All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


22 October 2011

Why college-mania could be hurting our high schools, and so on down the line.

A thought experiment I was having this morning:

1. Assume that you've got a population with varying levels of natural academic/intellectual ability. Hard to imagine, I know. But bear with me.

2. Assume that N% of the age-appropriate members of that population attend college.

3. Let x be the number of Professors needed to teach classes to that N%. Within certain variation limits, we can imagine that x is a function of n that is not inverse in any way, so that the more students you have, the more professors you require.

4. Now, while there will be some latitude, generally x will be drawn exclusively from some definable upper reach of the population in terms of academic/intellectual ability. Let's define that reach as the top Z%.

5. This population will also want high school teachers. But while some of those high school teachers will come from the top Z% (remember, there's some latitude there because not all smart people become professors), the range from which the high school teachers is going to be drawn is going to be much larger. Let's call that the top Y%, where Z>Y. Now because teaching college is, in general, such a better lifestyle choice than teaching high school, HS teachers are generally going to be drawn from the range between the top Z% and the top Y%. So the two general rules are (with exceptions, of course):
1. Professors come from the top Z%.
2. Teachers come from the top Y%, but generally from the range between Y% and Z%
6. So that's our baseline. Now let's assume that somewhere along the line, it is decided that everyone should go to college. That's unrealistic, of course. But let's imagine that the push results in a tripling of n. So now we're sending 3N% of the age-appropriate population to college.

7.An increase in n is going to require an increase in x. So x will go up as well.

8. The relationship between x and Z%, however, is going to be inverse in some way or another. The more professors you need, the "deeper" into the intellectual bullpen you need to go. So as x increases, Z% is going to DECREASE by some amount, call it B.

9.As Z% decreases, the number of people in the gap between Y% and Z% decreases. So unless more of those people start teaching high school (and why would they? they've got other jobs already), in order to keep the same number of high school teachers, Y% is going to have to drop as well. Because the distribution of academic/intellectual ability is somewhat normal, the decrease will be smaller than B. Let's call it A, where (A < B). So two new rules:
1. Professors come from the top (Z-B)%.
2. Teachers come from the top (Y-A)%, but generally from the range between (Y-A)% and (Z-B)%
Conclusion: The more college professors you employ, the lower the range of academic/intellectual ability from which you must hire your high school teachers. In other words, as college demand expands, it eats up the good instructors who would otherwise be teaching high school.

We can plausibly imagine that similar effects take place with respect to junior high school and elementary school teachers.

So am I crazy?


Rachel Levy said...


This is interesting, but keep in mind:

a) For the most part, college professors are paid the same or even worse than K-12 teachers. However, they have more curricular & academic freedom. Oh, except:

b) At least some of the same college-for-all mania comes from the same people who want to "reform" higher education, i.e., increase instructor:student ratios, get ride of tenure, hire more adjuncts (who are paid even less than regular college professors), standardize curriculum, impose high-stakes standardized testing. This all makes (or will serve to make) teaching college much less appealing.

c) I wouldn't assume colleges & universities are sucking up the better teachers. In fact, (and this is where the higher ed reformers are on to something) at least some college instructors (especially those at research universities) while very smart and knowledgeable about their fields are actually lousy teachers, nor do they care much about being better teachers or about matters of pedagogy. A few of them have even told me they hate teaching and that getting teaching awards as graduate students is the "kiss of death."

Rachel Levy said...

And speaking of higher ed, dude, where's my guest post? ;)

Dawn said...

Not convinced but I do think college has sucked out of high school a lot of what used to be high school territory. What high schoolers learn Latin anymore? Read Homer or Ovid? Learn how to really write a persuasive argument?

So, on your specific point I'm not sure but as a bigger issue is it worth asking if college has left high school an empty husk of it's former self.

Michael E. Lopez said...

That's a really interesting thought, Dawn -- one I hadn't really considered. Thank you for commenting!