Here’s yesterday’s op ed for the Fin published as Technology education is about more than funding:
STEM is all the rage in education – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Part culture war against Australian mediocrity, part cargo cult, a principal goal is more money – for universities and school education. It’s hard not to agree. Lateral Economics’ HALE index of wellbeing values Australian human capital at $18 trillion – over three times all other physical and natural capital combined. Growing it puts every other means of enriching our future in the shade.
Still, I smell a rat.
We’ve nearly doubled educational spending per student in the last few decades. That’s funded popular measures with little impact – smaller class sizes – and politico/educational fads some of which have proven disastrous – like whole language learning. If STEM is simply cranked up and bolted onto the existing system, expect business-as-usual, expensive-as-usual disappointment.
Traditional STEM teaching often turns kids off. If they were ever invited into the debate, they’d see the STEM agenda as baby-boomer finger wagging telling them to eat their greens. They’d ask what exciting jobs will exist for STEM graduates. They’d ask what STEM skills will be in demand in ten or twenty years. And we don’t know.
The vast riches of Silicon Valley use STEM skills sure enough. However not only has old-fashioned entrepreneurialism been the dominant input, but the main STEM contribution has been computer coding. While that’s taught in universities, the valley is full of practitioners who’ve mostly taught themselves with the help of free internet resources and their own workplaces. Silicon Valley has embraced data science but no thanks to university courses. Even today, while they crank out stats grads, our universities barely teach data science.
Second, while teacher training, support and specialisation in STEM should be better resourced, on its own that would achieve very little. The last thing we should do is insist on widespread STEM in-service training for existing teachers – for instance in teaching computer skills – who’d simply go through the motions.
Meanwhile an immediate human resource is students. We should find those already doing it for themselves and empower them to enthuse and teach their peers – not to mention reverse mentoring their teachers. And if we’re to do that, we must make room for it in kids’ timetables and in the recognition they receive – their marks.
However that requires some real transformation of existing routines and priorities. And incumbent organisations find that almost impossible. Much better to seek funding for some new, bolt-on initiative. As we’ve loaded the curriculum with recent enthusiasms and political correctness, what priorities have we jettisoned? Stats was more useful than trigonometry even when I was a kid: Much more so now. But the relative weightings in the maths curriculum haven’t changed in 30 years. I learned more about computer coding in school in the the early 1970s than my kids have done in today’s schools.
What I’m proposing can’t simply be ‘rolled out’. Just as a manufacturer wouldn’t release a new product without extensive design, prototyping and testing, that’s what should happen here. We should draw out in-system entrepreneurs, fund experiments and pilots, fixing or jettisoning the failures, identifying, tweaking and growing successes and rewarding those behind them.
After speaking with the Education Department, I attended a showcase of students’ achievements in IT projects. There I met Ben, a year 8 student. He’d built an iPhone app to hone his brother’s mental arithmetic.
“How do you find maths” I asked.
“Boring! We keep doing the same stuff.
“How’d you like to teach other students to write iPhone apps?
“Wait right there.
I fetched the Departmental Secretary. Here was an opportunity to get going with what I’d proposed. Excited, he summoned his Innovation Chief saying “I want to start on this tomorrow!”
The next year I asked Ben how things had gone. I still have his reply: ”Nothing really went anywhere with my school, didn’t really surprise me”.
The STEM agenda could handsomely enrich our future, but only if it’s part of wider transformation which, though it would cost nothing, offers a richer prize than any amount of new STEM funding.
Ben Eltham has posted an article in New Matilda about the financial and regulatory travails of Victorian VET private mega-provider Vocation:
Christopher Pyne’s higher education legislation will channel hundreds of millions of dollars to private providers. When it happened in Victoria’s VET system, the consequences were dire, writes Ben Eltham.
The share price collapse of high-flying private education provider Vocation reminds us of the perils of privatising education.
On its website and Annual Report, Vocation asks us to “be extraordinary”.
… Vocation presents itself as high-quality and respectable. It boasts none other than John Dawkins, the architect of the Hawke government’s university reforms, as the chair of its board.
But the performance of ASX-listed private training provider Vocation in recent weeks has been anything but extraordinary.
The problem with a voucher-based portable funding system for VET is that it creates a situation that makes it very difficult to monitor and ensure quality of service provision.
This paper is pretty interesting. The last generation has seen the triumph of the baby boomers in attracting resources to themselves, at the cost of other generations, most obviously illustrated in throwing off the shackles of university fees (so other generations and the uneducated could pay for their university education) and then returning to ramp up fees on the oncoming generations. Ditto for the pension – which they’ll enjoy but get later generations to self-fund. Ditto all the tax breaks for self-funded boomers and on it goes though quite possibly the effect of house prices may be as or more important than all that.
Meanwhile think how those who rise to a certain position in the workforce tend to stay there, regardless of merit. This is not so true at the very top of large companies any more that seem to turn over their CEOs pretty quickly and ruthlessly (thought the terms of separation show a great deal of ruth). So economists tend to think of firms as making efficient decisions to survive competition, but they’re full of humangoes, and humangoes, just like mangoes have soft squishy bits that tend to do pretty much what they’re going to do whatever the state of competition is.
: by James Liang, Hui Wang, Edward P. Lazear – #20506 (IO LS)
Abstract: Entrepreneurship requires creativity and business acumen. Creativity may decline with age, but business skills increase with experience in high level positions. Having too many older workers in society slows entrepreneurship. Not only are older workers less innovative, but more significant is that when older workers occupy key positions they block younger workers from acquiring business skills. A formal theoretical structure is presented and tested using the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor data. The results imply that a one-standard deviation decrease in the median age of a country increases the rate of new business formation by 2.5 percentage points, which is about forty percent of the mean rate. Furthermore, older societies have lower rates of entrepreneurship at every age.
Today the people residing in Scotland can decide whether they want to see an independent Scotland or to have Scotland remain in the UK. The betting markets concur with the opinion polls and favour the status quo: the markets give roughly 20% chance that the ‘yes’ vote will win and that Scotland will become independent.
The majority of economists talking about the referendum have focused on whether or not the Scots would be financially better off with their own country, debating things like North Sea oil revenues and currency unions. I think that is a distraction: looking at small and large countries in Europe, you would have to say there is no noticeable advantage or disadvantage to being a small country and that the Scots are hence unlikely to be materially affected in the long run by independence.
Independence is more about self-image and identity than it is about money. Even though the push for independence might well come from politicians and bureaucracies that gain prestige and income if they ruled an independent country, the population deciding on the vote will probably vote on emotional grounds, not economic. Young male Scots appear overwhelmingly in favour of independence; females and old people prefer to keep things the way they are. The latter groups are bigger and are expected to sway the day.
Personally, I have two related reasons to oppose the breaking up of larger countries in Europe into smaller ethnically defined states, not just Scotland, but also Catalonia, the Basque region, the Frisian province, Bavaria, and all the other regions of Europe:
- These independence movements are ethnic and hence by definition exclusionary. This is a big concern: large nation states have slowly moved away from the story that they exist for people of the ‘right’ bloodlines and with ancestors who lived in the ‘right’ place. The UK, the US, France, Australia, and even Germany and Spain have moved towards an identity based on stories about what it means to be British, American, French, Australian, etc., rather than a ‘blood and earth’ ethnic nation state story. Speaking tongue-in-cheek, the Brits have an upper lip story, the Americans have an exceptionalism story, the French have been convinced they like reading Proust, the new Australians are told in their citizenship exams that they believe in a fair go, etc. These stories contain treasured national stereotypes, complete with imagined histories. The key thing is that are inclusive, ie any newcomer from another place can participate in such stories. The Australian national anthem is a beautiful example of this super-inclusive attitude as it, almost uniquely, mentions neither ethnicity nor religion as a basis for being Australian. The ethnic stories of the independence movements are, in contrast, exclusionary and hence harmful to the self-image of any migrant. It is a move to a past that we have little reason to be proud of, as it marginalises current and future migrants. The story surrounding Scottish independence is thus not that the Scots are people who like to wear kilts and enjoy haggis, but that they make up the people who have suffered 700 years of oppression by the English. What is a recent newcomer from, say, Poland to do with such a self-image but conclude that they do not really belong there? Continue reading
In case anyone’s interested, I did an interview on “My Trip” which can be downloaded from this link.
Human Capital Effects of Anti-Poverty Programs: Evidence from a Randomized Housing Voucher Lottery by Brian Jacob, Max Kapustin, Jens Ludwig – #20164 (CH ED HE PE)
Whether government transfer programs increase the human capital of low-income children is a question of first-order policy importance. Such policies might help poor children if their parents are credit constrained, and so under-invest in their human capital. But it is also possible that whatever causes parents to have low incomes might also directly influence children’s development, in which case transfer programs need not improve poor children’s long-term life chances. While several recent influential studies suggest anti-poverty programs have larger human capital effects per dollar spent than do even the best educational interventions, identification is a challenge because most transfer programs are entitlements. We overcome that problem by studying the effects on children of a generous transfer program that is heavily rationed–means-tested housing assistance. We take advantage of a randomized housing voucher lottery in Chicago in 1997, for which 82,607 people applied, and use administrative data on schooling, arrests, and health to track children’s outcomes over 14 years. We focus on families living in unsubsidized private housing at baseline, for whom voucher receipt generates large changes in both housing and non-housing consumption. Estimated effects are mostly statistically insignificant and always much smaller than those from recent studies of cash transfers, and are smaller on a per dollar basis than the best educational interventions.
I’ve always been struck by how we debate flexibility in the labour market without paying attention to the other problem in the labour market which is that it’s extremely difficult to find out whether you’re really going to like a job until you take it, and then, if you don’t well it’s too late – lots of costs and general angst getting out and moving onto something better. (Will it be better, or just the same old, same old – I’d better stick it out where I am).
So I took the problem down to Troppo labs which came up with Windows on Workplaces which starred (not) at the 20:20 Summit. Hey why pay attention to something new when you can go with the same old same old same old same old Golden Gurus. (See the same article I just linked to.) The basic idea of Windows on Workplaces – quoted from the linked post is as follows:
Say you particularly value some aspect of a job you’re applying for – for instance a good career path, intrinsically rewarding work or flexible family friendly hours. If youre applying from outside the firm youre generally in the dark. . . .
Now firms regularly survey their employees regarding their satisfaction with these things. So it would be good if you could get a peek at their answers. [But] firstly, firms that did badly wouldn’t want to release their information. The second problem is trickier still. Even if you somehow compelled firms to release this data, their survey results cant be readily or reliably compared because they’re not reported against some common standard. I propose . . . not that governments mandate some standard, but rather that they organise and campaign to encourage a standard to emerge. . . . The best firms have an interest in such a standard emerging as it would advantage them in competing to attract employees. And governments are also major employers, so they could establish standards for their own agencies to report against, which, if deftly done might form the kernel around which more widely used standards might emerge.
I’ve never tried to do any empirical work on the extent to which this could improve productivity – though I think it would be large. Now, in the process of completing a major project on estimating the value of open data to the Australian economy, a colleague referenced this paper.
“Match Quality, Worker Productivity, and Worker Mobility: Direct Evidence From Teachers”
by C. Kirabo Jackson. Here’s the abstract. Extremely promising I reckon! Continue reading