Education – Libertarianism Philosophy Strengths and Weaknesses

Regulated Education Libertarianismo

As any scientist knows, the test of any theory is not only what data it can explain, but also what it cannot explain. Ultimately Libertarian, the only way to determine which theory is the best fit to reality is by attempting to disprove it, notably by making predictions that must arise if the theory is true, or by making specific experiments to show that some condition is not true.

This is why the study done by the OECD last November was very interesting data for me to examine, because at first glance it seems to be a good argument against private education, which is part of the libertarian theory. Therefore it must be examined in order to find what conclusions we can draw from it. I apologize for the somewhat greater length of this article, in fact this double article, but I thought it necessary to discuss the question at length in order to show the various facets of the issue.

Influence of capitalism significant

At first glance, the OECD study – the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – done in 32 industrialized countries including the United States and Canada, for more than 260 000 15-year old students, seems to show that socialist countries rules the education world. In fact, Canada scored well above average in all categories, getting second place in reading, and fifth in both science and mathematics. Also, Finland scored first in reading and above-average in other areas. On the other hand, the United States scored 15th in reading, 14th in science and 19th in mathematics.

The first reaction would be to question PISA’s parameters, and perhaps this is justified to a limited extent. The most doubtful parameter of the test administrated is that it is graded by hand, thereby introducing a subjective element. Given the nature of the test, which was composed of “real life” questions, I suppose this is inevitable. The nature of the questions seems more objective, despite the presence of some socialist biases in the texts presented in the sample questions (see Measuring Student Knowledge and Skills: The PISA 2000 Assessment of Reading, Mathematical and Scientific Literacy). This is probably of little importance.

Since PISA itself seems valid as far as we know, albeit with reservations, we must therefore examine the data. When we do, we find that the supremacy of socialism is not as assured as it seems. Here are the general standings as given by the OECD in their executive summary :
reading – Finland, Korea, Canada, Japan, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, UK, Sweden, Belgium, Austria, Iceland, Norway, France, US, (OECD average here), Denmark, Switzerland, Spain, Czeck Republic, Italy, Germany, Liechtenstein, Poland, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, Russian Fed., Latvia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Brazil
mathematics – Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Finland, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, UK, Belgium, France, Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Sweden, Ireland, (OECD average here), Norway, Czeck Republic, US, Germany, Hungary, Russian Fed., Spain, Poland, Latvia, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Luxembourg, Mexico, Brazil
science – Korea, Japan, Finland, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Austria, Ireland, Sweden, Czeck Republic, France, Norway, (OECD average here), US, Hungary, Iceland, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Liechtenstein, Greece, Russian Fed., Latvia, Portugal, Luxembourg, Mexico, Brazil

By consequence, the average economical freedom in 2001 of the top and lower 5 countries each side of the average are (economical freedom being measured by the Heritage Foundation standard, with lower being better) :
reading – top 5 : 2.03, top 10 : 1.99, lower 10 : 2.76, lower 5 : 2.90
mathematics – top 5 : 2.01, top 10 : 2.04, lower 10 : 2.68, lower 5 : 2.59
science – top 5 : 2.06, top 10 : 1.99, lower 10 : 2.63, lower 5 : 2.58

This represents a 28% difference or more between the top and lower 10, and is far more significant than expected (especially since all countries except Russia are in the 1.6-3.3 range). Again according to the PISA, 12% of students reached the top level of literacy in the United States, while only 5% or less in Brazil, Greece, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Russia and Spain scored as well. Unfortunately I cannot compare with educational freedom since I do not have that kind of data.

These results would rather tend to indicate that the scope of capitalism seems to be a positive tendancy, especially at a primary level. This is surely because capitalist countries have more resources available for education, regardless of how the schooling itself is done. However, it is not an overriding difference, as seen by Canada’s success and by the United States’ average performance.

Public vs private

An explanation for these particular cases would be very lengthy. What we do know for sure is that Canada didn’t perform better because its system is more public. It is well proven that private schools perform better and administrate better than public schools, for obvious reasons.

To show this, one only needs to take a look at the most recent report cards on schools given by Fraser Institute in 2001. These reports are adjusted for parental income, the gender gap (for some reason), and overestimation of scores by individual schools. In Quebec, while the best school was a public school (l’École d’Éducation Internationale), there were 84 private schools out of the first 100. 462 schools were classified, and around one quarter of them were private. In Ontario, the situation is similar, with 26 private schools out of the first 100. But 568 schools were classified, and only 65 were private (11%). Unfortunately Fraser Institute does not take enrollment policies into consideration, so these conclusions are tentative.

The statistics from the United States as to the spending and quality of private schools are also eloquent. According to the American Department of Education, the average private elementary school tuition is less than 2 500$ US. The average tuition for all private schools is 3 116$ US, which is less than half of 6 857$ US, the cost in the average public school (just as predicted by Friedman’s Law). Statistics also show that expenditures are proportional to these tuitions, as we should expect.

Likewise, it seems private school quality can be quantified as superior in at least one meaningful way. Last November, the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) revealed the progress in science learning between private and public schools, in grade 4, 8 and 12, between 1996 and 2000. Not only do private schools improve faster than public schools at all grades, but the performance of minority students and the majority students are more distant in public schools. The superiority and fairness of private schools was even more marked in mathematics. However, one must again consider the lack of consideration given to enrollment policies.

Furthermore, it seems that, according to the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (the far-away date being necessary to measure progress all the way from high school to college), 72.5% of students from private high schools get to college, comparatively to 42.9% of students from public schools. One may argue that income disparity explains this statistic, and the statistic does not in fact take income into account. However, and this is not a rebuttal but an interesting response, it also shows that black students, who tend to live in lower income families, see an even greater increase in chances and a greater percentage of success. I suppose that the extent to which one can consider this particular statistic significant varies.

How can we explain the inferiority of private schools? Because of free market processes. Bad schools in a public system are left to themselves. No politician would make a fool of himself by closing down a school and losing votes. Once again, political motivation, not profit motivation, dominates. On the other hand, a bad private school will be forced to close its doors because of the lack of demand. It is competition which ensures the survival of the institutions which fulfill customer demand the best. Furthermore, the school is accountable to the law, and therefore must provide promised services, while the government is not. This is no little advantage.

The other advantage of a private system is the freedom of choice. Public systems, due once again to political motivation, favour uniformity over fulfilling customer demand. They have no incentive to respond to customer demand because they get their profits from tax money, not voluntary trade. On the other hand, private schools, like any other type of product, have niches which they exploit in order to satisfy various types of demand. This promotes diversity over uniformity, and therefore more choice to the parents.

This also means that disadvantaged children have more opportunities to “catch up” in a private system, once again because of this efficiency and diversity. Private education in India seems to confirm the idea that poor people benefit more from private education (see Serving the Needs of the Poor: The Private Education Sector in Developing Countries, James Tooley, 2001, and “Does Prosperity Depend on Education?”, Ideas on Liberty, May 2003).

“An Indian government-sponsored “Probe Report” revealed that serious “malfunctioning” of government schools causes harm to low-income families. During unannounced visits researchers found “teaching activity” in only 53 percent of the schools, while the head teacher was absent in 33 percent.

Those problems were not found in private schools serving the poor. Random visits revealed “feverish classroom activity.”

(…) Government schools offer free tuition, books, and even lunches. Yet in Hyderabad, India, for example, official figures indicate that 61 percent of all students attend schools in the private, unaided sector. This ratio is probably higher since government schools overstate the number of their students to insure more funding.

Also, 80 percent of youths in India’s urban areas attend private schools (in Pakistan, as well, half of the poorest students attend private schools), because private schools there offer free or subsidized places for poor families (approx. 15% of their total enrollment). The research shows that the results correspond to what we know :

“With respect to school performance, private school students achieved standard scores of 17.9 in mathematics and 19.0 in language, while government schools produced average scores of 16.3 and 17.4 respectively.

Most government schools in India suffer from poor physical facilities, high teacher absenteeism, high pupil-teacher ratios, and generally act more as a daycare rather than educational center.”

The source of this data is James Tooley, “Could the Globalization of Education Benefit the Poor?” Occasional Paper 3, Liberales Institut, November 2003.

Private schools are driven by a commercial logic instead of depending on handouts from the state or charities. Despite charging low fees, the private schools in urban ghettos of India make reasonable profits, which are reinvested. Ironically, most private-sector teachers receive about one-fourth of what is earned in government schools because teachers unions have succeeded in detaching wages from performance.

It turns out that the principal reason for the difference between the two kinds of schools is the lack of accountability for government teachers. Private schools provided stronger incentives for teachers to perform well and for administrators to insure that they offer quality education. Teachers can be dismissed by the administrators and parents can “fire” the school by withdrawing their children. No similar incentives operate within government schools, where teachers have jobs for life. Such security leads to complacency instead of inspiring them to be better teachers. ”

Despite the gaps in our knowledge, the general facts of the case seem to confirm the position that private education with suitable standards is the best system of education. Therefore the OCDE study is interesting, but as a criticism of libertarian education, it is rather limited.

The experiment of private schools for the poor there seems in surface to demonstrate that cheap, empowering education is possible, although this affordability is mostly due to India’s pitiful third-world economy, so no definite conclusion can be drawn on that particular regard. However, one may suppose that the more competition there will be, the lower prices will be, which is a non-negligeable factor. EDIT : A recent article from Policy Magazine (see “What the Poor Can Teach Us”, by James Tooley) seems to demonstrate that the Indian experience is a lot more conclusive than previously thought.

At any rate, all the advantages enumerated here are demonstrated empirically or deductively, although the data we have is fragmentary.

The Japanese example

Having established that capitalism is a factor in educational progress but not the sole factor, what therefore can explain the variations that we observe ? My hypothesis is that standards and methods of education are the most important missing factor.

A clue to this is that missing factors are usually “cultural” in nature. Different geographical areas usually entail different modes of thinking, and therefore different results. One cannot neglect the effect of this difference.

Obviously an exhaustive study of educational methods around the world would require resources that dwarfs mine, so I cannot give any kind of rigorous analysis on the subject – also, my queries to various educational bodies around the world have yielded few results. So my hypothesis about educational methods is merely that, an hypothesis.

The example I would like to highlight here is the Japanese school system. As you may recall, Japan finished 1st in mathematics, 2nd in science, and 4th in reading. One plausible explanation can be found in “Beyond Fourth-Grade Science : Why Do U.S. and Japanese Students Diverge ? “, in Educational Researcher, Vol. 29, No. 3.

It seems, according to these researchers, that Japanese science learning follows structures which are different from American education. It seems Japanese science teachers consistently put a lot more emphasis to using the scientific method in the structure of courses, and tying concepts to the general context of knowledge of the students, rather than simple rote assimilation. It seems this structure also stimulated the children more and fostered interactivity. The consistency, according to the researchers, may be due to the constant rotation of teachers in the educational system.

It seems also that Japanese education puts an emphasis on basic ethical and cooperative behaviour, which fosters effort, and that classes are less interrupted than in other countries. Also, it seems that teachers themselves cooperate and discuss amongst themselves frequently.

Since this information is based on only one report, one must not lend too much credance to it. However, it does seem to indicate that some kind of structural difference is present and could account for much of the Japanese excellence in science learning. On the other hand, the relatively lower Japanese score in reading may be due to the fact that Japanese is a difficult language.

This simplistic train of thought may be used to explain more data. That scandinavian countries scored higher on reading may be explained by the fact that in general, scandinavian languages are more phonetically logical than other languages (letters are mostly pronounced as they are in the alphabet). Also, English is a relatively easy language, which may once again explain higher Canadian, British, and American positions. On the other hand, South Korea’s excellence is difficult to account for, especially in view of its decades-long war against private education.

The distance of cognition

Despite the gaps in our knowledge, the general facts of the case seem to confirm the position that private education with suitable standards is the best system of education. Therefore the OCDE study is interesting, but as a criticism of libertarian education, it is rather limited.

Here I must explain my position more clearly. Libertarian theory would ideally seem to support an independant private education and nothing more, although it is not necessarily so. In fact, I contend that it cannot be so. I argue that standards are a necessary part of an educational system. Another may argue that the higher scores in capitalist countries reflect the higher variety that capitalism brings about, which permit parents to make wise educational choices. Therefore I should present my argument in order to point out why this isn’t necessarily so, and why therefore the other factors must be responsible for the difference to a greater extent.

My argument rests on the notion of cognitive distance. Let me give a description of this notion. I’m afraid it cannot be brief, for the notion is rather complex.

It goes like this : people in general are usually apt to act in their daily lives because there is little distance between the person and his daily activities. Their nature and effects are rather plain to see. There is little cognitive distance between the person and his daily activities. Individuals also experience few grave trouble in their own field of work or discipline, if they are competent. The cognitive distance between the individual and the discipline is filled with education. In other disciplines, even the most accomplished workman, thinker or scientist cannot follow very deeply. The cognitive distance here remains because of the lack of education, and the more distant from one’s specialities it is, the more distance there is. Finally, in politics there is a high cognitive distance for most people because comprehensive political education does not exist. The process and result of democratic systems demonstrates the cognitive distance between individuals and politics.

Education is another domain where, like politics, the cognitive distance is high. To understand the demands of education requires research and comprehension on the scope of the Japanese study I mentioned earlier, and more besides. Despite my relatively good grasp of politics, I certainly would not qualify as competent in that domain.

Also, note the intricate relationship between education and politics. Without a suitable education, even the best political system cannot be sustained, since these systems are ultimately maintained by man. What man can do, he can undo. Therefore one cannot dissociate the two completely. One may argue that this true of other things, such as the media, science, or the academia, but there is less cognitive distance in these cases, and to impose standards on them would be virtually impossible, not to mention undesirable.

I am quite aware that a major objection can be raised, the idea that this cognitive distance also necessarily applies to politicians. Indeed, cognitive distance is an argument that I often invoke to show how politicians are less apt to govern people’s daily lives than the individuals themselves are. So I might seem here to be a hypocrite. However, here again a comparaison may be made with politics. It is true that politicians, as we understand the term, are no more competent in politics than people in general are. However, no libertarian will contest that a system based on a fixed constitution, determined by reason, is far superior to a free market alternative.

Perhaps the paradox can only be resolved efficiently by the free market, and that it dissolves as the education market becomes more and more prosperous. Perhaps a fixed solution, with standards based on rational parameters, is superior. One way or another, while it will certainly not please collectivists who would demand a lot more, we should pay attention to this issue seriously and see what lessons we can derive from the future of education.