Tyranny of numbers

Mothers and child education

Posted in General by Djavad on April 13, 2009

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.

8 Responses

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  1. […] مناطق و در میان همۀ گروههای اجتماعی بسیار مشابه است (مطلب جواد صالحی را ببینید.) شواهد محکمی باید ارائه شود که رفتاری متفاوت […]

  2. […] مناطق و در میان همۀ گروههای اجتماعی بسیار مشابه است (مطلب جواد صالحی را ببینید.) شواهد محکمی باید ارائه شود که رفتاری متفاوت […]

  3. Hossein said, on April 24, 2009 at 10:32 am

    The conventional explanation for why mothers in rural areas have many children is that children are workforce in agricultural jobs. It seems that any explanation on why new they have fewer children than three decades ago should contain some elements of their role in family economy. I also would like to hear more about the role of economic factors such as the change in the source of rural families’ income, changes in relative prices of agricultural goods, the subsidies on consumption goods, and so on.

    • dsalehi said, on April 25, 2009 at 7:57 am

      Indeed, one important change in the rural economy is the development of the labor market, which means farmers do not need to have large families to cultivate a larger piece of land–they can simply hire people. The other important change is the higher expected return to education of rural children. Their parents a generation ago did not see them working in while color jobs in cities, but now they do.

  4. Behrooz said, on April 24, 2009 at 3:24 am

    Believe me that it is not a kind of Persian Taa’rof, but I am really happy that I have found your blog. I am sure it will be a wonderful reference both for academic and professional people who like to know more about up-to-date issues in economy of Iran. Thank you.

    By the way, interestingly, I attended a seminar today presented by Michael Keane about his recent studies on maternal time, child care choices and children’s cognitive ability. A subject which can be very interesting to be studied in Iran although I think the lack of proper data will be a major obstacle.

    Let me write a few ideas here which I know are not supported by scientific evidences but are mainly my observations before living Iran 6 months ago.
    First of all, I think increase in the number of working women has made mothers (especially young mothers) busier. So, as they may not be able to afford facilities like child care enough, it has caused a decrease in their tendency to have more children. At the same time, sharing new life styles with their colleagues at workplace and classmates at university before and after marriage and also being aware of what is happening around them using wide range of communication facilities, has made them more careful about their fertility decisions.

    I think there are also two other factors which has changed the balance between quantity and quality of children in Iran toward having more quality. From economic point of view, a significant proportion of Iranian workforce (who are employees in public and private sectors or self-employed) have constant income and fixed resources which simply are divided among family members every day. So, in the process of making their decision about the quantity, they must select the less number of kids as they cannot increase their resources easily parallel to their growing family. The second factor which seems to be more social is that the achievement of children in many middle class families is a significant indicator of the successfulness of that family. A family with a one story house but 3 PhDs is more proud than a family with a three story house and just one PhD there. And you know Iranians and their honours.

    So I think electionally speaking!!! promises like more opportunity for increase in acceptance in universities or decrease in tuition fees will be more effective than providing a proper infrastructure for long-run job-based education. Maybe the tastes and attentions will change in the next coming years from number of PhDs in a family toward number of CEOs.

    By the way, sorry for any probable English mistake.

    • dsalehi said, on April 25, 2009 at 8:02 am

      I am glad you like this weblog. I like your explanations of why families have switched from demanding quantity to quality of children. Women’s opportunity cost of time, which is in part working in outside the home, and returns to education–in part caused by greater access to higher education–are key explanations of the transformation of the Iranian family in my view.

  5. مهدی said, on April 21, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    ببخشید بین این همه مطلب انگلیسی من فارسی می نویسم
    توصیف شما رو توی یکی از این وبلاگها خوندم ، اومدم تا وبلاگتون ببینم
    به هر حال براتون ارزوی موفقیت می کنم و امیدوارم که یک روی هم برسه توی ایران ما همه چیز خصوصا اقتصاد ما علمی و بروز بشه ..
    شاد و سلامت باشید ..

  6. dtj said, on April 21, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    verry good.

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