Problem Productivity

Mail sorting assembly line

Assembly Line, via Wikipedia

When I recently delved into the problem of productivity, i.e., producing more with fewer
people, the Erstwhile Conservative, Duane Graham, produced a survey of the literature in a remarkably short period of time, one which indicates that many smart people recognize the problem, which is basically this: the education system is not producing the kinds of educated people for whom there are jobs.This led to a lively online exchange relative to how formal education bears on the issue. I argued that the quality of an education in America has declined. Duane is more sanguine and feels that higher teaching salaries would lead to better quality of education and hence, better jobs. I am not convinced.

On Monday, Washington Post columnist Esther Cepeda wrote on one aspect of the decline of education, that of reading. She said of the most recent “report card” for the schools,

Only one-third of all students demonstrated proficient, or higher, levels in reading.

Cepeda also states,

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there are thousands of different ways that reading is taught in schools across this country. In any given school building, there are a number of different teaching philosophies and methods used to teach reading, usually in addition to a packaged schoolwide literacy program.

Although nearly every state has adopted the Common Core State Standards for English, language arts and literacy, there are no best-practice benchmarks for teaching them.

Then, she said this, (emphasis supplied)

Hopefully this disorganized approach to teaching reading will soon gain some focus. During a news conference to discuss these just-released scores, officials from the National Center for Education Statistics said that because there is no substantive body of evidence on what actually increases reading scores, they took on the research project. It is under way and expected to be completed in 2015.

Here’s what I make of this. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press over 600 years ago, thus making the printed word available to the common man for the first time. Now, here we are in the twenty-first century still trying to figure out how to teach reading and writing! We have PhD’s in Education – thousands of them. If there were a best way to do it, wouldn’t they have figured this out some time ago?

Cepeda, despite recognizing that there are myriad ways to teach and learn English, sees the solution in uniformity. I submit that she, and the general public, just don’t get it. Teachers are born, not made, and all the extra teaching classes in the world, I submit, will not turn a poor teacher into a good one. But give a good one the basic tools and opportunity, and she will get the job done. Now, that said, I am absolutely in favor of higher salaries for gifted teachers. The challenge is how to identify that talent – that’s what they should be looking for, in my opinion.

Fellow blogger Anson Burlingame also commented on the subject recently and extolled the virtues of a local private school, the Thomas Jefferson. He opined that the difference in the quality of its product was its demanding standards. That may well be part of it, but I couldn’t help but consider that the students in that school come mainly from stable, upper-income families where the parents represent a gene pool of established success. That is no small part of education success for most institutions that I have encountered or read about. The Ivy League schools, for example, notoriously exploit the student selection process. When you start with the cream you are much less likely to produce a sour product.

Robes from Germany and from Finland @ a gradua...

Academic Robes, via Wikipedia

I see Education and the Economy as similar problems. They are complex, depending on factors going back generations. Each involves the complex variability of the human mind, human culture, and physical factors like nutrition. There are no simple solutions. Whatever fix we find for teaching language or for creating jobs, I am convinced that we will find it not in uniformity, but in the construction of systems which identify inherent talents, and provide basic tools and competitive opportunities.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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11 Responses to Problem Productivity

  1. Jennifer Lockett says:

    The role of education in society is such a problematic one. I must admit, as I always do, I am so hesitant to place educational in a vocational role. Purely using education as a ‘job trainer’ bothers me – I can’t entirely articulate why. However, it does.
    I would also agree with your assessment that part of the success of private schools has to do with the student body and environment (saying this as a lifelong public school child). At my school, my students all read at or above grade level, their parents are involved with their children, students have medical care and food in the home, and our environment can be easily regulated. In the public school arena, every child is entitled to an education. My husband teaches at a public school, if he calls home numbers are often disconnected. He has children with drug problems. He sees students who have been ‘passed up’ without basic skills of reading and writing. His classes are 50% larger than mine. Needless to say, mine will have a general higher average on standardized test and be admitted to more quality institutions of higher education. As much as I would like to take the credit for this distinction, I know that it’s not me (or him).
    How do we ‘fix education’? What is the role of education? I don’t have the answers to this and I’m not sure that anyone does. Perhaps it’s the fact that we now view education as an entitlement as opposed to something to be earned and provide ladder is the problem – if you look at countries like Korea (that is killing America), their attitude toward education and educators is starkly different than ours.


  2. PiedType says:

    By all means, let’s institute merit pay for teachers. We should definitely be attracting, rewarding, and encouraging the best. Also get rid of teachers unions and tenure. Having to cater to unions and be unable to fire bad teachers is absurd. Schools should be free to hire the best available teachers and get rid of the poor ones.

    I blame No Child Left Behind for much of what’s happened to our schools. Teaching to the test produces test takers, not well educated kids capable of critical thinking. Passing and graduating poor students in order to get higher ratings for a school may be great for the school but it’s cheating those students. The uniformity you mention is a great idea for a production line, but it does nothing to address regional and local differences in attitudes toward education, racial mix of students, class size, facilities, social mores, and innumerable other variations. Schools need flexibility to meet the various needs of their students. Using the same cookie cutter for all of them is a very bad idea (example: Discouraging our kids, dismantling the future

    I don’t know the answer for teaching reading. Some students pick it up much faster than others, and our education system must be prepared to accommodate those differences. Reading is fundamental to everything else a student will learn. Graduating any student who cannot read and write with proficiency is never acceptable.

    Finally, a typical old woman’s remark — Back when I was young, a student could get a great education from an average big public high school. I did. There’s no excuse for schools not being at least that good today.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      We both agree, it seems, that competition needs to be in the mix. I agree with your post on the subject, but am at a loss for how to change the meme in American culture that children are failures if they don’t go to college. Jennifer Lockett posted a remarkable link about that on her blog – one can get the whole sordid story about the degraded value of college and its soaring costs in a few minutes viewing.



      • PiedType says:

        Thanks for the link. That was a great (and very depressing) post.

        People without degrees may start feeling like failures if they keep getting turned away from jobs because they don’t have a degree. But if a job requires a certain level of education or job experience equivalent to a degree, it’s hard to argue with the requirement. If you want those jobs, you need to be educated enough to handle them. I do think an employer’s adhering strictly to a degree requirement when demonstrable, equivalent work experience is offered in its place is a loss for both the employer and the applicant.


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          I do think an employer’s adhering strictly to a degree requirement when demonstrable, equivalent work experience is offered in its place is a loss for both the employer and the applicant.

          I agree, of course. Problem is, work experience is harder to verify and quantify. Maybe this will change as transcripts slowly lose credibility.


  3. John Erickson says:

    Interesting thoughts. I would have to argue a bit for better consistency, based on my observations of schools throughout my life. I was lucky enough to attend a very challenging school up through 4th grade. The school I started attending in 5th grade was geared to a somewhat lower level of expectations, despite the fact the two schools were less than 30 miles apart. In my days down here in Ohio, I’ve seen local schools down here that would make my second school look like an academy for the ultra-gifted! I think a little more blending of the standards, and lifting of the poorer standards more than lowering the higher ones, would serve as a better springboard.
    I will absolutely agree that we need better training at the college level for “trade” jobs. My bachelor’s is from DeVry (GASP! 😉 ), and despite the negative connotations that implies, I was able to go straight into programming and analysing computer systems without a parole period sorting through punchcards (OLD FART ALERT!) or feeding printers. I think that more of those type of schools, teaching trades we still need rather than shooting for fancy fine-arts degrees for all, would be a significant boost to the economy. (And since DeVry got me through in less than 3 years AND allowed me to live at home, I walked away with a fraction of the debt that my friends had, who went to University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois!)


  4. ansonburlingame says:


    Permit me if you will to offer a counter to the “trade school” approach. Jim was six years ahead of me at USNA. His class (59) ALL took the same courses. Many of those courses were such things as dismantling a 5 inch 38 gun mount and putting it back together again. Navigation was focused more on using a sextant and punching star charts to create a “fix”. His class and all others marched to classes because the ciriculum was uniform, completely. !5 seniors in one company all marching together from one class to the next.
    My class (65) broke very new ground due to USNA remarkable leadership. First, a civilian academic dean position was created to reform the entire ciriculum. A “majors” program was begun, beinning with the Class of 65. Everyone took the same CORE science and math courses but no “gun mount” classes, etc. My class was the first group of now “old farts” to learn a little about computer programing using FORTRAN!! God almight, all those punch cards, but that was state of the art in 63 and 64.

    Jim and I both worked hard and studied hard to get through USNA and I doubt there is much difference in our “intelligence” or commitment to hard work as well. But I would suggest that my transcript from MY 4 years is remarkably different from Jim’s in terms of courses completed. Organic Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Nuclear Engineering, Advanced Engineering Math, Quantum Mechanics, Spherical Trigonometry and the list goes on.

    USNA began in the mid 60’s to move far away from a “trade school” teaching the pramatic skills to “run a ship” and moved very quickly to a fundamental, science and math based ciriculum with some opportunity to explore some liberal arts classes never before offered. I had a wonderful class in Political Science course for a semester along with all the “hard” science demanded as well.

    Two small town young men, hard working, dedicated to succeed, etc but a vastly different ciriculum offered and even demanded. One had great emphasis on “trade” studies the other on far more detailed “fundamentals”.

    And simply because of my age I watched the transformation right before my eyes for 4 long years. I of course am very glad I had the opportunity, through no effort of my own, to be on the leading edge of such really dramatic change. Jim never attended USNA when “Uncle Charly” was the Superidentent but I “had him” for two remarkable years. He set a very new course for USNA in those two years and the place has not been the same since then.


    PS: I must add this insight or opinion of my own as well. Guess who was DEMANDING as only the man himself could so demand, the radical change in a USNA education. Yep, Hyman Rickover. He wanted men with science fundamentals under their belts and then HE would train them how to operate his reactors. It is not inconsequential that my class was the FIRST one that Rickover allowed directly into his nuclear program without first spending “two years in the fleet” before he would even interview them. Jim knows full well about which I speak in this regard.


  5. Pingback: Problem Productivity | Still Skeptical After All These Years | Brucetheeconomist's Blog

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