by Russ Roberts on August 30, 2011

in Podcast, Uncategorized

The latest EconTalk is a back-to-school special–Eric Hanushek talking about the importance of teachers. Very provocative. Education would be much more effective in the full sense of the word if we let competition transform it.

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Nick August 30, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Great podcast, Russ! Keep up the great work.

I’m now going back through the archives and listening to the whole catalog. You’ve also got me reading Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek- greats that I somehow missed in college.

Slappy McFee August 30, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Just finished this episode about an hour ago — was hoping for a little more meat. Sorry.

Doc Merlin August 30, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Trained observers are the worst when it comes to judging teacher efficacy. My students would come to me thanking me for explaining things and that they didn’t understand their other classes before they took mine, yet I typically got mediocre marks on evaluations.

The education profession itself, looks for metrics that don’t actually relate statically to learning. For example, when I was teaching a physics lab, I was docked points because I didn’t ask enough open ended questions. In physics, open ended questions are great and entertaining for the best students, but they almost always cause extra confusion and make you lose the rest of the class. I would have much rather had some sort of testing system, because my students knew their material much better than the other classes, which put them in a better position to be able to answer open ended questions later should the need arise.

2) If my students came to me understanding in a very rote-like way the material they should have learned in highschool, I would have been overjoyed, but they don’t even have that. There are several levels of learning and the base level if rote memorization, on this I agree with you. While you and others seem to be worried about the higher learning levels (as those are the fun ones to teach) schools are failing at the most basic level. It isn’t some abstract, hard to quantify realm of knowledge where students in the US are behind. They aren’t even succeeding on simple things like teaching kids fractions.

I’ll give math examples: Entering into my class (note: this is a calculus-based physics class at a university, everyone who was in this class was pursuing a STEM degree) about a third of the students could not solve the equation y=mx+b for x if given the value of Y. About the same number of students thought that a/(a+b) was the same as 1/(1+b).

In short, you really don’t understand exactly how horrible the system actually is. You are worried about making “better tests” while actually the system is a horrible failure.

vikingvista August 30, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Frightening. These undoubtedly include some future politicians who will be telling me how I must lead my life. Suffering violent authority is tough. Suffering the violent authority of morons is almost unbearable.

tdp August 31, 2011 at 12:31 pm

x= (y-b)/m

Doc Merlin August 30, 2011 at 4:44 pm

I forgot to add, some of these students of mine were math and science highschool teachers.

Economic Freedom August 30, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Ever read “The Tyranny of Testing” by mathematician (and associate of Einstein) Banesh Hoffman?


Doc Merlin August 30, 2011 at 7:47 pm

No, I haven’t. However, I am pro-testing, for the average student.
But the best students don’t really need testing.

Can you give me a tl;dr synopsis?

Dan J August 31, 2011 at 1:26 am

Testing for purposes of showing our overlords in govt of worthiness of programs is abhorrent and evidently wrought with scandal.
But, I would think that testing serves a purpose for in the classroom. Good for getting students to compete and for the teacher to assess the methodology and success or failure of the teachers own work.
How can the teacher discover if the students are grasping the information? A test.

Di Buchanan September 2, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Talk with them privately.

Roger Sweeny September 4, 2011 at 10:17 am

Most high school teachers have somewhere between 80 and 120 students. That’s an awful lot of conversations to have every few weeks.

Economic Freedom August 31, 2011 at 12:15 am

(Google Books preview of “The Tyranny of Testing” )

It’s mainly a critique of standardized, multiple-choice testing methods that came into widespread use in the ’50s and which are still with us. Among other things, he mentions the habit-of-mind of better, deeper students to “overthink” questions, thus often becoming confused. I remember one example he gave from an actual standardized test:

“Emperor” is the name of which piece of music:
A. An opera
B. A string quartet
C. A ballet
D. A piano concerto

Someone with superficial knowledge of classical music would choose “D” — the “Emperor Concerto” by Beethoven. But someone with deeper knowledge of music might be confused by the question, as there is a very well known string quartet by Haydn also called “Emperor” (in fact, the adagio movement from that quartet was later used as the theme for the German national anthem). Hoffman also recounts lots of history behind the SAT, National Merit Scholarship, and traditional IQ tests.

Along the lines of criticizing public education in general (and much funnier and more sarcastic than Hoffman), I also recommend the books of Richard Mitchell — a professor of English — especially his “Less Than Words Can Say.” He used to publish a newsletter on a regular basis skewering academicians — especially their mangling of English in order to cloak evasions in thinking — called “The Underground Grammarian.”

See link below for samples:


Dan J August 31, 2011 at 1:32 am

I participate here for feedback on my thoughts. And, I learn from reading your posts. There is only the testing of myself by opening up my thoughts to scrutiny of those who comment here.
But, in a classroom, the educator cannot wait for the opportunity to arise, emergently (it is in 1913 Websters). They must put the students to task, thru a test.

The Other Eric August 31, 2011 at 9:55 am

Great podcast, but I wanted more on the actual guts of assessment and evaluation systems that were looked at. Educational assessment is one of the most discussed and least understood aspects of teaching and learning– and evaluation is even more poorly understood.

Russ, on a similar note, please consider asking Douglas Hubbard for a podcast. He wrote, How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business, and the book I’m reading now– Pulse. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

I’d love to sit Hanushek and Hubbard in a room and have them talk about these topics.

Justin DeWind September 1, 2011 at 2:09 pm

During the conclusion of your podcast you seemed both depressed and despondent. Not that I can blame you.

[Sigh] My guest today has been…Hanushek. [Decrescendo] Thanks for being apart of econ talk…

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