School choice and paternalism

There is a very interesting report out from the Social Market Foundation that investigates the characteristics parents value in a school. The core result is that less-wealthy families do not choose schools on the basis of academic achievement:


This leads the SMF to express concern that school choice may not lift educational achievement because some parents do not consider it important. They then recommend Government intervention to promote the primacy of academic success. The line they’re treading between free choice and paternalism is a fine one. One the one hand, they want free school choice to improve the quality of schooling. On the other hand, they have a prescriptive view of what school quality means. Read more

Secondary and Tertiary education and opportunity: Why fund them differently?

Note:  Eric has written a much much better and more detailed post here – my post is just a knee-jerk expression of how I consider the issue, and the types of broad principles we need to think about.

One thing I missed during the election was the debate about whether government should pay for tertiary education.  There were a number of people saying “we pay for kids to go to secondary school, why not pay for them to go to university?”.

We have to be clear about why we treat these things differently in order to answer this question – it isn’t just about cost, it is about equality of opportunity.

We fund secondary education as we believe it constitutes a minimum level of education and investment in ALL individuals in New Zealand – a level that is required to give people a fair crack at life and civic engagement.

We do not believe that tertiary education is required for all roles, all types of engagement, and for all people.  As a result, we are instead subsidising a group of people who will undertake this type of education (and receive the return associated with this investment) by taxing those who are not interested in this type of higher level study.  In other words, it is a transfer of resources from people on lower incomes who are less willing/able to take on higher education to those who (over their lifetime) will be on high incomes.

Secondary school education is paid for (and correspondingly compulsory for a long period) to offer opportunities.  Tertiary education is not as heavily subsidised, as we are generally against regressive income transfers.  We already subsidise it to a LARGE degree on the basis of assumed spillovers, and we offer interest free loans on the basis of “equalising opportunity” – but larger subsides would largely be a transfer to the rich hidden in the language of “transformational change” … just like industrial subsides to capitalists.  I find it perplexing that people view such regressive transfers as “left wing” ….

School zoning perpetuates inequalities in society

So says David Grimmond in his discussion of school zoning! (Infometrics link here)

I am not a fan of school zoning.  Its main outcome is to reduce school choices for poorer families.  Although the intentions underpinning the policy are probably noble, it has unintended consequences which on the whole harm the prospects of children from poorer households.

Zoning adds another incentive to move into a community filled with people that are “like” you.  As we know from Schelling, a small incentive for such things can quickly lead to complete segregation.  Rather than enforcing greater equality in the school system, zoning is a feel good policy that ends up reinforcing broader inequalities!

If we honesty want to ensure education provides for everyone in society, David suggests:

It is too simplistic to presume that alternatives to the public system will be sufficient to generate education improvements.  Indeed, the US experience demonstrates that there is a mix of outcomes from charter schools.  But what the US experience with charter schools has provided is the opportunity to learn from their experimentation.  My reading of this evidence is that there are at least three areas that schools can focus on to improve education outcomes:

  • Ensuring that the school maintains standards about expected student behaviour
  • Openly assessing, reviewing, and improving teaching methods
  • Directing better teachers towards students who have the greatest need for improved education outcomes.

Having skills and using them are very different

The OECD have recently released a new survey of skills and it has prompted plenty of wailing about the failings of the English education system. The crucial slide from Andreas Schleicher’s summary is this one: It shows that English adults have excellent literacy skills relative to their peers internationally but young people have fallen well behind. Given the efforts that have been put into the UK’s schooling system over the last few decades it charts a depressing decline. Hearteningly, it is not the full story of the survey. Read more

Computers in education

Back in 1087 Robert Solow quipped that “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” With the increasingly integral use of computers in schools, some researchers asked whether you can see it in the pupil achievement figures. Apparently not…

Computers are an important part of modern education, yet many schoolchildren lack access to a computer at home. We test whether this impedes educational achievement by conducting the largest-ever field experiment that randomly provides free home computers to students. Although computer ownership and use increased substantially, we find no effects on any educational outcomes, including grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance and disciplinary actions. Our estimates are precise enough to rule out even modestly-sized positive or negative impacts. The estimated null effect is consistent with survey evidence showing no change in homework time or other “intermediate” inputs in education.

Note that they only gave computers to children, they didn’t then change lessons and teaching to take advantage of them. Consequently, the message is more that computers alone are not enough, rather than suggesting the computers won’t help.

Is education really an investment?

Education, particularly at the tertiary level, is usually viewed as an investment by economists. It’s a voluntary cost that you pay to get skills and qualifications that will increase your future wealth and prosperity. That metaphor is reflected in the wealth of research into the ‘rate of return’ on university study and the discussions of externalities from the accrual of skills.

Nonetheless, it is a controversial view since the investment metaphor is not a natural choice for most people. Indeed, most people refer to the fun they had at university, the people they met, and the parties they attended. These are the ‘consumption’ elements of university education in the language of economists; the parts that you would pay to enjoy then and there with no expectation of future benefits. Now, via Economic Logic, I see a paper that asks prospective students how they view tertiary education and finds that

…most students do appear to value college consumption amenities, including spending on student activities, sports, and dormitories. While this taste for amenities is broad-based, the taste for academic quality is confined to high-achieving students.

As summarised by the Economic Logician, “except for the top students, high school graduates do not care about academics at all. All they want is excellent “college consumption amenities.” And this likely explains why they learn so little while in college. Their focus is on the university as a consumption good, not an investment good.” The policy-maker’s view of the value of university and the student’s view are very different.

What does this mean for policy, then? Well, if the private value of university is largely in the consumption value then the total value is far higher than most estimates suggest since they are usually based entirely on investment value. That has implications for the level of the subsidy we want to provide to tertiary students. In addition to the efficiency questions we also need to ask whether,as a society, we want to heavily subsidise most students’ on an extended holiday?