Category: Education

Private Schooling in India

The NYTimes reports on “an educational revolution” in India where the government schools are so bad that private schooling is exploding among the very poorest of the poor. Already over 17 percent of all kindergarten, primary and secondary schools are in the private sector and in the big cities the proportion is much higher. Jean Dreze, an economist who helped write a national assessment predicts “within 10 to 15 years, government schools will be almost wiped out.”

A description of a public and private school next door to one another explains why a farmer earning $22 a month will spend nearly a fifth of his income ($4) sending his child to a private school.

In the government school, only two of the three teachers assigned for 273 students were present on a recent day. Around 50 children sat on the floor in a gloomy classroom, while 40 more sat on the grass outside, as their classroom had been under repair since August. One teacher did paperwork, while the other floated between the two groups, not actually teaching either.

At the private school next door, where the teacher-student ratio is 1 to 25, a group of smartly uniformed children stood outside counting loudly in English under their teacher’s watchful eye. They then marched in orderly single file into a classroom with blackboard and benches.

The children next door wrestled, and watched.

Amartya Sen complains that “no developed” country educates itself using private schools. Yet, the private schools of India have much in common with the private schools of nineteenth century England, Wales and America. Contrary to common belief, attendance and literacy rates in England and Wales, for example, were 90 percent or above before any major state involvment in schools. James Mill (father of John Stuart) illustrated the parallel with modern India when he wrote in 1813, “We have met with families in which, for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school. (Quoted in E.G. West’s classic Education and the State).

Furthermore, India is not alone in relying on private schools in the wake of the failure of government. Private schools are even more common in Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia and elsewhere.

For more see James Tooley’s chapter, from which I have drawn, in The Voluntary City (I am one of the editors.)

Cream Skimming

Glen Whitman at Agoraphilia has some comments on my debate with Tyler on vouchers. He notes that the public school system separates students according to ability with honors classes, AP classes, magnet schools and so forth. Yet, few people call this “cream skimming.” I think Glen’s point blows the peer-effects argument against school choice out of the water.

More generally, the argument in the peer-effects literature is that we shouldn’t let smart kids escape the public school system because their presence gives dumb kids a positive externality. I detest this argument. Children are not pawns to be moved about to satisfy the desires of some grand master. A decent school system treats children as ends in themselves. (In preparation, one might add, for life in a society that treats every individual as an end in themself.)

More Bickering

Two quick notes on Tyler’s comment on my recent post on vouchers.

First, whether the school or the parent is sent the check is irrelevant (this is a basic theorem in economics). My point, however, was that parents cannot add-on to the voucher amount – i.e. the Chilean system has extensive price controls. Another way of saying this is that in the Chilean system parents never spend any of their own money on the private (subsidized) schools. I think a good voucher system requires that on at least some margins parents spend their own hard-earned dollars on their children’s education.

Second, Tyler thinks that the most convincing evidence is that Chileans did not improve on an international scale. Actually this is the least convincing evidence and it illustrates my point about the power of HU’s tests. The private schools in Chile increased by about 20 percentage points over the relevant time frame. Suppose that private schools were better than public schools by 10 percent then the aggregate gain at the national level would only be 2 percent. Small exogenous decreases in the quality of the public schools could easily swamp this gain.

More on student evaluations

Yes, the beautiful do get better student evaluations, the research of Daniel Hamermesh confirms this, the link is through Instapundit.

And get this bit, taken from the link within the link:

According to their data, the effect of beauty (or lack thereof) on teaching evaluations for men was three times as great as it was for women.

How about this?:

A glance at Web sites such as and — where students rate their instructors on criteria such as coolness, clarity, easiness, helpfulness, and hotness (on, hot professors get chili peppers beside their names) — leaves little doubt about the viciousness of some students. Petty comments abound: “Someone fire this fat bastard” and “Looks like a hobbit, is not a nice person!”

Harold Glasser has been a victim of such comments. One of his students posted the following remarks on “Glasser where’s (sic) the same blue fleece sweatercoat thing, and this awful matching blue fleece hat that looks like the one Elmer Fudd wore. If this wasn’t enough, he has some of the same mannerisms as Dr. Evil,” from the Austin Powers movies.

There is no chili pepper next to my name, but given all this, my opinion of my looks has gone up.

Addendum: Here is link to the paper, thanks to John Charles for the pointer.

Vouchers in Chile and Colombia

Tyler mentioned, following a depressed Brad DeLong, a new paper on education vouchers in Chile that does not find large achievement gains. I have some criticisms of the paper (see below) but I was surprised that neither mentioned the most important recent paper on vouchers, Vouchers for Private Schooling in Colombia by Angrist, Bettinger, Bloom, King and Kremer in the Dec. 2002 AER.

Using data from a randomized experiment, Angrist et al. estimate that attending private school increased the probability of finishing eighth grade by 13-15 percentage points or 25 percent. Test scores increased by .29 standard deviations which is equivalent to about an extra year’s worth of schooling which has been estimated to increase yearly wages by 10 percent. Other markers such as teen cohabitation also improved.

Is this just a case of dueling papers? No, first, unlike Hsieh and Urquiola (HU), the Angrist et al. results are consistent with results found elsewhere. See in particular those found for Catholic schooling in the United States . Second, Hsieh and Urquiola (HU) are good researchers, judging by their paper, but Angrist et al. have a much more convincing research design – results from a randomized trial beat econometric identification any day. Cheer up Brad!

I shouldn’t give the impression that the results are directly comparable, however, as HU are trying to get at the general equilibrium effect of a voucher experiment and Angrist et al. are after the partial equilibrium effect of private schooling. Given the large gains found in the partial equilibrium literature, however, the GE results from HU are not plausible in my view.

Now regarding the HU paper some information is in order. First, there were no vouchers in Chile. Instead, there was public funding of some private schools on a per-student basis. Parents could not apply their voucher to the tuition at a private school of their choice.

Second, HU do not test whether students who transferred to private schools did better than other students – they tested whether aggregate scores (public and private) increased over time as more students attended private schools. Their evidence seems consistent with a nationwide decline in public school quality over time. More generally, I would have liked to have seen some information in their paper on the power of their tests. Given the size of the private sector what sort of gains could would we have expected to see in the aggregate scores and is their technique powerful enough to pick up such gains?

Third, HU claim that “cream skimming” was extensive but I find this difficult to believe because there is no price difference between public and private (voucher-accepting) schools since each was paid the same per-student amount. There are some non-pecuniary barriers but no limits on entry that HU mention.

Fourth, why did private enrollment increase if parents did not perceive a quality improvement? HU mention “freshly painted walls” which I thought was a bit flip – we ought to take revealed preference more seriously.

I do think that the HU study of Chile provides useful information about designing a good voucher program and my priors would have been that the program instituted in Chile, even though not a true voucher program, would have produced a larger effect – thus I learned something from the paper.

Education and economic dynamism

Does a good educational system make for economic dynamism?

Check out the raw data on the American states for yourself. A more detailed look at the question would have to adjust for other relevant factors, but the sheer “eyeball effect” suggests a very weak link between education and economic dynamism, at least at the state level.

I am well aware of the macroeconomic growth literature that finds education to be a key driver of growth, see this article by Robert Barro.

How can we reconcile these two results? First, maybe education is critically important at lower levels of economic development, but not at higher levels. Second, the data on the states may not have enough ceteris paribus to be trustworthy. Third, the macro growth literature is weak on showing causal connections. I wonder: if we took out “education” and put “hours spent watching TV” into the cross-country regressions, what would the results look like?

Chilean vouchers

Co-blogger Alex and I had been having a debate over school vouchers, here is Alex’s last word, with links to the debate and my earlier posts, click here and here. I am skeptical about vouchers, although not from an anti-market point of view. We have seen from the electricity and water sectors that mixed public-private systems often create bad incentives, and do not always improve performance.

Brad Delong now cites NBER research (the paper itself costs $5) that school vouchers have not improved educational performance in Chile.

Here is a quotation from the paper:

In 1981, Chile introduced nationwide school choice by providing vouchers to any student wishing to attend private school. As a result, more than 1,000 private schools entered the market, and the private enrollment rate increased by 20 percentage points, with greater impacts in larger, more urban, and wealthier communities. We use this differential impact to measure the effects of unrestricted choice on educational outcomes. Using panel data for about 150 municipalities, we find no evidence that choice improved average educational outcomes as measured by test scores, repetition rates, and years of schooling. However, we find evidence that the voucher program led to increased sorting, as the best public school students left for the private sector.

My take: I am still willing to experiment with vouchers, mainly because they would give many inner city kids a chance they don’t currently have. But sometimes I wonder how much schooling, in the formal sense, matters at all. The United States has mediocre schooling, by international standards, but still produces highly productive individuals. Maybe a school is really just a collection of kids, in which case you can only get so far by reshuffling the mix.

Addendum: Here is a version of the paper.

Is the academy biased against conservatives?

Daniel Drezner provides numerous links to this recent heated discussion in the blogosphere. Bruce Bartlett summarizes the data on bias in academia. My perspective is closest to that of Jacob Levy, who offers the following advice to budding academic conservatives and libertarians:

[I will tell you] The same thing I tell everyone else. If you love it, do it; and do it well, and honestly, and in good faith. Don’t do it to advance a partisan mission; you won’t get away with it. But if you want to do it for its own sake, you should– and enjoy it.

How much homework does a child do?

On average, daily time spent on homework in the United States increased from 16 minutes in 1981 to slightly more than 19 minutes in 1997, Brookings Institution researchers found, and little appears to have changed since then. Only 34 percent of 282,000 college freshmen surveyed nationwide last year by scholars at UCLA, for example, reported spending more than an hour each weekday on homework during their senior year of high school — the lowest percentage since the question was first asked in 1987.

A recent critique has suggested that homework disrupts families and overburdens children, to me this charge appears hard to sustain. Here is an interview with one of the authors of that charge.

Other bits: 64 percent of parents feel that the assigned amount of homework is “about right.” There was an increase in homework for high school students after the launching of Sputnik. For 9 to 12 year olds, television viewing fell by more than 20 percent from 1981 to 1997.

From today’s Washington Post.

Addendum: Comment from my (Russian) wife: “Kiska, you should have added to your entry on homework, that while 64% of American parents are satisfied with the amount of homework their children do, 100% of European parents living here think that it’s way too insufficient and ridiculous.”

The Dumbing Down of Safety

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, parents are supposed to be allowed to transfer their children from “persisently dangerous” to safer schools. But, according to this article in the NYTimes, “44 states have set the legal threshold for persistently dangerous schools so high that no schools in those states fit the definition.” Consider Locke High School in Los Angeles which in the last three years has had “33 assaults with a deadly weapon, 116 beatings, 66 robberies and 17 sex offenses.” But these crimes resulted in only 11 (!) expulsions and CA requires a school like Locke to have 30 explusions before allowing parents to transfer their kids to a safer school.

The fact that the standards qualify virtually no schools is accidental, say state officials in CA and elsewhere. Nonsense. It would be easy enough to write the standards in terms of percentages. Define any school in the top x% of schools for violence as qualifying. (We can then argue whether, for example, x should be 5, 10, or 25 percent.) A percentage standard would always qualify the worst schools even if they were pretty safe but remember that all we are talking about is giving parents the option of moving their children. Is it too much to ask that we err on the side of child safety?

How to improve our schools

William Ouchi, the well-known management theorist and consultant, just put out Making Schools Work. His more substantive recommendations include the following:

1. The school principal is an entrepreneur and fully in charge.

2. The school, not a central office, controls its own budget.

3. Everyone is accountable for student performance and for budgets.

4. Families have school choice.

Plus all the usual rhetoric of caring about learning.

Ouchi and co-author Lydia Segal claims that these principle are found in the (successful) public school districts of Edmonton, Seattle, and Houston, plus they are used by Catholic schools in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, again successfully. There is some fluff in this book, but it also offers a no-nonsense account of some practical value.

Is Larry Summers reshaping Harvard?

Yes, say many observers. His pro-science, back to the basics stance may make him one of Harvard’s most influential Presidents. And he is not backing down when faced with faculty opposition. Read this article from The Boston Globe, thanks to Instapundit for the link. Read here and here for my two previous blog posts on Larry at Harvard, with links to other commentary.

Addendum: Here is a recent (and brief) address by Summers on economics and morality, he stresses the ability of markets to conserve on altruism. Thanks to Doug Irwin for the pointer.

Class size doesn’t matter much

A new OECD study suggests that smaller classes contribute little to learning, education blogger Joanne Jacobs offers her comments. The study, led by J. Douglas Willms looked at a dozen countries, and confirmed earlier results that class size was not a significant variable, see also this survey and this short note. My suspicion, in the American context, is that pushing for smaller classes will involve hiring inferior teachers, a classic example of unintended secondary consequences.

If we want to improve education, more effective factors include:

…improving relations between teachers and students, hiring literacy specialists, intervening earlier than Grade 2 when a child is having trouble learning to read, teaching educators better classroom management, encouraging parents to read to their children in the evenings, and offering early childhood education programs.

Jacobs suggests that small classes are most important for kindergarten and first grade, especially for disadvantaged students.

Textbook Wars

There is plausible evidence that textbooks have deteriorated over time. A casual comparison of 19th and 20th century middle school textbooks shows the simplification of reading, with modern books presenting simple, dull passages (see examples here). Diane Ravitch attributes poor and inaccurate textbook content to self-censorship on the part of publishers, who fear having their products dropped as a response to noisy interest groups. Risk-averse publishers and simplified texts might be symptoms of a larger trend in American education: the emergence of large school districts who set the textbook market. The number of textbook buyers (school districts) has dropped by 90% since the beginning of the 20th century and creates a situation where publishers create products that cater to a few large, politically sensitive school districts. Milton Friedman makes a similar point when he argues that fewer, larger school districts means centralized, expensive and low quality education.