Thursday, October 22, 2009

Today's Random Thoughts

-If money doesn't matter in education, why are all of the most expensive colleges among the nation's elite?

-Did you know that even the most pessimistic teachers are significantly more optimistic than the general public about the extent to which teachers can help even poor students who have uninvolved parents?  With all the rhetoric about defeatists and bad teachers flying around, let's not forget that most teachers are neither.

-A number of districts have taken to filling their teaching vacancies with foreign teachers.  While culture shock means it doesn't always work out, done the right way we can learn a lot from foreign teachers.

-I've devoted more than a few posts to asking whether we should educate poor kids differently.  Deborah Meier says that what works for rich students works for all students.

update: and a couple more:

-Here's a good, super-short story about corruption, cops, and truancy (hat tip: GothamSchools)

-I give any new blog a lengthy tryout before I think about adding it to my blogroll or subscribe to the feed in Google Reader, but Linda Perlstein's new blog is off to a good start.  In her second post, she corrects Obama's insinuation that teachers influence achievement more than even home factors.  Though I don't quite understand why she thinks that principals, who many kids barely see, influence kids as much as teachers.


Ze'ev said...

"[Random Thought] If money doesn't matter in education, why are all of the most expensive colleges among the nation's elite?"

Not so random answers:

- Because people believe that the more they pay for something, the more valuable it is?

- Because colleges would be fools to charge less than the top if people are already willing to pay as much for worse education elsewhere?

- Because correlation is not causation?

- Because colleges, in contrast to some blog writers, are aware of the laws of supply and demand?

- Because many of those "top 100 by tuition" colleges are far far away from the nation's "elite" (e.g., Colgate U or Union College in just the top 10) and many in the true elite, like Harvard or Berkeley, or UCLA, are not among the top 100 by tuition?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Ze'ev, be serious. The nation's elite colleges have far, far more resources than the average college. And they spend far more per student, whether they get that money from tuition, endowment, or fundraising.

Ze'ev said...


I am serious. The random thought was not very serious. I am not trying to argue that having a lot of money does not make life nice, easy, and pleasant; or that it cannot assist in providing excellent education.

What I am trying to point out is that (a) one does not need that much money for excellence, but rather that it is just a 'nice to have' and (b) having a lot of money (or charging a lot of tuition) does not guarantee excellent education. In other words, high tuition and/or huge endowment are neither necessary nor sufficient for excellent education.

Sure, most--but not all--excellent colleges charge a lot and have large endowments. Why? The major reason for high charges is because they can afford to (supply and demand). A major reason for endowment is that as they are excellent, more than average number of alumni are successful and get rich, and feel (justifiably) grateful--hence large endowments. But that's neither here nor there--some not so excellent colleges successfully do charge high fees or have relatively large endowments too.

The asinine implication of the original 'random thought' was that colleges need to charge a lot of money to be excellent (causality). Another implication was that poor students, who presumably cannot afford the tuition, are at disadvantage as they can't attend those excellent institutions (inequity). Both are false. I already demonstrated causality falseness above. The inequity is false also, as the true top schools (e.g., Harvard, Stanford, Caltech) allow qualified but middle and low class students to attend without paying full (or any) tuition.

Ze'ev said...

Perhaps another point is in order, although I assumed it is so well known as to be obvious.

The supply and demand issue in higher ed is completely out of whack due to the federal government throwing almost infinite amounts of money at it as "student loans." Consequently the IHEs play the game of forever increasing the tuition "list price", the feds provide the majority of the funds to pay this inflated list price for low and low-to-middle class families, and the rest serves as a huge wealth transfer from middle-class families to IHEs. Had the feds said "it truly doesn't take more than $15K a year to educate a student so we will never provide grants, loans, or loan guarantees for anything above that", you would see rapid collapse of tuition everywhere.

But all this is of little relevance to the cost-excellence causality argument.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Actually, I was implying almost none of what you seem to think was implied. The point was that it seems rather odd that so many people claim schools don't need a lot of money to succeed but, at the same time, want to send their kids to colleges that have a ton of money. That's somewhere between ironic and hypocritical depending on how you look at it.

Ze'ev said...

I find it completely unsurprising. This is no different from rich people buying fancy cars at exorbitant prices. You can get an excellent value from a Toyota Camry, but people are willing to pay a premium of almost 100% to buy an almost-identical Lexus. Or even much more than that to buy a BMW or a Jaguar. Or even a Maserati. None of them gives really any additional transportation value to the buyers, but the buyers are not really after transportation. They are after prestige, after being able to mingle with other Maserati buyers, after being invited to the Jaguar owners cocktail reception, whatever.

This is neither ironic nor hypocritical. This is the freedom of people to waste their own money as they please. The basic value is already fully covered in the Camry. But, then, you also have cheap Yugos (or some GMs :-) that do not provide even the basic value for the price they charge. Or the Jaguars from a decade or more ago that still cost an arm and a leg but needed to come with a dedicated mechanic to keep them running. Like some overpriced colleges today.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

That's actually not an analogous situation. Nobody claims that "money doesn't matter" when it comes to cars. Of course a cheaper car will get you where you want to go, but a more expensive car will have heated seats, prevent accidents, etc. More expensive cars are clearly better, they're just not necessary.

In education, however, many claim that "money doesn't matter" -- that we can schools that are just as good for less money. And that's why people paying more money for their child's education makes the situation ironic or hypocritical.

Ze'ev said...

I guess I didn't make myself clear enough. Money indeed doesn't matter beyond the Toyota Camry. It is reliable, comfortable, fast, and relatively inexpensive. You don't get to your destination any faster in Maserati (can't go much faster than 100 mph on a public road safely anyway, and both easily handle that) or more comfortably in the Lexus (unless you bottom is really, really, sensitive to "lamb skin leather" versus "cow leather") or more reliably in the Jaguar (if at all, less reliably). All also have similar crash characteristics, etc., etc.

Money really doesn't matter beyond Camry-level. It is only, but only, about prestige and perception. Hard to believe, isn't it? Remember it next time you buy a car. Or send your kids to college :-)

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Personally, I'd never spend the money on a luxury car. But to say that cars that are more expensive are no different other than in the level of prestige they afford their owner is demonstrably false.

The Prius is more expensive and gets much better gas mileage.

A Porsche is more expensive and accelerates much faster.

A Volvo is more expensive and performs better in a crash.

A Hummer is more expensive and can drive up mountains and through rivers.

An Audi is more expensive and has all wheel drive.

A Ford Excursion is more expensive and carries more passengers.

When one pays more for a car, they are getting a different automobile with different capabilities made from different components. While everybody doesn't need all of the features above, that doesn't change the fact that money matters when it comes to cars.

You can argue that spending more money on a car is inefficient, and I'll agree with you (I don't believe for a second that a Bentley is 10x better than a Camry). But that's a different argument.

Eve Proper said...

I'm with Ze'ev here.

Of course, I think we can all agree that up to a point the "money doesn't matter" argument is simply rhetoric; no one seriously suggests that a school district or a college can be run on $1 a year. There is clearly some minimum necessary investment. (Just like when people say "class size doesn't matter," they aren't suggesting 1000 students per first-grade teacher.)

However, the problem is that at a certain point we have very little ability to understand the real effect of money on learning. That applies to average parents and their children applying to college as well as to education researchers. The problem is that colleges that charge the highest tuition also have the most-prepared students. Harvard has a high graduation rate in part because it doesn't admit students who are likely to drop out. But how much of it is that, and how much is Harvard's quality of teaching, not to mention peer effects? No one really knows.

So "consumers" assume that you get what you pay for. There's actually a name for this - it's called the Chivas Regal effect. Again, there are limits; TSU can't charge what Vanderbilt does and expect to get a lot of takers. Other markers of "quality" need to be present in addition to high tuition. But for schools on the margin of the elite, raising tuition can actually raise the number and quality of applicants.

Does this surprise me? No. Our culture is awfully good at saying, "X is the minimum necessary for the government to provide for those other people, but for me or my kids, I'll pay out the nose for X+1."

Ze'ev said...

I guess I am really bad at explaining things.

No, Corey. I was not comparing cars that have different utilitarian purposes. So Hummer, if one really drives off-road, is not comparable. Nor is a pickup -- if you need to haul things. Nor is a bus, or Ford Excursion.

I was trying to compare what are essentially sedans (well, I cheated a bit with the Maserati, but one uses it like a sedan most of the time anyway :-)

Volvo is OK as a comparison, but it is not any safer than a Camry anymore. Perhaps 20 years ago it was--now it just feeds off that long-gone reputation. And its reliability is much worse than Camry's. Same for Audi and Porsche they don't handle much better than Camry on normal roads. Sure, if you want to drive from Nice to Monte Carlo at 100 mph perhaps Porsche is better, but that's not relevant to 99% or Porsche's buyers. But the image that you CAN drive it at 100 mph to Monte Carlo is very relevant for many of them.

Your only reasonable comparison is with the Prius. It basically goes to a bit higher initial payment but lower ongoing payments versus vice versa. Kind of like paying cash on the barrel for college, or taking a student loans. The difference between Prius and Camry is on the order of only 25% or so. Just like student loans :-)

As I said--you better watch it when you buy your next car or send your kids to college :-)

Corey Bunje Bower said...

It's pretty clear that one can buy a better car if they spend more money. It's less clear that they need a better car.

But, more to the point, people believe that that they can buy a better car when they spend more money. Sure, people buy BMW's for the prestige, but they also buy them for their performance and their features. The bottom line is really this: if somebody argued that spending $40,000 on a car is stupid b/c you can get a Camry that's just as good for half that price then went out and bought a Mercedes, what would you think about that person? You'd think he/she was a hypocrite. And you'd be right.

Ze'ev said...

No, Corey. Hypocrite is someone who claims it is "right" to do one thing, but in reality--and often stealthily--does the opposite.

So if the Merc buyer was a raving Sierra Club member, you would be right, as the Merc has much lower MPG rating and hence is the "wrong" thing to do. If, on the other hand the buyer says "yeah, Camry and Merc are functionally essentially the same, but the Merc is much more fun and I can easily afford it", then the buyer is not a hypocrite at all. He simply exercises his right to enjoy his well-earned money any way he pleases, as there is no aspect of right or wrong, but simply a matter of amoral choice.

Being a hypocrite must include the "moral" aspect. Without that it is simply a matter of rational or irrational choices.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

In the example I gave, he/she would be "a person whose actions belie stated beliefs" regardless of whether you consider that a hypocrite, dissembler, phony, or some other synonym.

Ze'ev said...

“it's not impossible for money to make a difference if it's well-spent.”

This is certainly a statement I agree with, but this is not a very important statement. The important statement is the answer to the question: How LIKELY it is that money will make a difference. The answer is, that beyond certain minimum level which we in the US have passed long ago, the likelihood that it will make any significant difference is exceedingly low. US spends more per student than almost any nation in the world in purchase-parity adjusted dollars, except for an outlier like the tiny and rich Luxemburg. For a long time we have been spending at a level that any additional money is more likely to be wasted or spent on fluff than on anything that will have any impact on learning. That is why all the studies in the US indicate tiny to nil correlation between spending and outcomes.

”Well, actions speak louder than words. Clearly, our society believes that schools with more resources are better.

No question that the majority of our society believes so. In fact, all societies do. But it doesn’t necessarily make it true. As to being a hypocrite in the case you describe, it may or may not be true.

”Now, I don't think it's that simple. Like I said before, the intellectual leaders of the "money doesn't matter" school of thought would make more nuanced arguments. But the general public doesn't often pick up on nuance. And the result is that a lot of people repeat the talking points without realizing there's more to the argument. And then those people become hypocrites.”

Please carefully check the dictionary. You keep missing the point that one cannot be hypocritical if one doesn’t realize that “there’s more to the argument.” At worst one is ignorant of the truth.

to be continued...

Ze'ev said...

”One commenter claimed that schools are like cars because spending more money than one would on a Camry cannot result in the procurement of a better car. Which is demonstrably false.”

Unfortunately you keep mangling the argument. Under the assumption that a car is needed for transportation, which I explicitly made, there is indeed no functional difference between a Camry, a Jaguar, or a Porsche. Except for price. In fact, the 1990s Jaguar used to be a much worse car--it constantly used to break down--at much higher price. A perfect example of the importance people attach to prestige rather than to value. As another example, consider flying business class versus first class on a plane—at about twice the price, what is the incremental value of the first class ticket except prestige?

”We can make a similar argument with schools. It might not be necessary for a school to hire only teachers with doctorate degrees, cap class sizes at 5, and operate 12 hours per day 300 days per year -- but it would probably make the school better. In short, the question "is it worth it?" is separate from the question "will it make things better?"

The questions are indeed separate, but more money does not necessarily make things “better.” Jaguar was one example. School operating 12 hours a day may actually be worse – children need to spend some time with their families too, even if you perhaps don’t think so. But to learn what actually happens when schools have too much money, I suggest you read about Kansas City with their Taj Mahal facilities and terrible performance:

”If everybody thought that BMW made horrible cars, who would pay the premium to buy one?”

Remember the Jaguar. Remember all the females that buy designer handbags that are often functionally unusable.

Besides, whether or not more money actually makes a school (or car) better isn't really germane to the argument. The point is that most people think that more money = better school, and their actions are proof.”

Indeed many do. But you constantly conflate people’s beliefs with actual facts. So please make up your mind whether your argument is that people are misguided and we need to placate them anyway, or that more expensive things are necessarily better? You argue both points all the time.

”3.) Yes, I consider virtually all of the colleges near the top of the largest endowment and highest tuition lists to be elite. There are about 3,000 or so colleges in our country, so I'd say at least the top 300 or so should be considered elite.

I really don’t care too much what you consider to be elite. You effectively say that since they are expensive they must be good, which just few moment back you admitted that may not be true. In other words, you just placed yourself with the uniformed prestige-driven masses. Why should we pay any attention to what you say?

The top 100 tuition (for 2008-09) list that started all this drivel spanned 34K to 44K a year. Rice University at 30K, Berkeley at 9K for residents and 29K for Non-Residents, University of Virginia at 9K (R) and 30K (NR), University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill at 6K (R) and 21K (NR) , College of William and Mary at 9K (R) and 25K (NR). All these are better places than Skidmore or Tulane, that are among those “top 100” by price.

”Everybody always wants more for their families. The distinction that I'm drawing is that one cannot simultaneously want more for their families and argue that getting more doesn't matter. It just doesn't make sense.”

In fact, it makes a lot of sense. One may be willing to put a lot of personal money in one’s family (private yacht, private jet, mink coat, Van Gogh picture, Caribbean vacations) without immediately requiring that everybody gets the same things funded by the public. You exhibit a singular lack of comprehension when it comes to distinguishing between private funds and public funds, or of the laws of supply and demand.

Ze'ev said...

Oops... posted to the wrong thread... I'll try to re-post to the right one.