Which factors influence national educational performance

Patience pays off

Children and young people make a multitude of decisions every day. Am I studying for an upcoming exam or do I prefer to devote myself to a new computer game? Their parents too, often unconsciously, have to constantly decide - do I help my child with their homework or do I have other things to do? Education-relevant decisions like these have one thing in common: They mean weighing up whether you are going to forego something today in order to later have a better education and thus, for example, more success on the job market. Political decisions also have a temporal dimension: the laurels for public investments in education in the expansion of daycare places or the digitization of schools can often only be harvested years later, when the children concerned have grown up and the politicians have long since retired. Since all of these situations mean a decision between the present and the future, it stands to reason that a country's educational performance is related to how patient the population is.

In fact, international student tests such as the Pisa study regularly show very large differences in the math, science and reading skills learned by young people in different countries. These academic achievements are important because they have a major impact on future earnings as well as national economic growth. So how do international differences in student performance relate to deeper cultural factors? The authors investigate this question in a new study with Eric Hanushek from Stanford University. One cultural factor actually turns out to be central: patience.

Education is an investment: First there are costs - study time, effort and money for teachers, learning materials, buildings and the like. From an economic point of view, these costs are offset by high returns, because better educated people are more productive and earn more on the labor market. However, these returns will only accrue well into the future: it will take time for investments in education to take effect.

A decisive factor when weighing up current costs and future income is the time preference of the possible “investor”: How much is one willing to forego today in order to benefit from it in the future? This applies, for example, to the decision whether to start studying or not, but also to every small step in your education.

In addition, many educational aspects are decided collectively. Whether public investments are made and how the institutional framework in the education system is designed does not depend on the preferences of the individual, but on those of society. This is why the cultural aspect of how patient a population is overall plays a key role.

How patience affects learning outcomes has many aspects. Kinswe must have perseverance while learning in order to fully penetrate the learning content. Whether I pay attention in class or not, whether I skip playtime in the afternoon in order to study intensively - that depends, among other things, on the weight I give today compared to future satisfaction. Whether parents encourage their children to study and whether grandparents reward their grandchildren for good school performance also depends on their time preference. And overall: a society that looks less at today and more at tomorrow will be more willing to provide funds for the education system and to keep track of whether the student body is performing satisfactorily than other societies.

To examine the role of patience in educational outcomes in an international comparison, we use data on the Pisa performance of almost two million students in 49 countries. We combine this with a new data set that contains comparable measures of patience and other preferences of the population in these countries. Patience is measured with a subjective and an objective measure: On the one hand, the respondents rate their own patience. On the other hand, they state in a series of questions how large a payment would have to be in the future in order for them to prefer it to an immediate payment.

When it comes to patient patience, Sweden leads the way, followed by the Netherlands, the USA, Canada and Switzerland. Germany ranks seventh, so it has a relatively future-oriented population. At the other end are countries like Nicaragua, Rwanda and Georgia, but also some European countries like Hungary, Greece and Portugal. As a result, a country comparison shows a very strong positive correlation between patience and student performance.

Even after taking numerous other possible influencing factors into account, young people in more patient countries systematically perform better in mathematics, science and reading than young people in less patient countries.

The connection is stronger for young people born in the respective country than for those with a migration background. Because the latter are influenced not only by the cultural factors of the country of residence but also by those of their respective country of origin, this speaks for the central role of the respective culture of the country.

Behavioral research has shown that it is important to distinguish between patience and another factor that is important for intertemporal decisions: risk aversion. Since there is always an element of uncertainty in the future, patience and risk aversion are inevitably intertwined. An international comparison also shows that countries with a high degree of patience are systematically more willing to take greater risks. The German population is in the international midfield in terms of willingness to take risks.

The risk attitude has two aspects. On the one hand there is “courageous” risky behavior such as entrepreneurship and the willingness to innovate, on the other hand there is also “dangerous” risky behavior such as the willingness to commit criminal acts. In the international preference data, risk aversion is again measured both with a subjective assessment and with a series of objective assessments, in each of which a secure payment is weighed against the result of an unsafe lottery. In our analysis, patience is considered separately, so that only that aspect of the risk attitude that is not related to future orientation is included. Overall, the analysis is more likely to cover aspects such as willingness to gamble when gambling than future-oriented willingness to take risks. The influence of risk aversion on student performance is therefore not clear a priori. On the one hand, risk-averse cultures may be less willing to invest in higher education with uncertain income expectations. On the other hand, the greater job security of higher qualifications could appeal to risk-averse cultures.

In addition, a culture of risk-aversion is likely to deter students from harmful behavior in the educational process: Since there is a risk of being caught by the teacher if one is not careful in class, risk-averse children are more likely to participate - with correspondingly positive consequences for their educational success . The same applies to whether you allow yourself to be caught by your parents if you don't do your homework.

The results show that the second aspect dominates: countries with a higher risk aversion score significantly better in the Pisa test. Since patience and risk aversion are negatively related, both effects are clearly underestimated if the influence of the other is not taken into account. The importance of the two cultural characteristics is immense: together they can explain two thirds of the international differences in student performance in the countries assessed.

In the simple country comparisons, it is difficult to separate the effect of patience from possible effects of other characteristics of the respective countries such as their education systems or economies. It is therefore reassuring that the strong effect of patience is confirmed in a further analysis in which we only consider students with a migration background in the various Pisa countries - more than 80,000 young people with a migration background from 58 countries of origin in 48 countries of residence.

We assign these young people the value of patience (and risk aversion) in their country of origin. This enables us to examine the performance of children from different countries of origin who go to school in the same country of residence. Young people from countries of origin who show a higher degree of patience do significantly better in the same country of residence in the Pisa test. This effect cannot result from other characteristics of the respective country of residence, but can be attributed to patience.

The results show that the intertemporal decision calculus on which educational decisions are based depends heavily on people's patience. In order to learn well, it is helpful to think long-term. If cultural factors such as patience are a fundamental factor influencing educational performance, it poses a major challenge to educational policy. But it is not powerless because, of course, children's patience is not immutable. Patience can also be learned and should therefore be an important goal of improvement measures.

And last but not least, research shows that good institutional framework conditions such as central final exams, school autonomy and independent school sponsorship have a positive effect on student performance regardless of the culture of a country.

Ludger Wößmann is Professor of Economics at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich and heads the Ifo Center for the Economics of Education, which Lavinia Kinne and Philipp Lergetporer also work on.