Andrei Shleifer, communism, & school reform
Guest blogger Neerav Kingsland is the chief strategy officer for New Schools for New Orleans. In this post, originally published on the Title I-Derland blog, he explains the lessons education reformers can learn from Europe's transition away from communism.
Andre Shleifer, a professor of Economics at Harvard, recently wrote an excellent article: “Seven Things I Learned About Transition from Communism.” In case you don’t know Andre, some consider him to be the most cited economist in the world.
The analysis is interesting throughout—it deviates from both “progressive” and “conservative” talking points on key issues. Take five minutes and read the whole thing.
For those of us Relinquishers who see opportunity in moving public schooling from government-operated to government-regulated and non-profit run, lessons abound. For those skeptical of these types of reforms—lessons also abound. See below for the summary of Andrei’s lessons—laced with my takeaways for improving our educational system:
Lesson 1: “First, in all countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, economic activity shrunk at the beginning of transition, in some very sharply.”
Education Takeaway: Underperforming government institutions with decades of accumulated knowledge may outperform cohorts of start-up enterprises in their early years. Could this explain the poor results of the CREDO study?
Lesson 2: “Second, the decline was not permanent. Following these declines, recovery and rapid growth occurred nearly everywhere.”
Education Takeaway: Over time the new school organizations will outperform the government-operated systems. It takes time and requires real accountability, where the best organizations expand and the worst close. Could this explain the New Orleans CREDO results?
Lesson 3: “Third, the declines in output nowhere led to populist revolts—as many economists had feared. … A reformer should fear not populism but capture of politics by the new elites.”
Education Takeaway: The risk of devolving power to educators and families is regulatory capture—i.e., a government monopoly will be replaced by a charter management organization oligarchy. Think ‘Too Big To Fail.” “Reformers” need to be monitored just as much as the previous regime.
Lesson 4: “Fourth, economists and reformers overstated both their ability to sequence reforms, and the importance of particular tactical choices… Lesson learned: Do not over-plan the move to markets, but, more importantly, do not delay in the hope of having a tidier reform later.”
Don’t spend seven years on crafting the perfect legislation. Just do it.
Education Takeaway: The system is too complicated to make accurate predictions about how to best devolve power—make your best guess based on evidence and then move forward. Innovation schools, charter schools, vouchers—who knows what will end up being the best model? Neither neo-liberal technocrats nor free market libertarians nor community organizers. Don’t spend seven years on crafting the perfect legislation. Just do it.
Lesson 5: “Fifth, economists have greatly exaggerated the benefits of incentives by themselves, without changes in people. Economic theory of socialism has put way too much weight on incentives, and way too little on human capital.”
Education Takeaway: The lazy teacher who will close the achievement gap for a $2,000 bonus? Does not exist. Yes, incentives matter. But the quality of people matter more. The power of Relinquishment may well be in the people it attracts and develops.
Lesson 6: “Sixth, it is important not to overestimate the long-run consequences of macroeconomic crises and even debt defaults. This experience bears a profound lesson for reformers, who are always intimidated by the international financial community: do not panic about crises; they blow over fast.”
Education Takeaway: Some state will poorly regulate schools. Some individual schools will fail. The toll of these mistakes will be real. But the toll of not taking risks will be worse.
Lesson 7: “Seventh, it is much easier to forecast economic than political evolution. Lesson learned: middle-income countries eventually slouch toward democracy, but not nearly in as direct or consistent a way as they move toward capitalism.”
The trends in school performance should be more consistent than the trends in good governance.
Education Takeaway: The trends in school performance should be more consistent than the trends in good governance. Once given the power, the best educational organizations will improve as they develop into mature institutions. The political winds will not be so easy to predict.
My personal favorites: lessons four and five—i.e., humility is important but should not be crippling; and people really matter.
We can’t be sure what will work. We must do something. And it should be done with the best people we can find. Seems very reasonable.
Across the world, countries continue to revolutionize their political and economic systems—often based on our own institutions—while we fail to apply these lessons to our country’s most important asset: our educational system.
Perhaps we should pay heed.
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About the Editor
Peter Meyer is an adjunct fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Since 1991, Meyer has focused his attentions on education reform in the United States, an interest joined while writing a profile of education reformer E.D. Hirsch for Life. Meyer subsequently helped found a charter school, served on his local Board of Education (twice) and, for the last eight years, has been an editor at Education Next.
May 23, 2013
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