Friday, September 02, 2005

Combining the best of two education systems 

Richard Vedder makes some interesting points on how public school systems could learn from private and public universities. More university students go to private schools than do K-12 students. And we regularly teach classes much larger than those in a public school system.
Moreover, even public universities are far more independent of the political process than K-12 schools. Public universities have greater ability to hire and fire staff, pay people on the basis of merit, change curricula, and face far less interference from obstructionist labor unions.
Well, Vedder hasn't been to SCSU, or else he'd at least pause before typing that last point. But the point he's getting at is accountability, and putting pain to the decision of parents to ignore what's happening in their schools.
[U]niversities are far more subject to the discipline of the market, meaning they face financial consequences for displeasing students or parents. Nearly every American college student has to pay tuition covering a significant percentage of the cost. If colleges fail to serve the students well, they may lose tuition revenues or fall in rankings issued by organizations. Top spots in the US News & World Report list are particularly coveted.

By contrast, very few public schools charge anything for attendance. Because parents "pay" for schools only indirectly through property taxes, they demand expensive but inefficient features like small classes. While classes of over 30 are rare for high school seniors, many college kids learn quite well a year later as college freshman in lectures of 200 -- and the parents rarely complain because they are now paying the bill.
So could states and municipalities change the system by capping per-pupil aid and allowing public schools to charge tuition -- roughly what is done for financing public higher education? Yes, Vedder says, but with caveats:
A move toward the college model for K-12 schools should avoid the morass of government student loan programs that have contributed to the tuition rise. Moreover, accountability at many colleges is limited, allowing administrators to waste resources on pet projects that would not be approved by customers if spending were more transparent.
Perhaps by putting teeth into the school's PTA -- which would become a board of trustees with parents on it -- and by not allowing a loan program that incentivizes tuition inflation, perhaps efficiencies can be gained.

At the same time, schools might be able to learn something from how faculty are evaluated. Currently, most testing programs test the quality of schools, not teachers, yet there is a substantial degree of within-school variability in student test scores. We would never do this in a university. Aggregating testing and determining achievement and pay, as a recent NBER study points out, "weakens the incentives for good teachers to enter and remain in teaching, for ineffective teachers to leave, and for all teachers to put forth greater effort." (Thanks to Jim for catching my omission of the italicized word.)