Economists Don’t Know Crap About Education



I hate to be blunt here, but economists need to shut the heck up.



Never has there been a group more concerned about the value of everything that was more incapable of determining anything’s true worth.



They boil everything down to numbers and data and never realize that the essence has evaporated away.



I’m sorry but every human interaction isn’t reducible to a monetary transaction. Every relationship isn’t an equation.



Some things are just intrinsically valuable. And that’s not some mystical statement of faith – it’s just what it means to be human.



Take education.



Economists love to pontificate on every aspect of the student experience – what’s most effective – what kinds of schools, which methods of assessment, teaching, curriculum, technology, etc. Seen through that lens, every tiny aspect of schooling becomes a cost analysis.



And, stupid us, we listen to them as if they had some monopoly on truth.



But what do you expect from a society that worships wealth? Just as money is our god, the economists are our clergy.



How else can you explain something as monumentally stupid as Bryan Caplan’s article published in the LA Times “What Students Know That Experts Don’t: School is All About Signaling, Not Skill-Building”?



In it, Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, theorizes why schooling is pointless and thus education spending is a waste of money.


It would be far better in Caplan’s view to use that money to buy things like… oh… his new book “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”


His argument goes something like this: the only value of an education is getting a job after graduation.


Businesses only care about school because they think it signifies whether prospective employees will be good or bad at their jobs. And students don’t care about learning – they only care about appearing to have learned something to lure prospective employers. Once you’re hired, if you don’t have the skills, employers have an incentive to give you on the job training. Getting an education is just about getting a foot in the door. It’s all just a charade.


Therefore, we should cut education funding and put kids to work in high school where they can learn how to do the jobs they’ll need to survive.


No wonder economics is sometimes called “The Dismal Science.” Can you imagine having such a dim view of the world where THAT load of crap makes sense?


We’re all just worker drones and education is the human equivalent of a mating dance or brilliant plumage – but instead of attracting the opposite sex, we’re attracting a new boss.


Bleh! I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.


This is what comes of listening to economists on a subject they know nothing about.


I’m a public school teacher. I am engaged in the act of learning on a daily basis. And let me tell you something – it’s not about merely signifying.


I teach 7th and 8th grade language arts. My students aren’t simply working to appear literate. They’re actually attempting to express themselves in words and language. Likewise, my students aren’t just working to appear as if they can comprehend written language. They’re actually trying to read and understand what the author is saying.


But that’s only the half of it.


Education isn’t even just the accumulation of skills. Students aren’t hard drives and we’re not simply downloading information and subroutines into their impressionable brains.


Students are engaged in the activity of becoming themselves.


Education isn’t a transaction – it’s a transformation.


When my students read “The Diary of Anne Frank” or To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, they become fundamentally different people. They gain deep understandings about what it means to be human, celebrating social differences and respecting human dignity.


When my students write poetry, short fiction and essays, they aren’t merely communicating. They’re compelled to think, to have an informed opinion, to become conscious citizens and fellow people.


They get grades – sure – but what we’re doing is about so much more than A-E, advanced, proficient, basic or below basic.


When the year is over, they KNOW they can read and understand complex novels, plays, essays and poems. The maelstrom of emotions swirling round in their heads has an outlet, can be shared, examined and changed.


Caplan is selling all of that short because he sees no value in it. He argues from the lowest common denominator – no, he argues from the lowest actions of the lowest common denominator to extrapolate a world where everything is neatly quantifiable.


It’s not hard to imagine why an economist would be seduced by such a vision. He’s turned the multi-color world into black and white hues that best suit his profession.


In a way, I can’t blame him for that. For a carpenter, I’m sure most problems look like a hammer and a nail. For a surgeon, everything looks like a scalpel and sutures.


But shame on us for letting one field’s myopia dominate the conversation.


No one seems all that interested in my economic theories about how to maximize gross domestic product. And why would they? I’m not an economist.


However, it’s just as absurd to privilege the ramblings of economists on education. They are just as ignorant – perhaps more so.


It is a symptom of our sick society.


We turn everything into numbers and pretend they can capture the reality around us.


This works great for measuring angles or determining the speed of a rocket. But it is laughably unequipped to measure interior states and statements of real human value.


That’s why standardized tests are inadequate.


It’s why value added teacher evaluations are absurd. It’s why Common Core is poppycock.


Use the right tool for the right job.


If you want to measure production and consumption or the transfer of wealth, call an economist.


If you want to understand education, call a teacher.

32 thoughts on “Economists Don’t Know Crap About Education

  1. As a teaching economist perhaps I can help with the idea of signaling. First I should point out that it is about how employer’s view education, not about education itself. The basic theory is pretty straightforward: educational institutions act as a screen that employers can depend on when trying to figure out who to hire. A competitive admission college or university has decided to admit this person, made the person do a series of intellectually challenging things, and made the person to do some things that they did now wish to do. That serves as a signal that the person would be a good employee at the firm.

    The empirical evidence supporting this view is that actually graduating from an institution results in much higher pay than almost graduating. If education was only about accumulating skills and it was those skills that were important to employers, someone who almost graduated (say was missing a couple of distribution credit hours) should be almost as valuable to employers as someone who had the extra three credit hours (out of 124 or so) to graduate. That is not what we see in the world.


    • You missed my point, teaching economist. Looking at education solely through the lens of employers is reductive. Education has a much greater value to the learner. It is not essentially about meeting the needs of employers. It is about self fulfillment and becoming more than what you were before. I’m not denying the reality of the workplace, I just refuse to boil education down to merely the needs of business and commerce.


      • Education has a great value to the learner, but do you do the documentation of education for the learner’s benefit or someone else?

        The book you talk about is concerned with the documentation of learning, not learning, and I am sure that Brian Caplan would wholeheartedly endorse people joining book clubs and reading To Kill a Mockingbird for self fulfillment. It would be a great deal less expensive than taking a course at Sarah Lawrence.


    • When I became a teacher, I saw some TFA teachers struggle and get frustrated because they hadn’t completed a degree and missed out on all the theory (and most of the practice). TFA has teachers learn-on-the-job because there are not enough trained teachers available in certain areas. Some TFA end up okay because they finish their Masters and get the hang of it. But a lot quit, proving that large institutional employers are putting the cart before the horse.

      Caplan insinuates colleges aren’t preparing kids to succeed. My kid toured UVM today and they have amazing programs that are not just adapting to changing workplaces in fields like medicine, environmental science and education, they are leading the change.

      Some philanthrocapitalists foresee high schools and colleges without buildings, just kids running around getting digital merit badges. One thing for sure, higher education is under attack and the latest Tax “Reform” Bill is direct evidence.

      The problem is elected officials letting business dictate education policy. This has been a disaster. They are indeed different realms. Look at the spectacular failure of Obama/Duncan era VAM, designed on a framework that projected future earnings and tried to backward-map “successful” students’ SAT benchmarks down to 3rd grade.

      We can talk forever about the Rube Goldberg science behind VAM, or the lack of transparency, but the fatal philosophical flaw of VAM was defining success by monetary gain.

      This subjective, capitalist notion discounts all contributions to the betterment of society by those who serve, by clergy, by those who choose modest middle class careers (civil servants), or stay home moms, volunteers, Peace Corps, etc.


  2. Thank Mr. Singer for your article. I read it at “Common Dreams” and came here to register my gratitude for your efforts.

    The author of this book turned up on our public radio here in Australia a few days ago spouting his ideas about education. I am a 68 year old artist with no children, grandchildren or anybody else who might find themselves inside the education system but I know a dishonest argument when I hear one and this guy was laying it on with a trowel. What he was presenting was an artfully contrived form of words given a veneer of academic authenticity and being helpfully provided for any sociopathic government that might happen to be paying attention to help them justify an attack on the education system. The two journalists interviewing him didn’t get his feet anywhere near the fire so he had a free run for about 20 minutes.

    It did me a lot of good to read your article and know that someone with a platform is calling this nonsense out.


  3. You realize, I suppose, that late in 2007 while to our economy was on a path to causing a global melt down, Congress passed the America Competes Act: America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act” Section SEC. 1004. = STEM and…within two days the official mission go USDE was altered to read as it does today:
    Our Mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for the global economy by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.
    The economists are not alone in pushing education for jobs and not much more. Check out this website to see the effort to bring Swiss-style apprenticeships into high schools with “soft skills” learned on the job. The design is loved by the Denver area businesses who have probably had too much influence on schools since 1999 when teacher merit-pay was introduced.


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