Bloggish debate concludes, comments open

Andrew Leigh and I weren’t sure how our ‘bloggish debate’ on whether public schools should be privatised would go. Can you transport an old-media leisurely exchange of views to an instant feedback forum?

The posts, with comments off, did seem to lie dead on the page. They did not give me my blogging fix, or I suspect the fix of the regular commenters who didn’t want a week off from arguing among themselves – I had to write other things during the week (Andrew L restrained himself, but he has more of a life than I do).

But the idea of a bloggish debate seemed novel enough that we received far more links from other blogs than was otherwise likely, if we had we each written what we wrote separately. We even hit one of the big American blogs, Marginal Revolution, which for the first time knocked off Google to become the largest single source of referrals to my blog. My daily traffic this week has been about 40% higher than my long-term average, despite the closed comments, so overall the experiment has to be classed a success.

I’m not sure that I would make a habit of it though. I found writing it harder than writing a normal blog post, because it is more difficult to make the structure work: the challenge was to make a coherent case of my own while still responding to what Andrew was saying. It was easier in this case than my gay bar door policy debate, where the exchange went off on a tangent immediately and I had to simply ignore what Alan Soble was saying to get it back to what I wanted to argue. But the two Andrews debate still required more thinking about structure than normal for a short piece of work. It would have been impossible with comments open and many more threads to deal with.

If it worked for readers, it was perhaps because he and I were capable of having a discussion. With Soble, I was on such a different intellectual wavelength that there was little common ground on which to engage. What do you do with someone who thinks that he, sitting in Philadelphia, is better able to judge how lesbians in The Peel behave than The Peel’s owner? With Andrew, I have some ideological disagreements, but we have common views about what counts as evidence.

Anyway, I’m interested in people’s thoughts on both the format and the substantive issues. Comments are open on all the ‘bloggish debate’ posts.

30 thoughts on “Bloggish debate concludes, comments open

  1. I think the childcare industry, which is mostly privately run but with significant chunks of public funding, might be worth probing for ideas (good and bad).

    I don’t see why one parent that earns more than some other parent and pays more in taxes should then receive less funding assistance when it comes to educating their children. Means testing education assistance merely adds another complication in calculating EMTRs.


  2. Further to what Terje has said, with regards to “afterschool” childcare as onging schooling throughout the lifespan..

    The underlying problem in this debate is that both of you are correct in the sense that both public and private education in their purer sense need to be expanded in Australia (as overlapping Venn diagrams rather than at each other’s expense). This is order to achieve better results in the real international league tables as mentioned below.

    This week sees confirmation of something I posted here a couple of weeks ago that Sth Korea is the most erudite culture on earth. This was on a thread on this blog in reply to AL. Neither of you responded, probably because it is out of your ambit, and in your positions it is not wise to admit the extent of your ambit.

    — The confirmation comes in the form recognition of Sth Korea as having the highest literacy rate in the world amongst schoolchildren. See BBC website this week.

    So what are they doing to achieve this that Australia is not?

    Sth Korea has an extensive public school system utilised by the children of multi-millionaires and those less well noted.
    Yet the average family spends up to half their income on educational expenses and those are mostly private expenses.

    The basic answer is more of both public and private in purer forms.. Kids need to spend 6 days a week 8am till 4pm in well developed public school systems utilising their own tailor made alphabet (in this case Hangul invented 600 years ago by the monarchic state, there is no reason Australia should not have its own alphabet to suit its own unique twangs). Some private options in this daytime capacity (up to 5%) for religious extremes such as Steiner but basically make the religious schools unattractive by developing a secular state system that no delusions can surpass.
    The private schools step in a night and on the weekend with foreign languages, extra music classes, martial arts and just about anything they like and can set their own curricula and criteria and remain therefore completely private. This definition of private is preferable rather than the rather dog eared version of private schooling that exists in Australia which is basically the old English public system with a bit more sport and popery thrown in for variation. These afterschool classes are where the optional big spend and prestige are.

    The result would be multiskilled young adults with a high level of literacy who have experience of both the private and public sector education.. Another side benefit would be a reduction in skin cancer due to more developmental years being spent indoors and integration into the Asian ways of our neighbours.

    The counter to the above argument might be that education is not all its craiced up to be and that being a bit further behind in the league tables for literacy etc is actually a good thing for the population and their eyesight. Education may stifle innovation and keeping it slack, fun and varied with an excellent range of nightlife might be what attracts people to the Australian educational market in the first place.


  3. (a) The signal-to-noise ratio of the content was great.
    (b) As an avid reader of the classics, I’ve always loved the dialogue format (even if traditionally all players are scripted by the one author).

    Brilliant! More please! A collection of such dialogues would be a good candidate for hardcopy publication. Perhaps simultaneously in The Monthly and QuadRant 😉


  4. I must say that I sympathise more with AL’s views than yours, but that’s just my inherent political outlook speaking. I think you both made some good points.

    I certainly think it was a worthwhile experiment, and well worth repeating. Interesting and innovative stuff in the blogosphere, and also of higher quality than your average to boot.

    Perhaps in alignment with each post a separate “open thread” could be posted, where people following the debate could chip in on various things each of you said. Obviously this creates the possibility or likelihood that you would both get sidetracked/distracted, but it would also increase participation and add a bit of the “blog” factor that only arrived towards the end of this debate.


  5. I enjoyed this format and thought it was really good. Its nice to have an ongoing exchange for a few days, rather than more typical formats where articles are longer and such exchanges take months (or years) to occur.


  6. Thanks for the interesting discussion guys. I thought your assessment of the format was correct Andrew N, it worked a lot better because of the nature of the people involved in the discussion. You both handled yourselves very well.

    Here is the comment I posted over at Andrew L’s blog:

    I agree with both of you that markets are generally best at handling services, but I don’t think the debate over education should be one of economics; but equality and liberty.

    Education is opportunity. If we wish to have a society that holds equality and liberty as ideals – that rewards and recognises individuals based on their choices – then every individual should be allowed the opportunity to succeed based on merit, not on socio-economic background.

    Why should children be punished or advantaged based on the choices of their parents? Aren’t all individuals entitled to success based on their own choices and performance? Do we attach criminal records to children whose parents have committed a crime? No. As autonomous beings they are afforded the opportunity to be assessed based on their performance, not the success/mistakes of their parents.

    Education is society’s great (and perhaps only) equaliser. At its core it should be the foundation that ensures equality while maintaining individual liberty. A tiered system undermines both equality and individual liberty because it punishes and rewards based on the choices of parents, not of children as individuals.


  7. I really enjoyed it. I’ve always like reading old newspapers where this kind of exchange was played out on the letters pages.

    And you’re right: it worked largely because you two Andrews are of roughly the same temperament.



  8. i think you shot yourself in the foot by not saying something about the relationship between the state and a member. from there education can be seen as building that relationship, and ‘who pays’ may emerge from some statement such as:’ since the state has no responsibility for and or no interest in the quality of adult members, so it should not pay to educate them.’

    or contrarywise.


  9. AN

    I sympathise with the broader thrust of your position, except its ‘scorched earth’ aspects. I support the status quo, except when a parent wishes to move their child(ren) from a public school, an income-dependent voucher should be given to the parent. I do not support an investment couple who wish to move their daughter from Sydney Girls High to Ascham being given a bean.

    I would also place a restriction on the schools the voucher could be used at


  10. I’m a little disappointed that AN went for the ad-hominum attack near the end (“therefore you do not care about teaching quality”), and the old fallback of hyperbole (“in crisis as long as I can remember”) as he’s usually quick to pick up on these when they’re levelled at him. I’m also a little disappointed that AL didn’t go for the jugular on the old “crisis” shibbeloth but I guess he’s too polite.

    I find it somewhat surprising that the obvious conclusion (it’s the teachers) wasn’t expanded on a bit. How will privatising or semi-privatising schooling expand the range of people who are interested in being school teachers? It isn’t clear that efficiency in schooling, more money or better working conditions are capable of casting a wider net to prospective teachers. Certainly in my families experience of both types of schooling, it’s the teacher that makes the biggest difference in outcome, not the school and not the fees or the lack of them. (and no, “it’s the teachers union” isn’t a comprehensive enough response).


  11. C’mon, David! Andrew did not say “therefore you do not care about teaching quality”. He said “not a word about teacher quality”. That’s hardly a personal attack. Also, in case you didn’t notice, Andrew had “crisis” in quotes, suggesting (to my mind at least) that he was referring to the way public school advocates and teacher unions have historically sought to justify calls for more funding for public schools.


  12. Rajat Sood wrote:

    he was referring to the way public school advocates and teacher unions have historically sought to justify calls for more funding for public schools.

    It’s a tactic that’s been shamelessly appropriated by the CIS too Rajat, unfortunately.

    You’re right, I did misread the “not a word about teacher quality” thing, it was more implied (although AL did deflect it rather humorously).


  13. David R

    Would you prefer the government supplied our food?. Would it be as fresh, high quality, cheap, available all the time as being highly diverse?

    Do you advocate strong government interference in food prodcution becasue you’re not geting any of these things.

    Aren’t the problems in Ed. the mirror opposite of the benefits you get with the private market engaged in satisfying comsumer wants?

    You would get the same attributues mentioned above in Ed if the private market was allowed to do its thing.


  14. I said the ALP had said nothing about teacher quality, with the implication that Andrew L – who has said much about teacher quality – had a misplaced confidence that they could be trusted to deliver on this vital aspect of improving schools.


  15. A very worthwhile debate. Thanks to you both.

    It did not change my thinking: At the end of it, I still lean heavily to AL’s viewpoint. The kinds of concerns which lead me in AL’s direction are:

    First, education performance varies markedly between high and low socio-economic groups and, while the achievement gap can be partly explained by genetic influences, it is also due to differences in resources and opportunities – in particular parents’ wealth, occupational status, education and aspirations (the best-off Australian families spend about 2.6 times more on each of their children than the poorest 20% of families and much of that extra spending is on their education). Education inequality – especially at pre-school, primary and early secondary levels – then flows to employment inequality and inhibits national productivity;

    Secondly, education markets work very imperfectly in maximising utility.

    Thirdly, our education system is already relatively more dependent on private financing than most other OECD countries.

    Against that background, I cannot see how privatisation of public schools – even using an improved socio-economic formula – will help us achieve more equal education opportunity, quite apart from the economies of scale cost argument. Like AL, I think we can fix the teacher quality argument through other routes.

    That said, I found myself ticking quite a few of AN’s points. For example his comment that we should fund disadvantaged schools on an average basis rather than via vouchers because of work disincentive traps.


  16. JC wrote:

    Would you prefer the government supplied our food?. Would it be as fresh, high quality, cheap, available all the time as being highly diverse?

    JC – if books were for eating rather than reading, your argument might make sense. Diversity is an interesting point – perhaps every school could teach a different language rather than them all trying to concentrate on english.
    I’m not defending the public school system as a perfect thing (in fact my comment went only so far as an imperfect critique of the debate). The questions about teacher quality were genuine – AN has surmised before that regardless of school, the teachers generally come from the same self-selecting group. It would be nice to deflect the debate into expanding that pool as one way of increasing the quality of education and going some way to address the argument that the indoctrination of children is a partisan exercise (I won’t say conspiracy) of the left.

    If it turned out that private companies delivering some sets of privately developed, accredited curriculum magically solved the teacher issue, then lets have it. I’m skeptical that changing the ownership of the entities that deliver education will have much effect, but that doesn’t mean I’m not listening. Let’s have your thoughts on the teacher issue.


  17. I find it somewhat surprising that the obvious conclusion (it’s the teachers) wasn’t expanded on a bit. How will privatising or semi-privatising schooling expand the range of people who are interested in being school teachers?

    Do you think that the quality of teaching that a person delivers is an innate, unchanging quality of that person? I suspect it depends on their environment — incentives, expectations, training, support and so on.

    Perhaps privatised schools can change that environment in a way which makes existing teachers better?


  18. Fred Says:
    It did not change my thinking: At the end of it, I still lean heavily to AL’s viewpoint

    Lol. Fred I don’t mean it disrespectfully, but I would have walked naked down Collins Street if you had said otherwise. Markets to you are like showing a silver cross to a vampire. LOL. Just kidding Fred.


    You’re thinking of this problem within he same old socialist framework.

    Who says teaching quality couldn’t improve. With market segmentation you could end up with different pay rates for different types of teachers.

    Let’s face it teaching a bunch of really bright kids wouldn’t be that hard. Teaching a bunch of hard-edged, toughened up kids who hate picking up a book would require a different talent. Market segmentation and differentiation may allow for this. Education would change and change in ways we never thought possible. Really bright, self-driven kids may only have to go to school for part of day whereas other kids may spend more time at school than the current 6 hours. Competition and markets would drive this.

    And maybe teacher’s salaries for the really hard up kids would have to rise to attract the right types. The current system doesn’t allow for this, as it has to be a one size fits all. I include the government/ private mix we have now as they all form part of the socialist mix.

    if books were for eating rather than reading, your argument might make sense.

    Dave, the market for our food supply is no different in terms of its behavior than the market for Ed. I think you would agree it would be unthinkable for any of us to even contemplate the government introducing wholesale socialist methods for our food production and distribution.

    You don’t have to worry though. You could even have your kids growing up as little socialists. The little Red School was a school set up in NYC for the kids of communist/ socialist parents.

    Here take a look. You’d love it 🙂 Now that’s what i call market segmentation!!!!

    Fred could have become a teacher there. LOL. The principal in fact.!!!

    You could actually have people like retired engineers going back and detaching kids
    Math etc: retired business executives doing the same with accounting and commerce etc. Schools could actually become smaller and fragmented in such a way that it wouldn’t be recognizable, as a lot of teaching would be done through the web.

    It’s competition that drives change wheras the command and control system which is avvariation of the old soviet model simply thwarts it.


  19. Tom – While there are some organisational things that can be done to improve teaching quality – getting rid of bad teachers, and better teaching training in the first place for example – salaries need to increase to bring better quality people into the classroom. I think that would probably happen under my system, as I think there would be greater parental investment.

    Fred – I am not sure I understand your first point. While I fully understand that parental differences have a big impact on outcomes, I am not sure how the public system reduces those. The very poor school results among low SES students to me stand out as one of the greatest indictments of the public system.

    Indeed, I came out of this exchange thinking there was a disconnect in AL’s view of schools. He has good micro ideas about how to improve schooling, but I can’t see why they need a public system to implement them – or that a public system is the mostly likely or best positioned to implement them.

    While calling him ‘conservative’ needled his political self-perception, there does seem to be a heavy dose of path dependency here. It’s too hard to change from public schooling now, both ideologically and institutionally, so we should just try to focus on improving what we have.


  20. JC wrote:

    You could even have your kids growing up as little socialists.

    Yeah OK 🙂

    I don’t think they’d like it though, they can’t share the front yard on a bad day. I can understand JC’s education revolution working in Chatswood, where the population is high enough to support a larger number of diversified schools, but AL brought up the example of a school in Cape York. I’m sure boarding schools and home schooling could fit the bill, but not everybody is comfortable with those and the kids miss out on either the wide socialisation of bigger schools or family life. In some other ways, it just looks like a solution in search of a problem (although admittedly I don’t have a problem with public education, it seems that some people do).


  21. Andrews both

    Thanks for making the effort. The debate was entertaining, taxing and acute. Perhaps what I liked most is that it was an extended exchange rather than what passes for debate in the print media – someone writes and opinion piece, there might be (rarely) a rejoinder written by someone with different views, and then there is a trail of letters to the editor that yap around the heels of one point or another.

    I think it does come down to the teachers – the evidence does suggest that what makes the most difference is good teaching. That’s the bottom line. It matters, of course, to have good physical infrastructure that supports learning and teaching, but it doesn’t have to be four star hotel standard.

    So then I wonder why private schools should receive public funding which too often is sunk into gratuitously unnecessary bricks and mortar. St Michael’s Grammar School in Melbourne just shelled out over $3m for the Astor movie theatre. Be interesting to know how much federal funding was pumped into the school over the last few years – so far as I’m concerned, I’m an unwilling supporter in the purchase of a building they don’t need. My gripe for today.

    Despite the writing challenges of the blogbate, I’d encourage you to do it again. It was a worthwhile enterprise.


  22. Thirdly, our education system is already relatively more dependent on private financing than most other OECD countries.

    Fred, you’re not thinking straight on this one. The entire education model we have is a hodge podge of socialist swill. Every single bit of it. There is very little experimentation going on. There’s some but hardly enough.

    There’s a micro school in North Fitzroy that i have heard about that is very experimental run on a very small scale.
    That’s what I’m thinking


  23. but AL brought up the example of a school in Cape York.

    So differentiate the value of the voucher.

    Part of the reason plumbers and other trades are earning 150K in mining towns is because of isloation. If we took Al’s prognosis to it’s extreme we couldn’t have mining towns because no one would go there as they are too isolated.. That’s ridiculous as the private market is able to make that up through wage differentiation.


  24. but not everybody is comfortable with those and the kids miss out on either the wide socialisation of bigger schools or family life.

    Sure which is why there would always be a place for those big schools. However they aren’t a perfect fit for all kids.


  25. Utopia? No!

    A better outcome and a better bang for education dollar? Yes!

    It still amazes me how people continue to be enamourred with the Soviet command and control system.


  26. IMHO, good teachers, by and large, are not motivated by financial incentives. Good public servants are the same – and I suppose academics – they derive non-percuniary benefits from their employment. In this sense. there will always be good and bad schools – from both sectors – because individuals of sufficient quality exist to staff them.

    On balance, schooling should be provided by the private sector wherever possible – even if the state pays for it.


  27. Andrew Norton wrote:

    salaries need to increase to bring better quality people

    Tell that to Windschuttle Andrew – he’d be delighted you think that way about his latest employer.


  28. JC wrote:

    It still amazes me how people continue to be enamourred with the Soviet command and control system.

    I dunno JC, an avian in the hand is still better than two in the bushes. The theory, as always, sounds wonderful, but the implementation plan sounds like a 50 year long march.


  29. Intrinsic motivation is very common across the workforce, not just teaching. (There is Australian data in Australian Social Attitudes 2.) Many people can get it from teaching or something else, and particularly if a person is, or believes he/she will be, the principal breadwinner, teaching pays too little to support a middle-class family. Andrew Leigh’s research suggests a link between declining relative teacher pay and the declining quality of teaching students.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s