So the State schools can’t manage to teach the kiddies to read then, eh?

So here’s a little fining that adds to the shine of our glorious state. Despite the fact that we spend some 5% of all of the value created in the country on education each year that glorious state school system can’t actually manage to teach the kiddies to read:

The fear that 1.5 million British children will reach the age of 11 unable to “read well” by 2025 has prompted the launch on Monday of a new campaign backed by a coalition of businesses, charities, bestselling authors and teaching professionals.

The Read On. Get On campaign is aimed at making a radical improvement in reading standards one of the central goals of politics and education in the next decade. It is being spearheaded by Save the Children, the CBI and the Teach First charity and is unusual in the diversity of its supporters – they include authors JK Rowling and Michael Morpurgo plus a host of book publishers, the Sun newspaper and the Premier League.

One aim is to get the main political parties to include in their 2015 manifestos a commitment to improving the reading of the most disadvantaged.

So let’s attempt to draft something for the manifesto of any party that wishes to pick it up shall we?

How about: “Schools that do not manage to teach children to read within a year of that child’s entry to that school will be closed and all of the teachers fired”?

Or perhaps “Schools will teach children the value of self-structured play after they have taught them to read”?

Possibly even: “No teacher will receive a teaching qualification until they have demonstrated that they can teach a 5 year old to read”? With the obvious proviso that all of those who currently have a teaching cert must prove this over the next school holiday?

Something needs to be done after all: that education system does get 5% of everything and the State does claim a rightful monopoly on education (sure, they let a few slip away but they still claim that they should be educating everyone). So why on earth are we letting them get away with not performing their most basic duty?

After all, the Church schools of more than a century ago managed it, why can’t “highly trained well resourced professionals” manage it? Education systems in other countries, many of which get considerably less money, also manage it.

Could it, possibly, just maybe, be because the current school system just isn’t very well run?

Explaining the success of the Finnish education system

It’s a standard enough trope: the Finnish education system does very well so our education system should be just like the Finnish one. Meaning comprehensives for all and put the private education system to death. That is, of course, attractive to those who have been arguing for decades that we should put the private sector education system to death and have comprehensives for all.

There’s an interesting new paper arguing that it really might not be all that simple:

Finland has been noted to perform consistently very well in the international PISA assessments for many years, but it also has a relatively low per capita number of Nobel Prize winners. We draw upon a large body of proxy data and direct evidence, including the first ever use of RTs to calculate the Finnish IQ and the first ever use of the WAIS IV and PISA scores in the same capacity. Based on these data, we hypothesize that Finns perform so consistently well in PISA because they have a higher IQ overall than other European countries and exhibit a specialized slow life history strategy characterized by high Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, and low Psychoticism and Extraversion. Most of these traits predict educational success but all would suppress genius and creativity amongst this population.

If Finnish children are both brighter than those in other countries and also the culture itself supports conscientious hard work then yes, we might well think that that has an impact upon the success of the education system.

Increasing access to private education will add billions to growth

  • The UK’s average annual growth rate between 1960 and 2007 would have been almost 1 percentage point higher had it matched the Netherlands’ long-term level of independent school enrolment since 1960. This in turn means that UK GDP per capita would have been over £5,800 higher in 2007 than it was.
  • Better education boosts economic growth; improving students’ international test scores by 10% raises a country’s average annual growth rate by 0.85 percentage points.
  • UK GDP per capita would have been almost £5,300 higher in 2007 had it performed as well as Taiwan since the mid-twentieth century.

Britain could add billions of pounds to long-term economic growth if it increased access to private education, a new report released today (Tuesday July 29th) by the free-market Adam Smith Institute has found.

The report, “Incentive to Invest: How education affects economic growth”, illustrates how higher educational achievement boosts long-term economic growth, and the important role of private schooling in this process.

Through the use of existing research and new quantitative evidence, the author of the report, Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, establishes that test scores are closely related to growth. Lifting achievement by 10% hikes a country’s average annual growth by 0.85 percentage points.

Furthermore, the report illustrates how competition from independent schools has proven successful in generating higher international test scores, while also driving costs down. Sending 20 percentage points more 15 year olds to independent schools would raise growth by 0.4pp—or about a sixth—via its positive effect on educational achievement.

Based on his findings, Heller Sahlgren calls for the government to radically reform education policy by encouraging more privatisation and competition in the education sector.

Had the UK matched the Netherlands’ long-term level of independent school enrolment since 1960, its GDP per capita would be over £5,800 higher today, the report argues. At a time when policymakers are trying to cement and broaden the economic recovery, the report suggests that expansion of access to private schooling would be an attractive component of a long-term growth strategy.

Commenting on the report, its author Gabriel Heller Sahlgren said:

My research shows that a focus on increasing the number of pupils taking higher qualifications is misguided. There’s in fact no robust impact of average schooling years in the population on economic growth on average.

On the other hand, education quality, proxied by international test scores, has a consistent and strong effect on growth. According to my calculations, the UK’s real GDP per capita in 2007 would have been over £5,000 higher had we performed on par with Taiwan since the mid-20th century. So the dividend of improving children’s attainment is large indeed.

Yet there are different ways to do achieve this. Unlike expensive resource-driven education reforms, which are rarely cost effective, a good option is to raise the level of independent school competition, which other research shows both increases international test scores as well as decreases costs.

According to my calculations, the indirect economic benefit, via higher achievement, of increasing the number of pupils in independent schools to the Netherlands’ level would be a 0.92 percentage point higher long run GDP per capita growth rate. The government should therefore continue their market-based reforms on education and expand choice as widely as possible.

Sam Bowman, Research Director of the Institute, said:

This report shows that we need greater access to private schooling for all pupils regardless of background, not just to improve the welfare of the children themselves but to boost the UK’s overall standard of living and long-term economic growth.

Expanded access to private education through school vouchers and a revival of the assisted places scheme may be an easy, low cost way for the government to boost growth by improving the human capital of British workers. The results may take some time to materialize but studies like this show just how valuable a long-term strategy for expanding access to private schools could be.

Click here to read “Incentive to Invest: How education affects economic growth”.

For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact Kate Andrews, Communications Manager, at kate@adamsmith.org / 07584 778207.

Remind us again why government should run all the schools

This story might cause a little pause for thought:

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.

That story’s too good to want to check if it’s actually true or not. But if it is then why would we continue with an education system that has had more than a century to try to get things right but has manifestly failed to do so?

Quite, Gove and others are onto the right sort of policy, freeing the education system as much as possible from that dead hand of said state.

Idiocracy: a review

Last night I watched Mike Judge’s 2006 film Idiocracy. I enjoyed it a lot. It is basically a dystopian science fiction film with an element of (slightly dark) comedy, but it hides its fairly extreme pessimism and conservatism behind a half-hearted satire on modern society.

It imagines what would happen if the less sharp people in society had substantially more kids than the smarter people—and if this trend carried on for centuries. By 2505 the population has an average IQ of something like 60, and society is crude, degenerate and decadent. It limps on only because the last of technological advances went into automating most of the functions needed for basic survival. The personal narrative is that two people, a man and a woman both selected for their extreme averageness in all attributes, get cryonically frozen, wake up in 2505, and are the smartest people in the world. Hijinks ensue.

It’s a fairly enjoyable film on its own merits, but the really interesting question is whether it says anything about the world we live in. While this sort of thing is extremely uncertain and speculative, arguably it does.

Behavioural genetics tells us, as the film suggests, that (variation in) intelligence is 50-90% driven by genes. And the extent to which intelligence is linked to genes increases through life (suggesting the impact of school & upbringing wears off quickly). This is true for any given socioeconomic class (unless they are exposed to lots of lead pollution, malnutrition or similar big negative environmental shocks). This is true across the world.

iq2

Indeed, a large fraction of this seems to come identifiably through specific alleles or single-nucleotide-polymorphisms (chunks of genetic code). We also know that intelligence correlates with brain volume, also genetically-driven. We even know that the way brain volume changes is substantially genetic. By contrast shared environment (includes family upbringing, and under certain conditions also the effect of school) has around zero effect on IQ/intelligence.

And so the question becomes: are sharper people having fewer kids than the less sharp? Evidence seems to say “yes”, for the USA, UKTaiwan, and generally across the world. Though, it certiainly has to be said, that on the models here (estimating a loss of about .8 IQ points per generation, or perhaps 3 per century), it would take substantially longer than 500 years to get to the idiocratic society.

But wait a second—what about the Flynn Effect? Haven’t measured IQs increased massively over the past hundred years? Aren’t we getting smarter? Sadly, the Flynn Effect may not reflect an improvement in intelligence—once you account for the many ways that people have got better at tests, e.g. through learning to guess when they don’t know the answer. In fact, the tests with a lower “g loading”, i.e. the ones less good at accurately reflecting intelligence, are the ones reporting the biggest Flynn Effects.

This shouldn’t be surprising, because random selection into a better school typically has no positive impact on achievement (though it does have strong negative impacts on crime). But even if the Flynn Effect were, say, reflecting greater education making up for lower genetic intelligence, it seems like we’ve pretty much exhausted its benefits—and it is now going into reverse in the Netherlands, the UK, Finland, and elsewhere. And thus even if phenotypic IQ (i.e. as measured by tests), and not genetic IQ, is “what matters”, we can’t hope that extra education will make up for duller genetics in the future.

iq1

And we have independent reasons to think that genetic IQ might be “what matters”. While it is phenotypic IQ that correlates with, e.g. homicides, this relationship is seriously confounded by the fact that medical technology has advanced substantially over the period. Without these advances, homicides would be five times higher (on a static analysis—it’s possible that the extra who would have been killed, but survived, would have themselves committed extra homicides).  And it is genetic IQ that appears to be associated with social advances, innovation, science, technology and so on. Were the Victorians smarter than us? Though the linked paper has been criticised, their response to their critics is persuasive enough that we should take the idea seriously.

If this is all true (and certainly that is itself a contested step) should we be worried? This is the most interesting question for me. Thankfully, there are two families of technologies that I see as potentially solving this problem.

The first is artificial wombs. One of the main causes of reduced fertility among the smart, as documented in Idiocracy’s excellent opening third, is the cost of having children. This cost is not just in terms of feeding, clothing and looking after them, nor even buying more expensive houses to get into better schools, but also in terms of labour market potential—much of the gender wage gap appears when women take time out to have & raise kids, and a large fraction of the rest may come because women expect to take this time out (and thus invest less in human capital). We know that people really do respond to things that make having kids cheaper. Technologies that drastically reduce the cost to smart women of bearing kids could be one way of arresting the alarming trend.

The second is genetic engineering in all its forms. If we can pick embryos, or even engineer people’s DNA, then we could feasibly (after lots more research!) make sure that kids are smart even if their parents are not. While Idiocracy does not mention “my” first solution, it dismisses this one, explaining that the remaining smart people in society spend their precious time perfecting cures for hair loss and impotence.

But I’m much more optimistic than Mike Judge (hopefully rationally!)–I have almost unlimited faith in the ability of human ingenuity to overcome big threats to society. I feel confident we’ll either develop the aforementioned technologies, or in their stead something completely different and entirely unpredictable that solves the issue. And if our best minds do spend their time solving erectile dysfunction—as in Idiocracy—who knows, that might help solve the problem!

UPDATE: Jaymans says this trend may have reversed for the most recent cohort!