Sunday, January 30, 2011

the great stagnation, part 2

Just one quick observation from the second chapter.

Tyler Cowen's second chapter involves demonstrating slowing productivity across several sectors of the American economy. It also describes some of the epistemological issues regarding the measurement of productivity in regards to medicine, education, and government.

Dr. Cowen makes a fairly convincing case for the lack of gains in productivity in the education sector. But I have a quibble with the discussion: the words "special education" don't appear in the section. It is essential to understand, when we consider education today, that we are educating an entire class of students who for decades were ineligible for public school entirely, or, if they were allowed in, were kept in virtual holding pens where they received no genuine education at all. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 meant a monumental change in education.

The commitment by this country to educate everyone, regardless of whether they suffer from developmental and cognitive disabilities, is a commitment that I think we all can agree is necessary and honorable. But it is not cheap. There are almost 7 million students in the United States who are in special education In the 1999-2000 school year, the most recent year for which I can find statistics, special education in this country cost almost $80 billion dollars.  (It's also worth saying that, despite what many people assume, special education students are not all exempt from standardized testing. Only a small minority of students are checklisted out.) If we're looking for losses in productivity for dollars, the introduction of a new population that is uniquely difficult and exceptionally expensive to educate certainly seems like a major piece of the puzzle.

In the higher education picture, I have said that a similar dynamic is operating, as broad swaths of the population who historically would have been denied entrance into college (and often have unique educational disadvantages) gain entry, and the system struggles to adapt. (I am not equating the challenges facing special education students with those facing students traditionally denied college education.) But that's an issue for a different time.

Sadly, I'm afraid these kinds of dynamics are ignored by the conservative media, as they detract from the conservative media's incessant attacks on education and educators. I'm not accusing Dr. Cowen of that, of course. But consideration of special education is a glaring omission and I hope he addresses it at some time.

4 comments:

Handle said...

"The commitment by this country to educate everyone, regardless of whether they suffer from developmental and cognitive disabilities, is a commitment that I think we all can agree is necessary and honorable."

Actually, no, not everyone agrees with this. I think it's futile folly that's absolutely exemplary of what happens when one follows so-called unassailable ideals far away from reality and into the realm of delusional fantasies. Or is there no point at which it becomes legitimate for someone to say "no more for this one, whether 'educated' or not" for the sake of this proposition?

At any rate, if the phenomenon you discuss has any significant effect on productivity, there should be a fairly obvious trend discontinuity in at least some education data stream which appears around the time of a change in policy. Insofar as average test scores are concerned, I've never seen such a beast.

The most parsimonious explanation (the one I think Cowen holds, though he's coy in mentioning it explicitly) is that after a basic amount of education becomes nearly universally available, factors beyond the realm of school influence (such as hereditary factors like IQ, or home-life factors) play the largest role in predicting test scores.

After that, you've reached the domain of diminishing returns. There's not much more the schools can do no matter how much money you throw at them, so why bother? To make ourselves feel more righteous?

Of course you can squeeze a few points here and there if you decide to relentlessly drill your pupils and train-to-the-test for 10-12 hours a day (and/or provide extra tutoring to the same ends), but "education" that's certainly not. I've heard about the special schools that employ these extraordinary and desperate tactics, and I can barely imagine the terror of the experience had I had the misfortune to attend one.

Freddie said...

You're assuming a far narrower definition of education than I would. Sure, if you think chasing minimal test score increases is the sum total of education, then educating special ed students isn't a good use of taxpayer dollars. If you have a holistic vision of education that includes thinking there is benefit in behavioral intervention, social development, and the simple virtues of being exposed to other children, then it's worthwhile. But you're right; I should have said almost all.

At any rate, if the phenomenon you discuss has any significant effect on productivity, there should be a fairly obvious trend discontinuity in at least some education data stream which appears around the time of a change in policy. Insofar as average test scores are concerned, I've never seen such a beast.

That might be true, if we had anything resembling a consistent and mandatory standardized testing regime across the time periods involved. But we don't.

The most parsimonious explanation (the one I think Cowen holds, though he's coy in mentioning it explicitly) is that after a basic amount of education becomes nearly universally available, factors beyond the realm of school influence (such as hereditary factors like IQ, or home-life factors) play the largest role in predicting test scores.

I suspect the same, though it's an empirical question.

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