Grammar Schools: Sam Freedman really should know better

Over the past few days there as been quite a bit written about whether or not selective schools (i.e. allocating children to schools at age 11 based on ability) are beneficial or not, either in terms of social mobility, educational outcomes or other areas. This stems from rumours that Theresa May is reviewing current ban on Grammar Schools.

A number of commentators have claimed that re-introducing academic selection at 11 years old is a bad idea. For example, Sam Freedman, an executive director of Teach First and someone who really should know better has claimed that selective education is bad for social mobility; societal integration; accuracy of assessing ability; and/or promoting parental choice of school.

However each of Freedman’s supposed criticisms are not supported by the evidence.

First, there is strong evidence to support the idea that grammar schools actually improve social mobility and countries with selective systems tend to be no less integrated than those without. In making his claim that grammar schools harm social mobility and lead to decreased integration, Freedman cites this webpage. However, the results displayed on that webpage rely solely on correlations and does not try to control for any other factor that might account for the apparent relationship between deprivation and performance. For example, the difference in wages between grammar and comprehensive educated people could simply reflect the fact that grammar schools select those who are more likely to obtain a better wage anyway and enable them to reach their full potential, whereas those students would be held back if they were forced to attend a comprehensive. It also does nothing to account for different demographics beyond an entirely arbitrary and undefined measure of “deprivation”.

Indeed, the webpage cited by Freedman seems to view social mobility as being achieved by “preventing the gifted from reaching their full potential” rather than “allowing everyone to reach their maximum”. However, there is a substantial weight of evidence that indicates that selective schools not only enable the most-skilled to achieve their full potential, but also substantially improved outcomes for the less-skilled. For example, Dale & Krueger states that “students who attended more selective colleges earned about the same as students of seemingly comparable ability who attended less selective  schools. Children from low-income families, however, earned more if they attended selective colleges.”

Similarly, Galindo-Rueda & Vignoles finds that “the most able pupils in the selective school system did do somewhat better than those of similar ability in mixed ability school systems. Thus the grammar system was advantageous for the most able pupils in the system, i.e. highly able students who managed to get into grammar schools.

In other words, selective schools incontrovertibly enable the highly-skilled to achieve their full potential as well as benefiting children from low-income families. This result is also supported by a study commissioned by the Sutton Trust – despite their avidly anti-selective school bias leading them to try to weasel their way out of the positive grammar school effect, the study finds that grammar schools tend to increase student performance by roughly two grades per subject taken at GCSE.

Second, Freedman’s claim that the 11-plus is poor at assessing ability does not stand up to scrutiny. Freedman claims that 70,000 students are wrongly classified by the 11-plus test – it is not clear if Freedman means 70,000 over the entire span of grammar schools’ existence, or 70,000 “mistakes” every year. If the former, then the proportion of mistakes made is clearly tiny as millions of people would have taken the 11-plus since it was first used. If the latter, then assuming that all 700,000 11 year olds take the 11-plus (not an unreasonable assumption) that gives a “failure rate” of just 10%. Clearly this is not very large. And those that suggest that even a single failure is unacceptable when it comes to a child’s education are being completely impractical since no educational system exists that can completely eradicate failures.

Finally, Freedman claims that grammar schools are “anti-choice”. However, this is clearly false – there is an obvious mechanism by which grammar schools promote choice of school. Specifically, the presence of an 11-plus test gets parents thinking about what will happen after the test, encourages them to research different schools and think about what school(s) would be best for their child. In other words, the 11-plus exam incentivises parental involvement in school choice, thereby promoting it.

Hence, Freedman is incorrect on every single point he mentions about selective schools. From someone that high up in Teach First, that is simply unforgivable.

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Art and Economics

Art and economics probably aren’t the most natural of bedfellows. In my latest attempt at pretending to be sophisticated, and as part of a summer trip gallivanting around Barcelona, I ended up visiting (among all the other wonderful culinary and cultural delights) the city’s Museum of Contemporary Arts (MACBA).

The ground floor of MACBA is taken up with an exhibit by Andrea Fraser, called “L’1%, c’est moi”, which tries to present information and musings about the art world, with particular focus on individuals that have obtained and developed large personal collections of art. Unsurprisingly, Fraser’s angle is one of how those individuals with their own art collections are, for want of a better word, dubious (both in terms of their ethics and in terms of how they have been able to afford to obtain their art collections).

Indeed, one of the more wide-reaching points that Fraser tries to make is that an increase in inequality (it is unclear is Fraser is referring to wealth or income inequality) has enabled those individuals to build their collections. To that end, one of the “artworks” included in the exhibit was a short report, presumably put together by Fraser herself, that purports to demonstrate that rising inequality has benefited art collectors. In other words, Fraser is claiming that increasing inequality has enabled art collectors to benefit from increases in the value of their art collections.

However, Fraser’s “analysis” is pitiful at best. For a start, it is widely acknowledged that (income) inequality now is at roughly the same level as it was about 200 years ago (see, for example, here), yet Fraser chooses to focus solely on the past 50 years to try to bolster her claim that inequality is exceptionally high. Fraser does not extend her analysis back far enough in time to enable the conclusions she makes to be supported by the evidence. In fact, this is borne out by the graph on page 3 of Fraser’s report (reproduced below) showing that income inequality has been pretty much constant 50 years – hardly a marked increase in inequality at all.

Inequality

Moreover, the graphs Fraser included in the MACBA exhibit indicate that her understanding of statistical analysis does not extend even as far as the well-known maxim that “correlation does not imply causation”. To be fair to Fraser, a few economic researchers also don’t understand this concept particularly well. Nonetheless, in using the graph shown below, Fraser tries to support her claim that increases in inequality are leading to increases in the value of art.

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She does not, it seems, realise that there are plenty of other alternative reasons for the observed relationship – for example, it could be that the increase in the value of art is itself causing, or that both an increase in the value of art and the share of income obtained by the top 0.01% is driven by a common third factor (such as, for example, the rate of return on other investments).

The potentially absurd inferences that can be obtained by relying just on correlations can be seen even better in the graph below. The black dashed lines show the growth in the number of prisons and museums in the US over time, while the solid red line shows the US prison population. If one were to rely on correlations to make inferences, one would draw the conclusion that one way to reduce the US’ prison population would be to decrease the number of museums in the US. This shows the sheer ridiculousness of drawing conclusions from simple correlations alone.

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Hence, it’s clear that Andrea Fraser really should have put a bit more thought/work into the “analyses” she included as part of this exhibition.

PS. As a bonus piece of artsy mumo-jumbo economics, here is a description of an artwork by Adrian Melis. Enjoy

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