Saturday, 6 March 2010
Economists seem to agree that human capital is important for growth and development. In light of the urgent cuts that the public sector must undergo, it is worrisome that public education may suffer. According to the data from PISA 2006 (Program for International Student Assessment), 15-year old portuguese students fare quite badly in Sciences and Math. Above is a cross country comparison for the PISA 2006 Math tests that shows Portugal’s average outcome as being below the OECD average.
It should be acknowledge that the comparison of means may not reveal the full picture since low means are compatible with significant fractions of students in the top. Ideally, one should compare the whole grade distributions. Nonetheless, the figures seem to indicate that education in Portugal is a priority. The reasons behind this failure are not necessarily linked to bad educational policies. Educational outcomes have a lot to do with other factors such as parental background and income. In fact, pouring money into the school system (as for example the “Magalhães” experience) may not necessarily improve educational outcomes. Eric Hanushek, a well-known educational economist, was the first to call attention for the lack of a positive correlation between per-student expenditures and outcomes. I quote from his famous book “Making Schools Work”:
“America’s public schools should be the best in the world. Per-student expenditures have historically exceeded those of every other country, yet students coming out of America's elementary and secondary schools fare poorly in head-to-head competition with students from other parts of the world. Despite ever-rising school budgets, student performance has stagnated. Parents, educators, and policymakers generally agree that something must be done to improve schools, but the consensus ends there.”
Of course not all the academics/policy makers agree with Hanushek but the debate is still alive. His research suggests that teachers’ quality is a strong determinant of educational outcomes. Of course, high quality teachers come with good pay, but beyond that, Hanushek argues that good incentives should be in place. His research also points out for the important role played by teachers’ experience while curriculum upgrades via more education attainment, such as master degrees, seem less important.
Most Governments, reform the education system because there is a need to do something about it. It is very hard, however, to take up deep reforms because the results are very long term.
I end this post with a question: in order to improve the productivity of the Portuguese labor force, should we start by improving educational outcomes?
Posted by Matilde Pinto Machado at 22:56