How Do Professors Vote?: 2017 Update

Earlier this year, I highlighted a 2016 study that unsurprisingly found that professors vote Democrat. The same researchers released an updated version of the study, having accidentally omitted two Florida universities. Of course, this didn’t change the outcome much:

The findings for the two omitted Florida universities, the University of Miami and the University of Florida, are consistent with the findings in our initial sample of 40 institutions. With the present addendum, our revised investigation now covers 42 top universities. In the new grand set, the either registered-Democrat-or-registered-Republican faculty from the newly added universities constitutes 6.1 percent of that of faculty of all 42 schools. As it turns out, the overall Democrat to Republican ratio (or, D:R ratio) changes so little that it is the same to the first decimal point, 11.5:1. Three of the five disciplinary ratios change slightly (pg. 56).

These findings are consistent with previous research. As I pointed out in my last post, economics departments tend to be more politically diverse than other social sciences. You can see the political diversity of various departments below, with the most diverse toward the bottom.

Cardiff & Klein, 2005, pgs. 246-247.


Politicization and the Fall of Academia

The ivory towers of King’s College London’s Maughan Library (Public Domain)

I’ve often met academics who seem mystified and horrified at the extent and depth of conservative animus towards academia. This excellent article does a great job of explaining (1) where this dislike comes from and (2) why it should concern everyone, and not just conservatives.


Entire disciplines—Literature, Anthropology, Sociology, and the various interdisciplinary programs that end in the word “Studies” – have all become more strongly associated with a particular species of left-wing interpretation that now influences the broader discourse in journalism and on social media. In some departments, the social categories of analysis—race, class, and gender—have attained complete hegemony. The most recent convention of the Modern Language Association, the most prominent organization associated with the study of language and literature, hosted three times as many panels on post-colonialism as it did on Shakespeare.


Conservatives will point to statistics such as the imbalance in the ratio between registered Democrats and Republicans as evidence of a political imbalance. Students it is argued are only getting one side of the story. While this sentiment is certainly understandable, it ignores an element of the current phenomena that might be even more deleterious to student learning and thus all the more intractable. The problem isn’t simply one of political imbalance, an absence of parity between Left and Right voices, but the extent to which humanities departments have become politicized.

I’m a conservative (more or less), and so I have an interest in conservatives being able to get their message out. But–independent of that partisan concern which I cannot pretend I do not feel–I have a sincere, non-partisan interest in the quality of public discourse. The politicization of everything is corroding that discourse. When everything is evaluated first in political terms, the conversation often fails to ever get beyond those preliminaries. Battle lines are drawn over rhetoric, terminology, tone, and framing. What’s left is a zombie-discourse, the husk of a conversation serving as a thin veneer for power games.

It’s bad for everyone.

It’s especially bad for academia. If folks like those at Heterodox Academy don’t manage to hold onto a middle-ground position, I’m not sure what the future of the academy in the United States looks like, but it will likely be quite grim. Elite institutions are already much more about the perpetuation of  elitism than education. When the academic content of academia effectively disappears, there will be nothing left except the quasi-covert apparatus of aristocracy.

Education and Early Economic Development

Image result for schooling gifA new study suggests that when it comes to the early stages of economic development, education may not play that big of a role. From the ungated version:

The accumulation of human capital is considered as an important determinant in the process of economic growth. Despite a large literature there is still an ambiguity regarding its role in growth as a number of empirical studies have found an insignificant, in some cases even negative, impact of human capital on growth. However, the focus of these studies has been more on issues related to the use of data and methodology and they assume that the impact of human capital is the same across countries.

Using a dynamic threshold model, we show that the reason for the apparent irrelevance of human capital (proxied by average years of schooling) for generating growth in an economy lies with its level of development. This implies that human capital accumulation cannot assert its productive role in the process of growth until an economy crosses a threshold level of development. Our finding remains robust across various tests. What helps human capital to assert its productivity at a higher level of development provides an interesting opportunity for further work (pg. 9).

It seems like the institutions of growth–largely those associated with increased economic freedom–play the most vital role in getting economies off the ground.

2017: The Best Year Ever

I know I said the same thing about 2016. And 2015. Even 2013. But that’s because things continue to get better. Nicholas Kristof writes in The New York Times, “There’s a broad consensus that the world is falling apart, with every headline reminding us that life is getting worse. Except that it isn’t. In fact, by some important metrics, 2016 was the best year in the history of humanity. And 2017 will probably be better still…Polls show that about 9 out of 10 Americans believe that global poverty has worsened or stayed the same.” And yet,

Every day, an average of about a quarter-million people worldwide graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. Or if you need more of a blast of good news, consider this: Just since 1990, more than 100 million children’s lives have been saved through vaccinations, breast-feeding promotion, diarrhea treatment and more. If just about the worst thing that can happen is for a parent to lose a child, that’s only half as likely today as in 1990. When I began writing about global poverty in the early 1980s, more than 40 percent of all humans were living in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 10 percent are. By 2030 it looks as if just 3 or 4 percent will be. (Extreme poverty is defined as less than $1.90 per person per day, adjusted for inflation.) For nearly all of human history, extreme poverty has been the default condition of our species, and now, on our watch, we are pretty much wiping it out. That’s a stunning transformation that I believe is the most important thing happening in the world today — whatever the news from Washington.

What’s more is that “global income inequality is…declining. While income inequality has increased within the U.S., it has declined on a global level because China and India have lifted hundreds of millions from poverty.” Today “some 40 countries are now on track to eliminate elephantiasis. When you’ve seen the anguish caused by elephantiasis — or leprosy, or Guinea worm, or polio, or river blindness, or blinding trachoma — it’s impossible not to feel giddy at the gains registered against all of them.” In “the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate; now, 85 percent of adults are literate. And almost nothing makes more difference in a society than being able to read and write.”

For me, this was the clincher in Kristof’s piece:

On a recent trip to Madagascar to report on climate change, I was struck that several mothers I interviewed had never heard of Trump, or of Barack Obama, or even of the United States. Their obsession was more desperate: keeping their children alive. And the astonishing thing was that those children, despite severe malnutrition, were all alive, because of improvements in aid and health care — reflecting trends that are grander than any one man.

He concludes, “The most important thing happening is not a Trump tweet. What’s infinitely more important is that today some 18,000 children who in the past would have died of simple diseases will survive, about 300,000 people will gain electricity and a cool 250,000 will graduate from extreme poverty.”

How’s that for a little pick-me-up?

Image result for you're welcome gif moana

Teachers: Made, Not Born

Teacher quality matters, according to The Economist:

Many factors shape a child’s success, but in schools nothing matters as much as the quality of teaching. In a study updated last year, John Hattie of the University of Melbourne crunched the results of more than 65,000 research papers on the effects of hundreds of interventions on the learning of 250m pupils. He found that aspects of schools that parents care about a lot, such as class sizes, uniforms and streaming by ability, make little or no difference to whether children learn (see chart). What matters is “teacher expertise”. All of the 20 most powerful ways to improve school-time learning identified by the study depended on what a teacher did in the classroom.

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University, has estimated that during an academic year pupils taught by teachers at the 90th percentile for effectiveness learn 1.5 years’ worth of material. Those taught by teachers at the 10th percentile learn half a year’s worth. Similar results have been found in countries from Britain to Ecuador. “No other attribute of schools comes close to having this much influence on student achievement,” he says.

Rich families find it easier to compensate for bad teachers, so good teaching helps poor kids the most. Having a high-quality teacher in primary school could “substantially offset” the influence of poverty on school test scores, according to a paper co-authored by Mr Hanushek. Thomas Kane of Harvard University estimates that if African-American children were all taught by the top 25% of teachers, the gap between blacks and whites would close within eight years. He adds that if the average American teacher were as good as those at the top quartile the gap in test scores between America and Asian countries would be closed within four years.

…In 2014 Rob Coe of Durham University, in England, noted in a report on what makes great teaching that many commonly used classroom techniques do not work. Unearned praise, grouping by ability and accepting or encouraging children’s different “learning styles” are widely espoused but bad ideas. So too is the notion that pupils can discover complex ideas all by themselves. Teachers must impart knowledge and critical thinking.

But the real question is this: are good teachers born or made? A 2011 “survey of attitudes to education found that such portrayals reflect what people believe: 70% of Americans thought the ability to teach was more the result of innate talent than training.” But the article notes,

Few other professionals are so isolated in their work, or get so little feedback, as Western teachers. Today 40% of teachers in the OECD have never taught alongside another teacher, observed another or given feedback. Simon Burgess of the University of Bristol says teaching is still “a closed-door profession”, adding that teaching unions have made it hard for observers to take notes in classes. Pupils suffer as a result, says Pasi Sahlberg, a former senior official at Finland’s education department. He attributes much of his country’s success to Finnish teachers’ culture of collaboration. As well as being isolated, teachers lack well defined ways of getting better…Much of what passes for “professional development” is woeful, as are the systems for assessing it. In 2011 a study in England found that only 1% of training courses enabled teachers to turn bad practice into good teaching. The story in America is similar. This is not for want of cash. The New Teacher Project, a group that helps cities recruit teachers, estimates that in some parts of America schools shell out about $18,000 per teacher per year on professional development, 4-15 times as much as is spent in other sectors.

The New Teacher Project suggests that after the burst of improvement at the start of their careers teachers rarely get a great deal better. This may, in part, be because they do not know they need to get better. Three out of five low-performing teachers in America think they are doing a great job. Overconfidence is common elsewhere: nine out of ten teachers in the OECD say they are well prepared. Teachers in England congratulate themselves on their use of cognitive-activation strategies, despite the fact that pupil surveys suggest they rely more on rote learning than teachers almost everywhere else.

I’ll stop the overquoting here, but the piece is truly worth reading in its entirety. Our teachers need better training.

Modern Lessons from 18th-Century Scottish Colleges

Last year, Ro had a brief piece about how Germany offers free college, not the “college experience”. The results of free college are arguably underwhelming. But the debate over college isn’t new, but can be found in the writings of Adam Smith. As The Atlantic explains,

While extravagances such as hot tubs, movie theaters, and climbing walls may seem to make this discussion distinctively modern, parts of today’s college-cost dilemma are recognizable, in fact, in an 18th-century debate about how best to finance a university’s operations. It was so important that Adam Smith took time out of analyzing more traditional economic subjects like the corn laws to devote a long section of The Wealth of Nations to it. And with cause: The Scottish universities of the 18th century, much like America’s today, had been quickly becoming the universally acknowledged ticket to social advancement.

Smith, despite accusations of Connery-esque misplaced nationalism, was justly proud of the Scottish system of universities, which ran on a radical (by today’s standards, at least) system in which students paid their professors directly…But by the end of the century, it had five of the most cutting-edge universities in Europe, one of the world’s best medical schools, and a booming professional class from which its southerly neighbor and occupier frequently drew its doctors, lawyers, and professors. It had pioneered the study of English literature as a subject, having perceived that for many of its students, raised speaking Scots or Gaelic, English actually was a foreign language. It offered up world-class Enlightenment philosophes such as David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith, all of whom were at least partially educated in its universities.

Smith noted the differences between the universities of Scotland and Oxford where later attended:

Image result for adam smithIn Scotland, students exercised complete consumer control over with whom they studied and which subjects they deemed relevant. Oxford—and in fact most other European universities—employed a system similar to the way that American universities handle tuition payments today: One tuition payment was made directly to the university, and the university decided how to distribute what came in…Smith points out how [Oxford] often fell short of the Scottish system, where direct payment of fees served as motivation for faculty responsibility. “The endowments of [British] schools and colleges have necessarily diminished more or less the necessity of application in the teachers,” Smith writes in his opening sally against bundling the costs of education. “In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the publick professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” In the the Scottish system, “the salary makes but a part, and frequently but a small part of the emoluments of the teacher, of which the greater part arises from the honoraries or fees of his pupils,” he explains.

What’s wrong with the Oxford (and contemporary universities generally) approach?

Prices are information about what people need and want, so the trouble with bundling together a large number of services on a single bill is that it becomes difficult to tell exactly what one is paying for, or for the people sending out that bill to determine what students in fact want to pay for. In the current American system, such decisions are based on fluctuation in enrollment—a very high-level piece of data that can encompass any number of students’ preferences—but not on the micro-level of whether the students of Texas Tech University, for instance, really wanted a water park instead of more or better Spanish-language instructors.

There are potential problems to the Scottish approach. For example,

evidence has recently pointed to the patent unfairness and sexism of student evaluations of their professors. Many an academic has bemoaned the growing “customer” mentality of their students, and with good reason: It can lead to grade inflation and a subsequent lowering of standards. But as Smith would surely have appreciated, the right incentives could bring 18-year-olds to seek out the highest-quality teachers rather than the most forgiving graders. That’s how it worked in Scotland in the 18th century, where there was a simple way of dealing with the problem that the best professors were not always the easiest fellows: rigorous, frequent, and comprehensive oral and essay examinations, which were administered in lieu of evaluations in individual courses. Students were allowed to select which university services and which university teachers they would pay for, but in the end if they could not pass a university-wide exam, their choice to take the 18th-century equivalent of Rocks for Jocks would have been swiftly punished.

The entire article is interesting. Check it out.

The New Bachelor’s Degree

According to a 2016 Fast Company article,

Nearly a third (32%) of employers are bumping up education requirements for new hires. According to a new survey from CareerBuilder, 27% are recruiting those who hold master’s degrees for positions that used to only require four-year degrees, and 37% are hiring college grads for positions that had been primarily held by those with high school diplomas.

CareerBuilder conducted a nationwide online survey that culled responses from over 2,300 hiring and human resource managers across different industries in the private sector.

Their responses revealed that employers pushing their education requirements toward higher degrees are doing so across all levels of their companies. The majority of employers (61%) say they are looking for more educated candidates at the mid-level skill level, but 46% are looking to hire better educated candidates at entry level and 43% think the same for higher levels.

This comes at a time when the cost of a four-year college degree is out of reach for the average American family. But employers argue that a tight job market and evolving need for different skills are making it necessary. For example, 60% of employers who were satisfied with hiring high school graduates in the past claimed their work requires the skills held by those who have completed higher education.

But why?

Employers told CareerBuilder that higher education not only increases an applicant’s chance of getting hired, but it helps boost the chance they’ll be promoted down the road. Thirty-six percent of employers reported that they would be unlikely to promote someone who doesn’t have a college degree.

That’s because employers have seen education make a positive impact across the board, from employees’ ability to produce better quality work, to productivity and the ability to boost customer loyalty.

This is likely why a “recent Pew Research study found that high school graduates earn about 62% of what those with four-year degrees earn. That’s evolved since 1979, when people with only high school educations earned 77% of what college graduates made.” But not all is lost:

The good news for current and future workers is that some companies are taking responsibility to bridge the skills gap and overcome the talent shortage. Over a third of employers (35%) said they trained low-skill workers and hired them for high-skill jobs in 2015, and 33% said they’ll do the same this year. A full 64% of employers said they plan to hire people who have the majority of skills they require and provide training for the rest. They’ll do this by paying for training and certifications offered outside the company or sending them back to school. Twenty-three percent said they would fund an advanced degree partially, and 12% would foot the entire bill.

Fast Company recently reported that a small, but growing number of companies are offering employees assistance to pay back their student loans.

This could be an example of business leaders compensating for what they see as a lack of preparation among new college graduates. Furthermore, it may be an argument in favor of greater collaboration between higher education institutions and businesses.


Total BS: Short Video featuring Harry Frankfurt

Image result for on bullshitSeveral years ago, philosopher Harry Frankfurt released his brief essay On Bullshit through Princeton University Press. The basic idea was that bullshit was different from a lie. A liar knows (and cares about) what the truth is and attempts to hide or distort it. Bullshitters, on the other hand, are more interested in persuading without any regard for the truth. The rhetoric could be true or false, but the only thing that truly matters to a bullshitter is that the audience is convinced. In short, liars conceal the truth. Bullshitters (sometimes) conceal their disinterest in the truth.

You can see Frankfurt discussing this concept in the fairly new video below.

Roots of the Gender Wage Gap

I’ve written about the gender wage gap before. An October 2016 article in the St. Louis Fed’s The Regional Economist “examine[s] the evolution of the wage gap by cohorts” as well as “the evolution over the life cycle to gain further insight into the patterns and possible causes of the gender wage gap.” The researchers find that

the gap increases with age, at least after the age of 24, which is the age by which the majority of individuals have completed their education. Thus, the gender gap when workers are 24 is substantially smaller than the gap when workers are in their mid-30s. This fact is well-known, and one of the main reasons for this pattern is that men and women make different choices over the life cycle. As they get older, women are more likely than men to work fewer hours outside the home and have breaks in their labor force participation (yielding less accumulated experience and possibly fewer labor market skills) and are less likely to hold highly compensated jobs with promotion prospects.

But why a gap at all?

Specifically, firms often have costs of hiring and training workers. When they hire people for jobs with good promotion prospects and jobs that require training and long hours, they are likely to seek individuals who are less likely to leave the labor force or to reduce their hours substantially. While some women are more inclined to participate in the labor market and work full time, women in general are still more likely to reduce hours or leave the labor force, especially during childbearing years, relative to what men are likely to do. This can lead to lower wages for equally qualified women. Furthermore, since many factors affecting labor supply are not known to employers at the time of hiring, even women who are likely to work long hours and are attached to the labor market as much as men are may earn lower wages because, on average, women with the same qualifications as men are less attached to the labor force than men are.

This type of discrimination is often called statistical discrimination because group affiliation and group averages adversely affect individuals in the group. Over time, employers can typically observe work experience, whether individuals were working and whether they were working full time or part time. Therefore, employers can increasingly identify workers who are less attached to the labor market and, as a result, discrimination of the type described above goes down with age. Since this type of discrimination is more likely to be directed at women, the wages of women who work full time continuously may grow relative to the wages of men due to a decline in discrimination.

They note,

We investigated the changes in the education composition of men and women who work full time continuously in each cohort. For the group working full time continuously in the first cohort [1941-1950], females were more educated than males up to age 28; however, the wage gap is declining when males are more educated than females. In the second cohort [1951-1960], the education gap among those working full time continuously declines (with females being more educated than males in all age groups). Thus, education composition does not explain the evolution of the gender pay gap differences in that group.

They conclude,

By comparing the differences in the evolution of the gender pay gap not only by age but by full-time/part-time status, we demonstrated the importance of statistical discrimination and its relationship to labor force participation of women. As one would expect, this type of discrimination plays a smaller role for the third cohort (born 1961-1970) because women in this cohort are more attached to the labor force than women in the past.

What’s the Evidence for School Choice?

The heated debate over school choice was sparked again by the nomination and appointment of Betsy DeVos to Secretary of Education. I’m not so much interested in DeVos as I am the evidence regarding school choice. One professor claims that economists are skeptical of school choice, with only 1/3 of economists supporting it. John Oliver has even taken charter schools to task. As Reason summarizes,

Oliver’s segment…was almost unrelieved in its criticism of charters. Echoing the talking points of major teachers unions and liberal interest group such as People for the American Way and the NAACP, the HBO host attacked charters for being unaccountable to local and state authorities (this is not true, as all state charter laws have various types of oversight rules built into them), “draining” resources from traditional public schools (which presumes tax dollars for education belong to existing power structures), and skimming students (in fact, charters teach a higher percentage of racial and ethnic minorities than traditional public schools; they also serve a higher percentage of economically disadvanataged kids). Which is not to say that Oliver is all wrong in his analysis. For instance, he ran through a series of charters that were criminally mismanaged and deserved to be shut down (even as he glossed over the fact that failing charters, unlike failing traditional schools, are more likely to be closed). And he’s right to argue that, on average, charters perform about the same as regular public schools. However, such comparisons tell us very little about whether charters do help those at-risk students better than traditional schools. On this score, there is very little doubt that charters do more with less money and fewer resources.

So what is the evidence? First and foremost, the claim “only a third of economists on the Chicago panel agreed that students would be better off if they all had access to vouchers to use at any private (or public) school of their choice” is misleading if not technically incorrect. Here’s the poll:

As Slate Star Codex responds, “A more accurate way to summarize this graph is “About twice as many economists believe a voucher system would improve education as believe that it wouldn’t.” By leaving it at “only a third of economists support vouchers”, the article implies that there is an economic consensus against the policy. Heck, it more than implies it – its title is “Free Market For Education: Economists Generally Don’t Buy It”. But its own source suggests that, of economists who have an opinion, a large majority are pro-voucher.” This is especially true when you look at a more recent poll:

But what about empirical evidence? Harvard’s Martin West sums up the evidence for school choice as such:

First, the benefits of attending a private school are greatest for outcomes other than test scores—in particular, the likelihood that a student will graduate from high school and enroll in college. Second, attending a school of choice, whether private or charter, is especially beneficial for minority students living in urban areas. These findings support the case for continued expansion of school choice, especially in our major cities. They also raise important questions about the government’s reliance on standardized test results as a guide for regulating the options available 
to families.

For example, a 2013 study found that private-school vouchers have no significant effects on college enrollment except for African-American and Hispanic students. The impact on the former was substantial, while the latter was small and statistically insignificant. Another study that has been trumpeted as demonstrating that “Detroit’s charter schools performed at about the same dismal level as its traditional public schools” actually supports quite the opposite.

CREDO, 2013, pg. 44.

The study concludes,

Based on the findings presented here, the typical student in Michigan charter schools gains more learning in a year than his TPS counterparts, amounting to about two months of additional gains in reading and math. These positive patterns are even more pronounced in Detroit, where historically student academic performance has been poor. These outcomes are consistent with the result that charter schools have significantly better results than TPS for minority students who are in poverty (pg. 44).

Margaret Raymond, Director of Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), authored a Huffington Post piece to correct some misperceptions about what the evidence shows regarding charter schools. Referring to a 2013 study, Raymond writes,

The main findings of the report are as follows. Over the course of a school year, charter school students learn more in reading than district public schools — it is as if the charter school students attended about seven more days of school in a typical school year. The learning in math is not statistically different (not worse as she claims).

[But these] results…are the average one-year growth, blending brand new charter school enrollees with students with longer persistence. When the length of time a student attends a charter school is taken into account, the results are striking: In both reading and math, we discovered that students’ annual progress rose strongly the longer they attended charter schools. For students with four or more years in charter schools, their gains equated to an additional 43 days of learning in reading and 50 additional days of learning in math in each year.

Second, the results showed strong improvement for the sector overall — the proportion of charter schools outperforming their local district schools rose and the share that underperformed shrank in both reading and math compared to performance four years earlier. The shift in performance is neither idle drift nor nefarious conduct on the part of charter schools — we found no differences in the demography of students served by charter schools over the period.

…Urban low income and minority students are the ones best advantaged in charter schools. CREDO released “The Urban Charter School Study“ in 2015, a report conveniently overlooked by Weingarten. We found that gains in urban charter schools are dramatic overall (equivalent to 28 days of additional learning in reading and 40 days of additional learning in math every year) but for low income minority students they are nothing short of liberating: as much as 44 extra days of learning in reading and 59 extra days in math.

Jay P. Greene, Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, notes,

According to the Global Report Card, more than a third of the 30 school districts with the highest math achievement in the United States are actually charter schools.  This is particularly impressive considering that charters constitute about 5% of all schools and about 3% of all public school students.  And it is even more amazing considering that some of the highest performing charter schools, like Roxbury Prep in Boston or KIPP Infinity in New York City, serve very disadvantaged students.

He continues,

[W]e have four RCTs on the effects of charter schools that allow us to know something about the effects of charter schools with high confidence.  Here is what we know: students in urban areas do significantly better in school if they attend a charter schools than if they attend a traditional public school.  These academic benefits of urban charter schools are quite large.  In Boston, a team of researchers from MIT, Harvard, Duke, and the University of Michigan, conducted a RCT and found:  “The charter school effects reported here are therefore large enough to reduce the black-white reading gap in middle school by two-thirds.”

A RCT of charter schools in New York City by a Stanford researcher found an even larger effect: “On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the ‘Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap’ in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English.”

The same Stanford researcher conducted an RCT of charter schools in Chicago and found:  “students in charter schools outperformed a comparable group of lotteried-out students who remained in regular Chicago public schools by 5 to 6 percentile points in math and about 5 percentile points in reading…. To put the gains in perspective, it may help to know that 5 to 6 percentile points is just under half of the gap between the average disadvantaged, minority student in Chicago public schools and the average middle-income, nonminority student in a suburban district.”

And the last RCT was a national study conducted by researchers at Mathematica for the US Department of Education.  It found significant gains for disadvantaged students in charter schools but the opposite for wealthy suburban students in charter schools.  They could not determine why the benefits of charters were found only in urban, disadvantaged settings, but their findings are consistent with the three other RCTs that found significant achievement gains for charter students in Boston, Chicago, and New York City.

When you have four RCTs – studies meeting the gold standard of research design – and all four of them agree that charters are of enormous benefit to urban students, you would think everyone would agree that charters should be expanded and supported, at least in urban areas.  If we found the equivalent of halving the black-white test score gap from RCTs from a new cancer drug, everyone would be jumping for joy – even if the benefits were found only for certain types of cancer.

There is even some evidence that school choice can decrease crime. Harvard’s David Deming explains,

I find that winning a lottery for admission to a preferred school at the high school level reduces the total number of felony arrests and the social cost of crime. Among middle school students, winning a school-choice lottery reduces the social cost of crime and the number of days incarcerated. Importantly, I find that these overall reductions in criminal activity are concentrated among students in the highest-risk group. Indeed, I find little impact either positive or negative of winning a school-choice lottery on criminal activity for the 80 percent of students outside of this group.

Consider first the results for high school students in the high-risk group. Among these students, winning admission to a preferred school reduces the average number of felony arrests over the study period from 0.77 to 0.43, a pattern driven largely by a reduction of 0.23 in the average number of arrests for drug felonies (see Figure 2). The average social cost of the crimes committed by high-risk lottery winners (after adjusting the cost of murders downward) is $3,916 lower than for lottery losers, a decrease of more than 35 percent. (Without adjusting for the cost of murder, I estimate the reduction in the social cost of crimes committed by lottery winners at $14,106.) High-risk lottery winners on average commit crimes with a total expected sentence of 35 months, compared to 59 months among lottery losers.

Among high-risk middle-school students, I find no effect of winning a school-choice lottery on the average number of felony arrests. Although the number arrests for violent felonies falls, this is offset by an increase in the number of property arrests. Because violent crimes carry greater social costs, however, winning a school-choice lottery reduces the average social cost of the crimes committed by middle school students by $7,843, or 63 percent. It also reduces the total expected sentence of crimes committed by each student by 31 months (64 percent).

With expenditure per pupil increasing dramatically over the last century (the U.S. spends more per student than almost every other country), it’s disheartening to find out how much the productivity of education has declined. Brooking’s Jonathan Rothwell explains,

For the nation’s 17-year-olds, there have been no gains in literacy since the National Assessment of Educational Progress began in 1971. Performance is somewhat better on math, but there has still been no progress since 1990. The long-term stagnation cannot be attributed to racial or ethnic differences in the U.S. population. Literacy scores for white students peaked in 1975; in math, scores peaked in the early 1990s.

International literacy and numeracy data from the OECD’s assessment of adult skills confirms this troubling picture. The numeracy and literacy skills of those born since 1980 are no more developed than for those born between 1968 and 1977. For the average OECD country, by contrast, people born between 1978 and 1987 score significantly better than all previous generations.

Comparing the oldest—those born from 1947 to 1957—to youngest cohorts—those born from 1988 to 1996, the U.S. gains are especially weak. The United States ranks dead last among 26 countries tested on math gains, and second to last on literacy gains across these generations. The countries which have made the largest math gains include South Korea, Slovenia, France, Poland, Finland, and the Netherlands.


Rothwell in part points to “a decline in bureaucratic efficiency” in primary and secondary education. With declining productivity in schools, it’s worth pointing out that some economic evidence finds that competition in public-school districts boosts school productivity, raises student achievement, and decreases spending. Furthermore, recent evidence shows that “autonomous government schools” (e.g., charters) have higher management quality than regular public or private schools. This higher management quality in turn is strongly linked to better pupil outcomes.

A 2016 meta-analysis of global voucher RCTs concluded,

For reading impacts, overall, we find positive effects of about 0.17 standard deviations (null for US programs, 0.24 standard deviations for non-US programs)…For math scores, we report 10 meta-analytic ITT effect sizes (seven in the US and three outside of the US). Overall, vouchers have a positive effect on math of 0.11 standard deviations, 0.07 standard deviations in the US and 0.15 standard deviations outside of the US. 

The overall results just described in this section are for the final year of data in each study. It could be that these effects are not representative of the initial effects one might expect from a new program. In fact, our analysis of the effects by year indicates that the effects of private school voucher programs often start out null in the first one or two years and then turn positive. Longer-term achievement effects, of course, are much more salient than immediate achievement effects whenever longer-term effects are available 

…Additionally, in terms of policy implications, it is critical to consider the cost-benefit tradeoffs associated with voucher programs. Wolf & McShane (2013) and Muralidharan et al. (2015) found that vouchers are cost effective, since they tend to generate achievement outcomes that are as good as or better than traditional public schools but at a fraction of the cost. The greater efficiency of school choice in general and school vouchers in particular are another fruitful avenue for scholarly inquiry (pgs. 39-41).

Another 2016 study looked at the various empirical studies that have been conducted on school choice. The following chart lists the key findings:

Forster, 2016, pg. 2.

Given these positive findings, it’s little wonder that a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with our education system while a large majority support school choice (especially parents). Granted, there are empirically-tested ways to improve regular public schools and I’m all for it. But with the evidence above, maybe school choice isn’t the bogeyman it has been made out to be.