Is the US Close to Maxed Out on Education?

Mark Lewis writes:

“In 1930, there was a lot of potential in the US public for improving skills through education. Most people were undereducated. They hadn’t reached their potential because they didn’t need to and were advised against it. Somewhere around the 1950s, kids were being told that they really needed to graduate from High School to find jobs. By the 1980s, you needed to go to college to get a good job. By 2000, college wasn’t seen as the key to the good jobs, it was the key to almost every job. We had moved into the information age and High School counselors were telling students that if they didn’t get some college they were doomed to lower-end jobs.

“One result of this is that the US is probably close to maxed out on education. There are inevitably some things that can happen to help certain students go further. There are definitely things that can be done to make the whole process more efficient. However, I don’t think this is an area of huge untapped potential. I don’t see any technology that is going to take current High School dropouts and turn them into Ph.D.s in STEM fields…

“I think the stories from the Occupy movement of people who had degrees and couldn’t find jobs are a parallel to the kid in the 1920s who was told to drop out of school and start working the farm. While it is easy to take a condescending view of the 20-somethings who racked up a whole bunch of debt majoring in some field from the Humanities and can’t find a job today, doing so is not only non-productive, it really isn’t fair. Those kids grew up being told that they should get a college degree in something they loved and that would get them a job. That advice has worked for decades. The people giving the advice didn’t lie, they simply didn’t have 20/20 foresight into the future. (Something it is impossible to blame people for.)

“There is a difference between today’s Occupiers and the unemployed farm hand of 1930 though, the unemployed farm hand had a lot of untapped potential when it came to education. The youth of today typically don’t. Yes, they could go learn something different to give them more desirable skills, but I fear that doesn’t scale the same way. Plus, many of these people chose the direction they went because they found that those other areas (which might be better for jobs) didn’t work well for them.” ¬†(link)

I mostly agree with the basic premise here. The only clarification I would add is the limiting factor may not be people’s intellectual capability but their interest and ambition. I actually have a lot of faith in people’s potential when properly educated. But harnessing one’s potential requires willpower and drive that may be in short supply.

In other words, there are probably lots of people who intellectually speaking could become STEM field Ph.D.s but never will, because they lack the desire to follow through with such a field of study. So the next educational challenges will not only be about transferring knowledge, but also about finding new ways to incentivize people and make the learning process fun. For this reason I expect future education to increasingly take the form of games. The educational problem could be seen as a game design problem.

However, the bottom line remains the same. We are probably not going to be able to address the upcoming automation revolution with education alone. And the previous industrial revolution may have limited lessons to teach us in terms of providing a blueprint for the way ahead.

5 thoughts on “Is the US Close to Maxed Out on Education?

  1. There definitely are situations where students cap out because of a lack of desire. I see them in the classroom. However, I see a larger fraction of people who cap out. Some of that is due to their educational foundation. Some of it is drive when they were younger. However, the people who fail the math section of the TAAS test (old standardized test in Texas) seven times at the age of 20 and can’t get a GED as a result are not held back by a lack of motivation. They have capped out.

    (Note that there was such a person who was the daughter of my wife’s co-worker. That was a test my daughter could have aced in 7th grade or earlier.)

  2. I got an e-mail for a comment that doesn’t appear to be here. I’d love to hear your experience. Unfortunately, with education it is extremely hard to go beyond anecdotes. It is very hard to get solid numbers in quantities that are statistically significant. So instead, we discuss anecdotes most of the time.

    I think that HS level education can be clearer that what I see. I see a very narrow segment of the population. It has an average SAT of about 1300, fairly far from the norm. I have to make inferences about the broader population. It would be good to see discussion of that broader population.

  3. On the side of desire playing a role, I actually think that things like KhanAcademy are going to have the biggest impact in the 3rd world. They have desire. They will push it until their capabilities cap out. I’m not at all convinced that American kids will do that.

  4. Hey. I was rushed and made the mistake of replying to the email notification and not the comment itself. i had written:

    “I defer to your anecdotal experience on this. I work in education but only at the high school level.”

    The most advanced math my HS students do is beginning calculus. So there’s a limit to how far any of them end up going. However, I have yet to meet a student that I thought couldn’t learn up until at least that level with proper one-on-one instruction. (Though some students would need A LOT more hours than others.) Private instruction (which is what I do) can accomplish a lot, much more than what these same students can achieve in a classroom or at home with a book. However, I expect a well designed piece of software with advanced AI and game-like elements could maybe do a better job than even I can, and at a more affordable cost.

    But again this is all anecdotal, and my demographic is skewed in other ways (I generally deal with families who prioritize education heavily or they wouldn’t be setting aside the money to hire me.) Also if we’re talking about job-relevant skills, there’s STEM fields, but then there’s also raw high level creativity of the type that AI can’t do very well. It’s a bit of a toss up for me which of those two areas will be the most lucrative in the future. Probably they’ll both be highly competitive. To be the few people getting paid to either design the machines or give them creative direction, means probably being extraordinarily talented.

    Also good point about all the latent ability in the 3rd world that will be coming online. The good news is this is talent the world can use. The bad news is that this certainly isn’t a source of job growth for those of us here in America.

  5. The idea of gamifying education is something that is near ubiquitous in my thoughts lately. There is so much potential for this approach. For one, it would have a drastic and positive influence on motivation. When students are independently motivated, rather than feeling forced to work, the quality of the work goes up substantially.

    This would also open up many new avenues for online, decentralized centers for education and the amount of autodidacts would also see an increase. You could use the same content to reach an exponentially higher amount of students, while freeing up professional educators time and resources to focus specifically on students who are having problems with certain aspects, rather than having to focus on everyone at the same time. It would also let people work at their own pace, which again would be a godsend for rehabilitating motivation in education.

    Khan Academy is revolutionary, but it is only the beginning. I expect to see a lot more people trying to implement these kind of approaches in the future.