December 18, 2013 | National Review Online
Intriguingly, Sanjoy Mahajan observes that it’s not poverty that drags down U.S. educational performance, as affluent American children fare poorly relative to their counterparts in other affluent countries: If poverty explained the U.S.’s poor performance, with scores of the bottom quartile dragging down and obscuring the alleged great performance of the U.S. top quartile, then the U.S. top quartile should do well internationally. However, when compared against the top quartiles in other countries, the U.S. rank drops from 26th to 32nd. Similarly, U.S. students with a SES at the OECD average do slightly worse than the U.S. average (Figure II.2.5 of the same report). Mahajan’s discussion brings to mind Russ Roberts’ recent interview with Lant Pritchett, in which Pritchett discussed the dismal performance of schools in low-income countries, the subject of his new book, The Rebirth of Education. Towards the interview, Pritchett briefly, and reluctantly, touches on U.S. education: Pritchett: 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. Pritchett: 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. Pritchett: 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. Pritchett: 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. This raises an interesting question — are affluent U.S. parents making the wrong bet when they invest in the social skills of their children rather than their academic skill set? Or do they know something that people who fixate on reading and math scores are missing? And earlier on, Pritchett observes that one obvious explanation for impressive educational performance in South Korea and Singapore is generally neglected: Pritchett: 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 high-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 to conclude — because Korean kids do well on the PISA, Korean educational system, the Korean public education is good, it’s just not on. And so mimicking the industrial organization of Korean schools doesn’t make much sense if we don’t intend to also impose super-high stakes, which seems to be a pretty unwise strategy. I doubt that lower stakes, which is to say second chances, are all that accounts for the dismal performance of students drawn from the U.S. top quartile. But it seems to have something to do with it.