Peer effects: they exist but they’re not very big

One reason parents try and get their kids into ‘good’ schools is that they have better teachers, facilities and so on. Another is that the other students are also high achievers and this is believed to feed into their own children’s achievement—via less disruptiveness, an environment more conducive to scholarly activity, and so on.

A paper newly published in the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics tests the size of these effects on achievement by looking at the random component of sorting that occurs when most British children transition from primary to secondary school at age 11.

“Peer Effects: Evidence from Secondary School Transition in England” (up-to-date gated version, full working paper pdf), by Stephen Gibbons and Shqiponja Telhaj, finds that although having brighter peers raises someone’s grades a bit, the effect size is very small.

Our general finding is that school-level peer effects exist, but they are small in magnitude: a one standard deviation increase in the mean ks2 primary school scores of secondary schoolmates is associated with a 0.03 standard deviation increase in student achievement in secondary school ks3 achievement.

These peer effects originate in characteristics of secondary school peers that were already evident in their achievements at age 7, and family background issues such as low income and English being second language, rather than academic progression during the later years of primary schooling preceding secondary school entry.

This finding suggests a rather limited role for peer effects in amplifying the effects of educational interventions (e.g. social multiplier effects as in Glaeser Sacerdote and Scheinkman 2003), unless these interventions occur very early on in life. Our results show only limited heterogeneity across student demographic types.

But the paper does go on to say that because school has very little impact on student outcomes, we should probably see this as a relatively large effect in that context. And that peer groups might matter for lots of other things besides achievement (“physical safety, emotional security, familiarity, life-time friendship networks, or simply exclusivity”) so parents aren’t necessarily crazy to aim for ‘better’ peers for their kids.

CMRE’s Friedman Lecture on school choice

The Centre for Market Reform of Education’s Inaugural Friedman lecture kicked off with success last week amid a plethora of events marking international school choice week. Sir Julian Le Grand delivered the lecture ‘School choice matures: lessons for policy makers’ as educationalists of all spheres, from teachers to campaigners, posed questions and examined how best to reform education systems and advocate educational freedom.

Increasing the diversification of producers and external pressure on public services, the Social Policy and Economics Professor described, would improve the quality of education. School choice is the crucial cause of both of these. Chaining people to their local schools by means of catchment-allocation alongside the state’s one-size-fits-all approach is failing. People would prefer the pressure of markets – with parents and children choosing the institutions and preferred teaching methods – as opposed to perpetual pressure from politicians imposing targets. 

Public perceptions of profit-making and the belief that school choice is a ‘middle class thing’ were distinguished as impediments to the truth that proponents of the freedom to choose have on their side: creating an environment conducive to competition, and thus advancement in schooling provision, requires that options within the reach of the wealthy and middle classes are available to the poorest sectors of society also. Precisely why, Professor Julian Le Grand said, the poor benefit most from school choice.

You can listen to an audio recording of last week’s lecture and find CMRE’s detailed publications on school choice, incentivising quality and educational inequality here.

School choice: first evidence to prove long-term benefits

A report released this month by Victor Lavy of CESifo is the first evidence of its kind to prove the long-term social and economic benefits of school choice. Up until now, research conducted has explored life outcomes resulting from varying teachers’ quality, schools’ quality, classroom sizes and other school programs. Yet to be unravelled was the impact of school choice later on in life and how the effects of different types of post-secondary schooling, varying by quality, persist beyond attainment and standardised test scores. Adult employment, earnings and dependency on welfare are all examined in primary school students offered free school choice in the junction of transition to secondary school to determine which educational interventions best achieve the desirable long-term outcomes. 

Remarkably, students who had choice at primary school are 4.7 percentage points more likely to enroll in post secondary schooling, and to complete almost an additional quarter year of college schooling in comparison to controlled students. Further to this success was an estimated 5-7 percentage points increase in average annual earnings among treated students at ages 28-30. This is explained by the improvement in academic outcomes resulting from the school choice program and post-secondary schooling attainment which are highly correlated to labour market earnings. Most surprising in the findings was that school choice led to reductions in health or mental disability rates at age 30 and to a decline in eligibility and recipiency of 3 disability welfare allowances.

Lessons learned from this study – which was conducted in Israel – can be easily applied to other educational settings due to different countries having very comparable and similar high-stakes exit exams. The school choice program also has similar features to related programs in the US, in Europe and in other OECD countries. As a result, variants of this school choice program have the potential to be implemented in developed countries across the world.

A great advantage of this study is that it is also the first of its kind to present evidence that can easily be acted upon directly via policy. Whereas most related studies have looked at long-term outcomes of measures not easily manipulated by policy like teachers’ and schools’ quality.

All the evidence now suggests that allowing children and their parents to choose freely at age 13 which secondary school they will attend, not only improves sharply their high school outcomes six years later, but also influences their path to post-secondary schooling, enhances their earnings over a decade and a half later and reduces their dependency on the public welfare system. These results are important because the school choice experiment targeted a disadvantaged population in some of the more deprived parts of Tel Aviv. This is now the most potent contribution of late to the critical question surrounding what educational interventions are conducive to the best possible life outcomes. Now the empirical evidence provided by the paper creates a fuller picture of the individual and social returns from these interventions, and will equip educators and governments with the information required to make the most informed decisions as to which educational programs constitute the most beneficial use of limited school resources.

With increasingly prominent advocates of free school choice and more evidence exhibiting its merits, we can hope to see it embodied in policy in the near future. Standing in the way, unfortunately,  are politicians and educationalists with an unfaltering dedication to the taxpayer-funded state-monopoly of learning. Opponents of school choice are not home with freedom. For if you had the freedom to choose how to be educated, you would not choose their way.

Celebrating the success of the free school system

This is a welcome success in the free school system that we should celebrate:

The government’s flagship free schools programme has been dealt a blow with the announcement that a third school is to close after a damning Ofsted report found that leadership, teaching, pupil behaviour and achievement were all “inadequate”, the lowest possible rating.

Durham Free School, which has a Christian ethos and opened in September 2013, has had its funding agreement terminated after being put in special measures by the schools watchdog, Ofsted, after an inspection in November.

It follows the closure of the Discovery New School in east Sussex, which was forced to shut last year because of poor standards, and the partial closure of Al Madinah in Derby, the country’s first Muslim free school, which had to close its secondary school after a critical Ofsted report.

No, we haven’t gone mad. We really are using the failure of a school or three to celebrate the success of the system. Because this is actually the point of said system. People get to try out new things. Some of those new things will succeed, others will not. But this is exactly what we desire to happen. To have people try new things so as to see what will succeed and what will not.

This is also the defining feature of this capitalism/free market hybrid that should be the prevailing ethos of our society. That failure quickly becomes obvious and thus fails and fails fast. All experimentation will produce failures and without experimentation there will be no advances. So, we desire a system that experiments and one that quickly identifies those inevitable failures, closes them down and gets on with another round of experimentation.

TYhis is just what the free school system does: it’s therefore a success story that a failure has been spotted and dealt with. Because that’s the damn point.

Single sex schooling: three recent papers

Nearly all state schools are co-educational, but most independent schools are single sex. Three academic papers I came across in the last few months suggest that the education authorities might have something to learn from the private sector—all three find that randomly switching people to single-sex education leads to substantial improvements in their outcomes.

The first, Lee et al. (2014) looks at random assignment of Korean youths to middle schools, comparing single sex classes in coed schools with coed classes in coed schools and single-sex classes in single-sex schools.

Male students attending single-sex schools outperform their counterparts in mixed-gender classes by 0.15 of a standard deviation. The significant impact of single-sex schools on male students’ achievement are not driven by classroom gender composition, but largely accounted for by increases in student effort and study-time. We find little evidence that classroom or school gender composition affect the outcomes of female students.

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The second, Lu & Anderson (2015) looks more closely, at the effect in Chinese middle schools of being randomly assigned to sit next to others of the same gender. Contrary to the Korean paper, they find that girls do better if they sit near girls, but there is no effect on boys from who they sit near.

We exploit random seat assignment in a Chinese middle school to estimate how the gender of neighboring students affects a student’s academic achievement. We find that being surrounded by five females rather than five males increases a female’s test scores by 0.2–0.3 standard deviations but has no significant effects on a male’s test scores.

The third, Booth et al. (2013) looks at universities in the US, and does a true random experiment, again finding an effect on women but none on men.

We examine the effect of single‐sex classes on the pass rates, grades, and  course choices of students in a coeducational university. We randomly  assign students to all‐female, all‐male, and coed classes and, therefore, get  around the selection issues present in other studies on single‐sex  education. We find that one hour a week of single‐sex education benefits females: females are 7.5% more likely to pass their first year courses and score 10% higher in their required second year classes than their peers attending coeducational classes. We find no effect of single‐sex education on the subsequent probability that a female will take technical classes and there is no effect of single‐sex education for males.

Now these three studies are hardly conclusive—there’s a big literature out there. And one of the things we really know well is that improving education is hardMost of the quality of private schools is in their students, teachers, facilities and parents. But perhaps it’s no coincidence that private schools are mostly single sex, and perhaps a system with more parental choice would tend toward a system with different genders in different classes or different schools.