Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

‘publish or perish’ in universities

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

It is well-known that university professors must publish in peer-reviewed journals in order to obtain tenure and retain their jobs. At the same time, good researchers are rarely the best teachers. Steve Payson, a certified economist who has an MSc from the London School of Economics and a PhD from Columbia University, has written a very personal and very strong critique of this system. (more…)

thinking like an economist

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

From University of California-Berkeley economist Brad DeLong:

Economics might have developed as a descriptive science, like sociology or political science. If so, courses in economics would concentrate on economic institutions and practices and the institutional structure of the economy as a whole. But it has not; it has instead become a more abstract science that emphasizes general principles applicable to a variety of situations. Thus a large part of economics involves a particular set of tools: a unique way of thinking about the world that is closely linked with the analytical tools economists use and that is couched in a particular technical language and a particular set of data. While one can get a lot out of sociology and political science courses without learning to think like a sociologist or a political scientist (because of their focus on institutional description), it is not possible to get much out of an economics course without learning to think like an economist.

Brad DeLong, “How to Think Like an Economist (If, That Is, You Wish to…)”, Grasping Reality with All Tentacles, 15 July 2017.

This is a long, useful blog for those who would like to understand why, and how, economists reach conclusions that may seem odd to others. We are a weird tribe of nerds!

HT Mark Thoma


who are the best teachers?

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

Most certainly, not geniuses in their field. Harvard economist Larry Summers, for example, tells this story about his Nobel laureate uncle, Kenneth Arrow (1921-2017).

Kenneth had a real problem as a teacher, which is that he didn’t really think like the rest of us. From his Olympian perspective, it was very difficult to understand what students did and did not understand. ….

There was a movement in the Harvard Economics Department in the early ‘70s (this is an experiment that has not been repeated as best I know in the last 45 years) to assure that faculty rather than graduate students would teach introductory economics to college freshmen. This was accomplished in two ways: one is assistant professors were required to teach introductory economics, and the other is that generous souls were prevailed on. Kenneth was a generous soul and he was prevailed on. So, for a full year Kenneth was the teaching fellow for 24 fortunate freshmen. He reported afterwards, and I fear data confirms this, that he had not been quite able to find their level, and of 24 teaching fellows that year, he had been ranked 13th. The experiment was not repeated.

Larry Summers, “Kenneth Arrow Commemoration at the Institute for Advanced Studies”, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, 5 July 2017.

Kenneth Arrow Commemoration at the Institute for Advanced Studies

Lawrence Summers (born 1954) has had a long and distinguished career in government, the World Bank and Harvard University. He is also a nephew of Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), another Nobel Laureate. All three economists taught at Harvard University.

Kenneth Arrow was truly remarkable. His knowledge extended beyond economics to many fields. Larry Summers refers to him as a “gentle genius” who will be missed by the world. I, for one, miss him already, even though I knew him only through his writings.


private schools in China

Friday, May 19th, 2017

Demand for private schooling is increasing in China, but supply is stagnant. Selection is tighter and the number of disappointed parents and grandparents is increasing. (more…)

for-profit schools in Africa

Saturday, April 29th, 2017

Further to last week’s post on Liberia’s for-profit schools, today’s Financial Times contains a letter to the editor from a British educator working in Uganda. The writer of the letter, Adam Nichols, is a strong proponent of private schooling in Africa. (more…)

schooling in Myanmar (Burma)

Friday, April 28th, 2017

The World Bank gives low marks to schooling in Myanmar, a Southeast Asian country known also as Burma.

Myanmar has suffered from low school enrolment and completion rates (one third of 1.2 million students enrolled in grade 1 made it to grade 11, and only one third of those passed the school leaving exam); poor learning outcomes (9 percent of a third grade class in Yangon [the country’s largest city and former capital city] cannot read a single word); and inequalities in access and quality (net primary enrolment as low as 69 percent in poorer areas compared to 85 percent average nationally). [Emphasis added.]

World Bank, Myanmar: Public Expenditure Review, September 2015, p. 39.

The government of Myanmar provides a different, positive spin on schooling in the country.

Myanmar’s population is highly literate, with relatively high participation in primary schools, but there is a significant drop in participation in education in later school years. Over 95 percent of youth are literate. Only about 20 percent of children participate in pre-primary levels of education, but net attendance at primary school is roughly 90 percent. [p. 27]

Myanmar is piloting a new education stipend with the assistance of the World Bank that is conditioned on enrollment and attendance, and that uses community based targeting mechanisms to identify beneficiaries. [p.42]

Republic Of the Union Of Myanmar, Myanmar National Social Protection Strategic Plan, December 2014.

The focus in the government’s report is entirely on participation in schooling. There is no discussion of quality, nor any need to improve it.

Liberia’s for-profit public schools

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

Liberia’s primary and secondary schools are dismal, even by the standards of sub-Saharan Africa. A new education minister in 2015 decided to address the problem by outsourcing education to private, for-profit companies.

FT Africa editor David Pilling visited Liberia, to see how the experiment is progressing, and filed a long report. He found that the results are not very impressive. But perhaps it is too early to judge such revolutionary changes in provision of free, public schooling. (more…)

the Swedish model of school choice

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

Here is the promised TdJ, extracted from my July 2008 essay “Basic education as a human right redux”. (more…)

in defence of school choice

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski has written an op-ed for the New York Times that questions the value of markets in education, apparently because parents are unable to judge the quality of schooling options offered to their children. I disagree, but stress conditions ignored by Ms Dynarski, but essential to guarantee all participants in the market equal access to public and private schools. (more…)

the value of higher education

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

An increasing number of students are pursuing university degrees. There is a well-known correlation between higher education and earnings, so higher education seems to have value for those who receive it. But is higher education valuable in itself, for what students learn? Or is it merely a screening device?

Tim Harford, the FT’s ‘undercover economist’, has written a column on this subject for today’s newspaper.

A … sceptical view comes from Bryan Caplan, an economics professor who … points out — not unreasonably — that many students seem to learn nothing of any obvious relevance to the workplace but, on graduation, they’re rewarded with much better career prospects than non-graduates. Why?

Caplan’s answer is that education is a signal. If employers have no way to tell who is smart and diligent, a student can prove that she fits into that category by excelling in, say, Latin. The Latin is like a peacock’s tail: costly and useless in its own right but a necessary investment.

To the extent that Caplan is right, undergraduate degrees have no value to society: they enable employers to pay higher wages to smarter workers, but lower wages to everyone else — and in order to enjoy these higher wages, smart people must waste time and money going to the trouble of acquiring a degree. Everyone might be better off if the whole business was abandoned.

Who is right? My heart is with [LSE researchers Anna] Valero and [John] Van Reenen[, who find that universities boost the income of their regional economies]. But Caplan strikes an important note of discord.

Tim Harford, “Are universities worth it?“, Financial Times, 24 August 2016 (metered paywall).

George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan (born 1971) is in drafting The Case Against Education (Princeton University Press, expected in 2017).

Harford’s column has generated many long and thoughtful comments from readers (85 so far). Here are two ‘editor’s picks’. More comments can be accessed at the link above.

My impression is that Europe and the UK benefits from a more consistent level of quality in their universities… Oxford may be more prestigious than some of the “red brick” schools but I get the impression that a student will get a good education at any of them. In the US, the Harvards and Stanfords are world class but there are many schools that are, essentially, defrauding their students in varying degrees… All the way down to the abysmal low of Trump University. (Sorry, couldn’t resist 🙂 [Continues for two more paragraphs.]

My qualifications, BSc(Eng), PhD in engineering and an MBA, couldn’t be much more practical. However I have come to realise that a great, and rare skill, is the ability to take a subject, learn about it, understand it and to make sensible proposals on what to do about it.  You can learn that skill by studying just about anything from medieval Italian poetry to quantum physics and for non-vocational subjects. That is the real value of a degree.