School choice: first evidence to prove long-term benefits

A report released this month by 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, varying by quality, persist far 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 enrol 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 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 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 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.

Getting educated – like it’s the 21st century

Innovative independent institutions are for those who can afford it and the rest will make do with the stagnant state school system: a status quo forthcoming generations should accept no more. An education revolution is on the horizon and Scotland, following its anticlimactic devolution of education, could lead the change. Solutions to the present state have existed for decades and – if actualised – promise to reinvent the way schooling is viewed for good. The rise of ideas meriting attention must coincide with resolved political leadership to eliminate inertia impeding the education model’s evolution.

Shuffling taxpayers’ money back and forth between priorities has left us at a dead-end off the path to progress. Free university tuition fees for the wealthiest in Scotland are funded by taxes from the pockets of school-leavers who have gone straight into the job market. College places – the stepping stone to higher education for many young people – have suffered drastic decline after a sudden culling of courses. The Scottish government now funds free school meals for every child, regardless of need, until Primary 3. Meanwhile the poorest are taxed on almost half their income.

Politicians with the guts to be radical in education are scarce but an alternative to spending more money is necessary. Improving the quality of state schools from the heart of government has failed, and when not completely, has failed to achieve anywhere near the success possible if the public had the freedom to choose their schools. This includes, most importantly, having the pick of the private sector’s offerings. The idea is straightforward: individuals choose the best educational options available to them with their own interests in mind. A demand for the best quality schools that inevitably ensues is met on the supply side by a multiplication of the best schools and practices. The poorest schools and outdated methods become null and void, unwanted, and die out faster.

Placing choice in the hands of those the decision affects generally does not fail to deliver the goods. Products, services and technology once only enjoyed by the wealthy are now widespread and accessible for the common man. But education has not evolved like everything else. So rare are independent schools that most of the existing tiny private sector is branded elitist. And so self-deprecating are we encouraged to react to our great educational institutions that the recurring “Should private schools be banned?” debate is taken seriously and considered the only radical option. One day, these leading independent schools, though it will require us to be radical in the opposite direction, could be accessible to the average person too.

School vouchers is the practical policy in which this school choice could take shape. The voucher would be a means of subsidising the child as the consumer; instead of subsidising the state’s provision as happens now. Accountability and efficiency have so far been lost while politicians spend other people’s money on other people’s education. Each voucher would represent the cost of the state educating the child. Of course there are then many ways the policy can be created to cater to various factors and income backgrounds. First proposed by Milton Friedman all the way back in the 1960s, school vouchers have featured in UK Party manifestos but have never come to fruition here.

The mantra of Scotland’s current leadership advocates their goal of a fairer Scotland we are all supposed to be striving towards. These are mere words. True fairness is the enhancing of the freedom to choose on the part of everybody. And as it stands this process is not happening. Implementing choice in policy is absolutely imperative as it will not just be conducive to overall improvement of education but it is a tool to innovate and evolve – the key to advancement.

Government loans for master’s students is a risky business

The chancellor announced a student loan system for postgraduate master’s degrees in the Autumn Statement. Although many have praised the move, it risks doing more harm than good.

There are the obvious unintended consequence of encouraging students to undertake courses that aren’t in their (or taxpayers’) best interest, but here I’ll focus on risks to the nascent funding market for postgraduate loans.

It’s certainly a popular policy. As the FT reports: “Universities, unions and business groups have reached rare agreement in welcoming new £10,000 loans intended to ‘revolutionise’ the support available for students taking postgraduate degrees.” But the devil will be in the detail. Just consider the Student Loans Company, which MPs recently requested face an inquiry following the ‘persistent miscalculation’ of money paid out in loans that will not be repaid. But more important than the wasted money, the government’s intervention in the postgraduate student loan market risks crowding out private sector solutions.

The failure of the Professional and Career Development Loans (PCDL), which are already subsidised by the government through the Skills Funding Agency, is principally due to banks being ill-suited to lending to students (and one the main reasons for this is because of excessive banking regulation). The analogy with SME business lending is the right one – students, like SMEs, are risky and banks are no longer best placed to lend to them.

Smaller and leaner companies can fill the gap where banks fear to tread. As we have seen with Santander’s partnership with Funding Circle in SME finance, the banks know that nimble companies have the skills to plug gaps in the market. In fact, entrepreneurial companies like Future Finance, StudentFunder and Prodigy Finance are already responding to the demand for loans for postgraduate studies.

Whether the bulk of the money comes from peer-to-peer (P2P) investors, alumni or universities themselves, the plurality of the private sector would trump the one-size-fits all approach that the government could take. We are on the verge of the equivalent of the funding revolution we are seeing in SME finance but this intervention risks stymieing it.

All is not lost. The government will consult on how to put the policy into practice and here they have the opportunity to do less harm than copying the PCDL model. As with SME finance, the government could funnel the loans through providers already in the marketplace. And, most importantly, government needs an exit strategy so that we don’t see mission creep and the destruction of a private sector solution.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.