Freddie DeBoer has a recent post on education that I think is demonstrative of a fairly common way of thinking about our educational system:

You won’t find this in most education reform debates, but the fact is that a huge part of our education problems are found among a relatively small subset of our public school populations. Many millions of students pass through American public education and are perfectly well served, ready to go compete in that global marketplace I keep reading about. And then you have a numerically small minority who are terribly underserved, in terms of educational outcomes, and who drag down our educational statistics considerably.

My question is whether he would judge how well the American economy is doing using similar logic? I believe Freddie had his druthers we’d undertake some fairly radical changes in our economy, including a much different redistribution system. If the performance of our education system does not merit radical change, then does our economy? I’m not sure the former is obviously outperforming the latter, especially if you judge them by all but the bottom of the distribution.

First, consider that the main long-run criticisms of our economy are related to growth, not levels. In levels we are still the richest country in the world, which is why people complain about stagnating worker incomes, not low worker incomes. But our education system is failing when measured by both level and growth. In comparison to income, which is unbounded in the long-run, there are obviously limits to growth in test scores, but we are far from topping out on these measures. As Tyler Cowen argues in The Great Stagnation, we probably should expect test scores to be going up every year:

Keep in mind that according to the so-called “Flynn effect,” each generation has higher average IQ scores than the last. So if we’re getting smarter on relatively abstract IQ tests but not getting better test scores at school, possibly schools are declining in their productivity, despite all the extra money spent. Or take the constant scores in mathematics. We are a wealthier and smarter nation, more reliant on mathematics in our technology, and there is more mathematics “on tap” in any home computer. If anything, instructional progress, and thus progress measured in scores, is to be expected. You might also think that mathematics hasn’t changed so much in decades, so the better teaching techniques should spread and push out the lesser teaching techniques. That does not seem to have happened on a national scale, and again we must consider the possibility that our educational productivity has on the whole declined.

Median wages may have stagnated since the 70s, but the graduation rate has declined since the 60s. Output in both is a function if inputs as well as productivity, but that’s true in both cases.

The education system and the economy are apples and oranges, and so I’m not looking for the definitive answer as to which is performing better; that may be an impossible question. On the one hand, the education system may be more dependent on inputs that are exogenous to it. On the other hand, in the long-run a lot of inputs like poverty are not completely exogenous to the education system. Furthermore, the education system is a majority public run, which makes how it functions more “manageable”, so to speak, than the economy. But this apples to oranges exercise what I want to do here. I just want to question whether a similar level of apologetics that Freddie applies to the education system leads one to conclusions about the economy that are quite moderate, and even conservative. To say that a system does not need a lot of change because it serves everyone but the worst of well is not a very progressive way to view the world.

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