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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How to Give Us The World's Best Education System Again

  Scotland used to have the world's best education system. Say what you like of John Knox but the Reformation led to almost every Scottish household having a book when this was unique in the world. The Scots "lad o' pairts", taught by local schoolmasters ran London and the British Empire. It was this education system that allowed us to take full advantage of the union with England.

  Unfortunately, probably for the fist time since the 12thC (when Scotland had 4 Universities and England 2), our educational results are below those of England.
Scottish pupils fall behind English counterparts... despite costing £1,400 more per student
   So what to do. Well I will rely heavily here on Jerry Pournelle whose has had a lifetime of serious interest in the subject.
It’s pretty well accepted among those who study education that schools can be fixed – or at least doubled in effectiveness – by the simple expedient of firing the 10% least competent teachers and not replacing them. Just allocate their students to the other teachers. As to who are the 10% least competent, you will find by and large that everyone knows who they are.

1 -   Most Scottish political debate is on which party is most committed to reducing class sizes. This is code for employing more teachers even as school rolls fall. However, below class sizes approaching 50 there is no real evidence that class size has a serious influence on outcomes. What does is having good teachers which is why Pournelle's proposal of getting rid of the worst 10% would have the advantage of improving average teaching ability with the only, unimportant downside being class sizes.

   What small class sizes really do is provide more government jobs and more members for the teaching unions. If the purpose of government education programmes is to pay teachers and the actual education is secondary at best it is easy to explain how Scots politicians currently run education. If the politician's sincere purpose is the nominal; one of education then the other explanation is that they are all insane morons. If there is a 3rd option no doubt somebody will be able to say what it is.

2 - Allow the imposition of discipline. Personally I would include the belt in that. This seems to me to be infinitely more caring of most children than allowing their chance of a decent education ruined by letting  a small number of rowdy pupils literally run riot. On the other hand I would not require this of all schools. Let the governors and head teacher set rules for each school. Only by allowing variation do we see what works. Which brings me to...

3 - Parental choice voucher system
As has been shown by Professor Milton Friedman (M. Friedman, The role of government in education, 1955), it would now be entirely practicable to defray the costs of general education out of the public purse without maintaining government schools, by giving the parents vouchers covering the cost of education of each child which they could hand over to schools of their choice. It may still be desirable that government directly provide schools in a few isolated communities where the number of children is too small (and the average cost of education therefore too high) for privately run schools. But with respect to the great majority of the population, it would undoubtedly be possible to leave the organization and management of education entirely to private efforts, with the government providing merely the basic finance and ensuring a minimum standard for all schools where the vouchers could be spent. (F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, section 24.3)

  1955 is some time ago & at least since the 1980s politicians have been speaking in favour of this. Perhaps it is time to actually do something.

4 - Adult education. The statistical report I have referred to a number of times before said that they did not find a positive correlation between growth and educational spending, somewhat to their surprise. However there was such a correlation with adult male educational spending, which I assume goes overwhelmingly to motivated people wanting to improve their career prospects.

     I don't automatically take it from that that their is not a close link between educational achievement and growth, that would still surprise me. Instead I think there is not a close link between the amount government spends on education (or at least programmes whose nominal purpose is education) and the level of education delivered.

    In any case putting more effort and money into the adult field and having the teaching not done by professional teachers but by professionals, possibly retired professionals, in the fields being taught. Pournelle has, on occasion, mentioned that army sergeants have consistently managed to teach even the basics to recruits whom the "professionals" had failed to teach.
5 - Prizes. I am not entirely comfortable with this since it will tend to widen inequality but the logic is inescapable. Pournelle again
The only way that education comes close to being an investment in the future is if it makes the public school graduates more productive citizens. It is not politically correct to notice that this really means that you ought to concentrate on the smartest students; there is little return on investment put into the disabled, feebleminded, and those with behavior problems that doom them to being unproductive. National wealth depends on production and productivity, not on getting a dull normal child to get a ‘passing grade’. Yes, half the children are below average, and that and they cannot be ignored; but adding a few points to the SAT score of a child with IQ 89 is unlikely ever to have a payoff equal to the cost of the education. You aren’t suppose to say this, but nearly everyone knows it.
  So the way to solve this is to pay more for good results. I am not calling for less money to be spent on education, quite possibly the opposite, so long as it is spent providing the promised results. We have either £1400 per pupil or 10% of teacher's salaries, or both, to invest, from carrying out the previous proposals. So lets put that into prizes. Institute graded prizes for those getting above current average results, particularly in the real sciences. If the average pupil in the top 50% got £500 a year for passing exams and the teacher got £500 and the school got £500 I think we would see some pretty spectacular motivation. among all 3.

    Prizes do work. Sometimes as much as 33-100 times better than conventional funding.

   The only problem would be that if our education system improved as much as I think it would (with great care being taken to prevent the "rampant grade inflation" it is now acknowledged we have seen) we would have to pay quite a lot more, quite possibly another £1,400 per pupil.

   That is a problem I would be happy to see.

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