“The only way we will have economic development in some parts of the world is to improve schools”



Eric Hanushek, senior researcher at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and former Education Next contributor, is the 2021 recipient of the Yidan Foundation Award for Educational Research. The award honors Hanushek’s work linking the fields of economics and education and comes with a prize equivalent to nearly $ 4 million, half for research and the other for the recipient. Andreas Schleicher, chair of the Yidan Prize committee, noted that Hanushek has made a wide range of areas of education policy amenable to rigorous economic analysis, thus linking better learning outcomes to long-term economic and social progress. Next’s Education editor-in-chief Paul Peterson recently spoke with Hanushek.

Paul Peterson: As a pioneer in the economics of education, how do you assess the progress made in the field? Is the quality of research better today than it was when you started?

Eric Hanushek: The quality has improved tremendously, not only in the use of economics in educational research, but in educational research in general. Much of this has to do with having better data on student achievement and linking that data to both what is happening in schools and to household and family factors, as well as linking performance data to subsequent gains in the labor market and the national economy. With the
data that has become available, we have seen tremendous advances in research, research that has overturned a lot of entrenched beliefs.

If the quality of research has improved – data, analysis – does educational research today have a greater political impact?

I think so, but that’s where the policy comes in. There are many forces to resist any change in education, and people lament that legislatures do not devote more attention to education issues. But, in fact, the results of education do not appear until many years after children have left school, so politicians seem to be able to overrule them. I think that started to change during the pandemic. With widespread school closings and hybrid education, parents have become more attentive to what is happening in schools.

In the developing world, at least the focus has changed. I am proud of the influence I have had in changing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in education. From 1990, the UN and World Bank goals said that all children should have at least lower secondary education, but they never said anything about the quality of that education. So there was more education going around the world, but not a lot of signs that people were learning a lot more. In 2015, the agencies added a quality element to these goals, and I think this helps draw attention to what students are learning in many countries.

Andreas Schleicher, as responsible for the individual student assessment program, played an important role in this regard. By administering PISA in the developing world, and not just in developed countries, he highlighted the very low level of educational achievement in many developing countries.

The differences across the world are astounding. And I believe the only way for us to have economic development in some parts of the world is to improve schools. We can invest in bridges and improve infrastructure, but it will not have an effect on long-term development unless we can improve the skills of the people. And it’s a question of education.

There are places where we have already seen the results of improved schools. East Asia is the obvious example, where education has radically changed the character of these places over the past 50 years. After the Korean War, the average education level of Korean parents was around two years. Now Korea is one of the most educated companies in the world, and you are seeing the results in their industry and their ability to interact globally in a way that countries that haven’t focused on on education were unable to do so. China has made spectacular progress in the field of education. Along the developed east coast, they have created top-notch schools, which leads to the development of science and engineering which makes the country a global force.

Regarding the Yidan Prize, I understand that you are considering using the research money for a project in Africa. There is no place that could benefit more from your focus on school quality and raising the level of human capital. What’s your agenda?

I want to try to find ways to take the research and evaluation and apply it in sub-Saharan Africa through the kind of work I’ve done elsewhere – trying to understand the patterns of student outcomes and the quality of schools. . Africa, Latin America and South Asia stand out as being far behind the developed world. The World Bank and other development agencies have focused on improving schools, but in many places this has not happened. The idea I’m pursuing is that you need local people who have the skills to assess and read the data, research and analysis, and then try to turn that knowledge into policy.

I plan to develop a scholarship program that would give local people in Africa a one-year crash course in evaluation methods, research and policy development, so that they can return to their countries and start to introduce modern and rigorous thinking into educational policy. This is similar to what you and I are doing in the United States with the Hoover Education Success Initiative, taking what we know from research on good education policies and disseminating it, with the aim of influencing the development process. policies in states and localities.

How would you quantify the impact of the Covid pandemic on the learning of this generation of Americans?

I made estimates with Ludger Woessmann from the University of Munich. Looking at school closings from March 2020 through this summer, we estimated that students would earn, on average, 3% less income over their lifetimes. It was based on the assumption that schools would return to their old quality state by September 2020. But in many places the closures continued, relying on blended learning that just wasn’t as effective as the in-person schooling. We now estimate that if the 2021-2022 school year brings us back to the schools we had in 2019, the average student will lose 6-9% of their lifetime earnings.

It will also have a huge impact on the US economy. I would estimate that the GDP will be 3-4% lower than it would have been without the pandemic. If we could improve schools, we might hope to mitigate some of these economic losses.

The Biden and Trump administrations have spent a total of over $ 1 trillion more on education over the next three years. Will this massive infusion of resources not make a difference?

This touches on a debate on the economics of education. If you just put a lot more money in schools, will the results increase? Indeed, we are now getting a natural experience that can shed light on this. I fear that many school systems, being inundated with money, will only increase teachers’ salaries. Then in two or three years, when the federal money is gone, they will find out that they cannot afford these teachers. This money could therefore worsen the situation of schools in the long term. On the other hand, if schools use the funds to improve the capacities of their teachers, to provide technology to extend the reach of their most effective teachers, and to enable them to individualize teaching, it could make schools better. The current discussion does not make me very optimistic about the possibilities, but it might be better.

The latest information is that school enrollments are dropping, especially in the big cities. Juniors and seniors do not return to school, and many young children do not come to school either. There are many children – probably concentrated among disadvantaged groups – who receive no education at all.

Absoutely. And this group will find themselves much worse at the end of their schooling, and it will follow them throughout their passage in the labor market. It will also follow the United States, because our workforce will be less skilled, less skilled. This has ramifications for the growth rate of GDP and income in the future. We are going to be much worse off and poorer unless we find ways to improve the quality of schools.

Many states are considering abandoning the accountability systems that were in place. When do you think we’ll come back to responsibility and regain the ability to follow what’s going on in our schools?

This is worrying, as teachers’ unions and others have been arguing against accountability for some time, and many have used the pandemic as an excuse to justify cutting testing. In March 2020, for example, the Massachusetts Teachers Association advocated for the permanent elimination of liability testing in the state in response to the pandemic. People are now promoting the idea elsewhere, saying that maybe we don’t need testing, but how can you improve schools if you don’t know where you are and whether or not you are improving. ?

This is an edited excerpt from a Educational exchange podcast, which can be listened to on educationnext.org.



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