Category Archives: International Comparisons

Reflections on International Relations

Sometimes my reading list matches up with current events. In this case, unfortunately, with the escalating U.S. / Iran conflict.

Books read over past two months:

  1. Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity 
  2. 1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
  3. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20th Century 
  4. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
  5. Presidents of War: The Epic Story, from 1807 to Modern Times
  6. World Order

All of the below is a layperson’s reflections. I’m clearly not an expert on international relations or the history of civilizations.

Taken as a whole, the books were very good, even if I disagreed with major parts of them (particularly Huntington’s lack of nuance in writing on American multiculturalism and Kissinger’s analysis of Vietnam). They were also a little more conservative leaning. I was pretty steeped in liberal human rights perspective from working at the international court in Sierra Leone and conducting on the ground research of Tibetan government-in-exile in India. These books broadened my perspective.

Picking up frameworks 

These books deepened my understanding of some very useful international relations frameworks; such as:

The geography framework

  • Why did Europe, and not other previously more advanced civilizations, take off with the enlightenment and the industrial revolution? One potential cause is Europe’s geography: jagged coast lines, large islands, and mountain ranges made it difficult for empires to consolidate power. Only the Romans conquered the vast majority of Europe. Most often, numerous powers had to compete with each other.  When it came to seeding the modern world, this competitive landscape was an advantage. In Europe, unlike in China and Japan, one authoritarian government couldn’t stifle an entire civilization’s scientific progress.
  • Why did the previous Latin American civilizations (Mayan, Aztecs, Incas) develop extremely sophisticated cultures but not the scientific breakthroughs that could lead to steel, gunpowder, and other powerful technologies? One cause was because they were separated from each other by large mountain ranges and narrow land bridges. This allowed for less trade and stealing of other civilizations innovations and thus less rapid technological progress (compared to Europeans stealing Arabic numerals and Chinese gunpowder, for example).
  • Why were Latin American civilizations so susceptible to European diseases? Potentially because they came from a smaller gene pool: only a couple of waves of people made it across the Bering Strait into the Americas. This led to less genetic diversity. When a disease affected one person, it was more likely to affect most people. Small pox wiped out a higher percentage (50-80%) of the native population than the Bubonic Plague did in Europe (30-50%).

The civilization framework

  • Understanding civilizational philosophies and histories can help you understand international relations. Confucian philosophy is different than Islamic philosophy, for example, and this shapes how their current nation states view the world. Understanding other civilizations can also temper your arrogance about the universality of your own civilization’s values.
  • Major, large civilizations (and their religions) that still exist today in some form include: Sino / China (Confucion), Middle East (Islam); Russia (Orthodox Christian); America / Europe (Judeo-Christian); India (Hindu); Japan (Shinto / Buddhist); Latin America (Christian after Europeans wiped out much of indigenous population); African (very under discussed in books I read; need to read more to understand historical roots).
  • During the cold war period, civilization history played second fiddle to whether a country aligned to America or the Soviet Union. With the end of the cold war, civilization affiliation is playing a stronger role in international relations.

The realism framework:

  • National interest remains a powerful force that can transcend geography and historical affiliations.
  • Why do Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea all have strong ties to the United States despite having more civilization commonality with China? Because of national interest. For now, they perceive the United States to be a check on Chinese power.
  • Numerous other cross-civilization relationships, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, can be explained better through a realism framework rather than a civilizational framework.

A starting point for getting smarter 

To be clear, geography, civilization history, and nation state realism don’t explain all of the world, nor are they full determinants of the future, but all of these frameworks have helped me think through current international affairs.

Understanding both the United States and Iran’s geography, civilizational history, and national interests are a good place to start if you want to be an informed citizen on the issue.






Is Sweden’s education system falling apart? If so, what is to blame: vouchers or progressivism?

Sweden adopted an expansive school voucher system in 1992.

Since then, Sweden’s PISA scores have tumbled.

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 9.58.39 AM.pngSweden’s PISA scores shot up a bit in 2015, which is good to see.

But it’s worth exploring why they dropped in the first place. There are two main theories why the scores dropped: some blame the voucher system and some blame Sweden’s embrace of progressive / constructivist educational methods (less teacher directed lecturing, more student inquiry and discovery, less focus on knowledge building).

Who’s to blame? Vouchers or constructivism?

Was it the Vouchers?

There’s been a decent amount of research on Sweden’s voucher program.

This paper found small positive to neutral effects on academic achievement and no effects on long-term outcomes. This paper found positive to neutral effects.

This paper found positive effects due to increased competition, though it took about ten years for these effects to kick-in. They also tackled the PISA issue head on:

Our positive estimates might appear surprising given Sweden’s relative decline in scores on international tests such as PISA since the mid 1990s… we do not find any support for the belief that an increase in the share of independent school students provides an explanation for Sweden’s relative decline.

It seems that vouchers aren’t the main culprit. They’ve only scaled to educating 20% of students, and most research finds neutral to positive effects.

Was it Constructivism?

Another set of researchers say that Sweden has embraced an extreme form of progressive / constructivism, “which holds that an objective reality does not exist and that the objects and phenomena themselves—and not just our perceptions and interpretations of these phenomena—are socially constructed.”

The authors note that this philosophy really began to take hold in the early 1990s, when large groups of older teachers retired and were replaced by younger teachers who had been trained in progressive-constructivist ideas.

This was accompanied by unwinding the existing detailed national curriculum, and, in 1994, replacing it with high level standards that were more constructivist in nature. These standards also had a deeper focus on student’s directing their own learning instead of teacher directed lessons.

Or was it both? 

These same authors said that move to constructivism was accelerated by the voucher program: because of fluffy curricular standards and a lack of accountability from the national government, the new private schools inflated grades, which drew students in, which then caused the public schools to respond by inflating their own grades.

Without national accountability, the researchers claim that it was race to the bottom.

Looking at Finland

Sweden is not the only country to drop on PISA of late. So has Finland, which previously was at the top of the PISA charts (and even after dropping still does very well).

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I’ve seen no rigorous research on why Finland dropped on PISA; some point to declining economic conditions, others to a reduced focus on core subjects like math. Others note that many of Sweden’s more constructivist / progressive reforms took place right when Sweden was at its peak, and now that they’ve been fully implemented scores have dropped.

No Excuses vs. Constructivist Charter Schools

In the United States, “No Excuses” charters schools, which tend to be more standards and teacher driven, generally outperform more constructivist / progressive school models when it comes to state tests.

I’d add this as another data point in favor of the idea that constructivist / progressive schools tend not to do as well on standardized tests.

My Hypothesis

I’m not an expert in any European education systems, so consider this a guess: I think that constructivist / progressive education models are the leading contender for why test scores are falling in Sweden and Finland.

This hypothesis fits within both anecdotal and research on progressive approaches not resulting in high test scores; see table below from meta analysis on effect teaching, which identified approaches that tend to raise / lower test scores:

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 7.39.23 AM.png

What Do Swedes Want? 

Given that Swedes embraced progressivism in both their traditional and voucher schools, perhaps they care less about PISA scores than they do other aspects of education.

It’s also interesting that Sweden’s PISA scores shot up a bit in 2015. So maybe the system is correcting toward balancing practices that produce good test scores and allow for student directed learning. Or perhaps the constructivist strategies do work and they just took some time to kick in. Either way, things don’t seem to be falling apart.

As vouches expand in Sweden, it will be interesting to watch what families desire as they have more information about which types of practices lead to which types of results.

Grasping in the Dark 

Unfortunately, both in Sweden and the United States, we have very little idea what types of education models lead to great long-term outcomes, so Swedish families (and the rest of us) will still be grasping in the dark for the foreseeable future.

Liberia is relinquishing. Is it working? 1st year results are in.

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Over the past few years, Liberia has embarked on an ambitious project to partner with non-governmental school networks.

Even more daring: Liberia’s political leadership is parterning with foreign school operators, some of which are for-profit.

Imagine for a second if, after Katrina, New Orleans political leaders had decided to partner with school operators from Singapore, Finland, and Shanghai.

In Liberia, numerous short-term and long-term risks abound – as do extremely high-potential upsides.

Partnership schools achieved .18 SD gains in one year 

Whatever one thinks of Liberia’s strategy, kudos to them for partnering with school networks in a manner that allowed for randomized control trials. Because schools were randomly selected for partnership, we can get a better understanding on whether or not the providers are delving a better education.

In aggregate, the first year effects were large: students in partnership schools scored 0.18 standard deviations higher in English and 0.18 standard deviations higher in mathematics than students in regular public schools. The authors note: “while starting from a very low level by international standards, this is the equivalent of 0.56 additional years of schooling for English and 0.66 additional years of schooling for math.”

Also, teachers are showing up more often: “teachers in partnership schools were 20 percentage points more likely to be in school during a random spot check (from a base of 40% in control schools).”

And teachers are teaching: “…16 percentage points more likely to be engaged in instruction during class time (from a base of 32% in control schools).”

Results varied by provider

The highest performing operators delivered ~.3 effects!: the Youth Movement for Collective Action (YMCA), Rising Academies, Bridge International Academies, and Street Child.

Second tier (very solid .15 effects): BRAC and More than Me.

Third tier (no effect): Omega and Stella Maris.

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Students receiving 2X learning time

This was incredible to me: “students in partnership schools spent twice as much time learning each week, when taking into account reduced absenteeism, increased time-on-task, and longer school days.”

Costs running a bit high (but to be expected in start-up)

The authors note that operators were spending more per-pupil than traditional schools; while this is a warning sign, I don’t read much into it now, as start-up efforts generally run higher and than smooth out. The exact same pattern happened in New Orleans.

What is the impact on traditional educators and schools?

As in the United States, non-governmental school operator growth impacts the traditional system, which has both programmatic and political consequences.

In an odd twist, the government contracts limited the class sizes of networks, which forced some operators to turn away students who then had to find other schools.

Operators also fired existing teachers, which presumably benefited children but caused adult hardship and risks political blowback.

I predict that these issues will only increase in salience. They require solutions that are both programmatic (government regulation of student equity issues) and political (ensuring that adult incumbents don’t derail positive efforts).

Teacher supply issues may get worse

The researchers note that to the extent that operators were able to recruit better teachers – and that the supply of teachers does not change – operators will be unable to scale and achieve the same effects.

In New Orleans we faced the same issue: we failed to grow high-quality teacher pipelines at the same pace we grew operators, and this caused operator growing pains midway through their scaling plans.

I hope Liberia gets ahead of this.

Is it worth it?

The perennial (and reasonable) question asked in such efforts is always: is it worth it? Is the disruption to families and educators worth the gain?

This question was asked a lot in New Orleans. I (as with the majority of New Orleanians) believe that it was worth it in New Orleans.

But I do think the Liberia case is more complicated, as it involves issues of national institutions and sovereignty.

There are numerous risks to outsourcing school operations to international organizations.

What if you end up in a conflict with the home nation(s) of large operators? What if these operators inculcate undesirable foreign values to your culture? What if the outsourcing of your educational operations slows down the overall maturation of your civil society?

These are hard questions.

My guess is that it is worth it, in that the gains of having a much better educated populace are worth the trade-offs of relying on foreign operators.

But I am not an expert in international development and I have not studied the issue enough to have strong opinions.

All that being said, all involved deserve our praise: the government is trying hard to serve their citizens, the school networks are serving students in extremely difficult situations, and the students themselves are getting smarter.

Here’s hoping the positive results continue.

Catch-up Reform vs. Innovation Reform…. What the United States Can Learn from Other Nations


I just read this Tyler Cowen interview of Jeffrey Sachs.

It is well worth reading, and I’m excited for the Cowen interview series to continue.

Sachs on Catch-up Reform, Innovation, and Differential Diagnosis 

Two excerpts from the interview.

First, Sachs covers the two drivers of international economic growth: innovation and catch-up.

…when you look at development, there are at least two fundamental drivers, not just one. The one that they talk about is innovation, and innovation as being a fundamental driver of growth. There’s a lot of truth to that in the history of the world.

But there’s a second fundamental aspect when we look out in the world and say, “Who’s doing well? Who’s doing badly? Why?” and so forth. That’s what is sometimes called “catching up.” The phenomenon of catching up is very different from the phenomenon of forging ahead at the front of the technology horizon.

When you take that simple distinction, it helps to explain a lot of the post-1960 question that you’re asking. The most successful countries in the world in the last 50 years have been basically the East Asian economies and Southeast Asian economies.

Sach’s main point is that growing when you’re at the head, middle, or back of the pack all require different strategies. Moreover, it’s not really helpful to compare growth rates of countries that are at the frontier of innovation and those that are simply executing catch-up growth.

Sach’s also presses hard on differential diagnosis of problems rather than one-size-fits-all solutions:

That’s what I mean by differential diagnosis. Why it’s so annoying to me, the one explanation fits all viewpoints. Because now I’ve seen a lot of places, a lot of crises, a lot of challenges. One of the things that I discovered was how poor our profession is at times in having that sense that the problem that you saw over there is not the same as the problem that you’re seeing here.

Education Reform: What Catch-Up Growth Can We Achieve? 

The United States is roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to international rankings of educational attainment.

As such, there may be some catch-up growth we can undertake. However, when figuring out what best practices to adopt and which to avoid, we need to understand how our own situation may be different than other countries.

I view (1) implementing rigorous standards and assessments and (2) increasing incoming teacher quality to be the two highest potential catch-up strategies. Many (though not all) of the world’s top performing educational systems excel in these areas (admittedly, causation is difficult to prove).

In some form or another, we’ve begun to make headways in both these areas: assessment rigor is rising and incoming teachers are achieving at higher levels.

I’m less bullish on two other potential catch-up strategies: bureaucracy improvement and a culture of extremely hardwork.

The United States is an incredibly large nation; it consists of many levels of government; and it suffers from overly politicized and often ineffectual government bureaucracies. I don’t see us becoming Singapore anytime soon. Additionally, unlike some of the top-performing Asian nations (South Korea, Japan), we do not have a national culture that reveres education and long hours of studying.

Rather, our nation’s core strengths are more around entrepreneurship, problem solving, and (at least at one time) pragmatism. As such, I don’t think it makes sense to spend a lot of resources trying to optimize the thousands of school board / districts or attempting to change our national culture.

We Don’t Need to Limit Ourselves to Catch-up Growth

Given our nation’s resources and talent, we also don’t need to simply confine ourselves to catch-up growth strategies. We should innovate as well.

I think we’re well positioned to innovate in the following areas:

Governance: Given the low quality of our bureaucracies, and our national culture of entrepreneurship, I think we can be a leader in alternative governance structures. Charter schools, vouchers, course choice, Tiny Schools, etc. – many of these are delivering results, and others hold promise.

Technology: In many industries, the United States has been a world leader in technological advancement. Ideally, we will be able to translate this progress into gains in educational technology.

Non-Elite Higher Education: The United States has been an international leader in higher education for decades, but this is mostly driven by our top research universities. I think that a combination of governance and technology innovations can increase the quality of our non-elite  universities and vocational programs.

Of course, both governance and higher education face heavy regulations and strong incumbents. So innovation may be difficult to come by.

But, all things considered, I’m optimistic on these fronts.

American Millennials are Dumber than Other OECD Millennials

Robert Pondiscio recently blogged on this report AMERICA’S SKILLS CHALLENGE: Millennials and the Future.

Both are worth reading.

Basically, just about anyway you cut it, America’s millennial (ages 16-34) do worse than most OECD countries on skills tests; specifically:

1. As a nation, we do worse as a whole when compared to other OECD nations.

2. Our best millennials do worse than the best millennial of other nations.

3. Our lowest performing millennials do worse than the lowest performing millennials of other nations.

4. Our native born millennials do worse than the native born millennials of other nations.

5. Our gaps between highest and lowest performing millennials are amongst the highest in the OECD.

6. Perhaps most distressing, this generation is performing worse than previous American generations.

7. Also, we spend more on education than just about any nation in the world.


The Link Between Test Performance and Economic Growth

America has always done mediocre on international assessments, yet we’re the richest large nation in the world. Clearly, some combination of our culture, policies, and resources continue to deliver significant wealth.

Of course, this is not a controlled experiment. Perhaps if we were betted educated we’d be even richer. And perhaps our other competitive advantages will erode due to globalization and technology.

In a World of Limited Resources, Where Do You Invest?

Even if you believe that raising academic achievement would increase economic growth, this does not mean that raising academic achievement is the most efficient way to increase economic growth.

For example, if you had a billion dollars to give, you might spend it on immigration reform rather than education, with the idea that more immigrants = more entrepreneurs = more wealth creating companies.

Just because you identify a problem, it doesn’t mean that it’s the problem you should be devoting marginal resources to solving.

In this sense, you could argue that we should be cutting spending from education (since we are paying so much for such mediocre outcomes) and put the funds in areas that are more likely to deliver better societal outcomes.

If You Want to Make Things Better, What Do You Do?

Regardless of where you invest or cut marginal resources, we’re still going to be delivering publicly funded education, so it’s definitely worth trying to make it better. Over the past few years, I’ve been fairly consistent in my recommendations for improving American education: (1) devolve operational control of schools to non-profits (2) increase selectivity and training of new teachers (3) make long-term bets on technology (4) restructure grades 11-16 to better transition students into gainful employment (5) increase wage subsidies and the EITC to reduce poverty.


That being said, there will always be a ceiling to what education reform and poverty alleviation can accomplish.

Ultimately, we cannot outperform who we are. We study less than the top Asian nations. And we kill each other more often than most European nations.

But there is also this:

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Nearly all of the top 10 companies in the world (measured by market value) are located in the United States.

Somethings we do well.

Which begs two questions:

Will we continue to do well what we currently do well?

Or will our weak academic outcomes catch-up with us?

It’s difficult to tell.