Robin Hanson and I have long agreed that education is mostly signaling.  But after reading The Case Against Education, my forthcoming book on educational signaling, Robin proposes a bold new theory of what’s really going on.  At least on my reading, Robin largely abandons signaling in favor of an enriched version human capital theory.  Indeed, Robin’s new story is very much in the spirit of Tyler Cowen’s beasts-into-men version of the human capital model, no doubt explaining Tyler’s enthusiasm for Robin’s innovation.

As you’d expect, I disagree.  While Robin makes some keen observations, he’s fundamentally wrong.  Point-by-point, with Robin in blockquotes.

In his upcoming book, The Case Against Education, my colleague Bryan Caplan argues that school today, especially at the upper levels, functions mostly to help students signal intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity to modern workplace practices. He says we’d be better off if kids did this via early jobs, but sees us as having fallen into an unfortunate equilibrium wherein individuals who try that seem non-conformist. I agree with Bryan that, compared with the theory that older students mostly go to school to learn useful skills, signaling better explains the low usefulness of school subjects, low transfer to other tasks, low retention of what is taught, low interest in learning relative to credentials, big last-year-of-school gains, and student preferences for cancelled classes.

So far, so good.

My main problem with Caplan’s story so far (he still has time to change his book) is the fact that centuries ago most young people did signal their abilities via jobs, and the school signaling system has slowly displaced that job signaling system. Pressures to conform to existing practices can’t explain this displacement of a previous practice by a new practice. So why did signaling via school did win out over signaling via early jobs?

While I don’t dwell on history, my book does answer the question, “Why does schooling pass the market test?”  My answer is: “Market test?!  Government showers almost a trillion dollars a year on the status quo, and you call that ‘passing the market test’?!”  But why do governments so favor conventional education?  My answer: The politics of Social Desirability Bias.  “Making sure every child has the best possible education” sounds wonderful despite its absurdity.  When individuals spend their own money, of course, they at least ponder whether what sounds wonderful is really worth the cost.  For collective spending, in contrast, Social Desirability Bias reigns supreme.

Like early jobs, school can have people practice habits that will be useful in jobs, such as showing up on time, doing what you are told even when that is different from what you did before, figuring out ambiguous instructions, and accepting being frequently and publicly ranked relative to similar people

One factual disagreement: Robin repeatedly claims that schools “publicly” rank students.  But at least in the modern U.S., schools strive to keep students’ performance private to protect students’ feelings.  Robin can insist that performance isn’t “really private,” but the fact remains that drawing attention to a student’s failure is a serious offense.  Try emailing your class the list of everyone’s grades, and you’ll see what I mean.

Otherwise, though, I agree with Robin’s description.  My book freely admits that school – especially K-12 – provides some socialization benefit.  But I still say: Compared to what?  School provides useful socialization relative to staying home playing videogames.  But not relative to actually doing a job.

But while early jobs threaten to trip the triggers than make most animals run from domination, schools try to frame a similar habit practice in more acceptable terms, as more like copying prestigious people.

There is quite a bit of research on the returns to vocational education and early job experience.  Both are at least as effective at raising future income as traditional education, at least after adjusting for students’ pre-existing academic strength.  Robin has my references.

Schools work best when they set up an apparently similar process wherein students practice modern workplaces habits. Start with prestigious teachers, like the researchers who also teach at leading universities. Have students take several classes at at a time, so they have no single “boss” who personally benefits from theirfollowing his or her orders. Make class attendance optional, and let students pick their classes. Have teachers continually give students complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions, using the excuse of helping students to learn new things. Have lots of students per teacher, to lower costs, to create excuses for having students arrive and turn in assignments on time, and to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn and decide which classes and jobs to take later. And continue the whole process well into adulthood, so that these habits become deeply ingrained.

This sounds vaguely plausible if you’re talking about college.  But it’s an outlandish summary of K-12 education.  And if you’re trying to understand the historical evolution of  education, K-12 became widespread first, and remains the dominant form of education to this day.

Why “outlandish”?  For starters:

1. In elementary school, students do have a single boss – one teacher they spend almost all their time with.

2. Attendance isn’t optional for K-12, and the students have almost no class choices until high school.

3. K-12 teachers give endless busywork: simple assignments with clear-cut instructions, not complex assignments with ambiguous instructions.

4. To repeat, performance rankings are not public.  While it’s impossible to preserve total secrecy, schools sincerely try to protect weaker students’ privacy to spare their feelings.

When students finally switch from school to work, most will find work to be similar enough to transition smoothly. This is especially true for desk professional jobs, and when bosses avoid giving direct explicit orders. Yes, workers now have one main boss, and can’t as often pick new classes/jobs. But they won’t be publicly ranked and corrected nearly as often as in school…

The opposite is true.  At least in the U.S., schools preach and practice an egalitarian ethos.  No student is entitled to boss other students around merely because he’s a “better student.”  That’s why their group projects are hell on earth.  Employers are much more comfortable publicly ranking workers, and encourage the more-skilled to correct the less-skilled.

[…] In sum, while students today may mostly use schools to signal smarts, drive, and conformity, we need something else to explain how school displaced early work in this signaling role. One plausible story is that schools habituate students in modern workplace habits while on the surface looking more like prestigious forager teachers than like the dominating bosses that all animals are primed to resist. But this hardly implies that everything today that calls itself a school is equally effective at producing this benefit.

Let me propose a variant on Robin’s story.  Namely: While school is not and never was a good way to acclimate kids to the world of work, it does wrap itself in high-minded rhetoric or “prestige.”  “Teaching every child to reach his full potential” sounds far nobler than “Training every child for his probable future.”  As a result, making the political case for ample education funding is child’s play.  Education’s prestigious image in turn cements its focal status role, making academic achievement our society’s central signal of conformity.

But while the problem is vast, it is not deep.  Slash public funding for education, and standard estimates of demand elasticity say that kids will spend many fewer years in school – and many more years learning practical skills on the job.

P.S. Aside: In his build-up, Robin also remarks:

When firms and managers from rich places try to transplant rich practices to poor places, giving poor place workers exactly the same equipment, materials, procedures, etc., one of the main things that goes wrong is that poor place workers just refuse to do what they are told. They won’t show up for work reliably on time, have many problematic superstitions, hate direct orders, won’t accept tasks and roles that that deviate fromtheir non-work relative status with co-workers, and won’t accept being told to do tasks differently than they had done them before, especially when new ways seem harder.

According to the best empirical evidence, multinational corporations are well-managed around the world.  The main problem of development isn’t that people in poor places won’t individually submit to foreign direction, but that people in poor places won’t collectively submit to foreign direction.  “Letting foreigners run our economy” sounds bad, but individuals are happy to swallow their pride for higher wages.  Voters and politicians in LDCs, in contrast, loathe to put a price on pride – and therefore hamstring multinationals in a hundred different destructive ways.