Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

The Political Economy of Education: Implications for Growth and Inequality

reviewed by Donald K. Sharpes - 2005

coverTitle: The Political Economy of Education: Implications for Growth and Inequality
Author(s): Mark Gradstein, Moshe Justman and Volker Meier
Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0262072564 , Pages: 176, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

Formal schooling has an impact on jobs, wages, family income, and the general quality of national life. The absence of students from school in the summer months in the 19th and preceding centuries benefited farmers who needed young laborers to harvest crops. The introduction of vocational programs in secondary schools helped prepare youth for the challenges of manufacturing jobs in the early 20th century. Schools in the 21st century are expected to produce a corps of skilled and informed graduates for the imperatives of the global information age. Based on international achievement levels and declining test scores, the consensus now is that the public should be prepared to be disappointed in the future overall scholastic achievements of American public school graduates. In the worldwide quest for competitive jobs and technically proficient workers, Americans are underperforming. And the data reveal that the trend is not being reversed.

In the slender volume The Political Economy of Education: Implications for Growth and Economy, Mark Gradstein, Moshe Justman, and Volker Meier offer a set of stochastic models for clarifying the implications of the role of economics in schooling. Attempting to predict the infinitely fluctuating variables of income inequality, social mobility, diversity, economic growth, and income distribution tests the intellectual acumen, resolve, and political dynamics of any politician or PTA member, as well as any superintendent or teacher, who is brave enough to try. Nevertheless, the authors’ models offer a relatively reliable set of predictive results that inform the role schooling plays in projected economic outcomes.

The advantage of a mathematical formula is that it reduces generalization and guards against the omission of a quantifiable variable that has an impact on the process of predicting outcomes. Economic and mathematical models have a simple elegance that assumes homogeneity of inputs, but it is not always possible to have homogeneous inputs where human actions are involved. The implied uniform assumptions are not offered just as simple predictors, but as theoretical components of sets of variables in complex relationships.

The danger is that allowing one category to represent a group like “minority,” for example—a variable factored into some formulas in this book—does overly generalize a more complex classification. The authors confuse “education” with “schooling” on several occasions, and this misuse of terminology does not aid in achieving the level of precision required for these variables in the models offered. Clearly, one can be self-educated without the benefit of formal schooling. On the other hand, one can also have attended school and emerged uneducated.

As the authors of The Political Economy of Education acknowledge, stochastic models ignore the variability in individual abilities, the very traits tests these days seek to measure to find differences among schools. The public thirst for schooling accountability, however, will not be resolved by just measuring incremental individual achievement and ignoring, as such tests do, other social, emotional, economic, and cultural benefits of schooling. However, economic models, while finding parental engagement a useful variable, cannot control or predict out-of-school variables. As in any static and linear mathematical model, there are limitations to the generalization that is possible from economic models because economic models necessarily assume normality of distribution and variance. Further, the authors of this volume acknowledge that uniform spending on schooling does not result in uniform quality of schooling.

We know that public schooling in one generation reduces income inequality in the succeeding generation. Unquestionably, poorer students receive greater benefits from public schooling. The democratic principle of equality of educational opportunity has dominated American education since the proclamations of Horace Mann and the congressional legislation and court adjudications of the latter half of the 20th century. The merits of schooling have been assumed to be uniform, however, we know the distribution of scholastic achievements and schooling’s social benefits have been known to be widely uneven. Schooling’s long-term economic benefits are highest for the primary and elementary levels and less pronounced for higher levels of schooling, especially in less-developed nations.

In a report entitled Equality of Educational Opportunity, James Coleman discussed research results from a 1966 national study mandated by Congress after the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Coleman found that family background, including the education attainment level of parents, especially the mother, was a greater predictor of schooling performance than any schooling variable, even the quality of teachers. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) findings continue to confirm this conclusion.

I was pleased to note the authors’ inclusion of graphic data from other countries, which adds a special perspective. But it would also have been useful to have a comparative analysis from comparable care institutions, such as a health care system or a hospital, for example, to show parallel cost benefits from inputs to outputs. Moreover, the addition of an educational historian to the collection of authors would have enhanced the relevance of historical applications and reduced or eliminated the number of inaccuracies in the volume. (For example, the earliest recorded systems of public education did not occur in Judea under Roman rule, as the book asserts, but hundreds of years earlier, separately in Babylonia and Egypt.) The quotations from classical advocates, such as David Hume, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Paine, included in the book are instructive, but the book neglects the insights of serious contemporary educational commentators like Andrew Hacker, E. D. Hirsch, Jonathan Kozol, Lee Shulman, Ted Sizer, Joel Spring, David Tyack, and Howard Gardner, to name but a handful who are not cited. Though the omission of modern educators does not detract from the design of the authors’ models, it raises questions about the credibility, relevance, and currency of knowledge of the book’s discussion.

The volume’s writing style is precise, yet I find that reading it is like following the symbols in an algebraic equation. The result is tedious but clear and insightful. There is an impressive list of references and clarifying notes. The authors have demonstrated how relatively simple mathematical models of economic inputs and outcomes can help illustrate the beneficial use of analytical instruments to further explicate potent policy issues in education.


Coleman, James, et al. (1966). Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; Office of Education: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2003). Learning for Tomorrow's World – First Results from PISA 2003. Paris: OECD Programme for International Student Assessment. Available at: http://www.pisa.oecd.org/document/55/0,2340,en_32252351_32236173_33917303_1_1_1_1,00.html.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2498-2501
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11839, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 10:43:30 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Donald Sharpes
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    DONALD K. SHARPES is Adjunct Professor of Education at Arizona State University and Professor Emeritus at Weber State University specializing in the social and behavioral sciences, humanities, and international affairs. He is the author of 15 books and over 235 professional publications, newspaper articles and essays. He has taught at Arizona State, Maryland, Maine, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Utah State, Weber State and won numerous university and professional association awards for teaching, scholarship and service. He is the recipient of two senior Fulbright awards (Malaysia and Cyprus) was the first American to be admitted as a member of the China Senior Professors Association, and has served as a consultant to several foreign governments and as a visiting professor at universities in China, England, Cyprus, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. He has been a part-time correspondent for several major western newspapers and held positions as research associate at Stanford University, technical division director in the U.S. Dept. of Education in Washington, DC, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sussex, and Visiting Scholar at Oxford University in 1999-2000. In 2000 he was University Professor at Zayed University in The United Arab Emirates.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue