Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

It seems to be conventional wisdom that more education reduces fertility rates. While in previous centuries higher social status was positively correlated with the number of children, this relation shifted to a negative or neutral one in the twentieth century. Most Western countries today struggle to cope with the demographic change.

In a recently published working paper, three economists from Bologna and Linz question the negative correlation between education and fertility. Using changes in the number of mandatory schooling years and data from eight European countries, the authors that

one additional year of schooling increases the number of children by 0.2 – 0.3, whereas the probability to remain childless falls by 7.5 – 13 percentage-points.

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free education

Interested in a totally free college education regardless of your academic performance or background?

Recently, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) announced a substantial enhancement of its ten-year old Open Course Ware (OCW) program: MITx

According to the university’s website, MITx will offer a portfolio of MIT courses through an online interactive learning platform. So, instead of just sharing free course materials (as OCW does), everyone can complete interactive courses and even receive an official certificate of completion. Of course, the certificate will not carry the weight of a traditional M.I.T. diploma, but at least it will provide an incentive to finish the online material.

Forbes called this new online education system a “game-changer” that “is nothing short of revolutionary”.

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educational spending

It often seems to be common sense that children would receive a much better education if more (public) money was spent on schools. However, economic evidence is far less clear as Hanushek and Woessmann (2010) have shown in the Economic Policy journal:

PISA 2006 math scores and acc. educational spending per child in thousand US Dollar

Many of the traditional policies of simply providing more funds for schools or of adding specific resources such as smaller classes do not provide much hope for significant improvements in student achievement.

Instead, the authors emphasize the importance of teacher quality and school competition:

Evidence from both within and across countries points to the positive impact of competition among schools, of accountability and student testing, and of local school autonomy in decision making.

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For many years German politicians, parents, and scientists have been discussing whether it should take children eight or nine years to finish the so-called Gymnasium (secondary education). The debate began a few years ago when more and more states (re-)introduced the so-called G8, an eight year Gymnasium. Since 1949, all states of West Germany had 9-year schools that lead to the Abitur (A-levels).

In theory, the reduction by one year was intended to save resources and make students more competitive in a global economy. But many parents (and teachers) have seen their children suffering from the additional workload. Despite the idea that G8 would raise weekly work hours for students only from 30 to 33, many students began to struggle.

From an economic point of view, it is quite difficult to follow the debate. How can there be any doubt about heterogeneous skills among children, in other words about the fact that students need different kinds of schooling to practice their skills. Some students would be able to finish their A-levels after seven years while others might need ten. Why on earth is there no flexibility?

One answer might be straightforward: because there is no competition in the educational system. Public schools do not compete with each other but are forced to follow rules set at state or even national level. They are not free to figure out new ways to better educate our children. Neither can they offer various programs that would suit students with different skills.

It is to some extent astonishing that parents do not raise a hue and cry about this kind of heavy consumer mistreatment. Especially since their children are more and more suffering from the limited variety and poor quality that public schools offer these days.

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watching tv

We all know that statistics should always be taken with a grain of salt. But what do we think about these breathtaking figures from TV-Free America?

  • Number of hours per day that TV is on in an average U.S. home: 6 hours, 47 minutes
  • Number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children: 3.5
  • Number of minutes per week that the average child watches television: 1,680

Of course I do not know whether these numbers are remotely correct. Neither do I want to tell anyone how to spend their leisure time. But for me, watching four hours of TV every day sounds just incredible. Also, with regard to children I would love to see more people studying what James Heckman has found about the education of kids.

If you like, you can also watch an interesting presentation by Professor Heckman given in 2008 at the University of Mannheim.

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One of the things most people do not understand is how anyone can argue in favor of privatizing education. In their views education is a public good which obviously has to be provided by public schools. But -as always- when most people think the same, no one is really thinking.

Gladly, professor Boudreaux has written down an intriguing claim for private schools:

If Supermarkets Were Like Public Schools

Some indignant public-supermarket defenders would even rail against the insensitivity of referring to grocery shoppers as “customers,” on the grounds that the relationship between the public servants who supply life-giving groceries and the citizens who need those groceries is not so crass as to be discussed in terms of commerce.

As most WSJ articles are available only for a short time, tell me if you no longer get the full text.

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It has always been fascinating to me how people can talk about ‘free education’ as if there were no costs once the government bears (i.e. distributes) the expenditures. The problem at stake seems to be a confusion of prices and costs. While costs refer to the expenses incurred to produce goods and services, prices are what consumers of those goods and services are charged. Therefore, price controls or socialization have no impact whatsoever on costs. They are just a redistribution of costs.

Thus education will never be costless despite being labeled as ‘free’. The only question involved is who ought to pay for expenses. And with reference to ‘Director’s Law‘ we have already observed the attempt to let other people pay the bill.

In a recent study, the Cato Institute has estimated costs of public schools and found them to be about as high as top-private schools. Of course without offering a similar quality of teaching.

The True Cost of Public Education – by the Cato Institute

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John Stossel discusses the problems of public schooling with guests Sherry Street (Milwaukee school voucher advocate) and Joel Klein (former chancellor of NYC schools).

However, they are just talking about one negative repercussion of an education monopoly. Another and even more severe impact is captured in one of Friedman’s great quotations:

As we all know our public education system is a socialist enterprise. Any institution will tend to express its own values and its own idea. The socialist institutions will teach socialism. It is going to teach socialist values. It is not going to teach the principles of free enterprise.

Unfortunately odds of large-scale improvements in Germany are very long. A recent survey of some 480,000 people came up with shocking results:

  • On average people graded the German education system a poor 3.7 (1=best, 6=worst).
  • 72 percent would accept higher taxes for improving education.
  • 87 percent think schools ought to be “costless”.
  • 92 percent ask for unification of curriculum.

Myself, I only support the first statement and strongly oppose the other three.

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Two recent NY Times articles argue that improving both teacher’s low salaries and reputation are key to solving educational problems in the United States.

Pay Teachers More

U.S. Is Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status

Without much ado, this analysis can be transferred to European countries. Both articles draw heavily from a 2010 McKinsey study titled “Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top-third graduates to careers in teaching”. By means of several bold statements the authors justify their policy proposals:

Top performing nations recruit 100% of their new teachers from the top third. In the U.S. it’s 23% and 14% in high-poverty schools.

Average teacher salary [in the U.S.] as a percentage of GDP has decreased at roughly 2% per year.

With regard to Germany however, the study states that German teachers’ salaries as percentage of GDP rank among the top 3 worldwide, way beyond OECD average. That is probably why the second NY Times article might be more relevant for Europe’s largest economy. Taking into account that wages are generally quite low in Germany, teachers perform relatively well. (Although this is hard to understand from a Swiss point of view.)

But what is truly preventing Germany’s top-third graduates to become teachers is the job’s awful reputation. Some decades ago German parents addressed their children’s teacher with “Mr. Teacher”. Doing this in 2011 would be nothing but strange. In addition, the decision to become a teacher implies low opportunities of fostering your career. Being stuck a lowly state-run bureaucratic school is in no case comparable to a shining career in a successful private company.

Simply raising overall paychecks for teachers and launching a reputation campaign is clearly not the answer. But changing teacher training at universities by heavily raising requirements, increasing incentives for top students to become teacher (financial benefits, improved career opportunities), and performance-based salaries would be a starting point. Notabene, this would be way more easy in a private education system. But yeah, that’s a different story.

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