Thursday, August 27, 2009

Influence of Economists in Education?

The September/October 2009 issue of the Harvard Education Letter has an article by David McKay Wilson entitled "The Invisible Hand in Education Policy" on the role of economists in analyzing and proposing education policy.

Wilson maintains that until 30 years ago, psychologists and ed school professors exercised most of the academic influence in developing policy. In contrast, today, Wilson says, all over the education world you see economists studying the effects of government policies and "helping to design programs that provide incentives—-and disincentives—-for students and school districts." Concerning this picture drawn by Wilson, I would say that the academic economists I know are, yes, busy studying policy, but not that busy setting, devising, or designing policy.

Wilson points to a number of areas where economists have made contributions, including class size, school finance, and teacher training.

Class Size. Wilson quotes economist Richard J. Murnane, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, who says: "The cost of reducing class size is great....[Although] there are modest benefits, it’s not clear that doing so is the best use of scarce resources.”

I would say that class size is a perfect example of an issue where politicians and bureaucrats are ignoring the findings of social scientists.

School Finance. Wilson notes that economist Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said in a 1981 paper that money alone wasn’t the answer for improving America’s schools.

“At the time, everybody thought that we should treat schools like going to the moon, that if we just put in enough resources, we could solve everything,” Hanushek said. “We found that money wasn’t the only solution. And that led to lots of questions. One of the aspects of doing better was to have better accountability.”

Teacher Training. Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee had as her thesis adviser at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government economist Thomas J. Kane. Kane has studied alternative preparatory routes for teachers in the New York City public schools. He found that students performed similarly, whether their teacher had a New York state certification or had passed through the alternative New York City Teaching Fellows program. When Rhee came to the District of Columbia schools, she asked Kane to work on measuring teacher effectiveness via a value-added analysis.

Economists have been studying education since Adam Smith. Since I am a political scientist, not an economist, I have no personal interest in how much attention is paid to the findings of economics. But I have on my bookshelves rows of books by economists filled with valuable insights on education -- almost all those insights have in fact been ignored, dismissed, or rejected by politicians and policymakers.

Addendum: As part of a cliched journalistic put-down of the merits of economics, Wilson reminds his readers that economics was called "the dismal science” by 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle. What Wilson neglects to tell his readers is that Carlyle was an admirer of feudalism. He was a proponent of returning recently emancipated black Africans to servitude and supported brutal suppression of an uprising in Jamaica. Carlyle disliked the fact that economists often opposed slavery on moral principle and as economists they pointed to the lessened productivity of slave labor. Hence it was that in his essay entitled "Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question," Carlyle termed economics "the dismal science" -- indeed he also calls it a "rueful" science and a "dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing" one, by which he means that economics is not supportive of feudalism and slavery. If one means by "dismal," "not upholding slavery" -- then the designation is a badge of honor for economics.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Stanley H. Kaplan: Pioneer Educational Entrepreneur

Goldie Blumenstyk published on Aug. 25 an obituary in the Chronicle of Higher Education for Stanley H. Kaplan, who founded a pioneering SAT tutoring enterprise. Kaplan had an impact on preparation for the SAT college admissions test, but the beliefs of test-takers on the gains from such preparation are, in my view, all too often exaggerated.

Kaplan's more important impact -- outlined in Blumenstyk's piece -- was on the growth of commerce in the field of delivering education:
Today, the higher-education industry includes not only giant for-profit institutions like DeVry University, the University of Phoenix, and the degree-granting colleges of Kaplan itself, but also course-management companies like Blackboard Inc. and eCollege, distance-learning outsourcers like Higher Ed Holdings, and student-coaching and tutoring companies like Inside Track and Smartthinking.

Before Kaplan, non-profit institutions monopolized higher education. But, Kaplan, Blumenstyk quotes former Columbia Teachers College President Arthur Levine as saying, "proved that there was space for profit-making companies in higher education."

Blumenstyk goes on to comment on current conditions in the higher education industry:
Meanwhile, the cost pressure on colleges is driving some of them to the realization that their economic model is fast becoming unsustainable and that their instructional model is perhaps less than suitable for the needs of the coming populations of adult and other nontraditional students.

So now, as traditional colleges seek new strategies for delivering education in less costly and more appealing ways, perhaps through prepackaged, hybrid courses that mix online and in-class instruction, it's those sorts of educational companies that are likely to play a bigger and bigger role.

These are comments that K-12 watchers should also bear in mind.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Explaining in terms of External Causes? Thomas Sowell on the Blame Game

In his column today (Aug. 25), Thomas Sowell says that people see the world through a mind-set and that part of that mind-set is that when looking for an explanation of problems, we should look for external forces.
Many of the issues of our times are hard to understand without understanding the vision of the world that they are part of. Whether the particular issue is education, economics or medical care, the preferred explanation tends to be an external explanation-- that is, something outside the control of the individuals directly involved.

Sowell points out that education is usually talked about in terms of:

--money spent,
--teaching methods,
--class size or
--the structure of the school system.

Students, Sowell says, are talked about "largely as passive recipients of good or bad education."

But Sowell contends -- correctly -- that education is not something that can be "given" to anyone. Each student has to obtain it, aquire it, learn the material and the skills. This is, Sowell points out, a matter of the student's personal responsibility.

Sowell points out that many students waste the time (12 to 13 years) they spend in school and the money that taxpayers spend on them ("a total cost of $100,000 or more per student") -- only to "emerge semi-literate and with little understanding of the society in which they live, much less the larger world and its history."

Sowell argues that such young people should alter their own behavior -- or, Sowell says, "visibly suffer the consequences, so that their fate can be a warning to others."

Sowell concludes that politicians have a self-interest in playing down personal responsibility in favor of external explanations. The widespread belief among the public that problems have external causes leads to the belief that external programs can solve the problems. And these programs (which Sowell thinks will likely be ineffectual) may well solve the politician's personal problem: getting the votes of the electorate.

While there is considerable truth in Sowell's argument about the need for students to take responsibility for their education, I have all too often heard administrators and teachers cast the entire blame on students (and their parents) in cases where an ineffective education is on offer.

In those cases when education providers are not doing their job, they should not be able to get off the hook by citing Sowell on the need for students to assume responsibility.