For a child to achieve its potential, many things – such as the ones listed below – must work in tandem:
a) Freedom (including reasonable equality of opportunity):
Nothing is perhaps more important for a child's success in life than the level of freedom prevailing in society. Higher levels of freedom not only eliminate discriminatory barriers (such as racism) that prevent a child's progress, but create aspirational goals with increasing economic growth.
With low levels of freedom, entire populations can under-perform – as has happened in India over the last 60 years. (Note that a free society makes arrangements to ensure reasonable equality of opportunity (mainly through privatised school education)).
b) Culture that values academic learning:
This freedom generally will lead to the culture that values learning. This is about the expectation prevailing among the parents and their peers including relatives – about what success means. Cultures that appreciate academic success and learning will generally foster greater (academic) achievement. Parents are part of this 'cultural' environment.
c) The child's own passion for learning:
Then comes the child himself. The child must, at some stage, develop passion for something, whether science, mathematics, art, law, or politics (or whatever else the child wants to specialise in). The child must want to succeed, and must have a burning desire to learn.
d) Good teachers:
Finally comes that puzzling element – the teacher. We all know from our experience that good teachers do succeed in teaching us things we would have struggled to learn on our own. But precisely how important are "good" teachers? The key problem in this area has been to distinguish the effect of the student's own "quality" from the effect of the teacher's "quality".
For instance, a 2003 paper ( (VVan Ours, J.C. and G. Ridder. 2003. "Fast Track or Failure: A Study of the Graduation and Dropout Rates of Ph.D. Students in Economics." Economics of Education Review, 22 (2), pp. 157-166.) argued that "the main value of good supervisors is to attract good students" – thus arguing that student quality matters significantly more than teacher quality. In other words, good teachers don't really matter.
But a paper recently published in the Journal of Political Economy (August 2010) by Fabian Waldinger, entitled "Quality Matters: The Expulsion of Professors and the Consequences for PhD Student outcomes in Nazi Germany" – throws new light on the importance of good teachers, and, in my view, makes more sense than the Ours and Ridder paper. [See details including a PDF version of the working paper here].
The Waldinger paper takes a novel approach to this complex issue (I won't go into details here – see details in the links provided above) and finds that – Yes, good teachers do make a difference. The paper finds that "an increase in faculty quality by one standard deviation led to a 13 percentage point increase in the probability that a former PhD student published a dissertation and a 10 percentage point increase in the probability of becoming a full professor. An increase in faculty quality by one standard deviation led to 6.3 additional lifetime citations, a significant number given that the average former PhD student has 11 citations."
In other words, good schools and good universities can make a difference to social outcomes over and above what is attributable to student quality.
As suggested in BFN, good schools and good universities can best be created through a totally privatised system of management. The government should stay out of education and let the private sector manage it.
In summary, to help our children achieve their potential, we should do the following things:
a) Ensure the highest levels of freedom in society compatible with the principles of accountability. This includes equal political freedom and reasonable equality of opportunity.
b) Develop a culture that values learning and academic success. This is naturally found in some parts of India. However, socialism and nepotism have reduced the value people give to academic success. When you can succeed simply through corruption why bother to study and increase knowledge?
c) Observe the child's interests and allow it to discover its goals in life.
d) Put the child into the best school we can find (and afford) – and once schooling is over, encourage the child to aim for admission to the best university it can gain admission to.
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