Causality or Casualty?

Experiment: Write a blog post instead of a message on Facebook that no one will ever read.

I follow the World Economic Forum on Facebook. They frequently post about education but only rarely do I agree with their analyses. Sometimes, I post angry responses, but that feels a bit like spitting into the wind. But look! I have a blog! So, a wind-spitting-worth article recently came up and I’ll respond here!

The argument of this World Economic Forum article is that increasing educational attainment (or “knowledge capital,” a term I despise) leads to economic development in a country. They also argue that improving education is the first step before other goals can be met, like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals of poverty reduction, health, or nutrition. Personally, I agree that education is a huge factor, but the interaction between education and economic development is just not that simple.

My major issues with this article are the lack of proof of causality, the burden put on to schools as a result of these kinds of findings, and the blame that is laid on schools when other factors may actually be preventing improvement in schools (and probably economic development too).

Sadly, this article doesn’t discuss any limitations to the argument of causality. A significant amount of the variation in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) can be explained by increases in educational attainment on standardized tests, but the causal mechanism isn’t identified. The data just does not clearly show that A causes B — that increasing PISA scores will cause an increase economic growth for a country. The original analysis published by the OECD states that “it remains difficult to develop conclusive tests of causality with the limited sample of countries included in the analysis” but they make causal statements and defend them without evidence. The authors’ defense is that a few other imaginable scenarios are not probable, but they cannot rule out all possible threats to their causal argument. I can imagine several possibilities where the parallel between education and GDP exists but as a correlation rather than a causal relationship or with some other factor causing both to rise. For example, significant government investment in an area related to education like public transportation or good roads so kids can get to school makes it possible for large numbers of students to reach universal basic skill levels who didn’t before. This kind of government intervention may also boost GDP or just be a sign of rising GDP. But education improvementwas not the cause, just correlated with the increase.

The authors assume that change in education happens first, but this is just not proven by the data. It is also possible, yet unexplored in this article, that some countries increase their economic growth and then improvement in schools follows.This is true in places like the UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The data may show the correlation over time, but it is not a causal relationship (of A leads to B) and cannot be generalized to other countries. The authors call this an “oil” problem and create a scenario where countries with low levels of natural resources value education more than countries rich in natural resources, but admit that there are countries that don’t fit that rule either. The authors blame lower levels of achievement on mismanagement of natural resources, rather than recognizing that there are several counter-examples to the claim that GDP is the result instead of the cause. The authors don’t elaborate on other ways that GDP can increase because it would undermine their argument of a causal relationship.

Some people would find no issue with the statement that “knowledge capital” is the key to economic growth. And many people wouldn’t mind if the causation wasn’t clear. For some organizations, anything that promotes the importance of education is good. But there are several reasons why I find this problematic.

The first reason is that these kinds of findings become the defense for increasing the intensity of what happens in schools and what happens to teachers. Examples are heavy-handed “back to basics” curriculum models, increasing the evaluation of teachers, and implementing more standardized tests. Over-stressing students and alienating teachers doesn’t seem too bad to politicians or bureaucrats if the end result is increased wealth. When the causal relationship isn’t questioned, a few side-effects may seem acceptable. But when it isn’t clear that education is causing GDP growth, then increasing the intensity has severe negative impacts with little positive to balance it out.

The second reason is that the “knowledge capital is the key” oversimplification can lead down a dangerous trail, one where we consider standardized tests a good measure of education and GDP as the single measure of a country’s worth. With no other measure of education quality and no other measure of the value of a country considered, there is no way of knowing that we are really measuring what is important. I recently ran across this article from Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority. In 2016, one part of the school evaluation system will be the happiness of students. Apparently, no one considered students own feelings of well-being as important in the school system before! It didn’t matter if students  were miserable as long as they were well-behaved and assessed intensely. That is a sad state in my mind — but one with a high GDP.

Lastly, if we assume it to be a causal relationship, then decision-makers don’t have to consider issues like poverty reduction, nutrition, health, and social equality when making decisions about education. These factors were not considered in the analysis and may be the real reasons that GDP and educational attainment correlate. Ignoring those factors because education quality can come first, as this article states, may make the process of improving education arduous or impossible. Countries with low levels of well-being overall for children may receive limited international assistance for education only and may continue to struggle with the other factors that would allow education and GDP to increase. But with all eyes looking singularly at education, nothing would improve.

So, causality or casualty? I do love wordplay. Without a clear causal mechanism, education is the casualty.

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