Samuelson, redux

Robert Samuelson argues that although judged by “objective” measures (i.e. tests) the U.S. lags many other countries in science and math education, we succeed through our “informal learning system.” This informal learning system redresses some of the failures of our high schools. Evidence for this claim is a study that shows older americans are less deficient in literacy and math than younger americans. Samuelson begins by pointing out this strange phenomenon in comparative international test scores.

>Today’s young Americans sometimes do well on these international tests, but U.S. rankings drop as students get older. Here’s a 2003 study of 15-year-olds in 39 countries: In math, 23 countries did better; in science, 18. Or consider a 2003 study of adults 16 to 65 in six advanced nations: Americans ranked fifth in both literacy and math.

Samuelson attributes this improvment to the “informal learning system.” A notion that is so broadly defined as to include presumably anything that might contribute to learning. Further, it isn’t clear why “community colleges et al.” are better described as “informal” than “formal.” Certainly “self-help” books fall into the informal category.

>The American learning system is more complex. It’s mostly post-high school and, aside from traditional colleges and universities, includes the following: community colleges; for-profit institutes and colleges; adult extension courses; online and computer-based courses; formal and informal job training; self-help books.

But the centerpiece he talks about in his column seems to be the formal parts of the “informal learning system” (community colleges and Univeristy of Phoenix’s internet courses are singled out) He seems to suggest that they have an large impact on the math and literacy scores of older americans. Whether this is true or not, Samuelson doesn’t provide any evidence. At this point his argument seems to be that there must be some explanation for the test scores cited above. The explanation cannot be formal learning system, therefore it must lie somewhere in the “non-formal” learning system. If this latter notion is defined broadly enough, then this seems to be a reasonable argument. But regretably in order to be a reasonable argument it must lack any real explanatory power. Samuelson is essentially claiming that the explanation for the learning that the test scores above suggest is that learning occurs somehow.

But all of this argument seems completely unconnected from the points that Samuelson draws at the conclusion. First of all he identifies two undoubted “virtues” of the american system:

>First, it provides second chances. It tries to teach people when they’re motivated to learn — which isn’t always when they’re in high school or starting college.

>[Second] The American learning system accommodates people’s ambitions and energies — when they emerge — and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.

As was pointed out by my colleague, a more natural inference than praising our “informal learning system” might be to demand improvement of these defects.

His conclusion involves a curious shift of topic–one smells herring.

>But the American learning system partially explains how a society of certified dummies consistently outperforms the test scores. Workers and companies develop new skills as the economy evolves. The knowledge that is favored (specialized and geared to specific jobs) often doesn’t show up on international comparisons that involve general reading and math skills.

But very little evidence has been given to show that the “informal learning system” should be credited with this, or that it does in fact “partially explain” our national success in “production.” Further, the phenomenon from which Samuelson starts is precisely the age connected change in scores on “international comparisons that involve reading and math skills.” Now , however, he has shifted the topic to the vocational skills that Americans acquire informally. The argument presupposes a connection between the two, which he here, in the last sentence (above), denies. Finally, there seem to be many other possible explanations for our “productivity advantage.” The connection between vocational learning acquired “informally” and increased productivity needs to be argued.

There may be more than some truth in Samuelson’s account of the “informal learning system.” But whether it is there would require tighter argument than we are given here. I’m not sure that his argument is entirely fallacious–perhaps it is better described as a little “loose.” If I were to identify fallacious tendencies they would lie somewhere between Ignoratio Elenchi and Red Herring. As an argument for the explanation of the disparity between our test scores and our productivity, it seems weak.