Education: Skills or Signals?

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It’s that time of year when almost 100 million Americans go back to school.  Yes, approximately 25% of the US population is enrolled at least part-time as a student at some level of kindergarten through graduate programs.  My question is whether these students are learning skills applicable outside of the classroom or are they just earning credentials for their resume?

The easy answer is both, but I would argue that after initial universal skills are learned, education acts as a signal of ability to comprehend and analyze. It is important to distinguish between learning a skill, such as the ability to problem solve, versus signaling that you have the ability to problem solve. Before going too deep, an example should clarify the difference.

Consider high school math, in Algebra or Geometry a student may learn the skill of deductive reasoning and problem solving. Then a few years later in Calculus, the students signal that they have the requisite skills needed to comprehend Calculus concepts. Note that this signal (the ability to understand Calculus) may not be an applicable “life skill,” but if you ask a college admissions officer they would tell you it is quite valuable to signal to colleges that you are able to complete a Calculus course.

What skills will be acquired in schools this fall that will be applicable? Obviously basic reading, writing, and arithmetic are necessary skills learned in the lower grade levels. Once these skills are mastered, the second level of thinking comes into play. That is, using factual knowledge to solve problems.  Finally third level thinking, including synthesizing (or combining) knowledge from various sources to derive original thoughts and conclusions. The last two “levels of thinking” are not necessarily taught on their own, yet students acquire these skills through high school and these attributes are the base argument for a “liberal arts education” promoted by colleges.

So, when does education stop being skill based and start becoming a signaling device? My conclusion is that this balance transfer occurs in the midst of the traditional high school years. The American high school curriculum (including calendar and schedule), include many requirements that act as hurdles. Also, many advanced graduate programs fail to provide students with necessary skills. These degrees simply act as acknowledgement that a student has read the core literature of a field and does not enable students to go out into the world ready to produce original ideas.

Below are two graphs that I believe represent traditional educational paths for American students and the subsequent returns of skill development from that education. The first graph represents a student whose returns to schooling are negative, that is each year fewer skills are acquired.  Unfortunately, I believe this is the path of the majority of American students.  The second graph represents a student that take a career orientated path and ends their education in a trade school or college or graduate program that gives the student real skills to be applied outside of the classroom.

If we want education to have meaning for our students, we should gear curriculum to achieve the second path shown above.  Ideally, we could create a skill development graph that is a horizontal line where students are constantly acquiring applicable skills. This may seem far off, but if we want our future citizens to be equipped to face the challenges of an ever-changing economy and job market, we need to be sure that they are prepared with applicable skills, not a diploma that recognizes that they jumped through the appropriate hoops.


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