Thursday, November 18, 2004

Irrational Culture

Jane Galt wonders why paying schoolchildren for performance won't play politically. The answer is twofold: because we, at least we who think education matters, tend to have this weird ideal of education as something that is done purely for itself. That kids should love learning and that if they don't, well too bad for them. If they come from a family that won't reward/encourage good performance, too bad for them. It seems to sully the purity of education, and educational achievement, to pay for it. This is, of course irrational and inconsistent: we want people to be doing better in school not because we think that learning is good, but because we recognize that human capital is important in improving both individuals' futures and our nation's future.

But there is another seeming objection from a purely economic point of view which William Easterly makes in reference to developing countries. That the best way to generate school attendance and performance and human capital investment in general, is not to build schools, but to change expectations that people have for the future. I work "hard" at school because I know that I will enter an economy which will reward this performance. But if the economy is terrible, corrupt, and arbitrary, then my incentive to do well is reduced. It won't make sense to invest in my education. Simply paying me a few bucks here and there wouldn't change the fact that there is no point in my getting an education. But apparently these programs work. Then paying for performance implies that the reason students do poorly isn't because they are acting rationally in seeing that they have no prospects, but that they are being "irrational" for some cultural reason. Investing in education would pay off for them, but they refuse to take advantage of it. It is not popular to imply that a certain population does poorly in life because of choices that they make, or choices their culture makes. Neither is it popular to imply that a few bucks here or there can dramatically reduce the "irrationality" of that culture.

See also Marginal Revolution and Matthew Yglesias.


Blogger David Schraub said...

Hey, Sunny referred me to your blog (I don't know if you're her boyfriend or roommate-of-the-boyfriend. Immaterial I suppose). Anyway, its good stuff, though most of it flies over my (decidedly non-econ major) head. But I won't let that stop me from throwing in my thoughts!

I'm skeptical of your conclusion for two reasons. First of all, in very poor countries(/regions), even a little bit of money matters. When there is overwhelming pressure to leave school and work as a child, the prospect of making a little dough can be the deciding factor in keeping students in school, which would explain the positive impact. Second, education isn't meaningless even in the most corrupt poor countries, but the curve is shifted. In America, I don't have to do particularly well in school, because even if my grades aren't topnotch I still probably can get into a college, get a degree, and get a pretty decent job. In corrupt nations, that doesn't apply for mediocre students, there aren't enough colleges to take them, and not enough good jobs available to hire them. But it still applies to the TOP students. The cream of the crop can get scholarships or grants to attend elite universities in-state or abroad, and DOES give them the route to success in society. Hence, the rational incentive still exists, but since its a longer-odds bet, the offer of money can make it more worthwhile to invest in it.

Anyway, good stuff. I write my own (political/legal) blog over at The Debate Link. Stop by and check it out!

1:50 AM  

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