What happens when a professional sports league expands? We talked about this before, but the obvious answer is that the average talent of the league decreases—for two reasons. The first is statistical, the other cultural.
Here’s an example of the statistical, where the “team” are those folks who take the SAT. Used to be only a small percentage of kids took it, those kids who were moving on to college when college was not expected of all. The percentage of kids taking the SAT has crept up over the years. And we now have this headline SAT Scores Hit Four-Decade Low:
Graduating high school students’ SAT college admission scores fell again this year—to the lowest level in four decades. Rapidly growing expenditure on education seems to be producing poor test results.
A record 1.7 million graduating seniors took the SAT test last year. With a highest possible score this year of 800 on each SAT section, according to the College Board, students scored a worst since 1999 math score of 511, worst since 1972 reading score of 495, and worst writing score since the section was added in 2005.
Government education spending as a percent of national gross domestic product on kindergarten through 12th grade jumped from about 2 percent in the 1950s to 3.9 percent in the 1970s. Spending hit 4 percent in the 2000s and popped up to 4.4 percent of GDP early in President Obama’s administration.
Imagine if only the smartest 10%~20% of kids took the test. The mean (numerical average) SAT score would be high. Now imagine if every kid in the nation took it, including those offspring of parents who broke the law to come here and who are here illegally, kids who might not have mastered English, the language of the test. The mean score would be low.
As everybody knows, the second scenario is closer to the truth than the first, and this is acknowledged in the news story. “A record 1.7 million graduating seniors took the SAT test last year.” It’s thus no surprise mean scores are lower. Not every kid is above average.
So what about the cultural reason scores are lower? That is also contained in the news story, though it’s masked with words about money. Here’s the answer: The more time the teachers have to take the less time they can teach more.
Make sense? If a high school math teacher has a class of (let us call them) gifted students, that teacher has more time to teach more material. So instead of stopping at basic calculus, the teacher would have time to move to (say) partial differential equations.
But let that same teacher be put in front of a class of average students, meaning a mixed group of kids, with most of middling intelligence and with only a few gifted and only a few dullards. PDEs will never be reached. The dullards would never understand PDEs anyway, and the gifted kids who could won’t have the chance to learn them (unless they teach them to themselves). Questions on the SAT related to higher math won’t be answered correctly as often by this group as classes with only gifted students, and the mean score would drop.
Obviously, this example works for any subject matter, including history, biology, literature, and so on, but it also works for the inclusion of subjects. For instance, how many high schools now teach, say, philosophy? Or classical languages? Thus, SAT scores must drop the more education becomes universal.
And the same thing is happening in science (and every other area of our culture, naturally). Reader Ken points us to the article “A Scientific Look at Bad Science: What recent research says about fraud, errors, and other dismaying academic problems“.
Retractions are up, questionable research practices are up, competition for research funding is up. There are more papers published than ever before, more conferences, etc. And there is a noticeable dissatisfaction among scientists that we’re not as good as we used to be. This is expressed more in the oral tradition than in print because scientists like to keep their dirty laundry concealed like any other group.
Science is suffering from the Expansion Team Syndrome. There’s more money in the system than there was, say, fifty years ago, and because of the expansion in education, there are more colleges pumping out more scientists. The statistical mean of whatever gauge of quality you like must therefore go down.
The cultural burden of the expansion isn’t as straightforward as it was in high school, but it’s there. Instead of working, how many scientists have to sit on committees about “equality” (example) and the like? How many scientists waste efforts writing grants or pushing out another marginal (or worse) paper just to keep their total up?
I know many older working scientists read this blog. How many tasks do you perform that are impeding you that didn’t used to have to do in “the old days”?