Creative Destruction

July 9, 2006

The Slow, Steady Collapse of American Preeminence

Filed under: Education,Popular Culture — Brutus @ 2:26 pm

We’ve all see the reports. U.S. high schoolers rank at or near the bottom in math and science. Admittedly, that link is to a story eight years old, but I doubt rankings have changed significantly. A new study and report are due out next year. See this link.

What interests me is that we live in an era of unprecedented technological advancement. While the U.S. may still be in the vanguard, I wonder how long that can last when the source of inspiration and creativity — human knowledge and understanding — is dying at the roots in American schools. It’s a sad joke, really, that follow-the-directions instructions for setting the clock on a VCR (remember those?) proved so formidable for most end users that a time-setting function is built into more recent recording systems such as TIVO. Technical workarounds may actually enable ever-increasing levels of disability working with our own tools. Software design takes a similar approach by removing as much need for user thought as possible. Templates and wizards take expertise out of the use of much software.

So if the U.S. is to participate in technological change proceeding at an exponentially accelerating rate, where is the expertise going to come from? Right now, from abroad. We still have robust immigration into the U.S., and they’re not all migrant farm workers from Mexico. Many of them are scientists from India and China. In patent practice, literally the leading edge of innovation, there are three distinct players: inventors, patent attorneys, and patent examiners. Browsing recent filings and recently issued patents reveals a significant number of foreigners responsible for inventing and examining. Only the attorney ranks are mostly Americans, which is a result of the U.S. Patent Office inexplicably making it difficult for foreigners to be admitted to practice in the U.S. Patent Office. For now at least, the U.S. remains a beacon, attracting many of the best and brightest, who believe they can attain a better quality of life (difficult to assess) here than where they came from. But that’s changing, too. The emergence of a sizeable middle class in India and China points to a decreasing imperative for the science elite to come to the U.S., the so-called “brain drain” that also characterizes rural relocation to cities and flight from Indiana.

What will stem our slide toward a reversal of American preeminence in the sciences? Recognizing the cause of the effect would be a good start. Currently, a starting teacher’s salary in the Chicago Public Schools is $36,956 with a Bachelor’s, $39,516 with a Master’s, slightly higher than the average for the ten largest urban districts. Maximum salary is $67,706. Those pay rates indicate how we as a society value the preparation of our young for entry into adulthood. To those with a combination of scientific expertise and communication skills, which is a more significant skill set than the typical nerdy engineer or chemist, pay rates for teachers are a significant disincentive. Further, students mostly regard their teachers in any discipline as chumps, and of course that old saw “those who can’t, teach” relegates teachers to a prestige ghetto.

Two other factors contribute: distractions of entertainment and cultural decadence. Plenty of diatribes have been written about how entertainments attract a disproportionate amount of our attention. Whether it be TV, sports, movies, video games, books, or music, Americans spend a huge amount of time and dollars preoccupied by entertainments. Even worse, those embodiments that are the most popular are also the ones that require the least mental activity, understanding, and taste. It’s obvious that most of us identify better with Everybody Loves Raymond than Masterpiece Theater, Steven King rather than William Styron, or Britney Spears rather than the Juilliard Quartet, but I for one don’t consider matters of culture and taste even remotely equivalent, especially when a popular form — by definition low culture — completely masks an art form. By way of another example, most Americans just love to see shit blown up, not so different from our collective fascination with Fourth of July fireworks. But the time, patience, and understanding it takes to see how something is built can’t compete with the immediate gratification of demolition. Writ large, we may be well entertained (I dispute that, actually), but we’re losing our ability by attrition to function well in a technological world.

A culture of decadence is not specific to the U.S., but it’s especially prominent here. In the last 150 years, we’ve worked damn hard to raise our standard of living, and for those of us fortunate enough to benefit from that rising tide (not all Americans by any stretch), it’s become easy to rest on our laurels, or rather, those of our parents and grandparents. Unlike India and China, we’re no longer fighting and clawing to reach the brass ring; we’ve already grasped it. Our perspective now is that we must remain on top of the heap, among the biggest consumers of resources per capita (see this and this and this). But we’re not doing this by continuing to strive, or at least strive effectively. See this evidence of student apathy toward their studies, which we as a culture either allow from inattention or encourage as students are regarded as mere consumers. Rather, we try to stay at the top through politcal and economic oppresion that no one wants to acknowledge, and we often couch it in terms of charity. The argument usually goes that without those manufacturing jobs we outsource to Third World countries that pay below subsistence level, those poor souls would be starving. Meanwhile, we love our low WalMart prices gained off of exploitation of economically disempowered peoples.

Is if fixable? Hard to say. Like global warming, it will have to get very bad before we will believe that any action must be taken, by which time, of course, it will be too late.

15 Comments »

  1. Brutus, I really think it’s too late for the collapse to be stopped. For too long have we allowed our educational system to decline. Not only decline in absolute value in society (Such as the teacher median pay you cited.), but within the culture of the student bodies of the country. Certainly, there are success stories out there to be found. Yet, more often than not, those are gained despite the system rather than because of it.

    Or perhaps I’m just drunk and depressed, which tends to bring my intrinsic pessimism to the fore… It’s a possibility, but I doubt it.

    Comment by Off Colfax — July 11, 2006 @ 1:15 am | Reply

  2. Re: the education is dooooomed part of this:

    Piffle.

    I’ve come to the conclusion – based on empirical primary data, personally collected – that there are two, and only two, functional pedagogical modes.

    One is autodidacticism – the ability to read and interrogate other information sources, to collect primary data, and to reach conclusions which leave you in a more educated state than you were when you began the process. Learning on your own, in less fancy language.

    The other is mentoring – the ability to directly interface with a person who knows a lot more than you do, and be tutored in wisdom by them. Being taught, in less fancy language – but one on one. At most, sharing an instructor with one or two other students of similar abilities and inclinations.

    Instruction of large groups, in my experience, does not have a pedagogical function. School facilities and their administrators have some indirect pedagogical function: they support and provide resources for autodidacticism. Librarians help people learn, as do libraries and (for many subjects) equipment.

    But “teachers”, in the sense of people who stand in front of 30 people, read to them, and so forth, serve no pedagogical role. Nobody learns anything from that. Anybody who appears to be picking up something from it has either learned to learn on their own, and is simply marking time in the classroom in between learning whatever they feel like learning that day, or has (sneakily) formed a mentoring bond with the teacher and is “unfairly” being taught directly by them, sometimes to the detriment of the teacher’s other (largely unimportant) duties.

    Teachers as individuals may be doing some or a lot of good to their students – by stimulating self-learning or blowing off a lot of value-destroying activities in favor of brief time-shared mentoring with individual students.

    Unfortunately, the market cannot see the value added by those activities. They don’t really show up, other than in the aggregate, in things like test scores. The market is in most places prohibited from using that information; information the market cannot use either reroutes or disappears. In this case, some of the information is rerouted – many teachers who really are good at actual teaching migrate slowly into better and more high-paying school districts, or go to private schools where test scores do mean something.

    But in the public schools, this information is often lost or distorted. So teachers get paid what at the level that the market values the services they perform which it can access and use: the babysitting and order-keeping function, and the ability to plod meaninglessly through whatever curriculum the district is attempting to use in place of education. Those functions aren’t worthless but they aren’t highly valued; the market sets teacher salaries accordingly.

    That doesn’t affect education much, though, because it doesn’t have much to do with education. Education is happening in the children, where they want it to happen and where there are sufficient resources to make it possible. (Which is most places.)

    So the level of education we have is whatever level of education we want – it’s entirely up to us to decide what that is. What we pay the schoolteachers has pretty much zero bearing on the question.

    If you want to dramatically improve educational outcomes – in real terms – then simply mentor as many little ones as you can. What should you teach them? Two things – autodidacticism, and a love of learning for its own sake. Then stand back.

    That’s pretty much the only way, in my experience.

    Comment by Robert — July 11, 2006 @ 2:38 am | Reply

  3. Off Colfax:

    Brutus, I really think it’s too late for the collapse to be stopped. For too long have we allowed our educational system to decline.

    While I think the trend could be reversed, I’m in agreement with you that it probably won’t. A similar fatalism informs my thinking about the eventual triumph of Islam over Christianity. That will eventually be a simple product of demographic change, as opposed to strength of reason or intrinsic superiority (which Christianity can hardly lay claim to anyway).

    Comment by Brutus — July 11, 2006 @ 2:13 pm | Reply

  4. Robert:

    I’ve come to the conclusion … that there are two, and only two, functional pedagogical modes. One is autodidacticism … The other is mentoring

    It sounds like you’re describing home schooling, which is a legitimate and in many ways superior means of educating our young. However, it doesn’t really work for the masses as it’s predicated on the skills and availability a qualified adult guide/mentor for each student, or at least every few students. The modern style of schoolroom education addresses the needs of the masses. It’s met with significant success over time both here and abroad, but here at least it’s on the wane. We don’t have a suitable replacement just yet.

    [Teacher salary] doesn’t affect education much, though, because it doesn’t have much to do with education. Education is happening in the children, where they want it to happen and where there are sufficient resources to make it possible. (Which is most places.)

    So the level of education we have is whatever level of education we want — it’s entirely up to us to decide what that is. What we pay the schoolteachers has pretty much zero bearing on the question.

    As education is currently constituted, I tend to agree that teaching and the real activity of learning and getting educated may not be the same things. But that’s a gross simplification. As a measure of their value to society, I still think that educators/teachers need to be better valued to attract highly skilled individuals to the field. The immediate value of a regional sales manager who moves millions of dollars of merchandise is obvious. The deferred value of a teacher who assists in the process of educating the young is less obvious but in many ways more significant.

    Comment by Brutus — July 11, 2006 @ 2:28 pm | Reply

  5. If you want teachers to be more highly valued, then you have to give the market access to the information that best describes teacher competence: test scores.

    Comment by Robert — July 11, 2006 @ 2:37 pm | Reply

  6. The article you linked to was based mostly on TIMMS. One thing to keep in mind is that TIMMS tells us nothing about any so-called decline in US education, since it doesn’t compare present US students to past US students. As for entertainment, it seems to me that many entertainments that kids are playing today – such as blogs, vlogs, and playstations – require considerably more intellectual engagement and participation than most of the older entertainment forms.

    Here’s some more info from TIMMS, which I thought was interesting:

    In conversations with Dr. Senta Raizen of NCISE, who is one of the authors of the data analysis team for the TIMSS project, several important points came up that are not fully emphasized in the study reports. The major characteristic of the U.S. curricula is that they cover a very large number of topics and are primarily focused on vocabulary. Current U.S. students have been exposed to a very large number of topics, but do not have experience in depth on many. The various measures of student interest seem to continually drop with grade level in the U.S. Many other countries exhibit an increase in interest in science around the eighth grade where students go into some depth with various subjects. In the U.S. there is a more or less steady decrease in interest as the number of topics covered continues to increase.

    [Note from Amp: It’s worth noting that TIMMS shows that US students do okay compared to students from other countries through the eighth grade.]

    A second surprising difficulty with the study was that the TIMSS researchers from the U.S. had very serious difficulties finding enough students who were taking physics and advanced mathematics in 12th grade so that the sample size of the US students would be comparable to that of other countries. Most other countries were able to find adequate numbers of large enough classes to make up the required sample sizes in physics and advanced mathematics because the fraction of their students taking these subjects were larger than in U.S. schools.

    The comparison between the eighth grade classrooms in Japan, Germany, and the U.S. also showed that the types of questions and concern that is present in US classrooms are much more fact related and only involve very simple conceptual processes. The classrooms in Japan and Germany seem to provide students with greater understanding of processes and applications of mathematics than is present in this country.

    There is one revealing anomaly among the U.S. schools involved in the TIMSS examinations. It has been reported that the “First in The World Consortium” of schools did perform better than the world average. This group of quality schools have very strong preparation in Junior High, requires all teachers in high school to have a major or minor in the subjects which they teach, and provides significant training for all teachers. Seventy percent of the students in these schools are in advanced mathematics programs. Also large numbers of students take physics. The web page for this consortium is (http://www.ncrel.org/fitw), but at the time this newsletter went to press the confirming data was not on these web pages.

    Comment by Ampersand — July 11, 2006 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

  7. Ampersand:

    The article you linked to was based mostly on TIMMS. One thing to keep in mind is that TIMMS tells us nothing about any so-called decline in US education, since it doesn’t compare present US students to past US students.

    The thrust of my post wasn’t U.S. kids to previous U.S. kids but U.S. kids to foreign ones. Besides, if you want or need evidence of declining acheivement among U.S. kids, I’m sure that support won’t be difficult to locate.

    As for entertainment, it seems to me that many entertainments that kids are playing today — such as blogs, vlogs, and playstations — require considerably more intellectual engagement and participation than most of the older entertainment forms.

    We’ll probably have to agree to disagree on this point. Most of the kids I teach don’t yet know what a blog is. And I’ve already posted elsewhere about the effects of pictorial content vs. that of language. Those arguments would be another long post, so I’ll defer in this comment.

    Comment by Brutus — July 12, 2006 @ 12:11 am | Reply

  8. Robert:

    If you want teachers to be more highly valued, then you have to give the market access to the information that best describes teacher competence: test scores.

    There is a great deal of suspicion that test scores don’t always correlate well (though they frequently do) to student acheivement, much less teacher competence. I share that suspicion. My own approach as a student was/is that I’d never let grade grubbing get in the way of learning. We’re all familiar, too, with the example of the high grade earners/test scorers who assiduously learn or remember nothing.

    Comment by Brutus — July 12, 2006 @ 12:15 am | Reply

  9. Sure. But that’s the best information we have available.

    I disagree that high grade earners/test scorers have learned nothing. They’ve learned how to do well on tests. That’s not a worthless skill.

    Comment by Robert — July 12, 2006 @ 1:02 am | Reply

  10. Brutus:

    Besides, if you want or need evidence of declining acheivement among U.S. kids, I’m sure that support won’t be difficult to locate.

    I’ve looked into this question a fair amount, and the evidence that exists seems to be either very poor quality evidence (i.e., not controlling for differences in which populations got to go to high school 50 years ago compared to now), or to indicate that kids today are just about as smart as their counterparts in earlier generations.

    What does seem to be true is that every generation of adults seems convinced that learning is in decline among the young folks.

    I don’t recall what age and economic class of kids you teach. But if they’re more-or-less representative of middle class American teens, I find it hard to believe that none of them have heard of blogs (although they may know of them under another name, like myspace or livejournal).

    Comment by Ampersand — July 12, 2006 @ 1:24 pm | Reply

  11. They’ve learned how to do well on tests. That’s not a worthless skill.

    I’m not sure they always have – one of the complaints my teacher friends have is that they are totally “teaching to the test,” because that’s all they have time for if they want to get the scores up. It may be the kids are not “learning how to learn” – they’re just learning to retain the constantly repeated info long enough to pass the tests.

    I never learned much from the lecture mode as a child – I am not an audial learner and to this day learn considerably better from print, although taking notes does make lectures more useful. And I always rather resented school for cutting into my reading and writing time. For that and other reasons, we homeschool. I think some people do learn the way public schools teach, but I suspect the best teachers work more as inspiration than anything. Enthusiasm for learning is catching.

    I think the public school style serves about a third of the population very well, and perhaps another third can work around it, but there are a fair percentage of students who just don’t learn that way. Homeschools range from the “public school at home” version to classical learning (just as structured as the public school method but founded on a different pedagogical theory) to Charlotte Mason to Unit Study to radical unschooling (“child-led learning”). Your average homeschooler isn’t going to waste years on a system that doesn’t work for their kid, because your average homeschooler has too much else to do!

    I’m a big fan of a voucher system to replace the public school one – I think if parents and students had more input into what kind of school the kids went to, and if there were more variety in types of schools (there are private schools imitating all the homeschooling systems – including radical unschooling!), we’d waste less time and our kids would get a better education.

    But then, I’ve always thought it strange that the US was founded on freedom and known for inventions and technological progress, yet we incarcerate nearly all our kids in conformist hell for 12-13 years….

    Comment by shiloh — July 12, 2006 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

  12. QUANTITY OF EDUCATION ISN’T A PROBLEM.

    Just to make the point clear, the issue is quality and not quantity. The United States is, by far, the most educated country in the world. It has more high school graduates per capita, and more college graduates per capita, than anyplace else in the world.

    In fact, newly industrialized countries, like South Korea, are actually in the midst of actively discouraging people from going to college, because it has gotten such a reputation as a way to move up the socioeconomic ladder, that far more students with poor academic credentials are applying now than they did before.

    The problem is that the degree doesn’t mean as much as it did fifty years ago. We are making real progress. More people know more stuff, but the number of people who know more stuff is growing much more slowly than the number of people who have degrees.

    THE SCORES SUCK TO EVALUATE TEACHERS IF USED INCORRECTLY.

    On the other hand, test scores, used in the manner that they usually are (i.e. high insitutional scores good, low institutional scores bad) are a miserable way to grade teachers. At an institutional level, test scores are overwhelmingly garbage in, garbage out. For example, in Colorado, on the CSAPs, this trend holds true for probably 95% of school districts. There are some outliers, a district or two in Pueblo, a one room school here or there, most notable among them for producing high test scores despite having lots of kids in poverty, but holy grail of reproducing those outliers has proven to be virtually impossible on any sustained basis.

    This doesn’t mean all teachers are created equal. Some are better than others. But, it gets buried by the differences between students unless you control for it. You need to either do value added assessments (pre-tests and post-tests), or compare student outcomes to some sort of predictive model based on socio-economics, special needs/gifted percentages, student stability, and the like, to do a valid evaluation of the teachers with standardized tests.

    A friend of mine teaches in a North Denver school in the DPS system. His 7th grade students overwhelmingly come to him reading at about the 3rd grade level. If he gets them to the 6th grade level by the time they start the 8th grade, he’s doing a heroic job. But, if you look at absolute numbers, every single one of them is rated as not proficient on the CSAPs, his school risks being shut down for being a “failing school.”

    In contrast, if teach 7th graders in the suburban Cherry Creek School District and your students start the year reading at the 9th level, and your teaching is so awful that the kids are reading at the 8th grade level when they leave, looking at absolute numbers, every kid gets an advanced on the CSAPs anyway, and the school gets rated as an “excellent school.”

    Comment by ohwilleke — July 13, 2006 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  13. ohwilleke says:

    Just to make the point clear, the issue is quality and not quantity. The United States is, by far, the most educated country in the world. It has more high school graduates per capita, and more college graduates per capita, than anyplace else in the world …

    The problem is that the degree doesn’t mean as much as it did fifty years ago. We are making real progress. More people know more stuff, but the number of people who know more stuff is growing much more slowly than the number of people who have degrees.

    This makes good sense to me except the remark that we’re making progress. Perhaps there is a “not” missing in that sentence.

    With respect to what and how much we now know, the information explosion and communications revolution have made it possible to know a very great amount. But the capacity of the mind/brain/memory isn’t the best measure of value if it’s filled with junk, as I believe it is with many people. Moreover, many folks these days opt for technical educations that enable them in careers but largely ignore the liberal arts that enable a life. Others may disagree, but without a humanist orientation, professionals risk becoming automatons, mostly deaf to tradition but attuned slavishly to technique.

    Comment by Brutus — July 14, 2006 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

  14. This seems like an important point, least in my experience, and especially at the college level:

    “More students are working more hours than ever [in jobs], and as far as I know there are still only 24 hours in a day — though a lot of students try to stretch that,” Mr. Mortenson said.

    For instance, Lisa Marie Webb, a freshman at Utah, said she spends more time at her off-campus job as a clerk at ShopKo, where she works about 35 hours a week, than she does on homework, and that she needs the money to pay the bills. She does much of her reading for classes on the bus shuttling between home, school, and work.”

    I’m not sure we’re “resting” on our grandparents and parents laurels, so much as running in place and falling behind. Increased work at all class levels also has an effect on the entertainment question–perhaps we’re drawn more to individual pursuits than group conversations, entertaining etc. I know this would have an impact on my learning; I learned how to learn becuase smart adults around me valued my ability to say intelligent things to them over dinner.

    Comment by curiousgyrl — July 15, 2006 @ 2:50 pm | Reply

  15. The issues you lament aren’t going to be fixed. Because they don’t need to be. Automation is a rising tide and the population simply isn’t needed to maintain the US empire. The wealth, power, and military capability concentrated within the small, US ruling-class ensures that this small group of people can dominate world markets, international governments, and geo-politics for the next few centuries to come. And they don’t need a ‘strong’ economy – the US GDP has done nothing but rise, right along with only the wealth of the elites – because it is they who run the economy; it isn’t manufacturing or commodities, it is financial, all of it. That old industrial giant, GE? Their biggest revenue source is financial trading. So as long as we’re too dumb to revolt, than the ruling class doesn’t have to crack-down, or dispose of anyone. There is no longer a reason to educate the masses, because the empire doesn’t need us.

    Comment by beenculverted — July 3, 2016 @ 6:55 pm | Reply


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