Worth following …

Andrew Leigh and Andrew Norton (you can find a brief introduction to each of them here) are having a “bloggish debate” on whether public schools ought to be privatised. You can follow the entire discussion at either of their blogs. We thus-far have an initial comment from both. The first came from Andrew Norton [A.N., A.L.]:

… The government owns most schools, employs most teachers, tells them what to teach through state-set curricula, and examines students to make sure they have it right-even kids escaping to private schools can’t avoid these last two aspects of state-run education … Across the political spectrum, activists want to use public education to influence young minds. In his book Dumbing Down, Kevin Donnelly documents how left-wing academics and teachers shape curricula to fit their political agenda. In government, the Liberal Party proposed a national history curriculum, which was widely seen as another front in the so-called ‘culture wars’. Rather than fostering social unity, as some of its supporters claim, state-controlled education is a source of division and nastiness. Instead of allowing different groups to devise their own curriculum, and letting parents choose between them, we fight over a common curriculum …

In response, Andrew Leigh argued [A.N., A.L.]:

… indoctrination isn’t all bad. I’d like to live in an Australia where children shared a basic understanding of democratic values, and understood our geography and our history. I’m more confident that public schools will achieve this than I am about private schools … you’re either arguing (1) for the private school funding to be raised to the same level as public school funding, or (2) for the government to get out of the schooling game entirely. Fortunately, we have an interesting natural experiment of reform (1). In 1981, the Chilean military government passed a law (or whatever dictatorships do to put things into effect) that gave the same per-child funding to non-government and government schools. Fifteen years later, 62% of kids were still in government schools … Public education is worth preserving because it helps engender shared knowledge and values; because a public system guarantees access for all children; and because its economies of scale will often make the public sector more efficient than the private sector.

I love reading both Andrews on education. They’re clearly both incredibly smart and thinking incredibly hard on a topic to which most people simply apply a few platitudes and rules-of-thumb. A few of my thoughts, which I’d love to see them discuss at length:

Selection. Private schools are selective, meaning that only the smartest (or wealthiest, or most religious) students are granted access. If the entire system were privatised, what school would accept the academically-below-average, non-religious poor?

Conformity risk. On the other hand, the one-size-fits-all approach so often seen in public education is an imposition of conformity and can lead to the supression of individual talents.

Student complementarities. The success of a student in a subject is arguably positively influenced by the success of their classmates. Even if complementarities do not exist in student ability, they may still exist in student behaviour. Separating the most- and least-able (or most- and least-disruptive) students will benefit those in the advanced grouping and disadvantage those in the lower group. If present, this effect will be greatest for students close to the cut-off in both directions, meaning that there will be a sharp, essentially discreet difference in group performance.

(Dis)Economies of scale and profitability. As mentioned briefly by Andrew Leigh, schools experience economies of scale in minimising costs. However, there are also diseconomies of scale in maximising student performance once classes get too large. This means that private schools would not set-up shop in areas of low population density and that public schools focused on getting the maximum quantity of education for the minimum cost often sacrifice quality in areas of high population density.

Standards and externalities. Government involvement helps ensure that a common, minimum set of standards are met by all students. Employers and universities need to be sure that school-leavers have certain key skills and be able to compare candidates from different schools. I’m happy to assume that the market would produce a generally-trustable measure of the first of these requirements, but not the second. Witness the lack of interstate university attendance in Australia where there is poor comparability of students across states, compared to the high student mobility in the U.S. where the S.A.T. serves as a single, national standard. The S.A.T. is not perfect, but the comparability it offers increases competition in both directions between student and university.

In addition, society as a whole may wish for a third set of standards that are not direct prerequisites for employment or university, such as a minimum understanding of history or civil society. This final point rests on the positive externality of such education. A country’s institutional strength – arguably a cornerstone of growth – may rest on a commonality of feelings of civic duty, for example.

Teacher quality and incentives. I doubt there will be much disagreement between the two Andrews on this one. If they mention it at all, I suspect both will support some form of incentive pay to teachers on the basis of student performance. Personally, I would argue that to the extent that student complementarities exist, at least some of any incentive payment ought to go to the school as a whole. I also wonder if the measure of success ought to be broader than on-the-day performance on a standardised test and perhaps attempt to focus on the students’ outcomes. For example, one year after leaving school, look at whether students are employed or in higher education and if they are in the latter, look at the cut-off for the course they chose.

Full disclosure: I attended a state school for years 1 to 7 and a (small) private school for years 8 to 12. My mother has worked at that same private school for close to 18 years.

Continued tomorrow …

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