Archive | Education

Most useless college majors

Via Catherynne Valente (novelist – and also the daughter of a political scientist) on teh Twitter, US News and World Report comes up with a new linkbaiting exercise (yes – it worked, sort of), describing “political science and government” as the thirteenth most useless major. Me, if I were trying to categorize the “thirteen most useless professionals in the media industry,” I’d rank the person who did the research for this one, and identified “political scientis” [sic] as the occupation most plausibly related to a political science degree as number 13. Number 12 would be the sub-editor who let the spelling of political scientis slip by. The coveted first to the eleventh most useless professionals slots would, of course, be reserved for individuals associated with the steaming methodological turdfest (I use the term here in its narrow technical sense) that is the US News and World Report annual college survey.

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Education could use some systematic evaluation

David Brooks writes:

There’s an atmosphere of grand fragility hanging over America’s colleges. The grandeur comes from the surging application rates, the international renown, the fancy new dining and athletic facilities. The fragility comes from the fact that colleges are charging more money, but it’s not clear how much actual benefit they are providing. . . .

This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.

One part of the solution is found in three little words: value-added assessments. Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing.

I agree with that last paragraph. Eric Loken and I said as much in the context of statistics teaching, but the principle of measuring outcomes makes sense more generally. (Issues of measurement and evaluation are particularly salient to statisticians, given that we strongly recommend formal quantitative evaluation in fields other than our own.)

I don’t have anything to add on the substance (beyond again expressing my agreement on the desirability of empirical measures of student performance) but I do want to hypothesize on the sources of Brooks’s doomy impressions.

After all, on first impression, top public and private colleges and universities are doing well, and there’s a lot of demand for their services. Just for example, when I was growing up in suburban Maryland, it was my impression that lots of students who were in the middle of the pack academically in high school could graduate and go to the University of Maryland in nearby College Park. In the decades since, the University of Maryland has become more competitive, reflecting the increasing demand (not matched by increasing supply) for high-quality college education.

So why is Brooks so sure that universities are in trouble? Why paint their current success as an “it’s always brightest just before the dark” situation (to borrow the words of Jim Thompson) rather than a more conventional presentation of universities as a shining success?

I see three reasons. I don’t know that any of these are conscious on Brooks’s part, but I suspect they all went into his reasoning.

1. Politics: Brooks is a political conservative. Universities are bastions of liberalism, thus it is pleasant of Brooks to see universities as struggling institutions in need of radical change.

2. Personal experience: Brooks has worked all his adult life at newspapers. Newspapers twenty years ago were where universities are now. Newspapers were making tons of money (from the business press, I recall that “Wall Street” was demanding 15 percent annual returns, and newspapers were delivering), in many cases they were close to local monopolies (consider the Washington Post) and successful both financially and in the sense of doing their job well (delivering lots of news), but there was a sense that this was all going to end. Not too many people were starting new newspapers, which was a bad sign, and many people were (correctly) worried that the social and economic basis for newspapers was disappearing. We no longer need to spend that quarter a day to read Peanuts, Art Buchwald, and the story of the latest Redskins game, and advertisers can reach us from other directions.

In short, Brooks has seen it happen in slow motion right in front of him, so he’s primed to see the same pattern of gradual and then panicked decline elsewhere.

3. Economics: Universities are indeed doing well intellectually and financially, but much of that comes from government support. Consider three leading sectors of the economy in the past twenty years: education, health care, and government (including the military). What do they all have in common? Guaranteed or near-guaranteed flows of tax money.

Just for example, one small contribution to the prominence of Columbia University is my research and this blog. I have time to do all this (rather than, for example, spending 40 hours a week grading papers) partly because I have millions of dollars of government grants. (And the granting agencies give extra funding to the university, so my grants also helps support the work of my Columbia colleagues who are not externally funded.) I think this is a good use of tax dollars—-but of course I’d say that, just as Gen. Ripper supports the use of taxation to pay for expensive bombers. My point here is not to argue the merits of the case, just to point out that much of the financial success of universities relies on public funding for research, student loan guarantees, etc.

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Progress in U.S. education; also, a discussion of what it takes to hit the op-ed pages

Howard Wainer writes:

When we focus only on the differences between groups, we too easily lose track of the big picture. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the current public discussions of the size of the gap in test scores that is observed between racial groups. It has been noted that in New Jersey the gap between the average scores of white and black students on the well-developed scale of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has shrunk by only about 25 percent over the past two decades. The conclusion drawn was that even though the change is in the right direction, it is far too slow.

But focusing on the difference blinds us to what has been a remarkable success in education over the past 20 years. Although the direction and size of student improvements are considered across many subject areas and many age groups, I will describe just one—4th grade mathematics. . . . there have been steep gains for both racial groups over this period (somewhat steeper gains for blacks than for whites). . . . New Jersey’s black students performed as well in 2011 as New Jersey’s white students did in 1992. Given the consequential differences in wealth between these two groups, which has always been inextricably connected with student performance, reaching this mark is an accomplishment worthy of applause, not criticism.

He concludes:

If we couple our concerns about American education and the remarkable success shown in this data, it seems sensible to try to understand what was going on, so that we can do more of it. . . . A little more than 20 years ago, several suits challenging the way that public schools were financed . . . The courts decided that in order for the mandated “equal educational opportunity” to be true, per-pupil expenditures in all school districts should be about equal. In order for that to happen, given the vast differences in the tax base across different communities, the state had to step in and augment the school budgets of poorer districts. The fact that substantially increased funding has accompanied these substantial improvements in student performance must be considered as a prime candidate in any search for cause.

Howard sent this to me and I passed it on to my various contacts in journalism. I didn’t hear back from anyone—-I guess it was deemed not exciting enough to appear in any major newspaper or magazine, so it eventually ended up in “NJ Spotlight.” I like it, but maybe the problem was that it wasn’t topical enough. Maybe Howard should’ve sat on the piece for awhile and saved it to time with some test-scores report? These things come out at regular intervals and are usually good for a headline or too.

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Silly Science: Aquarium Democracy Edition

Whenever I am tempted to despair of political science, I pause to consider what very smart people who can’t be bothered are apt to get up to. Today’s example comes from the august interdisciplinary journal Science, where biologists are busy drawing conclusions about uninformed citizens and democratic consensus from the behavior of golden shiners.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, to its credit, found a couple political scientists, Lynn Vavreck and Larry Sabato, to register demurrals. Science, apparently not.

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How do college graduates and others vote?

Fred Bookstein writes:

You could do a column on the figure on page A14 of today’s NYT national edition, the figure that correlates states’ 2008 Obama % to percentage of bachelor degrees among adults aged at least 25. The correlation is not news, but the graphic is nice, and I hadn’t realized how wide was the range of those state
averages. I’m not your only reader who might be interested in your take on its implications, maybe with a Richard-Florida-like component (where are the creative class migrating from/to, and where might this tip an election?).

I noticed that graph too! I don’t have the energy for a full response, but let me just point out that the relation between education and voting is quite a bit more complicated at the individual level than at the level of state averages. Here’s McCain’s share of the two-party vote in 2008 broken down by education, age, and ethnicity:


The map in today’s Times is pretty but I fear it gives a misleading perspective on education and partisanship.

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Source: Paul Peterson, William Howell and Martin West in Education Next.

The dislike of pie charts is prevalent enough to have its own entry on Wikipedia.  Nevertheless, this graph is still interesting. It shows the views of three subgroups of respondents: the whole (national) sample, the affluent (defined as college graduates who are in the top income decile in their state), and teachers.  Each group assessed the state of their local schools and the nation’s schools via a letter grade. Their assessments mirror the research findings on assessment of members of Congress versus Congress as an institution, known as “Fenno’s paradox.” Just as people consistently disprove of Congress but not of their own elected representative, respondents think the nation’s schools are much worse than their own local schools.

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What’s “the definition of a professional career”?

Last month I expressed disagreement the following statement from New Republic columnist Jonathan Chait, who wrote:

The old liberal slogan always demanded that we “treat teachers like professionals.” That entails some measure of accountability—we can debate the metrics—which allows both that very bad teachers be fired and that very good ones can obtain greater pay and recognition. That’s the definition of a professional career track . . .

I was surprised to find the option of being fired as part of the definition of professionalism, and I conjectured that journalists, who currently have little job security could feel resentful toward teachers and other workers who have the expectation of jobs for life. (As Mark Palko notes, “we’re talking about reneging on assurances of job security that were contractual agreed upon and came after a period of proven performance.”)

In an update (link from Palko), Chait writes:

Being a professional, to most people, means having the opportunity to gain higher pay and recognition with greater success. Such a system also, almost inevitably, entails the possibility of having some consequences for failure. Teaching is very different than most career paths open to college graduates in that it protects its members from firing even in the case of gross incompetence, and it largely denies them the possibility to rise quickly if they demonstrate superior performance.

Obviously the realistic possibility of being fired for gross incompetence would not in and of itself do much to attract more highly qualified teachers, but the opportunity to receive performance-differentiated pay would.

I see Chait’s point but I still don’t see being fired, or pay differentiation, as central to professionalism. Is it really so unprofessional to negotiate a contract in which you have job security? The pattern Chait describing, where you can rise quickly or get fired, seems more like a description of corporate management jobs. I don’t think there’s anything particularly professional about living on the edge. If anything, my impression is that a lot of people go into professional careers specifically because of the job security!

If you think that it would be better for teacher salaries to be more unequal, that’s a position to take—but I don’t think that either salary inequality or lack of protection from firing are at all essential to the idea of a professional career.

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Even the liberal New Republic . . .

Mark Palko catches this one from New Republic columnist Jonathan Chait:

The old liberal slogan always demanded that we “treat teachers like professionals.” That entails some measure of accountability—we can debate the metrics—which allows both that very bad teachers be fired and that very good ones can obtain greater pay and recognition. That’s the definition of a professional career track . . .

As Palko writes, it’s a bit odd that Chait is listing being easy to fire as part of the definition of being a professional. For one thing, many professionals are self-employed, and many others have a pretty narrow salary range. Here’s Wikipedia:

A professional is a member of a vocation founded upon specialized educational training. Examples of professions include: medicine, law, engineering and social work. The word professional traditionally means a person who has obtained a degree in a professional field. The term is used more generally to denote a white collar worker, or a person who performs commercially in a field typically reserved for hobbyists or amateurs. In western nations, such as the United States, the term commonly describes highly educated, mostly salaried workers, who enjoy considerable work autonomy, a comfortable salary, and are commonly engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work. . . . Because of the personal and confidential nature of many professional services and thus the necessity to place a great deal of trust in them, most professionals are held up to strict ethical and moral regulations.

I don’t see anything there about getting fired.

I can understand how Chait, working in an uncertain field such as journalism, can feel some impatience with teachers and other workers who have the expectation of jobs for life. If I had no job security, I might be annoyed with people who expect it in their lives. Maybe it’s a good idea to fire some people—Chait is talking only about the very bad teachers, he’s not recommending that 80% of teachers be fired or anything so extreme as all that. But I don’t think that being vulnerable to being fired is part of “the definition of a professional career track.”

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Do Educated Ethnic Minorities Choose Nonviolent Resistance?

Renat Shaykhutdinov has an interesting piece in the July 2011 issue of the Journal of Peace Education. From the abstract:

ethnic groups that enjoy a higher educational status are less prone to using violent strategies choosing instead peaceful protest. I test this hypothesis using data on 238 ethnic groups in 106 states from 1945 to 2000. The results of the statistical analysis indicate that groups with higher levels of educational attainment are more likely to engage in non-violent protest. Conversely, groups that enjoy lower educational status in their respective societies tend to use violent tactics.

The basic idea here is that ethnic minority groups that have better educational access and privileges than the majority (or “core”) population are more likely to use nonviolent protest to make territorial or group demands. Ethnic minorities that have no significant advantages (or the same educational access and privileges as the majority population) will be a little less likely to use nonviolent resistance, and ethnic minorities with observable disadvantages relative to the majority population should be more likely to adopt violence. You can read the article to see the evidence he brings to bear on this question, his control variables, and the methods he uses.


This is a great, under-explored question with important ramifications for the policy and advocacy communities. In general, we should probably think more about how learning shapes world politics. Moreover, I like Shaykhutdinov’s argument, mostly because I can get behind its policy implications (who is pro-educational-inequality-across-ethnic-groups and would say so in public?). Nevertheless, the article brings to mind a couple of issues for me.

  • What is the causal mechanism here? Shaykhutdinov argues that educational attainment (what he codes as “educational advantage” vs. “no significant educational advantage” vs. “educational disadvantage”) should reduce the propensity to use violence because education instills norms, values, and skills. I’d call this the “violence is for dummies” argument. This argument has some appeal, as well as some empirical support when forecasting where nonviolent uprisings will occur. But we also know that a lot of the most dangerous terrorists or insurgents in the world have been educated elites—including many suicide terrorists. Those who use violence aren’t really dummies. Moreover, if education makes people less violent, then why do highly educated people in many societies commit the worst violence? Seemingly this argument would apply to government officials as well as to ethnic groups. But very highly educated people in the world have been some of the 20th Century’s greatest mass murderers (I’m thinking Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, of which many at the top were educated in France prior to returning to Cambodia and committing one of the world’s worst genocides). So why doesn’t educational attainment make violence go down in those cases too?

  • To me, one of the most important effects he may be picking up is the fact that ethnic groups that enjoy educational “advantages” may simply be “advantaged” in general. Privilege is privilege. I suspect that educational advantages would be highly correlated with business advantages, for example. The problem is that advantage—or status—may be explaining both the educational status of the groups and their adoption of different protest techniques. What I mean is that ethnic groups that enjoy privileges in society may not wish to threaten that privilege by appealing for more rights through violence. People with less privilege, on the other hand, are already starting from a lower point on the social totem pole. They likely already face considerable barriers to social, economic, and political satisfaction, and educational access is simply more of the same. It is precisely these conditions that may explain both their educational disadvantages and the grievances that they use to justify their violence. This is the classic endogeneity problem (and to be fair, there are no easy ways to overcome this problem statistically).

  • Does the type of education matter? Substance of education might be important. For instance, people who have spent their entire lives in parochial schools may have different feelings about nonviolent and violent resistance than people who have spent their entire lives in public schools. People who receive training in civil resistance methods during their education may be more likely to favor these methods over violence (and vice versa!). A potentially more precise (and theoretically defensible) type of education might be whether the ethnic group has had access to training from other civil resistance or civil society organizations on how to launch an effective nonviolent protest, versus contact with violent insurgents on how to train for a violent uprising.

  • Ironically, I think that oppressive regimes would much rather face a violent insurrection than a nonviolent one. Check out this creepy video released by the Iranian Interior Ministry to see what I mean:

Civil resistance campaigns are scary for autocrats. They don’t know how to competently respond to them. Violent insurgencies, on the other hand, are relatively easy for them to dispose of, using a wide range of repressive tools that are readily available to them. If we took Shaykhutdinov’s conclusions to their logical policy implications, therefore, scholarly-inclined autocrats might use this research as a pretext to generate more educational inequality among their ethnic groups. That way, they could continue to suppress these minority groups socially, economically, and politically, while also denying them the fundamental skills and knowledge required to launch effective nonviolent challenges to the regime. Yikes.

But not so fast, autocrats. I think the empirical relationship between educational advantage may be overstated a bit in Shaykhutdinov’s piece. Take a look at the cross-tabulation below (from the article).

What this table tells me is that the preponderance of ethnic groups in the sample are either advantaged or equal to society as a whole. Few ethnic groups in the sample (only 12 out of 238) were really disadvantaged, and among those that were, only 1 adopted a purely violent strategy. Among the most educationally privileged groups, however, over 15% resorted to a purely violent strategy (the highest percentage of all three categories), whereas only 10% of the educationally-equal groups used a purely violent strategy. A roughly equal percentage of them (38-39%) used nonviolent resistance. As such, the “middle” category of a “mixed” nonviolent and violent strategy is doing the most work in the statistical analysis. But the middle category is the one that is the most problematic fro the theory, since the theory relies on the notion that educationally-privileged ethnic groups should avoid violence, not use it occasionally.

To me, the cross-tabulation suggests that Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis has little support. I am not sure if there is some colinearity in the regression that moves the coefficients into being significant, but my guess is that the substantive effects of educational equality are pretty small.

From my reading, here are the four key takeaways:

  • Shaykhutdinov should be commended for taking on a crucial question that needs further inquiry. We need more research on the relationship that education has on the choice to use nonviolent or violent resistance (or both), using methodological techniques that can help us to account for potential endogeneity.

  • There seems to be a weak positive association between educational advantage (as well as general education of the overall population) and the adoption of nonviolent strategies of protest, though the association needs further testing.

  • If Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis is robust, then educational inequality may be a “structural” impediment to nonviolent mobilization. This means that people who want to promote the spread of nonviolent resistance (and reduce the spread of violence) should focus on improving the educational status of ethnic minorities in troubled countries.

  • If there ends up being no support for Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis, we should be encouraged that educational inequality is not a “structural” impediment to nonviolent mobilization. Even the educationally disadvantaged should be able to adopt and practice nonviolent principles. This should scare autocrats, because it means that one of their tools—deprivation of educational rights—doesn’t really make a difference in terms of an ethnic minority’s ability to rise up and make demands of them.

Regardless, we need to know the answers to these vital questions. Kudos to Shaykhutdinov for taking the first cut.

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“Not a choice” != “genetic”

Political scientists have a pretty clear understanding that we our decisions are influenced in many ways. Just ‘cos something runs in the family, it doesn’t mean it’s genetic. Twin studies etc. I became aware of the distinctions several years ago when teaching a class on left-handedness. According to the statistics we saw, identical twins do not have to have the same handedness, and it’s hypothesized that handedness is determined in the fetal environment. Lots of important things happen during those first nine months.

It’s worth remembering, though, that these distinctions are often lost on the general public and their representatives. Here’s Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty on TV, responding to interviewer David Gregory’s question if “being gay [is] a choice”:

PAWLENTY: Well, the science in that regard is in dispute. I mean, scientists work on that and try to figure out if it’s behavioral or if it’s partly genetic –

GREGORY: What do you think?

PAWLENTY: Well, I defer to the scientists in that regard.

GREGORY: So you think it’s not a choice? That you are, as Lady Gaga says, you’re born that way.

PAWLENTY: There’s no scientific conclusion that it’s genetic. We don’t know that.

My point here is not to mock Pawlenty—after all, you could probably dig up a candidate or two who disputes the theory of evolution, which would pretty much shoot down the idea of asking the advice of scientists on anything. And I seem to recall that Jimmy Carter saw a UFO once. And didn’t Ronald Reagan schedule some important meeting based on the advice of his wife’s astrologer? Let’s just hope John Travolta and Tom Cruise never run for office. . . .

Anyway, as I was saying before I got distracted, my goal is not to mock but rather to emphasize that, to the great uneducated masses out there, people think of “genetic” as just another word for who they are in their bones. As researchers, we should be aware of this confusion.

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