Education Problems: Larger Than They Appear In The Mirror

Sometimes, it helps to step back and look at the bigger picture. I encourage folks to read this Economics of International Differences in Educational Achievement research about the “education production function,” which studies many nations. There are surely many interesting bits, but I direct your attention to two:

The Two Book-Case Rule

It turns out that one of the best predictors of a child’s academic success is within your reach as a parent: have a couple book cases at home, fill them with interesting books, read to your child, and discuss books. Make reading an important part of your life. The child who reads does well at school, and the parents and family are the child’s most important influences.

The number of books in the students’ home is used as a proxy for socio-economic background not only because cross-country comparability and data coverage are superior to such indicators as parental education, but also because books at home are the single most important predictor of student performance in most countries. The sociological literature suggests books at home as a powerful proxy for the educational, social, and economic background of the students’ families. Furthermore, Schuetz, Ursprung, and Woessmann (2008) corroborate the cross-country validity of the books-at-home variable by showing that the association between household income and books at home does not vary significantly between the six countries for which both income and books measures are available in the PIRLS dataset. At the same time, it is important to be clear about the interpretation. The consistency of the estimates across studies is not meant to imply that books in the home per se are causally related to achievement and that providing more books to families would raise student performance. Books in the home proxy systematic differences in parenting, home education, and home resources that are presumed to be causally related to performance. In other words, the specific measures are not causally related to achievement even if the underlying concept is. The association between the family-background measure and student achievement is statistically significant at the 1 percent level in every country in Figure 2. The size of the estimates indicates how much students’ test scores, measured in percentage points of an international standard deviation, increase when raising the number of books at home by one category. For example, in England the difference in educational achievement between children of families with more than two bookcases of books and children of families with only very few books at home (the two extremes of the five available categories) is 1.15 standard deviations, or more than three times what students on average learn during a whole school year. While the estimated family-background effect differs substantially across countries, the socio-economic difference equals roughly one grade-level equivalent even in France, the OECD country with the lowest estimate. The United States falls in the top quarter of the most unequal OECD countries, whereas Canada belongs to the group of most equal countries.

If I may amplify: merely shipping books to families would not be useful; as the article says, the books proxy for differences in parental style; they signify parents who read for themselves and to their children. There is some correlation with SES, but this is not absolute. For example, I belonged to the same SES as my peers at school – a very white-bread working-class school – but was a reader from a family which read; this led to very substantial differences from class averages. A difference of three grade levels would be no exaggeration at all; this was true for all the readers whom I knew. Nor must one be wealthy to have books; we shopped at discount stores and visited libraries often. A $2 remainder book has the exact text as the brand-new $35 hardcover.

It Isn’t The Lack of Funding

Many people think “If only we could increase funding…” — but it’s not the lack of funding, it’s the terrible misallocation of resources. Too many paper-pushers. Too many tests. Too much wasted time.

educational expenditure per student has increased substantially in real terms in all considered OECD countries between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s, and in all considered East Asian countries except the Philippines between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s.” “Yet, comparing test scores over the same time intervals suggests that no substantial improvement in average student achievement has occurred in any of these countries. Combining the time-series evidence on resources and achievement, it is fair to conclude that substantial increases in real school expenditure per student did not lead to improvements in student outcomes in most of the sampled OECD and East Asian countries. In fact, the experience of many countries is much bleaker than what had been termed the ‘productivity collapse in schools’ in the United States.

Many folks do not like to admit this, but government bureaucrats are really bad at discovering how to efficiently produce good outcomes. Their economic incentives are entirely perverse: to bureaucrats, failure means more money and more power. Where parents, teachers, and entrepreneurs are in direct control, the economic incentive is to deliver good quality at good prices.


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