Functions Of School

Bill Dickens to Bryan Caplan:

I take it that you think that nearly all of the value of schooling is signaling? I used to take that view too, but the accumulation of evidence that I’ve seen leads me to believe that isn’t the case. …

I find it very hard to believe that we would waste so many resources on a nearly unproductive enterprise. There are plenty of entrepreneurs out there trying to make money by selling cheaper … versions of education. …

1. Education isn’t mainly about learning specific subject matter. Rather education is mainly about practicing the sort of self-discipline that is necessary to be productive in a modern work environment. High school allows you to practice showing up on time and doing what you are told. College allows you to practice and work out techniques that work for you that allow you to take on and complete on time complicated multi-part tasks in an environment where you have considerable freedom. …

2 … Some (if not most) people actually enjoy the reading, the lectures, the homework, etc. …
3. … The shared culture produced by the education experience expands our common language with a lot of meaning, and that produces huge network externalities. …
4. Some classes are very very valuable at work. Reading, writing and numeracy are all obviously important.

The claim I’m most confident of: school is mostly not about the material taught in classes. I’m less sure to what extent it is about learning-to-learn, coming-to-obey, bonding with other kids, and signaling these features as well as intelligence and conscientiousness. I’m pretty sure signaling of various sorts is at least 30% of the average private value of school, and it could go as high as 80%.

To think straight about school, it is important to keep a good counterfactual in mind. If kids didn’t go to school they would be doing something else, like work. The value and cost of school must be estimated relative to that other activity. If kids started work earlier, they would still meet other similar-age friends and mates, enjoy exploring, create a shared culture, “learn how to learn,” learn specific useful skills on and off the job, become acclimated to workplace discipline, and signal their intelligence and continentiousness via their record of work attendence, reputation, and success. The social value of school is how well these things get done better than in a work-instead scenario, minus the productivity lost because schooled kids aren’t immediately useful.

The best evidence I’ve seen that school adds great value is the stories I’ve heard about how difficult are employees who grew up in “primitive” cultures without familiar schools.  Apparently, it is not so much that such folks don’t know enough to be useful, but that they refuse to accept being told what to do, and object to being publicly ranked relative to co-workers. Why child labor could not similarly aclimate kids, however, isn’t clear to me.

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  • Buck Farmer

    Hard questions. Good post.

    Why did aristrocrats get private tutoring back before universal education?

    Signalling and institutionalization neither seem reasonable explanations given the small educated population, impermeability of social classes, comparative importance of inherited wealth and fertility for mate matching.

    That seems to leave content. But if aristos studied for content, why not in universal education?

    Admittedly, aristo tutoring didn’t have much inter-student ranking. Universal education suffers from resource scarcity and needs to figure out how to optimally distribute education…but why not look at what the market does here? Are there examples of schooling systems with no state interference in societies with sufficient wealth that the majority of families can purchase private education?

  • Mark

    “If kids started work earlier, they would still meet other similar-age friends and mates”

    It’s a matter of degree. I can’t imagine any workplace in the world where I would be surrounded by tens of thousands of 18-22 year old friends and potential mates, all with similar aspirations and social backgrounds to me. I got that in college.

    Yes, if I worked in Manhattan, there would be more absolute numbers of people who fit those criteria, but they would be diluted amongst a larger population of much older people and people from various different backgrounds that I might not mesh with as well.

    College is the only place I know of where you can be a college kid and meet thousands of other college kids. It may be hard to explain, but college kids value that experience.

    • “It’s a matter of degree. I can’t imagine any workplace in the world where I would be surrounded by tens of thousands of 18-22 year old friends and potential mates, all with similar aspirations and social backgrounds to me.”

      Couldn’t one provide something pretty close to that in the form of housing—a group of apartment buildings, complete with swimming pool, targeted at that demographic? My impression is that to some degree that happens. Under current law, at least as interpreted where I live, the owner couldn’t set explicit age limits for tenants, but I expect he could do an imperfect equivalent in less direct ways.

  • There’s plenty of evidence from laissez-faire Victorian England on the effects of child labor. For example, it was legal to employ five year old boys as chimney sweeps until about 1875.

  • In all of this, I have yet to hear Robin mention one of the prime functions of school in our society. A lot of school is simply about providing free babysitting, especially as child labour is much frowned upon.

  • Buck, yes aristo tutoring is good case to consider. Developing good work habits seems a reasonable candidate there.

    Mark, many employers group new young employees together, for exactly those reasons.

    Steve, so what does that evidence say?

    Thursday, but there are so many other cheap ways to babysit.

    • gwern

      Robin, what cheaper ways are there? Preschools and childcare make far less effort to teach than do high schools, yet the former still cost an arm and a leg.

      Google, for example, charges somewhere upwards of $50k a year for childcare: (And the article mentions that the average Silicon Valley subsidy – not total price, just the company’s share – was $12k.)

      • Jehu

        Here’s one, although you’d have to do it on the sly, as I’m almost certain that it’s illegal because nobody likes competition, especially unionized entrenched interests.
        Find a homeschool mom who has one or more kids in the same general age and ability bracket as your little one. Similar temperments and friendship between the kids is also very desireable. Offer said mom $5k/year to add your little one to her homeschool class. There is a potential downside to this though—your child is likely to bond very strongly to the homeschool mom, so I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re both distant and jealous by nature.
        But there’s no reason everyone can’t ‘win’ in this scenario. You’ll just have to lie and say you’re homeschooling the child yourself though. Or you could say that you’re paying said homeschool mom for ‘educational consulting’.

  • Mark

    Even if you work for one of the largest employers in the world, grouping young employees together won’t result in anything close to the scope or 24/7 immersion of college. And I reiterate – young people value that experience and it is one of the reasons they do go to college.

    • From my experience with them, I would say the majority of college students are spoiled, conceited semi-competents; why should anyone care what they want except to the extent that they are paying their own money for it. Subsidizing college education is a net waste, a substantial waste, of resources.

      • As commenter “Doug S.” said on my blog: “In most cases, it’s not the education that’s worth $40,000+. It’s the diploma. Earning a diploma demonstrates that you are willing to suffer in exchange for vague promises of future reward, which is a trait that employers value.”

  • Jehu

    Regarding aristocratic tutoring…the closest fairly widespread analog to that today is homeschooling. If you homeschooled a kid in the +1 sigma range of intelligence or higher, or had friends who did the same, you’d note one thing. They typically take 2 hours or less a day to make significantly more progress than their public school equivalents. With the tutors, it was likely much the same. With a tiny class size with strong correlations in ability in the students, the lowest common denominator effect is seriously muted. In addition, you know the students far far better than the average public school teacher. Such tutoring is quite plausibly mostly about learning, and less so on signalling. There are two huge factors favoring formal educationt these days. Primarily as an employer, you’re after intelligence and conscientiousness, and you’re usually willing to trade one against the other to some degree. You’re largely forbidden from directly measuring intelligence, so you’re stuck with socially accepted correlates (i.e., a degree from institution of quality distribution x). Ditto on conscientiousness—your references are very likely to be worthless to you because there’s no upside to giving a good appraisal, as it can and often has gotten you undesired legal attention. Change those laws and you’ll see a big improvement in the educational structure in the US.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    The shared culture produced by the education experience expands our common language with a lot of meaning

    Terms like “consumption capital”, “social capital”, “shared culture”, and the like strike me as being Orwellian new-speak for PC indoctrination.

    Bill Dickens is correct about the discipline aspect of education. But why must the acquisition of such simple self-discipline require 12 years of a person’s life to acquire?

  • Kevin Postlewaite

    “[children without schooling] refuse to accept being told what to do, and object to being publicly ranked relative to co-workers. Why child labor could not similarly aclimate kids, however, isn’t clear to me.”

    Suppose child labor and education both aclimate kids equally well. Perhaps school grades are a better signal as to the effectiveness of the aclimation, better than if grades were also given during a period of child labor. Perhaps education’s sole purpose is to rank a person’s ability to accomplish pointless goals where grades are the sole reward and this is what employers want.

  • How well do people who were home-schooled do in the workplace?

    • Jehu

      I’m not aware of any statistics on that, although I do know that they have higher rates of civic participation, voting, etc and generally considerably lower levels of most things we consider social pathologies.
      Anecdotally, here’s what I can tell you, as someone who knows quite a few homeschooled kids. By default, I honestly don’t like kids very much relative to the average person—or maybe I’m just being more candid, I’m not precisely certain. However, I’ve yet to meet a homeschooled kid that I didn’t like. For me, that’s saying something because in general, only strong ties of blood give me automatic ‘liking’ for a child. They’re in general a lot less annoying than their public or private schooled peers. This is probably because they interact socially with a far less age-segregated set of people (our public school system is really quite unique, and profoundly unnatural that way, it is as if someone read Lord of the Flies and decided it was prescriptive rather than descriptive). In general, homeschooled kids graduate (i.e., finish what we term high school) on or before their 16th birthday—Sometimes a lot before. Insofar as employment goes, they tend to start gainful employment a lot sooner than the rest of us. One homeschooled son of a friend of mine started work for Stream at either 15 or 16, managed to distinguish himself there while working on his associates, and has his bachelor’s degree now, as well as a cute young homeschooled wife, at just shy of 20 years old. In terms of employment, in my experience they do quite well. Some go the college career track route. More than a few go the route of going into business for themselves, probably significantly more than public schooled kids—frequently as general contractors of some sort.
      My gut feeling is that they overperform their IQ levels to some degree (i.e., a +1 sigma homeschooled kid performs better than a public schooled kid with an equal IQ), but I don’t have any statistics to support it, only the observation of way more intellectual curiousity from this set of kids than I’m used to seeing.
      Lastly on the anecdotal front—it is largely my interaction with the homeschooled kids of friends of mine that motivated me to take the profound risk of getting married and having kids of my own. One might say it updated the expected distribution of outcomes that I could expect.

      • Brian S.

        This matches my experiences.

        I just went on a backpacking trip that included 4 homeschool boys 9-14 and their fathers. We had a good time making fun of their public school peers’ use of slang and status symbol obsessions. The constant one-up-manship was much lower than public school boys I’ve been around.

      • AMW

        This jives with my anecdotal experience (including 3 years of being home schooled in the lower grades). Two friends of mine who were home schooled all 12 years have pretty distinguished career tracks: one attended Harvard Law and works for a big consulting firm, the other is in a tenure-track position in the UC system.

        One thing, though: I find home schooled children to be odder (on average) than their publicly/privately schooled counterparts.

  • blink

    You are absolute right about keeping a counter-factual in mind, and this goes a long way toward clarifying ideas.

    I am not sure what you have in mind when you attribute 30-80% of education to signaling, partly because (elsewhere) you come very close to that everything is signaling. For example, suppose I take piano lessons, attend a conservatory, and become a concert pianist. Assume that all of my education is directly relevant to music, so it is 100% job preparation. Even here, I imagine you arguing that the ultimate effect is merely to raise my status among musicians, etc. and signal my traits to potential mates. What distinction are you trying to make in this post?

    • Ricardo Cruz

      Robin is referring here to signaling in the context of the job market, not the sexual market.

  • Why child labor could not similarly aclimate kids, however, isn’t clear to me.

    It could, but employers aren’t going to campaign against anti-child-labor and compulsory-education laws, even if they’d be fine with having those laws repealed. Too much bad PR.

    Anti-child-labor laws illustrate some of the usual regulatory compromises. It’s easier to get laws that effect only some people (child labor laws instead of improved workplace safety regulation; affirmative action as opposed to something that uniformly helps those who are economically disadvantaged). It’s easier to get laws that effect all businesses (ban child labor as opposed to trying to distinguish between dangerous, stultifying jobs and healthy, stimulating jobs; regulation that applies to all farmers as opposed to regulation that distinguishes between small, transparent farms and industrial-scale meat-packing operations).

    • I don’t know how accurate this is, but I have sometimes come across the view that children and women were often restricted from working back then to decrease the supply of labor, thereby raising wages for adult men.

  • David C

    Shouldn’t the relative value of the different goals of education change over time? Signaling seems like something that would be in high demand towards the end of school, and in low demand at the beginning of school. It makes sense for college to be mostly about signaling, but kindergarten? Sure, there are stories of Ivy League preparatory elementary schools, but that hardly seems the norm.

  • “signaling”? Is that like what we used to call “socialization”? That we go to school, at least partly to learn how to fit in to society, to take direction from others, to work with others, to learn how to get shit on occassionally from others, to learn how to be magnanomous when we beat others occassinally, ie… all the little things, rituals, and ettique that it takes to exist in society? Is that what “signaling” is? I have never heard the term before, but from the essay, that is what it seems you folks are talking about. Am I way off the mark? Are their two different concepts? It’s not my field so sometimes there is more detail that you catch at first glance.


    PS – is there any way to be alerted to follow up on these threads? Many blogs have a get follow up by email, but I don’t see that optioin on this blog.

    • David C

      webulite, signaling is telling employers who they should hire at which job.

  • Gil

    Undoubtedly many Libertarian-types are of the Robert Kiyosaki vein when it comes to children and education: school education is okay (at best) but street education is priceless. I’m sure many would say a child would learn far more working on the factory floor from the age of five or six than going to school. Similarly, what is the private equivalent to ten or more years of current education? The answer: children enter the workforce as soon as reasonable and learn on the job, do vocational night training to earn extra skills to make them more productive and upgrade to a new and better job. In other formal schooling as we know it would be abolished.

    However having children go to work and earn a wage instead of going to school for ten years is why people wanted to have more children: they could be assets to the family rather than deadweight liabilities they are nowadays.

  • Schools and colleges are a major jobs program also. And not just teachers and instructors, many school systems and colleges have as many administrators.

  • The question that I still have is why can’t the schools do those functions while delivering more practical knowledge and skills?

    • gwern

      One obvious answer is that schools, as institutions devoted *only* to teaching, ostensibly, can be completely corrupted and self-serving in a way that a business employing children cannot be, since it must answer to the free market as well. If you serve 2 masters, only 1 needs to be effective at supervising you.

  • Oh, and isn’t it still bad to have teachers work at cross purposes:

    Purpose one is to help the students learn so that they can do well.

    Purpose two to keep a high signal of rigor and quality by failing the weakest students.

    IMO teachers would be more effective if they could be all with the student to beat the test? Didn’t Deming (the quality guru) show that cross proposes like that are destructive too ends?

  • josh

    I accept that 1) the entire higher education system functions in an important way as a single organization (ie what little competition there is between supposedly distinct institutions is overwhelmed by collusion leading to little meaningful differentiation. 2) Local public schools now operate as an arm of higher education, 3) Schools are the most important institutions today in assigning status, 4) higher education has evolved mechanisms for maintaining this incredibly privileged position as a self-selecting elite. 5) One effect of the seemingly worthwhile stuff done in schools camouflages its “real purpose”, the maintenance of the status of those at the top of the system (not that anybody thinks about it in this way; that’s just how people roll.)

  • j r

    Why all the macro-level attempts to understand education? It is one thing to sit around and wonder how society would be better or worse if people consumed more or less education. at the micro-level, however, it should be fairly simple to understand the value of education. it’s part signalling. it’s part social participation. it’s part an attempt to aquire skills. and it’s part path dependency.

    no matter what it is, it’s a way for one person to increase his standing with respect to everyone else. and that means it’s probably not going to undergo any radical changes anytime soon.

  • That the actual content of education has such a small part in its value is, I think, just wrong wrong wrong.

    I’m a super smart guy, so I probably would have been “well educated” even if I had stayed home. Even so I can still remember learning algebra and geometry and various sciences in elementary school, and chem, bio, physics in jr high and high. These were all directly relevant to college where I learned a crapload of physics, math, philosophy, and econ which I can still remember, and much of which I use regularly.

    For my kids, who are closer to average than me, it is clear that they are learning much more math and science in school than they would learn just “hanging out” with me and their mom. Sure, mom and I could homeschool, make a dedicated effort to do what the school does, we could also fix our own cars, mow our own lawn, fix our own plumbing, etc. THe point is the subject matter at school is super important, my kids put real effort into learning it, and I would find another way to get them to learn it if they weren’t in school, because in my life
    1) I learned it in school,
    2) it was and still is super important.

  • RR

    I think higher education has a higher signaling to practical value ratio than early education. Think of two things: 1) What job does a 5-year-old qualify for? 2) Would an employer hiring for such a low skill (and most likely low paying) job be willing to put forth the effort to teach that 5-year-old to read or do basic math? They would most likely just assign the child tasks that don’t require literacy or math skills. Then at what point will the child acquire math and language skills?

    I think there are certain skills that really are best learned in the classroom. Reading, writing, and math are basic skills that are applicable to just about any job and also make you more capable of acquiring new skills. Now the question is, at what point does the signaling value of the education outweigh the content value of the education? Will a third grade education sufficiently prepare you for your first job? Sixth grade? Ninth grade? Society currently seems to put the cut off at high school. If you have a college degree, there is a signaling value in where you went. If you have a high school degree, no one really cares where, they just care that you have one. And if you don’t have a high school degree, there is really no distinction (in terms of signaling) between having achieved a 9th grade education and a third grade education. To potential employers, a drop-out is a drop-out.

    But if child labor laws AND compulsory education went away, what would the new cut-off be? At what point does all that time spent studying history and literature and algebra take away from time that could be better spent learning a trade?

    Another point that came up in a discussion I had about this: Does compulsory, public education encourage people to have children? In agricultural societies, children we an asset – more people means more hands to work the farm. And skills learned working the farm would carry on into their adult lives. But in modern society, children would probably be more difficult to employ, and would therefore be less capable of contributing to the family’s pocket book when they are young, and a lack of education would prevent them from contributing to the family’s pocket book when they are older. If public education did not provide free education/babysitting, would people have fewer children?

    • Jehu

      Does public education encourage people to have more kids than they would otherwise? Only significant datapoint on this I see is that homeschool families have significantly more kids than most other families (I believe they average over 3 kids, HLDSA has quite a few statistics on homeschool demographics). Anyone have any other datapoints?

  • This thread makes me laugh, because it just proves everything Gatto and the rest of the Unschoolers say: school makes people oppress themselves; we don’t need slavemasters, we have the impressions on the psyche left by schoolteachers.

  • Brian Scurfield

    The best evidence I’ve seen that school adds great value is the stories I’ve heard about how difficult are employees who grew up in “primitive” cultures without familiar schools. Apparently, it is not so much that such folks don’t know enough to be useful, but that they refuse to accept being told what to do, and object to being publicly ranked relative to co-workers. Why child labor could not similarly aclimate kids, however, isn’t clear to me.

    So child-rearing should be about breaking a child’s will? That is despicable. It is anti-rational to resolve disagreements in a non-truth seeking way. This means that if you have a disagreement with a child it is wrong to force them to do things your way. You should take the fallibilist attitude that I could be wrong and you could be right.

    • Precisely!
      “Nearly a hundred years ago, this schoolman thought self-alienation was the secret to successful industrial society. Surely he was right. When you stand at a machine or sit at a computer you need an ability to withdraw from life, to alienate yourself without a supervisor. How else could that be tolerated unless prepared in advance by simulated Birkenhead drills? School, thought Harris, was sensible preparation for a life of alienation. Can you say he was wrong?”

    • Tracy W

      So child-rearing should be about breaking a child’s will?

      You really think that the only way people can cooperate is if their wills are broken?

      It is anti-rational to resolve disagreements in a non-truth seeking way.

      I disagree. Some disagreements are unresolvable in a truth-seeking way, eg ones about values, and yet we must make some decisions, so in those cases it is rational to use non-truth seeking ways. For example, where to go for a summer holiday, there’s no single truth about what the right holiday is. Or, the religious settlement reached in Europe and the USA about what religion is true, is that of religious freedom – we agree that it’s best if everyone makes up their own mind on what religion is true, perhaps none, rather than trying to seek out which religion is true.

      This means that if you have a disagreement with a child it is wrong to force them to do things your way.

      Ah, so if your child is jealous of their new baby brother and wants to drown the brat, you should not force them to refrain from their murderous impulses?

      You should take the fallibilist attitude that I could be wrong and you could be right.

      Absolutely fine, in and of itself, it’s always worthwhile to take into account the possibility that you might be wrong, but it doesn’t resolve the question of what to actually do in any real-life case. To take a less dramatic case than the murderous sibling, say that you think that your child is old enough to contribute to their share of household work, and in particular do the dishes. The child disagrees, they would prefer to watch TV instead. It is possible that you are wrong and they are right about the relative value of washing dishes versus watching TV. But once you’ve acknowledged the question, do you then make your child wash the dishes or not?

  • I recently wrote about this in my blog (, in a post called “School: The worst job you’ll ever have” – I’d be interested to see your thoughts.

  • Bill Drissel

    @ Jehu: I too have liked every homeschooled kid that I have met. I’ve always attributed that to my conjecture that they are used to pleasing adults rather than their same-age peers. I’ve also noticed they seem to share more interests with grown-ups.

    I once shared a table at a high-intensity programming class with a 14-year-old homeschooler who was able to stay up with the class. My children were the same age and I couldn’t imagine them staying on task for eight hours a day.

    Bill Drissel

  • Education was one of the basic needs oh human knowledge to face the world.

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  • Becky Hargrove

    Think about what happens in so many towns after a student leaves high school. Not only does the local social life often stop for that student, it may even slow down for the students’ parents as they do not have the same bonds to the community when their child leaves to find work wherever that may be. In other words, there is little or no knowledge integration at the local level of so many places where people actually live, beyond the educational system itself. That lack of knowledge integration in a direct and local sense is a big part of the problem. We are brought up to believe that we have a place to succeed but most likely it is not where we already are, and then everyone takes part in the race to find the magic place where one’s life learning can actually be used. We need knowledge integration at local levels so that knowledge can once again be valued for what it actually provides.

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  • Menelom

    Yes … the design is clearly needed to be changed 🙂
    What would be brighter , nebudu (

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