Remind us again why government should run all the schools

This story might cause a little pause for thought:

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.

That story’s too good to want to check if it’s actually true or not. But if it is then why would we continue with an education system that has had more than a century to try to get things right but has manifestly failed to do so?

Quite, Gove and others are onto the right sort of policy, freeing the education system as much as possible from that dead hand of said state.

Idiocracy: a review

Last night I watched Mike Judge’s 2006 film Idiocracy. I enjoyed it a lot. It is basically a dystopian science fiction film with an element of (slightly dark) comedy, but it hides its fairly extreme pessimism and conservatism behind a half-hearted satire on modern society.

It imagines what would happen if the less sharp people in society had substantially more kids than the smarter people—and if this trend carried on for centuries. By 2505 the population has an average IQ of something like 60, and society is crude, degenerate and decadent. It limps on only because the last of technological advances went into automating most of the functions needed for basic survival. The personal narrative is that two people, a man and a woman both selected for their extreme averageness in all attributes, get cryonically frozen, wake up in 2505, and are the smartest people in the world. Hijinks ensue.

It’s a fairly enjoyable film on its own merits, but the really interesting question is whether it says anything about the world we live in. While this sort of thing is extremely uncertain and speculative, arguably it does.

Behavioural genetics tells us, as the film suggests, that (variation in) intelligence is 50-90% driven by genes. And the extent to which intelligence is linked to genes increases through life (suggesting the impact of school & upbringing wears off quickly). This is true for any given socioeconomic class (unless they are exposed to lots of lead pollution, malnutrition or similar big negative environmental shocks). This is true across the world.

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Indeed, a large fraction of this seems to come identifiably through specific alleles or single-nucleotide-polymorphisms (chunks of genetic code). We also know that intelligence correlates with brain volume, also genetically-driven. We even know that the way brain volume changes is substantially genetic. By contrast shared environment (includes family upbringing, and under certain conditions also the effect of school) has around zero effect on IQ/intelligence.

And so the question becomes: are sharper people having fewer kids than the less sharp? Evidence seems to say “yes”, for the USA, UKTaiwan, and generally across the world. Though, it certiainly has to be said, that on the models here (estimating a loss of about .8 IQ points per generation, or perhaps 3 per century), it would take substantially longer than 500 years to get to the idiocratic society.

But wait a second—what about the Flynn Effect? Haven’t measured IQs increased massively over the past hundred years? Aren’t we getting smarter? Sadly, the Flynn Effect may not reflect an improvement in intelligence—once you account for the many ways that people have got better at tests, e.g. through learning to guess when they don’t know the answer. In fact, the tests with a lower “g loading”, i.e. the ones less good at accurately reflecting intelligence, are the ones reporting the biggest Flynn Effects.

This shouldn’t be surprising, because random selection into a better school typically has no positive impact on achievement (though it does have strong negative impacts on crime). But even if the Flynn Effect were, say, reflecting greater education making up for lower genetic intelligence, it seems like we’ve pretty much exhausted its benefits—and it is now going into reverse in the Netherlands, the UK, Finland, and elsewhere. And thus even if phenotypic IQ (i.e. as measured by tests), and not genetic IQ, is “what matters”, we can’t hope that extra education will make up for duller genetics in the future.

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And we have independent reasons to think that genetic IQ might be “what matters”. While it is phenotypic IQ that correlates with, e.g. homicides, this relationship is seriously confounded by the fact that medical technology has advanced substantially over the period. Without these advances, homicides would be five times higher (on a static analysis—it’s possible that the extra who would have been killed, but survived, would have themselves committed extra homicides).  And it is genetic IQ that appears to be associated with social advances, innovation, science, technology and so on. Were the Victorians smarter than us? Though the linked paper has been criticised, their response to their critics is persuasive enough that we should take the idea seriously.

If this is all true (and certainly that is itself a contested step) should we be worried? This is the most interesting question for me. Thankfully, there are two families of technologies that I see as potentially solving this problem.

The first is artificial wombs. One of the main causes of reduced fertility among the smart, as documented in Idiocracy’s excellent opening third, is the cost of having children. This cost is not just in terms of feeding, clothing and looking after them, nor even buying more expensive houses to get into better schools, but also in terms of labour market potential—much of the gender wage gap appears when women take time out to have & raise kids, and a large fraction of the rest may come because women expect to take this time out (and thus invest less in human capital). We know that people really do respond to things that make having kids cheaper. Technologies that drastically reduce the cost to smart women of bearing kids could be one way of arresting the alarming trend.

The second is genetic engineering in all its forms. If we can pick embryos, or even engineer people’s DNA, then we could feasibly (after lots more research!) make sure that kids are smart even if their parents are not. While Idiocracy does not mention “my” first solution, it dismisses this one, explaining that the remaining smart people in society spend their precious time perfecting cures for hair loss and impotence.

But I’m much more optimistic than Mike Judge (hopefully rationally!)–I have almost unlimited faith in the ability of human ingenuity to overcome big threats to society. I feel confident we’ll either develop the aforementioned technologies, or in their stead something completely different and entirely unpredictable that solves the issue. And if our best minds do spend their time solving erectile dysfunction—as in Idiocracy—who knows, that might help solve the problem!

This is rather the point of student loans though

Hugh Muir gets all upset about what is happening over student loans. The repayment numbers are sinking through the floor so what's the point of the new system. And furthermore:

There is simple economics here; too many graduates chasing too few jobs in a labour market slimmed down by government austerity measures. Many who have taken out the loans can't find jobs, so they don't pay; but those who do find employment are paid so little in an over-supplied market that they don't reach the threshold at which they have to pay.

All of which is rather missing that this is part of the point of having people paying directly for their university educations.

We want them to think about whether spending three years of their life and also £27,000 is a good thing for them to be doing, And the more people realise that perhaps it isn't then the happier all should be.

Don't forget that the total cost of the system as a whole hasn't changed very much. All that is different is who is getting the sticker shock. And that's actually what we want to be happening: is a university education a good deal for those who go and get one? It's is now those who are thinking about getting one who face the prices: they can thus work out for themselves whether it's a good idea.

The answer is that sciences at a good place definitely are (assuming you finish) and arts and ologies at bad places almost certainly aren't. And the only way that anyone's ever going to be able to make a decision like this is by seeing the costs which they can compare to the benefits.

Which is, of course, why the system was changed in the first place.

Yes Polly, training the untrained is indeed expensive

Polly Toynbee tells of us of a marvellous scheme by which the young and untrained get trained and thus gain decent employment. However, the real message of this story is not quite what Polly thinks it is I fear:

The shadow work and pensions secretary, Rachel Reeves, and Stephen Timms, the shadow employment minister, were in Cardiff this week to study it, as they plan their own similar job guarantee scheme. They visited Sapiens, an international software company that has taken on 12 trainees from Jobs Growth Wales. All these young IT graduates were lost temping in part-time, low-level jobs. One had been stuck working part-time in a bingo hall for a year, others in shops and pubs, each applying for hundreds of jobs without getting interviews: "Everyone wanted people with experience. If you haven't any, you've no hope," said one. The company said it would never have hired these 12 without the programme, because training raw recruits costs so much more than taking on experienced staff. But with Jobs Growth Wales covering six months of intensive training, Sapiens ended up keeping 11 of them permanently.

You can indeed read it the way that Polly does, the Glorious State taking over and making things better where the market simply bumbles ineffectually.

Or one could try to look a little deeper. For example, all of these "young IT graduates" had been in compulsory education for 11 years of their lives, presumably an additional two to get into university and then three once there. So what the hell is our State run education system managing to do over those 16 years if it cannot prepare them for an entry level job opportunity?

The second and more major point is that yes indeed, it does cost money to train people. And the cost of that training can indeed mean that people would prefer to hire the already trained. Which is why it is so stupid to put a minimum price on untrained labour. For that pushes the total costs of untrained labour, wages and training costs, above the costs of hiring someone who already has their act together.

That is, a minimum wage will, if it is high enough to actually matter at all, will by definition be crippling to the employment prospects of the young and untrained.

As Britmouse so graphically points out here.

Perhaps instead of adding another layer of State interference we sould undo the cause of the original problem?

Edapt in Education

Michael Gove’s battle against  “the blob” rumbles on. Not only is he in the firing line over Ofsted appointments, but the NUT is set to announce the date for more teaching strikes on Friday. Cue the cheers of solidarity from some sources, and lofty dismissals of leftist militarism from others.

Though the saint-sinner dichotomy makes for easy reporting, the real relationship between teachers, politics and the unions is more interesting. Despite falling membership across other sectors, teaching remains a highly unionized profession. Teachers also report high levels of satisfaction with their union experience. Despite this, turnout for voting on industrial action is often low, and 44% teachers told a LKMco study that the right to strike isn’t important to them.

Instead, the most frequently-given reason by teachers for union membership is access to legal advice and support. With 1 in 4 teachers experiencing a false allegation at some point in their career, the expertise and advice a union offers in times of dispute is also cited as the most valuable service they provide.

Given the structure of employment law and the difficult nature of dealing with children, it is no wonder that teachers value this support. However, there’s no reason why affordable expert advice should have to be bundled with a political agenda. Indeed, a quarter of teachers said that they’d rather not belong to a union if a good alternative existed. At a CMRE seminar last week John Roberts outlined the model of his company Edapt, a for-profit, teaching union alternative established in 2011. Edapt offers the legal advice and representation teachers seek, without engagement in political bargaining and lobbying. Instead of trading blows with governments they can focus on delivering quality employment support to their members. Many members approached Edpat with a pre-existing issue and unsatisfied with their union’s response, whilst Roberts boasts of Edapt’s 99% satisfaction rate.

Obvioulsly, this model would not be for everyone. Many teachers still consider collective bargaining an essential tool, and Edapt is small fry compared to the unions. Not all teachers are comfortable playing politics, however, and inter-union competition for members can encourage more politically aggressive strategies. Recent strikes have polarised teachers, with Edapt growing most quickly around times of industrial action. Further strike action could lead to another surge of teachers uncomfortable or simply exasperated with their union’s actions.

No matter what causes people to join Edapt, political neutrality is crucial for its long-term success. It’s ironic that eschewing sector politics can look ideological, but a ‘non-union’ is easily seen as an ‘anti-union’. Gove might have made this mistake himself in inviting Edapt to reform discussions last year. And, tellingly, his endorsement of the Edapt as a ‘wonderful organization’ actively lost them members.

Time will tell just how successful union alternatives can be. If Edapt can prove that it isn’t ideologically driven and its focus is right, the model might have relevance in other sectors and across countries. With only 25% UK workforce unionised, there might be scope to offer services to people who wouldn’t have considered joining a union. Either way, with 48 hours of tube strikes starting tonight, I bet TfL wishes that there were more union alternatives within public transport.

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