FT : Measuring Economic Effectiveness Of Education Systems
Friday, November 7, 2008
The policymakers of rich countries, and those that aspire to be rich, have almost reached the point of obsession with education. They see it as key to economic survival. But before they turn their education systems upside down, policymakers should ask themselves three related questions. Firstly, what kind of education system do they really want? Secondly, in changing education, will they have to change national identity – and, finally, do they want to do that? On the first question, the most puzzling problem is that some radically different national education models are the envy of millions – but usually of millions of foreigners rather than natives. Japanese children earn stellar results in most international tests, such as the Pisa exams for 15-year-olds done by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. South Korean children often do even better. Westerners frequently betray a sense of inferiority about Japan’s well-known educational excellence in particular. It is interesting to note, therefore, that New Zealand state schools are making a roaring trade out of educating many Korean children for a fee. US private high schools, meanwhile, educate a lot of Koreans – even though Korean private schools score extremely well in the Pisa results. Korean children educated abroad at high school usually then go on to study at western universities. Parents who choose this route often say they want their children to pick up more creative habits through a western way of learning. They see deficiencies in their own educational systems, which they think are based too much on learning by rote. Japanese children are less likely to go abroad because the most prestigious home-grown employers are geared towards taking graduates of the top Japanese universities – who generally have to receive their schooling in Japan to get in. But many of the country’s policymakers are eager to make their own educational system more creative. Moreover, it is not clear that Koreans and Japanese do well at school because their educational systems are better. They may just work harder, even as children. In Japan, for example, it would be quite difficult for the average middle-class child, who at some point in their adolescence will usually attend a cram school at evenings or weekends to prepare them for tests as well as their usual school, to avoid doing well. To put it in an economist’s terms, Japan’s educational output might be high, but its educational productivity – amount learned per hour – is probably quite low compared with many western countries. This should hardly be a surprise – it mirrors precisely the productivity differences in adult labour markets between Japan and several western rivals.
But despite all these doubts about Asian educational systems, many western countries want to imitate Asian models by introducing more rigour into their own systems. In several, policymakers feel the encouragement of free thinking among children has gone a little too far. Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University in the UK, sums up the mood by pointing to the English experience. State primaries seemed “very happy places” before national testing of primary school children (at seven and 11) was introduced in the early 1990s. The harsh and inflexible discipline of previous eras had been banished, sparing children much trauma. But the testing revealed that in this brave new trauma-free world many children were unable, by the time they left primary school at 11, to read, write or count properly. National test results suggest that educational standards have grown better, but still have much room for improvement. It seems, therefore, that with a few exceptions, countries have not yet found the right balance between the learning of essential skills, such as good literacy and numeracy, and of useful habits of mind, such as creativity. Rather than switch wholesale between western and eastern systems of education, they need to find a happy medium. Optimists might point to Finland as a shining exception. The small country regularly tops many international tests – achieving the standards of the highest-performing Asian countries, but with a more western-style education. As a result, many policymakers and theorists want to replicate Finnish education in their own country. This takes us on to the second question. Finland performs well partly because of its famously rigorous system of selecting teachers. But it also benefits from the strong fair wind of a highly homogenous society, composed of one dominant ethnic group. So too do Japan and Korea, other countries that perform well. The UK, whose performance in international tests is either merely average or slightly above average, by contrast has a much more multi-cultural society. The US, which fares badly in tests compared with most other rich countries, is even more multi-cultural. It is not surprising that multi-cultural countries perform worse than homogenous ones in educational tests. If two children in the same class come from completely different cultural backgrounds, one will be more suited to the same lesson plan than the other. But the choice of whether a country wants a much more multi-cultural society or not – the third and final question – is a bigger decision than whether one wants a good or merely OK educational system. There are clear benefits to being a country created by a mix of many different cultures. One is the cultural mélange and tension that often produces great works of literature and intellectual breakthroughs – even while many immigrants lack the fluency in the language to profit fully from their schooling. The diaspora to the west of intellectuals and classical texts following the 15th century fall of Constantinople, which strengthened the Renaissance by bringing classical works from Greece and Rome to westerners’ attention, is merely an early and rather spectacular example among many. It is notable also that some countries with below-par educational results have highly entrepreneurial cultures that help keep economic productivity high – most notably the US. Waves of immigrants can create headaches for the education system, but immigrants who move to another continent are often a self-selecting bunch of go-getters who bring other benefits. There are also clear disadvantages to a multi-cultural society, such as – in most cases – worse Pisa results. But is that the most important thing in the world?