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Great post, Simpsons all over this in 1990.

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I’m interested in what this means in terms of human capital. Is human capital only a thing in the absolute sense, that in aggregate humans gain knowledge and skills over time, especially in schools? Or are there relative accumulations of human capital, too?

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I love this. I don't have anything else to add, but this is the post that convinced me to subscribe.

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This is a really good post.

I feel like almost everyone misses the absolute vs relative issue. Our schools work well enough that almost everyone can read--that's an absolute benefit of education. Most employers can assume their employers can read warning signs (perhaps in Spanish instead of English), do basic arithmetic, etc., and that extends the range of what kind of work can get done and how hard it is to do. Running a similar jobsite in a society where most of the workers can't read is going to be quite different. Absolute improvements in education are a positive-sum change--assuming the extra stuff learned is useful, the pie gets bigger.

OTOH, changing the relative educational performance of one person or group relative to another is zero-sum. If 10% of the kids coming out of high school knew calculus in 1990, and 10% do today, the society is no better off (the pie will be no bigger) if we've swapped things around so that more of those kids are black in 2021, but fewer are white. In terms of what work can get done, what benefit did we get?

For group differences, I think the underlying mental model is that the kids in the underperforming group are being held back by something (current racial discrimination, stigma against "acting white," alien space bats, whatever), and there's some educational reform that would stop holding them back, and then we'd see the underperforming kids get more absolute education, leading to a change in relative rankings. And as I understand it (way less than Freddie does--this isn't my field at all!), attempts to change schools to accomplish this, at least for the black/white gap, have just been a steady string of failures or one-off successes that couldn't be replicated. Whatever is holding those kids back, it seems like it's not something easy for schools to fix.

But that relative inequality is a big political problem. Even if we improve education so that 10% of kids knew calculus in 1990 and 20% of kids know calculus in 2020, if black kids or poor kids or kids from whatever other group still end up underrepresented, a lot of people will think that there hasn't been any progress--you may have taught more kids calculus, but you didn't solve the problem *they* were worried about.

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Thanks Freddie. Another excellent article.

The school system is one of those weird areas where everyone agrees that the current approach isn't very good. I doubt you could find anyone to support the way we do it now, not even any particular aspect of it (forget funding and zip codes and class size and whatever for a second - does anyone think that throwing kids into school at 7 AM and making them sit still for eight hours is a great approach? Even I hated it and I was a good student.) It's like the prison system. Nobody thinks our schools or prisons are good enough, but they're both too scary to reform. What if we lose a generation by screwing with them? So we're stuck with systems that were the best our ancestors could come up with.

It's scarier now that I have skin in the game, with our 5 year old son about to move on to first grade. My wife and I are debating whether to keep him in kindergarten another year.

You don't really address this in the article. If we were to go strictly by what percentile he'll graduate at, it sounds like we should definitely keep him back, no? Give him an extra year to catch up? His academic skills are pretty average; like a lot of boys he's behind on social development; his birthday also makes him the youngest in the grade. I don't particularly want to decide based on this, but it's what we've got.

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I'm curious if you think there's a possible market solution (i.e., without becoming Finland, which seems very unrealistic for the U.S. at the moment).

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Something I feel like is being tangled up in the analysis, however, is that the correlation between intelligence (heritable or not) and financial success independent of schooling and SES is less strong than most would think, and it is another reason that the liberal project breaks down. I'm not sure why you didn't mention this except for want of space. (I'm excluding the Robertson paper you cited, which seemed to be about only the most intelligent.)

Bowles et al (2001) found intergenerational correlation of IQ scores on income as 0.15, and a meta-analysis by Strenze (2007) found a less stark but still unimpressive correlation of 0.23. This leaves a lot of room for the continued Marxist critique of the modern educational project: schools influence culture, behavior, and create reward structures and systems that strengthen and replicate the economic/political structures on which they are based. The prep schools you mention are providing students with signals, skills, and networks - not a better absolute educational outcome, as you note.

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Freddie, this is probably the most important post you’ve ever written, or that anyone has written on this subject. You are incredibly brave to do it. I am not optimistic that the educrats, the policy wonks, the social justice crowd, the media industry, and millions of well-meaning citizens will be prepared to acknowledge the truth of what you’ve said any time soon. Abilities differ, and we can’t do much about it. I am sure we are in for many more rounds of policy prescriptions, some (or many) of which will be dreadful. Please keep hammering away at this.

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Thank you for writing this. But please don't call meritocratic/test-driven schooling "Nietzschean". Nietzsche would have hated our current system. Check out his "Anti-Education".

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I'm a garden-variety Biden supporting STEM college professor Democrat dweeb, age 65, and it's been obvious to me for decades that simple redistribution is the only thing that works. It's just blindingly obvious. OF COURSE some people are better at this-or-that stuff than others. The hard part is creating a social message that redistribution is good.

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i quite like your posts on all this, i also loved your book as well. there is some good wisdom to be had from a few films (wargames) the only way to win is not to play, a few actors (lily tomlin) The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat. Most places don't care where you went to school, i went to a community college then a university without walls where i designed my own degree. i did it to become educated, not to be schooled. and i studied with some of the great elders of my era, from buckminster fuller to elizabeth kubler ross. it was, i admit, a different era, long before Reagan and the whole neoliberal thing. but still, the only way to win is not to play. life outside the rat race is possible, and you know what, there are flowers out there, that bloom for only those who have left the concrete of schoolrooms and the sidewalks laid down by the elite.

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Freddie, thank you for the article. Happy I subscribe to you!

Is it possible when making racial comparisons to include Asian and Hispanics, not just black/white. This happens again and again everywhere. Asian and Hispanics combined are twice the percentage as blacks.

(Spare us the Latinx moniker......thank you.)

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Thank you for a great post!

Your proposed solution is to transfer money from people who make a lot of money to benefit people who make a little or no money. I am sympathetic: yes, let's have people who benefit greatly from the current system support people who don't.

To that effect, I recommend that when you consider the current state of income inequality in US, you look at the data that includes the transfers of money that the government already implements, in the form of income taxes (taking money away from those who get a lot) and benefits for people who earn little.

The US Census Bureau (whose data is used in that Gini index of income inequality, for example) does not account for most of these transfers already in place. Here's what the US Census Bureau says about their measurement of income:

"Census money income is defined as income received on a regular basis (exclusive of certain money receipts such as capital gains) before payments for personal income taxes, social security, union dues, medicare deductions, etc. Therefore, money income does not reflect the fact that some families receive part of their income in the form of noncash benefits, such as food stamps, health benefits, subsidized housing, and goods produced and consumed on the farm."

There is more; here's the link: https://www.census.gov/topics/income-poverty/income/about.html

Here's a recent study that accounts for these omitted transfers, and finds that the Gini index is no worse than in the 1970's: https://www.cato.org/policy-analysis/reassessing-facts-about-inequality-poverty-redistribution . Here's the key graph from that study that summarizes their results: https://imgur.com/PEK50mu . Maybe the economists can effectively critique some of the methods of this study, but at least that's better than not accounting for many of the current transfers at all.

If we focus on the measures of income that include the current transfers, then we can disambiguate two separate questions: (a) are the current transfers large enough, and (b) are the ways those transfers currently happen effective.

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I've been running together in my mind your line of argumentation and Bryan Caplan's from The Case Against Education. To summarize a point I'm taking from him, we could dramatically reduce the scope of expectations from schools (i.e., focus them on core competencies and what in fact prepares students for what's next) and get the same or better results with less money. If true, we could greatly streamline what school is, reducing the cost significantly and the amount of time required for most kids. This keeps money in the pockets of those who need it and frees up time for kids to do many other things. Maybe parents (of sufficient means) would fill that extra time with differentiators for their kids, just as many try to do with what time kids have now. But perhaps we shouldn't worry about that so much.

Separately and not a criticism. I have read in the last year or so research showing that GPA is a better predictor of college success than SAT.

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It had never freakin'well OCCURRED to me that any but the looniest of the looney left (I am from the land of Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot, too) could think that education would make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. In particular, I'm sure they didn't think it would improve the intelligence (or other qualities) of a conservative. What I do think they thought was that academic ability had become roughly uncorrelated with social class and economic status, so that there were ripe fruit waiting to be picked by providing a full education to children of working class parents. It was not absurd to think so, at the time and place where I was born.

Trouble was, after one generation of this, there were not many ripe fruit left on the tree, and economic mobility slowed down. Which drove the leftists batty.

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