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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