October 24, 2003
New York New York again – cram schools, the educational benefits of immigration and the Fixed Quantity of Education Fallacy

More from the New York Times, this time on the subject of cram schools. It reads like the direct response, but four days earlier, to the New York Times article featured in the previous posting here. First few paragraphs:

For children of Asian descent growing up in and around New York City, cram schools are a part of life.

Starting in the third grade and continuing through high school, hundreds of students drag themselves to these private tutoring classes, long a tradition in the Far East, day after day, after school, on weekends and over the summer.

The goal? The schools' signs, dotting storefronts in Flushing, Queens, and other communities with large populations of Asian immigrants, clearly state their ambitions: "Ivy Prep," "Harvard Academy," "Best Academy."

Now, growing numbers of non-Asian parents are enrolling their children in the schools, hoping to emulate the educational successes associated with Asian students.

The key thing here is that if one group of children are rescued by their parents by being switched to the private sector, other parents will follow. The usual theory is that the smart/lucky kids can improve the lot of the not dumb/unlucky ones only by sticking around in state schools and thereby raising the average level of education for all. If they leave, they deny the dumb/unlucky ones their education-enhancing presence.

It occurs to me this is a fallacy that I should have identified and flagged up here far sooner, but better late than never.

I'm talking about the Fixed Quantity of Education Fallacy.

This says that if rich and determined parents buy the best education they can for their smart/lucky kids, they will only be doing this by taking education away from the dumb/unlucky ones, in cases like this by denying the unlucky kids the example that the better kids set in school. If the lucky kids get taking elsewhere, the unlucky ones will sink into abject ignorance and rot there for ever.

In reality, slamming the dumb kids and the smart kids together only makes the smart ones unlucky as well. It dumbs things down for everyone, as the article featured in the previous posting illustrated.

But if the rules are changed from everyone being herded into the same schools and kept there regardless, to everyone going to whatever school they want, the dynamics change, and the total amount of education goes up, big time.

If the smart kids are rescued (i.e. if they get lucky), the parents of the dumb/unlucky kids, sensing that their kids are now being left behind will (a) want their kids to catch up, and will now (b) have the kind of places they need to choose between in order for their dumb kids to catch up.

So, instead of the situation described in the previous (i.e. later) article, where the world is divided into smart/unlucky kids and dumb/unlucky kids, it becomes divided into smart/lucky kids and dumb/lucky kids, with the distinct possibility that eventually all will, because all have now got lucky, all become smart.

All that is needed is for the state to get out of the way and just let it happen. At present the "smart/lucky" kids are working twelve hour educational days. If the state stopped compelling attendance at their rubbish schools, all this could really get into its stride.

The egalitarians should be told to choose between a world in which everyone is unequally unlucky, and another far better world in which everyone is unequally lucky.

This story also demonstrates the massive educational benefits that accrue to countries that allow immigration.

Immigrants contribute obvious things, like sweeping floors. But they bring less obvious benefits, in this case in the form of the certain knowledge that education can be done far better than it is here, because they have cousins back in the old country where – damn it – it is done far better. The trouble with the tenth generation locals of the rich and educationally decadent countries is that they don't know any better. If they're the only ones tracking it, an education system can slide from excellence to ghastliness unchecked. Immigrants do know better. They come from places with shit economies (that's why they came) but with better education. Letting them in means the rich countries get to keep their good economies and can dump their shit education.

As often with me, there have been oversimplifications in this posting. But useful ones, I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 AM
Category: The private sector