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Contra Robinson On Schooling

I.

Nathan Robinson argues against school vouchers: Why Is The Decimation Of Public Schools A Bad Thing?

(note that despite the inflammatory title, he’s arguing that the decimation of public schools is, indeed, a bad thing)

He starts with a meta-level point: most criticisms of Trump’s Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos merely point out that she will promote schools vouchers instead of public schools, expecting their audience to be suitably turned off. But this won’t change the minds of DeVos supporters, whose whole point is that they want more school vouchers. In order to convince people, you’ve got to convince people. If this doesn’t seem like a suitably profound insight to you, the click the link, read the piece, and notice how there’s something weird about it. Is it written in a funny font? Is the computer screen flickering or something? Finally, you realize with dawning horror that this is the first time you’ve read a logical argument, written in good faith and intended to convince someone, in the past you-can’t-remember-how-many months.

But anyway, let me explain why I think it’s wrong.

Robinson says:

Introducing profit into the school system is very dangerous, for a simple reason: it creates a terrible set of incentives. If we hand a voucher to a for-profit private school, or give a large grant to a for-profit charter school, there is a strong incentive for the school to give as little in return as possible. After all, since a for-profit corporation exists to maximize value to shareholders (not value to students), for-profit schools should try to spend as little money educating students as possible, in order to reap the largest financial gains. If you don’t have to spring for new lab equipment or new textbooks, you have no incentive to do so merely because it would benefit the students.

He does note the obvious counterargument, but he’s not convinced:

Privatization advocates have a compelling response to this argument. They reply that it misses the full picture. Yes, corporations have an incentive to maximize shareholder value. But they can’t do that without satisfying their customers. The interests of shareholders and consumers are brought into alignment through the existence of choice. In the case of schools, because parents have a voucher, if the school is not prioritizing its students, parents can simply go elsewhere. Nobody is making them send their students to this particular school. The theory of school choice is about choice, and choice creates competition, which creates quality. A school that simply funneled money to its executives and shareholders would not long maintain its enrollment.

But the theory of choice here is a romantic fiction. In reality, parents will not have many options among which to choose (there are only so many schools within a feasible distance of one’s home, after all) and moving schools can be an extraordinarily disruptive and complicated process that hurts the child. We can also see how, even in theory, it is easy for a privatized school system to simply enrich the wealthy, while making schooling for poor children worse. In a public school system, all money is spent on the schools. In a for-profit school system, at least some portion of that money is directed instead toward the pockets of shareholders (if it wasn’t, the for-profit schools couldn’t continue to exist). And if we have a school district comprised in total of three for-profit elementary schools, and all of them simply pocket most of the voucher money while failing to educate the children, then no matter what “choices” among schools parents make, they won’t be able to improve the quality of the schools. One might expect new operators to enter the market, but if the only way to make any real money on the children is to neglect them, then new operators won’t be any better than the old ones.

This is a good point, made somewhat weaker by failure to consider why it doesn’t apply to everything else.

Robinson compares school vouchers to foodstamps, which are basically “food vouchers” to be redeemed at grocery stores. I often see poor people using food stamps at my own grocery store, so I know the quality of service these poor people get for their money. And it is really good. Practically all grocery stores are really good. There’s a story about Boris Yeltsin coming to America for the first time, walking into a random grocery store, seeing that random middle-class Americans had a better selection of goods than the highest-status Soviet officials, and freaking out that this was some kind of weird Potemkin economy that the Americans had set up to demoralize him. Grocery stores don’t just have fifty different kinds of cereal and a hundred different kinds of soda, they’re also really cheap. You can buy a day’s worth of food for an hour’s minimum-wage work, maybe two hours if you want a little quality and variety.

So why don’t grocery store shareholders leech off so much money that everything is overpriced and has terrible service? Why aren’t stores dingy and full of rats? Why don’t we have a world where, as Robinson argues, the theory of choice is a romantic fiction because all of the grocery-related options available to poor people are terrible, and no new operators can do a better job because the only way to make money in the grocery business is to shaft customers and have a terrible store selling rice mixed with sawdust?

Something like 48% of Americans are satisfied with the education system in the US. My guess is 100% of Americans are satisfied with the grocery system in the US. Why should this be?

My guess: the loss from profits matters less than the gain in efficiency.

Profit margins are a specific number. You can just look them up. Usually they’re not very big. Once you look up that number, you know how much profit the company is making. After that, you’ve circumscribed “the dangers of profit” to a relatively small amount.

An example: Health care in this country is overpriced and everyone knows it. Some people think this is because greedy insurance companies are charging too much in order to make a profit.

But health insurance companies have a profit margin of about 3% (see caveats here, but I do think the 3% number is the one relevant to this discussion). This is a big deal in terms of absolute number of dollars. But it’s not a big deal if you’re wondering how much they affect health care costs. If you’re paying $5,000 a year for health insurance, then take away all profit motive from the insurance companies and you would pay $4850 a year for health insurance. This is less than year-to-year variation, let alone any of the components that actually matter.

Insurance companies aren’t callously throwing sick people out on the street for profitability reasons, they’re callously throwing sick people out on the street because they can only pay as much money as their customers give them and that isn’t enough to fund as much health care as people need. Or, well, maybe out of the people they callously throw out on the street, 3% are for profit and the other 97% are of necessity.

The same is true of other famously predatory businesses like payday lenders. Wikipedia notes:

In a profitability analysis by Fordham Journal of Corporate & Financial Law, it was determined that the average profit margin from seven publicly traded payday lending companies (including pawn shops) in the U.S. was 7.63%, and for pure payday lenders it was 3.57%. These averages are less than those of other traditional lending institutions such as credit unions and banks. Comparatively the profit margin of Starbucks for the measured time period was just over 9%, and comparison lenders had an average profit margin of 13.04%. These comparison lenders were mainstream companies: Capital One, GE Capital, HSBC, Money Tree, and American Express Credit.

Payday lenders aren’t charging outrageous interest rates so they can get fat off the profits. They’re charging outrageous interest rates because loaning money to poor people who often fail to pay back their loans is a hard business to break even on.

Now apply this logic to private schools. You think they’re going to ruin everything by funneling more and more money into their own profitability? I propose that about 11% of their funding would go to profit, the same as current private schools. Actually less than that, since most current private schools serve rich people who don’t care about outrageous markups as long as they can buy prestige.

But isn’t 11% still more than nothing? If private schools cost the same amount of money as public schools, but 11% of that went to shareholder profits, wouldn’t our children receive an 11% worse education?

Or to put it another way – what are we buying with that 11% of the education budget?

The hope would be that we’re buying efficiency.

Robinson writes:

Let’s consider what the conservative argument on schooling actually is. It goes like this: government-run institutions tend to function poorly. They are not efficient, like businesses are, because they do not have incentives to perform well. Businesses, because they must compete for customers in a market environment, must offer the best products if they want to stay profitable. Governments, on the other hand, can offer crappy products, and because they are state-imposed monopolies, there is no way for consumers to go elsewhere. School choice will improve schools, because instead of forcing students to attend whatever school the government happens to offer, choice allows parents to decide which school they prefer. Schools will have to strive to be better and better, because parents can pull their students out and go elsewhere if they don’t like them. Introducing a profit motive into schooling offers a powerful incentive for schools to offer a great product. If there is money to be made on being a good school, you can bet businesses will want to provide great schools. Thus private, for-profit schools with vouchers are a highly efficient way of delivering the best-quality education.

He counters that “introducing profit into the school system is very dangerous”, but never really says that the argument above is wrong. So we’re looking at a tradeoff here. There’s the dangers of profit and the promises of better efficiency. If profits aren’t going to take too much money out of the system, might the gain from efficiency be worth the small cost?

Here is a graph by the Cato Institute – note that this is already adjusted for inflation:

In case you don’t trust them, here’s Politifact rating a similar claim mostly true, although they get slightly different numbers using a different methodology.

What are we to make of this? It’s not that teachers are getting paid any more – their salaries have remained stagnant over the time involved and they may even have lost ground compared to other professions. It’s not that school buildings cost more – I don’t have good data on schools in particular, but I looked into skyscrapers and found there wasn’t any general rise in construction prices. So how is an activity which basically involves getting a bunch of kids into a building and throwing a teacher at them rising so dramatically in the absence of changes in building or teacher prices? I’ve only heard three theories:

The first theory is that student test scores are improving, but we’re stuck in a Simpson’s Paradox. That is, students of some racial groups get higher scores than others, every racial group’s score is improving, but a higher percent of students are in low-performing racial groups now which is bringing the average down. But it looks like race-specific scores are also stagnant (1, 2), with the possible exception of a jump for blacks between 1980 and 1990. Given that no other ethnic group had this jump and school spending has increased at a constant rate the whole time, I think this is more likely socioeconomic factors than education spending.

The second theory is that all this extra money has been used to help previously underserved special needs kids. But these kids apparently cost about twice as much as average to educate. Up to 13% of students are special needs, although I don’t know if that’s the same definition of “special needs” as the people calculating the cost used. But if we take that as our estimate, then providing extra services to special needs kids can explain a rise of 13% in education costs, but not the 150% we actually see.

The third theory is Wilde’s Law: “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.”

One argument in favor: the same thing that’s happening to primary education is happening to college education. College costs about 4x as much (inflation-adjusted) as it did in 1980.

This is not because of decreased government subsidization. It’s not going to shareholders – most colleges are nonprofits and even public institutions have seen outsized increases. And although I don’t have any equivalent to the flat-lining test scores from primary school, today’s college students don’t seem to be four times better-educated than those of yore. So where did all that money go?

I don’t think anybody knows. There are whole studies that have been done on this. Every so often people argue about it on the editorial pages. Some people say “administration”, other people say it’s not exactly administration but it’s something else. I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem to be Simpson’s Paradox or special needs kids.

A lot of smart people think that easy availability of student loans fueled college cost increases – see eg here. The theory was that colleges could charge more money, so they did. I definitely don’t understand how this works economically, but it seems like somehow easy availability of money combined with lack of real competitive pressure caused colleges to increase administration and pass the cost on to students. Maybe something similar happened in primary schools?

If this third hypothesis of increased primary school costs is true, then going back to the level of bureaucracy we had in 1970 would cut costs by 75% while maintaining similar test scores. Or it would allow us to keep costs constant and pay for things that actually work.

The point is, private schools lose 11% of their funding to shareholder profit, and public schools apparently lose 75% of their funding to, uh, nobody really knows.

Do private schools also lose 75% of their funding to nobody-knows, since I don’t see many of them around as cheap as schools were in 1980? I’m not sure. Arnold Kling does some calculations here and suggests that private schools should have really big profit margins. But they apparently don’t. Overall I admit I am confused on this issue. But I am a little more hopeful that private schools might be able to work this issue out than that public schools can. [EDIT: see note at bottom of post]

It may seems kind of bloodless to focus on cost. But the amount of money added to the public school budget without any change in outcomes is more than enough to house every homeless person in the country in style and comfort. Money matters. And when we talk about private schools being obsessed with profit, that’s an argument about money. It’s acknowledging that every dollar diverted to shareholders is a dollar that isn’t going to improving education, housing the homeless, or something else useful.

Robinson writes:

It’s because the things needed by poor people, if done well, will never be money-makers. Introducing an incentive to make money will necessarily mean exploiting and neglecting the poor, whose “choices” are highly constrained by their circumstances. I fear privatization not because of some mystical devotion to the inefficiencies of government but because I fear the erosion of the idea of education as something that isn’t win-win, that we give to children because they deserve it rather than because we can profit from it. I worry that the sort of people who run things “like a business” do not really care about children very much, and are motivated by the wrong incentives. I am concerned about what would happen if they ever faced a choice between doing the right thing and doing the lucrative thing.

With all due respect, I think there is something mystical in this thought process, some demon best exorcised with a bell, candle, and Public Choice Theory textbook. There’s no object called The System, which is focused on profit in businesses and focused on education in public services. There’s just a bunch of people motivated by a combination of ethics, incentives, and trying not to get fired. Business isn’t antithetical to caring – the average family doctor is motivated by desire to help patients, even though she’s also a small business. And lack of a profit motive doesn’t guarantee good behavior – it looks like the administrators of nonprofit colleges decided to spend their windfall on prestige and empire-building rather than on keeping costs low.

I have very low confidence in this. I know many people who are involved in education, and they are all very good people who are very passionate and definitely would never skim 75% off the top and use it to buy gold-plated yachts for themselves. In my home state of California, there was a big funding shortfall ten years ago, and schools tried to cut everything they could, but finally they said there was nothing left to cut and they had no more ideas, and I believe that they tried as hard as they could. If bureaucracy is inflating the price of schooling, it’s not doing so in an obvious way where you can point a finger at the exact bureau involved.

But it might be a general ethos of inefficiency that makes a lot of little things add up – I know it is in health care. And I at least think it would be worth trying the experiment.

(I realize the experiment is already being tried, with wildly varying results based on the specifics. I want to look into this research in more depth soon to see if there are any consistent trends.)

II.

A digression to support my point that sometimes increased efficiency can compensate for money diverted into profits – what about hospitals?

Hospitals are about evenly split between for-profit and not-for-profit institutions. Measuring “hospital quality” is even harder than measuring school quality, but researchers have tried to do this on various metrics. The results are hard to sum up, and I was only able to find a few studies and not anyone’s magisterial summation of the field, but it looks like there are minimal differences between for-profit and non-profit private hospitals, with government hospitals doing worst of all:

— A team from Harvard finds that for-profits and non-profits have about equal quality, and government-owned hospitals are worse than either. A follow-up study by the same team finds non-profit hospitals becoming for-profit is not associated with a drop in care.

Truven Health Analytics finds some advantages for church-owned nonprofit hospitals, with secular nonprofit hospitals and for-profit hospitals in the middle, and government-owned hospitals worst of all. Note that this is my interpretation of a lot of different data and you might want to look at the particular metrics they use to draw your own conclusions.

A textbook on the hospital industry finds that “on average, the performance of non-profit hositals in treating elderly patients with heart disease appears to be slightly better than that of for-profit hospitals, even after accounting for systematic differences…however, this small average difference masks an enormous amount of variation in hospital quality within the for-profit and not-for-profit hospital groups.”

— A study in a cardiology journal found “no evidence that for-profit hospitals selectively treat less sick patients, provide less evidence-based care, limit in-hospital stays, or have patients with worse acute outcomes than nonprofit centers”.

— As per the Handbook Of Health Economics:

The most rigorous and extensive study of large-scale empirical study of quality published to date that permits comparisons of quality by hospital ownership is by Keeler and co-authors (1992). They used two process measures of quality based on reviews of 14,000 medical record for five diseases in five states. One of this “explicit process” gauged the extent to which the charts showed that specific diagnostic and therapeutic procedures were performed competently. Rather than focus on particular elements of care as explicit process did, a second process measure, “implicit process,” measured the care process overall. For example, one of their implicit process questions to physician reviewers was: “Based on what you now know about this case, would you send your mother to this hospital?” In addition, they gauged quality on an outcome measure — the difference between actual mortality and the rate that would be expected based on the patient’s characteristics.

They found no difference in quality between private not-for-profit and for-profit hospitals on two indicators, excess mortality and explicit process; public hospitals fared worse on both criteria. However, on a third measure, implicit process, there was a statistically significant difference between quality of care of private not-for-profit hospitals and the other two ownership types, indicating higher quality levels for the for profits. The authors appear to have been more persuaded by the results on the first two indicators, stating that “nonprofit and for-profit hospitals provide similar quality overall”

In their national study of 981 hospitals in 1983-84, Shortell and Hughes (1988) found no difference in quality measured in terms of mortality by ownership. However, using fewer covariates, Hartz et al. (1989) did find that mortality was higher in for-profit than in private not-for-profit hospitals.

Sloan and co-authors (1998a,1998b, 1998c) examined outcomes of care of elderly persons hospitalized for one of four conditions: hip fracture; stroke; coronary heart disease; and congestive heart failure. They analyzed the first admission for these conditions since patients with a first unanticipated major health shock are less likely to shop among hospitals. Their outcome measures were survival, functional status, cognitive status, and living arrangements (probability of living in a nursing home). Although, on some measures, patients admitted to major teaching hospitals did better, a result consistent with Keeler et al. (1992), there were no statistically significant differences in outcomes between non-teaching private not-for-profit and for-profit hospitals. On some measures, elderly patients admitted to non-teaching government hospitals had worse outcomes, holding a large number of other factors constant.

So it looks like the differences between for-profit and not-for-profit hospitals are pretty slight, and that government hospitals are likely worse than either. This should be equally confusing to people who believe that the profit motive is invariably destructive and to people who believe it invariably results in better service.

This would be a good time to note that, contrary to the impression one might get from the Current Affairs article, only 13% of charter schools are for-profit. So a system with vouchers and charter school would probably be most like private non-profit hospitals, which these studies also show as doing well, and as decisively better than government-run hospitals. Also, everything I’ve talked about up to this point is mostly irrelevant. Maybe I should have started by mentioning this.

III.

From the same article:

There are other serious problems with the “gutting” of public schools. As we have argued before in Current Affairs, converting public schools to a voucher system makes education operate similarly to food stamps. After all, SNAP benefits operate roughly the same way: instead of giving people food, we give them the equivalent of money, which they then use to go and buy food. A voucher program does the same for schooling: instead of giving them schools, we give them a voucher, which they can use to go and find a private school. But look what happens with food stamps: the moment you start handing out a “voucher,” conservatives start seeing it as some kind of unearned “handout.” Pressure then develops to cut the handout. Is there any reason to think that “education stamps” would be subjected to less cost-cutting political pressure than food stamps? A serious problem with voucher programs is that they erode the idea of education as a fundamental right, instead making it seem like a privilege that one does not necessarily deserve. But education should be a right, because children cannot help the circumstances of their birth, and should therefore not be punished for their parents’ poverty.

I think this is drawing the wrong lesson from education’s popularity relative to food stamps. Robinson thinks conservatives like one-size-fits-all handouts, but not voucher handouts. I think conservatives like universal handouts, but not handouts to the poor.

Imagine a world where food stamps are replaced by the Federal Food Agency. Every week, a truck comes to poor people’s houses and gives them a one-size-fits-all food package that the government believes satisfies their nutritional needs. Do you think conservatives would be any happier with this than they are with food stamps? For that matter, did conservatives support public housing projects any more or less than they support housing vouchers now?

On the other hand, Medicare remains popular even though it’s essentially a voucher. Patients with Medicare choose their doctor, choose their hospital, and then Medicare pays for it. But because everyone expects to benefit someday, it has pretty broad bipartisan support; even its critics mostly want to change rather than eliminate it.

I don’t think changing public education from a service to a voucher would change whether people support it or not.

IV.

So I disagree with Robinson’s specific arguments. But there are some things that worry me about school vouchers.

First, the hospital case study is kind of ambiguous. Although for-profit hospitals aren’t noticeably worse than not-for-profit, they’re also not noticeably better. And the existence of for-profit hospitals hasn’t started some kind of virtuous cycle where all hospitals compete to save money and provide better care that ends up with hospitals being lean and inexpensive and just as accessible as grocery stores. Having a field be open to competition isn’t necessarily incompatible with it being overpriced and inefficient. And commenters point out that existing private schools are not generally 75% cheaper than public schools, suggesting that cost-cutting is hard.

Second, Robinson notes later that:

Privatization schemes are also heavily dependent on the existence of highly astute parents, who have the time and inclination to carefully study schools. The most vulnerable children are unlikely to have such parents. And we can imagine a system in which private schools offer parents $100 out of the voucher money if they agree to enroll their children. Desperate and uncaring parents might snap up the cash, with the neediest children ending up in the most vicious, uncaring, profit-grubbing schools.

I doubt there would be such blatant kickbacks – they’d be illegal and I don’t think they’ve happened on other voucher programs like food stamps – but his point that many parents are ignorant or malicious is well-taken. You don’t need literal bribery to get schools which are very good at having flashy ad campaigns but not very good at education. Parents might not check the test scores of a smooth-sounding school any more than they check the health care grades of their local hospital. The worst-case scenario is schools associated with cults or fringe political ideologies that prey on the children of people who believe them, either out of genuine fanaticism or a cynical calculation that fanatics are easy to milk.

Third, the whole point of Trumpism is that once we have fewer immigrants we can create a culturally cohesive community where everybody shares some core values. But the school system – as fractured and diverse as it is – is really one of the only institutions responsible for instilling some basic civic values in everyone and making sure they’re all on the same page. I do not put it past people to start sending their kids to schools that teach liberal values or conservative values in particular, and then one of the few (albeit mostly ineffective) brakes on further polarization is removed. On the other hand, Catholic school is already sort of like this and they don’t seem to be some weird foreign cancer on the body politic, so maybe it’s not such a big deal?

Fourth, vouchers could worsen class segregation. Maybe not too much, because everyone already goes to public schools in their own class-segregated neighborhood anyway. But at least there’s a little socioeconomic diversity now. And with vouchers, there’s a risk of deliberate sorting/signaling, where if everyone gets a voucher for $10,000, decent schools will charge $15,000 just to sell the “privilege” of going to a school without poor students. That is, in the same way people will pay extra for a house in a gated community because they worry poor people make bad neighbors, they might pay extra for a spot in a more-expensive school because they worry poor people will make bad classmates. A little bit of this segregation goes a long way, because if enough people do this then the exactly-$10,000 schools will only have poor people, in much the same way that a little bit of racial segregation goes a long way.

(I don’t know much about proposed voucher systems, but I wonder if it would be possible to have a system where you’re not allowed to combine the voucher with your own money. That is, if you get a $10,000 voucher, you can go to a school charging $10,000. But if you want to go to a school charging $11,000, you have to throw away the voucher and pay the whole price out of pocket.)

To all these downsides we would have to add one very big upside – it destroys the incentive to overspend on/segregate housing in order to get into a “good school district”. Elizabeth Warren has argued this is primarily behind the secular rise in real estate prices that has undermined the economic position of the middle class for the past fifty years. This factor could easily be more important than everything else combined and might make school vouchers a plus even if they seriously worsened the quality of education.

Overall my thoughts on school vouchers are the same as my thoughts on pretty much everything in this category: let’s experiment. Figure out a window of acceptable possibilities that are reversible and don’t have too much risk, and let different states and areas try different ones. As we start to understand things better, extend the window of possibilities in the relevant direction. Check results. Rinse. Repeat. Then figure something out.

V.

Finally, one more point from the article that deserves its own discussion:

If we have a school district comprised in total of three for-profit elementary schools, and all of them simply pocket most of the voucher money while failing to educate the children, then no matter what “choices” among schools parents make, they won’t be able to improve the quality of the schools. One might expect new operators to enter the market, but if the only way to make any real money on the children is to neglect them, then new operators won’t be any better than the old ones.

It’s important because lack of good competition is indeed the bane of all of these sorts of industries. Economic theory predicts that in a perfectly competitive environment businesses will be pretty good; it is much less sure of itself in these sorts of three-school districts without enough competition to have much effect.

In the real world, someone will have to empirically determine how much this matters. In my own fantasy world, I have a solution that the new Education Secretary probably won’t be on board with: Let’s let random people open tiny schools.

Something like 3% of parents home-school their children. This cuts across class and racial lines better than you’d think. All the research shows that home-schooled students do much better than traditionally schooled students on standardized tests, college admission exams, college GPAs, and general life satisfaction as adults. This is probably unfair, because home-schooled students are the descendents of the sort of thoughtful conscientious parents who want to home-school their children, so they probably have a big genetic advantage. But there is at least absolutely no evidence that home-schooling makes anyone do any worse.

The average cost per pupil per year in the US is something like $10,000. So suppose we give everyone $10,000 school vouchers. A parent who wants to make the median US yearly income of $30,000 would have to teach three students. Add in some overhead and curriculum costs, and maybe it’s more like five students.

So imagine. A woman has a kid and decides she doesn’t want to go back to work and leave the kid in daycare for eighteen years. She takes some test, clears some regulatory hurdle, promises that she’ll clear a certain bar on her kids’ standardized test scores, and registers as an approved school. Then she gets a couple of friends and neighbors who trust her to send their kids to her too. Maybe her husband works outside the home, so she doesn’t even need five. She’s happy with two or three (I think it would be important that you can’t make any money by educating your own kid; otherwise the incentive is to keep them out of school and pretend to be educating them yourself). Then she tutors them in a class a fifth the size of comparable public school classes.

If you’re an actual, qualified teacher, maybe you can get ten or twenty kids who are interested. That’s $100,000 to $200,000, minus your overhead, much more than qualified teachers make today with a much lower class size. Remember, for the majority of American history, kids were taught by a member of the community in a one room schoolhouse, and that was the system that produced Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, et cetera.

(and remember that all the research shows that formal teacher training and level of teacher credentialing has zero effect on how well teachers teach kids)

This would provide provide a means of self-directed, boss-free income for millions of people, including undercredentialled poor people, disabled people who can’t leave the home, people in rural areas, and especially young mothers. It would rebuild community ties. And it would ensure no one ever has to worry about districts with only three schools, or even districts with only thirty schools.

I don’t know. Probably there’s some sort of horrible flaw that I’m missing. But I still think the moral of the story is to experiment more. And school vouchers might be a good start.

EDIT: From the comments: “At my independent non-profit high school we have reduced the cost per student-year down to $3,000. Despite this budget we are able to offer the students many opportunities that public schools don’t. Art classes like glassblowing and copper and silversmithing, advanced science curricula like organic and biochemistry, health class vastly more informative that the state requirements, zero bullying enforced by a self-organized student culture, I could go on all day. For comparison the average cost for nearby school districts is $17,000 per high schooler-year and offer a fraction of the services we provide.”

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606 Responses to Contra Robinson On Schooling

  1. Rhys F says:

    The point is, private schools lose 11% of their funding to shareholder profit, and public schools apparently lose 75% of their funding to, uh, nobody really knows.

    Correct me if I’m misinterpreting the data here, but don’t private schools lose 11% to profit, and 75% of the remaining 89% to Mysterious Bureaucracy? If private schools lost 11% to profit but were otherwise efficient, I’d expect them to be wildly cheaper than any public school.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think the cost of a year of private school is a little less than the cost of a year of public school, all things considered, even though private schools make more profit, suggesting some efficiency gains. I agree that they’re not 75% cheaper and I agree that I’m confused by this.

      • Evan Þ says:

        Remember that private schools are still subject to a whole lot of bureaucratic regulations that weren’t in place forty years ago, even though fewer than public schools. My guess is that’s where (a lot of) the money being poured into public schools is going, and it also explains this differential.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I wish somebody who supports this claim would add up the cost of complying with every regulation and see if the math checks out. Someone should convince the Cato Institute to work on this.

          If true it suggests limited ability for charter schools to save much money.

          • Evan Þ says:

            That’s a very good topic for a study, and I have no idea whether anyone’s done it. Of course, they’d need to judge what counts as a regulation, and then tease out regulation costs bundled in other things – e.g. higher construction costs because of more stringent fireproofing standards.

            On the other hand, even if that is the case, that says nothing about whether charter schools could improve educational outcomes over public schools. (And are charter schools even subject to all the same regulations in the first place? I had a vague idea they got somewhat-looser standards, at least in NC where I grew up.)

          • Antistotle says:

            For people with kids the point of charter schools isn’t to “save much money”, it is to “increase product quality” and to have some say in what their child learns.

            As mentioned before, my wife dropped out of the workforce to stay home and raise and educate our child, at least until middle school (although I want her to go to High school so she gets the standard dose of trauma and drama that she needs to be a properly broken and damaged adult). We are going to be moving Jefferson County in a few months (we hope) and are wanting to put her in https://www.goldenviewclassical.org/ when the time comes.

            Education has never been, and cannot be a one-process-fits all industrial model. Back when that style seemed to work we had a lot of jobs for the kind of person who “didn’t take to book learnin” and left school “early” to go into the trades or military, and a lot more respect for tradesmen (less for factory workers, but hey).

            Robinson whines that under a Voucher/Charter scheme people “will not have many options” . Right now most of them have NO options. A Choice between Coke and Water is better than no choice at all.

        • Deiseach says:

          My guess is that’s where (a lot of) the money being poured into public schools is going

          Things like public liability insurance, which was breathtakingly expensive when I was working in a school about eight years ago and probably hasn’t gotten any cheaper since. I don’t know about America but there were very few insurance companies who handled such policies for schools, so it’s not really “shop around for the best price” because they won’t be much cheaper.

          I’m sure there are lots of these kinds of costs in American schools; money in does not simply go on “teachers’ salaries plus classroom equipment”.

          I also wonder in schools where they need security guards and metal detectors, are those more hidden costs? Apart from having to pay for this level of security, their insurance premia must be sky-high (“okay, so since we know it’s very likely anyone walking onto your campus is at risk of being stabbed since you’re putting your students through metal detectors, your premium for the compulsory coverage will be – well, better sit down first before I give you a quote”).

      • YehoshuaK says:

        I would like to suggest an interpretation of the perceived rough equality between for-profit and not-for-profit hospitals.

        When I studied accounting, I was taught that in doing the books for a not-for-profit business, we have to have a way to account for money brought in in excess of expenses, and that we cannot call it “profit.” Therefore, we called it “excess income from operations.”

        The idea is that nobody–not a plumbing shop, not a hospital, and not a church–tries to operate in such a way that less money comes in than goes out, and nobody can make them balance, so everybody seeks to have more money coming in than the other way. When we say that a given business is not-for-profit (for example, a church, some hospitals, some schools), we are simply saying that we are going to call the difference between income and outgo by a different word or phrase.

        Well, what happens to that money? It doesn’t go to shareholders in dividends, that is true. In large part, I expect it goes to pad the compensation of the people in charge of the not-for-profit. Nicer office furniture, a company car, more paid days off, larger paycheck, and so forth. The point is, it still ends up being consumed by the people in charge; we just find different words, we don’t call them “shareholders” receiving “dividends,” but “staff” receiving “compensation.”

        So it seems to me that not-for-profit versus for-profit is more or less a mirage, and there’s no special reason to expect not-for-profit schools, hospitals, etc., to be less competitively motivated than their for-profit peers.

        The real distinction, in my mind, is between organizations subject to competition and those which are not, the latter consisting almost exclusively of organizations that possess some form of government-granted monopoly.

        • Jules says:

          Having worked on the finances of several non-profits, I can tell you that “excess revenue” is not systematic or seen as a free-for-all. Costs are scrutinized just like in a for-profit, including administrative costs.
          What you do with remaining cash is either put it aside for the years when you do have losses or do additional projects and investments that add value.

          • YehoshuaK says:

            So you disagree with me, and in your disagreement you state that not-for-profits scrutinize costs *just like* for profits? I’m not sure how that’s disagreeing.

            You note that some money is put aside for more difficult times or reinvested to projects that (hopefully) add value. Again, I’m not sure how that’s different from a for-profit, which also wants a cushion against difficult times and also wants to build and improve the business.

          • Jules says:

            I do agree about the similarities that you stressed between for-profit and non-profit.
            I disagree about the idea that excess income that would go to dividends in a for-profit goes to staff compensation in non-profits.
            In fact, my experience is that staff is less compensated in non-profits because they are expected to be in it for the cause rather than the money.

            In any well-run non-profit, that money goes to projects and reserves.

          • massivefocusedinaction says:

            In college, my school’s bookstore was student faculty owned, so the board was mostly students. I ran unopposed for the board, as a resume builder, and in the year I looked at their finances on an in depth basis, I concur with Jules. Excess income during was being saved for a renovation (to match the schedule of the university building where they rented space), otherwise more excess income meant a larger discount for student purchases (we were a non-profit co-op). Costs were pretty carefully controlled, similar to any other business of similar size I’ve encountered, though as a co-op they were more like a for profit than other types of non-profits.

            On a side note and as a transfer to the school, being student owned meant a real difference in prices, mostly on the used book purchases (my prior university gave a third party buyer access and prices were rock bottom). For books being re-used the student owned bookstore paid a much higher percentage.

        • Aapje says:

          @YehoshuaK

          Both for-profit and non-profit businesses do not have to always make a profit, because they keep capital buffers and/or can make loans. This invalidates your assumptions and answers your question where any profits made by non-profit go (into the buffer).

          Non-profits tend to focus on keeping their capital buffer at the optimal level, rather than seek to make a profit.

          For example:

          A non-profit has a a buffer at the optimal level at the beginning of 2015. Their business model is to sell their goods/services at cost. The forecast for 2015 is that a price of $100 will result in $0 profit excess income. After the year is over, it turns out that their expenses were actually higher, so they ended up $10k short. So now their buffer is $10k too small. For 2016, their one-year target is an excess income of $10k, to refill their buffer. They forecast that a price of $101 will achieve that. At the end of 2016, they see that they got $20k excess income, so they overshot and their buffer is $10k too big now. So the next year they can afford a loss of $10k and set their price accordingly. Ad infinitum.

          Of course, this is just one example of how it can be done. Another common method is that non-profits have ventures that make a profit and those that make a loss. Then the profit that is made on the for-profit ventures determines how much can be spent on ventures that make a loss.

          Endowment based charities, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, use this model, for example. The foundation invests its wealth and the investment profits get used to fund charity projects that merely cost money.

          As for the differences between for-profit and non-profit:
          – In my first example, the price of the goods/services are set at cost, not at what the market would bear, or what maximizes profit. A for-profit would generally not do this.
          – In my second example, the non-profit seeks to maximize the loss-generating ventures that it can undertake, while still remaining viable. A for-profit would generally not do this.

          So the main difference between for-profit and non-profit is that the latter allows corporations to have goals that are different from ‘maximize profits.’

        • eccdogg says:

          I am not sure that the profits of private enterprise vs non profits vs public is exactly apples to oranges.

          All institutions have financing needs to provide capital to the institution.

          In for profit institutions that capital is provided with a mix of debt and equity. Interest is paid on the debt and dividends are paid on the equity.

          In institutions where there is no equity financing is provided by 100% debt or equity provided by customers (a co-oop with membership fees for example), employees, or donors. If it is 100% debt financed the debt cost increase would have to be compared against the cost of profits. If the equity comes from customers then they have lost opportunity cost on their money.

          The same can be said for public schools. Say the govt wants to build and new school and issues 10 million of bonds to pay for it @4% the apples to apples comparison would be to a for profit school with 8 million in debt @4% and 2 million in equity with say a 5% dividend.

          Public institutions don’t have cost from profits but they do have increased cost from having to issue debt for 100% of their financing.

          • eccdogg says:

            Apples to Apples (not Oranges)

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Yes I agree. Profits of for-profit firms pay for the capital provided. Government and not-for-profits have capital requirements also. This capital is paid for either by interest or is contributed by someone (or taxpayers). The interest is is very analogous to profits. Donations don’t cost as much to the non-profit, but the donor pays for the loss of their capital, so the cost to society is the same.

          • Mark is making an important point. “Profit” can refer to a variety of different things. One of them is the return on capital. In the simple case of a perfectly competitive industry with complete knowledge, the firm’s profit in the sense of revenue minus cost of inputs is competed down to the market return on the firm’s capital, meaning that economic profit, which includes the cost of capital as a cost, is in equilibrium zero.

            The fact that a private firm has to make a profit doesn’t mean its costs are higher than those of a public firm, since the costs of the public firm, such as a public school, also include the cost of the capital it used. Someone had to build the school. If a private firm is doing better than average it has profit above that–i.e. positive economic profit. If worse than average, below–negative economic profit.

          • 1soru1 says:

            The difference is not the absolute percentages, but the desired direction of those percentages. A non-profit wants access to cheap capital, a for-profit wants to _be_ expensive capital.

            Desired directions leads to incentives, which leads to corporate culture, which leads to outcomes that can be radically different between the alternatives, without changing the bottom-line figures all that much.

            Ideally, those proposing social engineering in this area would be aware of these obvious economic facts.

          • eccdogg says:

            That may be true, but it was not the point I was making.

            Robinson said private schools have to be worse because out of $100 of revenue they have to pay some percentage as profits to the owners and since public schools do not have this cost they by definition can spend all $100 on students.

            That point is false (or at least very overstated) since he is ignoring the fact that dividends (profits) pay for capital and to the extent that they both have the same capital needs the real difference in cost is cost of debt financing vs cost of equity financing on that capital. But both have to pay financing cost, so what the public/not for profit makes up in not having profits it loses by having to have higher debt cost.

            I agree that for profit vs not for profit creates different cultures and incentives. I am not sure which of those cultures is better for students/society.

        • JoeCool says:

          I think a big difference between the two is for-profit has this need growth upon growth upon growth, and thus more likely to innovate, but also more likely eventually institute legal but morally dubious business practices and a strange kind of soul crushing efficiency.

          • Antistotle says:

            I don’t think there is a difference at all, at least with a sufficient number of non-profits, NGOs and GOs.

            Lots of government organizations engage in outrageous mission creep, seek to increase their budgets etc.

            In the same way *many* NGOs/Non-Profits (for example the SPLC, the Veterans Administration, the NSA) lave legal but morally dubious practices, as well as a soul crushing *in*efficiency.

            Let’s face it, people suck when they get a chance to hide behind the institution, profit/government status has little to do with that.

            Accountability has LOT to do with it.

      • Rhys F says:

        Huh. There you go.
        State-wide anecdata: in NSW Australia, private schools (our for-profit schools) are far more expensive per student than state-run public schools (they both get roughly equal amounts per student from the state, but private schools add on substantial fees from parents) with roughly equal educational outcomes once you adjust for demographics.

        I’m obviously not 100% sure where the private-school waste comes from, but judging from the anecdata from my [EDUCATION-LINKED JOB] I’d say it’s mainly new and/or expensive facilities/equipment. Private schools here tend to have large schoolgrounds, private buses, expensive uniforms, new buildings, the latest equipment etc- more than enough to absorb any savings. In theory this is all for the benefit of the kids, but in practice it contributes very little to educational outcomes (though I can’t fault them for trying) and a lot to empire-building, prestige, and marketing.

        Disclaimer: YMMV. Australia != America. The impression I get is that the US system of education is severely broken in many unique ways; the NSW/Australian education system is also broken but in different, exciting ways for different, exciting reasons. Extrapolate at your own peril.

        • Mary says:

          The lap of luxury in other words.

          That’s one factor in the rising price at colleges. Whereas in my day (which wasn’t that long ago), we lived in cinder block dorms built during WWII as twenty-year temporary housing*, nowadays colleges provide all sorts of luxuries, and after we shout, “Get off my lawn!” we grouse about how you were, in our day, spending your college days in (American style) poverty.

          *It was a joke at my school that the only housing that was falling apart was the one built as permanent housing.

      • Alex Zavoluk says:

        In my experience, they went to things like nicer facilities (academic facilities in particular), better equipment (technology is expensive), and a higher teacher:student ratio.

    • Alsadius says:

      Most private schools operate on either a lower budget than the public system(religious schools aimed at the poor), or on a much more expensive basis than public schools do(e.g., microscopic class sizes – I know one fancy-private-school kid who was the only student in her Greek class, and while this was an extreme case, it wasn’t seen as crazy or a reason to cut the class).

      Also, remember that private schools are publicly regulated, and a lot of that mysterious bureaucracy will be regulatory compliance. That can’t be cut just because you’re private.

  2. Fuckplanets says:

    If your kid’s $10,000 voucher in a tiny-school system can go to anyone but yourself, the incentive is for you and a friend to both keep your kids out of school and each pretend to be teaching each other’s kid.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Or even without a cooperative friend, your incentive would be to give the voucher to someone who kicks back $5000 to you under the table.

      • thomasthethinkengine says:

        Scott is confident there will be no blatant kickbacks. I’m not sure. Here’s a quote from the Australian Education Minister after a multi-year experiment in subsidising private, for-profit, vocational training colleges. He’s announcing new rules, in early 2015:

        “Gone will be the days of the free iPad, the free laptop, the meal vouchers or the cash giveaways to sign people up to a student loan. Students who sign up for training should expect to get one thing, and one thing only, and that’s quality training – not any giveaways associated with that.”

        https://ministers.education.gov.au/birmingham/press-conference-vet-fee-help

        Fast forward eighteen months and we find this:

        “investigations … uncovered rorts, unauthorised subcontracting and poor quality training.
        Four training providers were caught flouting a ban on incentives like free laptops for prospective students. Others scammed the system by enrolling the same students more than once, and by failing to provide training. Training and Skills Minister Steve Herbert said he wanted to restore confidence in the sector.”

        This is vocational training though. Not school.

        I attended a private, non-profit school. It is famous for being one of the best in the city I live in. But moving to private, for-profit schooling seems like a major risk.

        To take the grocery analogy above, it’d be very easy to design a nutritionally vacant school that makes parents feel great about what they are doing but leaves the kids undernourished. The information gaps and asymmetries in the education market are huge!

        • thad says:

          I don’t think a voucher program implies an end to non-profit schools.

        • Deiseach says:

          Governments, on the other hand, can offer crappy products, and because they are state-imposed monopolies, there is no way for consumers to go elsewhere. School choice will improve schools, because instead of forcing students to attend whatever school the government happens to offer, choice allows parents to decide which school they prefer.

          The problem here is that schools are obliged by law to provide an education for a pupil. It doesn’t matter why the kid was expelled, not enrolled, or otherwise told “you can’t go here”, they have to be educated and they have to end up somewhere.

          So often, what you get are ‘dumping ground’ schools – where pupils have been sent on from Billy to Jack by the other schools because they don’t want to take them, and the last one in the chain gets more than its fair share of problem students. This means that in effect the school is not providing an education, it’s coping with behavioural and learning difficulties and more or less providing a child-minding service until the kid is of age to legally leave or move on to a different service. Private schools in general don’t face that, although I suppose there have always been schools where the stupid or disruptive children of the well-off can be discreetly dumped until they’re old enough to marry off or send out to the colonies.

          You also get stratification in the school system (and this works in my own town) where school A is regarded as the academic crème de la crème, school B is less desirable but still good, school C is adequate, and school D is regarded as “for the dummies” (when I was going to school, my parents did indeed tell me unless I pulled up my grades I’d be taken out and sent to school D – ironically, I ended up working as clerical support in school D eventually!)

          All these are public schools in the Irish system. I see no reason why the American system would be any different, unless you force the middle-class and aspiring parents to send their kids to the same schools as the single parent/unemployed parents kids, and that is not going to happen without law suits galore and probably the decision going against such a policy.

          • albertborrow says:

            Our local district dumping ground school is called Vollmer. According to the website, it was made “to serve students in a non-traditional high school setting,” which explains why all of the kids who are suspended mysteriously transfer there. It’s also the school where the district dumps the special-ed kids who are too tough to handle.

            Also not mentioned in this post are city schools, which universally suck ass. Rather, he doesn’t talk about it enough. Our local city school district has such a high dropout rate that SUNY annexed it in order to improve grades. It’s home to such fantastic stories such as:

            Being a part of the 142 worst preforming schools in the state:
            http://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/2015/04/06/school-takeover-new-york-state/25382697/

            http://www.rochesterfirst.com/news/news-headlines/state-report-15-rochester-city-schools-are-failing

            I feel like considering average grade-level segregated by race is a stupid thing to do. My high school is awfully diverse, but that doesn’t make it any better or worse – neighborhood wealth is basically the sole divider in how successful a school is.

          • Viliam says:

            > I suppose there have always been schools where the stupid or disruptive children of the well-off can be discreetly dumped

            Can confirm; I worked at such school for a while. Not sure how much I can generalize from one example, but I’d guess these schools are not advertised for what they truly are. Instead they deceptively pretend to provide high quality education, and you probably have to read between the lines when they say stuff like “out school is so efficient that your child will never have to do any homework”… stuff like this, which sounds reasonable at first sight, but there is somehow too much reassurance that whatever happens, it will never mean that you as a parent are supposed to do something about it. (Giving inflated grades is an uspoken part of the deal. Otherwise it would mean that parents have something to worry about, right?)

          • Deiseach says:

            My high school is awfully diverse, but that doesn’t make it any better or worse – neighborhood wealth is basically the sole divider in how successful a school is.

            Yeah, that’s part of the problem, and often a large part. That article about failing schools is all well and good, but my heart sank when I saw that sentence about “extending the academic day” – that’s not teaching, that’s child-minding.

            Sometimes the reason for failing schools is that the system is broken, the teachers are poor-quality, and the place needs a good shake-up. But sometimes the reason is “we’re not teaching, we’re fire-fighting” – half the kids are on so much meds they rattle when they walk, the other half should be, at home there are parents who can’t cope because they have poor educational attainments themselves and a slew of problems, or parents who don’t care a damn and the kid is like a dog wandering the street. In that case, you’re coping with feeding the hungry, making sure they are at least inside the school grounds and not truant/wandering around the streets, and coping with a raft of behavioural and learning difficulties. Getting them prepared to sit and pass exams, much less pull up their grades, is number four or five on the list of what the school is doing, which is making sure the kid is safe themselves in the first instance and not a danger to others in the second.

          • The Obsolete Man says:

            This is actually a reply to your newer comment below about ‘child minding’. This discussion reminds me of Paul Graham’s essay, “Why Nerds are Unpopular”. It isn’t so much about nerds in high school, it’s really more about warehousing and babysitting of children so parents can do their thing during the day. Anyhow, I thought I would post this link to it: http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html

          • Matt M says:

            “half the kids are on so much meds they rattle when they walk”

            Just to clarify – teachers are often the CAUSE of this. My mom teaches at a very poor school and it’s usually the teachers who call the (often wholly uneducated) parents and convince them to put their children on mind-numbing drugs simply to make teacher’s life a little easier.

  3. algorizmi says:

    Charter schools are public schools. In New York state, charter schools are required to follow the same curriculum requirements as public school systems. Independent private schools have much more freedom in setting course material, pacing, and topics.

    To the extant that any solutions focus on charter schools, they will not be able to improve on the red tape and diffuse inefficiency of public schools.

  4. fahertym says:

    This is a fantastic distillation of a fundamental argument for markets. But it’s crazy to me that people like Scott still have to make these arguments these days.

    Robinson’s ant-market arguments are ancient. And I don’t mean that figuratively. People have made these sorts of arguments against merchants literally since ancient times. Yet even though the vast majority of the Western world has at the very least accepted the superiority of markets in a broad sense, many, many intellectuals still seem to forget basic market principles exist in certain arbitrary domains like education and health care.

    • jasongreenlowe says:

      Maybe the people complaining about merchants are onto something? Usually when people from hundreds of cultures all complain about the same thing for thousands of years, there’s at least a grain of truth behind the complaint. If you’re going to dismiss the complainers, you should at least sketch an outline of the fallacy that (you think) people are falling for.

      • Viliam says:

        > you should at least sketch an outline of the fallacy that (you think) people are falling for.

        Let me try:

        1) people don’t like it when someone has more power/resources/options than them; because under some circumstances it provides an evolutionary advantage to grow resentment against such people, and then attack them and either redistribute their resources or eliminate a more successful competitor;

        2) the typical ways to have more power/resources/options are: a) be a thug or have an army; b) be popular and have many admirers or friends; c) be smart or be a part of a smart system, and make a lot of money;

        3) attacking a thug or a warlord is likely to get you killed; attacking a popular person is difficult; attacking a successful person who is neither good at fighting nor especially popular is the safest choice;

        4) therefore, such people are popular target of complaints, which are more or less a method to coordinate an attack.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          That’s an example of bulverism you’re giving there, not an actual flaw in the arguments.

          • onyomi says:

            It was a response to Jasongreenlowe’s suggestion that, if people have been coming up with the same objections for centuries, maybe there is a grain of truth to them. An evopsych description of reasons, other than truth, why people might keep bringing up these same objections, is totally apropos.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Jasongreenlowe specifically asked for an outline of the fallacy people were supposedly falling for, i.e., a flaw in the reasons people gave for why retail was morally dubious. Psychological explanations aren’t normally germane to discussions of logical fallacies.

            Plus, you can come up with just-so stories for why people believe pretty much anything, including evo-psych. Plus plus, the existence of a non-rational reason for believing X doesn’t rule out the existence of a rational reason for believing X.

        • MugaSofer says:

          In general, dismissing all your enemy’s arguments based on psychobabble is considered a bad look.

          A person could as easily claim, with just as much evidence, that societies throughout history (including ours) have universally acknowledged that power corrupts. So clearly the only reason anyone would advocate allowing people to gain as much power as possible is so they can take that power.

          Consciously or otherwise, of course.

      • stillnotking says:

        If you’re going to dismiss the complainers, you should at least sketch an outline of the fallacy that (you think) people are falling for.

        I’ll take a stab at it. I’ve noticed a tendency on the left to attribute failings to markets which aren’t caused by markets at all, and which, in fact, markets tend to ameliorate. The classic example is hunger: stand up in any progressive gathering and bewail the fact that capitalism is starving the less fortunate around the world, and you’ll get nothing but amens. But that is an absurd statement; people starved long before capitalism existed, and in much greater (proportionate) numbers. Markets are really good at distributing food, but they aren’t perfect, and coupled with the fact that they are nearly universal in the modern world, this makes them vulnerable to misguided criticism, in the same way that people are unusually likely to believe common household items could be deadly (just watch your local news).

        I don’t know a proper name for this fallacy — more of a bias, really. It seems to have a lot to do with the availability heuristic.

      • Alsadius says:

        An intellectual understanding of the basic principles of commerce is somewhat counterintuitive to most people(though, weirdly, the actual principles themselves in practice are deep human nature, as any kid who’s ever traded lunches with a buddy can tell you). The capitalist economy is the original superhuman AI, and like all superhuman AIs it does things that individual humans can’t understand easily. Combine that with natural tendency towards envy and resentment, and you get an ugly mixture.

        The most relevant fallacies are the zero-sum fallacy(that a rich person made their money at the expense of a poor person, instead of producing it ex nihilo), a lack of appreciation for the value of middlemen of all sorts, and a belief that one should properly earn money from labour(or from land, if you look at some old-timey criticisms), not from money itself.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          To be fair, the zero-sum fallacy might not have been such a fallacy in the days when the vast majority of people made their living of the land, and there was a more-or-less fixed amount of cultivable land in the area.

          • Antistotle says:

            I’d question even then.

            Take a piece of land, and on it grow *exactly* the same thing everyone else is. Your product is worth less.

            Take that same piece of land and grow something a little harder to do right, but that more people like. Put in more effort (or knowledge) get a better product.

            Notice that that field over there grows Grondids better that this field, while this field is better at Hoozaflats. So instead of growing both Grondids AND Hoozaflats, do a deal with That Fields owner such that you’ll trade him some Hoozaflats for Grondids, and you’ll BOTH have excess.

            Usury[1] has been banned throughout history by both Christian sects and Islam, and most people HATE the practice. But you cannot have a economy of any sort of size without *some* sort of borrowing and lending. And sou the Church, in it’s godly wisdom decided that since Jews were going to hell ANYWAY, might as well let them lend money too. This had the side effect of being able to repudiate loans by having a come to Jesus moment and throwing all the Jews out of the city because they were in league with the devil. You could tell they were in league with the devil because they practiced Usury.

            [1] In recent years “usury” has come to mean “lending for too much interest”. Historically “any” was considered “too much”.

      • LCL says:

        Above answers aren’t bad but I think the key is much simpler:

        People value intentions more than results.

        People just care more about what you’re trying to do than what effects your behavior has. Ineffectively trying to help others is still highly admired, but effectively helping others while mostly trying to make money is viewed with suspicion. The difficulty in making a persuasive case for capitalism isn’t the results – it’s that capitalists seem to have the wrong intentions.

        Compare U.S. public sentiment towards terrorists vs. U.S. public sentiment towards speeding drivers. Both kill Americans through their actions; speeders kill more. But no one much cares because they weren’t trying to do it.

        • Rosemary7391 says:

          I’m not sure that’s a great comparison – I suspect speeding drivers kill far fewer people per speeding driver than terrorists do per terrorist. Also, I think intention matters if you want to change the results. If speeding kills people, there are quite a few ways to slow them down and they’ll mostly be complied with. Drivers won’t, generally, try and break the system just to continue speeding, especially if they understand why (to not kill people). A terrorist trying to kill people will go to much greater lengths to circumvent any attempt to restrict them, and telling them why you’re doing it won’t help an awful lot…

          A difference between that and the consideration of capitalism/helping is that helping people and making money aren’t mutually exclusive. Perhaps the main problem is if they are viewed as orthogonal – in which case you get polarised views, whereas what we really want is a bit of both to happen.

          • Tarpitz says:

            Speaking as a speeding driver, I most certainly do try to break the system in order to continue speeding, and I highly doubt that I’m alone in this. In fact, some people go much further and vandalise speed cameras, a practice in which I do not engage out of a combination of laziness and fear of judicial punishment, rather than because I disapprove of it.

          • ThirteenthLetter says:

            Crucial difference: you’re not speeding in order to deliberately kill people. (At least, I hope you’re not.)

    • drabiega says:

      many, many intellectuals still seem to forget basic market principles exist in certain arbitrary domains like education and health care.

      I disagree, and I suspect if you think about it fairly you’ll realize people have reasons for thinking markets don’t work in these domains and there’s nothing arbitrary about it. You can reasonably disagree about whether they are correct or not, but I don’t think the characterization you’re making here is correct or rational.

      No one is making attacks on markets in general. I can’t say that I’ve ever met a person who wouldn’t admit, when pressed, that markets are superior in at least some contexts. In addition, I agree that we’ve got pretty broad consensus, even among “intellectuals”, that markets work best in most domains.

      But anyone who thinks markets are superior in every instance is being an ideologue and clearly doesn’t have any idea what they are talking about. I think most of us can agree that allocation of fire protection is best left as a public good, as is law enforcement.

      I think that Robinson’s arguments have some assumptions which are important and not brought up in his article, but I don’t think it’s fair to characterize it as generally anti-market. I’m sure if you could ask him he would agree that markets work very well in lots of contexts. He doesn’t think that they will work well in this domain but his reasons are not arbitrary.

      • Cliff says:

        What is the argument that markets don’t work for education?

        • Iain says:

          Education is a good with low competition, high information asymmetry, and inelastic demand being “purchased” on behalf of another person.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Why does education demand automatically inelastic? If a parent is unhappy with their kids education and they have alternatives, there’s nothing stopping them from switching. Have they done studies showing that education demand has low elasticity or are you just speculating?

          • Iain says:

            When the price of a university education increases, does the demand decrease? When the price of an elementary education increases, do parents stop sending their kids to school?

            You appear to be thinking of substitutability.

          • stillnotking says:

            Don’t forget it’s being purchased with something that isn’t actual money, in a voucher system.

            The only part of our current educational system that operates anything like a free market is the top 20% or so of prestigious private universities. A voucher system would not change that, and might even make the affected parts of the market less free, insofar as we could expect people to engage in corrupt behavior such as kickbacks. I’m a great believer in free markets, which is why I don’t like school vouchers. A taxpayer-funded system of indirect subsidies is not a free market. It isn’t even a step closer to one. (I’m also not completely convinced markets are the best structure for education, but it’s important to recognize that isn’t even what we’re talking about.)

          • Wrong Species says:

            College students do respond to prices, which is why they are more likely to go to public colleges than private ones. Substitution is related to elasticity in that with less competition, a good is more inelastic. So education in general is relatively inelastic but the demand for a given school is not necessarily so. The only reason there are so few private elementary and high schools right now is because it’s hard to compete with free.

      • cassander says:

        >No one is making attacks on markets in general.

        I can certainly find people that do.

        >I can’t say that I’ve ever met a person who wouldn’t admit, when pressed, that markets are superior in at least some contexts.

        A bar so low it’s a meaningless straw-man.

        >In addition, I agree that we’ve got pretty broad consensus, even among “intellectuals”, that markets work best in most domains.

        Except healthcare. And education. And finance. And energy. And other utilities. And anything that slightly effects the environment. And after that, what’s left, hot-dog stands?

  5. JulieK says:

    Best response to claim that school choice will be harm students from poor families: How well are public schools currently doing for those students?

    • shakeddown says:

      “It can’t get any worse” is almost never a good argument. I’m sure you can think of ten countries off the top of your head with worse schools than poor America.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        Good point, shakedown. While I like the idea of competition in the education arena, the badness of American schools for the poor is over-stated. They could be much worse. Or the majority of schools for the poor that are just bad could be the same as some schools in the US that really are about as bad as they could be. My guess these truly awful schools constitute a few dozen.

      • LCL says:

        And indeed it would quite likely get worse with greater school choice.

        Take the current fairly bad public schools in poor areas, and add a selection effect where even minimally engaged parents move their kids somewhere else. What’s left? The same thing, basically, but worse. And maybe that school closes, but as long as school is mandatory there will always be some default school where the kids of parents too dysfunctional to make any choices end up. Under the current system, at least it’s also the default for some kids of more responsible and engaged parents. With more choice, it wouldn’t be.

        I still think more choice would be an overall benefit and we should try it. But if you’re only considering the welfare of the worst-off, the current system is better.

        • Antistotle says:

          So basically what you’re saying is that as a parent it is my obligation to keep my child in a bad school where she is having trouble getting an education because of disruptive elements so that there will be funds to provide a teacher for those disruptive elements?

    • Evan Þ says:

      Probably just as good a response: Look how popular current charter schools are among poor families, when they can get their kids in.

      • Alsadius says:

        A much better response, actually. It’s always possible for things to get worse, but the Harlem Success Academy(to name one I’ve heard a lot about) is a hell of an argument for charter schools.

  6. dk says:

    So how is an activity which basically involves getting a bunch of kids into a building and throwing a teacher at them rising so dramatically in the absence of changes in building or teacher prices? I’ve only heard three theories

    One more theory: Baumol’s cost disease

    Baumol’s cost disease, or the Baumol effect, is a phenomenon described by William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen in the 1960s.[1] It involves a rise of salaries in jobs that have experienced no increase of labor productivity, in response to rising salaries in other jobs that have experienced the labor productivity growth.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Wouldn’t that have to be mediated by a rise in teacher salaries, which isn’t happening?

      • JulieK says:

        Do we have more non-teaching staff, or better paid janitors and cafeteria workers?

        • Brad says:

          The janitors, cafeteria workers, secretaries, etc are a good point that are often overlooked. In general the public sector overpays unskilled and low-skilled workers and the pay gets worse and worse compared to the public sector as you move up the skill chain. Government doctors, for example, do quite poorly as compared to their private sector equivalents.

      • gbdub says:

        Salaries aren’t going up, but what about total compensation? We know health care is way more expensive, and many school districts have pension systems – people are living longer, more pensioners per active teacher.

        • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

          I think there’s something to this. I’m a teacher in a suburban Missouri district, and while my pay is nothing to write home about my benefits are fantastic – the district’s health insurance offers great coverage, and the pension is quite generous as well.

        • Brad says:

          This is exactly what I came to post. The underlying data for the flat salaries link has this footnote:

          The average monetary remuneration earned by FTE employees across all industries in a given year, including wages, salaries, commissions, tips, bonuses, voluntary employee contributions to certain deferred compensation plans, and receipts in kind that represent income. Calendar-year data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, have been converted to a school-year basis by averaging the two appropriate calendar years in each case.

          No healthcare, no retirement benefits. The latter often includes healthcare, so there’s a double whammy there.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Health care applies to the median worker as well.

          Pensions are a good point, but it is also worth noting that many teachers neither pay into nor draw out of social security. Similarly, if the local government pays retired teacher healthcare, they are saving the federal government from paying for medicare.

          • Brad says:

            The healthcare benefits for the median teacher are much better than for the median worker. And that separation is growing over time. In terms of retiree benefits, a typical package will be in the form of a medigap policy that covers everything medicare doesn’t (including premiums & co-insurance) rather than something that replaces medicare altogether.

            Apparently the percentage of teachers that don’t pay into social security is around 40%.* I’m not exactly sure how that factors in to the total compensation over time graph. I guess you’d need to subtract the difference in average lifetime payout for a social security recipient in 1970 from that of a typical recipient today. You don’t need to subtract out the whole amount since the y axis is percent.

            * http://www.nasra.org/socialsecurity

        • VivaLaPanda says:

          I’m joining in to comment that I think there could definitely be something here. Both of my parents are teachers, and their pay is pretty sub-par but benefits are really good.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Baumol’s cost disease would be mediated by teacher compensation rising at the same rate as typical compensation. Which it did. There may be some issues about median vs mean and salary vs compensation.

        But Baumol’s cost disease is when an industry’s cost grows at the same rate as gdp per capita. US GDP per capita doubled from 1970 to today, but education cost tripled. So it has gone beyond Baumol.

      • Eric Rall says:

        I think the numbers you’re citing are for salaries only, not for total compensation. My understanding is that teachers get more of their compensation in the form of benefits (especially health insurance and pensions) than most private-sector workers, and that the costs of these have been growing quite a bit faster than inflation.

        Here’s some numbers on health insurance costs over the past decade or so (link), albeit from what appears to be a partisan source. I looked for numbers on pension costs, but I couldn’t find per-teacher costs over time with a quick googling.

        [Edit: missed gbdub’s comment making essentially the same point]

        • eccdogg says:

          Anecdotal data, but out of the 5 people in the family I grew up in (2 parents 2 siblings+me) I am the only non-teacher. The benefits are pretty great. My parents are now retired and in the best financial position of their lives. They would have had to save over 2 million dollars to have the equivalent of the pension they have now. And on top of that the healthcare is quite good.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Let’s look at an international comparison. Primary+secondary education are tightly clustered on the regression line. A year of education costing 27% of GDP per capita (intercept -$1000, fwiw). That’s exactly what Baumol would predict. And yet there was secular change in America. Did it used to be tightly clustered at 18% and everyone rose in unison?

      College costs are noisier and America is off of the regression line.

      (No relation.)

    • cassander says:

      Except A, education costs are rising a lot faster than teacher’s salaries, and B, teaching is not a technology free environment, or at least, doesn’t have to be. Teachers that used to grade tests by hand can now use scantron, the best lectures can be recorded, etc. We choose to stick to a largely 19th century model, but we don’t have to.

  7. shakeddown says:

    Regarding Catholic schools: In Israel, the equivalent is a huge problem – ultra-orthodox jews have their own schools that prevent social integration (and also don’t teach basic arithmetic in many cases). I’m a bit surprised this doesn’t already happen in some of the more religious states over here (or if it does, I haven’t heard about it) – I guess those states are more religious overall, so parents don’t feel a need to separate their kids from their neighbors’.

    Also, I’m not sure you fully answered the argument about incentives. You may be right that profit margins don’t matter that much, but there are other bad incentives – for-profit schools need to sell to the parents, which may not be the same thing as educating well. You compared to food stamps. There’s the standard story that people on food stamps have terrible nutrition. You can argue that it’s not the government’s job to tell people to eat well and that that’s okay, but it’s harder to argue that when it’s parents deciding to get their kids the education equivalent of sodas.

    To give one example, schools in poor neighborhoods could be incentivised to offer to keep the students in for extra hours over hiring quality teachers – to uncaring parents, this might be preferable. And it bypasses the objection that teachers are generally well-intentioned, since it would be decided by upper corporate management (and in a race to the bottom, upper management is pushed really hard to be immoral).

    • thad says:

      There are some shady religious schools that take a rather unique view of what they should be teaching, but they’re relatively few. The ones I’ve heard the most about are Jewish. I’m under the impression that Christians who want that result generally homeschool. That’s just the cases I know about, though.

    • gbdub says:

      You seem to be conflating Catholics with Evangelical Christians, which is wrong for a number of reasons but particularly demographically.

      In cosmopolitan areas “Catholic schools” are often relatively elite private schools, mostly populated by relatively wealthy white students, and, anymore, are even reasonably secular (compare Notre Dame at the university level). I went to Catholic elementary school, and while religious education was certainly part of the curriculum, the vast majority of parents were more motivated by perceived educational quality than religious fervor. There were a couple of the “Harry Potter is satanic witchcraft!” types but they were considered weird and kind of shunned for it.

      I did not at all get the impression that this was an atypical Catholic school.

    • cassander says:

      >Also, I’m not sure you fully answered the argument about incentives. You may be right that profit margins don’t matter that much, but there are other bad incentives – for-profit schools need to sell to the parents, which may not be the same thing as educating well. You compared to food stamps. There’s the standard story that people on food stamps have terrible nutrition. You can argue that it’s not the government’s job to tell people to eat well and that that’s okay, but it’s harder to argue that when it’s parents deciding to get their kids the education equivalent of sodas.

      this argument implicitly assumes that public schools don’t have any bad incentives. Bad incentives, on their own, prove nothing. you have to show, or at least argue, that they’re worse for private schools than for public.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        Yes this was by far the weakest part of the argument Scott linked to. It’s the infamous complaining of market failure with no recognition of government failure. The people running public schools (and non-profit ones too) do things based on incentives too, and they’re not all saintly ones.

    • MugaSofer says:

      Regarding Catholic schools: In Israel, the equivalent is a huge problem – ultra-orthodox jews have their own schools that prevent social integration (and also don’t teach basic arithmetic in many cases). I’m a bit surprised this doesn’t already happen in some of the more religious states over here (or if it does, I haven’t heard about it) – I guess those states are more religious overall, so parents don’t feel a need to separate their kids from their neighbors’.

      This strikes me as analogous to the fights over whether those states should be forced to adhere to a national standard curriculum, or allowed to exclude evolution, learning about other religions, and sex ed, in order to preserve their religious ethos.

      Indeed, the current controversy over “common core” could be framed as “red states don’t want to teach basic math” were one really uncharitable.

      • shakeddown says:

        I don’t know much about red state evangelical schools – are there places in america where christian schools want to focus on bible study to the exclusion of all else? (Jewish tradition has a history of this, but I don’t know if christian tradition does).

        • Brad says:

          Not really. Maybe some really fringe groups, but AFAIK there’s no widespread US Christian tradition equivalent to the haredi “LOL math why would we teach that”.

    • Antistotle says:

      I have two relatives that teach or used to teach at Catholic schools in St. Louis, MO.

      Many to most of their students are non-catholic. Many are non-white.

      There are probably some schools in harder-core Mennonite and/or Amish communities that are like that, but their whole community is, so it’s not surprising.

  8. astaereth says:

    Efficiency is better all else equal; but school vouchers and establishing charter schools nationwide is a huge change. Why would we institute a huge national education change that isn’t going to improve education outcomes? The primary problem with our schools is not that they’re too expensive but that they can’t seem to improve education quality.

    Also, I tried to find data on how Michigan’s charter schools have been doing and I found this very distressing NYT article:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/29/us/for-detroits-children-more-school-choice-but-not-better-schools.html

    Among lots of problems, it says that 80% of charters in Michigan are for-profit, that kids change schools often (necessary for competition, but bad for kids, who lose out on community connections to peers and teachers, not to mention differences in curriculum), that the schools with the best outcomes achieve that by screening for kids who already have high test scores and such, that the public schools are saddled with the most difficult/expensive/special needs kids, that charter schools have to devote resources to marketing instead of education… the list goes on. It sounds like a horror show that I would definitely not like to see repeated nationally. Not to mention the lack of quality control going on there.

    Couple more things on your piece, Scott. You write:

    To all these downsides we would have to add one very big upside – it destroys the incentive to overspend on/segregate housing in order to get into a “good school district”. Elizabeth Warren has argued this is primarily behind the secular rise in real estate prices that has undermined the economic position of the middle class for the past fifty years. This factor could easily be more important than everything else combined and might make school vouchers a plus even if they seriously worsened the quality of education.

    First, I don’t even understand how this would prevent there being good school districts. Surely there will be some charter schools better than others, and surely that would increase property values nearby better schools, creating the same vicious cycle we have now.

    Second, assuming you’re right about the effect, affordable housing is definitely important but 1) there are ways to make housing affordable that don’t have a negative effect on education (to use a radical example, the government could raise taxes and give housing away without changing education policy or funding) and 2) education is so fundamentally important to the success of a society that any significant harm to it it likely outweighs any possible benefit from housing. (Just look at how education levels map to the recent election.)

    • AnonEEmous says:

      school choice means you don’t have to move to get into the school district and thus be eligible for the school. of course, you still have to commute, but that’s not nearly as large of a bar all told.

    • Deiseach says:

      that the public schools are saddled with the most difficult/expensive/special needs kids

      Again, I don’t know how the situation compares between America and Ireland, but that is already happening – at least over here. Some schools will keep out problem students by various methods; if the school’s reputation is for “academic excellence, will get your kids into good universities, plus networking opportunities”, then it is motivated to maintain that reputation by picking the best students it can get by working in whatever way around the requirements for equal access it can manage. Charter schools may make the process more visible but it’s not like it’s not already happening to a greater or lesser degree.

      Schools in disadvantaged areas get the problem kids, and to be fair, they do get extra cash and support. This does not necessarily translate into “and over five years, average grades rose X%” because that is not what is going on. I think that’s a very important point and distinction to make: little Johnny who goes to that public school which is eating more funds every year still only ends up with Ds and Cs in his exams. What is not seen is that (a) little Johnny may have a lot of problems from psychological to family turmoil (b) keeping little Johnny in full-time education rather than dropping out at age fifteen to hang around the streets and get involved in petty crime is the major result here (c) you have a choice between “little Johnny only gets Ds and Cs” and “little Johnny has no education at all”.

      We are increasingly demanding more of schools than simply “teach ’em to read, write and cipher” – everything from turning out good citizens with the correct socially approved attitudes (whether liberal or conservative or a mixture of both) to being ready-to-employ with the qualities and qualifications demanded by employers (never mind that what employers say they want today is going to be different in five years’ time) to solving poverty and inequality via education because everyone will go to university, get a degree, and get a good-paying job for life (yes, and how is that working out in the modern economy)?

      • drabiega says:

        The difference is that in America the schools who end up with the disadvantaged kids get less cash and support, not more.

        • FacelessCraven says:

          Is there evidence that more cash and support actually result in better outcomes?

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          The difference is that in America the schools who end up with the disadvantaged kids get less cash and support, not more.

          This is totally untrue, at least in my state of Minnesota. Special needs kids are specifically allocated more state money than other kids. And I think it is true nationwide that poor schools get more money than rich ones. I’ve read many stories that the most expensive schools in the nation are also the worst inner city schools. Most of these stories are anecdotal, but I think the trend is the poorer the students the more subsidy from the state or Feds.

    • sourcreamus says:

      The study mentioned in the article says this in its conclusion: Based on the findings presented here, the typical student in Michigan charter schools gains more learning in a year than his TPS counterparts, amounting to about two months of additional gains in reading and math. These positive patterns are even more pronounced in Detroit, where historically student academic performance has been poor. These outcomes are consistent with the result that charter schools have significantly better results than TPS for minority students who are in poverty.”

      Having a good charter school nearby may improve property values but in most charter school systems attendance is not totally dependent on where your house is. You could live in a bad neighborhood and still send your kids to the good charter school, something which is generally very difficult in public school systems.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      I’m not sure why Michigan is so different, but in NYC charters did admissions on a lottery system. They couldn’t choose to turn down e.g. students with behavioral issues.

      They also had something like 50 times as many applications as spots, for a 2% admission rate. For comparison, Harvard’s admission rate is about 7%. Keep that in mind next time someone argues against school choice.

  9. algorizmi says:

    To add an anecdatum:

    At my independent non-profit high school[1] we have reduced the cost per student-year down to $3,000.[2] Despite this budget we are able to offer the students many opportunities that public schools don’t. Art classes like glassblowing and copper and silversmithing, advanced science curricula like organic and biochemistry, health class vastly more informative that the state requirements, zero bullying enforced by a self-organized student culture, I could go on all day.

    For comparison the average cost for nearby school districts is $17,000 per high schooler-year and offer a fraction of the services we provide.

    [1] Name withheld as advertising is not the point here.
    [2] Total cost as much as $5,000 depending on how you value volunteer labor.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Great proof by example!

      Could you point to some of the main budget cuts you made to allow for this huge difference?

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Yeah, I’m really interested in knowing this too. Did you look at how other schools do things and eliminate certain costs? Or are other schools just so terrible that you couldn’t cost as much as they do even if you tried?

        • wysinwygymmv says:

          I think you may want to add some caveats to your highlight of this comment in the OP. It seems like most of the cost savings come from the school being located in a healthy community where lots of people are able to and willing to volunteer extra labor and materials, or work for less than the market rate (which is basically the same as fractional volunteering). This is just equivalent to running on donated money, so it’s not clear to me that this approach is universally applicable or scalable.

          And note that this is pretty much exactly one of Nathan Robinson’s objections — that communities whose members have extra time, energy, skills, and material to donate will tend to have better schools than communities who are already tapped out. This is already true, of course, but do we expect this problem to get better or worse if we were to institutionalize the notion that schools should receive a significant share of their funding from volunteer labor and donations?

          I mean, the school sounds awesome. It’s the direction schools should be moving in, and it’s a worthwhile experiment even if the approach isn’t scalable. But I think the quote you put in the OP makes it seem like it should be easy to cut costs and offer better services than public schools, and I’m not sure this example really demonstrates that.

      • algorizmi says:

        Apologies; I have not the time to write a shorter comment.
        80% of our expenses are teacher’s pay (& withholdings) and insurance. It’s sort of life by a thousand pennies pinched, but the single biggest factor is probably overhead. Our administrative overhead is very low, one office worker with volunteers supplementing as needed.
        We have someone trained in first aid on site at all times, but no dedicated nurse.
        No dedicated counselors but our head teacher is a psychologist (PhD) and schedules time with students for one-on-one help with dyslexia or other learning disabilities and offers guidance for college applications.

        Next biggest expense is utilities, one building is still heated with fuel oil, so there’s room for more savings once we can afford to run a natural gas line or install a heat pump and additional radiators.
        As a non-profit we don’t pay property tax on our grounds or sales tax on our supplies.
        The mortgage is paid off, and maintenance is provided by parent tradespeople. (With enough students, some parent is bound to be a plumber, etc.)
        Building supplies and paper products occasionally donated by local businesses.

        Grounds keeping is integrated into our horticulture program.
        We don’t need a janitor because each student is assigned to clean a specific room or area, which rotates quarterly. (instituted to build responsibility and community but saves money too!)

        Our teacher pay[1] is somewhat lower than average for the region, but we have no trouble attracting talent. We have a mixture of retired teachers with a ton of experience who continue teaching because they enjoy it, and newer teachers looking to build experience who are full of energy, fresh ideas, and find it easier to empathize with students and understand their thought process.
        In line with the latest research on adolescent brain development and performance, our school day runs from 10:30 to 3pm. They learn just as much but our teachers work fewer hours.

        Computer and chem lab equipment donated by local colleges.

        We organize a monthly work party for parents and community volunteers to help with major projects. (repainting, winterizing, fund raisers, etc.)
        A single phone line for office and fax.

        The only cost that is partially externalized is transportation, which by state law the student’s school district is required to provide if they live within 15 miles of us. Many families carpool, and some older students drive themselves.
        Oh and the local school district’s nurse does provide yearly hearing and vision tests.

        There’s definitely room for cost reduction beyond what we do, our average class size is 6. And bare in mind that many students come to us with IEPs and might otherwise be in a public schools much more expensive special ed program. Many behavioral problems are either drastically reduced or non-issues[2] in our environment. What we do differently in short: More personal freedom (and commensurate responsibility), individualized attention, less homework, no bullying.
        [1] We pay $15/hour in a rural setting.
        [2] If it’s not disruptive to the rest of class, just let the kid stim! Sending them to the principle for disciplinary action helps no one.

        • jasongreenlowe says:

          Very interesting, thank you! I’d love to learn more about your school — feel free to email me at jasongreenlowe@gmail.com if you don’t want to post the name publicly.

        • Charlie__ says:

          Average class size is 6, eh? Then by simple math, we can see that if your school costs $3000 per student per year, your teachers are paid at most $15,000/yr. I agree, that seems “somewhat lower than average for your region.”

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            If it’s the market clearing wage, and they can get qualified teachers, then it’s not a problem.

            A short workday can really appeal to some people more than money.

          • Charlie__ says:

            @Edward

            I basically agree. But I think such a low wage for teachers is very un-scalable. A school system needs a lot of teachers (especially if you want to drastically cut class size), and they’re not all going to be willing to work for what has got to be $15 per at-school (i.e. not counting grading, planning, or professional development) hour. And as you raise the wage to attract more teachers, you usually have to pay the cheap teachers more too.

        • thedufer says:

          Quoting an hourly rate for teachers is a bit disingenuous, given how much they typically spend working outside class hours.

          But that aside, the real interesting part is that your budget for teacher benefits comes out to less than $1400 per year. What does that go towards? Clearly you’re not providing health insurance (or I’m wildly overpaying; that’s less than my monthly cost). Retirement? Coffee in the breakroom?

          The overall point, I think, is that this is a very extreme anecdote. Your teachers are, at the going rate for teachers, donating upwards of 3/4 of their time. And that doesn’t touch on any of the other free labor, free supplies, not counting the opportunity cost on the land, etc.

          That’s not scalable at all, so while it’s a cool community thing I don’t see how it has any meaningful bearing on the conversation unless you can account for all of the free things and still show savings.

          Edit with later realization: Simply blowing up your budget to account for the volunteer portion of the teacher labor easily accounts for half the difference between your costs and your local school district’s, so I’m not sure your claim about overhead being the biggest factor is true.

      • cassander says:

        average salary for a teacher in the US is 57k, not counting benefits. Make it 75k after benefits. Per pupil spending is about 13,000 per year, or 10k exluding transportation, food, O&M, and administration. that means we should be buying a faculty to student ratio of 8:1, assuming an ideal system with no principals and such. the actual ratio is 16:1, which means that for every 10 teachers we have, we’re buying 5 administrators who make twice as much. That’s where the money’s going.

    • wysinwygymmv says:

      [1] Name withheld as advertising is not the point here.

      Advertising might not be the point, but there’s any number of reasons why people might want to do more research on your school, its results, and how they are achieved without being filtered through your own refreshingly modest perspective. For one, from your description below, it sounds like you’ve achieved a lot of efficiencies by combining functions e.g. a teacher with first aid certification can fill in for the nurse and the PhD happens to be a credentialed counselor so there’s no need for a separate counseling position. I’d love an opportunity to learn more about this school, so please if it’s not too much of a problem share its name and approximate location.

    • Deiseach says:

      Can I ask where do you draw your student pool from? Is it “anyone who applies can get in” or are there criteria (must live in certain area, be recommended by particular body, etc)? Do you have waiting lists or high demand to get children into your school rather than the public school?

    • eqdw says:

      Curious: What’s the local cost of living like where you live. Is it typical for the US?

    • ryanwc4 says:

      Your 2nd footnote changed everything. There are loads of good public schools with costs in that range (ie, “$5,000 depending on how you value volunteer labor”).
      I’m editing this. I still think the footnote changes a lot, but I discovered that low cost districts in NY state, where this school is located, are spending $14K/student. Certainly there are other states where the low cost rural districts are in the ball park of $5,000 though, and I’m assuming this school is not educating special ed and behavioral problem kids.

  10. Fossegrimen says:

    Good takedown as usual, but from personal experience I think the problem with American schools is entirely different.

    There is a nice essay called Big Macs vs the Naked Chef. It’s a fun read, but the TL;DR is that if you put in enough regulations and routines, you will get identical but horrible meat patties all over the world, but if you hire lots of skilled chefs and turn them loose, you will get totally different but all over excellent food.

    My kids have gone to school in Finland, Germany, Norway, Spain and Idaho. Out of those, only Idaho stood out as choosing the Big Mac approach. (I don’t know if this is Idaho or Federal, but if it is Federal, you got your whole problem right there.)

    Finland stood out as choosing the extreme Naked Chef approach.

    I don’t think private vs public makes nearly as much difference.

    WRT the satisfaction with grocery stores: I think there are about 20 million US citizens living in inner-city food deserts and I doubt they are very happy about it.

    • Alsadius says:

      Setting no regulations and letting people do what they wish is a good way to get a lot of excellent options, but it’s also a good way to get a lot of slackers, tyrants, and general scum. Freedom on the part of service providers *must* be combined with the ability to choose between providers, or else you wind up with the telecom industry at best and North Korea at worst.

      • Civilis says:

        To continue with this thread, according to the US Department of Education, there are 3.1 million full-time-equivalent public school teachers in the united states. They can’t all be skilled. 1.5 million teachers will be below average. At a 16-1 student/teacher ratio, nearly 5 million students will have a teacher in the bottom 10%.

        This isn’t Lake Wobegon where everyone is above average. We’re not going to be able to give every student an above-average teacher.

        The fundamental question the US education system needs to answer is ‘how do we assign resources, both money and less quantifiable resources like good teachers, knowing we can’t divide those resources evenly?’ School choice allows those parents that care about their kids education some measure of ability to self-select for better resources. That’s not perfect, but no outcome can be. Is there a better option?

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Food deserts don’t exist. If people in the inner-city wanted quinoa, they’d have quinoa on the shelves. But they don’t want quinoa. (Michelle Obama tried her hardest, god bless her, to get them to want fruits and vegetables. But they don’t.)

      Even the New York Times is acting surprised that anyone ever believed in food deserts.

      • Cliff says:

        Google “Myth of the Food Desert” and you get many results, including from government agencies

      • eqdw says:

        Work brought in a speaker a few months back to give a lunch talk about “innovation”. The speaker spoke about his work history, and the various companies he has built. One of the projects he focused on was some kind of Whole Foods-like place for a poor inner city neighbourhood.

        He used this example to talk about how sometimes your first instincts are wrong, and how you go about fixing them. Because, at first, nobody shopped at his store! So he had to go talk to people and find out why.

        To the surprise of everyone in the office, except me, his result was that “turns out that poor people don’t want fancy ass hipster Whole Foods bullshit”. One of the biggest pieces of feedback he got was that they just wanted simple, normal food.

        He was apparently blown away by this idea that the poor people he was trying to be the saviour of didn’t want him. His response was to brainstorm ways to help educate them about how the products he provided were better than what they were asking for, and how they really wanted to buy his shit, they just didn’t know it yet.

        Meanwhile I’m sitting there wondering if he had ever actually spoken to a poor person before in his life, and why he didn’t bother to ask these questions before he built the store.

        • orangecat says:

          Yes, I’m perpetually surprised that anyone is surprised by this. If I’m living in a crappy apartment with a low-paying and unfulfilling job, that Wendy’s double cheeseburger may very well be the highlight of my day, and the last thing I need is some hipster explaining what a bad person I am for enjoying things other than fair-trade organic kale. Basically, what Scott Adams says.

    • John Schilling says:

      The people who aren’t happy with inner-city “food deserts” are mostly upper-middle-class people who don’t live in the inner city but are full of ideas about how poor people should live, not the poor people who actually live in inner cities and have their own ideas how to live. Says the upper-middle-class guy who used to live in an inner city and didn’t much care how his neighbors chose to live.

      Coarsely: English-speaking inner-city neighborhoods have a mix of large (mostly non-chain) grocery stores and corner markets, which sell mostly processed foods filled with sugar and saturated fat and all the “bad” stuff and which are packaged for immediate consumption or minimal nuke-and-eat preparation. People who live in those neighborhoods don’t seem to complain about this. In the non-English-speaking neighborhoods, there are more small corner-market time operations, and they are more heavily stocked with basic staples and fresh fruits and vegetables, etc, aligned towards the traditional cuisines of the Old Country. I can’t readily tell whether anyone is complaining about this, for obvious reasons, but I rather doubt it.

      Conclusion: Anglospheric culture is uniquely bad at teaching poor urbanites to actually cook nutritious meals. And the relatively wealthy critics of “food deserts” don’t bother to correct for the perceptual distortion caused by their mostly only speaking English. Convince any significant population of English-speaking inner-city residents to actually take the time to cook healthy meals for their families, and the markets will meet the demand.

      • Gazeboist says:

        Those English-speaking residents may not have time to cook, or may not know how to have the time to cook (that is, what meals can be produced from basic staples in ~20 minutes or less).

        Of course, I am an upper-middle-class urbanite with habits and obligations that keep me out of my apartment for most of the day, and little knowledge of cooking, so my perceptions may also be distorted.

        • bbeck310 says:

          True, but not problems that can be solved by putting high quality produce in the neighborhood. And of course, since all students must be prepared for college, we can’t have home ec classes to teach that sort of thing any more.

          • Error says:

            When I was in school, they still had home ec, but I don’t recall it teaching anything useful. It was more like art class; not “here’s how to feed yourself and your future family”, but “here’s how to make cute cookies that will make your parents smile.”

            Teaching the basics of running a household probably should be in the later grade school curriculum somewhere.

            (caveat: I absolutely loathed school so take anything I say about it with salt)

          • Randy M says:

            I had an optional summer school class in HS at some point that included balancing checkbooks. And other things that couldn’t list (but may still remember if not be able to attribute). I don’t remember what it’s called.

            I wonder, has any of the nutritional fads/controversies of recent years (vegan versus paleo, etc) affected curriculum in health classes? Might be a nice change of pace from other cultural battles in the Ed world.

    • The Nybbler says:

      > It’s a fun read, but the TL;DR is that if you put in enough regulations and routines, you will get identical but horrible meat patties all over the world, but if you hire lots of skilled chefs and turn them loose, you will get totally different but all over excellent food.

      But… this isn’t actually true. There are plenty of chain restaurants which have regulation and routine and make decent to good food. Sure, there’s McDonalds with the identical-but-horrible. But you can step up to TGI Fridays or Chilis or any of a number of similar chains and get consistent food that’s just OK. Or you can go into Mortons, and get a really excellent steak… from a chain with routine.

      For K-12 education, if we could hit that TGI Fridays level, we’d be doing a LOT better in most places.

      • LCL says:

        I was eventually forced by cognitive dissonance to admit that I prefer chains. Although I had cultural values for creativity, individuality, and localism, I kept finding myself at lunchtime in restaurants that served consistently prepared, market-tested dishes quickly on demand for reasonable prices. And oddly those kept being chains.

    • Antistotle says:

      Food deserts aren’t what you think they are, and were *largely* debunked. Not to say that some don’t exist, but they aren’t as frequent, large or “deserty” as the media stories made the sound.

  11. Douglas Knight says:

    The theory was that colleges could charge more money, so they did… lack of real competitive pressure

    Actually, there was is strong competitive pressure to raise prices. Colleges exhibit an upward sloping demand curve.

    • Wrong Species says:

      If you’re going to postulate something that breaks the laws of supply and demand, you’re going to need strong evidence. Quick sanity check: why does a given public university have more students than a given private university?

      • Iain says:

        Because it chooses to accept more? Harvard has a 5.2% acceptance rate.

        • Wrong Species says:

          Not every private school is Harvard. And Harvard isn’t prestigious because it’s expensive. It’s expensive because it’s prestigious. Lets say that all private schools dropped their prices to match the nearest public university. Do you honestly think attendance at private schools would drop?

          Take a look at the top colleges by applications. Notice a pattern?

          • rlms says:

            They’re all University of California – Davis?

          • ryanwc4 says:

            >Harvard isn’t prestigious because it’s expensive. It’s expensive because it’s prestigious.

            I’m an alum, so I may be biased, but I don’t believe you’ve got the arrows pointing in the right direction there. It’s prestigious because it has extraordinary costs in order to give the education that creates prestige.

            More to Scott’s point, though, I think one way that financial aid has driven college costs up is that it has incentivized lots of schools to compete on grounds other than academics. For their tuition, students today today get amazing dorm rooms, fitness centers, cafeterias with a surprising diversity of good menu options, lavish lobbies and libraries to hang out in. Most of them won’t live so well for another decade after graduation, or perhaps not ever.

          • rlms says:

            I don’t think great expense is necessarily required to make a prestigious university; Oxbridge manage to be pretty prestigious with the same fees as whatever the least prestigious UK university is (although thinking about it, that might just be for domestic students. I’m not sure what fees for foreigners are like).

          • Wrong Species says:

            @Ryan

            What do you think would happen if your typical private school raised its prices to Harvard levels? I don’t think you guys are realizing that the magnitude of the claim he was making. Demand curves almost never slope upward. This is ome of the few well established laws in social science. There are some theoretical exceptions but it’s not a claim you can make without extensive evidence in your favor.

          • Matt M says:

            Re: Harvard specifically, isn’t their “cost” now functionally irrelevant in that if you get accepted and can’t afford it, they automatically give you a free ride?

  12. Douglas Knight says:

    a system where you’re not allowed to combine the voucher with your own money

    That is typical of existing systems.

    let’s experiment

    There have been a lot of experiments. Existing voucher systems aren’t very different from existing public school systems. Sure, it would be good to have more experiments, but we do actually know something. The discussion shouldn’t be purely theoretical.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Existing voucher systems aren’t very different from existing public school systems.

      In what ways? With what regulations on schools receiving the vouchers?

      • Douglas Knight says:

        I meant not different in results.

      • gbdub says:

        Well, if vouchers go to “charter” schools, charter schools are usually required to provide a basically identical curriculum. They area or all practical purposes just public schools run by different people with a self-selected student pool. There are benefits to that, but also severe limits on how much actual “experimentation” you can get from such a system.

        If a big chunk of the lost 75% of cost really is administration associated with regulations, then there’s a limit to how much vouchers could improve things. My concern is that by legally limiting the downside risk of vouchers out of a religious anti-profit fervor, we’ll also limit the upside.

    • dwietzsche says:

      Yeah, this was bugging me too. It’s not like we have no experience to draw from the last however many decades if our goal is to learn from experience. The real problem here is that at the end of the day these issues are always underdetermined, and any clearly successful or clearly unsuccessful example of a particular program can be explained away by ideologues who will never change their mind about the best way to do a thing.

  13. ChelOfTheSea says:

    Two points:

    —————–

    Point one:

    I’m a teacher who works for a private tutoring company, which charges a pretty large amount – about $30 an hour – for tutoring. As a result, most of our students are relatively wealthy; more than a few have parents of the “we _own_ a hospital” variety. Last year, the state contracted us to provide tutoring services for underprivileged, mostly younger, kids. They funded the tutoring, and the families could bring their kids to us for free.

    My experience with that program, if at all typical, pretty much single-handedly explains the difference in public/private efficiency. These kids weren’t just behind; they were exceptionally ill-behaved – one kid would just get up, find a bookcase, and lie down in it, practically daring it to fall down on him; another took to slingshotting staples at my other students. Like most school teachers, I and the other tutors had little power to seriously incentivize the kids, and in many cases I had to more-or-less give up on one of the students who was obviously not going to get on board in order to focus on students I knew cared at all.

    Few of the parents seemed to care; many of them were using us more or less as a subsidized daycare. The few that _did_ care could provide little help, and hugely overreacted on the occasions they decided to put their foot down. I have never in my entire life felt more classist than I did during that semester; every material advantage I enjoyed as someone raised in a middle class suburb paled in comparison to my advantage to being raised by parents who had some clue what they were doing.

    Given that the public school system has to handle, by my rough estimate, something like 30-50% students of that cohort, insane inefficiencies are to be expected. Since private schools don’t – worst comes to worst, they can kick a kid out – the fact that the two systems cost comparable amounts seems like a compelling argument that private schools are in fact costing significantly _more_ for comparable students.

    ——————————

    Point two is this:

    > With all due respect, I think there is something mystical in this thought process, some demon best exorcised with a bell, candle, and Public Choice Theory textbook. There’s no object called The System, which is focused on profit in businesses and focused on education in public services. There’s just a bunch of people motivated by a combination of ethics, incentives, and trying not to get fired. Business isn’t antithetical to caring – the average family doctor is motivated by desire to help patients, even though she’s also a small business. And lack of a profit motive doesn’t guarantee good behavior – it looks like the administrators of nonprofit colleges decided to spend their windfall on prestige and empire-building rather than on keeping costs low.

    This seems contra to your previous arguments for considering systems as systems that behave qualitatively differently from their component individuals. The System is Moloch, and His hands operate differently in a profit-margin incentive scheme than they do in a non-profit one. I don’t necessarily disagree with your conclusion, but I think the failure to at minimum consider the different incentive schemes is glossing over some difficulty.

    • jasongreenlowe says:

      Given that the public school system has to handle, by my rough estimate, something like 30-50% students of that cohort, insane inefficiencies are to be expected. Since private schools don’t – worst comes to worst, they can kick a kid out.

      This is a really important point. You can’t compare the efficiency of public schools and private schools without also looking at the behavior problems in each setting, both at entry (how well-behaved are students when they enroll) and during the education (what tools are available to discipline problem students in each setting).

      This could also explain part of the rising costs since 1970 — it’s not that more kids have been identified as having special learning needs along the lines of dyslexia; it’s that the Two-Income Trap and declining real income in the working class and lower-middle-class has deprived families of the means of raising well-behaved children.

      • ChelOfTheSea says:

        My years in education have led me to really appreciate the importance of ‘background’ education from the family to both academic and interpersonal success. I worry that the two-income trap has us on a dangerous negative-growth spiral re: a lot of important social and intellectual capital.

      • JulieK says:

        it’s that the Two-Income Trap and declining real income in the working class and lower-middle-class has deprived families of the means of raising well-behaved children.

        Presumably the increase in single-parent families also plays a role.

      • Cliff says:

        I don’t think there has been declining real compensation or consumption. Houses are getting bigger and bigger all the time…

        • John Schilling says:

          You don’t serve Chef Boyardee on the good china. If the price of an empty plot of land is bid up to $200,000 because there’s $100,000 of value associated with “anyone who so much as sets up a tent here gets to send their kids to the Good School”, there’s going to be strong pressure to build a $200,000 house on that plot as well, because there are more people willing to pay $400k for a $200k house than there are people willing to pay $250k for a $50k hovel.

    • JulieK says:

      Seems like the problem public schools could replicate the charter schools results by having a separate track for kids who actually want to learn, rather than sticking them in classes with disruptive students who absorb all the teacher’s attention.
      So long as public schools aren’t doing this, charter schools are providing a valuable service.

      • ChelOfTheSea says:

        There’s a difficult ethical question lurking behind a lot of this about when you give up on a kid. Obviously there is at least SOME point (once the kid is an adult who’s had dozens of chances, one might be tempted to say) at which the resources consumption outweighs the benefit of offering more chances to ‘get onboard’.

        It sort of parallels the debate over scarce medical resources. At what point do you say “no, we shouldn’t spend $50,000 keeping a vegetable alive while little Timmy dies because he can’t afford a $5000 drug”?

        • Viliam says:

          Maybe a closer (albeit less realistic) analogy would be a zombie, who also requires only $5000 to be kept alive, but every night it wakes up and bites some of the other patients, causing them injuries and blood poisoning.

          If you compare a hospital with a zombie to a hospital without zombies, the patients in the latter will have significantly better results on average. But if you are unaware of the existence of zombies, it is easy to miss the real cause of the problem in the former hospital, because all patients there have detectable levels of poison in their blood. (Also, in a few months, some of the other patients will turn into zombies, too, which obscures the fact that the original problem could have been solved by simply removing one zombie from the hospital.)

          And if you are a doctor and try explaining this mechanism to someone, they will usually just say: “there is no such thing as zombies; if you don’t care equally about all your patients, you are a crappy doctor and you should find yourself a different job.” (Or tell you they have seen Dr. House on TV, and in the movie he didn’t have the problem you complain about, so obviously you are just making stuff up to mask your incompetence.)

          • DavidS says:

            This of course assumes that disruptive students are in fact incurable and different in kind from other students

          • @DavidS: they are. (I say this speaking as an educator who has taught everything from early childhood to college). Maybe not originally. Maybe there is a window of opportunity in elementary school to turn them around. But by middle school I have found that students’ attitudes are pretty hardened.

            If a student is a serial behavioral offender by middle school, he/she belongs in a boot camp to prepare them to redeem themselves with about 4 years as a government-issue slave infantryman. Then, if they have proven that they can constructively work with others, they can rejoin society. If they can’t hack it in the boot camp, they get exiled from the body-politic and deported to whichever country will take them, or put on a lawless reservation in Nevada. That’s how I would handle things if I were dictator.

            I love students who have a good attitude and who want to learn, and I loathe students who have a bad attitude and who actively and consciously try to make my and other students’ lives a continuous living hell.

          • Spookykou says:

            My experience was as a teachers assistant and there are certainly students that seem basically incurable. This is, IMO almost always either a special needs kid who has not been identified yet, or a bad home life. Even a great teacher, who might get good results from a kid like this, while they are in their class, probably won’t have a lasting impact that out weighs the kids home life. These bad home life cases are seriously bad, I think many people don’t really understand what poverty looks like in America. Kids who sleep in a 7-11 under the counter each night while their mom works the night shift, kids with both parents in prison living with a grandmother who is trying to raise five other kids as well, etc.

            Obviously this is not true of ALL disruptive students though, lots of disruptive students are ‘curable’ in the sense that a single teacher could make a serious difference in their behavior.

          • Viliam says:

            I believe that in theory, most of those disruptive students are curable. But given the time and energy constraints you have at school, it is unrealistic.

            If their behavior is a result of their parents’ behavior (and in most cases it is), how much time would you need to reverse the effects of years of conditioning for several hours each day? “45 minutes, twice a week, together with 30 other kids, while teaching them all” is not the correct answer. Also remember that the conditioning at home continues during your effort.

            You would have to more or less adopt the child, i.e. regularly spend a huge amount of time in a 1-on-1 interaction with them, probably for years. Assuming they would even agree. (As a person with formal authority, you are most likely already classified in their mind as an enemy.) Assuming their parents would not start interfering with your influence as soon as they notice their child’s behavior at home is changing. (Especially when the child would openly make a comparison in your favor.) If you are willing to do this, and willing to take all the risks, you are a great person. But you can’t realistically expect this from an average teacher, who already has their own family at home. And given the number of disruptive students, we would have to include the average teacher in this project.

            It is sad to accept, but in a world with limited resources, sometimes we have to give up on some people. Otherwise, even more people end up harmed. If you want someone to blame, please start with the parents; it’s those who are not doing their part of work. Not with those who don’t have enough resources to also do someone else’s work.

          • Cypren says:

            For what it’s worth, I’ve seen “incurable” kids cured in my own family. But it took removing them from their toxic home environment and a tremendous amount of time and attention to make it happen.

            My brother-in-law’s wife’s brother (say that three times fast?) is a drug dealer and general reprobate. His longtime live-in girlfriend is bipolar, and both of them are hardcore drug and gambling addicts. They have four children together, all of whom have had severe learning and developmental disabilities. After a number of documented incidents of abuse and neglect, as well as jail time for both parents, my brother-in-law and his wife were able to get permanent custody of the two older boys (8 and 11, at the time) a few years ago, and began a very slow and painful process of trying to undo the damage their parents had caused. It’s taken an enormous amount of effort, but both boys are fairly well-adjusted and happy kids now, dealing with the problems that normal teenagers face rather than “not eating meals because mom is blacked out from getting high” and “dad yelling that you’re responsible for everything gone wrong in his life.”

            I don’t think very highly of the public school system in general. But I also think that a huge number of the student-related problems it gets blamed for are the result of the societal abnegation of parental responsibility, and nothing that teachers can fix. Children need to be raised to be productive members of society by adults who are personally invested in their well-being and success; it won’t happen by accident, and strangers with limited contact can’t overcome the constant social signals being transmitted in a bad home environment.

            I don’t know how we solve this problem without the elimination of human reproduction as a right, making it a privilege only accorded to those who have demonstrated they are capable of caring for a child. Down that road lies an absolutely horrifying future of eugenics and socio-cultural engineering (and probably deliberate cultural or even racial genocide based on the whims of whoever controls the government). But as long as unfit people can sow their oats and then dump the children on society as a whole to deal with, we’ll keep creeping further and further towards “Idiocracy”.

            My cultural conditioning tells me that the former option should definitely be more horrifying than the latter, but sometimes I catch myself wondering.

        • Wrong Species says:

          Unlike health care, a hopeless student doesn’t die. You can always go back and reteach them. Now they may be behind, but they aren’t forever lost. Also, a student who actually wants to learn is going to learn faster and retain information better than one who is spiffing through it.

          • Desertopa says:

            A hopeless student doesn’t die, but in some ways the situation is even worse than that. Not only does reteaching them often fall far beyond the bounds of practicality, but they usually go on to contribute, first as part of the academic environment, then as part of the adult social environment or even as a parent, to a bad learning environment that inhibits other students.

      • Deiseach says:

        Seems like the problem public schools could replicate the charter schools results by having a separate track for kids who actually want to learn, rather than sticking them in classes with disruptive students who absorb all the teacher’s attention.

        The problem with that, as I’ve said, is the legal right to an education. Johnny can be the most disruptive, unwilling and indeed on-the-path-to-criminality little bugger in the whole district, but he has a legal right to an education and some school is going to be stuck with him. What then happens is every school in the district plays “pass the parcel” with Johnny because they don’t want a disruptive influence like him, and eventually the losing school ends up forced (often legally, via a court case taken by the parents) to enrol Johnny.

        A school that gets a whole cohort of Johnny and his ilk gradually gets the rep as the school for losers, so parents will try and send their kids elsewhere. And then you end up with a school that is really a holding service to keep these kids (mostly) off the streets until they’re old enough to legally leave, or they drop out and go onto a programme for early school leavers (you may not already know this, but quite often lawyers for the budding young criminal, in his first appearance in court, will try to persuade the judge to give a suspended sentence as “my client has obtained a place on [early school leaver service] and will be turning his/her life around”).

        Charter schools, if they don’t have the same public school obligation to take kids no matter what, will always do better by comparison.

        Oh, and streaming/tracking by ability (or “wants to learn”) is certainly very much frowned upon in current pedagogy. So even if school(s)/teacher(s) want to keep the disruptive pupils separate, they may not be permitted to do so, and a parent may even go to court about “They put my Johnny in a separate class for the slow learners/no-hopers, I demand he be in the mainstream class!”

        • sourcreamus says:

          There already is such a system in most states which is called Alternative Education, but should be called Alternative to Education. These are the schools that kids go to after they have been kicked out of the public schools. If there is no room at these places the district will provide tutors for the child at their home.

      • Evan Þ says:

        Seems like the problem public schools could replicate the charter schools results by having a separate track for kids who actually want to learn

        To some degree, you have this with honors and AP classes.  When my parents were considering enrolling me in public high school, they insisted that I get Honors Everything so as not to have disruptive uninterested students in my classes.  (In the end, we decided to keep homeschooling another year instead, for other reasons.)

        Of course, a lot of smaller schools don’t have honors classes, they still share the same facilities, and the barrier is very porous.

      • Antistotle says:

        This is exactly why charter schools are so popular in middle and lower middle class areas.

    • Deiseach says:

      Few of the parents seemed to care; many of them were using us more or less as a subsidized daycare.

      Yep. A lot of problem kids are more or less raising themselves; one example from work was a girl whose father was god knows where, mother couldn’t cope and went off to England, girl was left with elderly grandmother whose health was poor so she was willing but not really able to handle a young teenager who is rightfully feeling abandoned by her parents. Another case was a twelve year old boy with whom the principal struck a bargain; he couldn’t smoke on the school grounds but he could do so outside the school gates (I don’t think a twelve year old should be smoking tobacco – or anything else – but it was that or not have the kid turn up for class at all). “What about the parents?” you say? *hollow laughter* One fourteen year old student who died as a result of solvent inhalation. Two sisters in early teens being monitored because of self-harming/suicide risk. One girl with revolving-door social workers – every so often, her caseworker changed with little to no notice and we’d have to bring the new one up to speed all over again, continuity of care my backside. Many more examples in that vein, and that was only in the three years I worked there. Not to mention the special needs pupils with behavioural/psychological/learning difficulties. And then I moved on to the real hard chaws in the Early School-leaver Programme!

      Out of a thirty to forty minute class period, a good ten to twenty minutes (it depends) can be taken up by disruptive students (a) turning up to class late and straggling in, taking seats, and of course distracting other students (b) ‘Miss, I don’t have my books, can I go to my locker to get them’/’Miss, can I go to the bathroom’ excuses to get out of class and dawdle as much as possible until sent back in by a passing teacher (c) general inattentiveness, talking with others, and arguing with the teacher.

      That’s not counting the ones who blow up so badly they have to be sent out of class to the designated behavioural problems classroom (and that only got set aside, with a team to supervise it, after a while – previous to that, any kids sent out of class just sat outside the principal’s office until the class was over and the next class started).

      You can easily end up with only fifteen to twenty minutes of actual teaching being done in a class.

    • Alsadius says:

      Would this count as an argument for increasing punishment options for teachers? If the worst you can do is fail them from a class they don’t care about, or give them detention they won’t bother showing up to, then you’ve got no actual way to make them behave. I know it’s easy to think this way when I’m well past school age, but there’s a part of my brain saying “Corporal punishment would probably fix this real quick”. That shouldn’t be necessary – I know that the system I went to had more than enough options for punishing me, but I also know that most of those options were somehow dependent on enforcement or acquiescence from my parents, who quite definitely cared about me behaving in class.

      (Off-topic, but I suspect this is also a huge part of why prisons are so awful. What exactly can you do to someone who’s already in jail for life?)

      • Deiseach says:

        Corporal punishment is a tough question to answer. It was still legal in school in my day, and I know we all resented it. Then again, we were not generally a gang of tearaways. Would re-introducing the batá make a difference in pupil behaviour?

        I think it really is down to the broader question of changes in attitude. In The Old Days (and yeah, that’s my time too), most parents had the same attitudes: you got in trouble at school? Then you did something, and if the teacher slapped you, you’re also getting a slap at home for causing trouble.

        Now? First, a lot of parents don’t care or haven’t the ability to properly parent – either too lenient or resort to shouting and hitting, or a mixture of both. So getting parents involved, even running parenting classes and giving them support, really does make a difference. If the kids are not being taught at home how to behave, they won’t care if the teacher gives them detention or slaps them; there are no consequences to their behaviour because there isn’t the back-up at home. If the parents/caregivers don’t care what happens the kid who is let wander the streets at all hours of the night, or they are absent themselves, the school can do little or nothing about that except try to pick up the pieces.

        Secondly, a lot of parents are the ‘fight authority’ types themselves, and will come in and kick up a fuss – including being verbally abusive and even physically violent – if the school disciplines their kid in any way, including (and I’ve seen this) threats of getting a lawyer and suing the school, going to the local newspapers/radio station with the story, etc. This can be the nice middle-class ‘my little Johnny would never do anything like that and it’s your job to cater to my snowflake’s every whim and need’ parent or the working-class ‘nobody lays a hand on my kid but me’ parent.

        Thirdly, a lot of parents abrogate quite a shocking level of basic child-rearing to the schools; ‘not my job, it’s your responsibility to teach them that’ attitude to everything from teaching little Johnny how to tie his shoelaces and use a knife and fork on upwards.

        • Alsadius says:

          Part of me thinks that setting up cameras in classrooms just to show parents what sort of jerk their kid was being would help a lot in some of those cases. The privacy concerns are substantial, of course, but it’s tempting.

          Also, let’s not get too mythological about the past. Kids are less free to roam than the used to be, and some parents were always fools.

      • Absolutely. In my time as a substitute teacher, I’ve found that most punishments boil down to either hot air or a willingness to use force to overpower the student with physically stronger adult(s) (plural in the case of high school students). It’s either a bluff or it’s not.

        As a substitute teacher, I am explicitly forbidden from engaging in any physical contact with students for understandable reasons, and students of a certain bent know it by the time they reach a certain age. So I get conversations like this: Me: “You are distracting Timmy. I need you to move your seat over there.” “No.” “No? Go to the principal’s office, then.” “Make me.” (Me calling the office…) “Hi, this is Mr. so-and-so. Could you send a security officer down to room 118 to escort Jake to the principal’s office? Thanks….”

    • Joel Salomon says:

      There’s an old Jewish joke about the discipline problem: This guy’s kid keeps getting kicked out of one yeshiva after another; sends the kid to public school where his behavior get him expelled; and finally in desperation enrolls the kid in the local Catholic school—where he becomes a model of good behavior. See, (the kid explains) the punishments and threats at all the other schools weren’t so impressive, but “In this school, when the teacher says, ‘sit down and keep quiet,’ I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want to end up like that fellow hanging outside.’”

      • S_J says:

        At least one similar joke has a child from an Atheist family.

        The child is struggling, especially in the realm of math. Then he is enrolled in a local Catholic school.

        At the end of the marking period, the child is doing extremely well in math. His parents ask him why, and the child replies “I saw the guy nailed to the plus-sign, so I figured they really cared about mathematics!”

    • alwhite says:

      This is how I see things as well and I think needs to take a bigger role in shaping this discussion. This isn’t a discussion about school functioning or school efficiency, it’s about what responsibility our society and us as individuals have to other people.

      Should kids suffer for the poor decisions of their parents?

      Should we as a society be the ones paying the bill for a lack of parental support?

      We don’t have answers to these questions which is why we can’t get a solution to the schooling problem.

      • Mary says:

        “Should kids suffer for the poor decisions of their parents?”

        Should the sun rise in the east?

        The question is what is feasible to minimize it, while also minimizing the damage done to the kids in the name of preventing their suffering from the poor decisions of their parents.

    • morningpigeon says:

      I agree that behaviour is huge. From some data I took earlier this year at a school with a reputation for very difficult behaviour. From 9 lessons per week, the distribution looked something like this:

      50% of student had very minor behaviour issues – had to talk to them about behaviour once a week or less (mostly less)
      25% were moderate – had to talk to them ~5 times per week
      25% had around 15 issues per week
      (it’s not actually clustered around these numbers, if breaking things down that way gives that impression)

      Over about 4 months this reduced by about 20% across the board. I’d like to think it was due to my competence and hard work, but who knows.

      Then the school changed all the classes and I gave up.

      Key points are
      – A little bit of selection can go a long way in reducing behavioural issues, and my qualitative impressions of the different schools I’ve been at is that selection is actually quite strong. I doubt a single student from the 25% worst behaved would last long in one of the more upmarket schools around
      – Even with excellent behaviour management – lets say you can reduce the number of issues by 50% – the difficult children are still extremely demanding

    • cassander says:

      30 bucks an hour, or to hire you full time, 60 grand a year. Which is, coincidentally, almost exactly the average salary of a teacher in the US.

      That means 6 kids could hire you full time with their vouchers. who do you think would do a better job with that 60 grand, you with those 6 kids or their public school?

    • Desertopa says:

      My experience with that program, if at all typical, pretty much single-handedly explains the difference in public/private efficiency. These kids weren’t just behind; they were exceptionally ill-behaved – one kid would just get up, find a bookcase, and lie down in it, practically daring it to fall down on him; another took to slingshotting staples at my other students. Like most school teachers, I and the other tutors had little power to seriously incentivize the kids, and in many cases I had to more-or-less give up on one of the students who was obviously not going to get on board in order to focus on students I knew cared at all.

      If this experience is not typical, it is at the very least one that we have in common.

      Given the size of the student population, there were still some students who were significantly above average in intelligence and grit/productive temperament. But even these students were handicapped by having their expectations normed against the standards of the social circles they were familiar with, rather than similarly capable students they were indirectly in competition with, and by the disruptive learning environment their peers created.

  14. dvr says:

    There’s actually been a fair amount of actual research on this. There are tons of different school systems across the globe to look at, and different local systems have different degrees of privatization.

    My favorite is from DC- there was a program there from 2004-2009 that granted vouchers to low-income families. The program only had budget for a limited number of students, so families that applied were chosen by lottery to participate in the program.

    This is awesome because it sets up a randomized, controlled trial on the effects of a voucher program. The Department of Education compiled a very thorough report on the results, found here.

    Overall, the test group had moderately improved outcomes (moderate increase in graduation rates and slightly higher test scores) at a tremendously reduced cost. The vouchers were for $7,500 per student, while the District’s public school system apparently was spending almost $25,000 per pupil at the time (source, although note who’s writing that).

    Politics being politics, they gave out the vouchers without actually diverting any money from the public school system, and the program was later defunded to cut costs.

    There’s a ton of other research out there, but its generally observational and authored by very ideologically motivated groups. I’d love to hear of any other actual experiments.

    • Alan Crowe says:

      I think it is worth chewing over the exact hypothesis here. I think that the strongest form of the pro-voucher argument goes something like this:

      If we knew in detail what teachers should be doing we would mandate that, and not bother with vouchers. Since we don’t actually know, we are advocating a structural reform. The direct impact is giving more control to headmasters (I’ll just say teachers from now on) to decide how their school is to teach. The indirect impact is to take control back again and give it instead to parents, because they control (on a money follows the child) basis where the voucher money is spent.

      In the first few years some teachers stick with what they were already doing. Others experiment trying A, B, C, D, E. The first three makes things worse, D is neutral, E is an actual improvement. Some teachers are embarrassed about trying A, B, or C and quietly ditch them, hoping the parents don’t notice. Other teachers are true believers and stick with their chosen blunder until parents start moving their children. One anticipates a rough five or ten years when things get worse.

      Time goes by and people notice that E works best and it starts being copied. Of course, exact copies are hard. Realistically there are five main variants E1, E2, E3, E4, E5. E1 improves E further. E2 is different but not better, E3, E4, E5 bork E. The thing that made it an improvement gets lost. All that change and no improvement 🙁

      So, ten or twenty years in, voucher boosters are pointing to E, E1, and E2. People said education couldn’t be improved, but look its actually happening:-) On the other hand, some teachers tried B and gave up and went back to doing it the old way. And some teachers are struggling with E3 and wondering why the shiny new teaching method doesn’t work any better than the old way, and resenting that parents have pushed them into it. There is still a lot of fail and a statistical test might not yet find the changes statistically significant.

      If society sticks with it, (fifteen years? thirty years?) we get to E1.1, E1.2, E1.3, E1.4, E1.5 and even teachers who make a mess of copying E1 and get the same result as E are still showing an improvement; it comes good in the end.

      I think that some voucher advocates have a different idea in mind. They think they know what teachers should be doing and think that mandating that is politically impossible. So they advocate for vouchers hoping that it will set teachers free and the teachers will then immediately start doing the “already known good” thing. That theory predicts a prompt improvement in school performance, but it is only cloakatively a voucher theory.

      So the voucher hypothesis is about structural change. Change the incentives and wait while the system anneals to the new equilibrium. I don’t think you can test that hypothesis in five years. If it seems to work in so short a time, I would attribute that to known-good approaches that were previously blocked by politics. A positive result in five years would be nice, but still only probes the immediate circumstances, not the long term merits of the new structure.

      • Alsadius says:

        An interesting point, but given that short-term studies do tend to show improvements, I’d say it’s not necessary as a pro-voucher argument.

        I saw an interesting argument a while back. Every time there’s a movie made about a really good teacher, in whatever context, it’s always the same formula – they’re a hardass with a heart of gold, someone who sets high expectations and encourages students to meet them, and the students work their butts off to prove themselves to the new guy. But nobody ever seems to try this approach in the real world.

        • Deiseach says:

          But nobody ever seems to try this approach in the real world.

          Probably because that’s the movies, which like to present a simple “A then B then C and happy ending” formula. Real life stories on which these inspirational stories are based are often a lot messier and more complicated and have a much more mixed record than “Mr Tibbs the hardass with a heart of gold turned this class of slackers around and now they’re all straight-arrow citizens”.

          I mean, I’ll give you an example from the school I worked in – it’s long ago enough by now not to be A Recognisable Student. Kid was very disruptive and didn’t want to learn; had anger-management (at the least) problems. Privately, I used to think what he needed was a good slap but hey, corporal punishment is no longer legal. Anyway, any kind of discipline attempted by the school was immediately challenged by the mother (a lone parent, no father on the scene and no idea what or where he was), who constantly backed up and encouraged her kid no matter what he was alleged to have done. Result? Kid is pretty much spoiled, knows he can get away with murder, has no incentive to learn, doesn’t care a straw about any of the teachers’ opinions because he knows Mommy will come raging in to tear into them if he just goes home with “Mean ol’ Mr Murphy was picking on me today!” Mommy will not acknowledge kid has problems that need to be addressed; it’s all the school’s fault that Junior gets into trouble.

          What happens next: mommy takes up with new guy who is as temporary as previous man. She gets pregnant and when the new baby is born, loses all interest in previous kid, who is now as neglected as he was formerly cossetted, and is completely adrift. And now I feel sorry for him, because he’s plainly flailing, has burned all his bridges, and has no idea what to do or how to behave. He’s old enough now that he drops out and gets taken into that early school leaver service (you have to be sixteen) I was moved into, and because he has the anger-management and attention and all the other unaddressed problems, is disruptive there too even when he tries not to be. Problem is exacerbated by other kid there who is a sly little creep and, when he doesn’t want to sit through a class, knows how to wind this kid up so he’ll go into a chair-flinging tantrum. Result: teachers and staff trying to deal with the problem while sly guy sits back and enjoys the chaos, and first kid is constantly losing ground on pretty much the last chance he has to get anything approaching a normal education and help to deal with his problems before he ages out of the system and possibly goes on to petty crime/other problems.

          “Heart of gold hard-ass who the students respect enough to want to impress” won’t get much traction there. Some of our kids were there instead of doing their first bout of jail time, so they weren’t likely to be impressed by anything short of getting a punch to the jaw, and teachers physically assaulting students is not well regarded in education today.

          • Alsadius says:

            Well yes, reality is messy. But it’d still work a lot better than most other things that get tried, I’d wager.

        • Alan Crowe says:

          By my reckoning America needs about 2million teachers. Crude calculation 320million divided by 70 year lifespan = 4.5million in each year group. Time 14 years of education = 64 million pupils. Divide by thirty in a class = 2 million teachers.

          Now “hardass with a heart of gold” strikes me as a pretty rare personality type. Where are you going to find 2million of them? For secondary school your teachers need subject knowledge; your chemistry teachers can only be drawn from those who, as children, were interested in chemistry and went on to study chemistry at University. I think there is an immediate clash between “hardass” and “academic” that makes me think that you will find very few dual qualified people. Worse still, being dual qualified like that probably opens the door to many well paid jobs. I doubt that you could recruit such folk to be teachers.

          Why do we structure education so that rare personality types are needed to make a good teacher? If students were split up, to make some classes with 100% biddable, studious pupils then we can recruit mildewed academics with nothing going for them except subject knowledge to be their teachers. (An on a personal note, I could have been such a teacher.) We wouldn’t need to find quite so many teachers with big personalities, able to dominant unruly teenagers.

          • psmith says:

            On this note, Steve Sailer has pointed out that public schools used to recruit retired NCOs to handle disciplinary issues, usually under the title of “vice principal” or such.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Some people on the SSC pages keep talking about mass unemployment caused by robotics, but it sounds like we have a good use for the unskilled but tough young men right here.

          • psmith says:

            I can’t tell how serious you’re being, but the point is that former NCOs will have been heavily selected for ability to project authority and deal with the obstreperous and the dumb, at least relative to the general population. It’s not just about being able to stand in front of people and shout, and if you think it is I invite you to try it sometime.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Partly joking but partly serious. If you need someone to back up the teacher, having a few tough guys standing in the back of the room can be a godsend.

            I talk a lot about wage subsidies when the subject of mass unemployment comes up here, and this is one reason why. A school in a struggling school district could do quite a bit of good with a bunch of additional unskilled labor.

          • Antistotle says:

            > Now “hardass with a heart of gold” strikes me as a pretty rare personality type. Where are you going to find 2million of them?

            Marine Corps tends to build them pretty good. Heart may be a bit tarnished, and sometimes it’s silver or bronze, but it cares and it understands “tough love”. I bet there’s more than a few in the Army too.

        • bbeck310 says:

          Anyone who thinks the “hard-assed teacher changes kids into stars” movies are realistic needs to read this Education Week piece on Jaime Escalante, the teacher profiled in “Stand and Deliver.”

        • Quixote says:

          This approach has been tried in the real world, studies with randomly controlled (but obviously not double blind) tests and proved extremely effective with great results across a wide variety of outcomes.

          Google “high expectations, high support”
          here’s a quick example. There is a better longer more detailed article I read sometime this year but cant find now
          http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/06/opinion/sunday/schools-that-work.html

          • morningpigeon says:

            A minor but potentially important note is that there are some hints that this model might be most effective for students with relatively low academic performance to begin with, and may not be more effective for higher achieving groups.

            See for example page 17 here, although obviously not every school included there is of the high expectations, high support model.

            The standard view in education tends to be that what’s good for one group is good for everyone, but it could be mistaken.

          • Antistotle says:

            Higher achieving groups don’t need the same sorts of things as lower achieving groups.

            Lower achieving groups need leadership and pushing. Higher achieving groups need resources and direction.

        • Desertopa says:

          People try this approach in the real world all the time, it’s just that the results are almost never newsworthy.

          Teachers working with difficult student bodies generally either learn very quickly to loosen their definition of “high standards,” or accept that getting more than a small fraction of the students to meet them does not lie within their powers. Those who do neither tend not to last long on the job.

          If there’s anyone out there working miracles via this method, there’s still a valley of bad results between them and ordinary teachers attempting to emulate them.

          Edit: I should add that this doesn’t mean that improvement is impossible, but it requires change operating across a broader level than a single teacher or classroom. The students walk into each class with expectations set by the environment of their entire school.

  15. Emma the trust fund baby says:

    I thought that the price has risen relative to other goods, because education, university, healthcare, etc. are difficult to automate or see big efficiency gains. Whereas other goods are much cheaper now because of technology and automation.

    That explains why the price increased. So, where does the extra money go to? I’m not sure whether this even makes sense, but hear me out! If you can produce 4x more smartphones now due to technology, then, to have the same relative education production, you’d need 4x more teachers. So you’d see more spending without higher salaries.

    • marvy says:

      I’m not sure I follow. You’re saying that nothing changed in education, but everything else got cheaper, so the price increase we’re seeing is just a failure to drop prices? Or am I misunderstanding you? (If you’re saying we have 4x more teachers than before, I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, else we would have smaller classes, which we don’t, I think?)

    • thomasthethinkengine says:

      This is a great point. The economist in me would express it like this:

      Few productivity enhancing technologies have been introduced in the education system, in stark contrast to other industries. School still need classrooms, teachers, etc, in much the same ratios as they did in 1960, whereas the production process for most goods has changed dramatically.

      As to whether we should look at automating elements of teaching and making schooling an online activity… Maybe?

      • Alsadius says:

        http://www.khanacademy.org seems a pretty strong counterargument here. Efficiency-improving options are usually blocked by regulation, rather than being absent per se.

        For example, if you put an 18 year old in a highschool class, they’ll have maybe 20 other kids in the class. The same 18 year old three months later will have 600 in Psych 101, with no particular difficulty. That’s a 30:1 efficiency we’re just ignoring.

        • Marklouis says:

          The problem in my view is that while “learning” has become more productive (I can learn about anything cheaply), “credentialing” has become less productive. The very nature of a credential means that scarcity increases it’s value…being costly (i.e., unproductive) is one way to achieve scarcity.

          We need new supply of credentials. Apple, Amazon, and Google should be starting universities. They have enough brand power to establish a desired credential and i’m sure could provision “learning” at a very competitive cost (i’d guess half the cost of traditional universities).

          • Alsadius says:

            Google could probably sell a degree for a thousand bucks and make a profit at it. Problem is that if they tried, they’d create a degree with zero brand value, because the only part of a university that creates any value at the undergrad level is the admissions department. The problem of how to get people to get sensible on the topic of credential value is a far tougher one.

          • JulieK says:

            What if the Google U degree requires passing difficult exams?

          • Alsadius says:

            Julie: Fair, a sufficiently difficult exam can have value even without admission requirements – the CFA seems like the obvious model here(like $3000 all-in to write it, anyone can sign up, but the colossal failure rates make it still have some value).

        • Desertopa says:

          There’s a big difference in manageable sizes based on student temperament, and the filtering effect created by college entry has a huge impact on this.

          You could increase class size even more than that without much loss of learning as long as you’ve filtered out the students who’ll disrupt others’ concentration, and the proportion of students who need to ask questions in order to follow along with the material is kept low enough. Most college seminars keep the class size significantly smaller than that in order to keep it feasible for students to engage with the professor during class, but a lot of the issues which make large classes an impediment to learning in grade school are not meaningfully in effect in college.

          College professors are often substantially less effective instructors than grade school teachers, because they aren’t trained in teaching, selected for their aptitude in it, and their incentives to be good at it are much weaker. The fact that college students, who’re heavily selected for being able to learn under their own direction, are often able to learn under these conditions, doesn’t mean that we could also get good results in grade school without needing competent teachers.

      • Viliam says:

        I agree that education uses obsolete processes and should be changed. (How specifically, that’s for a longer debate. The improvements in smartphones also cannot be completely explained in one blog comment.)

        However, the lack of new technologies in education only explains why it didn’t become more effective, or why it didn’t become cheaper. But it doesn’t explain why, after adjusting for inflation, it still became more expensive.

        Also, some parts of “providing education”, such as the teachers’ salaries, didn’t actually become more expensive. So the answer must be in some other parts. What are they? Is it the buildings, tables, chairs, pens, pencils, and paper? Probably not; and by the way, that would actually go against the argument that everything else became more effective and therefore cheaper.

        Without more data, I can only make wild guesses… maybe schools today employ more people (not necessarily more teachers), for example you are legally required to provide first aid… or maybe they buy more expensive stuff, such as computers in classrooms, and similarly better teaching aids for other subjects… or maybe more money is wasted, for examples because everyone in the school is so busy with bureaucracy that they don’t have any time left to think how to make things cheaper… or maybe government extracts some money back from schools in some hidden way… or something else.

        I would need a detailed list of expenses for a school today and a school 50 years ago. Just saying that the total cost increased doesn’t explain how specifically that happened.

        • Education became more expensive because there has been tremendous depreciation of every paper currency since the end of the Bretton-Woods system in 1971 when the Federal Reserve lost its last tenuous responsibility to keep the dollar from depreciating vs. gold.

          Since then, the price of gold has gone up 40x versus the dollar, or in other words, a dollar is worth 1/40th what it was before. The only reason we don’t notice this is because (mostly) everything else has gotten cheaper too due to productivity gains.

          With a stable currency, most prices of consumer goods would have seen massive deflation with the productivity gains that we have seen since then. I’m talking 97% price declines. And ever since the Great Depression, we’ve learned that we can never ever ever ever have deflation of prices. So, the Federal Reserve and other central banks have allowed their paper currencies to lose 97% of their value, so those consumer prices of most goods in dollar terms merely stayed even. (The prices of consumer goods as measured in gold ounces needed to buy those goods has plummeted by about 97%, by contrast).

          On the other hand, the things that have not seen huge productivity gains (education, healthcare) reveal the depreciation of the dollar and other paper currencies vs. gold by their price increases.

          • Evan Þ says:

            That’s a nice theory that makes sense in macroeconomic terms… but on the ground level, where in the world is that money going? And let’s not forget how Scott’s graph is already inflation-adjusted.

          • onyomi says:

            Inflation is a big problem, but educational costs have exploded relative even to inflation.

            With universities, at least, administrative bloat and money spent making the campus luxurious in ways which don’t really make much difference to actual education outcome (climbing walls, etc.) are big culprits, but I think they may be dwarfed by another factor, which is the “$500 hammer phenomenon.”

            What do hospitals, the Pentagon, and universities receiving federally subsidized loan money have in common? They all have this thing where they consistently overpay, usually just a little, sometimes a lot, for everything in ways which add up to a huge difference in the end. I recall, for example, our university building a new computer lab. All the chairs in the computer lab cost something like $600 a piece. They were very comfy chairs. But not THAT comfy.

            Let’s say you are in charge of building new computer lab. You are given 1 million dollars to build new computer lab. You account for all the concrete, computers, printers, etc. etc. You realize it is going to be about $800,000. What do you do? Do you give it back? Do you just say “nah, you know what, we don’t really need one million dollars to do this job.” Or do you just make it a little fancier; buy the top-of-the-line chairs, etc.?

            A lowish-level but consistent incentive to high-ball all expenses and not come in under budget because you don’t get to keep the extra anyway, over time adds up to a huge difference.

  16. jasongreenlowe says:

    It may be *complicated* to explain why many nonprofit schools/hospitals perform roughly as well as many for-profit schools/hospitals, but I don’t think it’s *confusing*. Different organizational models have different pros and cons. At a non-profit, you get tax breaks, at least some limits on salaries for your top executives, a slightly more altruistic group of employees, somewhat more focus on long-term or intangible results, and a more egalitarian, more bureaucratic workplace with less turnover and more job security. At a for-profit company, you get venture capital, somewhat more talented executives, a slightly more practical group of employees, much more focus on short-term financial returns, and a more hierarchical, personality-driven workplace with high turnover and less job security. All of these differences cause organizations to perform differently in different circumstances; sometimes the pros outweigh the cons, and sometimes they don’t.

  17. Petter says:

    School vouchers have been tried in, out of all countries, Sweden. It has arguably failed.

    The thing is, the “customers” of the schools want high grades. So the schools give them high grades. Sweden has seen a huge inflation of grades. There are standardized tests, but the teachers are forced to ignore them.

    At the same time, Sweden has been falling in international rankings.

    I am not saying you are wrong, but the mistakes made by Sweden should be recognized and not repeated elsewhere.

    • thomasthethinkengine says:

      Free markets are awe-inspiring, in certain circumstances. Markets can fail to meet their potential in two types of situations:

      1. Where the payer and the consumer are different people (e.g. I buy you a gift.)

      2. Where it is not clear to the buyer in advance the quality of the good. (e.g. a book)

      2.1. Where it is not clear to the buyer, even ex-post, the quality of the good. (e.g. vitamins)

      When parents buy education for their kids, you get 1, 2, and 2.1.

      1 is not a problem when the buyer really cares. Sadly the parents that don’t care are the ones whose kids need education the most. 2. you can solve with systems of trusted reviewers, with some success. 2.1 is a really tough one, and you end up measuring partial aspects like test scores.

      It is no wonder that the advantages of free markets don’t always manifest themselves.

      • Iain says:

        Yeah, I think this gets to the meat of my objection to this post. The information asymmetry of buying food is low (especially given the existence of a regulatory regime that, for example, keeps track of the level of melamine in your milk), and our market for food works very well. The information asymmetry of buying healthcare is high, and for-profit hospitals don’t show any improvement over non-profit hospitals.

        Education is more like healthcare than food.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      >It has arguably failed.

      Of course, it’s not easy to identify how much of these effects are because of publicly-financed private schooling and which stem from the other problems Swedish school system has developed, e.g. inability of Swedish schools to hire capable teachers (this is a real problem), and which from the overall changes in the environment that is Sweden.

      I think one possible reason why the Swedish system has failed so noticeably is that they also had got rid of the official national examinations such as abitur earlier. While that kind of exams have many problems, they are certainly much better proxy for measuring a school’s quality (or at least its students abilities) than what kind of grades school itself hands out to its students or if they have shiny new computers or any other bells and whistles and signaling that might impress those parents who are looking for wrong signals.

      I also wonder why Scott spends so much time discussing hospitals instead of the actual data points we have of voucher-based school systems such as Sweden.

      • Viliam says:

        Schools giving grades to students, and then using those grades as a measurement of how well the school provides education… that’s an obvious conflict of interests.

        The grade inflation happens even without vouchers. If there are two teachers teaching parallel classes, one of them gives students fair grades, and the other one gives everyone good grades, sooner or later parents will start complaining about the former. And the only way for the accused teacher to defend is to accuse the other teacher of inflating grades… which is not a smart move, if you want to have a peaceful job environment. So the teacher often just starts inflating grades too, consciously or not.

        When I was teaching computer science at a high school, I have read the official norms for grading students. First, they were internally inconsistent. (Imagine all the applause lights thrown together: the grades must be objective, but at the same time also subjective, and motivating, etc.) But then, there were specific guidelines. Not sure if the person who wrote them actually taught at a high school or just used their own imagination. Essentially, to achieve an A grade, the student would have to be able to discuss advantages and disadvantages of various programming languages or design patterns. I didn’t have such student. To achieve a B grade, the student would have to consistently follow the best practices, although without being able to explain why those practices are considered best. I didn’t have such student either. To achieve a C grade, the student would have to reliable deliver a working solution, even if it contained some ugly hacks. Okay, the best students, maybe one or two in a classroom were capable of this.

        Now back to reality; if I am giving the C grade to the brightest student in the classroom, and D or E to everyone else (just like I am officially instructed to), I will be fired, and probably happy if some parent will not attack me physically. So what do my colleagues do? Well, they give A grades to the smarter half of the class, B grades to the dumber half of the class, and C grades to the few ones who don’t pay any attention. No one will tell me “dude, you gotta inflate the grades”, but I will be given hints like “more experienced teachers don’t have this problem, try to learn from them”. Sure, can do. But it’s a race to the bottom.

        Letting schools evaluate the product of their own work — unless it’s only meant as a temporary feedback, before the real independent feedback comes — is obviously wrong. Good luck convincing an average parent about it. Especially if improving the system could mean that their child will get worse grades than now. (Even if everyone is getting the same best grades, so the best grades don’t mean anything anymore — most people can’t tell the difference between a map and the territory.)

    • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

      There are apparently problems in Swedish education but it’s far from clear that their modest voucherized sector is what’s driving them.

    • Cliff says:

      Sweden has a huge immigration problem

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      Well “arguably” is right.

      The Swedish system is both popular and seems to work well. Then again, education results haven’t really improved. Then again again, Swedish schools have a lot more non native speakers than it used to.

      The grade inflation is a real problem, but it’s a symptom of a broken system design, not inherent in the voucherized model.The pre voucher schools had little incentive to hand out inflated grades, and now that there is such an incentive it’s being exploited.

      The critique I think has some validity is that it’s real hard to tell a good school from a bad one, and often parent have to decide on rumors and flashy marketing.

  18. 1soru1 says:

    For a grocery store, you can complete a feedback loop of visit, purchase, consume and evaluate in 2-3 days at most. So you can go through that at least a hundred times per year.

    For education, the corresponding feedback loop is 10 to 40 years; any evaluation you make before that is not real information from the loop, but just the kind of evaluation an inspector could do as well or better.

    Consequently, there is no plausible mechanism for market-based competition to actually improve, or even help maintain, the actual quality of education. Stars are known to have gravity, which is known to affect things at a distance. But if you do the math, you can see that influence is negligible and undirected, which is why astrology is bunk.

    So by introducing a profit motive to schools, all you are doing is adding an incentive for higher costs; the higher the revenue, the more money represented by a fixed profit margin. And the more money available to pay sky-high wages to decision-makers to ensure the right decisions are made. That is the market dynamic that brought you the F35. 5% profit margin does not mean 5% more expensive, it merely sets a challenge as to how high the price can feasibly be raised.

    Probably the likely outcome is that every high school ends up with a thousand seater stadium, swimming pool, separate library building, etc. Every school has a 10-strong marketing department, every principal makes 7 figures. No one with a choice would consider sending their offspring to anywhere without those visible facilities.

    It is possible actual education would survive in rural areas too remote to offer multiple alternative schools, the church schools of minority religions, etc.

    • thomasthethinkengine says:

      Don’t forget, the institution you describe has very high test scores. They are obtained by screening students upon entry, but *explained* by reference to the facilities and quality of teaching staff.

      • Viliam says:

        Measuring the test scores of students leaving a school, but ignoring the differences between students entering the school, that is a source of some deserved criticism. Unfortunately, people who bring this criticism usually suggest as a solution that all measurement should be abolished.

        Not sure how to fix this, though. You could measure students before entering the school, and after leaving it, so you could say “this school only provides a difference D”. But that would also create some weird incentives; essentially the schools would want students who are smart and capable, but had a low score in the past for some random reason. Or could even encourage their future students to purposefully fail the previous test, because that would create a higher reported difference for the school. Maybe they would even refuse to admit the brightest students, because mere regression to mean would be reported as the school failing to do its job.

        • roystgnr says:

          But that would also create some weird incentives; essentially the schools would want students who are smart and capable, but had a low score in the past for some random reason.

          I’m not sure how this is a “weird” incentive. Is it “weird” when industries look for natural resources that are easy to extract but haven’t been refined in the past for some random reason? Is it weird when effective altruists look for people whose lives are easy to improve but who have been neglected in the past for some random reason?

          The other possible incentives you suggested are certainly perverse, though. I suspect the “avoid likely regression to the mean” problem can be reduced by looking, not at a simple delta in test scores, but by the delta in deltas in percentile scores. Look at historical students at the Pth percentile nationwide in grade N, look at their distribution of scores in grade N+1; if a current student ends up above the median in that distribution then they’re a credit to their school, if not they’re a demerit. Obviously your school isn’t going to turn 99th percentile students into 101st percentile students, but if they tend to fall to the 95th percentile in general but they only fall to the 97th percentile at your school then you’ve still got an incentive to admit them.

        • 1soru1 says:

          The point is if you do this you are not actually using customer feedback, but just adding an extra layer of indirection to the official government inspectors and assessors.

          If, based on that information, there is a right thing to do, then simply do it. Increase the budget, cut the budget, sack the head, close the school, whatever. The process of producing a glossy brochure which a fraction of the parents read beyond the first page is not a useful addition to that feedback loop.

      • Cliff says:

        Quality of students entering the school is probably a very excellent metric for the quality of the school

    • bbeck310 says:

      You’re assuming there’s no quicker proxy for feedback, at least broad enough to tell the difference between terrible and decent. If your kid goes to school, come see home, and reports that no teacher ever taught anything or disciplined any students, you don’t need to wait 40 years to figure out it’s a bad school. The problem in our education system isn’t decent schools that could be better, it’s awful schools that no child should have to attend.

    • IrishDude says:

      If evaluating quality education is so hard, how do bureaucrats make decisions on how to run schools? Government should be just as stumped as private citizens in knowing what works. And if bureaucrats have access to what makes for a quality education, there’s no reason this knowledge can’t be shared to the market.

      • Randy M says:

        Government should be just as stumped as private citizens in knowing what works.

        Well, hence the debate.
        One of the core issues is the inability to say that some students are dumb. This puts a rather difficult bar for any educational reform, but on the upside, plenty of opportunity for new theories to gain prominence and subsequently fail.

        • IrishDude says:

          As has been mentioned above, I think a big issue with public education is not dumb kids, but disruptive kids. My controversial stance is that schools should teach any kid that wants to learn, and all other kids should go elsewhere. Unfortunately, one disruptive kid makes 30 other kids suffer in their learning experience, and I think there should be zero tolerance on bad behavior. Stop being disruptive, or go elsewhere.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            What about involuntarily bad kids, meaning those with minor special needs or minor learning disabilities of some kind?

          • morningpigeon says:

            There are plenty of involuntarily bad kids who are still very bad (in the sense that an occasional genuine desire to change doesn’t help at all). Are you asking about degree of badness or about free will?

  19. miguelaglopes says:

    I think there is a fundamental difference between education and groceries (or cars, phones, whatever):
    – It is more or less straightforward to make a decision regarding buying phone X instead of phone Y. Of course, many products are similar in quality and price – but it is easy to categorize phones in those terms. The best phones (in price/quality) sell a lot, the poorest do not and go out of the market. In general, there is a fast selection of good technical and managerial practices, and products like phones clearly benefit from market competition.

    – In the field of education, things are not as straightforward:
    a) For the average parent, it is harder to know if curriculum X is better than curriculum Y (compared to phones). The way to assess different school practices is by looking at the impact on their students, but this is a long term thing and can be socially damaging – a generation or two of many ill-prepared students.
    b) Parents can make dubious choices in this respect – choosing a creationist school for their children, for instance, or home schooling. And children with a creationist background will tend to become creationist adults, choosing creationist schools for their children.
    c) Market competition works well when the offer of products is great. This is the case of phones, cars, groceries. But in the case of schools, there will only be a few choices available in a reasonable distance. There will be a much lower selective pressure between schools (as compared to phones), leading to oligopolies and stagnant practices.

    • Cliff says:

      I’m confused. We have a basically free market university system, right? Do you consider it a hopeless failure?

    • IrishDude says:

      The vast majority of people aren’t auto experts, but we still have a functioning car market where people can select quality cars. Just have a Consumer Reports for education, where experts do the evaluating for the laypeople.

      • miguelaglopes says:

        There is a difference is between the offer of cars (or universities – reply to Cliff) and elementary/middle/high schools. If all the parents could choose between hundreds of schools to send their children, I would probably support a privatized school system.

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          I get the impression that online resources like KhanAcademy stand to bring this reality about.

          Although what’s more likely is that KA and a few others will end up dominating the online education market, and competitors will instead be working in the private tutoring market. However, since tutors are inherently more mobile than public school systems, there will in fact be more tutors available for any given customer to choose from.

          • nimim.k.m. says:

            Actually, moving towards to a model where children go to “private tutoring” instead of “school” could be ideal in many ways: when say “tutor”, we usually mean a person who teaches 1-1 or a very small group and is a professional in a their field: this probably is positive for learning, and allows adjusting the topics, the level and methods for the needs and abilities of each child on individual basis. The pool of tutors probably also would be larger if there was a low-entry market: I can imagine I might give a try in tutoring in subjects I study in uni as a side-job, but wouldn’t do “regular school teacher” unless the alternative was dying of hunger. (Main reason being that I could just pick the students…)

            However, finding enough professionals to do that for a whole generation of children, not just a extra support for small subgroup middle-class families, that would probably be prohibitively expensive. And we want the education system to try to serve also the children who are unlucky when it comes to their parents or personality, the kids no one wants to work with.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            I, too, have given some thought to whether I would like to tutor in math. And I’m probably in a similar group to yourself. Right now, my view is that I would enjoy it enough that I would be willing to do it for free, or even minimum wage, provided the student was attentive and showed signs of progress, and if not, I would probably lose interest and not want to do it unless I was being paid (more).

            I don’t think it would be necessary to provide every child with a tutor. Far from it. My expectation is that most of them would get by fine with online course material, plus having a parent nearby. If you want to force me to produce a number, I would stick my finger in the air and guess… 30% of children would need a tutor, or more accurately, 30% of education would require tutoring – for example, some students would breeze through literature, including the extra credit work, while hardly trying, but need a tutor for most of their math work. And in most of these cases, they might just need a 1-10 tutor as opposed to a 1-1, so I might expect a lot of batch sessions being advertised (“we meet on Thursdays from 1-3pm at the Cobb County Public Library, room 102”).

            This might be enough to close the gap. I can’t prove there won’t be children left over – the ones no one wants to work with. To this, I can make two points: one, the status quo already has such children; two, everyone has a price. Pay me $100 an hour and I’ll babysit young Adolf for six. (For that much, I’d probably have competition.) If that sounds like a lot, well, 36 weeks * 30 hrs/week = 108 hrs = $10800 per year. That’s literally less than the current expense per student in 2012 in the US. Obviously, much of that won’t be take-home pay; I have to buy supplies. But remember, this is in a context where online resources are available, I only need a couple thousand for a decent laptop for myself, and a few hundred for a tablet for Adolf to borrow (if he breaks it, you cover the cost of a new one), and homework uses a pencil and paper if it comes to that.

            If this still isn’t enough, then I’m guessing we’re in territory where the kid needs a boarding school, and maybe there needs to be “problem child insurance” or the like to cover that expense. But this is a problem the status quo already has, and it’s possible that there will be more resources available to spend on it in the KA scenario.

  20. antilles says:

    So why don’t grocery store shareholders leech off so much money that everything is overpriced and has terrible service? Why aren’t stores dingy and full of rats? Why don’t we have a world where, as Robinson argues, the theory of choice is a romantic fiction because all of the grocery-related options available to poor people are terrible, and no new operators can do a better job because the only way to make money in the grocery business is to shaft customers and have a terrible store selling rice mixed with sawdust?

    This is a very weak objection. A grocery store is just about the best example of a well-functioning market with low barriers to entry (according to Micro 101, even). Food products are largely non-differentiated. There are quite a few options in most areas so there is plenty of competition. There are low barriers to entry (maybe not for a Safeway, but for starting a convenience store). And there are basically zero transaction costs of switching your business from one grocery store to another. And even given all these factors, competition failures exist in the form of food deserts.

    Schools are not that. There is strong differentiation in terms of both “brand” i.e. status signifiers and, often, quality. There are few options in many areas, especially rural areas. Barriers to entry are very high, such as a highly qualified workforce, facilities, not to mention the accreditation process (and before you go there, there’s really good reasons to think accreditation is important for *children’s schools*). And transaction costs of switching your “business” as a parent elsewhere are high, which is basically Robinson’s argument.

    Your argument in the last section is basically “experiment with how to make the education market more like the grocery store market.” Instead of doing that, why don’t you take a hint from the countries in the world with the best education (and, for that matter, healthcare) systems? Public.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      That’s why Scott wants to encourage microschools.

      At home, we are strongly considering moving our youngest out of public school and into home schooling. He has behavioral issues and the school support for his IEP is really minimal so we could just make that up. My wife can’t work anyway because once a week she has to go to school because Boy did something. She’d get fired from any normal job.

      And we can get through a day’s instruction in about an hour.

      • Viliam says:

        > And we can get through a day’s instruction in about an hour.

        This.

        For an above-average child, school is mostly a waste of time. Time spent waiting for the slower classmates. Time spent waiting until the teacher calms down the disruptive classmates. School breaks, where in theory you have free time, but all your toys are at home. Randomly jumping from one topic to another, because the school schedule requires you to jump between various subjects each hour, and only return to the interrupted topic a few days later.

  21. Andrew G. says:

    Something like 3% of parents home-school their children. This cuts across class and racial lines better than you’d think. All the research shows that home-schooled students do much better than traditionally schooled students on standardized tests, college admission exams, college GPAs, and general life satisfaction as adults. This is probably unfair, because home-schooled students are the descendents of the sort of thoughtful conscientious parents who want to home-school their children, so they probably have a big genetic advantage.

    It also appears as though most of the research—certainly the wikipedia section you cited reflects this—is carried out by homeschool advocacy organizations.

    The ICHER summarizes the research thus:

    How does homeschoolers’ academic performance compare with other students?

    Evidence regarding this question has been fraught with controversy because most of the studies that have received widest attention have been interpreted to say something they do not and cannot. We simply can’t draw any conclusions about the academic performance of the “average homeschooler,” because none of the studies so often cited employ random samples representing the full range of homeschoolers.

    For example, two large U.S. studies (Rudner, 1999; Ray, 2009) are frequently cited as definitive evidence that homeschoolers academically outperform public and private school students. But in both cases, the homeschool participants were volunteers responding to an invitation by the nation’s most prominent advocacy organization to contribute test scores (on tests usually administered by parents in the child’s own home). The demographics of these samples were far whiter, more religious, more married, better educated, and wealthier than national averages. And yet these test score results were compared to average public school scores that included children from all income levels and family backgrounds. Not surprisingly, wealthy homeschoolers from stable two-parent families who take tests administered by their parents in the comfort of their own homes outscore the average public school child by large margins.

    The simple fact is that no studies of academic achievement exist that draw from a representative, nationwide sample of homeschoolers and control for background variables like socio-economic or marital status. It is thus impossible to say whether or not homeschooling as such has any impact on the sort of academic achievement measured by standardized tests.

    • bbeck310 says:

      But on the individual level, net statistics don’t matter that much unless they’re very clearly against. If I and my wife (college and postgraduate educated with teaching experience and subject matter knowledge spanning the full range of the liberal arts) choose to homeschool our hypothetical future kids, the statistics for the average homeschooling parent and average school don’t tell us much about the choice between our homeschooling and our very good local schools. Unless the statistics suggested a very clear and significant decrease in education from homeschooling, it makes sense to trust parents to apply their much better knowledge of their own children.

      • Evan Þ says:

        I was homeschooled myself by parents with advantages a little less than yours, so I agree with you on a lot of your point. However, would most of the new parents pulled in by Scott’s microschool voucher system share these advantages? I doubt it.

        (Also, as a footnote – North Carolina homeschool law already allows parents to homeschool kids from up to two families. I’ve never heard of anyone who’s taken advantage of this provision.)

  22. evlutte says:

    So why don’t grocery store shareholders leech off so much money that everything is overpriced and has terrible service? Why aren’t stores dingy and full of rats? Why don’t we have a world where, as Robinson argues, the theory of choice is a romantic fiction because all of the grocery-related options available to poor people are terrible, and no new operators can do a better job because the only way to make money in the grocery business is to shaft customers and have a terrible store selling rice mixed with sawdust?

    Isn’t this basically the reality of food deserts though? Assuming food deserts really do exist as my friends studying nutrition and/or public health have told me, there really are regions where poverty combined with lack of good transportation options and nearby stores mean that folks have no access to real grocery stores. All accessible stores are in the “corner store” class, not the “local supermarket” class. I don’t think this is truly make or break for the discussion as a whole. I just wanted to point out that this is an observed phenomenon.

    P.S. This is my first comment on this blog (longtime reader) so please pardon and correct me if I’ve made any faux pas.

    • Anon. says:

      We found no strong evidence that food outlets near homes are associated with dietary intake or BMI. We replicated some associations reported previously but only for areas that are larger than what typically is considered a neighborhood. A likely reason for the null finding is that shopping patterns are weakly related, if at all, to neighborhoods in the United States because of access to motorized transportation.

      http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2013/12_0123.htm

      • evlutte says:

        This paper is nicely caveated.

        The study used data from California, and the results may not apply to other geographic regions or populations.

        California has one of the highest rates of vehicle ownership (23);

        The argument is that this is a phenomenon that occurs under specific conditions which may well just be very rare in a place like california. Also, it’s worth noting that the argument isn’t that it’s *impossible* for folks in such area to get good quality food, but rather that it’s significantly more difficult. Dedicated individuals will make the effort, but many others will not even though they would have in more favorable conditions. Similarly if you allow school choice with a high effort threshold some dedicated parents will make the effort to get their children to a good school. A large portion, however, will not.

    • Garrett says:

      Doesn’t Amazon Pantry and other similar services mostly make this irrelevant, though? Sure, you might not have a SuperWalmart next door, but I’m pretty certain that Amazon and similar companies have an even better selection. And getting it drop-shipped to your door is even more convenient than having to walk/take the bus to a grocery store and back.

      • psmith says:

        It may have changed since the last time I priced this out, but from what I remember the delivery services cost a fair whack more than bulk staples at Aldi.

        • Cliff says:

          For Amazon Pantry, delivery costs are $6 (often you can get a promotional credit making it free) but no guarantee whether their food pricing is better or worse than local stores.

          In a big metro area like DC, grocery stores typically deliver for free. Not sure what their delivery radius is though.

      • evlutte says:

        Interesting point. I wonder if that (or similar delivery services) have changed the landscape in recent years. If so, it would actually be *more* useful to look at old data to see an analogous system to the school debate. After all Amazon can’t deliver a primary school education just yet. On the other hand, I suppose a robust school busing system corresponds to delivery in the food model. And to be fair good support for school busing is one of the proposals that sometimes accompanies voucher proposals.

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      I’ve been wondering why grocery stores don’t open up in low income areas. Is it…

      …because there isn’t enough food demand (measured in $$) there?

      …because the crime situation (shop lifting / robberies / etc)?

      …part of the Illuminati Master Plan?

      I never hear anyone from the grocery industry try to explain this, which makes me think “politically incorrect” factors are involved.

      • gbdub says:

        I’m guessing a lot of it is overhead costs. A full-featured grocery takes up a lot of real estate, and real estate is extremely expensive in cities. With a small footprint, you have to focus on highly profitable items – cheap produce isn’t worth the floor space.

        The other thing is I’m not sure how many people are actually that far from a decent grocery – it’s just that in a city fewer people have cars, and carrying bulky groceries on public transit sucks, so even “a little bit far” is too much. In the ‘burbs with a car, driving five miles and picking up the week’s worth of groceries you can put in the big fridge you have because you have a kitchen bigger than an inner-city apartment is a no brainer. Not so much in the city.

      • Devin Helton says:

        It should be noted that Chinatown in my city, which is not particularly wealthy, has a half dozen hole-in-the-wall private grocery stores with all sorts of fresh, cheap, nutritious food (broccoli, chicken, fish, fruit and greens of all sorts, etc).

        Crime may be a factor for why the big corporate players don’t want to open up. But other people will. I was reading an account of Detroit where it was said that about 70% of the convenience stores were run by Arab immigrants, and that 100 of these shopkeepers had been shot in a twenty year period. That is simply an astounding number of shootings.

        So I’m guessing it is what other people said in this thread — in the “ghetto” areas there simply is not the demand for the fresh fruits and veggies that you see in a Chinatown grocer or big corporate supermarket.

      • John Schilling says:

        I’ve been wondering why grocery stores don’t open up in low income areas.

        Define “grocery stores”. Because stores that sell primarily food, definitely do open up in low-income areas. Large stores that sell food, not so much. The obvious reason, to me, is that poor urbanites have either zero or one car per family, and if the number is one then that car is needed by the breadwinner to get to work every day. So any single store is limited to the market within easy walking distance – no more than a kilometer or so – and is unlikely to sell more than 1-2 bags of food per walk-in customer. Invest in a supermarket, and you’ll never pay off that investment no matter how great a selection you offer – most of the people you are trying to reach will get as far as the corner market half a block closer to them and say, “This has what I need and I don’t want to walk any farther”.

        Corner markets – some of them called “convenience stores” (*) and for good reason – those are pretty much everywhere. If they don’t sell the particular mix of wholesome, nutritious foodstuffs you think their customers ought to buy, that’s probably because they know more than you do what their customers actually want to buy. Given their low footprint they are cheap to set up, within the range of inner-city entrepreneurs, and a more efficient allocation of capital to meet actual market demand than an inner-city Whole Foods could ever hope to be.

        *Note that the “convenience stores” you sometimes go to, likely as not collocated with a gas station, aren’t the same thing and specialize in the goods demanded by middle-class customers who are far from home and in need of a quick resupply of whatever.

  23. FacelessCraven says:

    Vincent Clortho Public School for Wizards.

    A fair amount of my social circle is school teachers, particularly middle and high-school. The stories I get from them are hair-raising. Currently, it seems that we’re trying to get 1) all students educated 2) without meaningful mechanisms to enforce discipline while 3) keeping costs minimal. It seems pretty optimistic to hope that this is even a pick-two sort of situation.

    • Deiseach says:

      we’re trying to get 1) all students educated 2) without meaningful mechanisms to enforce discipline while 3) keeping costs minimal

      Add in on top of that, that schools are increasingly being expected to pick up the slack on what used to be and should be the parents’ responsibilities – governments trying to use them as a kind of babysitting/cheap childcare option, expected to not alone educate but teach the kids basic socialisation and manners and how to behave like humans and not feral dogs (I may be stating this strongly, but it’s surprising the amount of “not my job” and “the school should teach them that” that some parents engage in when it comes to “and why is your kid wandering the streets and behaving like a barbarian?”).

      I have an amount of cynicism when it comes to teachers, but it’s undeniable that it’s a tough job and I certainly would never, ever do it. And they are now being asked to make sure kids get fed in the morning, supervise them until their parents finish working and they can go home, teach them the kinds of things their parents should be teaching them about how to behave like a human, on top of “and make sure everyone gets top grades in their exams so we don’t slip down the rankings and lose funding and enrolments”.

  24. swing says:

    A quick look at Dutch governmental expenditure on public schooling suggests spending on education has not similarly ballooned. (At least, from my quick calculations it seems spending has only increased by ~20% over the last thirty years when corrected for inflation. This difference could easily be explained for by some of the mechanisms described in your article.)
    This governmental source confirms my suspicions to some extent, though it only deals with a ten-year interval of some time ago. (page 7 shows education expenditure as % of GDP, which is not really the same but a useful proxy considering the special needs expenditure etc. Education spending has remained more-or-less constant since 2008, the last data point of the graph.)

    What went wrong in the US?

  25. Charlie__ says:

    Oh my gosh that Cato institute graph is horrible. Please bear with me.

    First of all, I tried to check their data on test scores. They cite the reputable NAEP assessment. But if you look at the NAEP data, you’ll see that while mathematics and reading assessments have data since ~1970, their other assessments, including science, civics, history, writing, and technology, just have a few data points from the last decade or so.

    So: Where the hell did the long-term “science” line come from? Because it wasn’t from their cited source.

    Then, if you actually look at the reading and math data, you can see that there are overall modest gains in reading and math on average (whether these gains are impressive or unimpressive is hard to contextualize). There’s two interesting things I see in the data. First is that the test score gains since 1970 decrease with age, particularly among european-american students, so somehow we’re losing improvement in these areas between age 9 and age 17 (Maybe high schools suck unnecessarily? Maybe kids just forget a lot and education is largely wasted? Maybe students are spending less effort on reading compared to 1970 and are spending more effort on things like economics, art, or foreign language?). Second is that the test score gains among hispanics and african-americans are quite big, but don’t pull up the average much because the proportion of those students among the test population is also increasing (Simpson’s paradox).

    But of course the terrible Cato institute graph doesn’t reflect any of this. Because they graphed the average test scores, which even if they got more into the data are only changing by at most 15% relative or 6% absolute, on a scale from -20% to 200%. Golly freakin’ gee, I wonder why the line for student achievement looks so flat? Why can’t all the students score 110% on the test so we can see it on the graph?

    In contrast, the graph of school cost is a model of sanity. Compare with the actual NCES data cited, which shows an increase of 140% in per pupil expenditure since 1970 (newer data shows a somewhat smaller increase). Through some method involving “linear extrapolation” into years we already have data for, Cato institute has managed to claim a cost increase of over 40% more. But hey, 140%, 180%, who cares. At least it’s not as mendacious as people who try to claim that education costs are skyrocketing because federal spending on education is going up, when federal spending is only ~13% of total education spending (*cough* that “similar politifact link” *cough*).

    I could say other things about this article. But I don’t think I could start until I get out how abysmal that Cato graph is.

    • swing says:

      To add to your points, wouldn’t we expect some positive trend in the education scores because of the Flynn effect?

      • Charlie__ says:

        This is a good point. The standard deviation of the NAEP tests is about 60 points. So if IQ-test-takers can do 2/3 of a standard deviation better in 40 years, why aren’t students of all ages doing 40 points better on the NAEP tests than they were in 1970?

    • Cliff says:

      Age 17 scores show no change, which is what matters. Who cares if 9-year-olds are good at math if they’re going to be bad at math at age 17?

      • Charlie__ says:

        Age 17 scores show no change by population average, but each demographic group gets better scores, so I’m not content with calling it no change.

        But your point broadly stands – do we care how good kids’ test scores are at age 9 if the effect decreases by age 17? What information are we trying to gain?

        If we’re thinking about reforms to the education system, the best course of action depends on why the score gains go down with age. If the score gains are going down because people regress to a mean, then doing a better job of teaching 9-year-olds doesn’t matter so much. But if the gains go down because older kids are spending more time on economics or science or art and less on reading and math, then doing a better job of teaching 9-year-olds stays just as valuable.

        If we’re just trying to evaluate the school system’s teaching-aptness, then the score gains for 9-year-olds are important information. The score gains going down with age is then evidence that high schools suck, though again not conclusive evidence.

  26. luispedro says:

    “Privatization schemes are also heavily dependent on the existence of highly astute parents, who have the time and inclination to carefully study schools. The most vulnerable children are unlikely to have such parents. ”

    This is a common logical error: yes, you do need parents who make good decisions. But you don’t need all parents to make good decisions. Even a small minority of parents who do carefully consider schools is enough to drive the system to a better place. I’m pretty sure that some parents will consider school choices. Frankly, as a parent of young kids, it’d sometimes be nice to meet other parents and not discuss schools so much (our kids are in what Americans would call a public magnet school).

    Even assuming that profit levels are as high as 11%, this still means that if 5% of the students leave, your profit is almost halved, and 10% of students takes away almost all your profit. Lose 15% of kids and you are in trouble.

  27. thad says:

    My understanding, as a product of the Catholic schooling system, is that part of why it works is that there is a very heavy focus on actually educating students. While Catholics were over-represented, we might have been a plurality rather than a majority. You didn’t need to be heavily religious, just willing to tolerate the religion in exchange for the quality of education.

    There were two roughly comparable all boys Catholic high schools. There were more, though smaller, all girls schools of similar quality. There were maybe two suburbs with comparable quality schools. In the city, there were magnet schools, although only one had a reputation for being as good (maybe better, depending on who you asked). There was also a non-religious private school that was good, but which was considerably more expensive than the Catholic schools. There were also a few other Catholic schools of lesser quality, one of which was co-ed. Better than the non-magnet city schools, of course, and a number of the suburban schools, but not as good as the top schools.

    I don’t know which came first, the quality or the non-Catholic involvement in the schools, but the result was that while there was a heavy religious influence (sex-ed was more or less not a thing, mass on certain holy days, religion class, a pretty awesome choir, that kind of thing) the school was absolutely committed to academics.

    All of which is to say, there would definitely be schools with some level of commitment to various ideological points, but primary concern of the (vast? vast) majority would be academics. Given how important a good school district is considered now, I can’t imagine that school’s which let ideology override college admission numbers would dominate. Some would exist and there might be some fudging around the margins, but some already exist and some fudging around the margins seems necessary for experimentation.
    That said, I’m not even sure what specifically you mean when you talk about schooling as a brake on polarization and what you think would be lost. My impression is that inner city schools and wealthy suburban schools are rather different experiences that instill rather different life lessons.

    • Murphy says:

      In ireland church and state are not separate. Most state schools are explicitly catholic. You get the same spread of quality as any other school. If anything some of the minority protestant schools were unusually high-class.

      I’m willing to bet your experience is an artifact or possibly the effect of minority religious schools. Now that I’m in the UK apparently the minority of catholic schools have a similar reputation to what the protestant schools had in ireland.

      Think of it this way: families who care enough to make sure their kid goes to a catholic school or families who care enough to make sure their kid goes to a school with a good reputation are not a random sample.

      • thad says:

        It’s absolutely non-random, but the people who care about the quality of the school are enough that the quality of the school wasn’t negatively impacted by the religious pressure. While there would be ideologically aligned schools, it isn’t clear to me that ideological pressure would drive down the quality of schools any more than religious pressure drives down the quality of schools.

        You would have two variables: ideology and quality. Some parents wouldn’t care about ideology, some wouldn’t care about quality, some would care about both, some would care about neither. As long as you have a significant presence of people who care about quality, the school will be under pressure to provide quality education. As long as a school provides quality education, it should attract some of the people who care about quality but not ideology, furthering the pressure to care about quality.

  28. PL says:

    Correcting for inflation is pretty meaningless. Comparing with nominal GDP per capita would be much more informative.

    See this post by Scott Sumner for the problems with inflation: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2014/12/why_debates_ove.html

  29. Deiseach says:

    If we hand a voucher to a for-profit private school, or give a large grant to a for-profit charter school, there is a strong incentive for the school to give as little in return as possible.

    I tend not to like the idea of for-profit schools, because the little I’ve heard of them in operation in the UK makes them sound feckin’ awful.

    But hey-diddly-ho, we already have private fee-paying schools. Are they taking tons of money off the rich but gullible parents and giving the students the equivalent of Dotheboys Hall education? Or do they have the reputation of “you really want to get your kid in here, they have the best teachers, best facilities, will make sure your kids get the best academic results and go on to the best universities”?

    What about grants and scholarships? Both governments and private individuals/charitable foundations provide those to help less-advantaged students get into these (generally) non-public schools, be it at secondary or third level. By the same argument, we should abolish these and just pump that money into your local public school.

    I know education funding in America runs differently because the local area raises money via taxes, but I think you need a better argument against charter schools than “We shouldn’t be giving poorer parents monetary equivalents so they can send their kids to better schools!” Otherwise, you still have the crappy public school system and the parents who can afford it or who know how to navigate the system get their kids into better schools and you perpetuate the two-tier system of “only the poor/the losers go to that school”.

    You also need to look at schools as about more than academic results, but that’s a whole other argument (should we be ranking schools solely on exam results/how many students go on to university? what about schools that provide vocational education – are they the poor relations because the notion there is “Johnny is too dumb to go to university, better train him for manual labour or a trade, but don’t waste too much cash there because it’s better spent on educating the smart kids who will turn out to be the wealth creators/creative entrepreneurs of the future”?)

  30. ThomasA says:

    From the article:
    “In a public school system, all money is spent on the schools. In a for-profit school system, at least some portion of that money is directed instead toward the pockets of shareholders”

    This attitude is to me a core driver behind the whole inefficiency issue. The belief seems to be that “Money Spent On School” has a direct and positive relationship with “Outcome of Students.” The same thing applies to insurance with money spent on “care” rather than marketing or profit or what have you. Taking money out of profits and hiring someone to stand on top of the school building and keep watch for tornadoes would be more “money spent on the schools” in this framework but wouldn’t actually help anything.

    Maybe shareholders should just hire themselves under some sort of variable salary scheme to avoid the appearance of any profits for people to complain about.

  31. pharmst says:

    Surely your point about medical insurance company profits is missing the crucial factor that in order to make that 3% margin on selling insurance, the companies in questions have to insert an enormously expensive bureaucracy into the system. The alternative to paying for your medical care via a profit making insurance company is not a non-profit making company employing exactly the same bureaucracy to manage care payments, but one of the many other models for health care used around the world that don’t cost as much to manage.

    (The free marketeer question about why can’t those models simply take over in the US all by themselves if they’re so much more efficient is not an unreasonable one: the main answer seems to be that the government mandates paying for health care via this inefficient system & there is a vast wall of political influence used to prevent any of the alternatives gaining a foothold in the name of defending those 3% profit margins.)

    A thin profit margin is not a justification for a particular solution to a problem if other solutions are being kept out of the market my political lobbying funded out of the income generated in the service of those profits. Pointing to it and claiming that thin profit margins justify a particular market structure is effectively committing some form of the ‘this is the best of all possible worlds’ fallacy.

  32. sohois says:

    I have some experience in profit making school systems so I feel I could share a few anecdotes from my past. All of these were in China, however, so obviously some differences with the US – though on the other hand they were also in Shanghai, which has the world’s highest PISA scores so maybe it should be used as some kind of standard (note: it shouldn’t, PISA scores are fucking garbage; I think the surest way to know if this DeVos woman is incompetent is to see if she ever makes any reference to them or trusts them)

    First is the few months I spent in English training schools. All of the English training schools in China are pretty much awful. Kids will learn english but I doubt that any of the schools provide some extra learning benefit over any of their competitors, or even over just sticking a child in front of English language TV every day. That being said, the market for these did seem to function really quite well. There were loads of the schools and plenty of choice, ranging from large franchised operations to tiny places with basic facilities. Parents did seem to quite freely switch around as well. But of course, if the parents didn’t speak any English themselves they had no real way of assessing the quality, just some weak proxies. I feel like this kind of supports the argument for letting people freely establish little schools in order to encourage competition, but also supports Robinson’s point that choice is hard and even if you have a decent amount of information it still might be the case that doing nothing would get the same result – a point which Scott has made several times in previous education articles, that ultimately both teachers and schools seem to have no difference and it all comes down to genetics in the end.

    Most of my time in China though was spent in the burgeoning ‘Chinese-International’ school sector. Chinese nationals were not allowed to attend actual international schools for expat children, however loads of parents still wanted their children to study in english programs in order to go overseas universities. This led to various public schools setting up small private programs inside of themselves for wealthy students to attend and study a non-chinese curriculum. The first such school I taught at was a very prestigious Shanghai high school located right in the centre of the city. Apparently this school was extraordinarily well funded, with the students claiming that it had access to billions, though I don’t doubt they were exaggerating quite a bit. In any case it seemed a pretty clear example of simply spending to use up the extra money. The school had no room to expand outwards so they instead buried into the ground, building some colossal cavern underneath the school. There was a multi-story underground car park, nearly completely empty. This complex was so large that I hardly explored any of it but colleagues told me they also had a giant underground swimming pool – never used – and massive gyms and other sports facilities – also never used. The school could have saved the money, or raised teacher pay, or sent students on trips, or improved their godawful cafeteria food, but they didn’t. They just found the quickest way to spend the money on something (though this being China doubtless a ton of it was just funneled into kickbacks and bribes)

    Anyway, the private program within this school was the kind of corrupt institution that Robinson so fears. The person who ran it was a pure criminal interested only in her own gains. However, the reason I don’t worry about such abuses myself is because the owner had little involvement in actually teaching anyone. A school is made up of a lot of individuals, many of whom will care about the students and their education and these are the people who will actually run things day-to-day. Even if the people at the top are money hoarders they’ll still have to hire people to teach and I think decent teachers will always be able to make things work even if funding for things is a little low.

    The program wasn’t actually allowed to simply operate so brazenly, and eventually the local government intervened and it was shut down a year after I left. I moved on to a much more ethical institution where there was genuine interest from the owners in providing a good school. I mention this place as it is once again related to school spending. This being China, the going rate for these private programs was set well above what it should have been (think $50’000 per year per student) and this school was no different. They didn’t leave money on the table, even though it was difficult to even invest all of the sums and they weren’t just taking a massive profit either. Now that school funding has been established at the level that it has, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to bring it down back to the 70s or whenever.

    One final thing – those PISA scores? Mostly just based on an insane and damaging workload. Most schools would start their day at 6am, carry on til 4 and with largely mandatory after school programs til 6,7 or even 9pm. And then enough homework to keep them up til 2am. Every day. There was a recommended number of hours in our syllabus for maths instruction. Our school hit 400% of those recommended hours.

    • Cliff says:

      Well, we know that isn’t true because children cannot survive on four hours of sleep per night and that leaves no time for eating or brushing their teeth. What the true numbers are, we can only guess.

  33. S_J says:

    My parents taught their children at home, on a budget of less than $500-per-pupil annually.

    Of course, my mother didn’t have a salary at this position, so there was a large amount of volunteer labor.

    But your example in Part V describes an informal practice that some homeschooling parents in the United States do. They pool labor, trade special skills/abilities, and do other things with the available resources.

    Currently, they do this without any direct financial incentive.

    I’m aware of a handful who would run a low-overhead school in the way you describe if there was any support available.

  34. Wency says:

    One example that needs to be looked at: for-profit universities are terrible. They’re terrible despite the fact that both the students and teachers frequently put forth an honest effort. Being well-acquainted with a former teacher at one, the big reason seems to be that the teachers can’t fail anyone (which is bad for business), and they end up having to teach to the dumbest student in the room.

    I.e., they’re terrible for the same reason that most terrible schools are terrible: the students are bad. In this case, just dumb, not ill-behaved. The students are bad because they’re drawn there by the schools’ superior marketing — they should probably either not be at college or attend a community college, but no one tells them that, and community colleges don’t advertise like for-profit schools do.

    I’m not sure if primary/secondary for-profit education would be similarly terrible, but my expectations are low. Or at least, for-profit education for poor people, who are likelier to make poorer decisions about what school to send their children, for the same reason they make poor decisions vis-a-vis for-profit colleges.

    Since the primary technology we seem to have for making schools better is picking better students, then the primary way the voucher program could deliver results is if it can group poor + talented students together with rich + talented. If it does anything else, it will probably fail. And even under this scenario, expect the for-profit schools made to cater to the poor + stupid to be no better than public schools, and quite possibly worse.

    Though the parents might get a free iPhone when they sign their children up (see the laptop promotions at for-profit colleges).

    • Urstoff says:

      For-profit universities have a very specific customer base: people who couldn’t get into any other school. I doubt this would be the case (or is the case) with for-profit primary or secondary schools.

      • Wency says:

        “people who couldn’t get into any other school”

        This isn’t true. Many, perhaps most, could attend community college and receive an education of comparable quality at a much lower price. Not a great education, but one priced appropriately.

        I personally know someone for whom for-profit school proved to be a terrible life decision — her peers who went to community college ended up in much better shape.

        The reason she went to a for-profit school is that the community colleges didn’t advertise, while the for-profit school’s marketing vastly embellished her career prospects after graduating.

        Regarding Scott’s analysis of profit margins, it’s worth pointing out that marketing tends to be a dead-weight loss for society, unless it manages to convey useful and true information. The for-profit schools have historically spent about 15-20% of revenues on marketing. And this may understate it, since expenses categorized e.g. as “admissions advisory” may be categorized as “sales expense” in another industry.

        And for all that, I would contend that their advertising has been the opposite of useful and true.

    • This. The problem with student achievement in the vast majority of cases is that the student is bad. Either dumb, ill-behaved, or both.

      Sadly, long-term, the only way to really improve student achievement will be, I fear, to genetically engineer new generations to have higher IQ and lower impulsivity. Throwing however much money at whatever more politically-correct alternative fad the public latches onto will give us the same stagnation that we have been dealing with for the last 40 years until we bite the bullet.

      • Urstoff says:

        Genetics accounts for about 50% in the variation of personality traits, not 100%. So the question is what of that other 50% we can push one way or another via institutions (putting aside the question, for now, of whether we should).

        • Cliff says:

          I think heredity accounts for 50%? Genetics could well account for virtually 100%, the other 50% could well be random or etc.?

          • Urstoff says:

            Yes, that’s a better way to state it. It could be random, but without knowing, despairing that genetic engineering is the only way to improve outcomes seems premature.

          • Wency says:

            I think it’s fair to say that education counts for more than 0 (e.g., it’s apparently possible to move a society’s literacy rate from 0% to near-100%). but much less than the conventional “blank slatist” wisdom would suggest.

            And you’ve captured nearly all the low-hanging fruit by putting kids in front of a reasonably educated and motivated teacher for a period of time, regardless of how that teacher chooses to teach. Actually, you’ve probably captured a lot of the low-hanging fruit just by having the kids grow up in a society where literacy is expected.

            My sense is that there may be some low-hanging fruit in the form of otherwise smart kids whose peer group is disruptive and anti-intellectual. If you can identify the smart ones and pull them away from that peer group at a young enough age, maybe you’d see some results. If vouchers were a scheme to identify those children and send them to private schools that have the power to eject them if they turn out to be disruptive, then maybe they would have productive results.

            But such a program would be politically untenable — you need vouchers for the bad kids as well, but there’s nowhere you can send them to make them better. And the vouchers probably come with political pressure for good schools to take in the bad kids, so the only result is damaging otherwise good schools.

  35. JulieK says:

    I do not put it past people to start sending their kids to schools that teach liberal values or conservative values in particular, and then one of the few (albeit mostly ineffective) brakes on further polarization is removed.

    It also removes a ground for conflict, though. Instead of fighting over which books to read, or what songs to sing at the holiday concert, parents can pick a school that shares their values, and not have to feel that they have no choice but to have their children indoctrinated into the dominant cultural values.

    • Murphy says:

      If they’re lucky enough to be part of one of the majority ethnic groups or if they’re lucky enough for there to be a properly secular school reasonably close by. Otherwise their options reduce to sending them kids off to be indoctrinated by the Christians or indoctrinated by the Mormoms or home schooling. But then that’s the real reason many support switching to voucher schemes, they want to replace local schools with faith schools and anyone who isn’t the right faith they want converted.

      • YehoshuaK says:

        You seem to assume that a “properly secular school” is not pushing a faith. Of course, it is–it’s pushing the faith and value system of secularism, which is not acceptable to me for my children. Why is forcing me to send my kids to a school where they’re taught a secularist faith any better than forcing me to send them to a school where they’re taught a Christian faith? With vouchers, it becomes much easier for me to send them to a school where they’re taught my faith and values (Jewish), even if we are a tiny minority (we are). If no such school exists in the area, a local scholar can open a micro-school, one with only a few students.

        • Murphy says:

          Secular is a faith in the same way not-collecting-stamps is a hobby, no-paint is a color of paint or silence is a genre of music.

          A secular school should never preach any faith, it simply refrains from preaching any faith. There’s a difference. You’d be free to teach at a secular school, you just couldn’t try to convert the kids there.

          it’s a fairly blatant attempt to throw separation of church and state under the bus by throwing an obfuscating layer in between the state funding and the schools.

          • Radford Neal says:

            So, are you also opposed to people using Food Stamps to buy kosher food?

          • Murphy says:

            A fairly normal small town is likely to have dozens of grocery stores but only 1 or 2 schools per age group.

            Schools are a little different to grocery stores. If you live most of your life in a dense city then there’s probably a half dozen schools within workable distance from you but in rural areas it’s pretty easy for schools to be a fairly natural monopoly or duopoly which tends to mean you don’t get nearly the gains from competition you’d hope for.

            Eating a kebab which also happens to be kosher is not inherently religious. Even if the only store in town is 100% kosher that doesn’t compel anyone in town towards a religion. You can mix and match from grocery stores, it’s impractical to move children between schools 3 times a day.

            But honestly, your glib response does not feel like good faith.

            it’s little better than someone wanting to privatize the highway system in such a way that the new owners can limit the use of a stretch of highway to ,say, only Christians and when someone objects going

            “oh! does that mean you object to churches only allowing members of their own faith inside?!”

            They’re fundamentally different things.

          • Deiseach says:

            it simply refrains from preaching any faith

            Value-neutral education? Except in practice it isn’t; a “no-faith” school will, for example, be all about sex education that includes teaching about using various methods of contraception and being sex-positive in the context of “it’s perfectly okay and normal and natural for you to be sexually active outside of marriage (as long as you don’t get pregnant or catch a disease)”, or about accepting and celebrating LGBT rights because otherwise that’s discrimination, bullying, and homo/transphobia.

            Which then gets into “anyone not 110% in support of same-sex marriage as a basic human right is a bigot, homophobe, hater”.

            Which may indeed be the value you want your kids to learn, but you can’t pretend it’s not a value being taught just as much as “love your neighbour as yourself” is a value being taught at a Christian school.

          • Murphy says:

            @Deiseach most secular schools allow parents to withdraw their children from sex ed if they desire so and believe that their children will never have sex if nobody tells them anything about it.

            yes, secular schools are likely to punish students for beating up gay kids and they may even tell children that interracial marriage is perfectly acceptable even if their parents religion says that their god has very changable ideas about black people.

            Values are also not equivalent to faith. Government is allowed to promote reasonable values even when they come into conflict with some faiths but should typically be fairly conservative in doing so.

            To take a dig at the satanists: they are not immune to animal cruelty laws even if their ceremonies call for it.

          • Radford Neal says:

            My “glib” comment was quite to the point, but your response is not. In your post I responded to, you objected to school vouchers on the grounds that they violate separation of church and state. That is a legal matter, whose assessment is not affected by whether or not there are lots of schools or lots of grocery stores. And from a moral standpoint, interpreting separation of church and state as you do is self-serving – why should (say) Catholics be taxed to support public schools, which they can’t use due to their religious convictions? That’s hardly a situation where the state is remaining neutral in matters of religion. I expect you would not accept this logic in other contexts (e.g., the argument that gays aren’t discriminated against by disallowing same-sex marriage, since gays have just as much right to marry someone of the opposite sex as straight people do).

          • Murphy says:

            If your hypothetical faith says that every paving stone you walk upon must have The Leviathan Cross and the words “worship Cthulhu” carved into it you are not being discriminated against if you find you’ve locked yourself out of the public town hall purely with your own faith.

            If your faith disallows you from talking to non-believers you are not being denied the ability to talk to your representative by the state if she refuses to convert.

            “impartial” in that case does not mean catering to your every whim which appears to be what you want.

            I’d address your “logic” but there is no coherent thread there.

            Taxation is irrelevant, pacifists don’t get to refuse to pay taxes just because some goes to the army. Vegetarians don’t get to withhold tax money which would go towards feeding people meat.

            it’s like I’m having a string of chick comic punchlines thrown at me.

          • Evan Þ says:

            it’s a fairly blatant attempt to throw separation of church and state under the bus by throwing an obfuscating layer in between the state funding and the schools.

            Suppose a government bureaucrat donates money to a church. That money’s coming from his salary – so now tax dollars are funding religion, just passed through the one obfuscating layer of the bureaucrat’s salary!!!111!

            Assuming you don’t agree with this argument, what’s the relevant difference between “bureaucrat’s salary” and “vouchers”?  They’re both money given to someone for fair reasons to spend as they want.

          • Murphy says:

            Why can’t a state just vote to give a billion dollars to a trust fund every year to “enhance the community” which just happens to spend it on building churches?

            They’re just giving money to someone for fair reasons to spend as they want.

          • Radford Neal says:

            I’m not familiar with “chick comic punchlines”, but perhaps the discussion would be advanced by your actually attempting to respond to my arguments. I really don’t think I’m being incoherent.

            For starters, do you or do you not think people should be allowed to use Food Stamps to buy kosher food?

          • DavidS says:

            Yes: I think there’s an important distinction between a secular school and a secularist one. The latter would be a school that spent lots of assemblies with homilies about the separation of church and state etc (or if you mix up ‘atheist’ and secularist’ maybe homilies about how religion is false and/or pernicious). Those would obviously be pushing a position and I can see why religious people would object to them.

            A simply secular school just doesn’t get into religion. You have a few edge cases (can you use school resources for prayer/Bible study groups: if so, does it matter if these are led by students or teachers etc) but the principle is pretty clear.

            That sort of school isn’t pushing a religious belief system. The only argument I can see is that schools can ignore metaphysics but not ethics, and so arguably a school talking about ethtics will inevitably speak about them in a religious way or one consciously/unconsciously informed by some philosophy (liberalism, consequentialism, whatever). But my experience of schools is that this just ends up varying by teacher unless there’s a very active ‘faith school’ focus.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Why can’t a state just vote to give a billion dollars to a trust fund every year to “enhance the community” which just happens to spend it on building churches?

            Who’s deciding how to spend the trust fund? If they’re government officials – even random community people chosen as officials for this one purpose – they’re required to do it in a religion-neutral manner. But if there’s an equal trust fund for every member of the community (maybe they’re sitting on top of a gold mine?) and some people choose to spend theirs on churches – that’s fine.

            (Also, I notice you haven’t replied to my own example?)

          • Murphy says:

            No, I do not oppose people using food stamps to buy kosher food because the mechanics are utterly different.

            If 80% of a town buys kosher food with food stamps it in no way forces the other 20% to become jewish or to send their children to get preached at by someone else. Kosher food is also not inherently religious. A secular school could serve kosher food without it mattering to the non-jewish students.

          • Murphy says:

            @Evan Þ

            I didn’t reply to your post because your post is what’s traditionally called “playing silly bugger”

            yes, your state employee is free to do with their wages what they wish, no your comparison is still absurd.

            The courts have hashed these things out before in a thousand different ways.

            Lemon v. Kurtzman: the conclusion was that “the government benefits were flowing disproportionately to Catholic schools, and that Catholic schools were an integral component of the Catholic Church’s religious mission, thus the policy involved the state in an “excessive entanglement” with religion.”

            it’s pretty much certain that any voucher scheme will lead to a disproportionate fraction of money flowing into religious schools since any minority or apathetic non-religious parents will end up forced to use the majority schools.

            Coming back with more and more variants of “omg what if we do that unconstitutional thing but we wear a hat? what about a bowtie? what about if we all dress up as frogs while doing it? what if we sing the national anthem while we do it?” is just more of the same.

            Is it likely to advantage some religious groups over others in the real world? Is it likely to lead to people having to send their kids to be indoctrinated into faiths they don’t want them indoctrinated into? if “yes” and in the case of school vouchers it’s a solid “yes” then you have your answer.

            And no, a few hours silence in between your own bouts of indoctrination of your children or being told the world is not flat or being told that it’s not acceptable to kill the gay kids does not count as indoctrination into other faiths.

            They’re the most basic of neutral middle ground of society.

          • Evan Þ says:

            Murphy – could you explain why vouchers are excessive entanglement with religion, but salary isn’t, in a way that’s more than just “several Supreme Court justices said so” (in an opinion that’s been sharply limited more recently)? I can’t see any relevant difference between the two.

            I definitely do see a benefit in ensuring there’s at least one secular school available in each district (EDIT:  to ensure that parents don’t have to “send their kids to be indoctrinated into faiths they don’t want”), but that’s very different from what you’re arguing for.

            EDIT: Remember that letting government workers donate money out of their salaries also is “likely to advantage some religious groups over others in the real world,” because there’re more Christian bureaucrats than Pastafarians. So, Christianity gets more money donated – but not because of any choice the government is making.

          • Radford Neal says:

            Murphy: So if I understand you, the way you distinguish using Food Stamps to buy kosher food (OK) from using vouchers to buy catholic education (not OK) is that allowing the school vouchers to be used for catholic education would lead to secular families having no secular school to go to. (Whereas even if Food Stamps for kosher food leads to all available food being kosher, gentiles don’t actually object to kosher food anyway.)
            I doubt that this distinction is legally relevant, but we can ignore that issue.

            Such an absence of secular schooling strikes me as unlikely, and though I’m not expert on the situation, I’d be surprised if this has ever been a problem in practice. So I think you’re objection to vouchers is based on a completely hypothetical concern. And if it ever did become a problem, the government could easily explicitly allocate funds for a secular school, rather than all schools being funded by vouchers (and indeed, I think this is the present situation).

            Furthermore, if indeed 80% of families actually do want catholic or other religious education, do you really think they aren’t going to get it? Your hypothetical situation is one in which your position would be politically hopeless. You’re not actually arguing against a religious majority imposing their will on a secular minority, but rather arguing in favour of a secular majority imposing its will on a religious minority.

          • Brad says:

            I don’t think kosher food is quite the right comparison. It would be if Catholic schools just taught all the usual things but were certified to be acceptable to Catholics. However, Catholic schools go beyond that and teach Catholic doctrine and have prayer services. That’s more akin to food stamps being used to purchase Hosts for use in Mass, something I don’t believe the rules would allow (though one might be able to get away with it).

          • Radford Neal says:

            Brad: Kosher food presumably costs a bit more to produce (otherwise all food would be kosher), just as some instructional costs in a catholic school are going to teaching religion, so in both cases, the government would be providing a subsidy for a necessity, which is combined with a little bit of religion, for people who do not consider the necessity acceptable without the additional religious bit.

            One could certainly imagine that the additional cost due to the religious bit might be required to be separated, and paid for outside the subsidy, though in practice the amount seems small enough that it would not be worth the bother.

          • gbdub says:

            If most of the people who live somewhere want their kids to be taught religious values in school, and are forced to send their kids to public school (either literally forced or essentially forced because they pay for the public schools but can’t get a voucher for a private sectarian school), then what’s going to happen is that they will push to get religious values incorporated into the public curriculum. This is a bad outcome, religious parents won’t get as much religious education as they want and secular parents will get too much. Better to allow for and fund both types of school.

          • DavidS says:

            @gbdub: depends on what you mean by ‘in an area’. You can e.g. refuse to fund creationist schools without creationism on the national curriculum even if most people in an area are creationists. It just relies on the rest of the nation not being and feeling strongly about it.

        • DavidS says:

          @Deiseach: probably different in Ireland (and US). Having taught in secular UK schools, the approach to homosexuality is
          1. Teach different religious etc. positions without saying which ones are wrong
          2. Totally oppose homophobic bullying.
          I don’t think that’s problematic. Though agreed you can’t be completely values-neutral, I think it’s always risky to go from ‘can’t be completelly neutral’ to ‘might as well massively push one particular angle’.

          For what it’s worth, in my experience the response from the kids (who use ‘gay’ as an insult all the time) is to seem slightly baffled by the concept of people being opposed to homosexuality. And this isn’t at a upper middle class London school.

    • The Nybbler says:

      We already have public schools which teach liberal values in particular. Perhaps the public schools in conservative areas teach conservative values instead (or perhaps not; perhaps the teachers were indoctrinated in liberal education programs and therefore they teach liberal values as well). So, I don’t think this really changes anything, except perhaps removing once source of strife between parents and children.

  36. Murphy says:

    I have separate reasons for thinking this may be a bad idea. (depending on how it’s implemented.)

    1:

    The primary reason is that it’s a fairly transparent play to do away with secular state schools. vouchers provide a layer of insulation so people can say

    “oh that school isn’t reeeeally a state institution because even though they get 95% of their funding from the US government it’s filtered through vouchers, a fine sieve of vouchers of course is excellent for removing all traces of the constitution so it’s ok that the teachers being paid out of public tax money are telling muslim students that they need to convert and let Jesus into their lives or else they’ll burn forever in hellfire”

    Schools are also a little different to grocery stores. If you live most of your life in a dense city then there’s probably a half dozen schools within workable distance from you but in rural areas it’s pretty easy for schools to be a fairly natural monopoly or duopoly which tends to mean you don’t get nearly the gains from competition you’d hope for.

    So if you live in a majority christian rural area (not particularly uncommon) where the 2 local schools are now voucher-funded odds are both are going to be non-secular since rational businesses tend to serve the majority first and only go after the small fractions of the population if it doesn’t risk their main market . Church schools can be assholes in their desire to convert the children of the “unsaved” by whatever means necessary and voucher schemes are a very very very obvious play to allow state funding of explicitly religious schools and America will be flushing that separation of church and state down the shitter if it allows vouchers to be used for faith schools .

    2:

    People tend not to realise how much a public school provides to the local community other than pure classes that isn’t easy to tot up in terms of a single pile of money.

    When I was a teenager my school got converted from fully public to a public-private partnership deal where a company legally owned the building and facilities with responsibility for maintaining everything and the school rented the facilities back from them.

    Before the change the school was a hub for the community in the evenings. Packed with nigh classes and events, after school events, the sports fields were used for many local events for which the school charged very little.

    After the changeover it became clear that the existing contract with the company only covered use of the schools facilities during school hours. They jacked up prices on everything, suddenly it became impossible to run cheap night classes for poorer adults living nearby because the companies main interest was in squeezing every drop of blood from the stone that was the local community.

    Students after school clubs were wiped out because they also suddenly needed to pull thousands of euros out of their ass if they wanted to use the playing fields or classrooms for club events.

    The company bought the absolute cheapest crap that could just about technically satisfy contracts and dragged their heels over anything that could cost them money even things which put students in physical danger.

    They were contracted to provide a computer system with X computers, the machines they provided started catching fire due to faulty power supplies. They also wouldn’t allow everything to just be shut off because then they’d be in violation of their contract and incur penalties since the computer system would be down and it took quite a few (somewhere in the region of 30 over a few weeks, apparently a line of computers blowing their power supplies down the line is an impressive sight that I missed) computers bursting into flame (one of which was in my english class during one of my lessons and the teacher had to put it out with a fire extinguisher) before someone forced the company with threat of legal action to keep the rest safely shut down until they’d replaced the power supplies in the remaining machines.

    So when someone comes along claiming that putting similar companies in total control of even more schools is the best idea ever because they think the fucking sun shines out of the arses of such companies… well I get a strong urge to pat them on the head in the most condescending manner possible. Because they’ve earned it. You have a treat any such entity like a viper or it will turn around and bite you.

    It may look cheaper on paper but it’ll be after you’re locked into long term contracts that you realize how much money that isn’t on the same balance sheet gets leeched away by those kinds of parasites.

    • Deiseach says:

      it’s ok that the teachers being paid out of public tax money are telling muslim students that they need to convert and let Jesus into their lives or else they’ll burn forever in hellfire

      Murphy, why would Muslim students be attending a voluntary, private/non-public Christian school if their parents had vouchers to spend on choice of schooling? Unless you mean to say that all secular public schools would be replaced by charter schools so that Muslim/non-Christian parents would have to send their children to Christian schools -and in that case, why would there not be Muslim charter schools as well?

      I’ll let you have the point that some charter schools/academies are probably going to be specifically Christian schools set up by Christian evangelist organisations, but you have to let me have the point that it’s not likely to be 100% such schools alone and nothing else.

      • Murphy says:

        I mentioned that, natural monopoly/duopoly.

        I’m sure some secular schools would survive, mostly in cities with high population density.

        Most voucher schemes require some kind of inspection/certification to stop parents setting up a “school” and pocketing the money so there’s also likely a non-trivial minimum size practical for a school to meet all requirements and to be able to accept vouchers.

        I’m working on the assumption that americans will be capitalists. If there’s a town with 400 school age children and 90% of them are christian and even half those want a christian school and the other half of the Christians don’t feel strongly then it’s not going to be a secular school getting set up.

    • Devin Helton says:

      obvious play to allow state funding of explicitly religious schools and America will be flushing that separation of church and state down the shitter if it allows vouchers to be used for faith schools .

      On the flip side, you could say that taxing parents, and then only allowing them to get use of that money back if they attend public school, is basically forcing religious parents to pay a jizya tax. Should religious parents who send their kids to religious private schools be exempt from school taxes?

      It may look cheaper on paper but it’ll be after you’re locked into long term contracts that you realize how much money that isn’t on the same balance sheet gets leeched away by those kinds of parasites.

      I think that is a real problem with the vouchers idea.

      If government was competent, maybe public schools would work a lot better. And there is a certain social benefit to having all the kids from the neighborhood go to the same school.

      So vouchers are kind of a work around against incompetent/corrupt government. But being incompetent, government will likely botch the vouchers plan. A lot of privatization schemes end up combining the inefficiency and unaccountability of the public sector, with the corner-cutting of the private sector. It ends up being the worst of all worlds.

      • Murphy says:

        They tax everyone, not just parents. If I never breed I never get to put any spawn through the system but get no tax discount. That doesn’t mean I’m being discriminated against.

        Rights do not typically flow from your tax contribution.

        If I follow the faith of the great Cthulhu should I be able to specify that my tax money can only be used towards vouchers for schools that teach the faith of the great old ones? So some lucky parents gets a voucher marked

        “S̪̲̞̭̀ų͙͓͉̬͈̮m̯̘͙̼͉̞mo͇n ̦͍͎̻͘ḑ̼̞̭̯̪͚̯e̫̗͚͙̟m̝̪͇̻̰̤͈o̖̯n̜̞̤s̲͉͈̯͇̜͢ ̺a̘̰̜̱̮̟n̩̖͢d͇̖͍̬ ̺ed͖uc̹̝͍̤͡a̪̘̜̫̲t̥͍́e͇̺̱͍̫ ̶̤͍̺͇̦ͅs̱̲̤͚͜t͖̞ud̢̼͍en̨̹͚̫̱̳t̥̭͞s̸”

        And must send her child to a school where the ceremonies shall be started to turn him into a deep one.

  37. Salem says:

    Request for understanding!

    Both Nathan’s original post, and many of the comments here, appear to be committing what Mike Munger called the “unicorn fallacy.” That is, they observe that actual market operations fall short of imagined perfection, and therefore conclude that government is needed. But of course every real-world process will be imperfect. To my mind, they should be comparing how government actually works to how market operations actually work, then judging which works better.

    Some samples:
    * Robinson: Parents have structurally limited choices among charter schools. True! But parents also have structurally limited choices among politicians, and limited voice in the system. It certainly seems easier to switch your child to a better school than to get the school changed by haranguing the local bureaucracy or voting in new politicians.
    * shakeddown: Voucher schools might favour parents interests over pupils. True! But non-voucher schools might favour voter interests over pupils. Given most voters don’t have school-age children, it certainly seems incentives are better aligned in a voucher system.
    * miguelaglopes: It’s hard for parents to assess schools and curricula, because the feedback period is so long. True! But isn’t it just as hard for voters and politicians? It certainly seems that parents get quicker feedback.
    There are a half-dozen other examples in this thread.

    I’m not saying that these counter-arguments are necessarily correct. Maybe incentives are better aligned in a non-voucher-school after all. But what’s striking is that the comparison is never made, even though (at first blush) the problem for which the market system is criticised looks far worse in a government system. As a result, these arguments seem (to me) incredibly unpersuasive. And this is a pattern I see again and again and again.

    I’m not trying to have a go at anyone, I’m genuinely curious. Can anyone who makes this kind of argument explain why they do this? I can think of lots of uncharitable explanations, but I don’t think that most people doing it are arguing in bad faith. Do you think that market processes need to be held to a different standard than government? If so, why? Do you just never consider that similar or worse problems could occur in a government system? Or what?

    • shakeddown says:

      Regarding the meta-level: I kind of agree with you. I think a lot of the potential problems could cause harm, but they might also not, so Scott’s “experiment cautiously and be ready to pull back if results are bad” is probably the best approach. You say the comparison is never made – I meant my statement as a reply to the arguments for the position that market processes are neccessarily better than government, so I assumed the comparison was implicit. Maybe I should have been more explicit about it.

      Regarding the object-level: general voters voting for everyone’s kids have an easy time having good motivations, while parents have all sorts of complications that might affect them differently (such as wanting school hours to match their work schedules even if it harms kids). Also, if 20% of parents are bad at making school choices and 80% are good, we want things to be decided by votes rather than by individual parents, to help those 20% of kids.
      I’m not saying this counterargument is neccessarily right, just that it could be – so if we do experiment with changing the system (and we probably should), it should be under a cautious administration that, should problems arise, would be capable of admitting their mistakes and pulling back.

  38. Radford Neal says:

    This discussion would benefit from distinguishing the concepts of “accounting profit” and “economic profit”. Private for-profit schools will (generally) make an accounting profit, distributed to the shareholders, but will not necessarily (even on average) make an economic profit, which might better be described as “getting lucky”. Once you see this distinction, the argument that for-profit schools must cost more because of the “profit” is seen to be invalid.

    To explain the distinction, consider some business financed entirely by the equity investment of the shareholders. Its accounting profit is the amount of money it collects from customers minus the amount paid to employees and suppliers. This accounting profit will be distributed to the shareholders. But these shareholders will not make an economic profit unless this accounting profit exceeds what they could have obtained from other investments. For comparison, consider the same business financed by debt, with the shareholders contributing negligible capital. In this case, one would not expect any accounting profit – the excess of revenue over costs will go to pay the interest on the debt. Of course, the shareholders might get lucky, with the accounting profit being greater than they had a right to expect, due to some lucky occurrence. But if this happened generally, everyone could get rich by starting a business with negligible capital and then operating with borrowed money.

    Now, when comparing a for-profit school with a state school, one expects the for-profit school to make an accounting profit, but there’s no reason to expect it to make an economic profit (or at least, one would need to make an argument that there is some such reason, such as the owners having the political influence needed to outlaw any competition). And a state school doing the same things will have to pay the same amount as the accounting profit, in interest on the debt used to capitalize it, or if this capital was provided “for free” by the government, the opportunity cost to the government/taxpayer from not investing this capital elsewhere will be the same as the for-profit school’s accounting profit.

  39. Anon. says:

    >It’s not that teachers are getting paid any more – their salaries have remained stagnant over the time involved and they may even have lost ground compared to other professions.

    You need to look at total compensation, not just salary. Between absurdly expensive defined benefit pensions and rising healthcare costs, I’m sure compensation has not remained stagnant.

  40. Freddie deBoer says:

    There’s more wrong here than I know what to do with, but as one first point – the designation “non-profit,” both generally and in schooling in particular, is totally meaningless. That you assume that non-profit status tells us anything of material interest about whether schools in fact are trying to wring profits out of students is a good place for you to start to readjust your understanding of this landscape.

    • Devin Helton says:

      That you assume that non-profit status tells us anything of material interest about whether schools in fact are trying to wring profits out of students.

      I don’t see Scott assuming that at all. One of his key points is that non-profits aren’t actually that different than for-profits in extracting money from the customers and spending it for the benefit of the people running the show. He says:

      And lack of a profit motive doesn’t guarantee good behavior – it looks like the administrators of nonprofit colleges decided to spend their windfall on prestige and empire-building rather than on keeping costs low.

    • manwhoisthursday says:

      This tends to cut both ways though. We can observe that people who are ostensibly running things purely for the benefit of others are often really running things for themselves. They’re not doing it through profit, but they find other ways to benefit themselves. In which case, this insight can be applied to those running government programs generally, and government schools particularly.

      There’s a whole area of study here called public choice.

  41. nickexperience says:

    This seems to be a vastly overwrought exercise in missing the forest for the trees. Is there any evidence that charters or privates do significantly better than publics when controlled for all of the many factors that impact achievement? We have pretty strong experimental evidence that the best way to improve education outcomes, the supposed goal of all this excessive hand-wringing about the structure of public education, is to give poor people money. Do we really think a new bureaucracy on top of the existing public school bureaucracy is going to be a sufficient “cost savings” to actually do anything meaningful when the problem seems to be that people are poor, not that the school resources aren’t distributed “efficiently” enough?

    • Murphy says:

      Evidence base and were they actually testing what you think they were testing?

      At least with students direct lump sum payments to students seem to yield a very lackluster result even if linked to results for the year while paying students tiny sums short term for things like reading books and similar tasks appears to blow pretty much all other interventions out of the water.

      • nickexperience says:

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/10/08/the-remarkable-ways-a-little-money-can-change-a-childs-personality-for-life/?utm_term=.cc071b500c3f

        http://futureofchildren.org/futureofchildren/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=81&articleid=603

        I could link dump all of the voluminous research on how poverty negatively impacts educational outcome, and how the educational performance gap splits almost perfectly along the same lines as the income gap, but I won’t, because it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see how reducing poverty would improve academic outcomes. Now it’s your turn to provide evidence for any of the many assumptions upon which your comment and this post generally rely on.

        • Murphy says:

          ok, so an observational dataset from a set of rural,

          kids living in rural America

          non-random, ethnically homogeneous

          members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

          children who’s families and most members of their extended families

          every tribal citizen

          got both an injection of non-means-tested cash that others did not and gained a relative advantage

          some of the families, given the boost, even moved to areas with slightly better census tracts in terms of both income and education. They were, in other words, able to expose their children to a different group of peers.

          Sounds reasonable.

          So for the low low cost of a little over 1 trillion dollars per year we might be able to give the same slight advantage to everyone in America.

          Citation for my own claim:

          http://www.nber.org/papers/w15898

          https://www.povertyactionlab.org/sites/default/files/publications/919_Financialincentives_and_student_Fryer_2011.pdf

          http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,1978758-1,00.html

          according to Fryer’s results, kids with a history of serious behavioral problems saw the biggest gains in test scores overall. Their reading scores shot up 0.4 standard deviations, which is roughly the equivalent of five additional months of schooling.

          So what happens if we pay kids to do tasks they know how to do? In Dallas, paying kids to read books–something almost all of them can do–made a big difference. In fact, the experiment had as big or bigger an effect on learning as many other reforms that have been tested, like lowering class size or enrolling kids in Head Start early-education programs (both of which cost thousands of dollars more per student). And the experiment also boosted kids’ grades. “If you pay a kid to read books, their grades go up higher than if you actually pay a kid for grades, like we did in Chicago,” Fryer says.

          Paying second-graders to read books significantly boosted their reading-comprehension scores on standardized tests at the end of the year–and those kids seemed to continue to do better the next year, even after the rewards stopped.

          Cost of paying kids to read books: about 14 dollars per child per year.

          • nickexperience says:

            From you study:

            Our estimate of the effect of actually participating in a program that pays students to read
            books yielded a .253 (.097) standard deviation increase in reading comprehension skills, a .062 (.093)
            standard deviation increase in vocabulary scores, and a .207 (.105) standard deviation increase in
            language skills. Adding our set of controls adjusts these estimates to .249 (.103), .071 (.093), and
            .186 (.107) standard deviations, respectively. Hence, paying second grade students to read books
            has a relatively large effect on their reading comprehension, a more modest effect on their language
            scores, and a small, statistically insignificant effect on vocabulary.

            Yet incentives are by no means a silver bullet. They pass a simple cost-benefit analysis, but are
            not powerful enough to overcome the racial achievement gap alone.

            From the one I cited:

            The results presented here indicate that there are significant positive effects of an increase in
            unearned household income on the prevalence of behavioral and emotional disorders and on the
            personality traits of affected children. These effects are robust to individual fixed-effects and are not
            explained by changes in parental time use, employment, marital status, changes in national welfare
            reform or other tribal government programmatic changes. The size of the effects is relatively large;
            the effect reduces behavioral disorders by 26.7 % of a standard deviation and increases
            conscientiousness by 42.8 % of a standard deviation.

            We’re admittedly comparing apples and oranges here, where your study is more directly linked to specific school achievement. It’s important to note that, yes, paying kids to read books has a seemingly important, if short-lived, effect on aptitude and is extremely cost-effective, I’m talking about something with far more broad benefits, including academic achievement. So comparing them on cost is of course misleading. I’m certainly willing to accept that giving kids money to read is a good strategy. Let’s do it! But my central qualm with the original post and the article it rejoinders is that it requires presupposing all sorts of things about the nature of public/private schools. The goal here is supposedly to improve academic achievement. Debating which version of school we use when the evidence suggests that the version isn’t the problem is kind of insane. More evidence for the effect of income on academic achievement:

            https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/does-money-affect-children%E2%80%99s-outcomes

            Concentrating only on experimental studies or those that exploit other
            sources of exogenous income variation, effect sizes associated with a
            US$1,000 increase in income (around £900 in 2013 prices) ranged from
            5 per cent to 27 per cent of a standard deviation for cognitive outcomes,
            from 9 per cent to 24 per cent for social and behavioural outcomes

          • Cliff says:

            Actually, your whole point is basically a red herring. We have schools and we’re not going to get rid of them, so we might as well have the best possible schools. Even if we could solve all our educational problems by giving poor people money, that is actually completely irrelevant to the question of what kind of schools are best.

          • nickexperience says:

            Actually, your whole point is basically a red herring. We have schools and we’re not going to get rid of them, so we might as well have the best possible schools. Even if we could solve all our educational problems by giving poor people money, that is actually completely irrelevant to the question of what kind of schools are best.

            How do you judge which kind of school is the best? If it’s test scores, and we know that giving poor kids money improves their test scores, then perhaps the “kind” of school is less important than how we incentivize/support the students in them.

    • Devin Helton says:

      Is there any evidence that charters or privates do significantly better than publics when controlled for all of the many factors that impact achievement?

      Depends on how you define better. I was a smart student who tested well, and went to public middle school then private high school. I don’t think going to a private high school improved my SAT scores or anything else. But it was a much better experience. I think once you have raised schooling to a baseline level, which is met pretty much everywhere, test scores in general are almost entirely determined by parents — and mostly the genes parents pass down. So no, vouchers won’t improve academic results. But I do think that choice would create for a better school experience, and an experience more suited to student’s desires and needs. I don’t think there is any way to measure this quantitatively though.

      • nickexperience says:

        How do you know it was a better experience than the public high school you didn’t attend, aside from the obvious luxuries generally afforded to people who can pay more?

        Do you have evidence that supports the claim that test scores are mostly dependent on genes?

        • Devin Helton says:

          How do you know it was a better experience than the public high school you didn’t attend, aside from the obvious luxuries generally afforded to people who can pay more?

          Well I don’t know for certain, but compared to my public middle school, my high school classes had a critical mass of smart people that allowed them be very intellectually stimulating instead of unbearably tedious.

          Do you have evidence that supports the claim that test scores are mostly dependent on genes?

          * First link here summarizes statistical evidence on genes and IQ
          * Murray’s the Bell Curve goes over a lot of the evidence linking both genes to IQ and IQ to academic achievement.
          * Virtually all education research I have dug into, starting with the 1966 Coleman report, shows that who the parents are dominates every other factor (such as class sizes, school spending, teacher credentials, integration, etc.). And then other evidence shows that parenting doesn’t matter much for most traits — which leaves us with the conclusion that it is the parent’s genes.
          * Common sense from parents, teachers, etc, is that some kids are dull and some kids are quick and there is nothing one can do about it. For example. And this has been my observation throughout life too.

          Do you have evidence that other factors are more important than genes? (And I mean other factors are important beyond a threshold. Obviously if you never allow a smart kid to read any books, they won’t be very good at reading.)

          • nickexperience says:

            I’m unclear on why you think the students in your private high school were necessarily smarter as opposed to perhaps less burdened by socioeconomic externalities? I’m actually in agreement based on the evidence that IQ is tied pretty closely to genes. I also happen to think that other factors can suppress academic achievement in folks who otherwise have the “genes” for it and that “IQ”, flawed measure of intelligence that it is, isn’t particularly good at predicting achievement. There are plenty of studies that show that poverty suppresses achievement, and conversely, not a lot of evidence that suggests income is directly correlated with IQ.

            https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11711-smarter-people-are-no-better-off/#.Up4uT_Yp1fk

            I think a lack of evidence that other factors are more/less “important” to predicting outcomes is more a commentary on scientific limits than proof. That would be an incredibly difficult thing to prove! The question, I suppose, is if you “deserve”, based on your inherited genes (lottery), to surround yourself with folks you find more stimulating? Further, it seems obvious to me that there can be a detrimental effect to constantly insulating children in bubbles of people “just like them”, both intellectually and behaviorally.

          • Said Achmiz says:

            my high school classes had a critical mass of smart people that allowed them be very intellectually stimulating instead of unbearably tedious.

            I went to a public high school that had this quality also, in spades. If we’re trading anecdotes, there you go.

            The idea that private schools are necessarily better is one that does not survive the example of my experience.

          • Cliff says:

            Your link: “Each point increase in IQ test scores is associated with $202 to $616 more income per year”

            LOL!

            Then it goes on to claim it can show most of the wealth-increasing benefits of IQ go away once you “control” for all kinds of things like “divorce, years spent in school, type of work and inheritance.”

            But these are all things CAUSED by IQ!! So in effect the guy is arguing that once you control for IQ, IQ has no effect on wealth.

            The evidence for IQ as a predictor of life outcomes independent of other orthogonal factors is profound and extensive. You really can’t come to the conclusion that you do without putting blinders on.

          • Devin Helton says:

            not a lot of evidence that suggests income is directly correlated with IQ.

            Well you are not literally paid for being smart. Being smart allows you to get certified as being smart (college degree) and allows you to meet the threshold for the most well paying jobs (lawyer, doctor, engineer, etc). I do think that intelligence matters less for income and performance once you have achieved the threshold for a job. A super smart engineer might not make more than a less smart engineer who was a slick people person. You’ll notice that that study finds IQ doesn’t matter — after controlling for schooling and job type, which is the exact thing that a high IQ gives you access to.

            I should also note that while a lot more matters than intelligence for achievement (diligence, motivation) many of those traits also have a large genetic component.

            I’m unclear on why you think the students in your private high school were necessarily smarter as opposed to perhaps less burdened by socioeconomic externalities?

            The students in my middle school were not obviously burdened in any way. It was not a poor school, it was a mix of working class and upper-middle class. They were just normal kids. They were normal sized not malnourished. I didn’t obviously do any more homework than many of them or get any more attention from teachers or parents. Schoolwork was so easy for me I didn’t need to do much work, and the teacher never needed to help me. But when I was assigned to help out a slower kid in class, they would always have so much slower time grasping basic concepts. Then I got to private school and everyone was obviously smart. They were obviously quicker at grasping new concepts with very little explanation. And this would have been predicted by the SSAT scores needed to get into the school.

          • Devin Helton says:

            I went to a public high school that had this quality also, in spades. If we’re trading anecdotes, there you go.

            Right, there are lots of public schools like that. But often (not always) you have to pay a lot more in housing costs and real estate to get them. Having vouchers would allow more to get this quality without paying a ton of money for it.

          • Cliff says:

            “The question, I suppose, is if you “deserve”, based on your inherited genes (lottery), to surround yourself with folks you find more stimulating?”

            Well as a matter of choice, I would say people should not be forced to attend schools they don’t want to, so it’s sort of a moot question.

            But I do find troubling this concept of the “genetic lottery” and that in some way you do not “deserve” yourself. It’s not really a lottery, your parents got together and fused gametes and that’s why you are who you are. It’s (mostly) not random.

          • Devin Helton says:

            The question, I suppose, is if you “deserve”, based on your inherited genes (lottery), to surround yourself with folks you find more stimulating? Further, it seems obvious to me that there can be a detrimental effect to constantly insulating children in bubbles of people “just like them”, both intellectually and behaviorally.

            I think everyone benefits if they around people of the same level of ability and ambition. Mixed ability classrooms are bad for everyone. The slower kids can’t keep up, and the brightest kids are bored. And it’s a really good way to make the middling kids hate the smart kids, and vice versa.

            As an average athlete, it have no desire to be put with the best and most ambitious athletes. If I am in a situation when I’m playing with people much, much better than me, it is no fun. I don’t get enough touches, I lose the ball immediately, etc.

            I do think bubbles are bad. But I had my best experiences with people of different academic abilities, when we were playing sports together, or working a restaurant together, at a place where we had similar goals and were on more of an even playing field.

          • nickexperience says:

            But these are all things CAUSED by IQ!! So in effect the guy is arguing that once you control for IQ, IQ has no effect on wealth.

            Lol indeed…Why when controlling for these matters do people of slightly lower IQ have higher income?

            In fact, people with a slightly above-average IQ of 105 , had an average net worth higher than those who were just a bit smarter, with a score of 110.

            Talk about blinders, what would you consider chalking every element of human life up to IQ?

          • bean says:

            @nickexperience

            Further, it seems obvious to me that there can be a detrimental effect to constantly insulating children in bubbles of people “just like them”, both intellectually and behaviorally.

            There’s at least as strong a detrimental effect in the opposite direction. I was in a pretty average public school through 3rd grade, and the best analogy I can provide is that it was like being in a group where everyone else is obsessed with something you don’t care about, like the Kardashians (I presume). Even the ones who sort of share your interests have a knowledge derived from a few clickbait articles, while you’ve read a dozen books on the subject. When you try to be friends with them, you say the wrong thing about one of the Kardashians, and end up making everyone mad. This is not good at teaching you how to relate to people.
            In 4th grade, I started in the regional gifted program, and it was night and day. Suddenly, I could actually have an intelligent conversation with the people around me, and there were enough of us to look like a reasonably typical classroom. We had cliques and fights and there wasn’t a constant pressure of being the only intelligent people in the room pushing us together.
            Over time, we were moved more and more into the general population, and grade-skipped. It worked really well. Academic-ability diversity is fine in gym class (well, sort of), but past a certain point, it’s poison in the classroom.

          • nickexperience says:

            Being smart allows you to get certified as being smart (college degree) and allows you to meet the threshold for the most well paying jobs (lawyer, doctor, engineer, etc).

            So your claim is that some other factor is contributing to success? Certain smart people simply choose not to “get certified”? Why?

            I do think that intelligence matters less for income and performance once you have achieved the threshold for a job. A super smart engineer might not make more than a less smart engineer who was a slick people person.

            The same of course could be said for reaching that threshold in the first place.

            You’ll notice that that study finds IQ doesn’t matter — after controlling for schooling and job type, which is the exact thing that a high IQ gives you access to.

            If a higher IQ gets you better schools and job types, why does controlling for them remove the supposed benefit of having a high IQ?

            I should also note that while a lot more matters than intelligence for achievement (diligence, motivation) many of those traits also have a large genetic component.

            Indeed, but I’m not sure how that’s relevant. Do we have a diligence quotient or motivation quotient that we can extract some meaning from as they pertain to achievement? There’s an awful lot of anecdotal supposing going on throughout.

            The students in my middle school were not obviously burdened in any way.

            This anecdote supposes that only obvious burdens are sufficient to affect aptitude.

            It was not a poor school, it was a mix of working class and upper-middle class.

            This presupposes that only poor people have socioeconomic burdens that can impact their aptitude.

            They were just normal kids. They were normal sized not malnourished. I didn’t obviously do any more homework than many of them or get any more attention from teachers or parents. Schoolwork was so easy for me I didn’t need to do much work, and the teacher never needed to help me. But when I was assigned to help out a slower kid in class, they would always have so much slower time grasping basic concepts. Then I got to private school and everyone was obviously smart. They were obviously quicker at grasping new concepts with very little explanation. And this would have been predicted by the SSAT scores needed to get into the school.

            This is just one long anecdotal presupposition entirely.

          • nickexperience says:

            Well as a matter of choice, I would say people should not be forced to attend schools they don’t want to, so it’s sort of a moot question.

            I want to go to Harvard (not really), where’s my voucher? Or is this a negative right only? You’re not entitled to anything but deciding which schools you don’t want to attend?

            But I do find troubling this concept of the “genetic lottery” and that in some way you do not “deserve” yourself. It’s not really a lottery, your parents got together and fused gametes and that’s why you are who you are. It’s (mostly) not random.

            Why did they get together? Did it have something to do with their genes, which they inherited?

          • nickexperience says:

            I think everyone benefits if they around people of the same level of ability and ambition. Mixed ability classrooms are bad for everyone. The slower kids can’t keep up, and the brightest kids are bored. And it’s a really good way to make the middling kids hate the smart kids, and vice versa.

            Depends on what you take to be “benefits”. If cold hard achievement and advancement are the only things that matter to you, which wouldn’t surprise me considering the meritocratic environment in which we find ourselves, yeah, sure.

            As an average athlete, it have no desire to be put with the best and most ambitious athletes. If I am in a situation when I’m playing with people much, much better than me, it is no fun. I don’t get enough touches, I lose the ball immediately, etc.

            Hmmm, as an average musician, I loved playing with people who were better than me because it made me better. I suppose if your idea of fun is simply to do the same as or better than your peers, this would make sense. Although you claimed to have benefitted from attending a high school with very smart people. Were they all exactly as smart as you or did you benefit from having peers who were smarter?

          • nickexperience says:

            There’s at least as strong a detrimental effect in the opposite direction. I was in a pretty average public school through 3rd grade, and the best analogy I can provide is that it was like being in a group where everyone else is obsessed with something you don’t care about, like the Kardashians (I presume). Even the ones who sort of share your interests have a knowledge derived from a few clickbait articles, while you’ve read a dozen books on the subject. When you try to be friends with them, you say the wrong thing about one of the Kardashians, and end up making everyone mad. This is not good at teaching you how to relate to people.
            In 4th grade, I started in the regional gifted program, and it was night and day. Suddenly, I could actually have an intelligent conversation with the people around me, and there were enough of us to look like a reasonably typical classroom. We had cliques and fights and there wasn’t a constant pressure of being the only intelligent people in the room pushing us together.
            Over time, we were moved more and more into the general population, and grade-skipped. It worked really well. Academic-ability diversity is fine in gym class (well, sort of), but past a certain point, it’s poison in the classroom.

            Your inability, or unwillingness, to along with people who aren’t “like you” might say more about you than it does about them.

          • Devin Helton says:

            So your claim is that some other factor is contributing to success? Certain smart people simply choose not to “get certified”? Why?

            I’ve never claimed that IQ is the only that matters for success. I claimed the genes matter a ton for test scores, and that once you pass a certain threshold of nutrition, availability of resources, etc, genes matter more than anything else. But success is more than test scores. And genes impact more than IQ. (Genes influence dilligence and agreeability too, for example, though that stuff gets really hard to measure).

            This is just one long anecdotal presupposition entirely.

            What is an anecdote to you was unselected data on my part based on hundreds of interactions and observations of fellow students.

            Anyways, I’m done arguing, you haven’t contributed anything interesting or any new evidence on your end of the argument.

          • Devin Helton says:

            Hmmm, as an average musician, I loved playing with people who were better than me because it made me better.

            Obviously it depends on how much better, how much of the time, and what the particular activity is, etc. Playing soccer with people much, much better once in a while is helpful. Playing soccer all the time with people much, much better is not helpful. You could get all the benefit of mixing in more advanced students simply by having older students be tutors for a couple hours a week.

            Playing soccer with people somewhat better all the time is helpful. But this will happen in any group that is ability sorted, it’s never going to be perfectly even. And maybe you could design the ability sorting in a way so that sometimes people were toward the top half of their group and sometime toward the bottom.

          • bean says:

            @nickexperience

            This anecdote supposes that only obvious burdens are sufficient to affect aptitude.

            Your theory isn’t testable, then. What sort of burdens are separating the students in his public school from the ones in his private school? What sort of burdens separated the kids in the regular classes from the ones in my gifted program? I can’t think of anything beyond the ‘burden’ of having a lower IQ, which is sort of the point of this.

          • bean says:

            Your inability, or unwillingness, to along with people who aren’t “like you” might say more about you than it does about them.

            Well, yes. It says that 2nd-grade me was incapable of caring about whatever it is that normal 2nd-grade boys care about. And as such, I’m not mad at the normal 2nd-grade boys.
            What I am mad at is the suggestion that the correct solution to decree that 2nd-grade me is in the wrong, and should just try harder to care about the metaphor Kardashians. Every time I tried that, it ended poorly.
            The logical outcome of your suggestion that diversity is the highest good is to import students from various parts of the world, and put them in regular classrooms without teaching them any English. I have a feeling that would work out very badly for everyone.
            You appear to have missed the part where having a circle of comfort allowed it to expand in later years. Today, I won’t claim to be the world’s most social person, but I’m vastly better than I used to be, and can actually be friends with people who are at least sort of normal.

          • nickexperience says:

            Your theory isn’t testable, then. What sort of burdens are separating the students in his public school from the ones in his private school? What sort of burdens separated the kids in the regular classes from the ones in my gifted program? I can’t think of anything beyond the ‘burden’ of having a lower IQ, which is sort of the point of this.

            Sure it is, it just isn’t knowable anecdotally by some kid in school with them. That you can’t think of anything that separates private school kids from public school kids other than IQ is sort of telling.

        • nickexperience says:

          Well, yes. It says that 2nd-grade me was incapable of caring about whatever it is that normal 2nd-grade boys care about. And as such, I’m not mad at the normal 2nd-grade boys.
          What I am mad at is the suggestion that the correct solution to decree that 2nd-grade me is in the wrong, and should just try harder to care about the metaphor Kardashians. Every time I tried that, it ended poorly.
          The logical outcome of your suggestion that diversity is the highest good is to import students from various parts of the world, and put them in regular classrooms without teaching them any English. I have a feeling that would work out very badly for everyone.
          You appear to have missed the part where having a circle of comfort allowed it to expand in later years. Today, I won’t claim to be the world’s most social person, but I’m vastly better than I used to be, and can actually be friends with people who are at least sort of normal.

          We don’t have to decree that anyone is wrong. But perhaps we can acknowledge the special privilege you experienced in your “gifted” program (I was in one too, how do they determine who qualifies?) and suppose that plenty of kids who don’t have access to such programs could also benefit. My resistance to this line of thought is the idea that if we just segregate enough, by IQ, by social abilities, by athletic abilities, by race (?), then we’ll all be much happier.

          • psmith says:

            My resistance to this line of thought is the idea that if we just segregate enough, by IQ, by social abilities, by athletic abilities, by race (?), then we’ll all be much happier.

            One man’s modus tollens….


            In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.

            In the long run, it will be different, I’m told.

          • bean says:

            We don’t have to decree that anyone is wrong. But perhaps we can acknowledge the special privilege you experienced in your “gifted” program (I was in one too, how do they determine who qualifies?) and suppose that plenty of kids who don’t have access to such programs could also benefit.

            Define ‘access to such programs’. If you’re talking about people who live in districts which don’t have them, I’m entirely in favor of expanding them. If you’re talking about people who “could’ve gotten in, but the questions confused them” (yes, that is actually what someone once said to me about my program), then I think you’re missing the whole point. Would it be nice if we could teach every kid like that program taught me? Yes, but we don’t have the money to do so, and you’d still have to stratify by IQ to make it work, because it was reliant on everyone being approximately equally bright.

            My resistance to this line of thought is the idea that if we just segregate enough, by IQ, by social abilities, by athletic abilities, by race (?), then we’ll all be much happier.

            Please taboo segregation, and leave race out of it. Nobody who is disagreeing with you has even mentioned race, and segregation brings with it all sorts of unpleasant implications.
            I’ll agree that putting everyone into closed bubbles of people who are exactly like them is a bad thing. But that doesn’t mean that ensuring that everyone is mixed to the point where every class is a representative sample of the nation is a good thing, either. There’s an optimum level of mixing, and that varies based on what social circle you’re operating in. Less mixing than optimum is bad because of epistemic isolation. More mixing than optimal is bad because of actual isolation. In a classroom, IQ-based stratification is good for everyone. It makes it easier to keep everyone involved, and makes sure that everyone in the class is able to actually relate to each other. In other places (sports teams, Boy Scouts, churches) IQ matters less and other things matter more. But there are very few situations where you won’t be able to identify some characteristic that people are being sorted on, if only to determine if they’re participating.

          • Devin Helton says:

            Please taboo segregation, and leave race out of it. Nobody who is disagreeing with you has even mentioned race, and segregation brings with it all sorts of unpleasant implications.

            Well it is a fair point to consider. No one has brought it up here, but it is one of the elephants in the room. Prevailing opinion holds that even de facto racial segregation is wrong and subject to court ordered interventions. So if the “good” school or classrooms is 95% white/5% black, and the “bad” schools 95% black, then that is a problem that courts may try take action to solve, even if there is no formal, de jure, segregation policy.

            And the New York Times shows that in virtually every city blacks are two to five grade levels behind, on average. So if you have ability grouping, then you are going to have de facto segregation. Personally, I am ok with this. What is the alternative? Putting the (mostly black) kids who are two grade levels behind in the same classrooms, just for the sake of integration? If you are trying to solve problems of racism, well, having the slowest kids in class always be the black kids seems like a good way to make white kids racist.

          • Brad says:

            I think the question of tracking and the question of disproportionate resources (esp smaller class sizes) can and should be separated.

  42. Alsadius says:

    A few notes on education policy:

    – The discussion of experimentation is precisely why I dislike a federal-level Department of Education. States are in a much better position to run experiments with vouchers, and many have. Florida under Jeb Bush had a fairly big expansion of the voucher system, and it seems to have improved outcomes a fair bit(which is why I had a bit of a soft spot for Jeb! in the primaries, even if I knew he’d never win). Federal-level meddling prevents that form of experimentation.

    – Spending money has no observable effect on outcomes. If anything, they’re negatively correlated. By far the most expensive system in the US is the DC school system, and it’s also by far the worst state(ish)-level system.

    – A somewhat dated, and deeply sarcastic, but nevertheless interesting take on school spending can be read here: https://web.archive.org/web/20090325111807/http://mcclintock.house.gov/senate-archive/article_print.asp?PID=292

    – I remember hearing in the whole GM bankruptcy fiasco that the biggest problem the union caused wasn’t the expense of hiring union employees(non-union carmakers often pay basically the same), but the inflexible work rules they’d created. It prevented the company from making their lines more efficient mid-year, made it very difficult to sack poor employees, and otherwise interfered with the efficient operation of the company. Teachers unions have the same effect, I think. Teachers are paid more than is commonly believed when you factor in their benefit packages, but in the US it’s still not a princely sum. But teacher tenure, with the “pass the trash” mentality it encourages, pressure to focus on the parts of the system that result in the most teacher jobs(e.g., smaller class sizes) rather than the most education improvement, and so on are real problems.

    – The resistance to testing is completely insane. Yes, tests are imperfect. It’s still better than “Don’t gather data at all, just trust us”. Every real-world profession gets its performance assessed, teachers should not be any exception to this.

    • alwhite says:

      The resistance to testing is very frustrating and a huge part of that frustration comes from people unable to communicate correctly. There’s lots of screaming using buzzwords and very little communication.

      Most teachers who are against testing are actually against two things. The first is the performance based payment. Poorly performing schools loose funding, which makes it harder to improve performance. This is insane and guarantees that failing schools will always fail. The second issue is the amount of testing required. The amount of testing required now is also insane. The teachers I know have lost 20%-30% of their teaching time to testing. That’s not an exaggeration. Every Friday is dedicated to testing, for the teachers I know, and then there are a few weeks lost to the really big tests. 20% of lost teaching time is huge, and it’s insane that that much testing is needed.

      Most teachers are not against assessment itself and they agree with it, but what has happened recently has gone nuts. Unfortunately, these same teachers can’t articulate what the problem is so all we hear is useless catchphrases.

      • Alsadius says:

        Performance based payment exists in every other field, though, because it creates proper incentives. Why are schools different?

        As for the latter concern, it sounds reasonable, but I do wonder what sort of test requires that much time. What exactly are they doing during this time?

        • Murphy says:

          I think you’re treating it as an absolute. If someone you knew complained to you about not being able to get any work done because of constant meetings would you turn around and say “there’s meetings in in every other field, proper communication is essential” while ignoring the meat of their statement?

          Organizations can choke on constant pointless meetings or fall apart from lack of communication. Any professional can end up being made unproductive if you constantly interupt their work with constant pointless assessments.

          I can easily imagine how they’d end up with so many tests, it’s very similar to how people can find themselves unable to get a couple of hours to actually work in between endless meetings where different useless little middle managers stand up and brag.

          • Alsadius says:

            Wait, is that actually the time spent in testing directly? I assumed it was time spent “teaching to the test”(which for sensible tests is equivalent to regular teaching). If they’re literally spending a quarter of their time writing standardized tests, that’s mental.

        • alwhite says:

          The difference here is why the poor results. If you don’t have enough funds to complete your project and then get punished for project slippage where that punishment is less funding, you’re never going to complete the project.

          Schools with bad scores often have large classrooms, 20-30 kids per teacher, no support staff. Schools with better scores often have smaller classrooms 12-16 kids with support staff. The support staff costs money, the extra teachers cost money. If you don’t have enough money to have enough staff and teachers to teach well, you get poor scores, and then get punished with less money, therefore less staff, therefore poorer scores. It’s an awful feedback loop that guarantees failure.

          EDIT:
          Forgot to add, the type of testing required is coming from lots of sources. There are state assessments, testing company assessments, county/city/district assessments. Everyone wants their data but they don’t seem to share their data with anyone else.

          I don’t have the specifics but I do know there are a lot of stake holders asking for stuff and putting the teachers on the hook for meeting all the needs.

          • nickexperience says:

            If you don’t have enough funds to complete your project and then get punished for project slippage where that punishment is less funding, you’re never going to complete the project.

            You’ve just identified the strategy of privatizers.

          • Evan Þ says:

            If you don’t have enough funds to complete your project and then get punished for project slippage where that punishment is less funding, you’re never going to complete the project.

            That assumes that funding has a strong positive correlation with results, which hasn’t been proven.

          • alwhite says:

            @Evan Þ

            This gets into some really sticky logic where we have to agree on what proving means, what results mean, and how we structure the correlation. You pulled a single quote out of the context of the whole argument. Did you look at the other statements about teacher per student ratios? Those correlations exist. The correlation between richer schools and lower teacher/student ratios, also exists.

            If I take your quippy response at face value, I could claim you could build a functioning hospital on $10. It hasn’t been proven that funding correlates with results, therefore I’m free to expect you can complete the hospital on $10.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @alwhite, yes, I suppose I was unfair to your argument (and riffing off @nickexperience who’d picked the same quote.)

            Is the decreased funding from low test scores actually impacting the teacher-student ratio, as opposed to extras such as band?  And is it only doing that thanks to regulations requiring two dozen administrative bureaucrats who could be cut instead – if so, okay, that doesn’t do anything for schools at the moment, but maybe we could repeal those regulations?

            More importantly, is there actual data saying that smaller classrooms and more support staff improve test scores in these specific environments, as opposed to some other environments with a better quality of students? And would those improvements bring up the students’ test scores as much as wherever high-stakes-testing proponents want the students going instead? It seems to me one of their arguments is “Starve the low-performing school here to get the students out of its clutches so they can have a better education somewhere else.”

            (I’m not sure I totally believe that argument… but I’m not willing to just accept “Just throw us money and we’ll give them a better education, promise!” either.)

          • alwhite says:

            @Evan Þ

            Well now you’re asking the hard questions.

            Decreased funding from test scores. I am unclear how many schools have lost funding due to this. I have heard a lot of yelling and fear of it, but not entirely sure if schools have actually lost funding. Everyone seems to think it’s possible. There is cheating involved. Some of it is hearsay, but some of it is real too. Schools are doing whatever they can to increase their scores and some of those things don’t involve learning by the students. They are doing this because they fear a loss of funding.
            Additionally, there are lots of people who strongly believe that things like band help increase learning everywhere because it keeps kids engaged, music is good for the brain, etc… I don’t want to debate this point, and I’m not sure about it, but just wanted you to know that there are people out there who care about it.

            Class size matters. I don’t have any studies available but it is not hard to find schools who advertise on class size, which means more individual time with the teacher per student. Every teacher I know will tell you that a smaller class is way easier to handle, and they all feel like they get better results out of the kids. This isn’t the same as an actual study, but the overwhelming response to this idea should be a good indicator that there is truth to it. For anyone with the desire, there’s a huge data collection of school ranks, test scores, demographics, free lunches, and class size, here: https://www.schooldigger.com/

            I think it’s important to note that schooldigger exists because of No Child Left Behind. This kind of data wasn’t recorded or standardized until that act was passed.

            Can public schools perform equal to private schools if given sufficient funding? There are tons of factors involved and if everything was equal I would think private schools would be similar in performance. See the comments about student behavior elsewhere in the thread.

            I don’t think you should accept a “Trust us!” argument. There are tons of problems with that. However, the pulling of funding due to low test scores is counter-productive. When a school fails fixing it seems like the appropriate response. Starving it until it dies seems really silly and leaves a large number of kids completely screwed over.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Professionals have their work output observed and judged by superiors without strict numerical analysis.

        Test-based incentives are nuts. But the normal ways of judging teachers as professionals are off the table in many places by union rules. When you have closed off all the rational methods of evaluating employees, it’s intellectually dishonest to cry that the only methods left are irrational.

    • James Miller says:

      Diminishing marginal returns to learning any one subject is a valid objection to testing. If teachers know that X but not Y will be tested they will devote far more time to teaching X than they would if their goal were “optimal learning.” Also, if tests have a “low ceiling” where bright students can easily get the maximum score, or schools are judged on how many students pass a test that bright students can easily pass, testing will cause schools to reduce the amount of effort they put into educating smart students.

  43. greenphoenix says:

    CPI increase since 1970 is ~271%.

    Cost of education increase in the same time is about 200%.

    Ergo, cost of education is actually increasing at a lower rate than CPI.

    The Cato study – not surprisingly – is misleading.

    • Alsadius says:

      Do you have a link to your data set? I’ve seen similar numbers all over the place, so I’d love to see the counterargument.

      • greenphoenix says:

        Nope it was an error on my part see below. There are a lot of other problems with this post but at least astonishing errors of type aren’t one of them.

    • Anon. says:

      This doesn’t even pass a smell test, spending per pupil today is more than 2x GDP per capita in 1970, there’s no way it has actually decreased in real terms.

    • Devin Helton says:

      As Scott noted, the Cato graph showing education costs going up 200% was already adjusted for CPI inflation.

    • nickexperience says:

      For some context on why the graph in question is misleading and should probably be struck from the original post:

      http://shermandorn.com/wordpress/?p=4675

      • Scott Alexander says:

        That site is claiming that comparing ln(money) to a giant stretched out version of test scores is just as misleading as comparing %change money to %change test scores.

        If you don’t like the Cato graph, use the PolitiFact article which says exactly the same thing. Or look at the other graphs of test scores that I use.

        Or just ask – if spending has about tripled, does anyone at all think quality has about tripled?

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        I agree in the sense that it was kind of a strawman to think that anyone claimed that twice the educational spending would lead to twice the test scores.

        (There’s a good question about just what we think pouring more money into education is supposed to buy us. This graph doesn’t address that.)

  44. Brad says:

    Fourth, vouchers could worsen class segregation. Maybe not too much, because everyone already goes to public schools in their own class-segregated neighborhood anyway. But at least there’s a little socioeconomic diversity now. And with vouchers, there’s a risk of deliberate sorting/signaling, where if everyone gets a voucher for $10,000, decent schools will charge $15,000 just to sell the “privilege” of going to a school without poor students. That is, in the same way people will pay extra for a house in a gated community because they worry poor people make bad neighbors, they might pay extra for a spot in a more-expensive school because they worry poor people will make bad classmates. A little bit of this segregation goes a long way, because if enough people do this then the exactly-$10,000 schools will only have poor people, in much the same way that a little bit of racial segregation goes a long way.

    (I don’t know much about proposed voucher systems, but I wonder if it would be possible to have a system where you’re not allowed to combine the voucher with your own money. That is, if you get a $10,000 voucher, you can go to a school charging $10,000. But if you want to go to a school charging $11,000, you have to throw away the voucher and pay the whole price out of pocket.)

    The top up charge is one why that schools could shape their student body, but what about outright selection? Do the contemplated voucher programs have an “accept all commers and if oversubscribed use a lottery” rule?

  45. alwhite says:

    My mom was a teacher before retiring and she had a few encounters with parents who refused to support their children in school (like help them do homework) because if the kids got good grades, they would go to college in the city and never come back. The parents didn’t want that to happen, so they sabotaged their kids schooling to ensure they stayed near home. This is just one example of some pretty huge differences between the cultures of people who attend public vs private schools.

    I also live in a poorer neighborhood and know some of the teachers who work in the schools here. The difficulties they face with the students have far less to do with the school and far more to do with the home life. There are some pretty strong correlations between the rate of free/reduced lunch and school performance.

    Another example from my mom’s career is that 20 years ago, 6 out of 20 students had split parents and broken families. Today that has increased to 14 out of 20.

    What I seem to be seeing is that teachers and schools are being handed more and more responsibility for students without being given more resources to do it. But this isn’t something that is really experienced by a private school. The very act of putting a kid in a private school requires so much more stuff going on at home than the student who is forced by law to attend. I think it’s highly likely that if private schools were required to deal with all the problems being addressed by public schools, the private schools would do no better.

    All this is to say, I don’t see vouchers giving any improvement because they aren’t addressing the problem.

  46. moridinamael says:

    Is it possible that both schools and hospitals are caught in the “we don’t have to outrun the bear, we just have to outrun the slowest competitor” economic equilibrium?

    As long as fully publicly funded schools and hospitals exist, the “minimum acceptable standard of quality” is set by those institutions, and since schools and hospitals are both less prevalent than e.g. grocery stores, private hospitals only have to keep up with or exceed them in-appearance-only to remain a viable moneymaking venture.

    Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were difficult-to-quantify effects that make competition between institutions work differently when those institutions are in the form of “isolated buildings spaced many miles apart with intrinsically long-term, exclusive services”, as we see in both hospitals and schools. Also prisons, but for different reasons.

    FedEx economically beats the crap out of the Postal Service in terms of delivering value and economic efficiency, and I suspect this is because any given episode of sending mail is a one-off economic event and each individual makes in isolation, whereas both going to he hospital and going to school are more like exclusive long-memberships.

      • CatCube says:

        It’s worth remembering that the USPS also uses FedEx for overnight mail service purchased from the Post Office.

        Without getting into the weeds about the cash and mail flows between the two systems, you can’t say which side is getting the better here, but there’s a certain amount of symbiosis there with the USPS having an extensive network and FedEx specializing in rapid delivery. Then they each contract out to the other for the specialty they each lack.

    • Subb4k says:

      Is it possible that both schools and hospitals are caught in the “we don’t have to outrun the bear, we just have to outrun the slowest competitor” economic equilibrium?

      From one of the studies quoted by Scott (emphasis mine):

      “on average, the performance of non-profit hositals in treating elderly patients with heart disease appears to be slightly better than that of for-profit hospitals, even after accounting for systematic differences…however, this small average difference masks an enormous amount of variation in hospital quality within the for-profit and not-for-profit hospital groups.

      This would make that explanation less likely.

  47. Devin Helton says:

    I wonder if it would be possible to have a system where you’re not allowed to combine the voucher with your own money

    This is probably smart because schooling is often a positional good. You want to be at the school where all the other smart, ambitious, well-connected kids are, because that is the hub of important social networks. Thus even prestigious private schools are often very inefficient from a price standpoint, because once they have captured these important social networks, they can really raise the price and people have to pay it. And in fact, high tuitions become a signal of being the schools with the most connected students. Thus, limiting the price of schools may make sense the same way sumptuary laws made sense. You want to prevent zero-sum games where schools raise tuition more-and-more.

    You might want to allow some extra charges though, otherwise the rich will still segregate themselves in private schools that are more costly and have the most resources. A better policy might be: schools accepting vouchers must be free for families making under $60k, and charge no more than 10% of all income above $60k. That you allow the school to get more resources from people who can pay, but prevent runaway tuition spirals.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Worrying about the most expensive and prestigious schools is a fool’s errand. Yes, they’ll always self-segregate. But we’re fretting over the other 99% of kids.

      • Devin Helton says:

        Well it matters for me : -) And probably a lot of other smart people who are reading this post. I would like to send my future kids to a school with other smart ambitious kids, without paying a ridiculous amount of money.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          As someone who went to an elite college and has a lot of friends where both parents went to elite colleges:

          Your kids will revert to (EDIT: towards) the mean.

          They’ll still be way above average, but unless you are sitting on a $700,000 a year job, you aren’t going to be able to buy your kids into the upper class. They’re going to have to work for it.

          • Devin Helton says:

            Your kids will revert to the mean.

            Based on their parents, grand parents, great-grand-parents, etc, they will most likely be 95th+ percentile. I’m not trying to buy them into the upper class. I just want them an environment where they can feed off the ambition and intellectual curiously of other students. Right now that means either paying for expensive private school, or paying for an expensive house in a “good” school district.

        • nickexperience says:

          Given your previously stated belief that genes are responsible for aptitude, why does it matter who your kids go to school with?

          • Cliff says:

            Happiness

          • nickexperience says:

            Happiness

            Your kids can only be happy when surrounded by smart, ambitious kids? The world is going to be shocking to them.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Being surrounded by not-bullies has made my adult life incredibly good.

          • DrBeat says:

            And you think smart and ambitious people are less likely to be bullies?

            Have you ever met a person?

          • suntzuanime says:

            Yes, I’ve met less than smart and less than ambitious people. Pettiness and bullying go hand in hand. Ambitious people will look down on you but generally have better ways to spend their time than actively tormenting you.

        • John Schilling says:

          I would like to send my future kids to a school with other smart ambitious kids, without paying a ridiculous amount of money.

          So does everybody else, including the ones whose kids aren’t smart and/or ambitious. And really, we’re just taking your word for it that your kid is one of the smart ambitious ones. Which means, unless you are one of the elite(*), you mathematically can’t do this – by the time you and the other parents are done with the process, the school that used to meet your requirements will have degraded to having one or two smart ambitious kids in every class alongside 20-30 mediocrities whose parents thought they would benefit from being in a class full of smart ambitious kids. Maybe your kid actually is one of the smart ones, but where’s the benefit? All you’ve done is destroyed the few classes that actually used to concentrate smart ambitious students for educational advantage.

          * “Elite” in this context can be defined in terms other than financial, e.g. membership in the Party. Or in Academia, with the schools for smart kids all being affiliated with universities and serving faculty plus local alumni, whatever. If the name of the actual game is redefining “elite” from being a 5% subset of the population of which you are not a member to a different 5% population of which you are, meh, have at it but explain why I should care again?

  48. Subb4k says:

    Am I the only person here who thinks Scott’s argument about grocery stores is just weak? Like, I’ve seen the grocery stores that are basically marketed towards people with low income. They suck. Like, I understand that expensive food is going to be more expensive no matter what, but in those supermarkets you also tend to not get the less expensive quality food (probably because less profit margins?)
    Example: if you have 3€ you can buy 300g of bad beef patty. You can also buy two meals worth of good seasonal vegetables that will probably be better for your health, the environment, and your ethical concerns if you’re a vegetarian. Yet cheap supermarkets will have crappy steaks, and crappy vegetables or no vegetables at all. This is even more pronounced in the US. I remember when I was living in Providence (hardly the rural South though…) that if I wanted to buy any decent groceries I had to take the bus to Whole Foods (or walk about 30 minutes each way, not so pleasant when the temperature is -15°C), so I ended up mostly eating take out. But this also happens to a lesser degree here in Europe.
    So maybe some people use food stamps as Scott’s good local grocery store, but I would tend to assume that the majority of people who are on food stamps are not so lucky.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      The fact that you think you can only get decent quality at Whole Foods says more about you than it does about the supermarkets in your area.

      • Subb4k says:

        I generally don’t shop exclusively to whatever is the Whole Foods equivalent. The fact is, when I was living in Providence, nearby supermarkets all sucked. When I was living in Pittsburgh some years before that, I satisfied myself with a nearby Giant Eagle, even though for some specific stuff I had to go to a distant Whole Foods, but that’s because the neighborhood I was in was generally more residential (and housed people other than broke-ish students).

        The supermarket where I usually currently shop (I live in Germany) is definitely not a Whole Foods-type thing, but it’s also not a thing aimed at poor people. I also have one of those nearby, a thing called Netto, and I’ve walked in there once and never went back because of the problems I described.

      • psmith says:

        That’s what I thought as well. Notably, Providence has a couple of Aldis (I get most of my bulk staples at a local one, no car.).

      • Said Achmiz says:

        No, that’s not right.

        Some supermarkets where I’ve shopped:

        Waldbaum’s, C-Town, Food Town, Key Foods, Associated, NetCost, Met Food, ShopRite, Stop & Shop, Kroger, Save-A-Lot, Dollar General. (Haven’t heard of some of them? Well, they’re local; Google ’em if you like.)

        Notice the lack of Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or other “gourmet, high-end” stores in that list.

        Subb4k is right: the places that cater to truly poor people are terrible. If you are not aware of this fact, then perhaps you have never actually seen a grocery store for poor people.

        Edit: And re: Scott’s “And I often see food-stamp users at my regular middle-class grocery store, having little trouble affording a lot of stuff.”, below — I regularly (as in, once a week at least) go on shopping trips with a relative who receives SNAP benefits (i.e. “food stamps”), so I have a great deal of direct and personal experience with what food stamps can and cannot buy. On the one hand: Scott is right. SNAP is sufficient to afford good food. But the point is that if all the only stores you have access to are those which cater to poor people, then not only will a lot of good food not be available, the good food that is available, will be more expensive than it is at stores which cater to not-so-poor people.

        • bbeck310 says:

          I’m not sure if you’re being that clear here–I’ve been to many of the places you list, and they’re perfectly fine for ordinary groceries. By “places that truly cater to poor people,” I assume you meant non-chain corner stores like New York bodegas, not middle- to low-end grocery stores like C-Town or Associated? Associated, IIRC (it was the nearest normal supermarket to me when I lived in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, though the best selection was at the Costco about an equal distance away), had perfectly fine meats and produce, even if the steaks were nowhere as good (or even as cheap) as Costco’s.

          • Said Achmiz says:

            You’re quite right, and that’s the trick: none of the New York grocery stores I’ve shopped at (all of the “supermarket” or at least “mini-supermarket” variety — I am not talking about bodegas) fall into the “cater to poor people” category.

            But Save-A-Lot, in the poor-white-people part of Indianapolis where I lived, does.

            The difference is stark.

          • hlynkacg says:

            oh come on, Save-A-Lots aren’t that bad and are pretty good as far as basic staples (rice, beans, cereal) and canned goods are concerned.

        • simeon says:

          Another view: in suburban California grocery stores that cater to poor people have fine food. I shop at a Food Maxx in my poor neighborhood in the central valley of California and it makes me feel poor because there’s always a long line, the floors are dirty, and so forth. Yes food stamps are frequently in evidence.

          But there’s a fine produce section, bulk staples and ethnic items (dried beans and rice in bulk, cactus, a dozen different dried chilis) that represent the primarily Hispanic clientèle. The meat selection is limited but affordable. They bake bread onsite – it isn’t gourmet but you can buy a loaf of warm-from-the-oven french bread for 99 cents.

          Again this is the worst chain grocery in my town of 200K – people also have access to Super Walmarts (nicer) or WinCo (also nicer) both of which are frequented by poor people but aren’t on the south side of the tracks where I live.

          All of these places have healthy food (eg real food: produce, meats, dairy, veggies and fruits) and are noted for being cheap to shop at.

          There are shitty markets with high prices for bad food – but they tend to be the liquor store which also has a few expensive food items past their sell date.

      • John Schilling says:

        Subb4k is right: the places that cater to truly poor people are terrible. If you are not aware of this fact, then perhaps you have never actually seen a grocery store for poor people.

        As mentioned upthread, I have seen (and shopped at) grocery stores for poor people. They have a relatively limited selection of food, at relatively low prices. This selection is very heavily weighted towards the sort of food that poor people actually want to buy, rather than the sort of food rich do-gooders want poor people to want to buy. Mostly, the poor people who want to buy healthy, nutritious food are recent immigrants who don’t speak English, and if you’ve actually seen their stores (I doubt you’ve shopped in them), you’ve seen how the market reacts to poor people who exhibit an actual demand for cheap, healthy, nutritious food.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          Mostly, the poor people who want to buy healthy, nutritious food are recent immigrants who don’t speak English, and if you’ve actually seen their stores (I doubt you’ve shopped in them)

          Please withdraw your doubts. I’m a first-generation immigrant myself. I have shopped at such stores for most of my life, and still do.

          Directly adjacent to the aforementioned Save-A-Lot was a Mexican grocery store. It, too, catered to poor people, of a slightly different sort, obviously. It, too, had a starkly inferior selection and quality of produce compared to even a nearby supermarket for not-quite-so-poor people, much less what we get from the relatively inexpensive greengrocers here in southern Brooklyn (I live in very nearly the least-expensive part of the borough).

          Whatever the cause, the fact is that at grocery stores that truly do cater exclusively (or near enough) to really quite poor people, the selection and quality of produce, and especially of any food that’s at all healthy, is dramatically inferior. You can say this is a matter of market forces; well, fair enough, but does that not concede the point? “Grocery stores for poor people are just as good as grocery stores for rich people!” “Empirically, they’re not.” “Well, that must be because poor people don’t want their grocery stores to be good! Supply and demand!” Ok, I guess.

          (Also, what happens if we apply the same reasoning to education…?)

          • Matt M says:

            (Also, what happens if we apply the same reasoning to education…?)

            People will stop having to pay for education that does not adequately meet their preferences?

            The anarchist in me says that it’s very possible that privatized education would, in fact, result in “lower quality” education, particularly for the poor – but that this would be a positive outcome because it would more adequately reflect the desires of actual poor people in terms of how they’d actually prefer to see their resources allocated.

            The market doesn’t promise “better X” or “better Y”, what it promises is “X and Y will provide quality in proportion to individual’s true preferences.” It may be that in medicine, the state somehow got lucky (broken clock twice a day or what have you) and managed to hit the sweet spot and provide about the right quality of service that people actually want such that private offerings are not noticeably different. Maybe they’re doing it in education too. But maybe not, and they could be wrong in either direction.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I shop at Aldi and Lidl sometimes, which I think are “grocery stores marketed at poor people”. I think they’re pretty good. And I often see food-stamp users at my regular middle-class grocery store, having little trouble affording a lot of stuff.

      • bean says:

        I don’t think Aldi is marketed at poor people. It’s marketed at people who are not Whole Foods customers and are careful with their money. Their food is definitely middle-class quality, just cheaper. (Yes, I’m a massive Aldi fan.)
        Unless you consider Whole Foods the natural supermarket of the middle class, that is. Some people do seem to, but that’s not really necessary to get good-quality food.

        • Urstoff says:

          Is Aldi any cheaper than Wal-Mart? I’ve only been to Aldi a couple of times, but it just seemed like a store that has cheap food because the stock is pretty random, like Aldi just happens to buy whatever is cheapest no matter what the product is and then turns around and sells it.

          Also, the fact that you have to pay for your own bags seems to suggest that it is the JetBlue of grocery stores; it’s not explicitly targeted at the poor, but at the ultra-price conscious.

          • bean says:

            Is Aldi any cheaper than Wal-Mart?

            Definitely.

            I’ve only been to Aldi a couple of times, but it just seemed like a store that has cheap food because the stock is pretty random, like Aldi just happens to buy whatever is cheapest no matter what the product is and then turns around and sells it.

            I’ve seen no quality difference between Aldi and Wal-Mart (where I used to get groceries), and Aldi is cheaper. They do have their specials where they find new and exciting things to sell you every week, but I get 90+% of my groceries from their standard stuff. The rest is stuff they don’t stock because there isn’t enough demand for it to be worth them keeping. As it is, I run to Wal-Mart every 2-3 weeks for things I can’t get there, although it’s often things that aren’t groceries.

            Also, the fact that you have to pay for your own bags seems to suggest that it is the JetBlue of grocery stores; it’s not explicitly targeted at the poor, but at the ultra-price conscious.

            That’s a pretty good analogy, although I tend to use Southwest instead of JetBluey. Actually, what it reminds me most of is IKEA. It’s very carefully engineered to give the lowest possible price compatible with quality.
            (And if you have to buy bags regularly, you’re doing it wrong. I always bring my own.)

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Why would “grocery store that sells very cheap food, but only to middle class people in their middle class neighborhoods” be a natural category? If it’s possible to sell quality food at low prices, why not have it accessible to poor people as well? It’s not like getting $2.99 for a TV dinner from a middle-class person is somehow more lucrative than getting $2.99 for a TV dinner from a poor person.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Aldi is a discount middle-class grocer. My guess would be they are not as cheap as the grocery stores which cater to the poor (C-Town, Associated, and Super Supermarket in my area), and furthermore they likely carry a different mix of foods. A pic of the inside of the C-town near my shows a lot of Goya products and big bags of Canilla rice (not sure of brand), as you might expect from a Hispanic neighborhood. Aldi mostly carries their own brands.

          • 1soru1 says:

            Aldi’s doesn’t really advertise, doesn’t sell branded goods, and has several distinctive business practices that raise the ‘friction’ of shopping there (not giving free bags, not taking credit cards, not stocking low-volume items).

            Read the comments here:

            https://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/blog/aldi-business-model-happy-customers-rapid-expansion/

            It’s almost like there is a test ‘are you smart enough to shop here’? And the thing is, people who pass that test may currently be poor, but they are likely not the people who will be poor in 10 years time.

          • bean says:

            Why would “grocery store that sells very cheap food, but only to middle class people in their middle class neighborhoods” be a natural category? If it’s possible to sell quality food at low prices, why not have it accessible to poor people as well? It’s not like getting $2.99 for a TV dinner from a middle-class person is somehow more lucrative than getting $2.99 for a TV dinner from a poor person.

            Define ‘accessible’. Obviously, there’s no doorman checking pay stubs or even how you dress. (Even if that was a thing, Aldi wouldn’t do it because it was too expensive to have him there.) But all of the stores I know of are in middle-class areas, not lower-class ones, and the food they stock seems pretty middle-class to me, as opposed to the sort of thing you find in the ‘food deserts’, which is, I presume, lower-class. (Of course, I was raised on Aldi food in a middle-class household, so my view may be skewed.)
            For more evidence, take a look at their alcohol selection. They make a lot of noise about their wine and the quality thereof, which isn’t what I’d expect out of a lower-class establishment. Going after the lower-class market would involve different placement of stores and different products, and I suspect that market has already had most of the surplus that Aldi is able to go after squeezed out of it.

            1soru1:

            Aldi’s doesn’t really advertise, doesn’t sell branded goods, and has several distinctive business practices that raise the ‘friction’ of shopping there (not giving free bags, not taking credit cards, not stocking low-volume items).

            They actually do take credit cards, at least in SoCal. I’m not sure if they do in the rest of the nation, although I know they take debit cards there. I believe that switch was made after EBT moved to cards.

            It’s almost like there is a test ‘are you smart enough to shop here’? And the thing is, people who pass that test may currently be poor, but they are likely not the people who will be poor in 10 years time.

            That’s a really good way to put it. Is Southwest Airlines lower-class? Is IKEA? Not really. They’ve engineered for value, which looks something like cheapness, but isn’t quite the same thing.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            One of the factors any retail business has to deal with is shoplifting and theft. Managing those is a cost. If you’re in a low crime neighborhood, that cost may be installing cameras and monitoring who’s walking out with what, and perhaps confronting the very rare actual shoplifter. In a high crime neighborhood, that cost may also include putting bars on the windows, stronger doors, hiring a guard, vetting employees more carefully, and just putting up with more stuff leaving the business without being paid for. That’s money that could otherwise be spent on making the business look nicer and having more goods to choose from.

            If Aldi, which I’ve never seen except from StreetView, manages to look relatively decent, it’s probably in part because it doesn’t have to eat the losses entailed in the crime in the neighborhoods Aldi Inc. selects for its stores.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Aldi is marketed at middle-to-upper-middle class people who want to feel like they are getting a bargain.

        C-Town and Associated are marketed towards poor people, though not the poorest of the poor.

        I live in a weird area, though. We’ve got a Shop-Rite (standard middle-class supermarket) plopped right in the middle of a poor area. Althought it’s apparently a terrible Shop-Rite (I’ve never been there)

  49. Walt G says:

    I worked at a large book store and saw one regular inefficiency of state schools. Every year, at the end of some fiscal cycle, schools and colleges would order thousands of dollars of books and supplies, to use up whatever was left in the budget. We never saw this behavior from any private organization.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Private companies have their “use up the budget” splurges, too. I’m in an industry where most companies have until the end of the calendar year to do it, and right now we are completely busy helping them with that.

    • Deiseach says:

      Every year, at the end of some fiscal cycle, schools and colleges would order thousands of dollars of books and supplies, to use up whatever was left in the budget.

      I’ve experienced this myself (“What do you need?” “Well, we’re pretty much okay, we don’t need anything” “That’s no good, it’s the end of the year and we have money left, quick, buy something expensive!”) That’s because of claw-back, which is another one of those supposed efficiency savings that only causes more wastage. If you get money in the budget for a specific purpose, especially if it’s under a particular scheme or programme (e.g. the push for “more IT in schools! every school must have computers!”), then you can only use it for those purposes.

      (a) You can’t say “We don’t really need twenty new computers because we only bought these last year but boy, could we do with repairing these windows that are falling out” and use that money for the windows, it has to be spent on computers because it’s a grant under the “Computers In Schools Programme”

      (b) If you don’t spend it on computers, or if you have money left over in the budget this year because for whatever reason you didn’t spend it all, you can’t keep it in the bank for next year, you have to send it back to the department/government

      (c) Even worse, whatever surplus you had will be taken out of your budget next year. So, for example, if you end the year with €20,000 left in your budget that you didn’t spend out of €200,000 given in capitation grants or whatever, next year the department will only allow you €180,000

      (d) But next year you might have extra expenses: you might end up spending €220,000. This would leave you with a shortfall of €40,000 in your budget. So at the end of the year, if you have any money left over, you spend it to get rid of it. That way, not alone do you get your ‘normal’ budget of €200,000 next year, if you do need an extra €20,000 you can apply for it as emergency funding.

      It’s crazy and doesn’t encourage anyone to be economical or cut down expenses or be prudent, because you don’t get any benefit out of it; you can’t build up a nest-egg for a rainy day or have a cushion from surplus to cover any extra expenses. But because of the constant promises by every government when it’s seeking to get into power that “we’ll cut down inefficiency and waste!”, part of this is “clawing back” public money that has not been spent, which in itself is not necessarily bad, but the corollary – if you can get by on a reduced budget this year, you can get by on a reduced budget next year as well – really causes the damage. In theory, it sounds like a good idea. In practice, you can see how it works out.

  50. Mengsk says:

    “Finally, you realize with dawning horror that this is the first time you’ve read a logical argument, written in good faith and intended to convince someone, in the past you-can’t-remember-how-many months.”

    This alone had me in splits.

  51. Urstoff says:

    What are some of the positive reform ideas of those who oppose vouchers?

    • Salem says:

      Oh you sweet summer child.

      • Urstoff says:

        I know, but aside from “universal pre-K”, the efficacy of which is in doubt, and “end poverty”, which is a bit ambitious, I haven’t heard any positive proposals. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt and putting this on my own ignorance rather than a lack of actual ideas from the critics.

        • gbdub says:

          I’d like to hear some proposals as well. Most anti-voucher people I know basically support “more money for K-12” as a general policy, but not much specific beyond that. And data seems to show that “throw money at the problem” is not effective for education.

        • Spookykou says:

          I am not sure why people who oppose vouchers should need positive reform ideas. Which might not be what you are saying, it is just the implication I am getting.

          *If I think that removing seat belts from cars is a bad way to lower automobile accident fatalities, I don’t think I should be under any particular obligation to also have a proposal to improve seat belts.

          *I don’t think voucher schools are as obviously bad as removing seat belts, In fact I think they could potentially be very good, and in general I think the current education system needs some kind of serious reform.

          • gbdub says:

            The issue seems to be that just about everyone agrees that K-12 education needs to be improved (literally every politician seems to have some sort of “education” plank on their “issues” page).

            So that’s where the obligation to offer a proposal comes from. If someone wants to defend the status quo vs. vouchers, that’s fine, but don’t then say “we need change!” without offering an alternative.

          • Spookykou says:

            I mean, the whole idea of vouchers is not that vouchers is going to fix K-12, it is that vouchers will create a competitive environment(Which seems reasonable) that will finally result in someone fixing K-12.

            The assumption there is basically, nobody else has any ideas on how to fix K-12, so expecting anyone else to have a good idea on how to fix K-12 might be expecting a bit much.

            This fire is bad, but please don’t pour gasoline on it, is a perfectly reasonable position for a person to hold, even if they have no idea how to put the fire out.

            At best they can offer alternative methods of brainstorming? But in theory that is already happening in as much as the status quo includes education research.

            Hold this ship stead and double check the map, or break the rudder and see where the sea takes us!

            Again, I am not actually opposed to vouchers, I am just defending the hypothetical somebody who is opposed to vouchers that thinks basically what I laid out above, IMO, that person is not obligated to offer an alternative in order to participate in the conversation, or whatever.

          • IrishDude says:

            The market works well as a discovery process; good ideas spread and bad ideas go bankrupt. Experimentation works to find those good ideas, but bureaucracy isn’t too receptive to experimentation, rather the status quo.

    • axiomsofdominion says:

      Educational reform. But on the scale required I’m not sure you’d accept that since you already called ending poverty too ambitious.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Reinstitute reform schools on a larger scale. Segregate children more strictly by ability/willingness to learn. Stop with the fancy ways to learn and (in elementary school) return to the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic through drills. Tie teacher pay/retention to student performance. Reinstitute corporal punishment.

      I don’t endorse all of those ideas, they’re just ones I’ve heard.

      • Urstoff says:

        Most of those don’t sound like something a progressive (the main, but not only, critics of vouchers) would propose.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Yes, they are mostly things I’ve seen on conservative fora (many conservatives would prefer reforming the public schools to vouchers), though both tracking and return to older teaching methods have wider appeal (I think weird terminology in common core math classes causes some of this reaction).

          Progressive reforms… I mean, what progressive reforms haven’t been implemented already?

  52. Henry says:

    Ooh this is exiting. I have something to contribute.

    I was at this talk 18 months ago which was about very cheap but quite good private schools that have sprung up in some of the poorest parts of the world. They sound quite similar to what you described at the end (except in their location of course!). I’ve found the recording of it on Youtube and it’s only about 15 minutes long. Might be of interest…

    https://youtu.be/G2s8gWyT_1U?list=PLLnFwzRPzDi0PnomyfWXRUVO6ihnil3GX

  53. Aceso Under Glass says:

    I am really surprised to hear you say that food stamp kickbacks aren’t a problem. I was also surprised to find out that the official estimate of food stamp misspending is only 1% (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/19/us/food-stamp-fraud-in-the-underground-economy.html). My impression from people I’ve talked to is “fraud” on the level of trading food for soap is endemic.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t actually have sources for the few-food-stamp-kickbacks thing beyond a vague memory of hearing that was true. If it’s surprising maybe we should double-check.

      • gbdub says:

        I would say it’s probably worth a double check, as well as a check to see if it’s gotten better recently.

        Back when food stamps were literal coupons, my impression was that there was a thriving black market – sell the coupons below face value for cash, use the cash to buy what you really want.

        The switch to EBT cards was I thought intended to combat that.

    • EarthSeaSky says:

      Here’s my question (and this goes out to you as well Scott): Why is it a problem if that’s happening? If people decide that the kickbacks are more valuable to them in a more liquid form, what’s the issue there?

      • Scott Alexander says:

        With food stamps, I don’t care. With education, it’s parents cheating their children out of money to spend on themselves.

        • CatCube says:

          With food stamps, there’s a fair bit of parents cheating their kids out of food to spend money on themselves.

          I don’t have numbers to tell how big the problem is (and if it’s small enough, mitigation measures might cost enough to eat any possible gains). However, anecdotally from when I worked in a grocery store, when the food stamps were actual physical pieces of paper, the parent would give their kid a large denomination ($5 or $10) and a piece of candy. The kid would buy the candy from the cashier as a separate transaction and get the change in cash, which the parent would use to buy beer.

          Obviously, the EBT card mitigates this particular mode of failure. I don’t know what the current methods of working around the system are.

        • Matt M says:

          How many parents do you know who had kids for the purpose of using them to increase their own standard of living?

          Like, I’m not saying something like this couldn’t happen – but the vast majority of parents desperately want their children to live comfortable lives, receive quality education, etc. and will happily sacrifice their own economic well being in order to do this (the decision to have children at all pretty much requires this in and of itself)

          • suntzuanime says:

            Don’t conflate purpose for going into an undertaking with behavior once the undertaking has begun.

          • Matt M says:

            That’s all well and good, but I’d suggest that even the behavior is similarly rare. Not non-existent to be sure, but rare enough to not serve as a major impediment to social progress.

          • Deiseach says:

            How many parents do you know who had kids for the purpose of using them to increase their own standard of living?

            Worked in social housing (since moved on/back to field of education). Can think of one specific example and several non-specific ones off the top of my head. That’s not counting the cases where people unintentionally got pregnant, or claimed they got pregnant when drunk/high from one-night stand with mysterious stranger whose name and whereabouts they do not know. Do not ask that question as the answer may offend 🙁

            We don’t have food stamps in Ireland (years and years back, we did have butter vouchers) but I certainly wouldn’t argue that they be stopped due to abuse. I would also certainly not argue that there are some people out there who will game any system and who are not fit to take care of a goldfish, much less a child, because they are selfish whatever the acceptable new term for a sociopath is.

            And yes, I have an example in mind for that, of someone cold-bloodedly exploiting their kid’s learning difficulties to get what they want when it comes to moving from one area to another, including what I strongly suspect is making the child’s behaviour and problems even worse so that when the kid is educationally accessed, they will be able to say “See? I need to be housed in Nearest City so I can have my child take the place in the special education programme they’ve been offered!”

            Actually, I can think of two examples. One exploiting a child’s physical difficulties (amputation of a leg) and the other is the learning/behavioural problems above. There are narcissists out there who think the world revolves around them and their wants and will exploit their kids as game pieces to extort services.

      • The Nybbler says:

        “Liquid” rather literally in the case of food stamps. The recipients would either sell the food stamps for cash at a discount and then buy booze, or they’d buy the booze directly with food stamps (at a premium) and the retailer would launder the transaction.

        The biggest problem here is you end up with malnourished people on food stamps, who do-gooders try to use as a reason to provide even more in food stamps.

    • Deiseach says:

      I don’t know if I’d call exchanging food stamps for soap “fraud” as such; yes, it’s violating the letter of the law, but if the person is trying to keep themselves and their kid(s) clean and dressed as well as fed, I wouldn’t consider it to be on the same level as “fuck buying infant formula, I want cigarettes and beer”.

      A responsible parent who is on food stamps needs things like toiletries and cleaning products as well, and may have equal difficulty in being able to afford them, and so might dabble in this kind of fraud. A selfish or irresponsible parent won’t care if the kids are dirty as well as hungry and the place they’re living is filthy.

  54. Garrett says:

    How do we handle cases where both the parents as well as the students are uninterested in successful education?
    It seems to me that when you have a case where both the parents and the children are committed to education, the quality of the school won’t matter; the parents can skunkworks homeschool at night while the kids go to a failing school during the day if needed.
    It seems to me that the debate here largely focusses around cases where either the students or the parents don’t care about education and how you handle that. In this case, I can see where there might be a significant benefit to the quality of the school.
    But if both the parents and students are at-best agnostic to the quality of the education that they are getting, how do we or should we handle that? Can you force an education onto someone who doesn’t want it? If so, do the right incentives exist for this to occur? Regardless, does it make sense to try to improve the performance measures of a product that people who don’t want it are compelled to use?

  55. Kevin Erdmann says:

    The idea that public schools are preferable because they provide a sort of communal commitment to a standard set of truths requires a lot of presumptions about motivation and methods that are at odds with historical experience. One obvious issue that is rarely considered is the central position public schools had in Jim Crow. Was there any more important set of tools in the oppression of southern black people than the accreditation office and the truancy officer? The downsides of public education are large.

    Consider the bookend cases of Jim Crow – Plessy v Ferguson, where private businesses fought against public segregation requirements, and lost. Brown v Topeka Board of Education, where segregation was ended over the refusal of public school boards. Consider the Greyhound busses that were firebombed on their way to protest the segregated city busses in Alabama. Consider the iconic photographs of children who had to be escorted into public schools by armed federal agents.

    It’s amazing how the downsides of public dispensation are so visible in our iconography and so absent from public debate. Considering this history, can anyone blame marginalized groups from lacking a respect for public education, and regardless of the excuses for its continued performance or plans for its improvement, don’t we owe them a structural alternative?

  56. wintermute92 says:

    I see there’s a good discussion of how accurate those Cato “no improvement” results are, but there are other results in that direction and I think it all misses a much bigger question. Assuming schools have seen little improvement in science/math/reading outcomes, has their total value offered also remained flat?

    This is important, and I think it’s not at all an obvious conclusion from the core-academics results. Libraries (a decent not-for-profit comparison to schools) have massively expanded their offerings in recent decades. From “the place with the books” and maybe a reference desk, they’ve added computer labs, internet access with tutorials for the unfamiliar, online book lookup, efficient interlibrary loan, de facto daycare/mental health services, and in some cases MOOC viewing groups.

    Similarly, even crappy schools generally offer far more technology than they used to. Computers in most/all classrooms, smart whiteboards in some (which are evil and a waste…), computer labs for student use, in some cases even programming courses. They spend more on special needs students, yes, but they also are likely to spend more on extracurricular services like ESL, speech therapy, and district social workers. They offer far more extracurricular time, both to stay on the college admissions treadmill and to offer de facto daycare for students after school. Often, the worst schools put the largest investments into security, adding metal detectors, cameras, and full-time police. (In many places, the schools have to pay the police department for full-time officers, which is quite a large expense.) Even use of in-school suspension (now vastly preferred to out-of-school suspension) requires paying staff to oversee a suspension room. These are all new “services” which don’t improve test scores, but ostensibly add value.

    Assessing these costs would be detailed breakdowns. Schools have also made ‘savings’ by cutting arts and music, so these would need to be large effects. Some of these changes (like omnipresent cameras) are almost entirely negative in social terms. But good or bad, they all represent large avenues of new expenditure which wouldn’t show up on a math exam. I think this is a huge part of what schools mean when they say “we’ve made all the cuts we can” – they’re working with passable efficiency, but paying for all kinds of new “value” outside core academics.

  57. onyomi says:

    Somewhat coincidentally, I was thinking recently about the important distinction between “privatization” in the sense of, “instead of having the government do something directly, have the government pay a private company to do what it would have done,” and “privatization” in the sense of “stop having the government do x at all and let the market handle it” (which is not the same thing as saying “have no x at all,” though sometimes people seem to argue against libertarians as if that’s what it means). I think most people mean the first sense when they say “privatization,” but it seems like we libertarians ourselves sometimes get a bit confused or vague about the important differences between the two.

    The big problem with privatization in the first sense seems to be that it is still government which sets the priorities. If, for example, government decides, through its weird vote buying mechanisms and coalition building, etc. that we really need a deportation task force, and then decides to hire private firms to do it instead of doing it directly, then we can expect great efficiency in… doing something which may be evil.

    People frequently point to private prisons as an example of why some things “just shouldn’t be left up to the market,” but private prisons are not, actually, an example of leaving prisons up to the market. They are an example of private sector efficiency in accomplishing politically determined goals. What’s worse, the same private sector efficiency and profit motive which ordinarily makes private companies better at meeting consumer needs, in this case will tend to go into lobbying for more money to be spent on things which may be evil, like imprisoning people for non-violent drug offenses.

    I have previously argued in favor of privatization in the first sense and also think school vouchers are a good idea–better, at least, than having government run schools, and for the same reasons food stamps are better than government run groceries. But this is also, in part, because of my assumption that a. the government won’t get out of education entirely any time soon. and b. the effects of private sector efficiency applied to education are hopefully not going to be TOO evil, though depending on what skills are inculcated by efficiently preparing students to pass tests with standards set by government, they could be. (That is, if we stop assuming that government education is merely an inefficient way to accomplish something unambiguously good, and instead consider the possibility that some of the politically determined priorities for teaching could be actively bad, suddenly private sector efficiency might be even worse than simple public sector inefficiency: i. e. something like “thank God we don’t get all the government we deserve.”

    In other words, it seems like libertarians, especially, myself included, should be careful about reflexively supporting anything with “privatization” in the name, because more efficiency in accomplishing evil is worse than a lackadaisical approach to evil.

    Re. everyone opening schools in their garage: you don’t even need to let them accept the government vouchers. Just eliminate the regulatory and zoning barriers to people opening businesses in their garage and it will happen.

    • stillnotking says:

      Compulsory state-defined education is on my list of Top 10 Things to Make Our Descendants Think We Were Evil. Even today, the existing public school system is not, I think, what anyone would come up with from scratch, given a free hand and a similar budget. But you’re right — that doesn’t mean outsourcing the whole existing mess and its priorities to private companies would improve things.

    • Samvel Arshuni says:

      Okay, related to this… I’ve never really understood the whole government-private distinction…or better stated, I think the argument is almost always better served by abstracting it away to [INSTITUTIONS] or [ECONOMIC AGENTS] or whatever term you find best describes this category.

      Governments are still subjects to competition

      Non-governmental organizations of comparable size have some comparable powers,
      and they can also make ‘free choice’ similarly difficult.

      Just because governments try to paint themselves in a special light, doesn’t really make them such.

      I think the problem may be reduced to the classic monopoly-monopsony issue.

      (A large institution need not neccesarily be bad. Sometimes only the institution can have real preferences for a product, not the individual (think Mars rocket). In /ideal/ conditions, you would expect your ‘individual preferences’ (in so far as they can be described as such) manifest themselves in the larger body’s decision (and this is in the most general sense, like how even the price of bread is society’s decision) in proportion to your (monetary/human/whatever, so again, general) capital (whether you are an individual or an institution). … It only turns sour if, for example, all ‘votes’ under some limit are discarded entirely (e.g if only the CEO’s / president’s & their friends’ preferences mattered) (Ideal in italics, because it need not be axiomatic, that this is indeed the /ideal/))

      But viewed in this light, neither can the solution be mere privatization.
      There are no game rules concerning this topic hardcode into the universe.

      If tommorow we eliminated all governmental involvement from the sphere, we may still soon run into the same issues.

      Now, one can get into whether education is better served by e.g Google’s Global Educational Subsidiary, or Your Local Country’s Government, tailored to your countrymen, but, to be honest, neither is local or global, and the optimal solution may as well be localized to the street level, or anywhere inbetween. Why it should be on the country level is unclear to me, considering the wide spread in the population & size of countries.

      But, supposedly, finding this optimum size is what those mythical ‘free markets’ do.

      Well, in this light, I would venture the problem is one of stickyness. You can extend your entity all you want, but firing people, reducing wages…that’s hard. (the fabled ‘efficiency’)
      But once you can easily go to whatever is the current optimal size, you’re set.

      How to make countries willing to allow subterritories to secede at will, mega companies routinely split, and downsize their workforce, with the employees (remaining and let off) being A-OK with it, is lift as an exercise to the reader.

      • stillnotking says:

        How to make countries willing to allow subterritories to secede ad lib, mega companies routinely split, and downsize their workforce, with the employees (remaining and let off) being A-OK with it, is lift as an exercise to the reader.

        This is the essential difference between states and corporations. A state is a fundamentally coercive entity that doesn’t allow its people to “opt out”. (I’m not an anarchist — I think there are good and necessary reasons for that coercion. See Thomas Hobbes.) The only way to exercise choice in one’s government, besides voting in a democracy of course, is to physically leave one government’s area of control in favor of another’s.

  58. Kevin Erdmann says:

    The issue of profits is sort of a category error. Any operation is funded by capital. On the liability side of a balance sheet, there is debt and equity. They both earn income – either interest or profit. Profit is only a partial measure of the return to capital. Public schools take capital too. Since there is no equity, that capital comes generally in the form of bonds. To the extent that capital is required to start a school, both public and private schools require income for capital. For public schools, that just happens to come in the form of interest payments instead of profits. Profits is more of a substitution for interest payments than it is an introduction of an additional claim.

  59. Alex Zavoluk says:

    I thought most private schools were non-profit. At least, both of the ones I went to (one Catholic, one independent) and most of the other ones in the area that I ever heard of were. I know most universities, even private ones, are non-profit, and the for-profit ones are mostly considered bad jokes.

    In certain areas, the profit motive is somewhat overstated–plenty of people are willing to devote their life’s work to education, or health care, in a way that they probably wouldn’t for writing corporate contracts. But competition is still there; you have to attract students in order to keep the doors open. And you probably want to attract certain kinds of students. And if you have people who believe in improving education, they’ll happily devote their full energy to improving non-profits.

  60. yossarian says:

    Honestly, in reading both the quoted article and this article itself, I didn’t quite understand what is the big uncompromisable difference between the private school voucher approach and the public school approach. The compromise middle ground can be easily reached by keeping the schools public with the whole benefit of having a government-run non-profit institution, while allowing the kids to freely transfer between schools available to them. Then you’d have a singular easy KPI measure to distinguish which school is doing better – it’s the one where all of the kids end up at, then you whack the bad schools and reward the good ones, so you have whatever benefits of the public school with the competition part of a private school.

    • reytes says:

      The question with that approach is: do the things that make the good schools good scale? Are they replicable? I haven’t dug into the research in depth, but I don’t think the answer is clear either way.

  61. reytes says:

    Few quick points before I run to work:

    1) I think, with regards to the grocery market point, the left-liberal position would broadly be that there’s still a whole host of economic regulations and laws and structures that allow the grocery store to exist and provide satisfactory services in a healthy economy – stuff like the FDA and minimum wage laws and health and safety and things of that nature – and that in a really unregulated free market, it would be much less positive. I don’t think you’ll find many left-liberal people being really sanguine about unregulated or weakly regulated free markets. And I think those kinds of regulatory structures are probably going to exist in, for example, existing non-voucher private schools, and private hospitals, etc.

    2) I think part of the concern with privatization in general, and with voucher schools in general, is that it would not have or would involve dismantling the kind of regulatory structures that would preserve good educational outcomes. In particular, I think unions and labor security is a big concern that people have with voucher schools, and I think there’s a fear that voucher schools would rely on standardized testing as a metric for quality control, and a lot of left-liberals happen to be very skeptical about the merits of standardized testing. I guess both of those arguments are sort of beyond the scope of this particular post. But I think the basic narrative is that converting to a voucher system would involve dismantling much of that structure, making it easier to get to the point where all choices are bad, where you have a race to the bottom, and strongly incentivizing schools that focus on advertising. Or, at the very least, that implementing a voucher system would correlate with also getting rid of those structures. Which left-liberals think would be bad.

    3) My intuition with regards to the cost question about where the money is going is that it’s going to capital improvements and new infrastructure and new buildings and new labs, which look really nice and shiny and are impressive, but don’t actually have a particularly strong impact on educational outcomes, but that’s just a guess.

  62. Dr Dealgood says:

    I haven’t read every comment yet, but I did a quick search for “Gulen” and saw nothing so here goes:

    One of the big issues with school vouchers is that they’re a great way for unscrupulous groups, like the Gulen movement, to fleece state and local governments for huge amounts of money. The Gulenists ran 120 charter schools in the US for years, effectively making the American educational system into a fundraiser for Turkish Deep State politics.

    Who’s to say that some other foreign extremist groups won’t do the same? Who’s to say they aren’t already doing that right now?

  63. Eponymous says:

    Only somewhat related, but are you aware of the time Kansas City public schools got an extra billion dollars over a decade via court order and failed to improve student outcomes at all?

    https://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-298.html

  64. Eponymous says:

    By the way, the argument that since private companies need to earn profits there is “less money” available to provide services is confused.

    Profits are just the return on capital paid to equity holders. But governments need to raise money too. If a city issues municipal bonds to finance construction of a new school, it will have to offer a competitive interest rate on those bonds. The interest payments to the investors that hold these bonds will be no different than the profits paid to the shareholders of a private company that financed new school construction by issuing equity.

    In other words, if private schools pay 11% of their revenue in profits to shareholders, then you can bet that cities are paying an analogous amount (in some form) for the cost of capital for their schools.

  65. jml says:

    >a little bit of racial segregation goes a long way (http://nifty.stanford.edu/2014/mccown-schelling-model-segregation/)

    Vi Hart and Nicky Case made an awesome interactive blog-post called Parable of the Polygons on this! It’s also FOSS and gorgeous.

  66. hlynkacg says:

    I don’t have a whole lot to contribute to this discussion but I would like to note that this IMO is one of the better posts + discussion threads in a while.

    Keep up the good work Scott.

  67. gbdub says:

    The difficulty I’ve always had in having this discussion (and the related one with healthcare) with left-leaning people, and Robinson doesn’t fully escape this as Scott notes in section I, is that my left-leaning interlocutor is totally willing to accept that profit motive can create negative incentives, and totally (or at least mostly) unwilling to accept that the current public system has negative incentives.

    The argument basically goes, “public schools only care about students, for-profit schools only care about profits”. Anyone who has attended a public school knows that the former is laughably false. Teachers care about keeping their job, getting a raise, keeping their class from literally stabbing each other, office politics with other teachers and the principal, and standardized test scores. The good ones can manage to sneak in a bit of care for actually educating their average student, and only the truly great teachers care (and can actually do something about) actually educating their brightest and their dimmest students (these truly great teachers will receive zero tangible reward for this, because raises are dictated exclusively by seniority and credentialism).

    Do “first-in, last-out” union rules really primarily help students? Do retirement plans that let teachers spend 30+ years on pension after only working 25 really primarily help students? Are administrators actually incentivized to primarily help students?

    The reality is that both for-profit and public schools are going to have their own set of incentives, some good for students and some bad. Balancing those incentives is legitimately hard, but you can’t even start the discussion with someone who sees public workers as saints and for-profit workers as robber barons.

    • nimim.k.m. says:

      I dislike this mode of discussion. For example, here on SSC I don’t think there’s many people who claim that public system does not have bad incentives.

      Also, if it’s any interest to anyone, my feelings after discussions with right-leaning people are often that yes, I agree that public has tendency for bad incentives, but their position seems to be the privatization will somehow magically fix it! and I’m an idiot or worse because not seeing it. Whereas when things previously done by the government ‘in-house’ are moved to public-private, I generally see still inefficiencies, often the level of service dropping, government not making the much promised cost savings, even much more improved opportunities for outright corruption, especially so when the previously publicly owned institutions are sold, and the legal reaction to stamp the corrupted politicians from giving out the deals to their friends (especially when buying things like software) produce even more hellishly terrible incentives. But to be frank, voucher system sounds it could be better (in big cities where there’s enough choices for schools) than many other versions of public-private, I can give you that.

      By the way… I’d guess much of what you said about public schools would probably apply to most private schools serving regular students [1], too, because that’s exactly what happens in about every public and private organization where people work after it passes certain size threshold. I mean, I don’t believe private companies have some magical quality in them the prevents office politics or stops people caring more about stuff like “keeping their job and possible getting a raise” (the true objectives) than any stated objectives if they different from reality? Because I think everyday experience of Western people would state otherwise.

      [1] Some special school that manages to get the best and the brightest of both students and staff might be different, but that’s a feature of the student quality.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        I dislike this mode of discussion as well. Fortunately, we have the reasonably easy exit of conceding that there exist downsides to the public system, while doing work to show its upsides, as you’ve done.

        Or tried to do. I don’t think what you’ve pointed out is quite enough. I think the free-market side’s position is more honestly that free market will produce less inefficiency than the public solution, not that it will produce no inefficiency at all. Your argument appears to point out the inefficiency it does produce, then show that a public system would beat it… but without factoring in the inefficiency that said public system would introduce.

        Specifically, you point out drop in level of service, relatively low actual savings, and worse corruption.

        You’re saying drop in level of service in a private system arises, I presume, when a private school cuts corners to increase its profit margin. If I look at the free market argument, however, it points out that a public system that doesn’t cut those specific corners will spend more money on those corners by cutting different corners. In practice, then, what you would expect to see is a school that has better textbooks – but dirtier bathrooms, or shoddier gym equipment, or flimsier desks, or unhappier teachers, or something else. …Or, it’s comparatively good in all those things as well, but it’s charging more in tax money, which means residents have less to spend on other things that make QoL better (including better food for its children, more activities, a better environment for them to do homework in, etc.).

        This puts the free market argument at a disadvantage in some ways, because it won’t necessarily know which thing(s) suffered in order to improve the one inefficiency the public school defendant pointed out. Granted, the latter had to do a little work to discover the one thing the private market did worse in, but once it has that, it shouldn’t appear as necessarily better in the public’s eyes. It should have to show that a public alternative is keeping up with everything else as well. All a free market argument should have to show, then is that that service level will cost money, that will come out of something else.

        If it turns out that the public system is able to shore up that corner by doing something smart that saved it money, then the free market system needs merely to copy it, and suddenly be on par service-wise. I can think of no incentive present in the public system that makes it capable of providing the same level of service for less money, that would not also exist in the private system. If you can, then this would be a very strong argument for the public system.

        Corruption: here, you appear to be saying that obvious incentives exist for the government to sell a public system’s assets to a private firm that managed to look like the right firm to sell those assets to – not because the public would agree that it is, but rather because that firm’s boss is friends with the official in charge of selling those assets, or is otherwise close to that official. This closeness can take other forms, in fact. That firm can make known, in private, that it will definitely hire the staff that the public system currently employs, or that it has assets of its own in the area that make the transition easier or cheaper – it just happens to have a suitable building in the area, or it controls contracts with the local buses, or it has influence with textbook publishers and can get its books into the curriculum at a discount, or a dozen other things. Even if the government is tasked to auction school assets off publicly, it can write a list of requirements that any buyer will have to satisfy in order to serve the educational interests of the public, and it’s quite easy to write them in a way that makes their buddy firm look best, while convincing any public interests that the government is serving them.

        Trouble is, this same type of asset allocation can and does happen when it comes to any service the government procures. Hiring contracts for contractors, for example, are typically written with a list of requested credentials, and the government knows it can’t get them all. The standard line is that the government is looking for whomever has the biggest subset, including experience. The private line is that this is a continuation of a previous work contract, the customer writing the contract really wants the person whose been on the previous one, and purposefully wrote the new contract to make that one look the best, and even if an absolute rockstar applies to the new one, the customer gets to decide who’s actually the best fit. And if that rockstar raises a hue and cry about corruption, the government can avoid that by bringing up all the other work contracts it advertises that really are willing to hire new people, and not mention that those happen because the guy they wanted to keep simply moved on or retired. And besides, what kind of rockstar would fight that hard for the right to work for the government??

        In general, public work has the same vulnerability to corruption that private work does, with the additional vulnerability that it has less to fear from random people leaving it for the alternative. No one’s allowed to not educate their kids, so the public educator has a captive consumer base. The public educator just has to beat the private educator on price, while not looking so incompetent that it attracts the attention of voters whose kids weren’t even going to that district. And even in the latter case, public educator only has to worry if he’s elected, or is costing enough votes to the office that appoints him.

        If the private educator with a sweet deal with the local government is the only game in town – namely, it’s a small town, as you mention – then it’s easier for the private firm to get away with virtual robbery. …But it’s also easier for the public educator to pull the same stunt, in the same way.

        A private educator can get tied up in internal office politics, seniority egos, careerists, etc. etc. As you say, many of these problems arise inherently in large organizations. But I see this not as an argument for public systems, but rather one for smaller systems. (Meanwhile, there are economies of scale that make larger systems more useful. So I see the equilibrium point as one where the economy of scale force is balanced by the inefficiency of bureaucracy force, and the winning player is whoever gets that equilibrium at the lowest cost to customers in any given district.)

        A private system not producing huge savings doesn’t really sound like an argument by itself – rather, that you’re combining this with the others in order to say that the downsides you see in the private system aren’t mitigated by the savings you think a private system would enable. Hopefully I’ve made a series of arguments that address the rest. I expect your concerns here aren’t exhaustive. Do you have any others? Namely, concerns about weaknesses in a private system, that aren’t also present in a public system? Or conversely, something a public system could necessarily do better, that a private system couldn’t simply also incorporate?

        • nimim.k.m. says:

          You wrote so long a comment I don’t have the time to address all points, but

          >Hiring contracts for contractors […]

          Guess what, I don’t like the government doing contractors (another form of “public-private”), especially for the stuff that should be major responsibility of the government, the stuff that the government exists for and does every day or regularly enough.

          Here, if memory serves, not too long ago they decided to contract away all material support infrastructure of the military. It might work in the peacetime when there’s relatively minor sized training operations going on … but given that we are a small country whose defense strategy for the worst possible scenario when the military is actually needed to do military things, is to “mobilize for total war and draft the significant portion of male populace to army”, I facepalmed. There would just be too much organizational benefits when the same organization who is responsible for the fighting needs also to provide the food for the soldiers doing the fighting, and that kind of organizations need to be in place beforehand. Trained. Practiced. Auctioning those services off to the cheapest provider every few years is not the way to do that.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            Guess what, I don’t like the government doing contractors

            Well, okay, but then you’re adding yet another handicap making it even harder for government to function as efficiently as the private sector does. A private company can look at what it needs to accomplish, and then hire or contract to get each part done, in whatever combination is most effective.

            The ancap in me says, go ahead and hobble government to your heart’s content; it will just collapse of its own weight all the sooner. But I don’t think that’s where you’re coming from.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            The government wants to do things. It requires people to do them. It hires them. The fact that some of them are contractors and some of them aren’t, doesn’t make sufficient distinction in the direction your argument requires. (The only reason I brought up contractors is as an example from experience.)

            You seem to be making the argument that it’s better to have career people in military logistics than to rotate them every N years where N is small, and I’m guessing you wish to generalize that argument to any specialist in the civil service. I certainly agree that experience helps. But I think you’re not factoring in the cases where different people disagree about how many experts you need, or who the best experts are. If you set your employment terms such that whatever experts you hire are there for many years, what do you do if, partway in, you decide you don’t need that many, or that some or all of them aren’t doing a good enough job? Naturally you would set some criteria for performance and external conditions, right? If so, congratulations: you’re now hiring on contract, whether or not you call them contractors.

            If you value their experience highly enough, there’s nothing inherently wrong with your rehiring them again and again, even if you get lower bidders. As I mentioned previously, contracts are typically written with detailed requirements; the government is never merely accepting the lowest rate. (The fact that those requirements lists can be abused just underscores the fact that they’re necessary; if they weren’t, we could just do away with them on grounds of abuse.)

            I also think you’re not factoring in the incentives in place for any expert whose job now depends on performance criteria and external conditions. If you’re setting those, you might find you need help figuring out what they should be; you can of course set out the broad outlines of when you do and do not need expert assistance, but there will always be many fine details on which you need advice, and the only advisors you have are ultimately aforesaid experts. (Even if you hire external advisors, your experts will be feeding *them*.) So those experts will often either end up writing the job requirements or informing them. Since their job depends on it, there is obvious opportunity for corruption.

            (This is a known problem. The US government takes this seriously enough to give periodic briefs to contractors about avoiding conflict of interest; in my neck of the woods, no contractor ever reviews contract proposals. That said, everyone knows that career civil servants routinely get expert advice from contractors. If a group of them decided that the best way to implement a project was with Uncle Farley’s SteelWorks and Cousin Wiggo’s Databases, they could stipulate technical requirements that only Farley and Wiggo can meet, and it would be very hard to prove that this was collusion, particularly if Farley and Wiggo happen to be reasonably competent. Corruption typically isn’t of the flavor of hiring obviously incompetent family anyway; it’s more a case of “one 4-star firm vs. a 3.5-star firm with an inside track”.)

  68. spottedtoad says:

    A couple thoughts…

    a) Everyone is acting like DeVos is taking over from a radically anti-school choice Presidential Administration. Wrongo McBongo! Obama was maybe the most pro-charter President we’ve had- the Race to the Top program specifically bribed/incentivized districts and states to lift caps on charters, there’s been a huge effort from center-left foundations to support charters (https://spottedtoad.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/waltons-billion-dollars-for-charters/ ). The baseline idea that Democrats have been in the pockets of the teachers unions and maybe someday we’ll have someone with the ganas to stand up to them just doesn’t match that we’ve had huge expansions in the number of “schools of choice” over the last ten years, and a very pro-charter, fairly anti-union administration (https://spottedtoad.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/obama-and-teacher-evaluation/ ).
    b) As a practical matter, districts with really fast expansion of voucher programs and the size of the charter sector have had a lot of graft. Not 11% profit margins graft, more like suitcase-full-of-cash-hold-classes-in-a-burnt-out-hair-salon-in-the-back-of-a-shopping-mall-until-the-last-few-teachers-stop-showing-up type graft. (https://spottedtoad.wordpress.com/2016/08/23/dog-days-of-summer/ )
    c) That said, districts and states which have put a lot of constraint on charter growth have really good charters, on average (https://spottedtoad.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/schools-that-work/ ). Maybe it’s connected, like competitive markets in public services are something that need a lot of structure and constraint in order not to collapse.
    d) Maybe instead of comparing schools to hospitals, we should be comparing them to insurance risk pools. That is, if peer effects dominate differences in teacher quality (https://spottedtoad.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/no-the-achievement-gap-isnt-about-teachers/ ), which certainly drives how middle-class parents act and where they choose to live (https://spottedtoad.wordpress.com/2016/02/10/diversity-and-student-achievement/ ), then we should be very much more worried about adverse selection than optimistic about the promise of competition.
    e) If his SSC Gives a Graduation Speech is anything to go by, then Scott views school as pretty pointless. And, fair enough, for a lot of people, maybe especially people like Scott, school is pretty pointless. It’s also pretty much the only reserve of in-person community still going (https://spottedtoad.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/the-progressive-ethos-in-education/comment-page-1/ ). School is the place that kids grow up in, and the only place many kids spend time interacting with human beings instead of with screens ( https://spottedtoad.wordpress.com/2016/12/01/vegas-and-anti-vegas/ ). If you take the behavioral genetics stuff this blog focuses on seriously, maybe School as Consumer Product is just a totally meaningless construct, and School as Community Locus is the only one that matters.
    f) This isn’t to say that choice is necessarily bad, or competition and screwing with the bureaucracy might not be good. But social problems are hard because society is a hard problem; education is difficult because a good society is one worth growing up inside.

    • Tibor says:

      Thanks (also to Scott pointing your comment out). It’s nice to know the US left is more reasonable on school choice than I thought. Now only to get European politicians (regardless of political affiliation) to see it more favourably. Especially Germany seems really bad in this respect. It bans homeschooling completely and the idea that schooling should be uniform for everyone and provided by the state is hardly ever disputed.

  69. GregS says:

    In both education and in medicine, I suspect we’re almost entirely on the flat part of the marginal benefit curve. Inputs matter, but additional inputs only get you better outputs up to a point. Arnold Kling makes a similar point frequently on his blog under the heading “Null Hypothesis Watch”, usually discussing some study where an experimental program failed to improve test scores, or where an increase in test scores failed to endure in future grades. So if anyone’s comparing the educational value-added of public vs private vs charter schools, they’re going to get results that are driven by noise or uncontrolled demographic differences or some other complication. They’re not going to get results that are driven by the differences in educational merit of different programs. The same goes for comparing private vs. public vs. non-profit hospitals; with medicine we’re also on the flat part of the marginal benefits curve (paging Robin Hanson!). Society is saturated with more than enough educational and medicinal inputs, so it’s going to be hard to find something that improves outcomes.
    I think there’s enormous room for cost savings, but we shouldn’t necessarily expect private schools to give us measurably, consistently better outcomes.

  70. Levarkin says:

    It’s because the things needed by poor people, if done well, will never be money-makers. Introducing an incentive to make money will necessarily mean exploiting and neglecting the poor, whose “choices” are highly constrained by their circumstances. I fear privatization not because of some mystical devotion to the inefficiencies of government but because I fear the erosion of the idea of education as something that isn’t win-win, that we give to children because they deserve it rather than because we can profit from it. I worry that the sort of people who run things “like a business” do not really care about children very much, and are motivated by the wrong incentives. I am concerned about what would happen if they ever faced a choice between doing the right thing and doing the lucrative thing.

    To your thoughtful critique of this position I would like to add the existence of some remarkable counter-examples, such as those documented by James Tooley. He’s interviewed here, discussing “low-cost for-profit private schools in the slums and rural areas of poor countries. Tooley shows how surprisingly widespread private schools are for the poor and how effective they are relative to public schools where teacher attendance and performance can be very disappointing.”

    • GregS says:

      Thanks for bringing up James Tooley. I was about to bring up his book “The Beautiful Tree.” I see you linked to it. His story goes well beyond arguing for vouchers. His narrative and the evidence he presents suggest that you could go to full privatization *without* vouchers. The parents in these third-world countries are paying out-of-pocket for private school for their children. These parents are far poorer than any American parents, by any material standard. They’re also quite savy about which schools are good, whether their children are being educated, what’s the relative quality of the local public school, etc.

      It looks like the book is a penny plus shipping, or $1.99 on Kindle, so there’s no excuse for anyone curious about this to not pick up a copy.

      • Levarkin says:

        Yeah exactly. Market skeptics will often make an argument like Robinson’s, along the lines of “sure, markets work well for those crass commercial things, but not this important societal thing.” But the private schools that Tooley talks about work so well precisely because of their societal importance.

      • Spookykou says:

        Everything I have heard about India implies a culture that places a very high value on education, and higher education. It has significant signaling value as well as, I imagine, some real value. I think this high opinion of education and its signaling value is very common, it is clearly present in the West, and the East, but is it actually universal?

        Consider that in Spanish being educated, educado, literally means being polite and having good manners. I think that there are potentially significant cultural factors at play(based on my experience teaching poor Hispanic students in Texas) such that it is not safe to just assume that all ‘good parents’ will also be parents who place the same value on education as middle class white Americans, or even desperately poor Indians.

  71. axiomsofdominion says:

    The reason why groceries stores differ from schools is so blindingly simple I’m wondering if Scott is attempting some sort of troll on his audience. I don’t think Scott would do that but I don’t have a good explanation for why he would use such a stupid comparison.

    Grocery stores are functionally interchangeable in every way. I work at a regional chain in Missouri and I have multiple stores within a 15 minute drive, something like 5, plus a Target, a Walmart, multiple Walgreens, a local grocery, and several regional chain competitors. Aside from a couple trips adjusting to the different location of foods I could swap out to any of these stores pretty much any time I wanted with minimal difficulty.

    Sure, some regular shoppers have a favorite checker who they’ve known for years but that isn’t going to buy you customer loyalty if you really blow it as a store. Grocery is also extremely simple and mostly a solved problem business wise. Its also incredibly cheap, relative to a large school system, to set up a new store, doesn’t require incredibly skilled labor, etc.

    No reasonable person would even compare the difficulty of implementing competition in the grocery business to that of education.

    The reason you can’t have competition among schools is primarily a developmental and social issue. Children need stability in their home life, their social life, consistency in rules and discipline and a lot of other stuff. Further travel is more of an issue for something you do daily compared to shopping.

    There is an incredible amount of research in education on the negative results of constantly changing curriculum standards. Basically you can’t figure out if a new curriculum is good in less than a few years because the kids need time to adjust to a whole new way of being taught. This applies to a school also. The massive disruption in the social and intellectual life of a child swapping schools is quite an issue. This is a reason for certain trends among “military brats”. The parent has to evaluate whether the disruption of a school swap is outweighed by the increase in educational effectiveness. Frankly, it almost never is.

    • vaniver says:

      The reason why groceries stores differ from schools is so blindingly simple I’m wondering if Scott is attempting some sort of troll on his audience. I don’t think Scott would do that but I don’t have a good explanation for why he would use such a stupid comparison.

      The grocery store comparison is to point out that “profit = cheating customers” line of reasoning doesn’t quite make sense.

      I agree with you that it’s difficult to rapidly switch between educational options in the same way that one can rapidly switch between grocery stores. It seems like the analogy to hospitals is better; if I’m not happy with how Hospital A is managing my infection, I’m unlikely to walk out the door and drive to Hospital B. But when choosing which hospital to go to in the first place, it seems like the difference between A and B is meaningful. And the costs of setting up a new hospital are larger than the costs of setting up a new grocery store, and so on.

      But I think you overestimate the costs of switching schools because your reference class of ‘school’ is too narrow; switching from one Montessori school to another seems like it would be relatively easy, switching from one school that relies heavily on Khan Academy to another school that also relies heavily on Khan Academy seems like it would be relatively easy, switching between those two types of schools seems fairly easy, and so on.

      • gbdub says:

        Certainly switching schools is much harder and more costly than switching grocers. But is it harder than buying a new car? Harder than buying a new house? Harder than starting a position at a new company? We have robust markets for all of those, and people are generally more satisfied with those products than with public schooling.

      • nimim.k.m. says:

        >The grocery store comparison is to point out that “profit = cheating customers” line of reasoning doesn’t quite make sense.

        Well, it does, at least in a more corrupt society. Remember the Chinese melamine milk scandal a couple of years back which lead to 50k babies to be hospitalized? And they occasionally happen in the West, even if less lethal… the horsemeat scandal and IKEA Swedish meatballs containing wholly different animal than promised, in true Cut-Me-Throat Dibbler style in ’13? Or in Sweden ’07 when a major was found to have been repackaging out-of-date meat? The whole can of worms that is feeding antibiotics as a staple to meat animals?

        And this is just cases that are caught and brought to the public. I’m not exactly convinced the detection rate is 100%.

        I’m also told that most of the olive oil sold is crap outside of the Mediterranean where the people have enough cultural deep knowledge to recognize good quality.

    • thad says:

      Grocery stores are not entirely interchangeable. A Whole Foods and a Target are very different stores. I draw much finer distinctions than that, including between the various branches of the local chain, but the larger differences are just so obvious to me that I don’t see how anyone could think they don’t exist.

  72. suntzuanime says:

    “Zero bullying enforced by a self-organized student culture” sounds like a horrifying Orwellian nightmare I might pay $14,000 per year to save my children from.

    • stillnotking says:

      For some reason it reminded me of those hilarious road signs that say “SPEED LIMIT ENFORCED BY AIRCRAFT”. Not monitored, mind you — enforced. I wonder what a GAU-8 Avenger would do to a Nissan Leaf.

    • sketerpot says:

      If it’s any consolation, “zero bullying enforced by a self-organized student culture” almost certainly just means that everybody stands in an auditorium for a few mandatory assemblies where the administration pretends that there is zero bullying, and then says a whole lot of tedious sentences involving words like “empowerment” and “citizenship”. Everyone will, correctly, ignore these sentences. Perhaps there will be posters.

      In general, school administrators are PR people who only look like they’re doing anything. I used to think this was a problem, but considering what they say they’re doing, it’s probably a blessing in disguise.

    • Civilis says:

      What I suspect is that the school has small class sizes of kids focused on their education (because their parents are willing to pay to send them to private school) where there won’t be much bullying in the first place. In that environment, it’s easy to see some student saying ‘bullying is bad’ (because it’s now a focus of the education establishment), and having someone with authority take that as evidence that the self-organizing student culture is responsible, and then using that as an advertising bullet point for the school.

  73. Swami says:

    I am a strong supporter of competition and experimentation, but there is one other dynamic which makes schools tougher than many markets. This is the unpleasant truth that the factor that matters most in schooling is who you are in school and class with.

    If you are in a class of trouble makers, with no parental support, and extensive learning problems, then the class is going to pretty worthless. Indeed, it is quite likely the child will pick up not just the intended (though reduced) education, but negative behaviors, habits and values. The level of focus is going to be set toward the median student, thus even assuming no negative effects of being surrounded by problem students, a student in a slow class is going to learn less than one among a faster crowd.

    This is part of the reason people pay so much for expensive neighborhoods. It isn’t JUST the better school, facilities, teachers and such. It is to a huge extent that they are actively trying to separate their kids from the “others.” And by others, I am not making some kind of dog whistle, I simply mean that well off parents want to live around similarly well off parents who tend to have a reasonably likely chance of having well off kids. And yes, genetics is the most important predictive pattern for educational ability and behavior. But peers are the second most important, so wide scale assortative matching is going to create something we don’t see in the markets for food or hospital care.

    This creates a dynamic which can self amplify out of control, not unlike what we see in elite universities. If a good education is significantly affected by who you are being educated with, then the key to success is to self select into elite groups, which specifically exclude not just problem kids, but even-less-than elite kids.

    I do not believe this is fatal to the idea of choice and competition in school, but I could be wrong. What I am sure of though is that it needs to be considered if current or future school models are to be optimized.

  74. bara says:

    It’s already implied by your final suggestion, but any solution along these lines has to be extremely careful about falling into regulatory capture. As an example, nominally anyone can provide me cable/internet service, practically I only get Comcast because my local government has granted them a de facto monopoly by charging stupid fees for any competitor to install infrastructure – because they can already lease the poles from Comcast and that’s cheap, right?

  75. Fluffy Buffalo says:

    A couple of comments – I am not an economist, so if I’m off base with my claims, I’ll be happy to be corrected:

    1. Competition leads to efficiency under certain circumstances – the more you deviate from these circumstances, the more dysfunctional you can expect your market to be. In particular, there should not be a natural monopoly; customers must know what they want or need; customers must know hat they’re actually getting from the vendor; and customers must be able to switch if necessary. In the grocery store, it’s pretty much “what you see is what you get”, and in the rare occasions where it isn’t, you can usually go to the store next door no problem. With medical care, most people don’t know what they need, and they don’t know if what they got is what they needed. With education, it’s not trivial to track success either, and if you find that the school is indeed a bad one, switching to one that has higher standards may be tricky. Also, you’ll need regulations to make sure that there’s a decent chance that a new provider who wants to enter the market has the capabilities and the resources to see their students through their education. Having a couple hundred badly-educated seventh-graders with nowhere to go because their school just went bankrupt is… well, not good. Plus, of course, schools in sparsely populated rural areas come pretty close to the definition of a natural monopoly.

    2. Here’s a question: who is incentivized by profits, and who makes sure that an organization runs efficiently? I’d guess that most people who do the actual grunt work in any company don’t really get a share if the company is profitable, at least not enough to motivate them personally. They follow orders, and they get rewarded for doing a good job through middle management, who in turn get rewarded by higher-level management, and somewhere up there in the hierarchy are a small number of people with the power to institute efficient structures and set up good incentive schemes for the lower levels, who may actually be directly incentivized by the profits of the company. So why should it not be possible for a non-profit or government agency to hire a bunch of these people, set up the right bonus structures from them, and reap the same rewards for the efficiency of the organization, without siphoning off 11% or whatever to some rent-seekers?

    3. I’m pretty sure that the 160% increase in cost for schools is largely a statistical illusion. In the decades over which this has been measured, other stuff has become much cheaper: automation, and global trade have made producing stuff ridiculously easy and cheap, “advances” in agriculture have made food ridiculously cheap, IT has made a number of services that were formerly provided by living people practically free. So if you normalize expenses, the share of these things shrinks, while in comparison the share taken up by services provided by flesh-and-blood people goes up. Education and medicine are pretty much driven by face-to-face interactions with people, so I’m not surprised that they seemingly get more expensive.

    • gbdub says:

      Your 2. is actually a reason why voucher schools probably won’t be horrible – at the end of the day, the services won’t be provided by people with a strong profit motive, they’ll be teachers with much the same motivations they already have (plus or minus a more meritocratic compensation structure and maybe fewer restrictions on curricula).

      So really “public” vs “for profit” is mostly about the motivations of the bosses. In the private for-profit sector, those will be “maximize profits” which really means “deliver a product that is good enough and costs little enough such that we can take the maximal cut off the top for the shareholders”. But that doesn’t mean “pocket the whole voucher” for the same reason you don’t get gouged on every car – if you start taking a 20% profit margin, someone willing to take a 10% profit margin will deliver a better or cheaper product and steal your market share.

      In the public sector, what are their motivations? The assumption of the public school proponent seems to be that those motivations are mostly “provide a quality education for all students”, but in reality it’s much more complex. School admins are not perfect altruists.

    • gbdub says:

      I don’t follow your 3. That’s not a “statistical illusion”, that’s a reality – other sectors has rapidly increased productivity, making them cheaper, health care and schooling have not, so they are more expensive. And they are literally more expensive by any reasonable measure – their cost compared to an average worker’s salary, for one, and the standard “vs. inflation” number in the plots. Where is the “illusion”?

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        The illusion is this: someone tells you, “the cost of schools has increased by 160%, and the outcome is still the same!”, and you think, “what has happened? Have they become less efficient at what they do? More bureaucracy? Greedy teacher’s unions? What is it?” when it’s quite possible that schools do exactly what they’ve always done, teachers still get paid what reasonably qualified people typically get paid etc, and it’s everything else around the schools that has changed.

  76. IrishDude says:

    First, the hospital case study is kind of ambiguous. Although for-profit hospitals aren’t noticeably worse than not-for-profit, they’re also not noticeably better. And the existence of for-profit hospitals hasn’t started some kind of virtuous cycle where all hospitals compete to save money and provide better care that ends up with hospitals being lean and inexpensive and just as accessible as grocery stores. Having a field be open to competition isn’t necessarily incompatible with it being overpriced and inefficient.

    My understanding is there are large regulatory barriers to starting a new hospital, such as Certificate of Need, which requires health care entrepreneurs to go through a convoluted process to bring more competition to market. This link has the following quote: “The basic assumption underlying CON [Certificate of Need] regulation is that excess capacity stemming from overbuilding of health care facilities results in health care price inflation.”

    In other words, there’s some central planning of hospital supply which prevents the hospital market from functioning as well as other markets.

    • The Nybbler says:

      This link has the following quote: “The basic assumption underlying CON [Certificate of Need] regulation is that excess capacity stemming from overbuilding of health care facilities results in health care price inflation.”

      It’s almost as if they skipped ECON 101.

  77. static says:

    I am not sure what the long term cost drivers are, but right now it’s pensions, retiree benefits, and special ed.

    Special education costs are astronomical, and over a much shorter time period have grown way more than the 13% you estimate. In this case we see in 2006 4% of the students were consuming 15% of the budget. In addition, the percentage of kids designated has grown enormously.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/04/AR2006060400973.html

    Defined benefit pension costs are insane, and continue to bankrupt municipalities across the country. This is why adding alternative education options, such as charters and vouchers, that subtract from the overall public school budget cause problems. Even if they take less than the average cost of a student to the school system, which they always do, the marginal cost of a student is much lower than the average cost. This is not just the costs of the physical plant which can’t dynamically shrink, but rather the pension burden in some cases is extreme.

    If there was one financial product that a real consumer financial protection bureau would ban, it would be defined benefit pensions, annuities, etc. The future is not as predictable as these products suggest. When interests rates are low, it is very hard to get low risk returns.

    “state funding for K-12 education has increased by over $1 billion from fiscal years 2011 to 2015. Rather than going toward district resources, like curriculum or teacher salary, almost all of the increased funding is going toward paying off the state’s unfunded pension liabilities which now total over $25 billion. In 2015 alone, Michigan reserved $883 million in order for districts to pay off their employer retirement contributions.”
    http://www.teacherpensions.org/blog/teacher-pension-debt-crowds-out-other-school-spending-michigan-0

    This estimates puts the cost at $1000 per student, but that is only how much they are actually paying, not how much it would cost to fully fund the pensions without sunny day estimates.
    http://educationnext.org/school-pension-costs-continue-to-rise/

    Most places don’t even include the expected cost of the pensions in their accounting, but only record how much they are currently paying towards it.
    http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/03/official-education-spending-figures-do-not-incorporate-full-cost-of-teacher-pensions

    Changing the funding model for public schools will only accelerate the coming government defined benefits pensions collapse. Continuing to offer these is an error of the highest degree. Converting to defined contribution is a challenge when you’ve already overpaid tons of teachers that already retired, but it needs to happen now.

    Then you get to the real fun, places are not just paying for defined benefit pensions, they are also paying retiree health benefits! Yeah, instead of going on Medicare, they get their own insurance plans. Why? Well, a teacher couple in PA I know could retire at age 55 with $3.5M in expected lifetime benefits (assuming the state doesn’t declare bankruptcy first). So, they need the retiree health benefits until Medicare kicks in, but why continue them after that?
    It’s killing LA too
    .http://laschoolreport.com/special-ed-a-big-drain-on-the-districts-budget-but-a-potential-for-attracting-more-students/

    This is not to say that we couldn’t do better with private schools and vouchers, but that any move away from the current system will cause a benefits collapse. The marginal cost of a student that leaves is pretty low.

    • vaniver says:

      So, I feel like if the debate is characterized as “do we want to get the best education for our children, or fulfill our legal obligations to teachers in the past?” then this allows us to notice third options. For example, the federal government could buy up those liabilities similarly to how it bought state debt after the revolutionary war, and then we could move on to an actually sensible educational system (which does not do the same sort of pension / benefits madness).

    • Brad