Bad (and unequal) education

Bad (and unequal) education

If you think Turkish monetary policy is broken, probably after reading my columns, you should look at education policy. I did, and I was terrified by what I saw.

At the macro level, İzak Atiyas and Ozan Bakış have already shown in the aptly titled report, “Constraints to Growth in Turkey: A Prioritization Study,” that Turkish growth suffers from low productivity, with human capital being the binding constraint. However, delving into the micro level could pinpoint the roots of the problem.

The Education Reform Initiative (ERI), a think-tank established by Sabancı University, released their analysis of 2011 trends on the International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) exam and survey results for Turkey on Sept. 5. TIMMS is an international assessment of the math and science skills of fourth- and eighth-grade students. In math, Turkey is ranked 35th out of 50 countries in fourth grade and 24th out of 42 countries in eighth grade. In science, the same rankings are 36 and 21, respectively.

However, the most striking result of the report is the huge inequality in Turkish students’ performance. While the best score higher than the best students in Singapore, the country with the highest marks, the worst score lower than the worst students in Morocco and Ghana, which sit at the bottom of the rankings.

Işıl Oral, one of the authors of the report, noted that the next step was to analyze the determinants of this inequality. Part of it may have to do with the variation in school and teacher quality. ERI’s director, Batuhan Aydagül, explained to me that the system reinforces existing inequalities: Since public schools don’t get enough funding, they ask for informal contributions from parents. Schools in rich neighborhoods end up with more resources as a result.

No wonder then that there is a huge inequality in school performance. In fact, although parents’ socioeconomic status is correlated with TIMMS performance, Eren Ceylan of Ankara University, one of the discussants of the report, noted that they had found, in their own analysis of the data, that students with poor parents do better in good schools.

Unsurprisingly, teacher performance matters a lot as well. While TIMMS does not evaluate teachers, students of instructors with higher self-confidence do better on the exam. It is important to note that these results establish correlation, not causation. But even the preliminary findings suggest that focusing on school and teacher quality would bring more bang for your buck than distributing tablets.

As I emphasized in my Sept. 2 column, Turkey needs to increase its labor productivity to escape from the middle-income trap. Although I did not bring up the e-word in that column, most of those commenting emphasized the importance of education without any knowledge of the studies I mentioned in this column. Unfortunately, the only ones who seem to ignore it are in the government.

I guess you guys (and gals) would be a much better education minister – or “Usta” (master), for that matter.