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Friday, August 18, 2006

Econ Thinking Is Lacking

Economist Arnold Kling's essay on "A Preference for Ignorance" captures an often stated view of mine. Citizens, average people, sem to trust that the experts know better about the efficacy of public policy proposals than they do. However, a cost-benefit analysis is not applied to a public policy proposal, one never knows if the policy was helpful or not.

Sometimes this unexamined policy just means that money was spent with no improvement in a given problem. However, when the unimproved are school children, the downside is massive.

Kling reviews a study done in Kenya where it showed that schools that used flip charts had students doing much better than students whose schools did not use the flip charts. That would normally lead to a public policy madate that all schools use flip charts. But then the researchers did a test where flip charts were dispersed randomly among 178 schools. There were no differences in outcomes between the flip-charters and the non-flip-charters. Maybe the results had to do differences in the students.

Kling expands the analysis:

We seem to be most determined to remain ignorant in the field of education. The testing in No Child Left Behind is based on observational studies, rather than experiments. That is, we look at school quality solely in terms of outcomes. We label a school as good or bad without having any idea whether the school actually adds value.

Imagine what might happen if one were to run a controlled experiment, pooling a group of students and randomly assigning them to different schools. Would the "good" suburban school really do better than the "failing" urban school, once the population of students is similar?
I suspect that controlled experiments in education would show shockingly little value added. That is, if you were to randomly assign students to schools, the children of good parents would do well regardless of where you send them, and conversely.


I have written before about my children's school district. It is one of the top 3 in the state and averages about 1200 on SAT scores. However, I have not witnessed a discernible teacher or school quality. If anything, the good behavior of the students and the parental presence in the school on a daily basis makes the teacher's ability to teach mush easier than in an inner city. I witness intense parental involvement in their children's academic development. And that is what is the likely reason for the district's success.

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