Posts Tagged ‘education’

The Pentagon papers & history education

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

I recently had a chance to see “The Most Dangerous Man in America”, a documentary about Daniel Ellsberg and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. Two things really struck me during the movie.

The first was the fact that I largely didn’t know this story before this year. I had known that the Pentagon Papers were a large leak of defense-related documents to the New York Times during the Vietnam War, and that Richard Nixon was outraged by it. The last part I had learned from The Onion. I really knew nothing of the scale of the leak nor its contents and effects.

The second thing that struck me was how familiar parts of the story were. The documentary covered the lead-up and escalation of the Vietnam War, and the similarity to the Iraq War amazed me. Specifically, the claims made around the Tonkin Gulf incident sounded like they were right out of Bill Moyers’ excellent Buying the War show (which documented the lead-up to the Iraq War).

Finishing the movie, I was a bit disappointed in myself that I didn’t know the story earlier. Why hadn’t I been taught about this in any detail? The relevance of that story to this last decade was quite obvious. The only US history class I took in high school (and since then) was AP US History in 11th grade. If I remember correctly, the AP test was a month or two before the end of the school year, and the test itself only covered through World War II. Since post-WWII America was only covered after the test, it was quite cursory, and it seemed that both the teachers and students didn’t put in too much effort. This is a real shame, as it seems like this period is more relevant than most.

I’ve been making some effort over the last year to make up for this gap in history. Earlier this year, I read The Limits of Power, a short, incisive and generally depressing walk through the last 50 years of US foreign policy. It’s not really a primer on the subject, but if you’re interested in the last 50 years of history, I highly recommend including it in your reading.

Thinking about this gap in education, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a deeper reason for this. If I were a high school teacher, I’d imagine that it would be much more challenging to deal with relatively-recent historical issues in the same way that we deal with issues before the parents’ lifetimes. For example, I’d expect that it’s easier to craft a lesson around the Alien and Sedition Acts than it is to make one about the Patriot Act, because the former really isn’t controversial anymore (though maybe we’re returning to that state of affairs).

Ok, hopefully this is my last one

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Greg Mankiw is still defending his SAT scores post while completely missing the point. This time he shares a graph that shows children’s IQs being correlated with their biological father’s income, for both adopted and non-adopted children. The suggestion being that test scores are largely inherited and high income is just an effect of raw intelligence. However, he ignores the fact that the IQ and SAT tests are not the same! They are trying to measure different things, IQ attempts to measure some sort of innate intelligence, while SAT tries to measure college preparedness with regard to things like literacy and mathematical knowlege. Certainly there is an interaction between the two, but the effects of preparation and education should be reflected in the SAT to a much greater degree.

His post title “Test Scores and Biological Father’s Income” seems to try to blur the issue and he never mentions differences between the tests, as far as I can tell. To be clear, IQ was certainly a factor in the SAT scores, but his claim that it’s “the key omitted variable” isn’t supported by this evidence.

Ugh, really?

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

Greg Mankiw, whose post about test scores and household income elicited my response, seems to be bewildered about why people are pushing back against his post. It’s really too bad that he doesn’t have comments or a public email on the blog, as the reason is quite simple: yes, genetics and innate inherited intelligence have some effect on IQ, and IQ does correlate with income to some degree, but the claim it the key omitted variable is making an even stronger statement. It’s saying that these genetic effects outweigh the affordances that affluent people have in society. It’s making a social darwinist claim that society is roughly able to sort people by intelligence.

Stuff like this make me wish I had found better conservative bloggers…

Test scores and household income

Friday, August 28th, 2009

Greg Mankiw called this graph “the least surprising correlation of all time”:

(SAT scores by family income)

I agree that it’s unsurprising, but for different reasons. Certainly, this correlation shouldn’t imply direct causation, as Mankiw states:

Suppose we were to graph average SAT scores by the number of bathrooms a student has in his or her family home. That curve would also likely slope upward. (After all, people with more money buy larger homes with more bathrooms.) But it would be a mistake to conclude that installing an extra toilet raises yours kids’ SAT scores.

Agreed, but I don’t agree with this:

The key omitted variable here is parents’ IQ. Smart parents make more money and pass those good genes on to their offspring.

While I’ll admit that parents’ IQ would show some correlation with test scores, I don’t think that this is the “key variable”. First of all, the SAT does not measure IQ, it attempts to measure language and math skills. I’d expect there to be a better correlation with some measure of the parents’ educational achievements.

August 14th’s must-listen episode of This American Life touched on this subject in the first act. Childrens’ academic success (and success in general) tracks very well with how much their parents talk with them when they’re very young and how much they read to/with them. Parents who read on their own are more likely to do these things.

Additionally, there’s plenty of training that goes into doing well on the SAT. More affluent parents can afford to pay for tutoring for their children and, more importantly, move to a town with a better school system. If standardized test scores were just measures of innate ability, then it would be absurd to measure the performance of a school system based upon them, and you could just test a child once. (Not saying that they’re a great way to measure, but I think that there are other problems with that.)

Growing up in Avon (suburban CT), I saw plenty of very wealthy homes produce terrible students, but the student body as a whole did well largely because we had a good school system, involved parents, and a culture that said it was OK to be smart.

So, yeah, I’m in the ‘nurture’ camp on this one.

Elite Education

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

An interesting article from The American Scholar: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. It’s a relatively long read, but covers a bunch of important topics.

Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals.

I agree. In my experience, socio-economic diversity is much more valuable and interesting than racial diversity. Geographic diversity (i.e. bringing together people from all over the world) does have value, too, as it’s an easy way to learn about other cultures. I’ve learned so much from my coworkers at Google who come from other countries.

A couple more points that I found interesting:

If one of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security. When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts down? An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed. We live in a society that is itself so wealthy that it can afford to provide a decent living to whole classes of people who in other countries exist (or in earlier times existed) on the brink of poverty or, at least, of indignity. You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist—that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort. You have to live in an ordinary house instead of an apartment in Manhattan or a mansion in L.A.; you have to drive a Honda instead of a BMW or a Hummer; you have to vacation in Florida instead of Barbados or Paris, but what are such losses when set against the opportunity to do work you believe in, work you’re suited for, work you love, every day of your


Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time.