Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Experiment, Don't Just Argue About Schooling

There is the usual row about school education in New York, which I have occasionally commented upon in respect of the combatants quoting Adam Smith in support of their differing views. Here, in the land of Adam Smith, we have similar controversies. Labour politicians and the teaching unions hate diversity; they prefer uniformity and, having political muscle, they exercise it when and where they can. Fortunately, we have privately funded education alongside publicly funded education, and nobody is the worse off for it.

I know little about New York, except that it is a very large city and a rich one too. With diverse per capita income levels and diverse attainment and aspirations levels it can afford to experiment rather than to argue endlessly about ideologies without testing them. I would recommend the empirical test to all problems of social-economic differences. Experiment, find out what works, apply the better ones measured by outcomes (which are not confined to exam grades only), while rejecting the clear worst ones.

The New York Sun carried an article by Edward Glaeser, ‘Schools for Cities’, yesterday, 15 August. One paragraph caught my eye:

Since Adam Smith, economists have thought that competition delivers better value to consumers than monopoly. The enthusiasm that big city parents show for more schooling options makes it clear that education is not exempt from this rule. It is a tribute to the political strength of the education establishment that they have been so effective in muddying the waters.”

Exactly! What is it with the political managers of New York that they cannot , dare not, try the empirical test of allowing diverse means of educating school children? The education is contract is between parents and school providers. If a minority of parents what to try a different version of schooling, let them.

True, this makes children actors in an experiment, but given the outcomes of the present system – which I have heard nobody defend (and I read the New York Times everyday online, not the New York Sun, unless it is picked up, as above, referring to Adam Smith, so I can hardly be accused of bias against publicly funded schooling) – other than as a principle to be imposed whatever the results, which by many accounts are pretty awful in enough cases to justify the risks of experimenting while the wheat is sorted from the chaff in terms of best practice.

Competition is usually a benefit; monopoly is not, which is why even if the education system was totally private and competitive I would still favour experiments in publicly funded schools in those areas of the city where parents were so minded. So, incidentally would Adam Smith; in his day, the problem was an absence of access to schooling for the majority of children and the almost total exclusion of young girls (the latter a situation comforting to today’s Taliban, but to nobody else), and he advocated for Britain what was long practice in Scotland, publicly funded 'little scools', part funded by parents.

[Edward Glaeser is the glimp professor of economics at Harvard, director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Read his article at: URL:]


Post a Comment

<< Home