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Paul Romer on literacy, dyslexia, inequality and the joy of reading

Paul Romer: On growth, my number two on human capital would be to think about skills throughout the whole skill and income distribution, especially if we’re worried about inequality, as we are. There’s lots we could be doing to take students, when they enter school, who have a certain amount of inequality in their preparation and just their makeup — take that inequality and make sure our school systems damp that inequality instead of doing what they currently do, which is to substantially amplify that inequality.

I think – an example of this would be to pay a lot more attention to students who have trouble learning to read. There’s a set of conditions — seem to have some genetic component — that we call dyslexia. Too many of those students [in the US] don’t become effective readers and then miss the whole feedback loop of learning to read, learning to master concepts, learning to enjoy learning.

A little more attention to the kind of instruction that would make sure that they get caught up with their peers who find it easier to start to read — that could substantially reduce the inequality in educational outcomes, and then eventually reduce inequality in the labor force.

Tyler Cowen: You stated you’re a dyslexic yourself.

ROMER: Yeah.

COWEN: Do you ever think that for you in some ways it’s been an advantage? Maybe not for everyone, but for some people?

ROMER: I don’t see an obvious advantage with dyslexia.

COWEN: You learn how to delegate better. You learn what you’re really good at. You focus more.

ROMER: To be honest, I don’t see it.

COWEN: You have won a Nobel Prize.

ROMER: Yeah, you can overcome these things. But what’s interesting is that essentially everybody learns to speak. When you make this transition to learning to read, there’s this small variation where there’s some people who have more trouble with it. The science that’s emerged on this is very interesting about, what does it take to get the brain to break a sound into letters or subcomponents?

But that kind of deficit, I don’t see a big advantage in. There’re different styles. I’ve always been a little bit more inclined to take risks or maybe to sample a lot more ideas. I sometimes make fun of myself by saying, “I’m just a random idea generator.” And then what’s neat is, others who can filter out the bad ones — then on average I could be helpful.

I don’t know if having a little trouble with spelling — which is the way it shows up for me — I don’t know if that makes me a little bit more willing to sample widely on ideas. But in any case, even if it is true, if we put a little bit more effort into teaching kids who really struggle with reading — and by the way, the phonics-like instruction is clearly the thing that works for those kids, not a whole word or these other broken approaches — a little bit more instruction there could really change their educational outcomes.

And there are school systems that focus on this well. In Singapore, they’re very careful to make sure that everybody in the class keeps up, up through about fourth or fifth grade. They test you frequently in math and reading. And if you’re falling behind, you get the best teachers. You get more classroom instruction. They really invest extensively in the ones who might otherwise fall behind, and then can achieve much more equality in their educational outcomes.

There’s no reason we couldn’t do that in our school systems if we made it a priority.

One of the joys of reading … and to me slightly frightening thing, is that there’s so much out there, and that a hundred years later, you can discover somebody who has so many things to say that can be helpful for somebody like me trying to understand, [say] how do we use abstraction? How do we communicate clearly?

But the joy of scholarship — I think it’s a joy of maybe any life in the modern world — [is] that through reading, we can get access to the thoughts of another person, and then you can sample from the thoughts that are most relevant to you or that are the most powerful in some sense.

That’s really the foundation for the transmission of knowledge and growth and this whole process.

Paul Romer – on Conversations with Tyler, Episode 55 (edited transcript)

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