Friday, March 16, 2012

Oil v. education: OECD's (and Thomas Friedman's) lame correlation

Thomas Friedman's NYT column, published in today's National Post (under the heading "The oil curse: and how we avoided it"), claims that the scholastic performance of students depends on the degree to which their countrys' economy is dependent on natural resource extraction.  As proof he cites an OECD study:
... O.E.C.D. has just come out with a fascinating little study mapping the correlation between performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exam — which every two years tests math, science and reading comprehension skills of 15-year-olds in 65 countries — and the total earnings on natural resources as a percentage of G.D.P. ... In short, how well do your high school kids do on math compared with how much oil you pump or how many diamonds you dig?
... Oil and PISA don’t mix. So hold the oil, and pass the books.
That strikes me as an extremely lame correlation.  This fellow's criticism hits the nails (including Friedman's agenda) on the head:
... As the cases of Norway and Canada show, the random existence of a given resource under your soil does not in itself determine your country’s future success. 
...I think a better correlation might be quality of government versus average education level. ... much oil production comes from countries which have, shall we say, leadership issues. 
Here’s a case where someone takes a multivariate problem, and focus on the one variable for which he has an agenda. He doesn’t investigate the role of other variables. And the public? Yet another reason to believe how awful the oil industry is!
Or, as a commenter (Nevsky) at the National Post observed:
... Education is important; culture is decisive.


Frances said...

A better correlation I've heard is related to the education level of the parents. Alberta has a high percentage of professionals and, despite being a resource-dependent province, also has students who do extremely well internationally. I suspect Norway is in a similar situation.

Where this correlation is valid, I suspect the professional class is mainly expats from other countries, while the locals don't work.

And it doesn't have to be parental education that counts: parental support and expectations can also factor in. Many years ago, one of the top high schools in B. C. was J Lloyd Crowe in Trail, and Trail was a smelter town, very much blue-collar and resource-oriented. But the area as a whole was very pro-education, and the high expectations set by the teachers were matched by those of parents and community. The school district as a whole was known for its excellence and innovation. So depending on resource extraction does not necessarily (or even obviously) lead to a dumbing-down of students; there are other issues.

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