Category: Education

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.

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.