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Economists Weigh in on K-12 and Higher Education… and Their Conclusions Are a Mixed Bag

October 21, 2017

Lacrosse (WI) Tribune writer Nathan Hansen reported on a two day gathering of four economists at University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. He detailed their reports on a host of education issues and, after reading them, I concluded that their findings can best be summarized in this sentence from Christopher Walters from the University of California-Berkely, who, when asked about the value of standardized tests said:

“Having test scores is better than nothing, A researcher would like more measures and different kinds of tests.”

All of the economists in one former another echoed the sentiment that they wished for more data, but one conclusion that none of the four economists challenged was the impact of poverty, with Matthew Wiswall from UW-Madison and Susan Dynarski from the University of Michigan, being especially outspoken on the issue. In examining the impact of pre-school education Mr. Wiswall was particularly forthright. He noted that family background has a disproportionate effect on childhood development, likely due to those families having access to more resources to provide better nutrition, schooling, early education resources or even ability to spend more time with their children. He advocated for government intervention in the form of income redistribution such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and advocated for funding of early childhood programs such as preschool or Head Start, which targets low-income families with children between the ages of 3 and 5. He was particularly disparaging of “choice”:

“One of the questions people ask is why the government should do something. In the education policy sphere, one major motivation is you don’t get to pick your parents or sign contracts before you are born.”

Ms. Dynarski noted that additional education funding can only be the answer if that funding is targeted to those children raised in poverty and targeted to their essential needs. She was critical of Wisconsin’s recent legislation that provided vouchers to students who were already enrolled in private schools at their parents expense and technology initiatives might be an unwise use of scarce funding if the goal is to provide an equal opportunity for all. Mr. Hansen offers this quote from Ms. Dynarski to summarize her thinking:

“For a kid in good shape, adding another dollar is probably not a good investment. If your family is having trouble putting food on the table, adding a nifty laptop isn’t going to make a big difference.”

The economists all lamented the use of test scores as the primary metric for “school quality”, but being driven by data felt that the scores at least provided a means of capturing the inequities in schools.

In the second day the four economists tackled higher education… and their analysis there was flawed by the limited data as well and particularly muddied by the fact that they effectively bought into the notion that post-secondary education is all about earning more money. That may be because earnings is the only available hard metric for post-secondary education in the same fashion that standardized tests are the only hard metric for K-12. But in both cases, using the hard data as the sole rationale for schooling is wrongheaded: it assumes that anything that can’t be measured is unimportant, which is clearly not the case in a democratic nation.

There is one area where hard data is can inform education policy, and that is in the area of student loans. In examining the student loan crisis, Ms. Dynarki noted that data she’s gathered indicates that “...interest rates don’t have as much impact on monthly payments as they do on longer loans, such as a mortgage.” Instead, she suggests that policymakers focus on the repayment process or reducing student borrowing.

After reading Mr. Hansen’s article I conclude that the economists’ ability to inform policy making is limited by the hard data available to us… and because of that economists have thus far provided more mischief than assistance. Enamored of the power of mathematical models, it is economists who helped develop VAM and who use complex algorithms rooted in standardized test scores and demographics to assess the effectiveness of charter schools…. and it is the economists and statisticians who are promoting the gathering of hard data on soft skills, thus leading to a time where educators might be held accountable for flawed test results in those areas that same way they have been held accountable for test results for two decades in public schools. My thought: anthropologists would be more helpful than economists.

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