Friday, 12 December 2014

Drunk & lamp-post - education edition

Amid the flurry of interest in the OECD research on inequality & growth, this RNZH editorial is surely a beacon, picking out the sadly obscured deeper message that what we really need is more charter schools. Thank goodness they could see through all the fluff and waffle and distill for us the real lesson </sarc>.

Let us ignore the fact that Eric Crampton and Tim Hazledine (not natural pals I'd suggest) agree that the report is not a strong piece of research. RNZH doesn't care, it just wants to spin a story from it. The final passage is where their true agenda shows up, with my comments in [red]:
The lesson of the OECD report is that education has to do better for those from households where parental expectations are low. [OK] They are increasingly being left behind in low-decile schools deserted by "white flight". [If only the white kids stayed, those poor schools wouldn't do such a bad job! Who wrote this?] The Government's incentive for other schools to help them might not go far enough. Equality for pupils might require less equality for teachers and schools, higher rewards for performance and leadership, mergers and takeovers, so that the benefits of reputable "brands" may be available to more children.
Competition has a way of closing the gap.
My day job is working as an economist on competition and regulatory issues. From that viewpoint, here are a few initial gripes with this argument.

  1. Competition from charter schools can only exist if it is first engineered by bureaucrats, who allocate fat payments/student to charter schools, much larger than other schools receive to serve similar populations. The charter school policy is a very costly intervention. It'd be nice if there was a cost-benefit analysis of it.
  2. The proponents of competitive education use market analogies, especially the weeding out effect of capital markets. For example, this paper finds that the performance of charter schools improves over time as shitty ones fail and are supplanted by better ones (my critique is here). That's fine if all you care about are investors, but what about the kids who are the fodder for the experiments. How can you ethically set up such experiments, knowing and expecting and relying on the fact that shitty schools will pop up and then fail? And how does that human cost to those kids get factored into the cost-benefit analysis for the whole program?
  3. What alternatives were considered if any? Is it beyond our wit to work within the existing systems and try to improve them? 
On the last point, it appears likely that existence/power of teacher unions are a factor in the decision to build a parallel charter school system. A pointer to an alternative approach is a current project underway at AirNZ.

It's new CEO (Christopher Luxton) started by inquiring into "stakeholder" views of the company and found a huge disconnect between the public view (largely positive) and the employees' view (largely negative). The obvious response was to collaborate more closely with employees - right? To listen and hear their views and give them a stake in decision making. So that's what is happening, for competitive reasons.

I recently met with a union delegate co-opted into this project who told me that, while initially very sceptical he is now fully on-board and so are his (engineering) shop-floor mates.

Feel free to discuss the similarities and differences between AirNZ and education in the comments section below, or not.


  1. Nice one, John!
    Also , I must remember the "sarc" HTML for my own use!

  2. You have a great way with words David and/but I know you're a fighter, so maybe it's a useful licence?

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