The case of mutual educational disarmament

ETREND OF THE CONOMISTS be big fans of education, which is perhaps not surprising considering how much they consume and the quality of their textbooks. Alfred Marshall, writing in 1873, hoped that education would help to erase the “distinction between workers and gentlemen”. Gary Becker of the University of Chicago reinvented education as an investment in “human capital” that would bring a return to the market just like other assets. Greg Mankiw of Harvard University, whose books have educated more than most, once calculated that differences in human capital between countries could explain much of their otherwise inexplicable differences in prosperity.

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But the economy can also be scathing for schooling. Signage theory likens many diplomas to peacock tails: expensive burdens, useful only as clear evidence that their owners are intellectually strong enough to endure them. And in “The Social Limits to Growth,” a book published in 1976, Fred Hirsch, formerly editor for this journal, pointed out that education is often “positional” in nature. What matters is not just how much you have, but whether you have more than the next person. For many students, getting a good education is not enough. They need to get a better education than the people who jostle with them in the queue for wanted jobs.

Positional goods are, by their nature, in strictly limited quantity. Everyone can in principle live in a good neighborhood, go to a good school and work in a good job. But unfortunately logic dictates that not everyone can enjoy the best neighborhoods, the best schools or the most prestigious jobs. As Hirsch pointed out, “what each of us can achieve, not all of us”.

An unfortunate corollary is that one family’s spending on schooling raises the bar for everyone else. Families are drawn, often unwittingly, into educational arms races. They spend money and time on after-school tutoring or extracurricular activities (called alternative education) in the hope that this will improve their child’s standing in the queue. waiting for advancement. But they quickly find that everyone is doing the same, leaving them in the same position as before. They are in fact worse off because of the costs and frustrations involved. “If everyone is on their tiptoes, no one can see better,” Hirsch noted. And their feet hurt too.

These arms races are often particularly fierce in East Asia. In China and South Korea, schoolchildren are subjected to “high stakes” tests nationwide – the gaokao in China and sunung in South Korea, who play a big role in determining whether and where they can go to college. In Chinese cities, students spent 10.6 hours per week on after-school tutoring, according to a report by Frost & Sullivan, a market research company.

The governments of both countries have tried to orchestrate a kind of collective disarmament. South Korea imposed a 10 p.m. curfew on cram schools in 2009. Inspectors were on patrol looking for schools with their lights on. (Some schools have covered their windows with black tape.) China has introduced restrictions on after-school tutoring at an increasing rate since 2018. Last month, it banned tutoring companies from listing on the stock market, to raise foreign capital or make a profit. The restrictions have wiped tens of billions of dollars off the market value of China’s once-booming edtech industry.

Will these measures work? It is almost impossible to prevent families from hiring private tutors to teach their children at home. And if parallel education is successfully reduced, the arms race can take different forms. Parents who cannot directly buy a better education can instead buy houses near better schools. A study by Xuejuan Su of the University of Alberta and Huayi Yu of Renmin University found that when the management of a public elementary school in Beijing is taken over by another better regarded school, the prices of nearby real estate increases an average of 7%.

The arms race is much less intense in parts of Europe. Parents in Norway and Sweden do not ask much for private lessons, the rich even less than others, according to Steve Entrich of the University of Potsdam. And overeducation is less common in Germany and other countries that classify children early in college or vocational schools, with little mobility between the two, according to a study by Valentina Di Stasio of Utrecht University with Thijs. Bol and Herman Van de Werfhorst of the University. from Amsterdam. Vocational schools are supposed to teach what employers want recruits to know. This can limit the scope of degree inflation. For better or for worse, they are also taking large numbers of students out of the college laurel race.

Beruf als Politik

China and South Korea have started to promote vocational education. China’s latest five-year plan (which ends in 2025) promises to explore a “learning system with Chinese characteristics” and “vigorously cultivate talents with technical skills,” according to one translation. Some of the edtech companies ousted from out-of-school tutoring are exploring vocational education instead.

The German custom of placing children on different tracks at the age of 10 or 11 also invites an interesting thinking experience. And if the gaokao (and similar tests) took place earlier in a student’s career? If these exams really test the knowledge required for college, they should take place right before college starts. But while such tests primarily serve as filters, separating the best students from the worst, they don’t need to be organized so late. A 16-year aptitude test, for example, will likely generate a similar ranking to that taken two years later. The tests would remain stressful. But one earlier gaokao would save families a year or two of costly cramming, shortening “the obstacle course,” as Hirsch put it, without changing the results too much. Such tests will always have high stakes. But they don’t need to require such a high effort.

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This article appeared in the Finance & economics section of the print edition under the title “Assume the positional”

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