Looming Debacle in Education?

By Lin Sten ’67 | March 23, 2017

We now know that the central causes of the 2008 financial meltdown were the transgressions of Wall Street. Over three decades, beginning with President Ronald Reagan, financial regulation was steadily reduced, both overtly (through changes in the laws) and covertly (through increasingly lax enforcement). As a result, the housing market became riddled with fraud.

The fraud was rampant and extensive, in the sense that the whole chain—from buyers to bankers—was involved. At one end of the chain, buyers lied about their financial strength (their assets, their monthly pay, their current obligations). At the other end, banks traded credit default swaps based on bundled mortgages that were knowingly given grossly inflated credit ratings. One brazen employee at Countrywide Financial Corporation had a vanity license plate in 2005 that read “Fund’Em.” Banks extended loans to anyone willing to take them, because a new loan meant positive cash flow for everyone in the system, from the mortgage officers on Main Street all the way up to the high-level fat cats on Wall Street. Why worry about the consequences of default? The prevailing attitude was “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

How widespread was this fraud? In one study of a typical bundle (a bank box full) of mortgages, the examiner found that about 33% of the loans were defective (in ways that were obvious and should have led to denial of the loans). This 33% (is a lower bound and) becomes the measure of fraud throughout the whole system, since these bundles were then passed up the chain. In this grossly simplified sense, we can say that this 33% fraud rate eventually led to the 2008 meltdown.

But banking, I’m sorry to say, is hardly the only industry that suffers from fraud.

Education is the backbone of democracy; certainly education is as important to the success of a democracy as is the strength of its financial system. It is with this question in mind that we might ask ourselves about the importance of the cost of education, and the success of the education system in the U.S. An examination of this question necessarily involves measures—means to measure success.

It is disheartening to see how often the measure quoted by schools is their graduation rates. For example, XXX University proudly advertises its 60% graduation rate (the percent of students who entered who subsequently graduated). As a measure of success, a graduation rate is useless without an accompanying measure of educational quality: anyone can earn a degree—if the bar for graduation is sufficiently low. It is an unfortunate trick of nature that the graduation rate is easy to measure; on the other hand, the educational quality is relatively difficult to measure. This misfortune is magnified by the fact that the graduation rate can easily be driven up at the expense of educational quality. This is analogous to the illicit behavior of the financial industry, where bonuses were awarded to mortgage officers on the basis of volume of loans, with no regard to their underlying worthiness.

With this fundamental difficulty about measures of educational success in mind, we come to the question of the amount of fraud that is inherent in the system. Once more, as in the case of the financial debacle, we might look for one simple indicator.

What kind of fraud might we seek to discover within the educational system, other than the overt error of quoting a graduation rate in isolation, or quoting such a rate in conjunction with a puffed-up claim of “highest quality”, just like a realtor huffing “this is the finest house in the city.” For a measure of educational quality, what quantitative standard can be examined wherein fraud might be revealed, and the implications of fraud would be obvious?

California law (Title V) states that, within the college and university systems, classes will be designed such that, on the average, in order to pass a given lecture class, students will spend twice as much time doing homework as they spend in class. For example, in a one-semester-unit lecture class, students will spend 16 hours in lecture and 32 hours doing homework.

This 2:1 Carnegie standard sets out a specific prescription for what taxpayers should expect from California’s public colleges and universities, and from the students who avail themselves of the wonderful opportunity of only being obligated to pay about 25% of the tuition they would pay at a private school.

Here we must be clear in two regards: (1) homework is work done outside of class for the class; (2) the expectation is that the standard for passing a course of study (in a lecture class) will be set in accordance with that previously stated amount of homework being done. (The distinction between attending and passing is important, because the community college system is constituted to give students a chance to take any course for a second or third time in recognition of their possibly not having developed good study habits before they began. When such students retake a course, they can complete the homework that they did not finish the first time.)

So, as one small piece of a very complex puzzle, we can ask about the degree of fraud in this particular part of the community college system of California. We can ask: To what extent is the Carnegie standard (2:1) being adhered? It is hypothetically a fundamental part of the classroom, the instructor, and student environment. (Because it is a legal state expectation with which every instructor can reasonably be expected to be familiar, fraud can be construed to exist even in negligent ignorance.) What is the rate of fraud? How does it compare to the 33% fraud rate formerly found in the home mortgage market? How could we measure it? What would the implications be if we could measure it?

We assume that the 2:1 standard is the goal for students, on the average, across any class. Because across any class there is a broad spectrum of innate ability, interest, and skills based on prior preparation, we would expect the standard deviation in the homework effort to be large, and is outside the control of the professional educator, but the average homework effort should conform to the Carnegie standard (2:1). It is, of course, incumbent on all instructors that they be aware of the standard, and that they make a professional effort to assign homework and set standards for passing in such a manner as to adhere to the standard.

What we need to measure is obvious and easily defined: homework effort (in hours), after which the relevant ratio (homework time to class time) is easy to compute. The act of measurement is not so easy.

For more than a decade, I have been collecting information and data regarding this very question from California’s community college system. In summary, using my necessarily crude methods, and considering only the schools with which I have had experience or from which I have heard testimony, the average class-instructor-passing-student fraud rate is certainly at least 33%. This is a computed summary that on the average, for a student to pass a given class, the student is giving at best a 1:1 effort. In other words, students, on the average, are putting in (at most) an hour of homework time for each hour of class time.

Despite the fact that it is reasonable to surmise that all the contributors to this fraud within the education system would readily denounce analogous fraud within the economic system, it is reasonable to ask what harm can come of it.

Certainly, on the face of it, the taxpayers are being shortchanged. From that fiscal and moral standpoint alone, one would desire to see the fraud rate reduced. We might ask if there is some further threat looming due to this apparent needless failure within the system.

There are at least three important threats that can be attached to ignoring this educational fraud:

  1. In ignoring or allowing it, we (schools and instructors) are encouraging a similar failure for students-become-employees later in the financial (or any) industry;
  2. Within a nominal democracy, freedom cannot exist without sufficient education because even the most educated individual cannot be free if, through insufficient public education, a critical mass of citizens is susceptible to having their votes surreptitiously stolen by mendacious public relations campaigns sponsored by the big banks and corporations;
  3. In the race for existence, and the struggle against environmental degradation and mass extinction of species, Homo sapiens needs to insist on excellence in education as long as the votes of the democratic mass are controlling the destiny of the living Earth.

It is a further unfortunate twist of nature that while this unique important law (Title V, Carnegie 2:1 standard) depends more heavily than most on the willing compliance of those who are subordinate to it (schools, departments, instructors, and students), there is a lag time in the overt emergence of the consequences for failure to comply, and those consequences will be devastating. This is the most seductively dangerous of human situations.

Due to the enormity and seriousness of the problem in California over the last decade, I would like to propose a survey that asks individual instructors (1) if they are aware of the Title V Carnegie 2:1 standard, and (2) if they are using their best knowledge and experience to apply that standard in determining how much homework to assign in each class and in accordingly setting the standard for passing the class. Such a survey would at least focus attention on the problem.

Footnote 1: Simply assigning more homework does not mean that students will do it! But if the student does not learn enough to pass (because passing would require more effort on homework), they can simply retake the class. (For example, instead of doing 2:1 once and passing, the student might do 1:1 twice to pass the class.)

Footnote 2: Currently in the educational community, a great deal of attention is being given to pedagogical methods, and the possible benefits, especially through technology, of the tailoring of learning methodology to individual students. In the excitement of such investigations and discoveries, we must not forget that learning takes time and energy. Regardless of advances in our understanding of how students learn, this paper is solely concerned with the current underlying law for the amount of expected time and effort that students put into a course of study.

Footnote 3: The consequence of deficient homework expectations has a well-known overt deleterious impact due to a sequence of prerequisite courses leading up to a college-level course. For example, in mathematics, a student might need to pass courses in beginning algebra and intermediate algebra before enrolling in college algebra. That student might be oblivious to the deficiency in courses that have been conducted on a 1:1 basis leading up to their enrollment in college algebra; the student then enters college algebra with neither the mathematical maturity nor the study skills to handle that final course in the sequence.

Footnote 4: An instructor once suggested to the author that it might not be practical (due to time constraints) in some classes for the 2:1 standard to be achieved because the instructor could not possibly score that much homework. The author has developed statistically valid methods of random sampling scoring that make it possible to assign any amount of homework in any subject, and to score a reasonable portion of it.

Lin Sten worked as a systems engineer in the aerospace industry for more than a decade, where he used his training in mathematics, physics, and statistics to solve system problems. He has also taught mathematics, statistics, and physics in the California Community College system for nearly two decades. He wrote the nonfiction Souls, Slavery, and Survival in the Molenotech Age (Paragon House, 1999) and has written screenplays and novels. He is currently working on an historical tetralogy, Arion’s Odyssey (self-published), of which the first and fourth volumes are available on Amazon.com; the third volume, Beyond the Battle of Naupaktos, will be self-published this summer.