Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The right kind of work

I'm a bit late with this recommendation but here is a good blog from Megan McArdle. The best observation:
You can argue about why this is--are the upper middle class transmitting real skills, or pull?  But does it matter? . . . [I]t's actually rather more worrying if what they're giving their children is a strong education and an absolutely ferocious work ethic.
The best teacher I ever had used to talk about "working smarter, not working harder."

I've worked with poor kids tutoring them and I've interacted with what I consider dumbasses who never deserved to get into MIT (or Harvard) but somehow did and my conclusion is that poor people don't move up because they don't work hard AND the upper middle class is transmitting pull in it's direction.

The best example of "pull" is the SAT. I hate the old example they drag out about how the test is biased toward the rich because it asked some analogy question about crew. That's not what makes the test biased. What makes the test biased in that in some schools they teach you how to solve logic problems, do combinatorics and compute probabilities and in some schools they don't. And guess what? They ask questions about that on the math section. When I taught the SAT I always started by covering the material I knew they didn't teach me in high school and probably didn't teach at a lot of high schools.

But poor people are lazy. It's just a fact. When charter schools pull teeth forcing kids to work long hours, do their homework, and focus during class with strict discipline, they learn. The results are miraculous. Most poor kids who aren't learning anything aren't for the obvious reason, they aren't trying.

That said, I think these two points are really flip sides of the same coin. The rich don't exert pull by rigging the system in any classical sense. They play by the rules and the rules seem fair a priori--everyone knows what is on the SAT, it's public information and good prep books cost $10. And poor people don't not work, they just don't work in the right ways to succeed in academics (or to get into that top income quintile). When the steps are obvious they do work hard--the poor are probably over, not under-represented in the upper quintile of athletes.

The issue, in other words, isn't about pull or hard work, it's about working smarter. The rich work smarter. They read the rules of the game and tell their kids what they need to do to win within the rules. The poor don't read the rules and don't know how to achieve the objectives. When researchers paid students to read they did and their test scores improved. When they told them they would pay them for higher scores the scores didn't budge. The kids didn't know how to work smarter.

We've known this in relation to finance for some time. Most people know nothing about compound interest so of course they do stupid things with their credit cards and under-save. (That is just one part of it but it's important.) The rich play smarter in the finance game and the poor don't.

I think a fruitful approach to dealing with poverty would be to focus more on information. If communities knew the rules of the game and got help institutionalizing the way to win it, they'd probably succeed. (Institutions here are important as its not like the rich figure out how to succeed on their own, they studying for the SAT or taking this class and go to these good public schools, etc. because everyone else they know is doing it.)

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