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8 amazing things we could fund by stopping pointless schooling!
For $149 billion per year, we could have free job training, college, and embryo selection. This leaves about $81 billion leftover per year!
Written by Joseph Bronski.
In my book, An Empirical Introduction to Youth, I showed that 97.8 percent of American high school is a waste of time. I did this by examining employment statistics, surveys, and school curricula.
Consider algebra. Since its universalization, Algebra has become an infamous headache, leading to passionate and largely intractable debates. For example, "The Algebra Problem" from the Harvard Graduate School of Education reads, in part:
To many, algebra is about the first or last three letters of the alphabet, and it provokes groaning, trash talk (think Forever 21's "Allergic to Algebra" T-shirt), and heated debate. Should it be mandated? At what grade? Algebra's status as a "gatekeeper course" has made it a touchstone on matters of access and equity. As a result, in many places it's become a graduation requirement.
Back in the early 1980s, one-quarter of high school graduates never even took algebra, says Daniel Chazen, director of the Center for Mathematics Education at the University of Maryland. Today, educators are pushing students to take algebra even before high school.
Many kids are failing algebra. In California, where standards call for Algebra I in grade 8, a 2011 EdSource report shows that nearly one-third of those who took the course—or 80,000 students—scored "below basic" or "far below basic." In districts across the country, failure rates for Algebra I vary but run as high as 40 or 50 percent.
Those who have had enough contact with the Algebra-aged population will recognize this. Several of my high-school friends failed the algebra portion of the state-wide graduation test more than once. I tutored a few of them. They were not unintelligent people. Rather, like many (roughly 50%), they could not grasp an inherently abstract and challenging subject.
The heritability of educational achievement is about 62%. That's considered "high heritability." We don't know how much variance school quality explains, but several studies suggest it is quite low and mostly has to do with the other students' quality, not funding or teacher quality. 25% is a charitable estimate, so let's use that for our calculations. Using this number, if we imagine a world in which everybody was at a quite effective school, one that is one standard (1SD) deviation above the average school today, roughly 30% of people still would not "get" algebra after this expensive intervention.
If we imagine instead a more realistic school that is .5SD better than the average school today, then people would be about 0.25 SDs better at algebra. If 50% don't get algebra now, about 40% wouldn't after this change. To make all students understand algebra under our charitable assumptions about the importance of school quality, schools would have to be a whopping 6SD better than the average school today! A 6 SD school is 1 in a billion. There are roughly 100,000 schools in the United States, so to say this goal is unrealistic would be an understatement.
But universalizing algebra (along with other subjects) has been the goal of educationists for decades. It's easy to see why – insofar as it's possible, it gives them more students and more funding. Insofar as it's impossible, it allows them to repeat the process of getting more students and more funding forever if people continue to chase the chimerical goal.
It's time, however, to ask if the goal is even worth it. Pretend that everyone could be an algebra whizz for an extra $100 billion of education funding a year. Should we invest that additional $100 billion into the system or reduce funding instead? The answer is that we should reduce funding because even if everyone could understand algebra, most people don't need it, most people don't want it, and the money is better spent elsewhere.
Surveys show that only 22% of people use math more advanced than fractions on the job. Algebra students often complain, "When will I ever use this?" They are typically haughtily disregarded as ignorant and immature by the school employees whose livelihoods rely on continuing the widespread teaching of this material. But 78% of the students are correct – they won't be using algebra, or anything more advanced, on the job, ever.
Even if everyone could understand algebra with more education funding, we already have more than enough people who have studied it for the workforce. Should everyone also be a computer engineer or a physician? No, under an efficient division of labor, people learn what they need and don't learn what they don't need.
Some educationists respond to this with platitudes about knowledge being power or somehow enriching the soul. This is, at best, a bias in people who chose to make education their career – of course, if you decided to spend your life educating, you think it's "good for your soul." However, most people disagree with the idea that education makes you more of a human. Bryan Caplan noted in his 2018 book, The Case Against Education, that surveys reveal that most people are happier when they are at work than when they are at school. He also showed that nearly everyone who doesn't use a subject on the job forgets it by the time they are 40 years old:
One major study tested roughly a thousand people's knowledge of algebra and geometry. Some participants were still in high school; the rest were adults between 19 and 84. The researchers had data on the subjects' complete mathematical education. Main finding: Most people taking high school algebra and geometry forget about half of what they learn within five years and almost everything within twenty-five years.
If those people enjoyed algebra, they would do it in their spare time. Some people enjoy algebra and do higher-level math in their free time – they have internet communities, and it's doubtful that any of them will forget what a polynomial is by the time they are 40 years old.
More generally, Caplan showed that adult retention of school learning is uniformly awful, no matter the subject:
Surveys of adults' knowledge of reading, math, history, civics, science, and foreign languages are already on the shelf. The results are stark: Basic literacy and numeracy are virtually the only book learning most American adults possess. While the average American spends years and years studying other subjects, they recall next to nothing about them. If schools teach us everything we know about history, civics, science, and foreign languages, their achievement is pitiful.
In my book, after considering these data and more, I examined the utility of my high school courses. I estimated that the math courses were each 50% wasted time because they were too drawn out and remedial. For instance, my high school calculus class was 50 minutes a day, five days a week, for 36 weeks. The same class at a university is 50 minutes a day, three days a week, for 14 weeks. 50% efficiency for high school math classes is charitable. I also credited one English class for improving my writing skills and wrote the rest off as wasted time. I took seven classes per year for four years, and 4 of those were math classes. 4/2 + the one English class = 3/28 classes that were useful. 25/28 = 89% of the time was a waste.
From the survey data above regarding the use of algebra or higher math on the job, I estimated that about 20% of students had 89% of their time wasted, and the remaining 80% learned nothing relevant. 89 * .2 + 100 * .8 = 97.8, so about 97.8% of high school man-hours are a waste of time. Likewise, after a thorough economic analysis, Caplan concluded in his book that high school is nearly 100% signaling. That is, it doesn't improve human capital. It’s about signaling pre-existing traits. High school dropouts aren't worse because they drop out of high school; they drop out because they're worse – less obedient and lower IQs.
Things we could do instead of high school
The question remains: how much is already going into this system for such little returns, and would it be rational to cut or raise the budget? Perhaps if very little is going to high schools, we could somehow do better – but if high schools are already overfunded yet so disastrously useless, we should consider the opportunity cost of that funding.
Federal, state, and local governments provide $764.7 billion or $15,120 per pupil annually to fund K-12 public education. High school is 4/13 = 30.8% of K-12 education time. Assuming that each year of education costs the same amount, we calculate that federal, state, and local governments spend $235.5 billion on high school yearly. Say we set aside 2.2% of that money to teach math to the top 20% of the population. We have 97.8% * $235.5 billion = $230.3 billion going into the trash yearly.
Instead, that money could be spent on human welfare or invested in the economy. I have identified ten such usages that fall into either category.
We could triple food stamps spending. Currently, we spend $119 billion per year, with 12.6% of people on food stamps. Without high school, the bottom 36% of income earners could have food stamps with no extra cost to the economy.
Free heat for the bottom 50% of income earners. The average cost of heat in the winter is currently $1200. The total amount of taxes collected by state, local, and federal governments each year is about $5.4 trillion. This comes out to about $15,500 per person per year. 235.5 billion / 5.4 trillion = 4.4%, so the average person could save $670 per year, or $56 per month, without high school taxes.
Free gym membership. The average gym membership costs $40/month. 70% of Americans are obese. 670/12 = 55.
"Give" everyone $670 back on their taxes every year.
Triple the quality of infrastructure. The US spent $36.6 billion directly on infrastructure in 2022 and transferred an additional $94.5 billion to states.
Make job training free. About $55 billion is spent on job training per year. Job training improves human capital, but high school doesn't.
Make college free. College has its issues and is probably 80% a waste of time. But that's a lot less of a waste than high school. College is very remedial now, insofar as it wasn't before, and introductory science and other such classes can easily be taken without a background in 9th grade biology. A First-Dollar tuition free-program would cost $58 billion the year it is implemented. People could be getting Bachelor's degrees, many in real subjects like computer science or engineering, in the time they would spend in high school.
Free embryo selection for every birth. There are about 3.6 million births per year in the US. An upper bound on the cost of embryo selection per birth is $10,000. For $36 billion per year, we could have free embryo selection for every birth in the US. This could cover ten embryos per birth, and it would raise the average IQ by about 11.5 points in one generation. This is almost a 1 SD increase. So about 75% of the new population would understand algebra, compared to roughly 50% now. This is much cheaper and more effective than making all schools like a 2 SD school now. It would have all sorts of positive downstream effects, like low healthcare costs, crime rate, more general productivity, more Nobel prizes and novel inventions, and far richer cultural life, things that 2 SD schools don't impart.
For $149 billion per year, we could have free job training, college, and embryo selection. This leaves about $81 billion leftover per year. This could be given back as an on-average $245 tax return per year. Also, these are investments, so the economy would grow; the money wouldn't just be lost as it is now. Linear extrapolation suggests that the US GPD per capita would increase by about $15,000 due to embryo selection alone. That's 15,000 * 330 million = 4.95 trillion dollars of economic growth. An additional $15,000 per person is enough for complete universal basic income for every American because that's where the poverty line is.
Meanwhile, an increase in the high school budget would almost certainly do nothing good for the economy. This is basic logic: if high school is doing nothing positive with $230 billion per year, it probably wouldn't do anything positive with even more money because increasing from 0 to $230 billion per year did nothing positive.
High school wastes four valuable years of everyone's life and takes over $15,600 from each person, on average, per year. We must come to terms with this. However much educationists insist education is wholesome and uplifting, the evidence suggests the contrary. The dogma that everyone can be a scholar, a mathematician, or a philosopher is not only insulting but also wasteful. It's time to put human welfare above the interests of the education industry.
Joseph Bronski is a Substacker, Youtuber, Twitterer and researcher interested in human biodiversity, political psychology, and social power. He graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in computer science in 2023.