School Is for Wasting Time and Money

Bryan Caplan:

I have deep doubts about the intellectual and social value of schooling. My argument in a nutshell: First, everyone leaves school eventually. Second, most of what you learn in school doesn’t matter after graduation. Third, human beings soon forget knowledge they rarely use.

Strangely, these very doubts imply that the educational costs of the coronavirus pandemic are already behind us. Forced optimism notwithstanding, the remote schooling that millions of students endured during the pandemic looks like a pedagogical disaster. Some researchers found that being in Zoom school was about equivalent to not being in school at all. Others simply found that test scores rose much less than they normally would.

But given my doubts about the value of school, I figure that most of the learning students lost in Zoom school is learning they would have lost by early adulthood even if schools had remained open. My claim is not that in the long run remote learning is almost as good as in-person learning. My claim is that in the long run in-person learning is almost as bad as remote learning.

How do we know all this? My work focuses on tests of adult knowledge — what adults retain after graduation. The general pattern is that grown-ups have shockingly little academic knowledge. College graduates know about what you’d expect high school graduates to know; high school graduates know about what you’d expect dropouts to know; dropouts know next to nothing. This doesn’t mean that these students never knew more; it just means that only a tiny fraction of what they learn durably stays in their heads.

This is especially clear for subjects beyond the three R’s — reading, writing and arithmetic. Fewer than 1 percent of American adults even claim to have learned to speak a foreign language very well in school, even when two years of coursework is standard. Adults’ knowledge of history and civics is negligible. If you test the most elementary facts, like naming the three branches of government, they get about half right. The same goes for questions of basic science, like “Are electrons smaller than atoms?” and “Do antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria?”

The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”

2017: West High Reading Interventionist Teacher’s Remarks to the School Board on Madison’s Disastrous Reading Results 

Madison’s taxpayer supported K-12 school district, despite spending far more than most, has long tolerated disastrous reading results.

My Question to Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers on Teacher Mulligans and our Disastrous Reading Results

“An emphasis on adult employment”

Wisconsin Public Policy Forum Madison School District Report[PDF]

WEAC: $1.57 million for Four Wisconsin Senators

Friday Afternoon Veto: Governor Evers Rejects AB446/SB454; an effort to address our long term, disastrous reading results

Booked, but can’t read (Madison): functional literacy, National citizenship and the new face of Dred Scott in the age of mass incarceration.

No When A Stands for Average: Students at the UW-Madison School of Education Receive Sky-High Grades. How Smart is That?