Mothers and child education
Today the New York Times published my letter to the Editor (posted here on April 9), in which I made the point that mothers focused on educating two children tend to think more long term and be less apocalyptic.
There is a lot more good that happens when families change their primary role from procreation to production of human capital–economic development, for example. (Robert Lucas explains this beautifully in a non-technical article.) This process took place in rural Iran starting in the late 1980s, thanks in large part to government-provided health care and family planning for rural families. We do not know which way the causation goes here: is having fewer children the impetus to invest more in children, or does the desire to invest in children cause lower family size? Economists have spent a great deal of time disentangling the relationship between the quality and quantity of children. There is a lot of evidence globally that greater desire for education, often because its rewards have increased, is necessary to lower fertility.
Whether this is the case with Iran we do not know. What we do know is that perceived rewards to investment in child education for the lower strata of the population, mainly the less fortunate in rural areas, must have increased after the Islamic Revolution, given the emphasis its leadership placed on social equity and investments in rural electrification and school construction in the 1980s. We also know, from the strong association between the education of mothers and their children, that the role of family decisions was key in rising education. The state cannot on its own raise education. People have to take the initiative to send their kids to school. The government must do the infrastructure investment, but it cannot force education. There is, of course, the power of compulsory education laws, but if laws could influence family behavior, solving rural education in poor countries would have have been much easier, and not required the conditional cash transfer programs to which some developing countries have had to resort. A good sign that in Iran the family played an important role in promoting education is that when the government delivered the schools, they did not simply take advantage of the subsidized education by sending their seven or eight children there. They began reducing the number of children they had so they could invest more in each. If families did not intend to share the cost of education, free schooling might have even increased fertility!
In Iran, the influence of government in education goes far beyond building schools. It dictates curriculum, does all the important testing, and provides the incentives for learning because it has the jobs that more than 80% of graduates covet. Such a large role for the state raises a number of problems. The most important is low quality, which is usually learning too little, but it can also be learning too much what does not matter. As with everything else, the government tends to go for quantity over quality (evidently it is easier to achieve more of one than the other). The state loves to show rising education, but does not take responsibility when graduates cannot find jobs. The result is an education system that is focused on diplomas and degrees rather than skills that enhance productivity.
It is great for economic growth that Iranian families are focused on their children’s education. It should make them more willing to support policies that improve the future of their children over those that emphasize short term gains. We should find out in two months if this election will show more support for policies that bring “the oil money to people’s dinner table” over those that use it for the future of children. But then the election can only do that if the candidates articulate these issues in their campaings. Not much there so far.
For education policy, this comes down to supporting policies that promote the desire to be skilled and productive rather than merely educated, that is, adorned with diplomas.