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Let me quote an e-mail I sent Mr. Becker a couple weeks ago:

My thoughts on this are as follows: it is my belief that the current system, which rewards schools for good test scores by its students is highly ineffective. It does not encourage schools to spend money on better teachers, teacher training, or equipment. It encourages only extra preparation for tests, which rarely require "smart" skills. That is, most, if not all, of these tests, such as the MCAS in Massachusetts, require the ability to add and subtract, and maybe the knowledge of a few geometric rules (though generally, these laws are even provided), as well as the ability to write at length about a passage, or search for key words in a passage that give away its meaning. Such skills are not really helpful, nor do they build intellect; it is my opinion personally that it would be much more important for such tests to concentrate on abilities such as interpretation of history, which I believe is a vital skill, one that demonstrates actual intelligence and knowledge.

But what is more important is that no single test can determine whether or not a school is doing a good job educating its students. More so, a good education, in my experience, depends more on one's parents than school. Parents that place a high value on education are more likely to take part in their child's education, to help their children out, and to pressure their child's school to improve its standards and curriculum as well. In most cases, children with parents who value education go to better schools, and receive more education outside of school.

So the question then becomes how can the government make parents care more? As is often the case, the answer lies, in my opinion, in economic stimulus. That is, instead of of offering schools money if they improve their students' test scores, why not offer money to parents of students who do well in the form of tax breaks? First of all, this eliminates the need for tests, since the need to compare schools across the country disappears. Instead, students can be compared to other students in the same school. The government, for example, could offer $1,000 tax breaks to parents if their child finishes in the top 10% of their grade. This would stimulate parents to encourage their child's education, both within a school and outside of it. More so, competition by definition under such a program would increase because the amount of money being distributed (and the amount of families receiving it) would be fixed, as opposed to a program that requires minimum test scores that are the same every year, resulting in a certain amount of complacency in the better schools (who cares if you get 95% or 85% as long as you pass?). And of course, competition results in better results.

There are roughly 17 million high school children in America. So that would mean that my suggested program would cost about $1.7 billion, only about 1.3% of the total money the federal government spends on education. However, it seems to me that encouraging individuals to improve their child's education would have much greater impact on the overall level of education than telling schools to improve students' scores on tests that do a poor job of measuring actual educational quality. In short (I know, this e-mail has not really been short), it seems clear that the federal government should be concentrating on individuals, not schools, when it implements programs to improve education in America.


My thoughts are basically the same as outlined in this e-mail. Mr. Becker's last paragraph is also remarkably similar to what I suggested weeks ago.


A trial scheme that makes welfare payments to parents contingent on their children's school attendance has had some success amongst indigenous people in remote outback communities of Western Australia. A new version of the scheme is to be launched next year.

Report, "Welfare tied to school attendance", at http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2005/s1521206.htm

A notable feature of the scheme is that it was instituted with active agreement of community leaders.

Now the Australian federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, who has grasped the mechanics of the scheme, is ignoring the principles behind it in floating the idea of government imposing variants on communities across the board, "The Virtue of Choice, or the Choice of Virtue: Re-thinking Family Policy", http://www.sa.liberal.org.au/southcott/content/files/Looking%20Forward%202%20FINAL.pdf

Essentially his idea appears to be to "re-affirm the importance of the family, encourage parental responsibility and authority, promote strong values of work and reward for effort, etc" by fining parents who don't shape up.

Dan C

Prof Becker is correct to reject a stick approach. Such punative steps are likely to create even more resentment in the affected population.

I was told, some twenty years ago, that the problem with the French education system was that it did not give students a second chance. If you fell off track in the exam system, you would find few alternative paths to a secure future. I don't know how true this was or is.

Ask for the carrot approach, I assume that Mexico's relatively low wages keeps the costs of the program relatively low. France may find their carrots rather expensive.

I have taught from time to time in an outreach program for inmates in a maximum security prison. I don't think a small carrot would have made much difference to these people. In general, the have learning disabilities, psychiatric disorders, substance abuse issues, and they are cynics. They are afraid of taking risks in a classroom setting and they have such a fear of failure that they often quit in the face of adversity. However, they know when material is being dumb-downed and many will resent it. My biggest challenge is to get the inmates to accept failures, false starts, or mistakes as a vital part of learning. At some point in the past, they and the education system failed each other. Many of the inmates feel that the education system was designed to weed out the weaker students in pursuit of the more gifted.

In general, I think my students would have benefited from the drills the nuns forced me through at a young age. I was never a fan of rote drills, but the process of learning through repition - a process were you gain confidence by trying, failing, and trying again, would have, I think, helped my students at a young age. We should be honest that much of what we teach in the early years are rather basic skills. What we must teach is how to learn, the character traits needed. And we must assume that almost every student can master basic skills, if they are taught how to learn. And drilling students on basic skills and testing to make sure they master these skills, is not cheating the students. If a school can not demonstrate an ability to teach basic skills to almost every student, what good is it?

For me, the problem in France is that the elite and connected advance. The Muslim population knows this - if they fall behind in a race they can't win, they quit. The solution is a dynamic economy that offfers alternative paths to material success.

In Mexico, the poor need to be made aware of alternative paths that are open to the poor. Reward, or offer carrots, to those who are willing to take the risk on these alternative paths. The potential rewards for citizen and country are great.

In the United States, too many inner cities are allowed to die slow deaths. I tell my students that counter to their complants, I think crime causes poverty not the other way around. We have rural populations dealing with crank and a brain drain. But to be honest, I wish I knew what would work.

Arun Khanna

Given the anti-immigrant feelings in French society after the riots, it may not be politically feasible for the government to offer carrots for diligent parenting. The economic stick approach to ensure diligent parenting by Muslim immigrants is likely to get broad political support.


I think the federal government is trying to assume too much a role in the raising of kids.

Who knows a child better than their own parents? Some kids probably could drive a car at 14 and some people should never be allowed to drive a car.

Anything the government does will be done with too broad a stroke.

I say give people the responsibility to raise their own kids.

Michael Wade

I think the problem is that the parents have already proven themselves to have dropped the ball, so the government steps in for the sake of the society at large.

Sorry to respond to a comment rather than to the initial post, but frankly, I think Becker's right on.


One disruptive child can stop all the children in a classroom from learning. Paying a child not to learn, but simply to spend a day at school, is a bad idea.

The money would probably be better spent on alternative schooling choices for kids who are failing at regular schools.

Today is Day 991 of the Iraq War. On Day 991 of World War 2, the Allies liberated Paris.


are there parallels

-kids and managers

-parents and shareholders


What people miss in the whole education debate is that learning is never the transfer of knowledge from person A to person B; instead, learning is the end result of a personal struggle. Therefore, I don't think any government program could ever achieve this. If an individual doesn't want to learn, he won't.
With that said, there are certain indviduals who need a kick in the butt by either a teacher or a parent. But these individuals aren't the ones missing school. If a parent happens to have such a child, there is no government program that could be implemented which could encourage parents to say to their child "Study, or else..."


You're missing the point here. No one can make anyone think for themselves, but what this program is designed to do is just get the kids in the classroom so they have a chance to learn. The Progresa plan, which strikes me as the better of the two mentioned, is there to bring kids into the classroom who would otherwise be working in the fields of their rural homes. This isn't about learning, as that is an internal deal. It's simply about giving kids who would otherwise be better used (in terms of bringing in money for the family) working the field as labor as opposed to going to school where they don't bring in any money.

Kartik Agaram

We could all do with a lot more discussion of education in the general discourse; I think several fundamental political and economic issues are grounded in the education of a population. To give just one example, I think a lot of the current ruckus about creationism and intelligent design in schools stems from the desire of parents to have more of a say in what their children are taught, and this argument has tended to stay unspoken. Addressing this underlying concern will perhaps bring us all closer to a consensus.


If the federal government should concentrate on individuals rather than schools, why should it judge them relative to other people who go to their school? Take two middle-of-the-road students, place one in public school and one in private school. Considering the low grade standards at many public schools, the former may do "well" relative to his peers. The latter, meanwhile, likely will not. However, they're both putting forth the same amount of effort and are gaining the same amount of knowledge. Assuming the private school parents are not simply looking for a prestigious degree, they care about their child's education more -- they're willing to invest extra money in it and give special attention to it. However, the public school family will receive the benefits.

As always, I would like to hear more of this mythical "actual education" of which anti-standardized testers speak. I would also like to know how basic math and reading skills are unessential to an actual education. Perhaps someone can demonstrate the historical interpretation skills of someone incapable of performing adequately on a test of SAT difficulty or below.

I agree that parenting is the ultimate -- and perhaps only -- determining variable in the qualitiy of a child's education, and that the government should both coerce and motivate parents to be more involved in their children's educations, but I don't see how that justifies getting rid of standards for schools.

ernest picaron

this site is great , bye

Ignacio J. Couce

I agree with Mr. Becker's basic thesis: There must be parental accountability for the behavior of their minor children and, while the "carrot" must be balance by a "stick", social engineering works best when the incentives are positivist - that is, when the carrot and not the stick predominates. However, I believe that in the case of France, the French government has missed the point; they have avoided addressing the "holy cow" of French politics - labor controls. Regular school attendance, all the education in the world and law abiding behavior, do not translate into success in the French labor market If the labor system is not changed so that merit becomes the measure by which a society rewards and punishes behavior, people have no hope and no incentive to do the things suggested by Mr. Becker.


The carrot and stick look suspiciously similar to me. One might characterize the stick as starvation, or the carrot as security from swats from the stick. The only difference (beyond framing) is whether more money is allocated to welfare, or less. Both would make benefits dependent on attendance in precisely the same way... or is Professor Becker suggesting that we reject the all-too-common approach of economists to ignore wealth/income effects?

The efficacy of either approach - stick or carrot - depends on a behavioral response of the parents and children. Will parents respond to incentives? Probably to some extent, whether carrot or stick. Will their response have any effect at all on their children's attendance? Possibly. Will better attendance have any effect on the social ills the policy is presumably targeting? Many of us hope so, but the evidence is thin. The Progresa program seems to indicate that it might...

Nor Izzatina Abdul Aziz

Why punish the parents for the children behaviour? The poor already work hard just to put enough on the table. In some cases the poor have a lot of children. The parents have no time to check on each one of them whether they've gone to school or they have finish their homework.

Michael Patrick Gibson

Prof Becker,

Your framework for dealing with the problem is slighly misguided. It presupposes a vital causal channel, one which aims to guide behavior, from parent to child. But this influence is greatly overrestimated. The effect parents have on their children's personality is zero. What really matters? Genes and peer groups. Here I cite Judith Rich Harris' book, "The Nurture Assumption", and Steven Pinker's chapter in "The Blank Slate". Their conclusions are both surprising, revolutionary and useful. Useful, because any effort to mitigate these social problems should focus on the more robust causal channels such as the peer group. Maybe incentives could be aligned so as to exploit this fact? Maybe rewards could be given according to how well your class or work group performed or circle of friends performed? Clearly this would have to be fleshed out. But it is more innovative than a century old bias which mistakenly stresses the role parents have in shaping their children's personalities.


Ah yes, more educational psycho-babble. What's needed is synthesis of Jean Piaget and the Cognitive theory of learning, combined with B.F, Skinner's theory of Behaivoral Modification and the B.M. theory of learning. All that's left is a rigorous application and enforcement of the program and not an "annual" change out to the latest educational process fad.

With it, Dick and Jane might be able to learn to read & write again.


If you have to give incentives to parents to watch their kids then there is a much bigger problem there then how much welfare they are getting each month?

Dan S.

Prof. Becker's arguments are worthwhile reading, but the argument assumes that the central government has a role to play in encouraging behavior, especially as it relates to education.

As with the debate in the US over the topics of evolution and intelligent design/creationism, what is (as one posted earlier) at the root of the issue is parental control over the process of education as a whole.

What few have dared to suggest is that more decentralized (individialized, if you will) control of education may be the answer. Or, even, the individual choice NOT to be educated.

It has been noted by some economists that child labor is merely the "birthing pains" of an industrialized, growing economy. Once the ability to create wealth has been normalized to the greater populace, child labor decreases or is eliminated as parents can "afford" to allow their children to not work, but instead be educated.

We here in the US tend to think of the industrial revolution as an archaic time when mean-spirited and unenlightened parents sent their children off to work in dirty factories so fathers (that look strangely like Marlon Brando) could afford to drink more whisky. I disagree with this idea-- I think we are so wealthy, as a nation, that we cannot imagine being poor enough to NOT send our children to school. We have, as follows, enacted laws to ensure that no one even has the choice between work and school anymore.

Other nations (it might surprise us to discover) have not yet reached this level of national wealth. People around the world regard education as an option of only the fabulously affluent, in much the same way as I would regard paying tuition at Harvard Law. Perhaps as these nations advance technologically, they will be able to create wealth in the proportions that we do now, and will soon regard child labor as we do today.

All that said, I prefer choice to force-- France & Mexico may force payments to the poor by taking money from the rich, and reap a whole host of ensuing complications; can we not learn a lesson here, one not unproblematic yet less problematic, that allowing a person or parents to choose the type and amount of education their children receive?

This proposal would be a lot easier if we abandoned the long-standing idea of "public" education.


As was roughly stated earlier regarding standardized tests;

It's hard to use standardized testing to identify the top tiers of a population. But it's at least possible to use standardized testing to identify those in the population who lack basic skills. Without basic skills, a person is unlikely to be able to learn or communicate more advanced skills.

The 'tails' of a test's bell curve are notoriously unreliable.


Prof. Becker assumes the school is a good one, and not just a holding bin. Personally, I think the public schools of America are so bad we should repeal the mandatory attendance laws, and start all over again with such private schools as caring parents would create for the seed corn.

I have no knowledge of the schools in France or Mexico, but would guess the former have higher academic standards than than U.S., the latter about the same as us.

In my all-white county seat town of 10,000 in the Midwest, about 70% of the high school children make the "honor roll," yet no more than half make test scores sufficient to get accepted at the state university. Why should we compel anyone to attend such as school system as this?

Those who seem to care most about the schools spend their time arguing about "intelligent design," when the kids can't read.

I honestly think you could repeal mandatory attendance laws, lay off all the truant officers, shut down the legal nonsense they entail, and save all kinds of money for the taxpayers thereby, while not making a particle of difference to the the educational level of the populaton as a whole.


"...about 70% of the high school children make the 'honor roll,. yet no more than half make test scores sufficient... Why should we compel anyone to attend such as school system as this?"

There is a difference between grades in courses and scores on college entrance exams. Not all of the difference is bad.

F.E. Guerra-Pujol

I agree in principle with Becker and Posner's economic approach to the problem of parental responsibility (and to the other social and political issues they have discussed on their blog). But I wish to make a couple of comments (or an elaboration).

First, I think the economic approach also obliges us to consider whether there might be an "optimal" amount of truancy. Some children, for example, can disprupt classes -- their presence might cause more harm than good --, and thus at some point it really isn't efficient or productive to allocate resources to improve school attendance.

Second, from a 'transaction cost' perspective, I wonder if it is really worth it for the state to establish yet another expensive and bureacratic social program. The goal may be laudable (to reduce dropouts), but the proposed solutions don't seem to be cost-effective.

Of course, my concerns are largely empirical questions, so I am willing to reconsider my skepticism if the evidence warrants it.


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