What I Believe About Education

This is in response to comments on some previous posts about teachers’ unions and other matters.

1. The U.S. leads the world in health care spending per person, but not in health care outcomes. Many people look at that and say that health care costs too much in the U.S., and we should be able to get the same our better outcomes by sending less. Maybe that is correct, maybe not. That is not the point here. But–

2. the U.S. leads the world in K-12 education spending per student, but not in student outcomes. Yet nobody, says that education costs too much and that we should spend less. Except–

3. me. I believe that we spend way too much on K-12 education.

4. We spend as much as we do on education in part because it is a sacred cow. We want to show that we care about children. (Yes, “showing that you care” is also Robin Hanson’s explanation for health care spending.)

5. We also spend as much as we do because of teachers’ unions. They engage in featherbedding, adding all sorts of non-teaching staff to school payrolls (and adding more union members in the process). In Montgomery`County, last time I looked, there was one person on the payroll for every 6 students, but there were more than 25 students per classroom teacher. That is why I do not think that cost disease, as discussed recently by Scott Alexander, is the full story. It’s not just that it’s hard to raise productivity in teaching. It’s that teachers’ unions cut down on productivity by continually getting schools to add non-teaching staff.

6. If I could have my way, the government would get out of the schooling business.

7. If we wish to subsidize education, we should do it through vouchers. Note that this could be done on a progressive basis, with the size of the voucher a declining function of parent’s income.

8. I do not expect educational outcomes to be any better under a voucher system. That is because I believe in the Null Hypothesis, which is that educational interventions do not make a difference.

9. However, a competitive market in education would drive down costs, so that the U.S. would get the same outcomes with much less spending.

A few additional notes:

10. When parents seek out schools with good reputations, they are going after schools where most of the students come from affluent families. The schools themselves do not do much.

11. Even within income-diverse school districts, affluent parents figure out a way to keep their kids from being surrounded by poor children.

12. I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the leftist ideology preached in government schools.

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49 Responses to What I Believe About Education

  1. Tom G says:

    These are all great points, Arnold. And I agree!

    Yet: ” I do not expect educational outcomes to be any better under a voucher system.” << not getting a better outcome almost certainly dooms the proposal in sacred cow "education" circles.

    Most taxpaying voters are willing to pay more, for better outcomes — as long as they don't have to do much more themselves, other than support higher taxes/ fees/ house prices. (Actually, most homeowners like higher house prices — it's the far fewer home buyers who want lower prices).

    8b) While vouchers alone don't give better outcomes, they can allow experimentation which might come up with models that do have better outcomes for the same or less money spent as is now current.

    8c) One possible model would be direct payment to students who attend courses; and additional payment to students for passing various competency tests.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      8b) While vouchers alone don’t give better outcomes, they can allow experimentation which might come up with models that do have better outcomes for the same or less money spent as is now current.

      Ah, you sweet naive kid. Here in the northeast, we have the North East Association of Schools and Colleges. You need their approval to be accredited. So every ten years, the teachers at my high school put in about 10,000 hours of work writing a big report (with lots of supplementary material) telling them that we have what they want. A committee from NEASC then comes and visits and eventually decides whether we are provisionally accredited. Along with that comes a hundred or so suggestions of what we should do differently–with the implied threat of withholding accreditation if an insufficient number aren’t enacted.

      So recently they have decided that every teacher should be assigned 15 students who they will meet with a few times a year. If you think that’s pointless, well, too bad. They know what a good school should do.

      Perhaps you think it’s important for young people to learn how to research on the internet and don’t think you need a school library; besides, there’s a good public library a mile away. Silly, silly entrepreneur. You must have a library, and it must have X number of volumes, and Y percent of them must be less than Z years old.

      If vouchers can only go to accredited schools, don’t expect any “new models.”

  2. Andrew' says:

    I don’t like vouchers on principle, but hatred of vouchers is kind of a policy strawman. Government has subsidized demand and restricted supply to the point that people an’t afford current education (or healthcare) prices. So, getting government out of schooling, at current distorted prices, there is no there from here.

  3. asdf says:

    Do teachers unions support the increase in educational administration positions?

    This may be the case, I ask as a genuine question. Teachers themselves don’t seem that fond of school administrators, so I have a hard time seeing teachers sit around as demand we get an assistant superintendent. Even if the new employee cost no money, they always want to find something to do with themselves and that something is usually meddling with teachers. Though maybe this is a difference between incentives of teachers and union officials. I honestly don’t know, what was the basis behind the comment.

    “12. I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the leftist ideology preached in government schools.”

    This seems to me the most important issue, even though it comes last. If the Null Hypothesis is true, then it really doesn’t matter much what the educational system is. Spending is a sideshow too. All that really matters are the social and cultural values that children are being indoctrinated to. One reason the zeitgeist always ratchets left is that each generation of children are indoctrinated more to the left. Non-progressives have never really had a good plan to deal with this fact. It seems to me that progressives could trade anything at all today for the right to determine the basic beliefs of future electorates tomorrow.

    • Dain says:

      “This seems to me the most important issue, even though it comes last.”

      Right. I wonder if it helps explain why so many former libertarians have moved to the right in recent years. I’m among them. The cultural questions have always been more tempting, fun and frankly easier to wrap one’s head around than yet another debate about how intellectual property will or will not be maintained under anarcho-capitalism. Sometimes the path of least cognitive resistance – as evidenced by the fact that it’s what excites the modal individual, not the intellectual – is the one worth treading down.

    • bw1 says:

      “Do teachers unions support the increase in educational administration positions?”

      Absolutely – If you’re a teacher with 15 years experience that puts you beyond the step increase schedule, your only growth within the system is to become an administrator. Thus more administrative positions means more career advancement opportunities for teachers.

  4. Various says:

    Good stuff Arnold. If you have the energy, you could write a great book on the subject. I know others have covered the same ground, but the sheer volume coming from teachers unions tends to drown out the better material on this subject. BTW, I’m not so sure your other books are so underappreciated as you may think they are.

  5. Niklas Blanchard says:

    Funny enough, I recall seeing articles proclaiming the utter failure of charter schools for achieving outcomes on par with public schools while reducing costs significantly.

    For a certain subset of the population, that’s simply not a “win”.

    • Pete Smoot says:

      So this is odd. I recall reading many articles showing that charter schools vastly improved educational outcomes in poor areas versus the public schools. This argument is often used to support charter schools. The assertion is that the charter school parents definitely did not just move their kids to schools with more affluent students.

      I don’t have any numbers to clarify the reality. It would be interesting to know.

  6. Butler Reynolds says:

    I would not expect better outcomes overall, but I would expect it for those parents that seek it. I have family members who were school teachers for many years in low performing, low income schools. They would often lament the fate of a bright student who was trapped in the zone of a pathetic school.

    • Jane says:

      Better outcomes occur in schools and communities where there is a culture of achievement, and this tends to be a self-fulfilling phenomenon. Parents who value achievement seek out these schools and communities. Teachers love to teach there: kids actually do their homework and care about their grades.

  7. collin says:

    Then what do you recommend how to change?

    1) I have noticed it is the best teachers (at least) in California to be the loudest union supporters. In terms of the decrease of the union power in the US, it is best to get the most productive and best to side against the union which weakens their control. The best ones are probably worth the salary the union is negotiating.
    2) What at what grade should kids be allowed not to go to school?
    3) What do you recommend replacing it? In terms of the worst inner cities or rural WWC neighborhoods, why would anybody open a school there? These are the neighborhoods in which local institutions (churches) are diminishing as well.
    4) Wouldn’t vouchers lead the good schools to increase price? Again we see this with colleges. There is a difference between cost of schools and tax cost.

    • asdf says:

      1) At the margin a reduction in union power means a reduction in the power of teachers versus administrators. The best teachers probably most resent this change in the power structure, while the worst don’t particularly care and will half assed conform to whatever the administration asks of them.

  8. Lord says:

    I consider charters and vouchers as close equivalents and while I think charters can be helpful, I don’t see them touted as reducing costs. Instruction is 61% of costs, so is still the bulk of the expense. The increase I think is largely aspirational; people hope it will make a difference, with little to show for it. I don’t see any reason to increase it.

    • Lord says:

      BTW, the real increase in per pupil spending has been about 2-4%, probably little more than average for the college educated, so it doesn’t strike me as very powerful.

  9. Bryan Willman says:

    The “not quite null” hypothesis, and sorting as a self perpetuating force….

    1. It’s not quite NULL. It’s really “if the student receives education and socialization at or above a basic standard” AND “their education is free from disrupters and hazards” THEN their outcomes will be reasonably potential fullfilling. Students may well fall far short of potential, or even experience calamity, if they are exposed to much hazard, disruption, etc.

    2. This means there’s a little value in “a better school” but probably a HUGE value in AVOIDING “bad” schools. (Good schools are like vitamin C, more than adequate doesn’t make you well, but less than adequate makes you very ill.)

    3. Costly spending on private schools, and/or houses in the right zip codes, may have a return in shielding one’s children from “bad” and therefore be a sort of contrapositive good.

    Groups with substantial investments in this escape advantage may be uninterested in fixing bad schools or vouchers or any other such thing.

  10. Slocum says:

    All great points.

    “When parents seek out schools with good reputations, they are going after schools where most of the students come from affluent families. The schools themselves do not do much.”

    Yes, but. Schools that are filled with mostly students from affluent families are better. Not because the teachers or administrators are more skilled, but because more can be accomplished in a classroom where behavior problems are few, where students start kindergarten well prepared, where home lives are stable, where homework is closely monitored, etc.

    “11. Even within income-diverse school districts, affluent parents figure out a way to keep their kids from being surrounded by poor children.”

    In Ann Arbor, the way it works is that affluent kids attend neighborhood elementary schools with mostly other affluent kids. By the time they get to high school together, the parents don’t have to figure out anything — by the then, the affluent kids are onto the AP tracks and the poor kids aren’t.

    Except it’s not exactly rich and poor. There are a number of educated but not affluent parents in town (graduate students in particular) but for the purposes of the above discussion, their children count as affluent.

    • Charles W. Abbott says:

      This reminds me of Edward Banfield’s definition of class as “orientation toward the future.”

      “The poor lack wealth. The lower-class lack patience–the seek immediate gratification.”

      Expanded here with an ethinc example that might possibly lead to digression:


    • Jane says:

      It’s not affluence per se. It’s the presence of a culture of achievement.

      • Charles W. Abbott says:

        I agree.

        I was reading an old book by E.D. Hirsch and he had the example (from Orlando Patterson) of poorly equipped schools in rural Jamaica with teachers who lack the formal credentials we insist on here. Large classes, outmoded books, no air conditioning. The kids probably play soccer barefoot. The schools often get good results.

        The attitude coming down from the teachers is (I paraphrase freely) “We learned how to do this when we were students. Now it is your turn to learn. You can learn it, too. Learn it like we did before.”

        This example appears somewhere in _The schools we need (and why we don’t have them_ by E. D. Hirsch.

        In the Jamaican setting race would not be salient. In addition, respect for age and for the teacher’s status would still adhere in that community, generally speaking. So, for those results with those resources, it helps greatly to have respect for authority–and some desire to achieve and to learn.

        This reminds me of the late John Ogbu and his study of the schools in Shaker Heights, OH. I’ve yet to read the book, so let me end here.

  11. Massimo Heitor says:

    “12. I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the leftist ideology preached in government schools.”

    NYT recently ran an article with the headline: “Public Schools? To Kansas Conservatives, They’re ‘Government Schools’”

    ““Some have begun to call public schools ‘government schools,’ a calculated pejorative scorning both education and anything related to government,””


    Kling I would presume unintentionally is using precisely this “calculated pejorative”.

    • Andrew' says:

      I was using that 20 years ago.

    • Tom G says:

      “Gov’t school”, not “public”, is more accurate. The gov’t decides more about the gov’t school than the “public”, who is the non-gov’t parent, mostly, tho also the other taxpayers.

      Big gov’t supporters support gov’t schools … because they support big gov’t.

      • Andrew' says:

        I get annoyed Tha churches sit empty all week and schools are vacant on the weekends. A public school would be “hey, public, here is a school. Have at it.”

    • Sam says:

      “scorning … education” — proven by assertion. Most of us complainers are wanting to see actual education instead of indoctrination and social promotion.

  12. MikeP says:

    Here’s one that probably slipped your mind because it is so uncontroversial among anyone who objectively questions educational outcomes:

    There is no reason whatsoever for the Department of Education to exist.

    Exactly how little benefit could the Department of Education possibly have shown over the past 40 years before everyone not vested in its existence would agree? Because the empirical benefit of the department is a clear and resounding zero.

  13. Roger says:

    Adding on to a few of the earlier comments. There is one other extremely important anomaly in schools. One of the most, if not THE most important thing in choice of schools is who else chooses it and who doesn’t choose (or get to choose) it. Schools are an example of large scale assortative matching on steroids.

    A good school is one with lots of innately bright and disciplined kids with two parents and long time horizons. Good students, supportive parents, teachers who find a rewarding job working with kids who want to learn and a healthy income base to pay for it all and more. A bad school is the exact opposite.

    Everyone would, if they could, only send their kids to the ones where the good kids with good parents go (feel free to add quotation marks to the term good, but we all know what I mean). But the good parents DON’T have any intention to let their kids be exposed to the other groups of kids and other types of broken homes. And as such they use their money to buy a house which specifically excludes lower income families. This isn’t some kind of emergent invisible hand outcome. It is intentional and purposeful on the part of the parents. It is in great part why they buy the house where they do.

    Vouchers may not solve this problem. Every child may be able to get a more efficient education (with the reduction in rent seeking and bureaucracy of competition and choice), but the best kids are still going to be sorted by their parents to only go to school with other better kids. The reason is because who you go to school with (peers) is as important or more than the quality of the education itself (and the two self reinforce each other).

  14. Handle says:

    There is a freer and more competitive market in higher education, but prices keep going up. Could something like that happen to k-12 too?

    But even if vouchers, choice, and competition neither raised test scores nor lowered prices, it would still increase parent and student satisfaction, which are vital components of human welfare and happiness and shouldn’t be dismissed as irrelevant by any analysis.

    Also, a meaningful opportunity for exit would discipline districts from doing anything too crazy, controversial, or unpopular.

    Still, it’s not quite fair to pin all the blame on unions or districts when they can’t escape the law’s increasingly burdensome requirements.

    • Seth says:

      Prices in higher education increase for the same reason as in K-12: government subsidizing demand.

      • George Mason says:

        That’s confusing two different things.

        With K-12, the issue is cost, not price, because it isn’t a market and parents don’t pay prices. The subsidy and legal insistence on maximum attendance have been around for a long time, so it’s not rapid growth on the demand side that’s bidding things up.

        With higher education, there is something closer to a subsidized market, but is growth in those subsidies actually correlated with growth in advertised tuition rates?

        Pell grants only average under $4K. The subsidy value of a student loan is some financial calculation taking into account increased availability, easier terms, and lower interest that what would have been on offer from the now-outlawed private student loan system, but still, I’d guess only a small fraction of the loan amount.

        Instead, demand for degrees in general and credentials from certain prestigious institutions in particular seems to be driven up much more by the signalling power of these features in the labor market. That may be goosed by the downstream consequences of other government interventions in society and the marketplace, sure, but ‘subsidy’ isn’t quite the apt term for those effects.

        And outside medical school, does the government restrict aggregate-quantity-supplied in either context? Not really.

        So it seems to me that something else is going on and my question stands as to whether that something could also happen to K-12 education under more subsidized-market-like conditions.

  15. konshtok says:

    a voucher system would set a lower bound for the price of education that would block any free market reduction of costs

  16. Brad says:

    I am sure that Saudi Arabia would be happy to pay to educate our children in madrassas as it does in Pakistan. Public and christian schools are no longer the only game in town.

  17. chedolf says:

    2. the U.S. leads the world in K-12 education spending per student, but not in student outcomes.

    What do US outcomes broken down by race look like, and how do American whites compare to Europeans?

  18. Mike says:

    2. the U.S. leads the world in K-12 education spending per student, but not in student outcomes.
    How do you define “educational outcomes”?

  19. Henry Bartlett says:

    I have a simple and powerful fix for the education system. Fail students that do not meet the standards of the class. I’ve been a teacher of a large, mostly minority public high school for 13 years. We do not ask the students to learn. We are just promoting them through (the data bears this out). When students are faced with failing (like, say, in MY class), the try harder and some achieve tremendously. Some just wait for summer school where it’s “pay for passing.”

    By promoting students that have obviously not learned, the students are taught (and learn this quite well), that they do not have to learn in order to be promoted. Can blame the students for learning what we teach them!

    Grade inflation is at work in public and private schools.

  20. Ward Chartier says:

    I’d be very grateful for the source for Item 2 in the post. I’d like to use these data for a little project I have in mind. Many thanks.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      You could check the Cato Institute website. That’s the sort of thing they’d have. cato dot org

  21. Broken down by race, there’s not a country that educates blacks and Hispanics better, while still remaining top tier with whites and Asians.

    The idea that unions are the reason for increased non-teaching staff is, hand to god, the stupidest notion I’ve ever seen Arnold write–apparently in all seriousness. He’s a smart guy. I like reading him. But oh, my lord. That’s spench your soda stupid, so much so I’m wondering what other foolishness I might have missed.

    What the hell do you think unions control in hiring? We don’t even control *teacher* staffing, much less non-teacher staffing. Most schools run lean. The schools that don’t run lean, the ones where clerks have clerks, are in black cities run as a jobs program by the city and the district. (Cf Newark). Unions have absolutely nothing to do with it.

    Anyone who bitches that education costs too much has to stand up and say the following:

    1) Public schools can’t spend unlimited resources on special ed kids, from the diaper-wearers to the ADHD, as mandated by a law which enables parents to sue for private education oif they aren’t satisfied. (https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2015/08/06/education-policy-proposal-3-repeal-idea/)

    2) Public schools can’t spend unlimited resources on kids designated as English Language learners, even though they are third generation citizens. https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/education-proposal-5-end-english-language-learner-mandates/

    3) Public schools shouldn’t educate immigrants who, simply by virtue of a plane ticket, qualify for unlimited lessons in English and the aforementioned special ed.

    4) Public schools should be allowed to teach students at their educational level.

    Suggesting any one of these notions will raise the wrath of much more powerful people than teachers unions. Which is why few people mention them.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      To be fair, if anyone tried to change any of these 4 things, the teachers unions would almost certainly oppose it, with rhetoric (“devastating to education” “cruel” “contrary to our ideals”) and with money.

      When our district was having money problems, our principal was very insistent that we never talk about cutting X to afford Y. Everything had to be treated as equally valuable. We had to present a united front.

      Now, if teachers and union officials honestly believed that spending less on special education would mean higher salaries for teachers, that might change.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      And–oh my God!–the reaction to “Public schools should be allowed to teach students at their educational level.” “Exclusionary” “Racist”

      Ironically, that is one that, deep in their heart of hearts, most teachers would support.

  22. I posted a response that is in moderation; I assume because I put in some links. So in case that one doesn’t get published, let me just repeat one point:

    Teachers unions don’t control *teacher* hiring. The idea that we have any say in non-teaching staff is pure drivel. In most schools, non-teaching staff isn’t represented by the same union.

    Hoping the rest of my comment gets published.

    • Charlotte Aines says:

      The teachers union in my area is always hammering about smaller class size and getting that in their contracts. Back when I was a kid 35-40 in a class was the norm, now it’s more like 18-20. So how is pushing for smaller classes not controlling the number of teachers?

  23. Floccina says:

    1 Robin Hanson has a null hypothesis on healthcare.
    2 why hasn’t less Gov led to low Healthcare spending

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