College or no College?

In a recent New York Times article, conservative columnist David Brooks argues that giving college education to hard working folks is going to increase their income to $58000 per year. Some studies have suggested that the income disparity between college grads and high school grads is only going up. As of 2013, the income gap may be as high as $17,500 in the US. No doubt that it makes perfect sense to send your children for college. The answer to the “college or no college” question, of course, is a no-brainer, higher education brings home higher pay. Or it seems.

So shouldn’t we campaign for mass college education as well? Wouldn’t it be better for the common good to help another million or two to earn college degrees? On the surface it sounds like a logical thing to do but it may work out for worse. Here is why:

  • It is well known that the US has pretty darn deep student loan dept. On an average, a college grad accumulates as high as $26,000 on student loans. Those who make to the higher paying jobs may or may not make enough money to justify the huge debt that otherwise they would carry around for a long time.
  • Flooding with college grads would bring the average wages down. As a consequence, unemployment among college educated would go up. Good news for employers, who are constantly looking for cheap labor. Nothing exciting there for job seekers.
  • Unemployed from college grads will inevitably compete for low income jobs. Even in low paid job sector competition increases resulting in lesser pay. You can see how quickly unhappiness spirals up.
  • Creating a lot of college graduates will not make their lives easier. But creating a lot of jobs will. Before mass producing college grads, we need to create the demand first.

It is like selling stocks in a bullish market. If you own a hundred shares of a stock that’s doing very well on the stock market, yeah, you can make quick bucks by selling them on an uptick. Say instead, you are fortunate to own a million shares of the same stock. If you try to sell them all at once, that will force the prices go down and you lose.

You would still want to send your child to college. She / he will have better chances of a successful career. But as a public policy, mass college education, will create more debts, unemployment and unhappiness.

What we really need is to create a job market in which job seekers can find well paying jobs with a high school level education. These are the folks who work hard, spend all and keep the economy thrive. Unlike the conservative rhetoric, this will eventually help the economy grow.

A New Kind of Education

The past 200 years of school and college education have been the backbone of our worker centric economy. Society and individuals invest money and resources to produce analytical minds of various kinds, which employers could pick and choose for their labor force. All these years, we have been focusing on mostly analytical skills with little or no importance on emotional and creative skills for our curriculum for schooling.

We get our smartness from 80 billions of neurons and 100 trillion interconnections. We gain leverage by connecting these brains with 7 billions of others forming a massive network of wet machines. The problem now is that the machines and silicon brains are catching up. They too have billions of transistors and billions of interconnections. It seems as though Moore’s law is not going out of fashion anytime soon. On any analytical scale, computers have grown to beat us down. Then, why do we care to compete with them – that is an impossible task anyway. I think the time is ripe that we switch gears and focus on complementing machines instead of competing with them.

Instead, we should start investing in a new kind of education, where we focus mainly on the skills that computers can’t excel. At least for now. Like emotional skills, non-linear and spatial thinking and creativity.

Do you still want your kids go to medical school , engineering school or law school? Think again.

Two Tools for Teaching Children to Code

Why should we teach our children to code?

  • Because it gives them the ability to see what’s going on under the hood.
  • Because it sharpens their logical reasoning.
  • Because it empowers them to create instead of consume.
  • Because they may just like it and someday they might want to make a living out of coding.
  • Because it makes them “cool” among their peers.
  • Because it helps them to work better with computer professionals even if they chose a different line of specialization.
  • Because it is pure fun. Coding gives them instant gratification. Working code can show them magic unfolding in front of their eyes.

I am sure I wasn’t persuasive enough but please give it a try. There are tons of resources out there online to help you choose the right toolkit. It will be a true gift to your children.

To begin with here are a couple of links to checkout. Scratch from MIT is really easy and fun for young kids of age 5-8. App Inventor (created by Google and later donated to MIT) lets you create real Android apps using some of the event driven programming concepts. It is appropriate for ages 9-15. A child who can do Legos can do coding as well with either of these tools. Both are great tools for teaching.

Gifted and Talented

The school district in my town runs a prorgam called G&T for  elementary school students. Every year, a handful of kids get selected using some secret assessment criteria, with very limited parent insight.

For starters, G&T stands for Gifted and Talented program. I believe it does more harm than good for students and hence should be redesigned.

  1. Not so obvious, but the Gifted and Talented program is not very enriching for the children who get selected. Attaching a “Gifted” label is giving a false feedback to the children, who are attending those programs. When you start attaching labels such as innate (genetic) giftedness, kids could possibly grow a blind eye towards the importance of hard work. Studies after studies have found that educators and parents should be promoting hard work (“Well done Meena, you must have worked hard on that!”) instead of innate giftedness (“Wow! you did this! You are really smart, Johny!”). For example, Dweck and Mueller’s study found out that praising for hardwork encouraged fifth graders to persist longer and achieve better test results than the kids, who were praised for innate qualities such as smartness. (Those who are interested, here is an article for you – The Trouble with Bright Kids.)
  2. Obviously, G&T program is not so helpful for the students, who are not admitted to the program. At best, Gifted and Talented is a misnomer with some destructive qualities. Antonym for Gifted and Talented is Ungifted and Untalented, to figure which out, kids don’t have to be truly Gifted and Talented. For potentially benefiting a handful of children, we are jeopardizing the self esteem of the vast majority of others. The easiest but significant change the schools can make is to rename this program something else along the lines of, “Competitive Education Program”. But not Gifted and Talented – please.
  3. Moreover, Gifted and Talented is a statistically inaccurate description. In any given society, the number of “gifted” individuals is far and few. In a normally distributed dataset, you can’t expect to have 10-15% of the population displaying true giftedness. (What is true giftedness, anyway.)

Schools, teachers and educators should not be in the business of labeling and classifying their students. Instead, they should get busy building passion and perseverance in students right from their early stages of development.

It is October and the weather turns colder. It is also the time of the year, we have school board elections. This is something that the new board can consider changing as a first step.

Elementary School America is in a competition frenzy. Unfortunately for now, in a wrong headed fashion.