Nobels as a measure of education systems

October 14, 2006

Not so good a measure, most argue.

They’re right, of course. One need only look at the awards of Nobels in the past to people from nations where the education systems were not up to snuff to understand how wildly inaccurate such predictions can be.

Seed Magazine’s on-line version actually has an article discussing the issue: “Precious Medals.” The article concludes most rationally that the U.S.’s success at winning science Nobel Prizes does not in any way, shape or form indicate that we do NOT have a crisis in science education in the nation right now.  That’s good to remember.
By the way: Was Theodore Roosevelt the only man ever to win both the Congressional Medal of Honor, and a Nobel Prize? (He won the Congressional Medal for the “charge up San Juan Hill” in the Spanish-American War of 1898; he won the Nobel Prize for Peace for working out the treaty that ended the war between Japan and Russia, during his presidency (1901-1909)).

Friedman’s irony: Public schools work

October 14, 2006

Much checking yet to do, but one ironic result show up in anecdote, at least. Milton Friedman’s advocacy for vouchers may not be borne out even in the economics Nobel winners. Edmund Phelps, it appears so far, attended public schools near Chicago, in Friedman’s back yard.

Milton Friedman, the eminent Nobel-winning economist from the University of Chicago, author with his wife Rose of the best-seller that fueled much of the intelligentsia of the Reagan movement, Free to Choose (which was made into a television series for PBS), has long been an advocate for vouchers from public schools. Friedman argues that a dose of competition would be good for public schools, and the ability of students to choose to take their voucher to another school would also be good for students.

My belief is that we do not have sufficient data to make predictions that any voucher system would be an improvement. Public education as an American institution is an outgrowth of communitarian spirit coupled with strong need and strong desire for better-educated people to drive the economy; this spirit and these needs provided demand for education which could not be filled by private enterprise. Public education is, in my opinion, already the market response to consumer demand.

But data are difficult to parse out — not much was collected in the U.S.’s western expansion, we may not be collecting the right data now. So we argue from anecdote. Friedman’s anecdote’s talk about good private schools. Other anecdotes note public school successes.

Richard Feynman’s autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, covered his public school education in some detail, and it offered me some solid anecdotes for policy discussion when I was higher in government. Feynman won the Nobel in 1965 (Physics), was a genius, and also a product of the public schools. A quick survey of U.S. Nobelists shows most of them are also products of public schools. Since then I have watched with a one eye open the announcements of Nobels, wondering whether this trend will change in my lifetime.

So far, no change. The Nobel press packages and official biographies generally lack information about primary and secondary schools of winners. Digging is necessary. Phelps’ biographies are no exception. I finally got something close to an answer from a .pdf rendering of a chapter from The Makers of Modern Economics, Vol II, Arnold Heertje, ed. (1995, Edward Elgar Publishing Co., Aldershot, UK, and Brookfield, US), linked from Phelps’ biography page at Columbia.

Phelps was born in 1933, a Great Depression baby. Both of his parents lost their jobs ultimately. Although he was enrolled in a kindergarten for the gifted, there is no indication that he attended private schools.

If you have contrary and correcting information, please send it.

Friedman makes a good case, but it is a case that I find to be lacking in data. Even, perhaps especially, among the Nobel winners including economics, public school alumni win a disproportionate share of awards. There are all sorts of problems with the data to project trends, but there are few contrary data that I can find. Even with problems in data accounted for, public schools look good.

One problem is whether such data have any correlation at all to today’s public schooling. We may not know for 40 years whether the radical experimentation in standardized testing and other changes shepherded by the federal government will have any effect.

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