In Box

Constitutional Confidence

What "We the People" tells us about trust in our fellow Americans.

The Indian Constitution-- the longest social contract of any country in the world -- clocks in at a hefty 78,255 words. It's split into 22 parts and contains 395 articles, with 98 amendments tacked on for good measure.

Why so wordy? The constitution's drafters might have said it's because they sought to be thorough, borrowing concepts from France, Japan, and the Soviet Union. But the authors of a recent study, "Constitutional Verbosity and Social Trust," would counter that the Indian Constitution is so long because Indians simply don't trust one another.

Economists Christian Bjornskov and Stefan Voigt examined the constitutions of 110 countries and found that the length of the document is inversely correlated to how much faith that nation's people have in their fellow citizens, as measured by the World Values Survey. Countries with long constitutions and low trust levels include Kenya (74,789 words) and Brazil (42,472 words). Countries with short constitutions and high trust levels include Norway (7,404 words) and Denmark (6,208 words). The U.S. Constitution is pithy -- just 4,542 words -- and American trust levels are indeed above average. But the title for the world's shortest constitution belongs to Iceland, which clocks in at a snappy 4,115 words.

A more detailed constitution can be a good thing. Explicit legal codes covering a variety of scenarios establish clear boundaries for lawmaking and governing. They constrain both contemporary actors as well as future politicians, who may not share the same ideas as a country's founders. But the extra codification comes at a cost: Too many constraints can make governing cumbersome. Thus, when constitution drafters feel confident that their compatriots will act in good faith, they'll tend to opt for brevity, Bjornskov and Voigt argue. It's only when they're skeptical that they'll fill in the gaps with codes and caveats. It's the difference between, say, a 130-page contract and a handshake.

All things being equal, this suggests that a shorter constitution indicates a healthier political situation. But Bjornskov and Voigt caution that their theory of constitution drafting assumes a certain degree of objectivity and foresight on the part of the drafters and, as they put it, that "no other overriding considerations are salient around constitutional birth." If the victors in a civil war draft a concise new constitution, for example, that does not necessarily indicate a high degree of national warmth and fuzziness.

So what does that say about Egypt's new, just-below-average-length, 20,000-word constitution, which was written in the aftermath of a military coup, bans religious parties from the political process, and reinforces the army's control? The result of a strong sense of trust? Perhaps. Or perhaps there were other salient overriding considerations.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In Box

Learning Curve

Why more and more parents in 
poor countries are paying to send 
their kids to private school.

When Americans think about private education, what likely comes to mind are posh-sounding names like Milton or Collegiate, where the elites of Boston and Manhattan -- for the low, low price of $40,000 a year -- send their offspring to give them a small leg up in the race to Harvard or Yale. But in developing countries, private schools are a big deal too, and they play a very different role: For just cents a day, they're giving some of the world's very poorest children a chance to escape the absolute deprivation their parents have suffered their whole lives. And by showing what can be achieved in schools where teachers actually make an effort to teach and where principals actually care about results, they're laying the basis for a revolution in global education.

For many countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, one of the most dramatic changes over the past couple of generations has been the number of children who go to school. Take the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, where practically all of the country's primary-school-age kids had entered the formal education system in 2010 and nearly two-thirds were completing the full six years of primary school. That's up from around a quarter completing only a decade earlier. Across sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, the percentage of children completing primary school has climbed from 54 percent in the early 2000s to 69 percent in 2011.

But enrollment doesn't tell the full story. Although more and more kids worldwide are making the walk to school every morning, it's not at all clear that they're actually learning something in class. In Guinea-Bissau, independent surveys suggest only about a quarter of children are able to do even the most basic addition, let alone handle fractions. Less than one-fifth of Bissau-Guinean schoolchildren can read and comprehend simple words. It isn't just small African states: In India, only around one in four 10- and 11-year-olds (most of whom completed their primary education) can read a simple paragraph, perform division, tell time, and handle money -- all skills they should have learned after just two years of schooling. It's a global problem: From Panama to Tunisia, Brazil to Indonesia, average scores on international math tests would put students from developing countries among the bottom tenth of Danish pupils, according to analysis from Harvard University's Lant Pritchett. (Denmark has typical scores on these tests among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, making it a good developed-world comparison.)

There are lots of reasons why kids aren't learning -- especially in poorer countries. Many arrive at school malnourished or have illiterate parents who can't help with homework. The schools themselves lack books, desks, even basic supplies. All too often, they lack teachers. In some countries, as many as 25 percent of teachers don't even show up for work on a regular basis. But perhaps the biggest problem is that teachers and principals face little incentive to help kids learn. They're paid to get through the syllabus -- not to ensure their pupils retain any of it.

The good news, however, is that across the developing world, tens of millions of parents are refusing to accept that their kids sit in class day after day learning nothing. Instead, they're moving their children to private schools. And these aren't just wealthy parents. Extremely poor mothers and fathers are taking some of their limited income and using it to ensure that their kids can have a better life through higher-quality education.

In India, as many as two-thirds of urban kids and 28 percent of rural children attend private school. The median per-person income is about $565 per year, and the poorer districts and states have more rural private schools than the richer ones. In Pakistan, roughly one-third of children attend private primary school. Parents there spend about 10 cents a day on private education -- sure, that's less than one-thousandth of what it costs to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, but it's a lot of money in a country where more than half the population subsists on less than $2 a day.

The investment is paying off. Kids in private schools are learning far more than their friends stuck in government-financed classrooms. In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, for example, the government used a lottery system to hand out vouchers to some parents to cover the costs of private school attendance. Analysis by economists Karthik Muralidharan of the University of California, San Diego, and Venkatesh Sundararaman of the World Bank shows those students saw significantly higher test scores in a number of subjects than their peers who remained in public schools. This despite the fact that education costs per student were one-third of those in government schools -- and teacher salaries were only one-fifth as high. But maybe the biggest endorsement is this: Four out of five public school teachers in India send their own kids to private school.

The pressure on developing-country education systems to deliver learning results is growing. They are shamed by published test results from international organizations like the OECD and by local civil society groups like Uwezo in East Africa and Pratham in India. And it doesn't look good for elected politicians when parents start voting with their feet -- abandoning free public education in favor of fee-based private schooling.

But when it comes to reforming education systems, the answer isn't necessarily mass privatization. Remember, the principle of universal access to free primary education is enshrined in the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That means governments should be paying the tab for primary school -- either public or private -- and making sure that teachers and principals are put on notice: Either shape up or ship out. The real test is whether students are learning anything, not just attending.

Photo: Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images