I'm Sure Glad Cars Aren't Produced Using the Education System Model

While comparing education to cars isn’t a perfect fit, there is a lot to be learned from the comparison. As a thought experiment, the Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson examines the change in costs and productivity in America’s education system and applies it to the automotive world (H/T Joanne Jacobs):

What would the U.S. automobile industry look like if it were run the same way, and had suffered the same productivity collapse, as public schooling? To the left is a 1971 Chevrolet Impala. According to the New York Times of September 25th, 1970, it originally sold for $3,460. That’s $19,011 in today’s dollars. If cars were like public schools, you would be compelled to buy one of these today, and to pay $43,479 for that privilege (2.3 times the original price).

To measure productivity in education this way assumes that the students being taught today are no more or less challenging than the students being taught in 1970. If they are harder to teach, higher costs would be required to maintain the same output. If they are easier to teach, less would be required. (At least that’s what the Education Policy Center people tell me … I’m not that hard to teach, am I?)

Jay Greene and Marcus Winters tried to answer this question with their innovative Teachability Index. You can debate about the factors they used to measure student “teachability,” but they did a fairly thorough job to reach this conclusion:

The Teachability Index shows that students today are actually somewhat easier to teach than they were thirty years ago. Overall, student disadvantages that pose challenges to learning have declined 8.7% since 1970.

In which case, Andrew Coulson may have underestimated how much we’d be paying for that 1970 Chevy Impala today. Even if the Greene and Winters formula is off somewhat, it’s hard to imagine that students are more than twice as difficult to teach today. Coulson leaves readers with a provocative thought:

So, do you wish the automobile industry were run like public schooling, or do you wish that public education was part of our free enterprise system, with financial assistance to ensure universal access to the marketplace?

I’ll take the latter, thank you very much. Of course, a key part of making the transition work is to help families think more and more like education consumers: Our School Choice for Kids website is one of the best tools for this purpose.