Category: Education

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.

The value of a lone dissenter

People will often abandon their opinions to conform to what a group expects of them, but a lone voice of reason can save the day. Cass Sunstein’s new book, Why Societies Need Dissent, reports the following (see chapter one):

You can give people a problem and allow them to solve it. Also give them a group of confederates, who unanimously advocate the wrong answer to the same problem. One confederate, proclaiming the wrong answer, will have little influence on the problem solver. Two confederates increased errors to 13.6 percent. Using three confederates increased errors to 31.8 percent. Under some results, more than three confederates do not increase the error rate, although this is controversial. But putting one voice of sanity in the group, who knows and proclaims the right answer, makes a big difference. “Conformity errors” were reduced by an average of three quarters, even if a strong majority of the group leaned the other way. Sunstein draws upon the work of Robert Baron, at the University of Iowa.

Which philosophers will last the ages?

Yes MarginalRevolution is about economics, but most of all it is about ideas. The blog Crooked Timber and legal scholar Lawrence Solum both offer fascinating takes on which contemporary philosophers will still be read decades or centuries from now.

My personal nomination is Derek Parfit. I think his Reasons and Persons will provide a source of conundrums for undergraduates, graduate students, and researchers for many years to come. Parfit is not just a philosopher, he is also a social choice theorist. He challenges our very notions about what it means to say that one outcome is better than another. He ponders how we should think about the timing of costs and benefits, whether personal identity matters for just distribution (who cares what you got yesterday?), how we should regard moral theories that are self-defeating when implemented, and how we should value future generations.

More on student evaluations of professors

“…the correlation between Quality and Easiness is 0.61, and the correlation between Quality and Sexiness is 0.30. Using simple linear regression, we find that about half of the variation in Quality is a function of Easiness and Sexiness.” The result is from three professors at Central Michigan University, reported by the SCSU Scholars blog. An earlier post of mine cited a paper by Michael Huemer, arguing that students reward easy professors with good evaluations.

Will Vouchers Split the Democratic Party?

The debate so far Tyler 1, Alex 1, Tyler 2.

Let me take Tyler’s weakest point first. He writes, “Imagine politicians upping the voucher amount and coverage to win votes each election cycle…” What like education spending is not a political issue today? In fact, over the past several decades we have doubled real per-capita spending on schooling with zero increase in productivity. It’s possible that government would set an education voucher at too high an amount (but let’s get it above zero before we worry about this!) but at least we will get something for our money.

Defining an acceptable school is a legitimate issue but one that we already face today with private schools, charter schools, and home schooling. I see no reason why private schools under a voucher system could not be regulated as private schools are today. Private schools do face some minimal regulations including hours and some content requirements but I don’t think these have been a significant constraint. Some private schools will undoubtedly teach nonsense but Tyler seems to forget that Ebonics, to give just one example, was a creature of the public schools not the private schools.

I will agree, however, that current voucher plans are typically terrible. Existing vouchers are often limited to poor students and sometimes just to poor students in “failing” schools, the voucher amounts are typically low and to add insult to injury it is often illegal to add-on to the voucher amount (a type of price control). Finally, nowhere near enough students are suported. The DC plan, for example, is aimed at some 2,000 students in a school system of 66,000.

I recommend John Merrifield’s School Choices: True and False as an antidote to this kind of limited thinking. Merrifield’s bottom line is that we need a system under which the government in no way discriminate against parents who send their children to private schools.

Why I worry about vouchers

Alex (my co-blogger) and I have been arguing for years, it is perhaps no surprise that now we do it in the blogosphere. He is more optimistic about the performance of school vouchers than I am. He notes that housing vouchers have worked well, better than government housing, I think that school vouchers are more problematic than housing vouchers for several reasons:

First, government must define which schools are acceptable recipient of vouchers. In the short run it is fairly clear, it is far less so if we have vouchers in place for twenty years and schooling evolves. What about schools that teach black supremacy? Radical Islam? Creationism? Remember how controversial a few supposedly obscene NEA grants were? Not all those grants went directly to the artists either. What if an educational program involves home schooling plus ten hours of class time a week? Would that qualify for a voucher? Defining “suitable housing” does not involve a problem of nearly this magnitude.

Second, school vouchers could become the new middle class entitlement, as I mentioned in my New Zealand post earlier today. Imagine politicians upping the voucher amount and coverage to win votes each election cycle, just as they are now extending senior health coverage to prescription drugs. Again, we have not seen this with housing vouchers but “parents” are a much bigger and stronger constituency.

If I had my finger on the vouchers button, I would press it and allow experimentation at the state and local levels. So many American urban public schools are a disgrace. But few partial deregulations have worked better than promised. Most have created perverse incentives and occasioned considerable backlash, we all know that electricity “deregulation” has been a mixed bag at best, although the idea in principle makes sense.

If we are going to move forward with vouchers, I would like to know what the plan will look like, once it gets through the political meatgrinder. I don’t know any voucher proponent who has done this.

Education Vouchers: The Lessons from Housing

Tyler is concerned that a voucher system for education might end up looking like our health care market – “a crazy-quilt mix of bad incentives, high costs, and increasing levels of intervention.” But our health care system is not a voucher system – much more relevant is the existing voucher system for housing. Public housing has been a disaster in this country, low quality, dangerous and expensive (to the taxpayer). The Section 8 voucher and similar certificate programs have been far superior on all measures. What would you rather have – an apartment in a public housing project, costing the taxpayer $1000 a month, or a voucher worth $500 a month that you could spend on private housing?

The economic studies on the superiority of vouchers are unanimous. Here is Ed Olsen, one of the country’s leading researchers:

Five major studies have estimated both the cost per unit and the mean market rent of units provided by housing certificates and vouchers and important production programs, namely Public Housing, Section 236, and Section 8 New Construction.1 These studies are based on data from a wide variety of housing markets and for projects built in many different years. Three were multi-million dollar studies conducted for HUD by respected research firms during the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. They are unanimous in finding that housing certificates and vouchers provide equally desirable housing at a much lower total cost than any project-based assistance that has been studied, even though all of these studies are biased in favor of project-based assistance to some extent by the omission of certain indirect costs.

As with housing, the market for education would be very competitive so we would not see price rises due to monopoly problems (as Tyler fears might be the case). There has been a big debate about whether private schools result in better outcomes that public schools. Put aside this debate and focus on what is undeniable – private schools have achieved at least as good outcomes as have public schools but at about half the cost (similar to the cost savings of vouchers over public housing). Thus we are starving the most productive sector of the educational market and throwing money at the least productive sector. Prices might rise in a voucher market but only as a rational response to the lower price of quality in private schools.

What will a voucher buy?

I have often wondered what an educational voucher will buy. How large need vouchers be to give students access to decent education? A recent Cato study, by David Salisbury, attempts to answer this question.

Here is part of the Executive Summary:

“Government figures indicate that the average private elementary school tuition in the United States is less than $3,500 and the average private secondary school tuition is $6,052. Therefore, a voucher amount of $5,000 would give students access to most private schools. Since average per pupil spending for public schools is now $8,830, most states could offer a voucher amount even greater than $5,000 and still realize substantial savings. A survey of private schools in New Orleans; Houston; Denver; Charleston, S.C.; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia shows that there are many options available to families with $5,000 to spend on a child’s education. Even more options would be available if all parents were armed with a voucher or tax credit of that amount.”

Salisbury admits that the cost figures do not include all capital outlays or pension liabilities. On the other hand, vouchers could introduce more competition, lowering costs.

I worry about how vouchers themselves will affect prices and costs. Private schools for poor urban students are cheap, in part, because the school knows the parents cannot afford much more. If the first $5000 is free, the price could go up considerably. In addition, if the schools can somehow coordinate on yet higher prices, there will be political pressures to raise the voucher amount.

Mixed public-private systems are not always cheaper than more public systems, in part because private firms are often skilled in extracting resources from the public sector. The American health care system, for instance, has considerably higher administrative costs than does the “single-payer” Canadian system, read here for a recent comparison. I don’t favor national health insurance by any means, but these figures should give pause to voucher advocates.

The research of Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby suggests that increased school competition brings increased school quality. But her work does not clear up the most difficult questions about vouchers. If you imagine the system in place, on a large scale, for lengthy periods of time, and subject to pressures for rent-seeking and regulation, what would it look like? Would it truly serve parent demands for good education, or would it look more like the American system of health care, a crazy-quilt mix of bad incentives, high costs, and increasing levels of intervention?