Timing Impacts Test Scores and Life Outcomes

“Indeed, for every hour later in the day the test were administered, scores fell a little more. The effects of later-in-the-day testing were similar to having parents with slightly lower incomes or less education – or missing two weeks of school a year.”


The quote above is from Dan Pink’s book When in a section where he wrote about researchers who studied test scores for children in relation to the time of day that tests were administered. School children performed better on tests when they took place early in the day, and worse on tests when they came later. The difference was not enormous to the point where students were passing with flying colors in the morning and failing in the afternoon, but it was meaningful.


I find this incredibly interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that I think 8 hour work-days are horrible, and the second is that I think we ascribe our success or failure in life to our own efforts far more than what we should.


Starting with the first point, if I were suddenly named king in the United States, my first act would be reduce the standard workday to 6 hours instead of 8. Most American’s no longer work at a factory where they need to be active on a line pushing a button or hammering a nail in order for widgets to be produced. When that was the case, 8 hour workdays may have been necessary, but in a knowledge economy where our main output comes from our mind and not our hands, 8 hour workdays likely harm our work more than they allow us to produce meaningful outputs. My big fear is that increased time outside of work will lead to more urban sprawl and longer commutes for people rather than to more valuable time spent in communities or with family.


Ultimately, however, I think giving us more time for sleep, for exercise, and for family will help us be better people. I believe that many people claim to be more busy than they actually are at work, and often spend a lot of time focusing on low value tasks that keep them busy but don’t provide much benefit for anyone. Shortening the work day would force people to be better schedulers and to use their time more wisely, and would hopefully create a happier workforce and nation.


Second, it is important to recognize that simply the time at which students took a test impacted the score they got. The test in some ways is measuring their knowledge, but it clearly is also measuring endogenous factors unrelated to their learning. We are grading and scoring our students in ways that can be influenced by meaningless factors beyond the students’ control.


I think this example is revealing of a basic fact of our lives. We feel like we are in control and as if the outcomes that people experience are directly related to their own effort and skill. However simply the time of day can have a big impact on our achievements, regardless of our skill or effort. Beyond test scores, perhaps you had a job interview in the afternoon, and both you and the interviewer were a little less sharp than you would have both been at 10 a.m. for an interview. You might not come across as the best candidate, and the time of day may be the biggest factor that prevented you from getting the job. In many ways small factors like timing can shape our lives in ways that we can’t even imagine. Sometimes luck is just as important as our skill and effort, and we should recognize that when we think about where we are and how we got to the point we are at.

Signaling Work Potential

“In 2001, the Nobel Prize was awarded to economist Michael Spence for a mathematical model of one explanation for these puzzles: signaling. The basic idea is that students go to school not so much to learn useful job skills as to show off their work potential to future employers. In other words, the value of education isn’t just about learning; it’s also about credentialing.”


The quote above is from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain when the authors talk about why we go to school and what purpose education is serving for our society and for us as individuals. Education costs have been rising and we continue to encourage everyone to go to college. Several presidential candidates on the Democratic side have even put forward plans for free tuition. The idea at play as college tuition rises, as we push everyone toward college, and as our candidates outline plans for everyone to be able to afford college is the idea that higher education is all about learning useful and valuable knowledge that will help every individual and our entire society become more productive and better functioning. We want smart people with extensive education to drive our society forward, and college is the way to make that happen.


However, if much of our education is about signaling, then what will happen if we push everyone to go to college? Some students will learning useful information, important skills, and will develop in ways that they could not if they hadn’t pursued higher education, but will it benefit all students? If much of our higher education is about attaining credentials to stand out and show off, then won’t we simply diminish the status and credentials of those who do go to college? There are arguments to be made for and against free college tuition and it is important to understand what is happening with each to develop a better argument and discussion around higher education.


First, we must admit that sometimes college is just about signaling and getting a piece of paper to check a box on a job application. By acknowledging that piece, we can start to move forward and think about what opportunities we want to help provide to people. It seems to me that everyone should have a chance to move forward and pursue the education benefits we applaud, but it also seems reasonable to say that we should not overly subsidize what is often just signaling behavior.


For those who simply want the credential and don’t care much for the knowledge opportunities along the way, perhaps a greater development in training and education specific to a technical trade or craft would be a better option. Perhaps a less costly signal that focuses more on doing than learning is a valid alternative to the standard higher education model. With an alternative avenue in place, perhaps we can appropriately decide what level of subsidy should be provided to those who do want to go the traditional college rout. Perhaps existing colleges can also adjust to make their signals stronger, while also encouraging more learning as a side goal.


I’m not sure what a perfect path forward looks like, but I know we won’t move in the right direction if we believe that education is only about learning and growth. Some of us will learn a lot and demonstrate clear growth in college, but many of us will simply lose time as we strive for more credentials and attempt to signal to future employers that we are the kind of person they should hire.

The Argument That College Isn’t About Learning

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson make an argument that we create stories and narratives around how our world operates that make us look as good as possible. We have systems and structures in place that provide us with convenient reasons for behaving the way we do. These convenient reasons are socialable, put us in the best possible light, and make us feel good about ourselves. Simler and Hanson argue that below this surface lie our true reasons and our hidden motives for our behaviors.


One area they look at is education. Nominally, we tell everyone that we are going to school to learn something, to prepare ourselves for the future, to build new skills, to make new connections, and to gain new experiences. What we don’t say is that we are going to school to check a box, to gain a credential, and to simply look more impressive to other people. Education is supposed to be about learning and information, not about padding a resume and trying to simply gain something in a personal and selfish manner. Their argument about education relies on a lot of research that is also discussed in Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which I have not read but is referenced in The Elephant in the Brain and who I have heard on several podcasts. To suggest that education is about something other than just the learning we are supposed to do, the authors write,


“Consider what happens when a teacher cancels a class session because of weather, illness, or travel. Students who are there to learn should be upset; they’re not getting what they paid for! but in fact, students usually celebrate when classes are canceled. Similarly, many students eagerly take Easy A classes, often in subjects where they have little interest or career plans. In both cases, students sacrifice useful learning opportunities for an easier path to a degree. In fact, if we gave students a straight choice between getting an education without a degree, or a degree without an education, most would pick the degree-which seems odd if they’re going to school mainly to learn.”


Sometimes we do learn useful things in school. Sometimes we really do gain new perspectives, have new and meaningful experiences, and grow though our coursework. But students don’t seem as focused on the learning in most areas (some technical degrees at the university level might be different) as simply getting through and getting a diploma. Education includes a lot of signaling aspects that are just as important (if not more important) than any learning we might do.


Education tells people we are the kind of person who can earn a degree. Good grades tell potential employers that we are the kind of people who can figure out what is demanded of us, and we are the kind of people who will then do what is demanded. Much of what we learn we will forget, and once we get on the job we will be expected to do a lot of training to learn how to do the actual thing we were hired to do based on our education. We learn a bit in school, but we also signal a lot about ourselves in the process.

Solving a Great Mystery

As a teenager in high school, Amanda Gefter was relatively disengaged from classes and studying. It was not that she wasn’t smart, was not interested in the world around her, or did not want to learn, but that teachers and her school did not manage to grab her attention and excite her with the subjects they taught. In her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter explains the interest she took in physics and science outside the classroom, and discusses how interesting science is, yet how little of the mystery of our world was actually conveyed in her classes.


She writes, “Einstein said, ‘This huge world stands before us like a great eternal riddle.’ Why couldn’t any of my teachers have told me that? ‘Listen,’ they could have said, ‘no one has any idea what the hell is going on. We wake up in this world and we don’t know why we’re here or how anything works. I mean, look around. Look how bizarre it all is! What the hell is all this stuff? Reality is a huge mystery, and you have a choice to make. You can run from it, you can placate yourself with fairy tales, you can just pretend everything’s normal, or  you can stare that mystery in the eye and try to solve it. If you are one of the brave ones to choose the latter, welcome to science.”


We present science in school in a way that allows us to test student knowledge. The knowledge we test is usually just basic facts and information that can be evaluated with multiple choice questions. Science in the real world, however, is not multiple choice. We don’t actually know all the answers and the quest to find them involves creative thinking to design experiments, evaluate the world, observe complex phenomena, and crowdsource knowledge to establish accepted theories of what is taking place. When we reduce this complex web that we call science to basic multiple choice questions, we create an illusion that science is well understood and that we have all the answers figured out. Students become disengaged because we lose the mystery and fail to connect the challenging science to the important developments of the world.


To inspire kids with science we need to first obliterate the idea that math is hard. Math is not hard, it is just a different frame for understanding the interactions of the universe. If we tell our kids that math is a secrete code to the universe that they have the power to understand, then they can approach the subject with less apprehension and more intrigue, and they can be more successful. From there we must explain the mysteries of the universe that we are working to better understand, and we must demonstrate to kids the interesting work and knowledge being undertaken and discovered every day. We must create new ways of transmitting knowledge and testing knowledge that don’t involve multiple choice questions and textbooks that present information without connections to real world applications.

Remembering Black History in the Face of White History

Throughout his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats is critical of Western History and America’s backstory, particularly because of the way that black people are remembered. The history we know and understand as white people looking back at Western democracy is focused on ourselves, which is to say, white people. The story of black people is viewed through our white cultural lens, and other cultures, Asian, Asian Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, Indian, Native American, and others are only included as short side notes to our own experiences. The result of this is a sense that there is only one culture that matters and has driven the progress of humanity throughout time, the white culture. Writing specifically on how this shapes our current thinking, and providing a black perspective, Coats writes the following in a passage addressed to his son,
“Everyone of any import, from Jesus to George Washington, was white. This was why your grandparents banned Tarzan and the Lone Ranger and toys with white faces from the house. They were rebelling against the history books that spoke of black people only as sentimental “firsts”—first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor—always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit. Serious history was the West, and the West was white.”
What our history teaches young white boys and girls is that they descend from those who matter and that they have an important legacy to carry on. What our history teaches those who are not white is that their histories are unimportant and only a side note in the history of human progress. We certainly could not cover everything from every culture in our history classes, but we have decided only to focus on what has made America white, and not on what has made America great. The story of our country has always been about incredible diversity and the societal challenges that have accompanied our demographic realities. It is more comfortable to live in a homogenous society of people with similar backstories, but living and working in a culture that is built on differences pushes for new advancements, perspectives, and growth in a way that homogeneity can not imagine. We should do more to understand how the histories of black people and people of other minorities are the histories of the United States. The history of race in America is more complicated than a story of continually greater acceptance and inclusion, and we should be honest about the wretched realities of slavery in the past, and how we have been slow to truly accept other people throughout our history.

Failure in School

Everyone knows it is important for children to be successful in school and to grow to be more thoughtful and successful later in life. One of the challenges with the current school model that Ta-Nehisi Coats points out in his book Between the World and Me is the way in which our education system is designed for a specific culture with specific expectations for specific students. Those who match the culture and who have the right support from parents and teachers find success, but those who don’t fit with the culture of the schools, who don’t have support from parents, and who don’t have safe environments are left behind. Our individualized culture, focused on self-reliance and self-responsibility often looks at schools as though they are an equalizing force, giving each student an equal opportunity to grow and succeed, but Coats views schools differently.

“The society could say, ‘He should have stayed in school,’ and then wash its hands of him,” Coats wrote about the system he found him self in as a child. The great equalizing power of school, was an equalizing of blame, moving the responsibility for success or failure from society on to the individual. This meant that the child whose parents worked two or three jobs, the child whose parents dealt with substance abuse, and the child who had to walk home along dangerous streets was now on equal footing with the children in gated communities with parents who could afford to stay at home and pay for private tutors. In this model it is not the parents, not the society, and not the culture of the school that are responsible for whether kids learn and grow, but rather the children themselves who bear the responsibility of success in school.

When we criticize those who do not complete school and resign them to low paying jobs, poor housing, and exclude them from society, we are reducing their future based on factors they could not control growing up. For me it seems unreasonable to ask so much of a person at such a young age, to demand that they not make mistakes and demand that they become more than human before they are 18. For Coats, it was unreasonable to demand academic success from young children who lacked the support and guidance of parents, who had to learn in schools that  did not accept the culture of the child, and who have to navigate the tough social realities of concentrated poverty. The most challenging part of the system, as revealed by Coats, is the idea that school was a great equalizer, and that after someone failed in school, they could be forgotten by society.

The Vague and Distant Goals of School

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats addresses the struggles that young black men growing up in impoverished neighborhoods face in the street, and also in the classroom. Growing up, Coats dealt with fear and insecurity which created an atmosphere of anxiety and stress that was not alleviated at school or in the classroom. Part of his struggle had to do with the challenges of seeing the benefits of school and how the learning strategies and control of the classroom failed to inspire him.
We like to imagine that our schools operate in a way that inspires ever child and encourages every child to grow, expand, and become a better version of who they can be, but not every child has this experience. It is foolish for us to think that every child will have the same experience and that every child will succeed in any given school environment. The human mind is incredibly varied and with different backgrounds, skills, an abilities, we react differently to different environments. We have too many children in schools to be able to customize an individual education for each child, so any system we implement will necessarily not resonate with some kids. Unfortunately for Coats and many other black students, our education system did not connect with him, and racial discrimination creeped into his school experience. The system that Coats found himself within as a school child failed to inspire him and instaed reiterated the idea that being poor and a minority in our country was a bad thing.
Not having the right cultural understanding when entering school can put a child far behind and cause teachers and other adults to look down on the child and his or her family. When students are not culturally aligned and adults avoid them because they are different, we isolate those children and find a way to tell them that their education is not really important. We also set up a system where a lack of parental involvement leads to a failure of children to fully participate and engage in their schooling, which can frustrate children and teachers. Beyond this frustration, we evaluate our teachers in a standard model that does not seem to fit well with low income students and families, driving the cycle of disappointed teachers and the doubling down on the negative imagery of the poor minority child.
In his book Coats writes, “the laws of the schools were aimed at something distant and vague. What did it mean to as our elders told us, ‘grow up and be somebody’? And what precisely did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline?” His cultural experiences did not align with the education he was being provided and the distant future he was told to work toward was never clear and never something he could see. Without role models, without inclusive visions of success, we shut young people out and tell them to strive toward something that they are never meant to reach. When education does not align with the way our children think and the actual skills needed to grow and develop in our world today, we are telling them to run toward success, but we are not giving them a map and we are not giving them the things they need to run quickly and smoothly.

Tolerate Ignorance

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes about how we should think about those around us to become more benevolent in our thoughts and actions. Specifically, while writing about the way we think of and speak of others who are not as educated as us, he introduces an idea of compassion that is not seen very often in our society today.  When we think about those around us we often paint a negative image of those who have different points of view or seem to have very limited knowledge regarding a particular subject.  We enjoy laughing at others and we enjoy putting them down (usually not to their face). Aurelius writes that he learned a key skill from Sextus, “to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.”  This skill that Aurelius learned translated into the way he thought about others and the jumbled beliefs that arise from a lack of true study of any given subject.


Aurelius truly believed that everyone was acting in a way that made the most sense to them. He saw everyone as doing the best that they could to disentangle the world and understand it better, even if that meant that they were relying on faulty reasoning or were guided by misinformation.  His argument is that we should not shame others for holding beliefs that we do not agree with or that we see as counterfactual.  By tolerating ignorance we avoid falling into rage and anger and we do not elevate ourselves beyond others.  When we understand that others are trying to focus their lives in a way that seems the most logical to them, then we understand why they may be ignorant in the ways that they are. Building this perspective also helps us to see that we are not any better than others and that we have our own fields where we are misinformed and ignorant of the true functioning of the world.


In our world today we share videos making fun of people that are uneducated, misinformed, or are acting in ways that seem primitive to us.  When we do this we are subconsciously grouping ourselves and reverting back to a tribal mentality. We belong to a camp of more sophisticated people, while the people who we find ignorant belong to a camp of primitive savages. We may get a laugh, but we are not recognizing the value of others while we are asserting our own superiority.  Often times we attack the individuals we laugh at for being misinformed or ignorant rather than asking ourselves how they came to hold the beliefs that they have cultivated.  When we can shift our focus through a practice of tolerance and understanding, we can create safer institutions for sharing positive information, build better connections between ourselves and the portions of society we do not agree with, and help everyone progress in a more meaningful manner.