Education is Not the Answer

Education is Not the Answer

by Dean Baker

Everyone deserves a great public education,
but better schools alone can’t fight inequality.

This article is from Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook, a joint project of Jacobin and the Chicago Teachers Union’s CORE. The booklet can be downloaded for free and print copies are still available.

It’s common in policy circles to claim that improving the quality of education in inner cities and impoverished rural areas is the answer to halting the growing gap between rich and poor. This view reflects not only illusions about the potential for substantially improving education for children from low- and moderate-income families without deeper economic and political shifts, but also a serious misunderstanding about the growth of inequality over the last three decades.

There should be no surprise, then, that the education reform movement has failed in its effort to boost educational outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

At this point, education “reform” is hardly new; it is the establishment consensus, having led the national agenda on education for the last quarter century. The extent to which it has produced gains can be debated, but it has, without a doubt, not turned around struggling schools. The children in these schools still perform consistently worse on standardized tests and have much poorer career prospects than children attending wealthy suburban public schools or private ones.

But even if reform had improved education, it is unlikely to have done much about inequality. People with more education have, on average, done better than those with less education, but the growth in inequality over the last three decades has not been mainly a story of the more educated pulling away from the less educated. Rather, it has been a story in which a relatively small group of people (roughly the top one percent) have been able to garner the bulk of economic gains for reasons that have little direct connection to education.

The classic story of the education and inequality story is usually captured by the college/non-college premium: the ratio of the pay of those with college degrees to those without college degrees. This premium showed a substantial rise in the 1980s for both men and women. According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, the college premium for men rose from 20.2% at the 1979 business cycle peak to 34% at the business cycle peak in 1989. For women, the premium rose from 25% in 1979 to 40%  in 1989.

Interestingly, the sharpest rise, especially for men, was during the high unemployment years at the start of the decade. The rise in the college/non-college pay gap is often attributed to technology and the growing use of computers in the workplace, in particular. But the largest rise in the college premium occurred at a point in time when computers were just being introduced to the workplace.

If the timing of the rise in the pay gap in the 1980s doesn’t fit the technology story very well, the wage trend in the last two decades is even harder to square with this picture. There was a much smaller increase in the college premium in the 1990s than in the 1980s — even though this was the period of the tech boom, when information technology led to a marked acceleration in the rate of productivity growth. After having risen by almost fourteen percent in the 1980s business cycle, the college premium for men rose by just 8% from 1989 to the business cycle peak in 2000. For women, the premium increased by 7.9% points in the 1990s cycle after increasing 15% in the 1980s.

The 2000s don’t fit any better with the technology and inequality story, as even college grads could no longer count on sharing in the gains from growth. For men, the premium rose by 2.8% between 2000 and 2011. This corresponded to a 2.4% gain in wages for male college grads between 2000 and 2012. The college premium for women increased by just 0.8% points over this period, with the wages of female college grads rising by 0.7% between 2000 and 2012. This situation holds true even if we look at just the segments of the labor market where we might expect especially strong demand. The average hourly wage for college graduates working in computer and mathematical occupations increased by just 5.3% from 2000 to 2011 —less than one-third of the rate of productivity growth over this period.

The patterns in the data show that inequality is not a question of the more-educated gaining at the expense of the less-educated due to inevitable technological trends. Rather, it has been a story in which a small group of especially well-situated workers — for example, those in finance, doctors, and top-level corporate executives — have been able to gain at the expense of almost everyone else. This pattern of inequality will be little affected by improving the educational outcomes for the bottom quarter or even bottom half of income distribution.

Of course, this does not argue against efforts to improve education. It is almost always the case that workers with more education do better than workers with less education, both in terms of hourly wages and employment outcomes. Unemployment and non-employment rates are considerably higher for those with less education.

Education does provide a clear avenue for mobility. Certainly it is a positive development if children from low-income families have the opportunity to move into the middle class, even if this might imply that someone from a middle-class background will move in the opposite direction.

And education is tremendously valuable for reasons unrelated to work and income. Literacy, basic numeracy skills, and critical thinking are an essential part of a fulfilling life. Insofar as we have children going through school without developing these skills, it is an enormous failing of society. Any just society would place a top priority on ensuring that all children learn such basic skills before leaving school.

However, it clearly is not the case that plausible increases in education quality and attainment will have a substantial impact on inequality. This will require much deeper structural changes in the economy. As a practical matter, given the dismal track record of the education reformers, substantial improvement in outcomes for children from low- and moderate-income families is likely to require deep structural change in society as well.

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This French tech school has no teachers, no books, no tuition — and it could change everything

This French tech school has no teachers, no
books, no tuition — and it could change everything

by Dylan Tweney

PARIS — École 42 might be one of the most
ambitious experiments in engineering education.

It has no teachers. No books. No MOOCs. No
dorms, gyms, labs, or student centers. No tuition.

And yet it plans to turn out highly qualified, motivated software engineers, each of whom has gone through an intensive two- to three-year program designed to teach them everything they need to know to become outstanding programmers.

The school, housed in a former government building used to educate teachers (ironically enough), was started by Xavier Niel. The founder and majority owner of French ISP Free, Niel is a billionaire many times over. He’s not well known in the U.S., but here he is revered as one of the country’s great entrepreneurial successes in tech.

He is also irrepressibly upbeat, smiling and laughing almost nonstop for the hour that he led a tour through École 42 earlier this week. (Who wouldn’t be, with that much wealth? Yet I have met much more dour billionaires before.)

Niel started École 42 with a 70 million euro donation. He has no plans for it to make money, ever.

“I know one business, and that’s how to make software,” Niel said. “I made a lot of money and I want to give something back to my country,” he explained.

To make the school self-sustaining, he figures that future alumni will give back to their school, just as alumni of other schools do. If a few of them become very rich, as Niel has, perhaps they, too, will give millions to keep it going.

The basic idea of École 42 is to throw all the students — 800 to 1,000 per year — into a single building in the heart of Paris, give them Macs with big Cinema displays, and throw increasingly difficult programming challenges at them. The students are given little direction about how to solve the problems, so they have to turn to each other — and to the Internet — to figure out the solutions.

The challenges are surprisingly difficult. One student I talked with was coding a ray tracer and building an emulation of the 3-D dungeon in Castle Wolfenstein within his first few months at the school. Six months earlier, he had barely touched a computer and knew nothing of programming. He hadn’t even finished high school.

In fact, 40 percent of École 42′s students haven’t finished high school. Others have graduated from Stanford or MIT or other prestigious institutions. But École 42 doesn’t care about their background — all it cares about is whether they can complete the projects and move on. The only requirement is that they be between the ages of 18 and 30.

“We don’t ask anything about what they’ve done before,” Niel said.

Yet École 42 is harder to get into than Harvard: Last year, 70,000 people attempted the online qualification test. 20,000 completed the test, and of those, 4,000 were invited to spend four weeks in Paris doing an intensive project that had them working upwards of 100 hours a week on various coding challenges. In the end, 890 students were selected for the school’s inaugural class, which began in November, 2013. (The average age is 22, and 11 percent of the first class is female.)

890 students out of 70,000 applicants means an acceptance rate a little north of 1 percent, or if you only count those who completed the test, 4.5 percent. By contrast, Harvard accepts about 6 percent of its applicants. And, even with financial aid, it charges a whole lot more than zero for its classes.

The upshot: If it works, the school’s course of education will produce coders who are incredibly self-motivated, well-rounded in all aspects of software engineering, and willing to work hard. (The four-week tryout alone, with its 100-hour weeks, blows away the French government’s official 35-hour-work week.)

Nicolas Sadirac, a French entrepreneur and educator, is the school’s director. Before École 42 he ran Epitech, a well-regarded, private, for-profit school that trained software engineers.

All of École 42′s projects are meant to be collaborative, so the students work in teams of two to five people. At first glance, the École’s classrooms look a little bit like a factory floor or a coding sweatshop, with row after row of Aeron-style chairs facing row after row of big monitors. But a closer look reveals that the layout is designed to facilitate small-group collaboration, with the monitors staggered so that students can easily talk to one another, on the diagonals between the monitors or side by side with the people next to them. Students can come and go as they please; the school is open 24 hours a day and has a well-appointed cafeteria in the basement (with a wine cellar that can hold 5,000 bottles, just in case the school needs to host any parties).

Students share all of their code on Github (naturally). They communicate with one another, and receive challenges and tests, via the school’s intranet. Everything else they figure out on their own, whether it means learning trigonometry, figuring out the syntax for C code, or picking up techniques to index a database.

Tests are essentially pass-fail: Your team either completes the project or it doesn’t. One administrator compared it to making a car: In other schools, getting a test 90 percent right means an A; but if you make a car with just three out of four wheels, it is a failure. At École 42, you don’t get points for making it part way there — you have to make a car with all four wheels.

The no-teachers approach makes sense, as nearly anything you need to know about programming can now be found, for free, on the Internet. Motivated people can easily teach themselves any language they need to know in a few months of intensive work. But motivation is what’s hard to come by, and to sustain — ask anyone who has tried out Codecademy but not stuck with it. That has prompted the creation of “learn to code” bootcamps and schools around the world. École 42 takes a similar inspiration but allows the students to generate their own enthusiasm via collaborative (and somewhat competitive) teamwork.

Sadirac and Niel say that some prestigious universities have already expressed interest in the school’s approach. The two are considering syndicating the model to create similar schools in other countries.

But even if they never expand beyond Paris, École 42 could become a significant force in software education. France already has a reputation for creating great engineers (in software as well as in many other fields).

If École 42 adds another thousand highly-motivated, entrepreneurial software engineers to the mix every year, it could very quickly accelerate this country’s competitiveness in tech.

And the model will force schools like Harvard to make an extra effort to justify their high tuitions. If you can get training like this for free, and you want to be a software engineer, why go to Harvard?