Russ Roberts

Lant Pritchett on Education in Poor Countries

EconTalk Episode with Lant Pritchett
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Lant Pritchett of Harvard University and author of The Rebirth of Education talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in the book. Pritchett argues that increases in years of schooling for students in poor countries do not translate into gains in education, learning, or achievement. This tragic situation is due to corruption and poor incentives in the top-down educational systems around the world. School reforms that imitate successful systems fail to take into account the organic nature of successful school systems that cause various external attributes to be effective. The conversation concludes with a discussion of school systems in rich countries and possible lessons for reform that might apply there.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: November 18, 2013.] Russ: Your book is about the state of learning around the world and how students are treated around the world. I want to start with a distinction that runs through the book between 'spider systems' and 'starfish systems.' What do you have in mind with those terms? Guest: Well, it's terms I've picked up from a couple of business consultants that had talked about the way organizations work, but I've expanded it to the way systems work. And the basic distinction is between a top down organization where the metaphor of a spider is, all of the resources of the spider web, however spread out they are, merely serve to transmit information to one spider, who synthesizes that information and responds with the resources of the system. So, if there is a bug, the spider crawls out and gets it. But kind of all the web is kind of an ancillary to the brains of the top. The starfish is a creature that actually has no brain. It's neurally connected, but a starfish moves because the individual units of the starfish sense something and if they sense more food they try and pull that way. And if the other side isn't pulling as hard, the starfish moves. So it's really a metaphor of a decentralized system, where individual units responding to local conditions create the properties of the system. And the beauty of a starfish is if you cut a starfish up into 5 bits, you get 5 starfish. The danger of a spider is that when the spider dies, it's dead. The whole system therefore falls into dysfunction. Russ: That's not the only problem with the spider system. The spider system has some limitations because it depends on who the spider is. Guest: That's true. Now, one thing--that said, the spider systems do do some things well. And interestingly in the history of schooling, spider systems have done two things that have overlapped and most people paid attention to only one. One thing spider systems do well is they do logistics really well. If you really don't need anybody at the local level to think, but just implement--say, you want to build 100,000, 10,000 identical schools, all over the islands of Indonesia, then designing a program that dictates exactly the design of the schools--exactly the amount of concrete to be used, exactly everything about it--and then just relying on the locals to implement, works well. And that's one of the things I point out in my book: the expansion of schooling is one of the triumphs of our time, and it was carried out mostly logistically. But, as you are hinting, the second thing as spider does well is control what goes on in the schools, which governments have sought control of the socialization of children. And in some sense the only model they really have for controlling the socialization of children was a very spiderlike system in which all the key decisions got forced to a higher and higher level, in order to provide the control that newly nationalizing states and others felt that they wanted. Russ: Now, before we get into the ideas in the book, which is a fabulous book, by the way, written with a lot of style. It's a lot of fun. You learn a great deal about education and I love your perspective. But before we get into that, talk for two minutes about your own personal experiences. Besides the research that you draw on, what are your personal experiences in the schools and educational systems in the developing world? Guest: Well, I worked for many years for the World Bank. One of the things that I did was I often worked as an educational economist, which we could come in and start analyzing education budgets. But in the process of analyzing the budget and how to allocate the budget, I started to visit schools. And as I started to visit schools I realized that what was actually going on in the classrooms bore almost no relationship to what you might think of as what should go on in the classroom. So, I visited schools in India, in 1995, and found that nearly all the teachers in the schools weren't actually the people hired to be in the schools. They were all subcontractors. Meaning the wage of the teacher was so much higher than the wage it really took to put someone in the classroom, politically connected individuals would get the job and then they would basically subcontract out the job to others. I went into schools in Egypt, and in Egypt there is a very high-stakes test in secondary school. But I found even literally right in front of us[?] what the teachers would do during the day is it was a loss leader for their nighttime business of tutoring students for the exam. So, in the classroom they would say: 'In order to pass the exam, you'll need to know the following material'; but not actually teach it. Russ: This is marketing. Guest: It was a marketing device for their much more lucrative night job, which was individual or group tutoring lessons-- Russ: Horrifying. Guest: on the material they actually would need to cover for the exam. The more I went into schools, the more I realized that there was a reality of what was going on in the schools that in spite of all the enthusiasm for getting every kid into school--I got more and more concerned that the overall pressure to get every kid into school was ignoring actually what was actually what was going on once they arrived there. And what was going on in the schools really wasn't what we thought was going on. Really, this is the opposite of many academic things. This wasn't that I took an academic agenda and extended it in some way. This arose from my actual, on-the-ground experiences visiting schools, visiting classrooms, and realizing that this isn't at all what economists are talking about when they talk about the economics of education.
6:54Russ: So, let me read two quotes from the book that reinforce your point about the increase in schooling. These are rather extraordinary and dramatic, and I think most people aren't aware of this. This is a quote:
Schooling in poor countries has expanded so rapidly that the average Haitian and Bangladeshi had more years of schooling in 2010 than the average Frenchman or Italian had in 1960.
This is number 1. Number 2:
The population of labor force age in the developing world has now completed three times more years of schooling than in 1950, when 60 percent of the labor-force-age population had no schooling at all.
This has been a tripling of education. It's at very high levels. But it hasn't increased the knowledge of these students. So, talk about how we know that. Besides your personal experience of being in the classrooms where nothing happened. What are some of the international measures you cite in the book that, depressing as they are, that show how little progress is being made in poor countries? Guest: I just presented this book at a seminar here at Harvard a while ago and I had someone who was my discussant on the book and he prefaced his remarks by saying, 'Any of you who have seasonal mood disorder should read this book now.' Because the statistics are in fact very depressing. And one of the important points is that it's taken a long time for this issue to surface, in the sense that there's all kinds of statistics kept track of--how many kids school, of what gender, what age, of what grade progression--but trying to come to the numbers of what we wanted to get out of that, the education kids had, is very hard to come by. There are no internationally reliable and comparable statistics on what kids know. And so kind of the effort of this book, which was considerable, was to try and piece together what we know. And I want to start with not the international and comparable stuff, but there's a group in India that during my time living in India I got to know and support called Pratham, which launched this initiative to, instead of relying [?]-- Russ: Spell it, Lant. Guest: P-r-a-t-h-a-m. And they have this ASER, which is the annual status of education or something like that. But they actually went to villages directly, because what they realized was a lot of this stuff on learning that was coming out of schools was either falsified or was just giving students rote repetition back, kind of what they had just heard; and so it was overstating what they actually understood. And so they went directly to villages. And what they found was just really shocking. That kids completing the primary school grade 5, lots of them, a substantial portion, couldn't read any words at all. And most of them could not read what was regarded as a simple grade-2 story. Which meant, if they had reached grade 5 and didn't know that, how were they learning anything at all? It was just shocking. So in the book I put together statistics of direct tests of kids in their homes and villages that have now been carried out in a number of countries some, and then the internationally comparable things. And what you find is that they are just unbelievably behind. Unbelievably behind, in the sense that if you took the--if you compare the PISA, which is the Program for International Student Assessment, which is run by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), which only after a decade or more of effort did India agree to have any of its states participate at all; and they sort of encouraged two of their higher-performing states to participate. But the average score would put the typical Indian child in the bottom 2% of an American classroom. I mean, it's just--you know, it's just an unbelievably large difference. Russ: Tell the story of the headmaster when confronted in the town. Set that stage of what happened. Because it's really informative of part of the problem. Guest: Yeah. So, one of the things is that the system, these education systems that were set up to be spider systems, that have been driven by the logistical target[?] which were expansion enrollment have in some sense by design been insouciant with respect to being accountable to parents. So I went to a village meeting in which Pratham had tested kids, and they held a village meeting in which the villagers showed up and there was a meeting with the villagers, the Pratham representatives, who sort of explicated the results. The headmaster was there and the local village chief was there. And the parents, by this time knew kind of what the results would be because there had been testing all week in the household; but they present the results and they begin to discuss. And a guy about my age stands up and says, just point blank in front of 100 or so people, that you've betrayed us. You told us that if we sent our kids to school they'd have a different life than we have. And I've worked like a donkey my whole life. And now my child--I've sent my child, kept him home from the fields, sent him to school like you told me to. And now I learn he can't read. And it's too late. And he's going to end up a donkey just like me. It's really one of the just-- Russ: It's an incredibly sad story. Makes me want to cry. Guest: Incredibly sad story. I have to say, being a development worker, you are constantly confronted with the injustice of the world and how hard people's lives are. But to have this guy so poignantly express that not only had his hopes been dashed--which he had reconciled himself to--but that his child's hopes had been dashed, was really one of the most poignant experiences I've had in my career. You know, in 30 years as a development person. Russ: But it gets worse. Guest: Yeah. But then it gets worse. Because hubbub, shouting, agreement, dah dah dah; and some minutes later they finally turn to the headmaster to respond to this. And he begins by saying--and all this in in translation, so I'm not sure I've got it all right but I'm pretty sure I've got the gist of it, was: 'You are right; you are a donkey. And since you are a donkey, your kids are donkeys. Your kids come to school stupid, and what are we supposed to do? We can't do anything with them. They are not learning because they are stupid kids.' End of discussion. That was his sense of providing an account of what his school was trying to do to educate these children, was that it was beyond his control because the kids were doomed by their parentage to low performance. And it was just the most unbelievably brusque and imperious response I had ever seen. But, it wasn't in fact atypical of the just casual insouciance with which many, many, many--not all--but many, many teachers and administrators in the educational system treated the parents.
14:09Russ: And how is that possible? How is it that a principal or a headmaster--and we're mainly going to be talking about the poorer parts of the world but at the end of our conversation we'll get a little bit to America--how is it that in a poor country like that, where there are really pitiful, as you say, there are incredibly tragic things going on--people have hard lives. They make these sacrifices. How can this system, this spider system of top-down, total non-performance--how does it persist? Guest: I think--well, one of the conjectures I put in the book is that it persists partly by camouflage. It pretends to be something it's not and then can project enough of the camouflage that it maintains its legitimacy. So, sociologists of organization have a term called 'isomorphic mimicry', which is adapted from evolution where some species of snakes look poisonous but aren't, but get the survival value of looking poisonous. So, one of the things that's happened is by this pressure to expand schooling and by the governments' desire to control that socialization process, they have created all the appearances of schools that provide education but without actually doing it. But have at the same time not produced the information that would make it clear that they weren't doing it. So they produce enrollment statistics, numbers of buildings, numbers of toilets, numbers of textbooks, numbers of everything. But have, you know, all of which can project the image that there's a functional system and providing real learning there. But they don't provide metrics of learning or incentives for learning or feedback on learning or accountability for learning at all. And so persist in this kind of, you know, what I've called elsewhere a technique of persistent failure. If you came and said, 'How could I fail and yet have never have anybody hold me accountable to failure?' you would design [?] something very much like many of the current education systems. Russ: But of course, in many other parts of our lives, that kind of behavior doesn't work. So if I were for example to order a shirt from, say, Land's End, and it comes with one sleeve and the chest is not the size I ordered and the material of one part of the shirt is different from the other, and I call in and say the shirt doesn't fit, they don't say, 'Well, you have a funny body. Of course it doesn't fit. It's your fault.' Number two, I stop ordering from them. After a while. I might give them one chance, but after a while I say, 'This is unacceptable. I'm going to order from somewhere else.' And as a result, that competitive pressure works pretty well. Occasionally there are mistakes; things are imperfect. But a remarkable level of customer service in the West for those kind of things. First of all, that headmaster--why wasn't he torn limb from limb? Literally. It would be extraordinary to keep your cool in that situation. But number two, what keeps that camouflage? Let's say you don't have a kid. So you don't see the system day to day, and you see the statistics; it looks pretty good. But for the people with the kids in the school, there's no voice evidently. So, what's going wrong there? Besides the obvious that it's a monopoly system run by the government that's corrupt. But why does that persist? Guest: Yeah. Wow. That's a hard question when you said beyond the obvious. Russ: Yeah. Well, you can repeat the obvious. Guest: So, here, though, you are headed towards one of the very tricky issues which I raise in the book. Which is, I think that a failure of economics to be clear about this point has led the economists to be much less influential in this space than they otherwise could have been. Which is, if you--the case for choice and competition in schools provided in which the role of the government that wants to promote education could be a simple: student money follows the student, financing--one could say a voucher system. Milton Friedman made that case very articulately in his 1962--was it 1962, Capitalism and Freedom? Russ: Yeah. Guest: So, more than 50 years ago. It's not clear to me that his argument--I went back and read it not too long ago--it's pretty articulate and makes the same cogent points. But the one thing we ignore, and this is a tricky phrase but I think it's a phrase it's important to think about when we think about the economics of schooling is that socialization is not third-party contractible. What do I mean by that? Why I mean by that is you don't--if you want your kid to grow up religious, you don't give your kid a voucher and send him off on Sunday to hire who teaches him Sunday School. You actually take him to the denomination of your choice and put him in a Sunday School run by people who believe in that denomination. Because there's always the risk that if I give you a voucher, let's say I'm a government that believes in secularism and I give you a voucher to go off and education your kid, you can easily take the voucher, get your kid educated with all the demonstrable skills of reading and writing but at the same time socialize him in some religious views that the secular government may not want children to have. And that control of socialization is what has led these systems to persist. So, although--and government really can't have it both ways. It really can't just give people vouchers or let them have choice over how they education their kids and not have them educate their kids how they want their kids to be educated. Which will include that they want their kids to be socialized in ways that governments often disagree with. Religious parents actually want their children to be socialized into religious values. And parents of ethnicities actually want their children to be socialized into pride in their own ethnicity or their own subnational affiliation in ways that national governments often don't want them to be. And this is really in my mind at the heart of the issue. And I don't think economists have been very articulate in addressing that particular issue.
20:50Russ: Well, it raises two points. One of which--I'm able to mention in passing, which is the so-called 'case for government schooling', which is that schooling, education is a public good. Guest: Which it's not. Russ: It's not, and--but even if it is, it's nice on a blackboard, but in practice is what counts. And if government does a horrible job, it's a bad argument and economists should stop making it. Guest: Right. Russ: But the other point you raise, this idea of socialization, and you use this in the book to describe why it is that governments are involved not just in financing education, which would be one case that an economist might make, but in providing it through government schools. You make this argument of socialization. And the question is, if you are going to do the socialization, why wouldn't you at least deliver decent skills along the way? They don't contradict each other. In theory there's some tradeoff between teaching people how great Mao is or Stalin or whoever and teaching them reading and writing, but there's nothing going on in these classrooms. It's not just that they are devoting too much time to the great Fuehrer, the great whatever. They do not teach them how to read and write. Are you suggesting that's part of the socialization, that they want stupid people, who are unproductive? Guest: Yeah, I'm coming pretty close to that sometimes. Let me tiptoe up to that in a couple of different--that's a great question that raises three different responses. One response is I actually think there is a tradeoff. I really do think you can't both have a system that's exclusively top-up accountable and in fact run a good system unless you are willing to put super-high stakes on the students. So, if you look at the [?] performing East Asian countries that have great scores on these PISA, like comparable things, like Korea and Singapore, the way they do it is not necessarily by having great government schools. They do it by saying, 'By the way, when you turn age 16 or 17 you are going to take a life-chances-determining examination and the few that do well on this examination will go on to university and become the elite. And those that fail, won't. And hence you get kids in Korea in the 1970s and 1980s studying literally 16 hours a day in which most of the education process is controlled by tutors. So you conclude--because Korean kids do well on the PISA, Korean educational system, the Korean public education is good, it's just not on[?]. Right? Meaning--I'm just getting back to the accountability issue. If you, because you don't want the parents to control the behavior of the teacher with regard to socialization, cut off the line of accountability from the bottom up, there really is this tradeoff. It really is much harder to run a system when you've cut off the major channel of knowing what's going on. Right? Russ: Because treating the parent or the child as the customer. Guest: Exactly. As opposed to a system that really has bottom up accountability where you treat them like a client or a customer or response[?] of things. And that tension is there, and it is a tradeoff. You lose something by creating a system in which teachers understand that they are only accountable upwards--that is, they are hired by the state or the nation-state and assigned to a village where they have no roots, no connection, no responsibilities, you really do lose most of the information about that person's performance with regard to how you judge or manage your teachers. So you are managing teachers on this very thin information set of what they are doing, and that is a huge tradeoff. It's a cost. It's a huge cost to the ideological[?] control that hasn't been sufficiently acknowledge in my view. So, I think your premise that there isn't necessarily any tradeoff, you could maintain that socialization and run good schools I think is not--I don't think that's true. I don't think that's true. It's much harder to do it that way. Because, like you say, imagine trying to run a series of restaurants in which you want customers to be happy, but in which you get no feedback from customers. That's going to be really hard for you. Sitting in the headquarters of Oak Park, Illinois running McDonald's franchises where you are completely disassociated from any information from the customer, including from the purchase decisions about how well your franchises are doing. McDonald's would have a much harder time making its individual franchisees run good restaurants. So I think there's a huge tradeoff. Russ: So, before you go on, I just want to say to our listeners that we're 25 minutes or so into this conversation and I haven't mentioned Hayek yet; but I will mention him now. Which is this is an obvious example of how markets coordinate knowledge through prices. When you cut off all those signals, obviously you've got a challenge that's going to have to be--if you wanted to meet it you have to recreate it through artificial measures that don't work very well. Guest: And work less and less well for some things than others. So, again, coming back to the spider systems: if what you are trying to do really is just logistics, then the loss of information from the bottom up isn't that serious. You really can run a top-down system that's just delivering individual uniform things. Which I think was the lesson of Communism. As long as the Communism was just trying to do super-centralized things, it didn't fare--well, it fared terrible on human rights and freedom, but it didn't fare so badly economically. But when it got into anything that required subtlety or quality or detailed interaction or adapting to the customer or person's needs, they did much, much less well. And I think that's the same lesson we are seeing here, which is teaching kids is a very detailed, dense set of thick personal interactions between students and teachers, day in and day out. And the idea that you can ignore all of that information and still run an effective schooling system--you know, bottom up very deeply was kind of a false idea, but this is where the schooling agenda masked the learning agenda. As long as the schooling agenda was a logistical agenda of getting every kid into school and pushing them from grade to grade, then you could imagine that you could run a schooling system because you weren't losing information. All the information I needed to know was, is every kid in school. But a learning agenda, the Hayekian point becomes enormously, orders of magnitude more important because you now have all these subtle and important interpersonal interactions that, like you say, you are tossing away all of that feedback loop by cutting parents out of the accountability loop. Russ: Now, I interrupted you. You were going to give a couple other explanations for the phenomenon. Guest: Oh, I think you should ask a new question. I don't remember what I was going to say. Russ: Sorry. Guest: I was going to say, though--the second response was I do think you made a very important point about the rationale--I think economists have been incredibly sloppy about both their language and terminology in terms of the rationale for public intervention. Mark Blaug wrote a review of the economics of education in 1975 in which he concluded that whereas we had an enormous amount of economics of education of the demand side--how much schooling individuals would choose and why and rates of return to schooling--that nothing about the positive theory of why governments do what they do in schooling had any good economic explanation. So, as you point out, any externality or market failure rationale for government intervention doesn't justify the government control of the production. It always analytically justifies government financing of provision but there has never been a good positive economic theory of the government control of the production of schooling. And Mark Blaug has that sentence almost exactly in 1975 and it's still true. Probably it will still be true in 2015; we've just ignored that an elided the distinction between--well, there's some positive externalities to schooling therefore the national governments hire teachers and assign them to each individual classroom. The leap between those two things and the logical and theoretical disconnect has not been sufficiently emphasized.
30:04Russ: Now, most school reformers, no matter what country they are in, especially here in the United States but I'm sure elsewhere, too, they look-- Guest: We're going to disagree about the United States, I suspect when we come to it. Russ: We'll see. I'm not so sure. So, most school reformers look at the external trappings of the school system and they try to improve particular measures. They'll look at class size, technology, teacher quality, education of the teacher, textbooks. So why is it so hard for a spider-based system to mimic--you say they mimic the camouflage. Why do we get no bang for the buck when we say in a poorer school or in a poorer country, reduce class size, add technology, etc. On the surface that would seem to be heading in the right direction. Guest: I don't dispute that it's headed in the right direction. And this enters a large and contentious empirical literature that I think again has been misframed. So, what I want to say, though, is if you look at where, say, even an upper-middle income country like Brazil is relative to the United States, they are about 100 points behind on these standard exams that make a student standard deviation 100 points. So just think of them as being 100 points behind on a 500 scale. Russ: That's a big amount. Guest: A huge amount. I don't know how to explain it to the listeners, but it's the student-standard-deviation which means 100 points takes you from the median child to the 16th percentile child, or from the median--it's the difference between having a decent education and having a terrible education, roughly. So they are 100 points behind. Then if you say, Ok, I'll give you your input fantasy--take all of those things you are talking about in terms of what I call 'thin' inputs, things that a spider system could measure and do. I'll give you the low class size you want; I'll give you textbooks to every child. The maximum amount the empirical evidence says that would give you at existing levels of the efficacy with which those inputs are used in current systems, is about 10 points. So, I'm not claiming it's zero. I'm not claiming it's not the right direction. But I'm claiming to act as if those input-based things could exclusively erase anything like the gaps we see is just not on. There's no empirical evidence anywhere that from the micro up you could build a top-down input-based plan that would deliver anything like the quality of education parents in poor countries want. And by the way, that's the optimistic case, that you are 100 points behind and would make up 10. In the African countries and India they are 200 points behind. And would still only make up 10. And this would require huge fiscal resources, huge planning, and everything; and could easily be the people's agenda of the next decade. So, we just need to focus those inputs. I don't have to claim that's it's going to deliver zero or it's not in the right direction or isn't kind of some complement to other things that can happen. But to act as if it's the only thing that will need to happen is, there's just no evidence for it at all. Russ: So, I'm going to read another quote from the book, which I thought kind of summed this up really eloquently and applies to lots of other things that economists study.
In many physical sciences there are hard physical facts, like the mass of a proton or a neutron. We know that if one atom has exactly one more proton than another atom, its mass is higher by exactly that amount, in Kenya, India, or Tennessee. Everything important about education involves human beings as students--as teachers, as parents, as principals--and human beings are not reducible to physical facts because they have hopes, fears, identities, likes, tastes, motivations. Human beings choose. Therefore the impact on learning from adding a teacher to a classroom is not a fixed quantity like proton mass, but rather is determined by the behavior of people. Studies measuring the impact of intervention such as lowering class size or adding resources or increasing teacher salaries do not reveal the impact of class size--they reveal there is no such thing as the impact of class size.
You want to say anything else about that? I love that quote. Guest: So do I. You know, the thing about writing a book is by the time it actually comes out, you forget some of the things you wrote. I think this is very important because one of the currently fashionable things in my field of development economics is to use randomized control techniques, or RCTs, to examine kind of input and output relationships. And I think, again, while that might be in the right direction and might contribute some modest amount, I worry that it feeds into the sort of input fantasy of the spider systems, that if we just discover through an RCT what the right combination of inputs were, that would solve our problems. And I think it ignores the much deeper system and accountability and motivation problems that exist in this system. The existing literature to date hasn't been very optimistic frankly that acting as if we are going to do an experiment there and then learn something, replicate that is going to give us--again, it's not--I don't have to claim, nothing about my argument depends on our claiming that it has no impact. But there's no evidence to date that it's going to have anything like the kinds of impact we would be hoping for. Because these countries are on track; if you look at--because one of the things, again, I want to come back to, I emphasized in the book, is that it's not as if people haven't been pursuing these expansion of inputs in these studies. But if we look-- Russ: It's not like an untried experiment. Guest: Exactly. Yeah. It's not like we haven't had kids in schools. Russ: Haven't spent more money per pupil like crazy. Guest: Exactly. It's not as if, we know expenditure per pupil in OECD countries has doubled or tripled in the last 30 years. Russ: With little impact. Guest: But the point is that if we track--okay, you are 100 points behind, say, and again that's the optimistic scenario, how many points per year do you seem to be improving? And the pace of progress is very, very slow. So, in the typical case, the trend--and again, we don't have many of these countries and there are all kinds of reasons why these might not be perfectly reliable numbers, but it seems to be between 1 and 2 points a year. Which means, if you are trying to make up 100 points, you know, it's going to take on average 100 years to do it at that pace. And about 40% of the countries it seems to be no positive trend or going backwards. Which means, when your kids say, 'How long till we get there?' well, we're still going backwards. Russ: We're heading into the garage, not backing out of the driveway. Guest: Yeah; we're not even backing out of the driveway yet. It's not as if the dynamic evidence suggests that we're on a positive trajectory yet, either, in spite of having lots of time to have devoted to expansion of inputs.
37:55Russ: So, there's been, despite lots of changes and variation among Western countries and developed countries in spending, class size, etc. There has been little or no improvement in measured quality. Could be it's been offset by other factors, of course; doesn't mean it has no impact. But there's no dramatic, visible impact of these changes. Now, whenever we talk about this on EconTalk--and Rick Hanushek has been a guest, and he's one of the people who has been responsible for some of these conclusions in his work--people say, Well, what about Finland? Finland is doing great. And Finland, I assume, has a spider-based system; they are top down, not bottom up; the government plays a role in schooling in Finland. And I think they've allegedly done very well, and there have been books written about how great they are doing. What have they done right and is it replicable elsewhere? Do we have anything we can learn from Finland? Guest: It depends on who is 'we'. Right? So, I've been to Finland several times, not in connection with education. Finland has, basically--I'm being too coy here. No, the answer is no. There's nothing India or Pakistan or Indonesia can learn from Finland. Finland is an extremely wealthy, quite homogeneous, already highly educated society that adopted a very sophisticated--and by the way attempted to replicate individual-student-[?] and more-autonomy-for-teacher way. But you know, the whole country is barely the size of one Indian city. So, it's small, it's homogeneous, it's rich, it's super-highly functional governments. None of the preconditions that Finland have exist for any of the countries that I'm interested in talking about. So I think we should assume to a first order there's nothing useful that can be learned from Finland for countries that--Finland has done a good job from being at the OECD average of 500, moving up from 500. We're talking about countries that are at 250, 320, 400. The idea that the same sets of things get you from 500 to 540 like Finland has done are the things you need to get to a functional system of 500, I think is just--there's no reason to believe that's true. And any good set of directions has to start from where you are to where you want to be. So I think if you said, 'here's the instructions of what Finland did over the last 15 years,' you should ask yourself the question, 'am I Finland in 1990?' And any reasonable developing country is going to answer, 'no, I'm not anything like Finland in 1990. I look a lot more like Finland in 1890.' And hence I should be thinking more about how Finland got to where it is than how Finland got to or was in the last 10 or 15 years. Russ: What about the United States? What about countries that are struggling to improve educational performance? Should the superintendent of schools of New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles--places that have lots of troubles? Should they take a trip to Finland--on my dollar, by the way? Guest: On the tax dollar. Russ: Yeah. Should they take a trip to Finland and learn what they are doing well? Guest: I don't think that would hurt at all, actually. I think Finland has probably been doing interesting things, and I think considering what other countries have been doing successfully is probably not a terrible thing. But I'm hesitant to state my views on the United States because it's not the point of my book. But I actually think the United States--I'm a bigger believer in the U.S. education system than many people are. And I tend to think that the United States has a social problem, not an education problem. So, my meaning, I think the way we've structured the other sentence in our schooling system, I think in the typical American affluent suburb, parents are getting exactly the schooling they want for their children. I don't think there's that much problem in the American schooling system. Russ: I totally agree. [?] Guest: And I think it's very hard to make the case that in a country in which, you know, the typical child spends between 26 and 40 hours a week on electronic medium, that the problem with our low educational system is our schools. We just haven't created a situation in which parents are really willing to make the tradeoff between school time and student effort and higher learning. We can debate whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, but my wife actually taught in the Bedford school system for 5 years. Russ: That's in Massachusetts. Guest: Bedford, MA, a suburb just outside of the Beltway here. And I think the parents in Bedford got out of their school system exactly what they wanted out of it. And they wanted football teams. And my wife teachers choir, and they wanted choir. And they wanted the school to put on a musical; and they wanted the school to provide their children with a range of athletic and artistic experiences. And engagement in a variety of other activities; and that's what the school system delivered. Because it was quite carefully and closely controlled, both formally and informally by the parents. And that produces kind of not world-beating math scores. I don't think that's what the parents of Bedford thought was the totality of their educational system. So, I'm a very big fan of the local control by parents of educational systems. And if that doesn't produce scores of 600, I am actually pretty happy with that. Because I've seen what it takes in Korea to produce scores of 600, and no American parent is willing to put their kid through that. Nor should they be, in my opinion. Russ: I lived in Bedford in 1957. Guest: Is that right? Russ: I was 3 years old; I missed your wife. Guest: By some years. Russ: I think you are right. There's no doubt that in the affluent, successful suburbs of America, not only do you get the sports; you get a pretty good math education, I think. You don't get a Korean-level one, maybe. But as you say, most kids rebel, and many parents don't want that. They do want their kids to get into a good college, though. Guest: Yeah. But that--I mean, there's a large, complicated thing here. But I think too much disparaging of the American system doesn't get right the marginal value of the various outputs of schooling. Right? What I mean by that is: If your kids are actually coming out of high school with some pretty decent--you know, they can read their textbooks, they can understand their textbooks, they can understand the mathematics; they are coming out with this reasonably adequate basis for further education, then I'm thinking I also want them during these years to explore other facets of life and learn other things about life. Like working together with teams through athletic experiences or choirs. Or I want them to explore other things that will be of value to them later in life, like appreciation of the arts. Now, if we say--so, I have this argument which I call the 'pimp your ride' argument. The pimp-your-ride argument says if you buy a car, and the car comes with a bundle of characteristics, with a given sound system and a given horsepower, you can always top up those characteristics individually. You can buy a better stereo system. Or you can buy better tires. Or you can do lots of things. And you reveal, by what you spend at the margin, where you thought where the bundle was inadequate. Right? Russ: Yep. Guest: So, if you look at American parents, they get a bundle of educational experiences out of the school system. Right? And then you say, well in what ways do parents spend their own money to supplement their child's overall education? Well, I think they spend it a lot on additional sports experiences. Additional musical experiences. They have their kids take private music lessons. And I would think, again, in affluent suburbs, the ratio of kids engaged in some non-academic activity versus academic tutoring is probably on the order of 10 to 1. Russ: They don't just spend their money. They spend their time. They spend time with their kids throwing that football around and they also spend time with them on math homework. They do a lot of different margins. Guest: But I'm just saying, it's very difficult to make the case, from the way parents allocate their time and resources and kids allocate their time and resources, that parents are very unhappy with the public schools' emphasis on math scores. Russ: I totally agree. Guest: But, go to India and it's exactly the opposite. These kids are coming out completely illiterate, completely innumerate, and what's been happening in India and most other countries is there's a massive proliferation of tutoring. And there's a massive proliferation of tutoring because the existing system, both public and private by the way--the parents are just as likely or almost as likely to hire tutors if they have their kids in private schools as in public schools because they perceive at the margin--look, if your kid isn't reading at all, you don't want to supplement the kid's education with some art classes. You need him to read. And so you are going to supplement his out-of-school experience with more reading help. And if the math is going to be important to his academic success, you are going to supplement that with math tutoring. I think what we see in these other countries at the super-low levels of learning--so, in my mind, it's very dangerous making comparisons between what's going on in the United States or Finland and what's going on in India or Tanzania. Because at the margin, the value to additional learning is just amazingly high from the very low levels that it is. Whereas that's not at all obvious in the U.S. case.
48:57Russ: Okay. So let me challenge that, partially. And I agree with what you say and I'm going to try to give an explanation and you can then disagree with both my explanation and the conclusion I want to draw from it. So, I agree with you about two things. One, I think the average American parent has a whole wide range of goals. And number two, that even for the academic goals, the American public school system in those affluent suburbs does a pretty good job. However, I would suggest that part of the reason that's true, maybe all of the reason that's true, is that those parents in those affluent suburbs can afford private schools if they choose to. And many do. Despite the fact that they live in neighborhoods with fabulous public schools, they send their kids to private schools anyway, for the reason you are talking about, partially: they want something else, something different. But the other factor is that they have a choice. And so the school knows that. And the school has to respond. You suggest that in these suburbs it's parent-driven; parents have an influence. Well, in a lot of American schools that isn't true. And as a result, their kids don't get either. They don't get the choir and they don't get the learning and the reading. So that's the tragedy. And it seems to me that the fundamental problem of our public school system--it's pretty healthy in some places, but the lack of effective competition is destroying, now, a third generation of American children. Guest: Again, my book isn't about American education; I'm not an expert on American education. But I am broadly sympathetic. We have a social problem that manifests itself in educational terms, but we need to come to grips with that it's a social problem. And in the affluent suburbs, the parents really do control the schools--in part because whatever bureaucratic systems there are in American schools, they grew out, organically, of very tight local-control roots, which are still present, when the parents can exercise that control and accountability. And in the inner-city schools we have a social problem that is manifesting itself in educational and other ways. And there we need--you know, I'm very sympathetic to a need for a much more radical action. Complacency about that is completely unacceptable. But we have to acknowledge that it's a social problem that has deep social and economic roots that interact with the education system. I just don't know how to solve that. Russ: Yeah, well, you are not alone. Guest: I do think lack of accountability and competition has been an enormous part of the problem, when that isn't substituted by effective parent control, as it has been and continues to be. I think a lot of people go to the Bedford schools because the Bedford schools deliver pretty much a pretty good quality education. I'm biased because my wife used to teach there. But they actually deliver a reasonable quality education and one that parents organically control. And that's great. And that by the way is completely, completely absent from the spider systems. You know, the United States has always been much more of a starfish system. And the starfish system has enormous strengths, and I think those enormous strengths have led America to be a leader in education in many ways. And one of the examples I use in my book is, if there's a scaled example of a starfish education system, it's American universities. And it's just unbelievable from the data the extent to which America dominates quality universities. It's just unbelievable compared to Europe, which always took the same approach to universities that other countries want to take to their basic education. And you see the consequences of it. America's universities--in the book I have numbers of the top 200 universities in the world, what fraction of them are in Anglo countries, and it's just way disproportional to the population size. And even wealth. Because Europe, which is equally sized and equally wealthy, continental Europe, just has nowhere near. And it's the result of a starfish system, in my view. Russ: Which point Milton Friedman also liked to make. I'll just add that.
53:29Russ: I'm going to read another quote from the book. Because this will be our segue to our conclusion. Here's what you say:
One charge that could rightly be leveled to this book so far is that the general tenor is pessimistic. Chapter 1 says learning levels are low. Chapter 2 tells us more years of schooling won't solve the learning problem. Chapter 3 argues just more inputs alone will provide a little help, not a lot. Chapter 4 suggests more of the same can actually block better learning. Chapter 5 argues that the systems we have were built for ideological socialization in the 19th and 20th centuries and not for developing student capabilities to meet 21st century needs. And now I want to talk about creating a positive dynamic of progress.
So, I'm not going to challenge you, at the end of our conversation. Give me something cheerful. Your book is--I wouldn't call it pessimistic. I'd call it realistic. And I think we know a lot more realism and a lot less fantasy about what's going on and what we are measuring and what it's real impact is. But give me something cheerful. Guest: Well, for one thing, I think among education experts--and this I mean kind of the global people who talk about education and policy--I think my book is not necessarily influential but reflective of a massive shift on this point in the last 10 years. So, 10 years ago, or even 7 years ago, when I wrote a paper about maybe having a millennium learning goal instead of a millennium schooling goal, it kind of disappeared without a trace. Now every discussion and every developmental organization is at least rhetorically focused on learning. So the extent to which the schooling agenda ignored the learning agenda has just turned on a dying [?], in just an amazing way in the last 5 years. So, currently the development community is discussing the future goals after the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), and I point out that the MDGs were exclusively-- Russ: The Millennium Development Goals. Guest: The Millennium Development Goals, which were a broad U.N. formulation of what the development objectives were. All of discussions now, it's just taken for granted that the shift has to be towards a massively more learning-oriented system. So, I think that's a super positive thing. Because I think you have to have people first admit where they are, admit the depth of the problem. And re-articulate what our vision was. Nobody ever really just had a schooling goal. Right? No one ever really said 'my exclusive goal is the number of years one spends in institutions.' Because as I point out, the only other major institution like that is prison. Right? Time served is only a summary statistic in one other institution and that's prison; and we don't want our schools to be prisons. We want our schools to be catapults into life. So I think this shift has happened massively. I think the book is on the cutting edge of this change. I would hesitate to claim that it's caused any of the change, but it's reflective of a massive change that's going on. I think that's an enormously optimistic thing because until you really articulate the goals, have the goals, measure the goals, there's no way you can reach them. Second, I think a number of the systems--and this sounds odd for asking for something optimistic--when you asked me for something optimistic, this will sound odd. But in an odd way, many of the spider systems are so broken that the acknowledgement that they can't be fixed in spider ways is already there. So, in India, more than 50% of children in urban areas are already in private schools. No vouchers from the government to speak of or no increase in vouchers. It's just the schools were so awful, and income went up enough that parents just gave up on it. Now, what that means is that no discussion of what the education system in India is going to look like in the future, can just act as if what happens in the public schools is what happens in the schooling system. So I think that second dynamic has created a dynamic where educators are having to think systemically and not just in top down ways, because the reality is they have so lost control of their internal spider system controls, and so much of it has gone into private schooling that you now have to take it really for granted. The third thing super-optimistic is in so many ways parents are just way more taking responsibility and demanding accountability in general, and in particular in this domain, that I think the spider systems in their lack of accountability are doomed. I think just the extent to which citizenry around the world are more engaged, more demanding, more insistent and the moves towards both democracy and deeper democracy and more transparent democracy, just night and day. Which hopefully heads us back to a more responsive system in which the bottom up kind of Hayekian or competitive pressures get felt in one way or another. Now, I think economists would be naive to insist that this competitive pressure has to play itself out in terms of vouchers, because these ideological issues are deep and serious and societies just aren't going to give up on them. But I do think there are lots of ways in which market-like pressures that unleash dynamics can be molded in the educational systems without necessarily going that way. Second, if we create a system that can create that kind of responsiveness, it can work. It is the preconditions for, or it is the condition that solves a conducive[?] to moving to more market-like mechanisms anyway. So I think in that sense we have passed the cusp on a lot of this and there's going to be a lot of progress--a lot of productive chaos in this field over the next 5-10 years as people work out how we really respond to these increased demands for learning out of our kind of increasing archaic spider schooling centered systems. Russ: One last question. You mentioned just now and it's in the book, the incredible profusion of private options--not fancy, by the way. They are not the equivalent of private schools in India in the United States. Guest: No; this isn't more Eatons than Andovers. Russ: This is people teaching in a one-room, run-down apartment. But it's better than what we're getting. And of course how run-down the building is, is a silly measure of an input. But this is happening in India, it's happening in Africa. Reflect as we close on the role technology might play in providing an end around that corrupt spider system. Guest: Wow. That's quite a question to throw in here at the end. Russ: Well, I mention it because you talk about the Hayek quality of American education at the university level. And of course a lot of these classes being taught on the Internet, a lot of the students are coming from all over the world. And they don't need to have their own university system. They can take ours. Guest: I do discuss a little bit in the book. I want to be clear about this. What I want to discuss in the book is how you would create a system in which the right technologies emerge. So, as economists I think we should be much more stick-to-our strengths, which is thinking about systems-- Russ: I agree. We should be agnostic about particular [?] Guest: And create the appropriate motivations for individuals. And more agnostic about particular techniques. Which is the opposite about how most--I mean, most books about schooling have a solution in terms of a particularly desired form of pedagogy or something, or technology. And I strictly throughout the book say, I want to create systems that allow lots of potential solutions to emerge and compete against each other rather than my proposing a solution. That said, I do mention that Clay Christiansen has this idea of disruptive innovation. Which is where you actually moves to something that looks like lower quality but then rebuild a higher quality on top of that. The classic example of course is the PC (personal computer), which in computing terms when it came out in 1980 was a garage hobbyist toy that no serious computer engineer would pay any attention to. And all the firms that ignored the incipient disruptive innovation of the PC got themselves blown away by this, at the time, low-quality alternative. So I do think technology is going to change the way classrooms are managed in ways that are going to look disruptive, in the sense that they may appear to be de-skilling the classroom. But I think that in the long run there will be a disruptive innovation in the developing world that will rapidly accelerate the rate at which they can close on these higher levels of schooling. But when I hinted at this chaos--it's going to be very chaotic. It's going to be lots of people doing things that don't look like finished classrooms, but produce incredible gains, and they are going to reconstitute a new way of doing education. I'm reasonably confident that's going to play out, at least in significant parts of the world, because they are just not going to close on us in the way that we did it. It's just too slow, requires too much resources. Meaning we may get to scores that we have in the way that we did, but I don't think that's the way that anything like these lagging countries are going to do it when they do it.

COMMENTS (27 to date)
Greg G writes:

This is Russ on the role of competition in affluent suburban schools:

"the American public school system in those affluent suburbs does a pretty good job. However, I would suggest that part of the reason that's true, maybe all of the reason that's true, is that those parents in those affluent suburbs can afford private schools if they choose to. And many do. Despite the fact that they live in neighborhoods with fabulous public schools, they send their kids to private schools anyway, for the reason you are talking about, partially: they want something else, something different. But the other factor is that they have a choice. And so the school knows that. And the school has to respond."

Not only is this not "maybe all of the reason" for better schools in affluent suburbs. It is not a significant part of the reason at all.

I moved my family from a poor rural school district to an affluent suburban one because of the schools there. I served three years on that suburban school board and remained an active and informed parent for over 20 years. Never once did I hear anyone on or off the school board discuss competition from private schools as a factor in a single school board decision during all that time.

There are many reasons why affluent suburban schools get better results. They tend to be populated with kids whose parents (and therefore their kids) tend to be more intelligent, more conscientious and more disciplined than you would find, on average in a low income district. They tend to have more money and resources to work with.

The kids from affluent suburban districts are much more likely to come from healthy intact families rather than broken homes.

The kids in the more affluent districts are more likely to be physically healthy, less likely to be bullied, and more likely to get intellectual stimulation when not in school.

I am not opposed to school choice. Where it has been tried, the results have been very mixed. For the most part, the results have not been what the partisans on either side of the issue expected.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Wonderful podcast!

Sri Hari writes:

Russ,
Thank you for another informative podcast. I could not resist laughing at the biased reporting of Prichett on various issues.
I agree there are several schools in India with dismal education results, where teachers do not attend classes and students who complete schooling without the skills of reading and writing.
I can take you to numerous schools in US and Australia (I live in Australia) which are producing students who can't read and write. My wife who is a medical doctor in Melbourne, Australia, had to deal with government school 'psychologists' who consider some of the students dumb since their parents are tradesmen. And funny thing is the parents agree with the psychologist and steered their kids to low paying career paths.
When Pritchett was questioned about comparing the work ethic of a Korean and US students, his answer was hilarious, suggesting some US parents want their kids to learn to be a team player by learning dancing !!
There is a section of Indian government schools which are so badly run and corrupt, it needs to be shut down. But Pritchett fails to mention there are vast number of government and private schools which produce well schooled students in both urban and rural areas. Some of the schools and higher education institutions have tough entrance exams. Quoting from a recent press report-
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While the average GMAT score of Stanford is 730, INSEAD lies at 704. Second to IIM-B students in GMAT score are their counterparts from IIM, Ahmedabad with 767.
The survey says, "IIM Ahmedabad is notable for the extraordinarily high average GMAT scores of its students, with its figure of 767 exceeded only by fellow Indian institution, IIM Bangalore (780). This places the two ahead of any North American or European school for the academic quality of their student intake. The fact that students enrolled at both schools have an average of just two years of professional experience underlines the tendency for academically gifted students to move quickly on to the MBA qualification at the outset of their careers, rather than using it to up-skill at mid career, as is more common in Europe and North America."
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Several students at IIM are from the so called "terrible' government schools!
As Pritchett mentioned, at Indian schools where there has been strict application of private market discipline (tough school principal and teachers) and where the stakeholders (students, parents and regulators) are monitoring results, the system has worked very well. Pritchett should have visited government and private schools in the state of Kerala to see it first hand.

[The quote is from http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-12-25/news/35998542_1_iim-b-students-iim-bangalore-iim-a Please give sources when you quote someone else.--Econlib Ed.]

Alan Clift writes:

Could the translated headmaster's response about students being donkeys be similar to 'We have a social problem that manifests itself in educational terms'. Maybe the headmaster was trying to say he is in charge of education, and can't change social issues?

Netcan writes:

This was an interesting podcast. There is something distracting about frustrating about bringing in Capitalist-Libertarian ideas and the inevitable failure of centralization. On one hand it's an interesting and relevant perspective. Centralization vs non centralization. On the other, it's a sort of ideological one that blinkers people to everything else. People who think see it everywhere and see all other effects emanating from the core question of centralization vs emergence.

I'm sure a Marxist listening to this podcast would be seeing the mechanics of class warfare all over every one of the anecdotes and statistics discussed. The politically connected "teachers" using inherited power to maintain and grow their wealth. The intermediate class of subcontracted teachers blindly a few crumbs leavings in exchange for doing bourgeois dirty work. etc.

In fact, that might also be an interesting perspective. IMO, the most interesting part of this podcast is talking about how/why Finland is irrelevant.

I don't think there's an answer to these questions which can be derived from abstract principles. Certainly more power to the parents would be good. Choice is one way of achieving this, but I'm not sure it's the easiest way. I think parental involvement in schools is a cultural thing more than it is an institutional one. The US has a strong culture of parental involvement. Some countries do not. India has its own unique barriers to improvement here. Huge power differences between the uneducated poor and the upper middle class of teachers and administrators that are culturally inshrined in the complicated caste system.

I guess what I'm saying is that the centralized-vs-emergent axis is a useful & interesting one. t may be useful for finding solutions to some of the problems. But I don't think its the most relevant perspective. The straightforward approach would be fix the glaring, horrific corruption issue. As Russ said: limb-from-limb. This is a cultural issue and it sounds like a winnable fight. Teachers subcontracting their job is very public and obvious. It's like a light sensitive fungus. Shine light on it, and it will decrease. Start building the culture of parental involvement and accountability to parents. This will take time but it also sounds doable. The spider-starfish concept might be useful for thinking of methods here.

Seth writes:

Greg G. - All your reasons why suburban schools 'do a pretty good job' could be true w/o countering Russ's point.

Russ didn't say that the reason suburban school boards make good decisions is because of private school competition.

Now, I don't think the presence of private schools is 'all the reason' that's true, but I do think choice -- as exhibited by your own choice to move to suburban district and serve on the board -- is.

Doug Tree writes:

First off, thanks again Russ for the podcasts. Agree or disagree, they are almost always very interesting.

While I mostly agree with Seth, I would critique Greg G.'s argument a little bit differently. I would say that competition is perhaps a more subtle a concept than simply saying a public school considers a private school in its board meetings. We might distinguish between one-on-one competition and us-versus-the-field competition. In one-on-one, you are worried about a single competitor, like a sports team or political opponent. In us-versus-the-field, you are worried about an environment and keeping up. I think the second kind of competition, better describes schools. In this case, a school in a well-to-do part of town, is trying to be a good school. To keep up. They probably talk about some form of this every board meeting. It is the "keeping up" process, combined with the ability of the middle class to choose where they live, that -- over time -- lets some schools win and others lose.

Second thought about Netcan's compelling argument. My background is in the hard sciences, and in my field, solutions often arise when problems are reformulated, or stated in a different context. Often something that is complicated from one perspective, becomes glaringly obvious when approached from another. Thus, it is often more fruitful to try and find different axes rather than try to solve problems that you know are hard given current axes. Of course, in the hard sciences, we most often can find objective tests at the end whether or not this was useful. (Even then people choose teams and get all mad about it). In the social sciences, this is much more difficult.

Greg G writes:

Seth

You are certainly right to point out that a lot more goes into making a good school district than just good school board decisions. The "choice" that motivated me to move my family to a better public school district did not involve considering private schools. I do agree that there is competition between public school districts and that competition does improve quality.

There is an "us-versus-the-field" competition of the type Doug refers to but that competition is almost entirely between different public school districts rather than between public and private.

My wife was a public school teacher for 25 years and I have many friends and family members who are teachers. They are bombarded with data about how their results compare to state mandated goals and how they compare with neighboring public districts. In an entire career, my wife has never even seen data on how her results compare with private schools.

Consider what happens when a child leaves a public school for a private one: The family continues to pay school tax to the district even though it stops receiving services.

Now I can see how an economist would argue that this is a perverse set of incentives. It is much harder to understand why an economist would see in this an incentive to try and prevent the situation where you get money for nothing.

Russ Roberts writes:

Greg G,

Competition has an impact even when you're not aware of it. It is much easier to be lazy and ineffective when there is no competition. You may not be consciously deciding to work less--but nothing's pushing you to excellence.

An inner city school has a captive audience. A suburban school in a rich neighborhood does not. If your student population dwindles, you will not get the same amount of money you received before. Your school can be closed. No fun for teachers and administrators.

Walter Clark writes:

I would like to call attention to Alan Clift's comment above about the Indian headmaster's suggestion that it is not the system's fault. It is that his students have difficulty learning. It is a '...a social problem that manifests itself in educational terms'.
I would like to put it more bluntly. There are cultures indeed whole races of people that are intrinsically smarter than others. Ashkenazi Jews for example. It is illogical to disregard the fact that some cultures indeed whole races of people are below average. This could be genetic or it could be cultural. Either way the problem would take generations to fix. There's no getting around the logic that his students may indeed be on the whole stupid, not just ignorant. Lant Pritchett (Russ's Guest) assumes that the poor performance in the third world is due to government and not the fault of the students. Notice he is not able to condemn government operating the schools in the first world. Notice also that somewhere he admitted that private schools in the third world don't fare well either.

Russ Roberts writes:

Walter (and others),

Read Pritchett's book. Maybe the EconTalk conversation wasn't clear enough. Many of the schools Pritchett is talking about aren't schools where students perform below expectations. These are schools where kids learn NOTHING. NOTHING. Do you understand? After years, they cannot read. Some cannot pick out letters in the alphabet. They cannot do basic arithmetic. These are schools where teachers DON'T SHOW UP. When they do show up, they don't teach.

This isn't about ideology or proving that government's bad. There are many fine schools in the world run by governments. But there's a tragedy in many places, even in the US, where some students aren't being taught very much but they have finished x years of schooling so they are called educated.

To think that this is a problem of genetics or culture is to misunderstand in a fundamental way what is happening. More on the topic coming this Monday from Doug Lemov.

Jay writes:

I agree with Dr. Pritchett about India but disagree with his remedies.

Having grown up in India main issue is two fold-
1. Incentives of Teachers:
2. Social (Students\Parents Don't Care For Knowledge)

Private tutoring is rampant in India and this makes the day classes entirely useless.

There is no culture of gaining knowledge just a constant push to pass your exams and move on. So majority of students come to classes not to gain knowledge but just to have fun. Bottom line is teachers are unmotivated and students don't care.


The scenario I am painting is for the average schools.

Sri Hari the poster above is confusing the elite 5-10% of the population with the average.
The 5-10% of the population are extremely bright and can compete with any one in the world. Majority graduate students who come to the states are from the elite.


Remedy according to me is ban private tutoring by the teachers and implement strict standards for moving up grades.

A student can get 40% in a 100% scale and still pass. In America it is an " F Fail" for D you at-least need 60% here.

Walter Clark writes:

The reason it is important to recognize genetics and culture as the main problem is to recognize that fixes in the form of starfish vs spider is only slightly better than fixes in the form of more teachers or better equipment. Look instead for ways that the culture teaches itself that learning has value and more babies come from those who have those attitudes. Why do the poor in India find education of no value? It is government action in the rest of society, not the schools.

Jason writes:

Another compelling podcast. Thank you, Russ. There is a brief exchange about 20 minutes into the podcast where both gentlemen agree that education is not a public good. I am not an economist, in fact I am a music teacher, but I know enough of the jargon to understand what a "public good" technically is. I know that there is an ethical use for this phrase that is unrelated to its economic use so, I guess my question would be, why isn't public education, from an economist's point of view, a public good? How does it not fit the two criteria?

Sri Hari writes:

Russ, Jay,
I agree with Russ on the fact that some schools are more like a long child care for 8-10 years. Nothing is taught.
The point I was making is that, the reasons for illiteracy and the solutions are known to the authorities, parents and students in India and elsewhere. But like in the wider economy, private market discipline has to imposed with a whip. If there is no downside for the any one of the stakeholders (school authorities, parents or students)-I mean any one of them, the system breaks down. A whip is required in the form of financial and criminal sanctions. Yes, I mean criminal sanctions. Some of the school principals and education authorities need to be put behind bars for pilfering public money and misrepresenting the results.
Once we have deep level of accountability within the system, it will self correct-magic of Austrian Economics!

Daniel Barkalow writes:

Spider system work if and only if the spider can measure what actually matters. This doesn't necessarily mean they must do well building schools and badly at teaching students; they can also build schools with structural defects (if they can't inspect them) and improve learning (if they can test students). The problem in India is not necessarily that schools are only accountable to the national government, but that they're only accountable to an entity that can't measure what really matters. Sure, learning is harder to measure than attendance, but I don't think it's fundamentally impossible.

SaveyourSelf writes:

@Jason

Public Goods:
A "public good", in Economics, is something that cannot be made “private”—one individual cannot keep it from others. “Public goods” are—by definition—nonrivalrous and nonexcludable [see link below for greater detail]. True "public goods" are NOT tradable-goods because anyone who wants them can acquire them without having to trade.

Public Goods

Public Education:
I believe by “education” you mean the services of a teacher –a person with stuff in his head who is willing to communicate that stuff to someone else for a fee. Since a teacher can, at low cost, keep free-rider-students from learning by restricting who is allowed in a classroom, education is "excludable." And since a teacher's time is limited-- time spent teaching one group of students reduces time available for teaching other students-- education is also "rivalrous". Therefore education is not a “public good,” at least in the economic sense. Education is a “private good”—a tradable good—precisely because it is can be withheld from trade in the absence of payment.

Now “Public Education” is “Education” paid for through taxes. Since everyone pays taxes equally—in theory—and some of everyone’s taxes goes to pay teachers, then--again in theory--no one should be excludable from those teachers’ services. In an ideal world, therefore, education paid for with universal taxes is “nonexcludable” BUT it remains rivalrous. Thus Public-Pay-Education is NOT a “Public Good” but it is NOT a “Private Good” either. It is something in between, which I will call a “Socialist Good.” A “socialist good” has some qualities that allow people to trade it but also has some features that handicap anyone who trades it.

Importantly, the natural outcome of “public goods” in the long run is overutilization—ie. EXTINCTION. The natural outcome of “private goods” is complex and unknowable. The natural outcome of “socialist goods” is—probably—somewhere between extinction and unknowable.

SaveyourSelf writes:

@Walter Clark

I REJECT your claim that, “there are cultures indeed whole races of people that are intrinsically smarter than others.” I do not find your use of, “Ashkenazi Jews,” either understandable or convincing as a supportive argument for your assertion.

Walter Clark writes:

SaveyourSelf rejects the notion that certain cultures are smarter than others. He also objects to the implication that the average Indian is of a culture that is far below average in IQ and therefore of great frustration to teachers.
I believe that if the case can be made that the Ashkenazi Jew is superior in all ways that have to do with education, then the second objection will be addressed as well. Here goes: The percent in the world who are Ashkenazi Jews is tiny compared to their intellectual contribution in the world; the list of significant inventions, Nobel prizes and so on is truly startling. Remember the subject here. It is education and whose at fault for its failure in poor countries. It is not who is happier or better at athletics.
If there's something to be learned by those who want to see improvement in the education of the poor in India, look to see why Jews for 40 generations and more, chose their mates based on intellectual achievement and why those of that culture who did not achieve well had fewer babies. It's because the culture of the majority Christian and Muslim societies around them forbid their own to be in the business left to the Jews. That business was unique in that the smarter they were, the better off they were thus more of their babies lived to breeding age. The profession of other cultures did not reward smartness.
The force of culture is not appreciated by those who blame government schools nor by those that blame the lack of government schools. You give a man a fish, or you can teach a man to fish. But unless an economy has grown up over many generations to improve the fishing pole, his progeny will do no better. It is even worse for education in that when it doesn't come from within, those few students who do find education worthwhile will leave the poor community and take their intellectual genes with them.

Greg G writes:

Russ,

I am not arguing that competition doesn't matter. It matters a lot. I am arguing that the level of competition that exists today between public and private K-12 schools is not nearly enough to have the effects that you think it does.

I am arguing that the largest competitive effects, by far, are from competition between different but comparable public schools rather than between public and private. Realtors are the de facto marketing agents for good public schools. Public school officials hate doing badly in that competition. Public school administrators who get good results versus comparable public schools are in big demand in the job market. In our state, a school superintendent can make close to what the governor of the state makes.

The fixed cost of starting any new K-12 school is very high. The potential market for any K-12 school is very limited. Those are the reasons it is unrealistic to think that competition between public and private schools can do all you expect of it. The school "marketplace" will always be a lot farther from the competitive ideal than the market for garden variety consumer goods.

Different states vary but typically when a public school loses a student to a private school it loses the per diem state aid that goes with that student's attendance. But it normally continues to enjoy the revenue from that family's local school taxes on property. I probably don't need to remind your readers that most affluent suburban districts have very substantial school taxes on real estate. And very generous state aid for capital projects still continues to apply.

Public schools will indeed close if attendance gets too low. In practice this is almost always the result of much larger demographic forces. Maybe you can cite a case where losses to private schools made the difference but I doubt it. Such a case would be an extreme outlier.

Poor inner city families actually move and change schools a lot more than affluent suburban families. The latter tend to buy an expensive home and stay there. The former move more frequently but their school "choice" tends to involve choosing which bad school they hate the least. An affluent suburban district might spend twice as much per student as a poor rural district. Bad inner city districts tend to spend a lot for very bad results.

In round numbers, about 10% of K-12 students attend private schools. Most of these are, and long have been, religious schools. The recent increase in charter schools has been more than offset by a decrease in the number of religious schools. Sometimes parents send their kids to a religious school for entirely academic reasons. But most of the time families choose religious schools for reasons that are, well…religious.

Now I am assuming that your "maybe all of the reason" comment was a careless rhetorical flourish and not something you wanted us to take literally. Even so, careless rhetorical flourishes are often the first sign that ideology is beginning to run amok.

Mads Llindstrøm writes:

Regarding education as a public good.

I think most people will agree, that a democracy has a very difficult time functioning without an educated populous. To the extend that education supports democracy, I think it can be called a public good:

Nonexcludability: everybody benefits from living in a democracy. Also the ones not paying for an education.

Nonrivalrous consumption: I can derive the benefits of living in a democracy, without taking away any of your benefits of living in a democracy

Of cause, there are many other reasons to get an education. Many of which are private goods.

philemon writes:

@Mads Llindstrøm

Your points, assuming that they are right, show that democracy is a public good. They don't show that *education* is a public good. And more importantly, they also don't show that the schooling provided by state run agencies, paid for by taxes, is a public good (maintaining relevance with the topic of the podcast).

If anything that supports the provision of a public good is also itself a public good, then the fees paid to the contracting firm to install those street lights will also be a public good--but that would be to make the definition of a public good vacuous.

On the other hand, I *might* be persuaded go with a modified version of your argument. Say: national solidarity and social cohesion is a public good, and the provision of schooling by state agencies funded by taxes is an efficient way to ensure the provision of such a good. (I'm not saying that I endorse this argument; but it has more plausibility.)

Incidentally, I'm not particularly sold on the idea that "democracy has a very difficult time functioning without an educated populous"--for all interpretations of what is meant by "educated populous".

l0b0t writes:

Y'all are perhaps talking past one another with regards to education/public goods. It is my understanding that education, that is to say knowledge, is indeed a public good as it is both nonrivalrous and nonexcludable. However,the provision of education, that is to say teaching/instructing, is most certainly not a public good as it is obviously rivalrous and excludable.

Alan Clift writes:

In the example of the headmaster of student's that have learned little, I am confused why it took Pratham to expose lack of reading skills. Why weren't the parents already in an uproar? Apparently private tutoring isn't occuring for the students either, based on lack of reading skills.

nichtich writes:

@Alan Clift
I would guess it's because the parents don't have reading skills either, and worse, they don't even know what a functioning school is like. Maybe they thought it takes 12 year to learn to write your name. So only in a review session when another authority figure tell them they are indeed duped can they really understand what's going on. In a lot of these very poor regions, lack of information is a bigger problem than lack of money and resources.

Jeff writes:

There's continuous talk on EconTalk on how macro economics is still fundamentally voodoo. Basically, nobody has it right. Micro Economics seems to be fairly well understood, or at least is much more of a "science". This podcast struck me as a "macro educational" assessment with the whole analogy of "spiker" like central control vs. the starfish "where ever we all get pulled". With "spider"(centralized control) portrayed as bad, where does it end? Meaning: should entire classrooms be run with the starfish sort of structure, with the students themselves determining the coursework? Seems like chaos would ensue.

I don't disagree with huge centralized administrative agencies being pool stewards, but I'd like to know just where in the chain the role of some sort of centralized "bureaucracy" has a place. I imagine a class run by 3rd graders would have less then successful results, so a teacher (central authority) is therefore useful. Where does this end...principal? town committee? City? State? Starting with the micro and moving up would see to be an interesting discussion as opposed to starting with the macro. This, at least, would follow what Russ largely seems to believe when talking about economics.

Jeff

Russ Roberts writes:

Jeff,

Not everything can or should be bottom up or decentralized. Parents tend to run the family--it isn't every person on their own. Yet it is also true, even in a family, that sometimes it's better to let children make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes. And sometimes, if you want a child to pursue a particular path, it is better to leave them alone and find that path for themselves instead of trying to force them onto that path.

A classroom can't be a starfish. A school can't be one, either. But a good principle gives teachers some (and sometimes a lot of) autonomy over what to teach or how to teach.

The fundamental issue for me is which system, top down or bottom up--coercive or voluntary--allows people to flourish. There is no simple answer. But what economics helps you see is how the incentives and feedback loops work under different systems.

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