Saturday, 6 March 2010

Educational Outcomes, something to worry?

   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?


  1. "in order to improve the productivity of the Portuguese labor force, should we start by improving educational outcomes?"


    Em entrevista concedida ao Expresso do passado fim-de-semana, António Barreto considerava que são tretas as afirmações que que colocam a educação como o factor mais determinante do crescimento da produtividade e do crescimento económico.

    Concordo com ele e há muito tempo que tinha anotado uma ideia semelhante no meu caderno de apontamentos.

    Na realidade, de um conjunto de com um nível de educação médio superior ao de outro conjunto, não resulta, necessariamente, maior produtividade global do primeiro.

    Aliás, as elevadas taxas de desemprego de licenciados em Portugal denota isso mesmo: o crescimento das capacidades disponíveis não suscita só por si o crescimento da sua utilização. A oferta não determina a procura.

    A educação é muito importante mas não necessariamente determinante do crescimento da produtividade, e, particularmente, do seu incremento imediato.

    "The difference in economic success, (...) is not a matter of nature, intellect, or genetics. The problem - and the solution - lies in public policies...

    ...A high education level is no guarantee of high productivity. The truth of the matter is that regardless of institutional education level, workers around the world can be adequately trained on the job for high productivity.

    ...Us workers achive the highest productivity in the world in most economic sectors. Whatever weakness exists in the U.S. education system, it is being made up for by on-the-job training.

    ...If illeterate Mexican immigrants can reach world-class productivity building apartment houses in Houston, there is no reason why illiterate Brazilian agicultural workers cannot achieve the same in São Paulo.

    ...Education is important (...)but it´s not important for immediate productivity inscreases."

    William W. Lewis - The Power of Productivity (2004)

  2. This is a very important and interesting point, Matilde. I would like to add that Governments and economists alike do not seem to know what is apparently relatively clear to parents who care about the education of their offsprings: which are the good schools and who is a good teacher.

    Portuguese education policy has been in constant turmoil ever since I remember. Rules change constantly before they have even been quite implemented and understood. This must create lots of instability in the education system, with consequences that for sure are not so positive.

    Ever more parents choose to send children to private schools, where there is more choice, is easier to understand what they will get and to influence decisions. However, this may create a stronger divide in school outcomes, with children from better-off families accessing better education in protected, stable environments.

  3. Monica,
    "More choice" is a myth. At present the choice is between state schools and private schools heavily subsidised by the state. Furthermore, the teaching and the teachers are the literally the same. What parents find is a different environment and status for their children.