kitchen table math, the sequel: On top

Friday, November 19, 2010

On top

The top earner in Westchester County and the region, Scarsdale's Michael V. McGill, earns $372,006 in total compensation.
Source: Demand for quality school superintendents fuels high salaries
Top-earner Scarsdale superintendent Michael V. McGill on our top students:
If you listen to people like Richard Elmore, who’s a teacher at Harvard, he says the very top top American kids are scoring about the 75th percentile on international studies. So we know our top performing kids are doing very well.
Source: A bully pulpit for the Superintendent of the Year | lohud blogs
Our very top students should be performing on par with Europe and Asia's very top students.

If they're not, then our very top superintendents are overpaid.

Superintendent salaries


Anonymous said...

I would be stunned if the kids at Thomas Jefferson (in VA) can't compete with the best the rest of the world has to offer. This doesn't mean that their standardized test scores will be highest...

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

The 75th percentile of what group? The whole or the top top?

le radical galoisien said...

TJHSST? I have way too many friends from there. If only I had gone to high school in Virginia and not Maine.

No really they can compete -- they are very creative, innovative, driven people.

Mind you, TJHSST is an overcrowded school where some classes are held in trailers because of lack of classroom space. It's kind of underfunded -- in the sense that they are willing to spend $1000 per kid's senior research project, but they haven't scheduled any major expansions to the school.

Just as well -- I mean, kids don't really complain about the fact that some of their classes are held in pre-fab housing. I suspect they prefer that alternative than if their research funds were taken away.

TJ is where I want to send any kids I have in the future.

Allison said...

Depends on what you mean by compete.

the TJ kids, like the governor's school kids and Bronx sci kids at MIT did well, but were totally outclassed in physics and math by the Russians, Estonians, and Indians, who were years ahead of the rest of us. Now, sure, the really swell TJers in math probably went to Harvard, but so did the really swell Russians.
That was 20 years ago. The international competition has increased, and our top students have not maintained that pace.

Allison said...

Now, if you are asking if they *can learn* as much, or get into top grad schools, some can. Maybe being two years behind the top international kids doesn't matter if in the end you'll take 4 years of college anyway.
But don't kid yourself that we educate our top kids less than other countries do prior to university.

PhysicistDave said...

Catherine wrote:
>Our very top students should be performing on par with the very top students of Europe and Asia.

Of course, our *very* top students are on par. The Einsteins of the world evade the nonsense, carve their own paths, and do it their own way (as Einstein did). That is what I did myself (although, of course, I am no Einstein!), as I am sure various other people here did.

The US still does great in Nobel prizes (even if you cross out the immigrant recipients). America is so affluent and has so many resources – public libraries, university libraries, the Web, etc. – that very bright, very aggressive students can and do work things out for themselves. The super-bright and super-motivated teach themselves advanced material as fast as they can and are largely oblivious, or actively disdainful to the anti-intellectual, anti-academic thrust of the general culture.

East Asian schools do tend to be rigid and discourage individuality and creativity – the Chinese, for example, are quite conscious of that, as I was told last month when we were in China. Their system works better for the broad middle (if you ignore the misery it imposes on the students – they have a real problem with suicide), but it is not great for the students in the very upper crust.

Our top students have to fight the system, effectively homeschooling themselves, but our system is so squishy, it is possible to do that. They do waste a lot of time, especially in grade school. being forced to sit through all the nonsense (although it does allow lots of time for amusing daydreaming).


le radical galoisien said...

I'm content with TJ's pace, in so far as the pace is individualistic and /individuals/ are allowed to pursue the highest they can pursue.

Because if you really wanted to study advanced number theory as a high school junior -- really -- you have the opportunity. Your teachers are often former professors or retired researchers at large private firms.

At some point I think, there must be a "sane limit" in how much you want to collectively press the cohort to go. Do you want a singular attention to math and science, to the exclusion of other disciplines?

There is a portion of TJ students often embark on cultural endeavours (from arts/music to Sciences Po in France), but they are scientifically trained. This is important. Someone complained about science and math not being seen as glamourous or socially-valued. But if those who appreciate science and math do not go into fields where they can initiate cultural change, how can we expect such a thing to occur?

In Asian education systems, too often, the system deems itself the judge of your aptitudes. "You are good in X. You shall major in this!" and the state decides what specialisations you are to take. You cannot switch. You get tracked into a track you cannot track out of.

Allison said...

You can make all the claims you want about our tip-top students being equal, but it's simply not born out by the stats in graduate schools in math and science.

Here's are two lovely examples. First,from Duke University Physics dept. The second the list of physics grad students at princeton.

Duke: How many international and domestic students are accepted?
We usually make about 50–70 “offers” to students, because we want 12–17 students each year, but of course there are fluctuations. We don’t look for “international students” and for “domestic students”, just “students”. You can see the statistics:

Domestic International All Students
2005 9 3 12
2006 6 10 16
2007 3 7 10
2008 4 7 11
2009 5 8 13
2010 2 14 16

9.4. From which countries are your students?
This year, we have students from Armenia, Canada, China, Eritrea, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom, and USA.
9.5. What percentage of your graduate students are international?

Let's look at the list of names of the princeton grad students in physics. Sure, some of the more foreign names could still be US citizens, but that's not the trend.

Alegria, Loren
Alexandradinata, Aris
Alidoust, Nasser
Amodei, Dario
Appel, John
Ashok-Parameswaran, Siddharth
Bak, Ji Hyun
Bantilan, Hans
Berry, Edmund
Bourjaily, Jacob
Brasoveanu, Theodor
Brodsky, Jason
Brown, Justin
Cao, Huajie
Chandran, Anushya
Chavarria, Alvaro
Da Silva Neto, Eduardo
Dahlen, Alex
Deng, Yi
Drocco, Jeffrey
Drozdov, Ilya
Du, XinXin
Dubuis, Julien
Dumitrescu, Thomas
East, Williamn
Essinger-Hileman, Thomas
Gerbaudo, Davide
Grace, Emily
Gudmundsson, Jon
Gulotta, Daniel
Gyenis, Andras
Hanson, Jack
Hartnett, Andrew
Hassani, Steven
Hebda, Philip
Hejna, Miroslav
Huang, Chen
Hunt, Adam
Ioffe, Mark
Jackson, Steven
Khemani, Vedika
Khoo, Yuehaw
Kim, Hyungwon
Kolodrubetz, Michael
Kostinski, Natalie(EE)
Krotov, Dmitry
Laird, Edward
Lambert, Guillaume
Lebsack, Emily
Li, Zhaofeng
Liang, Tian
Loer, Ben
Lou, Hou Keong
Loutherback, Kevin(EE)
Ma, Jinxiu
Marcotte, Etienne
McGady, David
McGuyer, Bart
Medvedeva, Tatiana
Mestler, Troy
Mikhaylov, Victor
Mooney, Michael
Mosteiro, Pablo
Murugan, Anand
Nguyen, Jeffrey
Olsen, Ben Andrew
Pal, Arijeet
Pappas, Christine
Park, YeJe
Parker, Colin
Parker, Lucas
Pimentel, Guilherme
Polyakov, Oleg
Pufu, Silviu
Quan, Xiaohang
Rahlin, Alexandra
Ramazanoglu, Fethi
Ren, Jie
Rosenthal, Sara
Roushan, Pedram
Ruderman, Joshua
Safdi, Benjamin
Saka, Halil
Saldanha, Richard
Schroer, Michael
Sederberg, Audrey
Sherwin, Blake
Shi, Zane
Smith, Eric
Stehlik, Jiri
Sun, Jiming
Swanson, Douglas
Tesileanu, Tiberiu
Tikhonov, Mikhail
Trnka, Jaroslav
Urban, Lucas
Vasilakis, Georgios
Visnjic, Katerina
Wang, Ke
Werner, Jeremy
Wu, Yangle
Xiong, Jun
Xu, Jingke
Xu, SuYang
Xue, BingKan
Yang, Bo
Zhang, Qiucen
Zhao, Bo
Zhao, Zhizhen
Zhiboedov, Alexander
Zhou, Brian
Zhu, Wenhan
Zuranski, Andrzej

If you don't think this is screaming evidence that our top students can't peform up to top intl students, you are willfully blind.

le radical galoisien said...

For a long while I thought I was definitely going to do physics in grad school, study quantum physics and all that, but I became exposed to all these other fields, that were in a sense, more lucrative, rewarding and yet had that intellectual edge.

To me, it's more of a social trend: American students (and American-born students) are shying away from academic careers, while for international students, that is the only way they can break into the American economy.

I am not really sure I want to be an academic. This probably applies to a large bunch of "top students".

My second best friend's first best friend (surprise! from TJ) born to Chinese-born parents, cares much about China, etc. got picked up by a hedge fund the summer of her first year, where she helped them write programs to implement models that to this date have traded a volume approaching several billion dollars. And she's a third year MIT student. Domestic.

a lot more attractive than grad school with their measly stipends. I must admit, I thought the ascetic life of a researcher was the one for me ... and pooh pooh'ed all the hedge fund kids... till I befriended a few. I mean, it's just so much more prestigious to say you're a financial analyst for Citibank than to say you're a grad student for physics.

When you see your dormmates getting well-paying internships from financial companies who are eager to spoil their kids left and right...and the work and financial models they complain of are nearly nothing compared to thermodynamics and fluid dynamics think twice.

this TJ student (incidentally, a friend of a friend) decided to break out into fashion.

"In high school, I masterminded & threw our first-ever fashion show from scratch, raising $2000+ for autism and pediatric cancer research. I’ve designed a shirt collaboration with Thakoon, gotten my stuff sold in a high-end boutique in NYC/Tokyo."

My ex, had a 2390 SAT, skips half the lectures of many classes, sleeps in half the ones she attends, and walks into exams getting 100s. She for a long while disdained academia. She did get very nice-paying internships at a private biotech firm after her first year (it was a position reserved for upperclassmen). She was working on saving up enough money to go to pharmacy school. For a long while I didn't get it. It took her favourite professor to convince her she should at least think about chemistry grad school. (Which too is full of international students, but not as much as physics.)

Another TJ student, very talented, very rebellious, might have gone to grad school, but got pulled into the Commerce School. The side benefit is she gets contacts to work with for her project she started with a half-South Korean guy (now in the SK military), "THiNK -- There is Hope in North Korea".

Why should students who excel at what they do choose grad school and academia?

For my friends anyway, the impression we get of grad school is further stiflement, further working with restrictions, restricted budgets, constantly helpless at the hands of your superiors. You're dependent on grants. And even if you get tenure and become a star professor, the office you work in is not a shiny skyscraper in New York but in the bowels of an academic building -- ... at least as a pharmacist you get to meet people. With the sun shining.

le radical galoisien said...

admittedly, I am not sure if there is an self-sustaining crowding-out effect. Many of the international students are aloof, and not exactly charismatic or super-sociable. (This is outside the TA experience, which tends to be better.) Perhaps it's because of language barriers. But it lowers the prestige of grad school even further.

Perhaps prestige and fashionableness seems like a weird thing to pay attention to. But we are young after all. We have weaknesses. Yes, if you have a social life, what is hot and trendy matters, even if you have a 2390 SAT and crush every math subject ever taken.

Catherine Johnson said...

Anybody got an idea how to deal with ShirleFenette2010?

Allison said...

International students at American universities are not coming here to "break into the American economy."

There is no future in the American economy given where we are today. We've got 10% unemployment, nearly 20% underemployment, and 0% growth. Things could change, but it will be a long time.

There aren't well paid internships at banks or biotech firms anymore either. A major investment bank is saying no new US jobs, and moving 65000 jobs overseas--to southeast Asia and India. These are knowledge worker positions as we think of them. This is the future.

The international students have seen opportunity in Asia and they know it. They are going home with these prestigious degrees to places where they can become research academics (unlike here), or private sector researchers (increasingly unlike here), or business folks, or otherwise have a future.

As the economist reported
"TWENTY years ago North America, Europe and Japan produced almost all of the world’s science...In 1990 they carried out more than 95% of the world’s research and development (R&D). By 2007 that figure was 76%...Yet America’s share of world publications, at 28% in 2007, is slipping. In 2002 it was 31%. The EU’s collective share also fell, from 40% to 37%, whereas China’s has more than doubled to 10% and Brazil’s grew by 60%, from 1.7% of the world’s output to 2.7%
China is on the verge of overtaking both America and the EU in the quantity of its scientists. Each had roughly 1.5m researchers out of a global total of 7.2m in 2007. Nevertheless, the number of scientists per million people remains relatively low in China. And India, second only to China in the size of its population, has only a tenth as many researchers. This is a surprising anomaly for a country that has become the world’s leading exporter of information-technology services and ranks third after America and Japan in terms of the volume of pharmaceuticals it produces."

As noted here,
"Duke University’s Vivek Wadhwa, who has been studying the habits and attitudes of Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs for the last few years, argued that for the first time in its history the United States is experiencing a brain drain and doesn’t even realize it."
...When Wadhwa conducted a survey asking students “For how many years would you like to stay in the U.S. after graduation?” here were the responses: (note the question was what they wanted, not what they thought likely)

Over 50% of the indians said 1-5 years. 40% of the Chinese said the same. Just shy of 30% of the Europeans said the same. Less than 6% of the indians, 15% of the europeans, and less than 10% of the chinese said "permanently". Yes, admittedly, these students might change their mind, but this is indicative of a change in our culture.

Indians aren't even enrolling here as they used to.

Data released by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) reveals that after a year of zero growth, when American universities saw no rise in the number of foreign students, international enrollments have gone up marginally. But the largest contributor has been China, not India.

The CGS data shows that in 2009 and 2010, fresh enrollments from India fell sharply. This year, the United Kingdom seems to have replaced the US as the favorite education destination for Indians; the UK issued 57,500 visas to Indian students, which is almost double the 32,000 visas issued by the US."

le radical galoisien said...

Thanks to the Commonwealth system, UK universities have always been more prestigious than US ones. It's not a new development.

I'm not particularly alarmed. (As a practical -- though not legal -- citizen of two hemispheres I don't find myself thinking along national lines...)

"Stay in US after graduation" is such a broad question really. What does it mean to "stay in the US?" People get homesick. Some might want to live a partial life in one country, a partial life in the other -- if they had the means to.

I mean, when I first came back to the US from Singapore, I was so cynical (typical for a 15-year-old) and constantly rolled my eyeballs at American classmates, that I could not imagine I would ever identify myself strongly with the American identity ever again (I had done so, from the ages of 6-10).

Why would you want to stay anywhere "permanently"? Permanently is confined. Imprisoned. Stuck to one place.
Adults get stuck to one place.

My peers would be like to be a little different.

le radical galoisien said...

*more prestigious in Commonwealth countries -- hence, in SG and India (two very different countries), the UK is prestigious because that's what the entire education system was inherited from.

and my mother used to always boast to Americans about how Singaporean exams would get marked in Cambridge, or other random links to Cambridge. (so embarrassing.)

anyhow, it's true internships in Germany, Japan, Korea, China etc. are popping up more and more in my resource links.

as a third culture kid, along with many students in the US who are 1'5 gen'ers and so forth, the life of a migrant worker is not very daunting.

I regularly hear things like, "I'm proud to be from Boston, NYC, Northern Virginia, etc." but rarely things like "I am proud of my country". If you are a Chinese undergraduate, "I am proud to be from Sichuan / Wuhan etc." comes out, and maybe "I am proud to be Chinese" in the huayu / cultural sense, but not in the national sense.

(but perhaps northerners / Beijing people think different. they control the reins of power in China, so perhaps they are more likely to be nationalistic)

cultural allegiances over national allegiances. partially this is because you can take a culture with you, but not a nation's borders.

le radical galoisien said...

I don't know why there is this huge breakdown by country.

I mean, the US is regularly discussed in terms of its states, why not discuss India and China in terms of its provinces and cities?

Many Chinese cities are bigger in population than the size of US states.

I worked in a research lab where 70% of the researchers came from mainland China. OK -- but what does that tell you? Something, but not much. One came from Nanjing, two from around the Beijing area (but not Beijing itself). One came from Heilongjiang. One from Shanghai.

if I would describe their personalities in a very basic way, I would have to admit I would be influenced about stereotypes about people from each city -- but many Americans don't even know about these stereotypes. They prefer to lump them into one big group.

the international admissions officer at UVA (who is an ally of the Global Student Council, against the position of the more "inward-looking" members of the Board of Visitors and McDonnell's inward-looking "reforms") already do city by city. admissions officers want to see applicants from the poorer provinces (but of course the lack of financial aid for low-income international students deters them).

In China, the opposite of affirmative action occurs. Chinese colleges and universities actively discriminate against the provinces -- even if you're a "top student" in the province, you may go unrecognised and be rejected from your dream school (in China) in favour of an inferior student from the city.

massive, massive resentment.

students that come over from Shanghai and Beijing tend to be very very privileged, and stick in their own little cliques and do not interact a lot culturally. students from the South (which tends to be poorer) behave much differently.

but the Western analysis never sees it like this. Chinese students are all the same...

Anonymous said...

"Many Chinese cities are bigger in population than the size of US states."

Many *US* cities are more populous than US states :-)

The six least populated US states (using Wikipedia's numbers from the 2000 census) all have populations under 800,000. In year 2000, 14 US cities had populations larger than that!

-Mark Roulo

le radical galoisien said...

I worked with a bunch of Chinese grad students in a lab this summer, in the middle of Iowa....we had like, two whites, 1 Korean, and 7 people from mainland China, including the PI, and me.

come the July 4 weekend we were discussing plans. All of us wanted to escape to the big cities...since our research site was sooo rural (actually it was Ames, IA, which somehow has 56000 in the city proper, but it felt like a bunch of suburbs). Des Moines? Minneapolis-St. Paul? I was sad no one wanted to drive to Chicago. I had visited relatives in NYC earlier and missed it dreadfully, but looked forward to visiting a friend at Boston. And we compared cities and attractions...

and suddenly this girl, usually quiet in English conversations, pipes up matter-of-factly, "my hometown has six million people". But it was a sobering thought. /all/ the Chinese grad students came from big cities, cities that except for NYC, were bigger than any of the cities I dreamed of visiting. and just like Tampa differs from Baltimore differs from LA, surely the dynamics of Nanjing differs from Chongqing differs from Guangzhou.

the PRC has a very centralised state education system, probably India too, in its college exams and in certain admission criteria. but because of regional politics, the implementation often widely differs from city to city, province to province.

(btw, in the provinces, education sucks. a lot. See )

lgm said...

>>>All of us wanted to escape to the big cities...since our research site was sooo rural

What's the vital attraction?

le radical galoisien said...

why we worked there?

or why we wanted to travel?

lgm said...

Why go to the bigger city? What is the attraction in the big city that can't be found in Ames?

Why do you feel Ames is rural?

lgm said...

Why go to the bigger city? What is the attraction in the big city that can't be found in Ames?

Why do you feel Ames is rural?

le radical galoisien said...

life. breath. vivacity. a heartbeat.

it wasn't all that bad. It was probably because it summertime. the nightlife is laughable in the summer. the bars are full of either a) creepy people b) people who stand there and don't dance. no one plays chess in the coffeeshops. etc. etc.

yes, we may work in science, but we still need our music, our arts, our open-air bands ;-) even Charlottesville had that.

but I am told it's much different during the school year.

lgm said...

Ah, you're looking for the big city party scene and no band you liked was playing nearby on the summer circuit.

Did you partake of the local culture and see the county fair and it's entertainment options?

le radical galoisien said...

I might actually return to Ames next summer ... or even join my PI's lab as a grad student. Should I decide to become a grad student. But I would be armed with slightly more wisdom. A car is a must-have -- I need that driver's licence.

what I love about large cities is that they are urban jungles you can explore on your own two feet.
you can be fairly whimsical and random about the paths you take.

if you don't like one attraction -- be it a club or a shop or whatever -- you can simply walk to another one.

Ames...had bands? They never showed up in google, listservs or facebook events list. (Usually you can count on the facebook algorithm to include even the underground ones playing locally.) Or even an arts/social magazine. Arts magazines are important. Charlottesville has several.

PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote:
> You can make all the claims you want about our tip-top students being equal, but it's simply not born out by the stats in graduate schools in math and science.

I think I have a much higher standard for “top students” than you do, Allison!

I did my Ph.D. in physics at Stanford – I would not consider a single one of my fellow grad students from Stanford to be a “top student,” and, indeed, not a one has been heard of again in physics (most got jobs, but they have done nothing of great significance in science -- Sally Ride did of course make a name for herself, but not as a scientist).

That’s why I gave Einstein as an example: by *very* top students, I mean the prospective Einsteins, Feynmans, Andrew Wiless, Terry Taos (Terry is an Aussie, of course), etc.

The West seems to be doing okay at that level.

It’s at the level of journeymen scientists and engineers – which means almost all grad students at any university, because even Stanford and Princeton cannot find many Einsteins – that we are doing badly.

To put it bluntly, the USA used to be a better at turning out people like you and me (I hope you don’t feel insulted to be lumped in with “journeymen” like me) than it is now.


Allison said...

Okay, Dave, you can quibble all you like about the words, but the point is the people who matter aren't Feynman, Wiles, and Taos. They didn't do much to change the world for all their significant discoveries in their field, because academic progress is not about significant discoveries.

The world changers matter much more. Paul Offit (inventor of the rotavirus vaccine), Kary Mullis (joint inventor of PCR), Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google (a naturalized American who emigrated from Russia as a child), Danny Lewin, co-founder of Akamai (Jewish Israeli-American raised in Jerusalem) are the people who matter. Mullis had his grad degrees from Cal and a postdoc at UCSF, Lewin had his from MIT, Brin had his from Stanford. Offit has an MD from U Md.

These people matter, and our ability to get Americans into these programs matters, as does our ability to bring people to America to then do what comes next. It was Lewin being at MIT, and Tom Leighton at MIT who was Lewin's advisor, and meant he started Akamai here not in Israel. It was Brin being at Stanford under Larry Page that meant he started Google here, not somewhere else. It was Mullis being at UCSF and Cal that meant he started Cetus in Emeryville.

You can be coy about if these guys are the top on a TIMSS, or coy about how the TJ Watson folks aren't the ones listed here, but this is where stuff matters--the US' ability to get our next generation into these schools.

Allison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote to me:
>The world changers matter much more. Paul Offit (inventor of the rotavirus vaccine), Kary Mullis (joint inventor of PCR), Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google (a naturalized American who emigrated from Russia as a child), Danny Lewin, co-founder of Akamai (Jewish Israeli-American raised in Jerusalem) are the people who matter. Mullis had his grad degrees from Cal and a postdoc at UCSF, Lewin had his from MIT, Brin had his from Stanford. Offit has an MD from U Md.

Sure. No real disagreement there. I happened to mention guys in math and theoretical physics because, despite my various career changes over the years, that is where my real interests lie.

But, my point stands: I did not know anyone in grad school at Stanford like Mullis, Brin, etc. either – as I said, the closest was Sally Ride, who was basically a poster child for a government bureaucracy (nothing against Sally, who of course is a bright, energetic, courageous person with a far better resumé than I!).

My point is that whether you are talking about Einstein or Edison, Bill Gates or Mullis, these guys pretty much make their own paths. As you know, I am just as outraged as you are (maybe even more so, if that is possible!) at the failure of the USA to support and encourage its bright children. I find the anti-academic and anti-intellectual pop culture, which is really maintained and supported by ordinary adults (the kids did not and could not create and sustain “youth culture” all on their own), to be truly disgusting, and I also though that as a kid, just as strongly as I do now – I’m not just ranting as an older adult.

But, for just the reasons you gave, I just do not think that a good measure of the problem is the grad school mix at Duke. As you just pointed out, the *average* grad student at even MIT or Harvard just does not matter that much. It’s Mullis, Brin, et al. (or Einstein, Wiles, Feynman, et al. for those of us with more ethereal tastes) who matter. And, I don’t see much sign that the decadence in the USA is stopping that sort of person. On the contrary, the utter chaos in the USA’s educational system and pop culture may even help them a bit. In the USA, it is still possible, as it always has been, to tell society “Go to Hell!” and yet somehow survive. That has always been America’s strength.

That, in effect, is what homeschooler like me are doing (though we would usually phrase it a bit more diplomatically!).

As I’ve mentioned, we recently spent three weeks in China. After we saw Shanghai, my wife commented to me, “America has no idea what is coming at it.”

I agree, and this supports your view that America really, really has deep problems (I doubt anyone here dissents).

But is it a problem that many kids who could be average grad students in physics or math at Stanford, Cal, MIT, etc. (i.e., people like you and me) are instead choosing business and finance? That I do not see. Again, no disrespect to you, but I doubt the world would have missed me if I had not chosen physics or you if you had not chosen math.

And, I still think that Mullis and Brin (and Einstein and Wiles), all of whom the world would have missed, pretty much make their own paths.

All the best,


Allison said...

I hope you know part of what I keep this up is because maybe someone else reads this thread too--not everyone knows what the world is like.

To your question,
well, actually, yes, it was bad that kids like us chose finance rather than science. Because their rent-seeking wasn't producing anything except a complete cataclysmic for our economic system, where all they did was extract actual wealth from real industries and parasitically eat them until everything else died, and then almost took the whole planet with them.

It's not to say that you or I were the ones who would have created something better; but out of 200 of us, maybe 1 would have, and at least we should have tried to employ people rather than write exotic derivatives and financial instruments whose value was in sucking wealth away from where it could be created. And it's just as terrible that our society is now set up so that creating wealth by actually creating something is so damn hard that it was easier to go into finance. (it isn't anymore, though. those jobs are never coming back.)

But the rest of the problem
isn't that *today* there are adults who went into business or finance rather than math or science.

The problem is tomorrow's adults can't make it into math, or science, or IT, or business, or finance.

They aren't choosing to be successful in one field vs another anymore. They don't know enough to succeed.

I know a typical honors-student hs senior. Taking AP calc right now, and AP physics--because that is what kids do at his school. He didn't get over a 500 on the SAT Math. He couldn't figure out how to measure a desk with a yard stick. When asked to determine if two pieces of furniture would both fit on a wall, his preferred strategy was I KID YOU NOT guess-and-check.
He's taken 4 years of spanish and can't say anything at all. He is in the top classes in his year, and has no idea that he knows NOTHING.

He's not stupid. He's completely untaught. I know several more kids who have Aced every class they've ever taken, and can't get above a 500 on the SAT math. That test is quite good--it's measuring math knowledge, and these kids don't have it. Those scores aren't even high enough to get them into the U of MN.

Today's credentialed college grads don't know enough to do anything in any field at the price they expect--and the bright ones aren't any better off. They too sheltered to know that yet--just as your wife said. (Now, personally, I don't think China is the problem, because if you walked one street away from your minders, you saw China's reality. But South Korea, India--those are real.)

I just fundamentally disagree that the number of people who *could* succeed at their own path *is* the number doing so--that's your argument, but it's a kind of post selection error.

What about all of the kids who 2 generations ago couldn't make their own path in India? Do you really think there weren't such people then? Because now there are. And there are lot more of them competing with us.

Do you really think that America is giving the people the tools to be self-made in the future? Not a chance.

But even if you are right, and the bright make their own paths: THEY WON'T BE MAKING THEM HERE.

And that's a dire problem. You say you agree, and think most people on the board would too, but even that I find difficult to believe. Most people just don't think the problem could be as big and wide as it is, even those who participate here.

Because my dire warnings sound insane to a lot of people. Really, I sound overwrought. The collapse of America has been predicted before, too, and not happened. And their kids are happy in college, or happy in hs, and have good grades, so they'll be fine.

We'll see.

Allison said...

The reason I picked Danny Lewin and Sergey Brin is because I'd met Danny Lewin, and I know people who knew Brin. They weren't the most smart guys in grad school. They weren't the most amazing researchers you'd ever met. Danny Lewin was at Bell Labs for a summer when I was. He was just one of the other summer kids there--though he was an actual adult, unlike most. He and Leighton were just working on an idea they had. It was a good idea, combined with being in the right place at the right time. He was obviously very bright--but so was everyone else there.

You said you didn't know anyone in grad school like them--but honestly I would say that as far as the brains and horespower went, I knew ALL SORTS of people like him at Bell Labs, at MIT, etc.
Brin too--he was a student of Page's. Great kid, but not considered the brightest grad student ever at Stanford. I've certainly met folks from Stanford since who are considered far brighter and far more accomplished on paper.

Obviously these men had more than horsepower. Lewin was a man of great integrity, creativity, courage, and daring. He was fun, too, unlike most of the summer kids at Bell Labs. Brin too must have a bucket of other human traits that made him make Google succeed, not to mention a wealth of luck.

But you would not have known it from his being a grad student, and other than the integrity and courage being visible due to his age and having been in the Israeli spec forces, he was a heck of a lot like everyone else in those places.

And that was my point. Not that he was the greatest mind MIT ever had to offer, but that don't need the greatest minds, and we don't know who will be successful. Given that, we need good minds that can be mentored to greatness in ways we can't predict.

So, I submit that Lewin WAS an average kid at MIT grad school in terms of intellect, and that's why the decline in the US matters. Because the traits that determine success aren't ones we can predict, but we know that failure to educate well enough in academic subjects will close many many doors.

PhysicistDave said...

Allison wrote to me:
>To your question, well, actually, yes, it was bad that kids like us chose finance rather than science. Because their rent-seeking wasn't producing anything except a complete cataclysmic for our economic system, where all they did was extract actual wealth from real industries and parasitically eat them until everything else died, and then almost took the whole planet with them.
>It's not to say that you or I were the ones who would have created something better; but out of 200 of us, maybe 1 would have, and at least we should have tried to employ people rather than write exotic derivatives and financial instruments whose value was in sucking wealth away from where it could be created.

Well, actually, I know enough about such financial instruments to know they are not intrinsically bad things. And, in fact, had I (and this is probably true of you also) gone into finance, I would not have made the mistakes of assuming that all distributions are Gaussian, that financial defaults are statistically independent, etc. In short, I would have taken over-simplified mathematical models with a huge grain of salt. (That is the same objection that I and many technical people have to the global-warming models – i.e., not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with such research, but that the researchers have way too much confidence in not-fully-tested software models.)

Done properly, finance does serve the larger good by bringing together the suppliers of capital and those who need capital, in a way that minimizes risk: I think Michael Milken did that, for example.

The problem in the last couple of decades is that federal tax and regulatory policy created “moral hazards” that encouraged people to look for a “quick buck,” the Fed pumped up the unsustainable bubble, and all of that gave free rein to the ever-present human greed and stupidity.

As to your “typical honors-student hs senior,” believe me, I know: I won’t give details of kids I know, lest one of them chance upon this board and recognize herself! But, yes, I find it frustrating to hear of kids who are “great students,” you meet the kids, and they are quite uneducated. And, neither they nor their parents realize that. Or care.

You also wrote:
>You said you didn't know anyone in grad school like them--but honestly I would say that as far as the brains and horespower went, I knew ALL SORTS of people like him at Bell Labs, at MIT, etc.

Sure. Look, I’m smarter than most self-made billionaires – in an academic sense. But, I’m not a billionaire.

That’s my point: what I’m “missing” is not IQ or an MBA or whatever. What I am missing is: I don’t care enough to get rich, I do not have the creative insights to see new market niches, etc.

That cannot be taught in schools, and that is why the collapse of our education system did not hold back Bill Gates, Brin, etc.

Of course, the collapse of our education system is why Gates and Brin tend to get their engineers and software guys from China, India, etc.

That is indeed a problem for the US, i.e., for the standard of living of the ordinary American. But, as you point out, it is a problem not just for people who want to get into MIT but also for people who want to be competent carpenters or carpet-layers.

That so many college graduates today are worse at math than high-school grads of sixty years ago, yes, that is a problem.

However, this is what most American parents want for their kids – they do not want their kids to be “nerds.”

So be it.

When we were in China last month, we saw that McDonald’s and, especially, KFC are really expanding in China. Perhaps they will have some openings for under-educated Americans.


Catherine Johnson said...

Coming back to this thread a year later, I will just say that if you take "top top American kids" to mean kids doing as well in math as Scarsdale students, they should not be scoring at the 75th percentile internationally.

American students who score at, say, the 95th percentile here should be scoring at the 95th percentile internationally.