Wednesday, October 28, 2009

We Need Fewer Science Majors Not More

It's an article of faith: the United States needs more native-born students in science and other technical fields. The National Academies' influential Rising Above the Gathering Storm report in 2006 said the nation should "enlarge the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in science, engineering, or mathematics" to remain competitive. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce had a similar message on the gap in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students a year before. President Barack Obama has pushed for more science teachers and training for the same reason.

But a new paper (pdf) contradicts the notion of a shrinking supply of native-born talent in United States. "Those who advocate increasing the supply of STEM talent should cool their ardor a little bit," says one of its authors, B. Lindsay Lowell, a demographer at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The supply has actually remained steady over the past 30 years, the researchers conclude from an analysis of six longitudinal surveys conducted by the U.S. government from 1972 to 2005. However, the highest-performing students in the pipeline are opting out of science and engineering in greater numbers than in the past, suggesting that the threat to American economic competitiveness comes not from inadequate science training in school and college but from a lack incentives that would make science and technology careers attractive.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bad Economy: Sharp Rise in Runaways

Over the past two years, government officials and experts have seen an increasing number of children leave home for life on the streets, including many under 13. Foreclosures, layoffs, rising food and fuel prices and inadequate supplies of low-cost housing have stretched families to the extreme, and those pressures have trickled down to teenagers and preteens. . . .

The best measure of the problem may be the number of contacts with runaways that federally-financed outreach programs make, which rose to 761,000 in 2008 from 550,000 in 2002, when current methods of counting began. (The number fell in 2007, but rose sharply again last year, and the number of federal outreach programs has been fairly steady throughout the period.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

To Remember is to Forget: Rethinking Memory

“Having a memory that is too accurate is not always good” [from an evolutionary standpoint] . . .

Put another way, memory and imagination are two sides of the same coin. Like memory, imagination allows you to put yourself in a time and place other than the one we actually occupy. This isn’t just a clever analogy: In recent neuroimaging studies, Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter has shown that remembering and imagining mobilize many of the same brain circuits. “When people are instructed to imagine events that might happen in their personal future and then to remember actual events in the past, we find extensive and very striking overlap in areas of brain activation,” he says. Other researchers have found that people with severe amnesia lose their ability to imagine. Without memory, they can barely picture the future at all.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Another Misleading Report About High School Dropouts and Income

So, below I have reproduced the take home table in a new report on the social/economic loss resulting from high school dropouts in America, and the major gains we could make if we could just get people to graduate.

Of course, this argument is totally ridiculous. Among other things, it assumes the following:
  • That if inner-city kids got high school diplomas they would automatically also head up into the next income strata.
  • That having or not having a diploma is THE key influence on one's income strata.
  • That new graduates would have the same academic rigor and opportunity of prior graduates.
Reports like these simply feed the "Education Gospel" in America, the myth that education is a solution for economic and social problems. There is little or no evidence that this is the case.

The report concludes with the following two sentences:
1) There is an overwhelming national economic and social
justice need to prevent existing high school students from dropping out without earning a diploma and to encourage the re-enrollment and eventual graduation of those dropouts who have already left the school system.

2) In the absence of concerted efforts to bolster their academic achievement, their formal schooling, their occupational skills, and their cumulative work experience, their immediate and long term labor market prospects are likely to be quite bleak in the U.S. economy even after the end of the current economic recession, which for many of these youth has turned into a labor market depression.
Note that #1 is not saying the same thing as #2. It is not at all clear that high school graduation will lead to the results discussed in #2. Furthermore, as I have noted before, EDUCATION DOES NOT CREATE JOBS. So even if you get #2, you won't necessarily (likely will not) get many graduates into the next income strata.

These kind of reports especially piss me off in today's economic crisis. "Hey, kids, if you had just stayed in school, look what you could have done. But too bad. You didn't. So your unemployment is your own fault." Not what the authors meant to say, I'm sure. But that's part of what it does say. And it's wrong.

Note: in the comments, Sherman Dorn correctly adds:
. . . Yes, increasing graduation will not in and of itself change the macroeconomic circumstances that shape people's lives. . . .

On the other hand, there are also recent reports that use better estimates, and even if you are persuaded (as I am) that there are significant sheepskin/queueing effects of graduation, there is at least part of education that has a human capital benefit for general productivity. It's not as much as Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz claim, but it's not zero, either.

And there is also reason to be concerned from an equity standpoint. Even if high school graduation does nothing other than confirm credentials, the unequal distribution of those credentials should worry us.

Bottom line: I dislike the crude calculations and the "crisis" rhetoric, but there is a problem we have to address.
To which I reply:
I agree with your points. Wasn't cutting the issue quite this closely. The point is not that we shouldn't care at all about graduation. The point is that this link is much weaker and problematic than framed here and in many other places. And this framing has effects on our public dialogue around education.

If we actually educated poor kids to "think" it would be even more critical.

I wish it was more critical than it is.

Educational AttainmentAnnual
Tax Payments
Annual Earnings
Plus Prison Costs
Lifetime Net Fiscal
<12 or 12, No H.S. Diploma6,0876,197-5,191
H.S. Diploma/GED9,9383,551287,384
Some College13,2442,508461,661
Bachelor Degree20,5801,236793,079

This may be an example of learning too much SPSS and not enough social theory and research design. Correlation is not causality. Prior results do not guarantee future returns. Too harsh? Feel free to comment.

At least I learned how to make tables in html. Not a total waste of time. [Note retitled columns to save space]

The Lost Generation

Only 46% of people aged 16-24 had jobs in September, the lowest since the government began counting in 1948.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Encultured Brain: Why Neuroanthropology? Why Now?

Why Neuroanthropology? Why Now?

By Greg Downey and Daniel Lende
Neuroanthropology also has direct implications for anthropology and neuroscience. It demonstrates the necessity of theorizing culture and human experience in ways that are not ignorant of or wholly inconsistent with discoveries about human cognition from brain sciences. Rather than broad-based concepts like habitus or cognitive structure, neuroanthropology focuses on how social and cultural phenomena actually achieve the impact they have on people in material terms. Rather than assuming structural inequality is basic to all societies, neuroanthropologists ask how inequality differentiates people and what we might do about that.

Similarly, on the neurological side, the principal theories of brain development, neural architecture and function remain tied to a biological view of proximate mechanisms and evolutionary origins. Yet it is abundantly clear that many neurological capacities, such as language or skills, do not appear without immersion in culture. Neuroanthropology highlights how that immersion matters to the brain’s construction and function. For example, neuroanthropology can take a basic idea like Hebbian learning — “what fires together, wires together” — and examine how social and cultural processes shape the timing, exposure, and strength of activity, such that the coordinated action of brain systems emerges through cultural dynamics. Neuroanthropology opens up a vibrant new space for thinking about how and why brains work the ways they do.