrew Rotherham offers this perspective:

…School of One was developed by New York City but needs to spin out of city government as its own non-profit organization so the idea can be replicated elsewhere. But, as a city employee, Rose cannot negotiate the terms of that spin-off even though he’s the person who should and will run the new non-profit. What’s more, under the city’s conflict of interest rules, he cannot even talk to the city for a year after leaving employment there. That makes sense to prevent undue lobbying, but how could you possibly launch or run a program in the city’s schools without being able to talk to city officials?

The city could set-up a city controlled or “captive” non-profit, but most observers agree that’s not a good idea over the long haul given the politics surrounding school administration. Run it from inside the city’s Department of Education? Public sector bureaucracies and innovative ventures are pretty incompatible today because of a variety of rules and practices around procurement, contracting, and so forth.

Read the whole thing »

Reed Hastings of Netflix at Wired Business Conference

Chris Anderson produced an excellent Reed Hastings interview during the Wired conference.Anderson is good at asking a short question, then getting out of the way. We learned a lot about Netflix strategy and were very pleased that Chris asked Reed the school choice question.

Hastings outlined his view that a key reason charter schools can be so much more effective is the absence of the elected school board. Which is frequently populated by wannabe politicians as the first, temporary step on their way to running for city council, etc. until they land themselves a lifetime seat at the trough. The entire interview is worth watching just for the the education segment.

More from WSJ 2008:

(…) “After Pure Software, I had a bunch of money, and I didn’t really want to buy yachts and such things,” he said. “I wanted to find something important to do. And I started looking at education, trying to figure out why our education is lagging when our technology is increasing at great rates and there’s great innovation in so many other areas — health care, biotech, information technology, movie-making. Why not education?”

Mr. Hastings, who taught high- school math in Swaziland from 1983 to 1986, found a vehicle for innovation in charter schools. Naturally, Mr. Hastings brought an entrepreneur’s sensibility to the endeavor.

“We’re finding out more and more that competitive forces can provide great improvement in services — telephones and airlines being obvious examples,” he said. “Now, those are for-profit sectors, but you can obviously see this in the nonprofit sector as well. There’s not one environmental nonprofit. There are dozens, and they all compete for impact and prestige and donor dollars. And they have different approaches to the problems and that’s healthy.”

Mr. Hastings said K-12 education is “the last big government monopoly in America” and that “charter schools are about breaking up the public monopoly, with all its rules and bureaucracy.” In California, “the rule book for schools is this big,” he said, spreading his hand as wide as a phone book. Charter schools “give teachers a way to form their own public schools, more freedom to express their craft, and make schools voluntary for students. No one is assigned. This sets up a very healthy model that provides for innovation because the innovators, the innovative teachers, are drawn to these schools.”

Hastings is on the board of KIPP Academy, the largest group of high performing charter schools.

How Public Schools Are Drowning State and Local Budgets

This Cato policy forum was very, very informative. Not surprising given the expertise of the discussants:

Patrick Byrne, CEO,, and Chairman, The Foundation for Educational Choice; Kil Huh, Director of Research, Pew Center on the States; and Adam Schaeffer, Policy Analyst, Cato Center for Educational Freedom; moderated by Robert Enlow, President, Foundation for Educational Choice; with introductions by Neal McCluskey, Associate Director, Cato Center for Educational Freedom.

Health care is the budget buster at the federal level, but K-12 education is what’s poised to bankrupt state and local governments. Spending on public education eats up around half of the general budget in most states, and it’s by far the priciest single item. For every dollar raised by state and local governments for Medicaid, three dollars go to K-12 schooling. As a result, combined state budget gaps in the high tens of billions of dollars are predicted through at least 2012.

That’s the immediate problem. Just over the horizon, things look worse. State public-employee pension systems are facing a trillion-dollar shortfall in their commitments, driven in large part by the massive costs of public-school employee benefits.

So exactly how bad is the education spending crisis? Is there anything we can do to avoid huge state and local tax increases or a serious decline in the breadth and quality of educational services?

QuickTimeWatch the Event in QuickTime (M4V)
ipodDownload a Podcast of the Event (MP3)

School vouchers: Texas might give vouchers a chance to save their budget

Though they call it the Taxpayers’ Savings Grant and it looks like the Texas politics just might enable the reform.

(…) it would provide grants of up to $5,143 or the cost of private school tuition, whichever is less, for every Texas child who moved from a public school to a private school. Those eligible would be parents whose children are entering either kindergarten or first grade, and those with kids who have been in public schools for at least one year. The plan has significant support from state legislators and some school principals.

(…) the state would save about $3,429 every time a child is transferred. If, as expected, 350,000 students transfer to private schools, the state would save more than $2 billion over the next two years. Whatever money the state saved would stay with the local schools to help alleviate the cuts they face.

The teachers unions will surely be in favor of this reform.

Teacher unions are howling that the proposal would privatize public education (…)

The size of the voucher looks skinny, probably because the $8572 understates the true per student spend. We highly recommend the Cato seminar on this topic Fiscal Undertow: How Public Schools Are Drowning State and Local Budgets, and What to Do about It. From that seminar you will learn what overall US education spending really is, including an estimate of average per student spending of $14,000 – of which only a small portion is actually going to pay teachers (most of the money feeds the education establishment). The 14k is an average so obviously many districts spend much more. E.g., Washington D.C. admits to spending $28,000 per student. The US average private school spend is about $7,000 and tuition about $5,500 (the shortfall made up by private charities).

Why Do We Want Teachers to Stick Around Forever?

Why would we want a school system where essentially everyone over the age of thirty is a lifer, locked into a single district? It’s bad for labor mobility; it’s bad for the natural cross-fertilization of ideas that helps other professions advance; and it’s not so great for teachers unless they’re so incompetent that they couldn’t get a job anywhere else. The whole system where we get people to work at artificially low pay in the early years, in exchange for an outsized payoff that they can only collect by staying in the same system for most of their life, doesn’t seem destined to promote excellence.

Megan McArdle teases apart the American teacher compensation schemes. As former chancellor Joel Klein discovered in the NYC schools, the incentives for teachers and administrators are bad, very bad.

Highly recommended. And please do not miss the Joel Klein Atlantic essay The Failure of American Schools [June 2010].

Wendy Kopp at the Commonwealth Club

Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America (TFA), lectured 21 April 2011. The video is here, while we got the audio via iTunes subscription. (see also our recent post on Wendy’s lecture at Stanford). If you need some cheering-up regarding education, this is a good place to start. Teach for America is not another “magic bullet” but is a data-driven search for approaches that work.

Near the end of her talk Wendy described the post-Katrina transformation of the New Orleans schools. You probably remember the disaster of the pre-Katrina bankrupt NO public schools. I also recall that New Orleans became a battleground between the education establishment and the charter schools initiative – but I did not know how it worked out. Very briefly, the city decided to close the schools for a year. In reaction the LA state government took over the school district. After drafting rigorous charter criteria, the state opened the district to the formation of charter schools. The non-charter schools have upped their game due to competition from the charters.  [Some 60% of NO students are now in charter schools, Ed]

So overnight NO “moved from the traditional compliance culture to an accountability culture. Second, they put an enormous amount of energy into their human capital.” Roughly, they replicated the TFA model inside the district – e.g., development programs for school principals.

Because TFA teachers have been working in NO for twenty years Wendy knew the dysfunctional system well: “you can’t imagine putting one of your own kids in one of those schools as of five years ago”. Last spring “it was still shocking — spending two days going school to school, realizing you could put your kid into any one of them. The reason is that the district was now populated with entrepreneurial leaders who are on a mission to serve their kids.”

For sure NO is a work in progress – but the transformation is underway. Enjoy Wendy’s talk – there’s much to be learned from the TFA experience. Already the global expansion of TFA-model organizations is feeding new learning back into the parent and through the network of Teach for All (we already have a very small effort here in Australia).