Education Reform: Second opinion

Last week’s post on the Principles of Education Reform caused quite some discussion among the readers, and there is indeed much more to be said on this important topic.

Having benefited enormously from 20 years of excellent, free public education in Denmark, I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of public education as completely hopeless and in violation of basic economic principles.

Well, to be honest, Denmark is not benefiting much from the investment as I left the country right after finishing my education, and, again to be honest, my own kids are in one of the most expensive private schools in Bolivia (fortunately heavily subsidized by the French government).

Actually, I don’t think I know anybody in Bolivia who sends their kids to public school if they have a choice. The most vocal defenders of free public education that I know all send their own offspring to expensive private schools and even my favorite shoe shine boy uses his income to go to private school in the evening.

That does suggest that all is not well with the current public education system in Bolivia.

One of the most important arguments in favor of a free, public education system is that it levels the playing field between rich and poor kids, thus creating equal opportunities and facilitating social mobility. However, in order to fulfill that function, public schools have to be of at least the same quality as private schools, because otherwise the poor children will end up wasting their time on an inferior education that can’t compete in the labor market with the private education of richer children.

Standardized tests of 4th grade children across Latin America show that not only are public schools in Bolivia among the worst on the continent (in terms of student performance), but they are also farther behind the competing private schools than in any other country (see Figure 1). (1).

If the public education system is really as bad as the test scores indicate, hundreds of thousand of poor kids may be wasting many years of their life on something that does practically nothing to improve their future income earning capacity.

Figure 1: Average score on 4th grade language tests in several Latin American countries, 1997
Source: CEPAL (2002).

An empirical study by Andersen & Muriel (2002) indicates that almost all of the earnings differential between indigenous and non-indigenous workers in Bolivia can be explained by differences in school quality (after controlling for quantity). That is, there really isn’t any ethnic discrimination in the job market, but the indigenous people are being punished because their schools typically were pretty bad (2).

I have to agree with Antonio Saravia, author of last week’s Development Newsletter, that education should not be compulsory, especially not if the education is so lousy that it is pretty much a waste of time. However, I also believe that knowledge is a public good, and that the education of one person may benefit society at large. This means that it would be sub-optimal to rely on private education investment only.

Actually, I think a society should invest as much as possible in its younger generation, especially a developing country whose future depends completely on the actions and attitudes of its young population.

However, I don’t think conventional education, where everybody has to learn the same thing, in the same way, at the same time, and at the same speed, is the best or only way to go. Children are very different, have different learning styles, and different talents, and that diversity should be exploited rather than repressed. Nobody explains this better than George H. Reavis in the short story “The Animal School“. (It is less than one page long and explains what is wrong with virtually every public as well as many private education systems in the World. Here is a link to a Spanish version: “La Escuela de los Animales” if somebody should prefer that).

It seems like such a waste to try to get every child to learn a standard curriculum, rather than trying actively to bring out the best in each child and encouraging excellence and genius wherever it is present. Such stimulation, guidance and mentoring can be done in many other, and probably many better, ways than the traditional class-room. Learning by doing may work a whole lot better than learning from copying a professor’s scribbles from the black board and then trying to memorize them until the exam is over.

Kids should learn how to learn, and then keep learning by themselves for the rest of their life. The statistical artifact “years of education” makes little sense in a rapidly changing world, where educational capital quickly becomes obsolete if it is not constantly replenished. Those who keep learning new things every day have a tremendous advantage over those who stopped studying the day they got their degree certificate.

In conclusion, I think we need a whole much more than privatization and market mechanisms in order to improve the education system. We need an education revolution.

Have any ideas of how public education should be reformed or removed completely? Leave a reply below.

(*) Director, Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia. The author happily receives comments at the following e-mail:
(1) It is worth pointing out that the students in Cuba (all from public schools), did substantially better than those depicted in the figure. Indeed they scored an average of 380 out of 400 possible, whereas the best average score for private schools was 314 (Argentina).
(2) Andersen, Lykke E. & Beatriz Muriel (2002) “Cantidad versus Calidad en Educación: Implicaciones para Pobreza” Revista de Estudios Económicos y Sociales, No. 1, pp. 11 – 41.


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