Education: The Not So Low, Low Hanging Fruit

A few things to consider:

  • Nationally, 89% of non-low-income students graduate from high school on time compared to 74.6% of low-income students – a 14.4% point gap.
  • The U.S. is the only country where educational attainment levels among those just entering the labor market (25-34 year-olds) do not exceed those about to leave the labor market (55-64 year-olds).
  • Among 25-34 year-olds, the U.S. ranks 15th among 34 OECD countries in secondary education attainment.
  • Internationally, the US is ranked 17th in reading, 20th in science, and 27th in math.
  • Since 1972, the cost of a university education has risen at more than 3x the overall rate of inflation.
  • Between 2001 and 2012, funding by states and localities for higher education declined by 33%, when adjusted for inflation.
  • Among general populations worldwide, 53% say the pace of change in business and industry is too fast. They worry about losing their jobs—60% because they lack needed training or skills, meaning their skills haven’t kept up with fast-changing job requirements, 54% because of automation, which means the same thing.
  • The 2012 annual full-time earnings gap between college graduates and high school graduates was $35,000 for men and $23,000 for women.
  • A two-earner household with both husband and wife having college degrees have an annual earning that is $58,000 higher than a two-earner household consisting of two high school graduates.
  • College completion for households in the top quarter of the income distribution rose from 40% to 77% between 1970 and 2013, whereas for those in the bottom quarter, it increased only from 6% to 9%.

I state these statistics not to attribute blame, or merely for shock value, but because I feel like they aren’t stated enough.

The 2016 presidential election was deftly void of detailed, intellectual discussion regarding the state of education in our country. Yet, I don’t blame the politicians – they merely speak to the things voters appear to be concerned the most about – terrorism, immigration, and “bringing jobs back” to the states.

While there is merit for individuals to be concerned about these things, these concerns, specifically, as it relates to immigration and jobs, are concerns that are by-products of a greater underlying shortcoming – America’s scarcity of education capitalization, or the percentage of people in any group who are able to reach or capitalize on their educational potential.

Education is so important because its effects scale quickly:

College educated individuals typically marry each other, earn two incomes (enhanced by the degree) and have children after marriage, rather than out of wedlock. Their kids start off with a significant advantage in life. These kids are read to, exposed to museums, music lessons, and the world outside of the United States, further enriching their perspective. These families tend to live in suburbs where local schools provide free laptops, robust course selection, and access to some of the top colleges in the world…

I think you get the point.

Why are we not doing more to solve this problem?
Why isn’t this being reported on CNN 24/7?
Why isn’t the proposed solution for making America great again education?

Because the arc of education is long.
It takes resources.
It takes time.

It’s easier to bully US companies into not moving jobs overseas – providing a quick and ultimately fleeting bump in employment.

It’s hard to come clean and stomach the fact that the labor pool in the US doesn’t have the skills to perform higher value-add jobs.

I don’t claim to have the answers, nor that solutions to the educational challenges we face are easy.

Yet, I am proclaiming that the challenges are worth talking about. They are problems worth solving.

If we really want to address inequality and social mobility in this country, we must start with education.

It’s tempting to tinker around the edges with things that make headlines and transitionary “quick fixes”.

Yet, there are three things that are true of any problem worth solving:

  1. its hard
  2. it takes time, and most importantly,
  3. it takes awareness

Time: We’ve Got it All Wrong

Why are we forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing?

Time.

It’s the asset that we all eagerly wish we had more of.

More time to read.
More time to spend with friends.
More time to follow our dreams.
More time with loved ones.
More time to create art.
More time to see the world.
More time to go to the gym.
More time to make a difference.
More time to become the person we want to be.

However, time is fixed. We can’t make any more of it. It’s our most precious and least renewable resource.

However, truth is, there is, in fact, enough time. Life is long enough. There is enough time to accomplish the things that we desire to do most.

The real problem with time? We waste most of it.

We waste it watching TV.
We waste it spending time with negative people that we don’t care to be around.
We waste it in meetings.
We waste it doing things we aren’t passionate it about.
We waste it consuming things that we don’t need.
We waste it searching the internet for “life hacks”.
We waste it on facebook.
We waste it complaining.
We waste it by not capturing our brilliant ideas.
We waste it by holding grudges.
We waste it by making excuses.
We waste it talking, instead of listening.
We waste it talking about people, instead of about ideas.
We waste it waiting for things to happen.

We severely underestimate how much time we spend doing these things.

It is not that life is short, but that we make it that way.

Life is long, if you know how to use it.

The Well-worn Narrative Flywheel

Speed and efficiency are usually thought of as great things. As two measures that improve outcomes and increase optimization. Yet, often, we are moving so quickly that we fail to stop and think about the costs associated with speed and efficiency.

One such cost is being born day in and day out in the news media we consume. It is the cost of anti-intellectualism, or the inadvertent decision that insights, theories, and truth are inferior to speed and efficiency.

We have no one to blame but ourselves. This is the system we have built. We have constructed the incentives. We have abided by the rules.

In this structure, there is no great reward for speaking truth.

The truth is complicated.
The truth takes time to sort out.
The truth doesn’t neatly shine through the lenses through which we view the world.
The truth causes consternation.
The truth is attacked.
The truth is hard to measure.

Therefore, instead, we have set up an incentive system that is faster and more efficient than the system that would be needed to seek out the facts.

We have resorted to what is easy to measure – clicks, likes, followers, views. We have opted to optimize around these measures, seeking to become ever more efficient in maximizing them in harmony.

This system works like a flywheel.

Consumers want content that is easy to digest, easy to share, fun, and most of all convenient.

Under the pressure imposed by consumer’s, ratings, and tight deadlines, traditional media outlets rally around the well-worn narrative. The sound bit. The information that fits the worldview of the outlets most loyal consumers. It rallies around a focus on personal conflict, at the expense of the taking the time to understand the merits of both sides of the narrative.

The well-worn narrative gets repeated over and over again until it eventually becomes a hard particle of reality.

In turn, consumers, being busy and short on time, welcome the well-worn narrative. Its quick and easy to digest. And we are in such a hurry, these well-worn narratives lodge a place in our brains, without us ever stopping to question them.

Ultimately, it’s easier on everyone.

The problem with the flywheel of the well-worn narrative is the weight that it adds. This weight stresses and strains the truth and underneath it, the facts get lost. They get ignored.

It is the absence of agreement on the facts that puts each well-worn narrative on equal footing. Eliminating the possibility of learning, thoughtful reasoning, and an eco-system that facilitates the asking of thoughtful questions.

The only way to stop a flywheel is to throw a ratchet in it. However, this is harder than it sounds. It takes courage. It takes momentum. It takes the masses. It takes time.

Maybe the first step is the recognition that fast isn’t always better. Easy isn’t always preferred.

Simple isn’t always the best.

The Lek Paradox & The Myth of Better

We too, as the female peacock have been socialized to always strive for better. Yet, we run ever faster toward the finish line of “better” to get there and realize that it is merely the start of the next race.

Peacocks have an incredibly unique and intriguing mate selection process. This process of seduction is known as “Lekking”, after the Swedish word, “Lek”, which is the word for play.

During breeding, males gather in Leks, where they cluster together and mark out their territories. Once their territory is marked, the males wait for the females to arrive.

The female peacock is incredibly selective. She spends several days contemplating the goods on offer, with the ultimate goal being to select the best male.

At the core of it, she intends to acquire the best genes for her offspring and as asserted, and since confirmed, by Charles Darwin, the female makes this decision based on the length and ornateness of the tail of the male peacock (they are not actually tails but elongated rump feathers that cover the tail).

Once she has found her match, the male mounts atop the female. Minutes later his job is done.

At the lek, one or a few males achieve most of the matings. A single male may perform half of all mating’s at one lek.

Interestingly, female peacocks display a great degree of choosiness, yet choice matters the least within the species – otherwise known as the Lek Paradox.

The Lek Paradox arises because, if all of the females choose to mate with the same few males – those with the ‘best’ genes, then there will be much less genetic variety in the population in the next generation, and over a number of generations we might expect this to lead to no variety, making it impossible to sustain any choice.

Therefore, for the females, there is no reason to be as choosy, as the males they are choosing among were all fathered by the same few males in the previous generation.

Why does this process continue? Why do female peacocks continue to be choosy in selecting to mate with the few males with the most ornate and longest tails?

It is because the cost of doing otherwise, or mating with a short tail male, are perceived to be too high. Any female who bucks the trend, and chooses a short-tail male, will have a short-tailed son, condemning him to celibacy, given the selection criteria of the rest of the females.

In turn, each female is on a treadmill. They dare not jump off, as it potentially jeopardizes the fate of their offspring. They are constantly running (by being so selective), yet staying in the same place (having no variety to select from).

So, what does this have to be with human beings?

We too, as the female peacock have been socialized to always strive for better.

A better job.
A better salary.
A better title.
A better house.
A better car.
A better school.

Yet, we run ever faster toward the finish line of “better” to get there and realize that it is merely the start of the next race.

The solution is to realize that “better” is, in fact, a myth. You don’t have to run in the race. You can dare to jump off of the treadmill, recognizing that it is, in fact, not a race at all. You can change the narrative.

Instead, it’s about doing things that you care about.
Things that make an impact.
The house you can afford.
The car that merely gets you from point A to point B.
The school that is in your best interest – the one that facilitates the environment in which you will best be set up for success.

While this narrative, as the Myth of Better, doesn’t have a finish line and is just as grueling, it’s sure to be a much more fulfilling journey.

The choice is yours.

Don’t end up like the female peacock.