An "Anti-School" Teacher on The Case Against Education
By Bryan Caplan
A high school teacher just sent me this email. Reprinted anonymously with his permission, with brief replies from me inserted in the text.
Dear Professor Caplan,
I just finished reading The Case Against Education and thoroughly enjoyed it! I was not only impressed by the depth of your research and thought, but also appreciated your writing style and frequent use of humor. Congrats! By the way, I write from New York City, and whenever I was reading your book on the subway, I noticed many people looking at the title with curiosity (one woman even asked to take a picture so she could search it up).
I am a public high school teacher in the South Bronx. I teach mostly 10th grade English at a traditional, unscreened grades 6-12 district school with about 400 students total. I have also taught a Film Studies elective, which is really my passion. Our school is located in the poorest Congressional district in the country. Almost all of our students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. We have many students with learning disabilities as well as recently arrived immigrants and those in ENL/ESL. I’d say most of our students go to college, or at least start (more on that below).
I have been teaching for fifteen years–at a private/Jesuit school for low-income families, then at a charter school, and now at my current school–all schools in urban areas with students of predominantly lower socioeconomic status.
But in the spirit of full disclosure…I am one of the most “anti-school” people I know. Some of this might be my anarchist leanings. In fact, I enjoy working with the age and type of student that I do because they are so candid about how much they hate school–and I feel their pain. By the way, if you need any more evidence that school turns students off, ask a typical classroom of high schoolers how many want to become a teacher–almost nobody! Pretty odd when you consider that many students cite teachers as important influences and trusted mentors. I fully understand the irony/hypocrisy of my anti-school position, as I point out to my colleagues. I always did well in school, but that’s because I knew how to play the game. I suppose I see my mission as a teacher as one of “accompaniment”; that is, to help students navigate these rocky years and to try to prevent, as Mark Twain would say, school getting in the way of their education…or needlessly crushing their soul. I am Catholic and have been deeply influenced by models of Jesuit spirituality and pedagogy.
I have two follow-up questions for you based on your book, and I would love your thoughts if/when you get a chance:
1. Many of our students are what you would call in your book “Fair” students. Many attend community college (for free) with mixed results when it comes to completion. (Some attend SUNY schools or private four-year colleges, but those are the stronger students.) It seems like, according to your research, community college may not be a very good self-interested investment? As I recall you saying, the 6-year completion rate of 2-year colleges is 58%. But then I read this. Do you think for “Fair” students community college is a worthwhile investment of time and energy? My sense is that if our students don’t attend four-year colleges, preferably outside of the City, they are not likely to complete their studies and could, instead, get started on a job. Actually, I was told this by a former student who graduated this past June; in fact, he already decided to not attend his community college this fall after a demoralizing summer intensive class there, and realizing that he’s tired of school.
[I think community college is a good deal for a few programs like nursing (assuming you can still get a nursing job with an AA). But generally not. – B.C.]
2. I recall from your book that completing high school, college, and graduate school boosts annual earnings by something like $9,000, $20,000, and $12,000, respectively. I get that ability bias may mean that college might not “cause” the increased earnings. But I am wondering if, in the case of my students (first-generation college, dependent on significant financial aid, lacking some of the cultural capital and networking that higher SES students possess, etc.), they are likely to reap the benefits of a college degree even if they have a mixed academic track record in high school?
[I don’t have any specific data on this subgroup. I can see these students having a higher-than-normal payoff for the reasons you suggest. But I can also see them having a lower-than-normal payoff because they lack the cultural capital and networks to succeed in school. It is well-established, though, that black students have a markedly higher payoff for school than non-blacks (if they finish, of course). -B.C.]
Once again, many thanks for your book! I plan to use some of what I learned to help my students understand the concept of “signaling” and to gain a better sense of the educational/career landscape. I will also recommend it to other educators. After all, we need to stay humble.
And here’s my reply.