At the risk of adding day 7 to the bloggish debate, I want to respond to Peter Whiteford’s comments at Andrew L’s blog. Whiteford says:
My reaction to Andrew N’s first post may seem casual, but it is where is the evidence that Australian public schooling is the sort of disaster that you seem to imply that it is. Are Australian intellectual elites all drawn from private school backgrounds? Does everyone who went to a public school get an inferior education? Does everyone who went to a private school get a superior education? What is the variation in educational achievement by type of school attended, and what other factors apart from type of school have influenced these outcomes? Evidence please.
Actually, I barely mentioned these conventional public-private debates – and not at all in the first post. As a classical liberal, I think there are inherent political and social problems with monopoly education, regardless of how well public schools teach the 3Rs. I was trying to bring out the philosophical differences between Andrew L and myself, which in fact did happen.
He’s happy with state indoctrination (though eventually conceding that public education doesn’t make much if any difference to civics); I’m not. A preference for live-and-let-live in a pluralistic society, rather than trying to get everyone to believe the same things, is one of the oldest ideas in liberalism, and still one worth arguing for in my view.
Consistent with this, surveys of why parents prefer private schools show that values-type issues are high on the list. This is not to say that government schools don’t incuclate values of some sort, but these aren’t necessarily the values parents want taught. We could hardly expect a single system to reflect the diversity of Australia, and it doesn’t.
I have never claimed that all private schools are good; and no advocate of markets is likely to make such a claim (and they should read and think some more if they do). The great systemic strength of markets is that they encourage innovation but also deal with the inevitable failures. The energy of market societies comes from people constantly trying new things, but their efficiency depends on putting aside the ideas that don’t, or don’t any longer, work as well as the alternatives.
A couple of years ago I gave a talk on school vouchers to a Liberal Party meeting. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and said that while she liked the idea of school choice, she was worried that some schools would close. But of course bad schools should close or (in my system) be taken over by people who can do a better job. In the public system, schools hardly ever close because they are bad, and that is one argument against such a system.
Consistent with this, on average private schools get better academic results than government schools, even after controlling for socioeconomic status, a very important influence on student performance. The average is good, but I would be very surprised if that average wasn’t concealing very substantial variations in school performance.
Peter Whiteford also says:
Meanwhile despite an education system in crisis for the past 30 years, Australia has been getting richer and more productive and we still come out towards the top of PISA rankings.
It’s true that compared to other countries we don’t look too bad, but there is an element of OECDitis in this – an assumption that other OECD countries should set the benchmark, when in reality that benchmark may be too high or too low for Australia. PISA showed a substantial tail of under-achievement, and the recent national literacy survey showed the same thing.
I find it a little odd that social democrats are so willing to still defend the institutional status quo in schooling, despite having accepted the benefits of markets in many other areas, and arguing that education is crucial to their social objectives. The public school system isn’t a total disaster, but it isn’t good enough.