Arnold Kling  

Education as a Positional Good

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Chris Dillow cuts right to the heart of an issue I've danced around on this blog a number of times.

Say I were to claim the following: lots of middle class parents care only about the relative quality of their child's education, not it's absolute level - they'd prefer a bad school for their kids with every other school even worse to a good school with every other school just as good. What evidence could you provide to prove me wrong?

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The author at triticale - the wheat / rye guy in a related article titled Competitive Advantantage writes:
    This is obviously a factor in the opposition to school vouchers, and probably in the opposition to home education as well.... [Tracked on October 31, 2005 12:29 AM]
COMMENTS (17 to date)
John P. writes:

I think it's an idle question, because some schools will always be better. Given that unavoidable fact, wanting one's children's school to be better than most other schools is simply another manifestation of the general parental desire to get the best for one's offspring.

Rob writes:

I guess it makes sense. If education is just a voucher for employers, I am concerned about the relative merits of my children's voucher. However, in a globalised world, does it become more important how the educational voucher compares with those acquired in other nations rather than just within one country?

Dan Landau writes:

Nothing is ever good or bad except by comparison. I forget who said that first. It is true however. We can’t measure anything absolutely either. All measurements are so many units of some arbitrary standard unit.

Wanting more than comparable others have attained is irrational. They have to be appropriate comparisons, but what on earth would give one’s child the ability to be much better educated, much healthier, much richer, etc. than his or her true peers?

tripp writes:

John is right...
This arguement assumes that there is some inherent quality that makes a school "good" or "bad" in and of itself...but "good" and "bad" are judgements that only make sense in comparison to something else, in this case, other schools.
In his post, Chris posits two possible motivations for parents...wanting their child to have a well-cultured education, and wanting their child to be in a better position than their peers. For the first, it helps to have a good school, for the latter, only a better school than other schools. I don't think you can separate the two. Why do parents want a well-educated child? I don't think it's so the child can discuss Camus with them, I imagine that typically it's because they feel it will make their child more successful, just like the positional people. For the positional parent, if the child can get a good job and is happy, then they had a good education....

Randy writes:

Anecdotal. I don't see that most of parents I know worry much about "good" or "bad" schools. Around here, they're pretty much all the same. I supposed if I lived in some urban nightmare, or was some sort of policy wonk, it might be something to worry about. But not much of the middle class lives in such areas, and most of us have enough to do just taking care of our own lives. I guess you could say education is a positional good - I send my kids to the school that is positioned the closest to where I live.

John Brothers writes:

I would think you could do regional surveys and correlate with private school attendance. If we assume Chris is correct, then we would expect parents who grade their schools "poor" and other schools in the area "worse" to not be particularly interested in switching to private schools, as compared to those they grade their school "good" and other schools "good".

James Erlandson writes:

The purpose of education (through high school) is to impart to the student the knowledge (academics) and reputation (grades, awards, activities) necessary to get into a good (very good? excellent?) college/university at the lowest cost (college scholarship). They also want the high school academics rigorous enough to ensure success in college/university.

No point in getting your kid into college if he's going to flunk out his freshman year. A smart parent would vote for the good school.

Parents happy with a poor (but above average) school are like students who go to college not to learn but to get the diploma.

To test this, an economist could interview a sample of middle class immigrants whose children had access to top schools in their native country. Was their kids' access to better schools (I'm assuming that US schools are better) a factor in their decision to immigrate?

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The challenge is that children are influenced by their peers to either excel or to not excel in schoolwork. So even an intelligent and disciplined student can be lead astray at a school with undisciplined students. Similarly, a "bad student" in a "good school" often does better then if placed in a "bad school".

Moreover, I am not sure that the schoolroom discipline that is most beneficial to learning can be delivered by an agency whose powers are limited by the Constitution...

Bernard Yomtov writes:

What evidence does Dillow have in support of his assertion?

The paper he links to says nothing about education.

PJens writes:

The evidence I provide is that lots of middle class parents work to help their kid's school become better no matter how it stands in comparison. Attend any PTA meeting or School Board Meeting and the issues are taking care of and improving the school, not comparing performance to others.

a poor (but above average) school


Jason Briggeman writes:

True preferences are revealed in action, so: Show me the parent who would actually make this choice, in reality, given any level of accurate knowledge about the two alternatives. I cannot imagine it.

Besides, if the parents of the world really are that malicious toward others, then they deserve the crumbiest schools their money can provide, and it's not even worth worrying about how to make them better off.

Steve Sailer writes:

Let's be honest. What parents mean by "good schools" is "schools with good students." When the real estate lady tells you this neighborhood has high housing prices because it has "good schools," what she means is that has schools with students who score high on standardized tests.

An enormous amount of research shows that schools have relatively little impact on test scores on honest tests (I don't mean Houston Miracle type bogus tests, but the NAEP or the SAT). What parents want is to get their kids in with kids who will score high on tests. That's largely a zero sum game. Indeed, the only way to directly affect the quality of students is through immigration policy. Shutting down illegal immigration would keep the quality of students from deteriorating as quickly. But we aren't supposed to talk about that!

Lex Spoon writes:

The question becomes interesting when parents vote on policy issues. There are successful elected politicians who do indeed promote a polic of flattening the quality of schooling that people receive without any attention to whether the overall average quality increases or decreases.

See this article by Jerry Brown for example. He goes on and on about how different people receive unequal schooling, but pays no attention to the fact that the poorest Americans today receive (I would guess) a vastly better education than all but the richest could afford 100 years ago. Would we like that trend to continue? Does anyone care? I do, but I don't know if it's common.

spencer writes:

Maybe the biggest difference between good and bad schools is what they demand of students. So evidence that parents were pressing schools to require more of their students on an absolute basis would be evidence that your statement is incorrect .

But in a way you are asking to prove a negative, and that is always very difficult.

Axel Kassel writes:

Re "the relative quality of their child’s education, not it’s absolute level," is it the relativists or the absolutists who know that the possessive of "it" has no apostrophe?

nn writes:

I'm late to this old post, but I thought I'd propose one empirical test of this claim: Asian (as in Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese) parents who immigrate to the US are often horrified by the quality of math instruction in public schools. They don't care that most of the other schools are equally horrible. They want their kids to learn X amount of math -- especially arithmetic.

It was commonplace for them to provide additional instruction through homeschooling or private tutorial services, even in areas of the country where there were few other Asian Americans doing the same thing. I have known many, many parents who made their kids memorize multiplication tables even when their school said they didn't have to do it.

This may not be a general refutation but it is evidence that at least one group of middle class parents cares about the absolute levels of their children's education in addition to their relative standing.

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