The Case Against Credentialism

More than 20 years ago James Fallows wrote an article in the Atlantic titled “The Case Against Credentialism.”

It is long and covers a lot of ground. I see two somewhat separate points.

First, he contrasts the “assortment of informal, outside-normal-channels, no-guarantee, and low-prestige activities that is glossed over and glamorized by the term entreprenurialism” with the “tremendous pull exerted by the security, dignity, and order of the professionalized world… how much more dignified is the sound of banker, lawyer…”

This troubles Fallows, even though he himself is a member of the professional world who attained top academic standing. Entrepreneurs innovate and create new industries and generate jobs for people beside themselves. Yet society still bestows higher status on the multitude of lawyers, consultants, and analysts for which the path to the top is through the corridors of elite academic credentialing institutions:

…Most of the real entrepreneurs I know lack the track record of impeccable schooling and early academic success that is supposed to distinguish the meritocracy’s most productive members. What kind of merit system is this, if it discounts the activity on which the collective wealth depends?

Second, he notes the failure of formal credentials and licenses at screening for workplace competence: “Because the credentialing and licensing process uses input measures, mainly years of schooling, to determine who gets into the field, we end up licensing people who are good at studying law or business, which is not necessarily the same thing as being good at the job.”

Example from the world of therapy:

In half of the “effectiveness” studies that Hogan surveyed, non-professional therapists did better than professionals in helping patients, despite their lack of formal education.

Example from he world of air traffic controllers:

Common sense might suggest that the better controllers would be more educated — but the FAA found that fully half the top-ranked controllers had no formal education beyond high school. Many of them had come directly to the FAA for rigorous technical training specifically related to the jobs they were expected to do.

Why are you allowed to go into business without an MBA yet you are not allowed to go into law without a J.D.? The J.D. credential does not seem to have much to do with being an effective lawyer, and the fact that many successful lawyers fail the bar exam after years of adult lawyering should be cause for concern about the credentialing process of the profession. Earning a J.D. and passing the bar exam seem to be retrospective tools about one’s success in law school; not predictive tools about one’s ability to be a lawyer. If I were God, no J.D. would be required to practice law, and the bar exam would be drastically reduced in scope and scale.

The question to ask about all credentialing schemes, whether JD, MBA, real estate license, CFA, etc, is this: Would the very best people working in the profession today obtain the highest possible scores on the license test? In the case of air traffic controllers and therapists, the answer is no. I bet the answer is no for lawyers, businesspeople, and real estate agents, too.

Fallows’s Bottom Line: “A liberal education is good for its own sake, and schooling of any sort can impart a broad perspective that can help in any job. Rather, the charge against credential requirements is that they are simultaneously too restrictive and too lax. They are too restrictive in giving a huge advantage to those who booked early passage on the IQ train and too lax in their sloppy relation to the skills that truly make for competence.”

The Selfishness of Public School Teacher Unions

Troy Senik writes about California’s problems and talks in passing about how the public school teachers’ unions have the state by the neck. Read it and weep:

Perhaps the most vexing labor organizations are the teachers’ unions. These groups were the driving force behind Proposition 98, locking in mandatory spending on public education without regard to any other fiscal considerations. But that’s only where their transgressions begin. In 1992, the California Teachers’ Association — by far the most powerful teachers’ union in the state — blocked a ballot initiative to promote school choice in the Golden State by physically intimidating petition-signers and allegedly placing false names on the petitions. When asked about his union’s opposition to the measure, the CTA president responded: “There are some proposals that are so evil that they should never even be presented to the voters.” And in 2000, when testing results revealed that two-thirds of Los Angeles public schools were ranked as failures, the president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles announced that his union would accept a proposal for merit pay only on “a cold day in hell.”

The result of the teachers’ flight from responsibility has been unadulterated dysfunction. In Los Angeles schools, one out of every three students drops out before graduation. And a research team from the University of California, Riverside, recently concluded that by 2014 — the year all students are required to be proficient in math and English under No Child Left Behind — nearly every elementary school in the state will fail to meet proficiency standards. Yet despite the atrocious performance of California educators, it is nearly impossible to fire an incompetent teacher (the percentage of California teachers terminated after three or more years in the classroom is just 0.03%). For example, in a May exposé on the Los Angeles Unified School District, Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Song revealed: “The district wanted to fire a high school teacher who kept a stash of pornography, marijuana and vials with cocaine residue at school, but a commission balked, suggesting that firing was too harsh. L.A. Unified officials were also unsuccessful in firing a male middle school teacher spotted lying on top of a female colleague in the metal shop, saying the district did not prove that the two were having sex.”

But no matter how egregious their misconduct, California’s public-school teachers can always skirt the consequences. With 340,000 members statewide, the California Teachers’ Association is perhaps the most powerful interest group in state politics. In 2005, for instance, the organization spent nearly $60 million to defeat ballot measures aimed at bringing more accountability to California schools. And when budget agreements get hashed out in meetings of the state’s notorious “big five” (the governor and the four legislative party leaders), the CTA is treated like an unnamed sixth party to the talks. It’s no wonder, then, that despite having some of America’s lowest-performing schools, California’s teachers are the highest paid in the nation.

Trenik doesn’t even touch the idiocy of tenure.

It’s unfortunate that public school teachers are often portrayed as selfless martyrs, the guard-bearers of our children, when in fact they are selfish economic actors who look out for their own interests. Sure, the prison guards are similarly spoiled. But they make no bones about being anything other than self-interested prison guards.


Here’s the in-depth L.A. Times piece on how it’s basically impossible to fire teachers in LAUSD. Here’s the New Yorker just a few months ago on New York City’s battles with unions, where some teachers are being paid more than $100,000 to sit in a room and do nothing.

“Best” over “Better.” Gifted vs. Special Needs Children.

In his exchange with Bill Simmons at, Malcolm Gladwell writes:

I wonder if there isn't something particularly American in the preference for "best" over "better" strategies. I might be pushing things here. But both the U.S. health-care system and the U.S. educational system are exclusively "best" strategies: They excel at furthering the opportunities of those at the very top end. But they aren't nearly as interested in moving people from the middle of the pack to somewhere nearer the front.

The universities in the U.S. are the best in the world, but they are not very accessible to the lower class both financially and culturally. The universities in Europe, by contrast, are good not great, yet they are accessible to all. In some places, like Switzerland, you need only be a citizen to attend any university in the country. Universities throughout Europe are often free (entirely government subsidized).

Put crudely, America’s the place for the best grad students to become even better, while leaving behind swaths of its own people. Europe’s the place for the vast swaths of average grad students to become above average. (I know, I know, there are exceptions.)

Consider a related education question: Should we cut programs for gifted children before cutting programs for disabled children? Are special needs kids’ more important budget-wise than programs for gifted kids? The answer seems to be yes. Public funding supports the guy who’s in 6th grade and reading at a 3rd grade level more than the guy who’s in 3rd grade and doing math at an 8th grade level.

Governments assume some obligation to look after the guy who lost the ovarian lottery. Individuals don’t have a similar duty.

Myself, I’m more interested in helping 7’s become 8’s (on a 10 point scale) than helping 3’s become 6’s. I’d rather have a smaller impact on a very talented person than help an illiterate person learn how to read. The self-interested explanation for this is that it’s more stimulating to me to work with someone who’s talented. The altruistic explanation is that some gifted people will use their gifts to help all of mankind. Think science and innovation: imagine the good that would accrue to all people if we cultivate and support the next Einstein versus helping the D student do a bit better on his chemistry homework.

Most philanthropy favors helping poor people become less poor (I mean “poor” in the broadest terms). The MacArthur genius grants are a notable exception – they are given to individuals who are already at the top of their game and enables them to get even better. Unfortunately, the MacArthur model is rare.

Bottom Line: Which is more important: helping the best get better or helping the average get better? Should our educational and philanthropy priorities always favor the disadvantaged over the advantaged? Is there something particularly American about its preference for “best” (over “most”) in both education and healthcare?

Comparing Modern Education to a Placebo

On your first day of school at a fancy institution you listen to grand speeches about the wisdom that will soon be imprinted in your brain. You have entered as feeble minds, you will leave as the ruling class. You are also reminded about the ultra-selectivity of the august institution. You are some of the smartest young men and women in the world. It is impossible to leave a convocation ceremony without being convinced that you are among the chosen ones.

Then, you spend four years cracking open the great books, interacting with professors who shock and awe you with their intelligence, and listening intently to outside speakers who tell you it's up your generation to right yesterday's wrongs.

All the while you are keenly aware of the time and money investment you are making. By the end you have spent 48 months full-time engaged in the crucial business of educating yourself. At private colleges, your parents have mortgaged the house to make one of the largest investments of their life.

Surely, you've learned something profound. Surely, you've learned "how to think." Surely, without such a formative intellectual experience you would be at a significant disadvantage in the workforce.

At graduation, you walk off the campus toting the armor of self-confidence that comes from being told you are now "an educated adult." Self-confidence is extremely important.

Perhaps at some point it doesn't matter what actually happens during those four years; if the song-and-dance is elaborate enough, you will be convinced that education happened, and you will carry intellectual self-confidence with you into the world.

Does this phenomenon sound familiar?

If you want your headache to go away, it doesn't matter if you take real Advil or just something that looks and tastes like Advil — the outcome is the same. The Placebo effect works. Why doesn't the same hold true for education?

In his new book, which I review here, Tyler Cowen writes:

Placebo effects can be very powerful and many supposedly effective medicines do not in fact outperform the placebo. The sorry truth is that no one has compared modern education to a placebo. What if we just gave people lots of face-to-face contact and told them they were being educated?

He reluctantly provides the terrifying conclusion: Maybe that's what current methods of education already consist of.

Are Big Picture Thinkers Neglected by Our School System?

One of my favorite blogs, the Eide Neurolearning Blog, has an interesting post up about big picture thinking, defined as:

1. Having a simple framework
2. Using analogies and metaphors
3. Developing multiple perspectives
4. Looking for patterns and commonalities

The post explores whether big picture thinking types — people who learn inductively; that is, generate rules from examples — are neglected in our education system.

Pint-sized big picture thinkers really do exist and they seem to be over-represented among gifted children who underperform or cause behavioral disruptions in their early elementary school years. Many of these kids are 'high conceptual' thinkers, those who like discovering novel subjects, themes, and things that don't make sense ("The thing that doesn't fit is the interesting thing" – Richard Feynman), but the reason for this is often not random – inductive learners (learners who derive rules from examples) use novelties to generate new hypotheses or new rules.

Big picture thinking really is a sort of upside-down thinking style, but if it is truly understood, it has many ramifications for education. Many big picture thinker struggle with time management problems and underachievement (poor written output) in their school years. When we ask many of these kids why it is hard for them to start writing, it becomes clear that the problem is more that they know too much (and have trouble narrowing their subject) than than they know too little. Many confess to us that they read more the assigned reading because they feel they need to understand things better if they are to understand a thing at all. Many of them are seeking the overarching framework inside which they can put their new bit of knowledge. Often these are 'why' kids – who need to know why something is true, not just that something is true. For those of us who are content to be 'little picture' thinkers when called for, the drive seems a little arbitrary and perhaps fatuous- but if you see enough of these kids, it seems more than a preference, it is a necessary requirement for learning at least in some people.


The Eide doctors have a particular emphasis on dyslexia, ADHD, and fMRI.

Here's a listing of the top 30 entrepreneurs who were college drop-outs, left-handed, and dyslexic. Familiar names: Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Charles Schwab, Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, Bill Hewlett, Ted Turner, Tommy Hilfiger, David Neelman, John Chambers, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison. Here's my post titled Damn It Feels Good to Be a Lefty.