Russ Roberts

Hanushek on Education and Prosperity

EconTalk Episode with Eric Hanushek
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Eric Hanushek of Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his new book, Endangering Prosperity (co-authored with Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann). Hanushek argues that America's educational system is mediocre relative to other school systems around the world and that the failure of the U.S. system to do a better job has a significant negative impact on the American standard of living. Hanushek points to improving teacher quality as one way to improve education.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: August 5, 2013.] Russ: So, what's the cause for alarm? Why do you think our schools and our school system--why are they endangering prosperity? Guest: The simple fact is that our schools don't produce the very high quality output. Our achievement levels, as measured by international tests, is considerably below what we see in other developed countries. And many developing countries. Russ: And why is that so important? Guest: If we look at the last 50 years, we see that countries where the population has higher achievement, knows more math and science, grow faster. And their GDP (Gross Domestic Product) gets larger because they have a more skilled population. Anything that affects the growth of GDP has huge implications for future well-being of societies. Russ: There are many, many questions raised by those ideas. One being: How do we know? How do we know that our schools are doing a bad job? Casual, empirical, anecdotal evidence--casual evidence--suggests that that's the case. There are a lot of horror stories that we hear. How do we know that those horror stories are real? And how do we get an idea of the magnitude of what we are talking about? Guest: About 1965 a group of international people said: Why don't we test people in different countries and find out what the level of math skills is across the different countries? And they had a set of, what I think it is, 9 countries that volunteered to initially take a common test, where you just have a math test that you translate into the native language of a different country and walk around the world. It turned out that the United States didn't do particularly well on that. Russ: We were one of the first 9. Guest: We were one of the first 9. The United States has participated in all these tests, even though people have not paid much attention to them until quite recently. Since then there have been a large number of tests given--over a dozen different testing occasions, different grades, different subject matters--that allow us to get a good fix on what is the achievement level of people in different countries. Russ: Now, one of the tests that you mainly focus on, although there are many other pieces of evidence, but the test that you focus on that's given internationally is the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test. Talk about what that is. Is that the same test from 1965, or is it a variation? Who writes it? Who takes it? Guest: It turns out that that there are two different international testing consortia. The PISA test is run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which is the club of developed countries. And they started this test in 2000. It was an offshoot of the original test, which is now called the TIMS test--the Trends in Mathematics and Science study. The PISA test is designed to measure practical knowledge of people in math and science and reading, so it gives them a lot of word problems of practical value, and then tries to assess how much do people know. The United States is below average among the OECD--among the developed countries of the world. Russ: How much below average? How bad is it? Guest: Just slightly below average. But that misses the fact that there are some countries that are way ahead of us. Including our northern neighbor in Canada, which is noticeably ahead of us. Russ: So, one obvious question when you are talking about these kind of international comparisons is who takes the test. So, what is the universe of people who take the test in the United States? And is it the same approximate kind of universe of people who take the test in other countries? Guest: The PISA test is given to 15-year-olds. And it looks for a random set of 15-year olds who are in school around the world. But it turns out that at least across the developed countries, almost all 15-year-olds are in school. So it's a random sample of the population of these countries. Russ: Public and private? Or just public schools? Or is it just public schools? Guest: Public and private. Russ: Because none of my kids have ever taken it as far as I know, for what it's worth. Obviously that brings the scores up--just kidding.
5:51 So, the United States doesn't do very well. And then the question is: You made the claim earlier that there's a relationship between--which there obviously is--human capital, that is, knowledge, some measure of knowledge, and growth. One thought that crosses my mind is, you said in 1965 the scores were--the United States didn't do particularly well. We've had a good run over the last 50 years. Is that run about to end because over the last 50 years our schools have not done a very good job? And before I go on, I want to mention--and you also make this very clear in the book--you can rank countries according to how they do on a score on some test, but it's not a zero-sum game. We don't really mind if other countries get ahead. It's good that everybody gets smarter and wealthier. I think the real point here is that we're not just "behind". We're not doing very well. Having made that point, which you make also--over the last 50 years--we're probably the most innovative country in the world; we're a big country, but certainly on lots of measures of innovation we're number 1. The school system doesn't seem to hold us back so much. Guest: Well, I think that we've had a number of advantages that we've been exploiting over this time period. To begin with, back in 1960, the United States was practically the only country that had universal secondary schooling for its population. And we just had more years of schooling, more school attainment, than everybody else. But more than that, other things affect economic performance and economic growth. One of which is the character of the economic institutions. So, we've had free and open labor in product markets, we've had limited intrusion of government, and a variety of other things: good property rights. A variety of other things that people generally attribute as being good institutions. And this has allowed us to use our resources better than most other countries in the past. And then, by other measures, we probably have the best higher education in the world, still, today. So that our colleges and universities are superior. And then finally, we allow a lot of good foreign people to come into the United States and work here. We have a good immigration policy. Russ: And study here. Guest: And study here. And then stay here. Now, the important thing about that list, which I think explains pretty well why we've done better than you'd expect given our achievement, is that all of those advantages are going away compared to other countries in the world. Everybody looks at the United States; they say: The United States is a rich country. How did they get rich? They say: Well, they've got a lot of education; let's have education. They have good economic institutions; maybe we should improve our economic institutions. And all of the other countries in the world are now trying to emulate the United States, and some of them are doing quite a good job at it. Russ: And that would be fine. And going back to my earlier aside of a minute ago--that would be okay. It would be great if other countries emulate our economic policy, try to create similar economic institutions. I think the more disturbing concern is that, it's again, it's not just that our lead has gotten smaller or we're behind in some international test competition. It's that our schools aren't very good. Our kids are not learning what they might be able to learn. Guest: No, absolutely. What the international tests show very clearly is what is feasible. You can look at these tests and say: As I look around the world there are people in many other countries that can do a lot more math problems than our kids can. They have the skills to know the science better than our kids. And eventually it looks like, according to all past history, this is going to catch up with us, and our growth rate is going to be slow compared to lots of other countries over the long run. What that means is that our economy will not be so dominant in the world. And that has ramifications for our foreign policy, for defense policy, and for the wellbeing of our population. That's what we are endangering. That is, the future is going to haunt us if we don't do something to fix our schools. Russ: I think, when I looked at the national comparisons that you present, I think Singapore is number 1. Am I getting that right? Guest: Well, it varies by who you include. In the last PISA test, Shanghai--the city--took these tests and were way ahead of everybody else. But who knows who was taking the test in Shanghai. That's an open question. But Singapore has done well, Finland, South Korea have done remarkably well compared to us. Russ: And 'well' here is--there's a measure of proficiency, say in math, where I think it's in some countries it's 60% or 70% of the students taking the test are proficient. Whereas in the United States the number is quite a bit lower. What's the number in the United States? Guest: Well, the U.S. proficiency rate is 32%; and Singapore has 63% proficiency by the standard set in the United States of what proficiency means on our national assessment of educational progress. Russ: But they are using the same scale there, comparing the different nations. Guest: Absolutely the same scale. Russ: And that's alarming. Only in a sense, like you say: the glass could be a lot fuller. One thought I had is that it wouldn't surprise me that in certain cultures and in certain countries that they might teach to the tests a little bit. In an urge to get a higher international score. Do we know anything about that? Guest: I don't think there's any reason to expect countries to try to teach to these tests. It's taken by a relatively small portion of the population of a random set of schools, and schools don't know that they are preparing to be tested on these tests. They teach to the test in the sense that they teach a curriculum that, if taught well, supports good performance. But that's what we really hope that all countries do; if they announce what kids should know and kids know it, then they do well in these tests.
12:48Russ: So I want to take an example that you give of a question from the test. I may butcher the question, so it's not going to be representative of how easy or hard it is to read the question. But the gist of it is: If you have to stack three tennis balls and each tennis ball has a radius of 3 cm., how tall does the can have to be to hold 3 tennis balls? So to answer that question, you have to know what 'radius' is--that's a big thing. So that's half the diameter, half the span of the ball. So that's 6 per tennis ball, if the radius is 3. And you've got to stack them; there's three of them, so 6 times 3. I know that you've either got to see the three of them stacked on top of each other, or just do the mental 6 x 3, and that gets you to 18. And I think that's the correct answer, right? Guest: That's correct. Russ: That's a pretty easy question, you'd think, more or less easy question. You could debate whether that was easy or not. But evidently it's hard for some people; they don't get it. And one thing you hear sometimes, and you and I have talked about this before on this program, I think, but there's a trend in mathematics education in the United States away from rote, away from drilling, away from multiplications tables, with a big emphasis on intuition and understanding. I'm a big fan of intuition and understanding, but I'm also a big fan of believing--my wife is a math teacher; we talk about this a lot--I'm a big fan that intuition really grows out of some drilling and rote. You've got to have some basic facts. There's a lot of romance in American education right now about--you probably know the buzz words--but about thinking about things holistically and the right answer isn't what's important; it's how you can get there. So, it wouldn't surprise me that that kind of question, that some Americans--it does require some intuition. It's not a pure rote question. It's not 6 x 3. It's a little bit of piecing together a set of things, a bit of problem solving at a simple level. Maybe other countries' math systems really emphasize calculation and that kind of thing, and maybe our math program emphasizes something else. Now, I think that's a mistake, personally, in math, maybe in other areas. Maybe we've gone off the rails in our math education. One, do you agree? And, two, is this a broader problem than just our math scores on the PISA test. Guest: Well, back on the original question, is this a problem that we are facing in the United States that other countries don't face: I think it's one that we might increasingly face because there is a new movement that essentially has something close to a national curriculum, called a 'common core' curriculum. And that is emphasizing deep learning, conceptual ideas, and so forth, and trying to de-emphasize anything that looks like mechanical or so on. And I agree with you in the sense that we want people to be able to be innovative and to be able to think creatively, but my view of this is that you have to build on what you know. That creativity springs from starting at a high level and then thinking of something different from the high level. Not that we want 15-year-olds to reinvent Newton's calculus. Because they are not prepared to do it and it took him a long time to do it. So we might face that problem in the future. I don't think that's been the key issue in the past. I think the key issue in the past has been that we have asked people to know a range of both actual ideas, like multiplication tables and ways to solve problems and to think broadly just hasn't been taught very well. Russ: Do you want to comment on the other part of the question, which is--in your mind, this is more than just a math problem, right? Guest: Oh, absolutely. It turns out that scores are pretty highly correlated with math and science scores and general other ideas, problem solving in other areas. There are also reading tests, I should say. But I don't understand how you do an international reading test so I don't spend a lot of time on that. Russ: That's tricky. Guest: How do you translate a passage into different languages and get equal difficulty in the problem so that you can equate scores? I don't know how to do that. But in math and science, the scores are pretty highly correlated across countries, and they are highly correlated with any other measures we have. Russ: I want to raise one other issue which I think we've probably spoken about this, but it just fascinates me. When you made your list of advantages that America has had, that of course interplay with the quality of our school system, one you didn't mention was our culture. And there are aspects of our culture which I think enhance our economic productivity and the richness of our lives, and there are some that are maybe not so good for it. We have, I think, over the last 50 years, gotten more egalitarian. Which has many plusses and many minuses. We've gotten into self-esteem, which has many plusses and many minuses for education. But one thing we do have is, I think, a tolerance for creativity and an admiration for creativity that other cultures don't seem to have. One thing I hear over and over again when foreign students come here is that the students challenge the teacher. And they find that shocking. In other cultures, you write down what the teacher says. In our culture, you are allowed to ask questions. And I think that's a huge advantage. I think. Most of the time. As a teacher, it's got some challenges. But I like that. And I think that carries us a long way. It makes up for a lot of problems elsewhere. Guest: So, I don't think this is just an issue of schools, frankly. I think it's a matter of our entire economy based on the fact that people who innovate can get rewards for innovating. Which is not the same in other countries. A number of years ago I went to a conference in Korea, and the Koreans were very worried about what they perceived as a lack of creativity in their students, even though their students were performing very well on these tests. And their response was to think about, well, maybe we'll just stop testing students; we'll open up our schools and have free-form schooling as in the United States. And my response was, that might have something to do with that, although we don't know how to redesign schools for creativity. But we do know that their economy doesn't reward creativity in the same way. One of my best graduate students ever was a Korean who got into trouble when he went back to Korea to work and his boss told him the answer to a problem, and he basically said: I don't see that; I don't think that's the right way to think about this problem. And he got into serious trouble. Because the economy doesn't reward young people questioning, challenging, coming up with new ideas that are different from the way that has been declared as the right way. Russ: Yeah. And as you said, that's much broader than the education system. It cuts through all kinds of aspects of a nation's culture.
20:37Russ: Now, at one point you try to measure some of the potential gains from improving our scores on our ability. Give us some of the magnitudes. At one point you wonder whether--let's be as good as Canada. We're not going to be as good as Shanghai or Singapore or South Korea. But can't we do as well as Canada? So, what kind of gains are we talking about here and what kind of change would that involve--how big a change are we talking about? Guest: Well, Canada performs right now slightly below Massachusetts, which is our best state. So it's not entirely away from us. But it basically says: If our entire country could get to the level that Massachusetts has gotten in mathematics, what does history suggest about the economic implications of that? Russ: Having gone to high school in Massachusetts, albeit in 1968-1972, I think, obviously it's a huge advantage for me. It explains a lot of my success. Guest: It shows up all across, Russell. There's no doubt that your Massachusetts education comes through. Russ: I hate to tell you what I didn't understand as a high school student. But carry on. Guest: So, I suggested that there was a clear relationship between performance on these math and science scores and the growth of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). It's actually a little bit broader than that. We can explain almost all of the differences across countries in their growth rates of GDP by two factors. One is: Where did they start at the beginning of the growth period? So, I'm looking at GDP growth between 1960 and 2000. If we measure what the level of their GDP was in 2000 and we measure their achievement score, we can explain almost all the differences. Now, we measure where they started for a very simple reason. If you start way behind, all you have to do is copy somebody else in order to grow fast. If you start ahead you have to innovate and invent things. If you take the relationship that historically was there between achievement scores and growth rates and ask the following question: What would happen to our GDP over the lifetime of somebody born today if, in the next 20 years, we could get to a level of Canada? It's not an immediate thing; we don't change our schools overnight. But we ramp up to Canada over a 20-year period and then use the historical relationship to project out what that would mean for the U.S. economy. The answer is stunning. It says that the average paycheck of all workers in the U.S. economy over the next 80 years would be 20% higher. That's everybody-- Russ: So, give us a 20-year period to get things fixed, and then the benefits of that flow over the next 60 years. And it even ramps up to then because even once we have our students up to this high level it doesn't really count until they get out into the labor force, so these projections assume that we wait till they actually become a significant part of the labor force, effectively, and we allow for the growth of what happened; and then we look at the present value today of this. And we see that everybody's paycheck would grow by 20%. Now this solves all of the fiscal problems that have been plaguing Congress over the last 5 years as they debate. Russ: Well, as long as they don't know that it's going to get fixed it would. But don't worry. I look at that problem as more of an incentive problem than an, 'Oh, we've got a shortfall.' But I take your point. It would make life easier in many dimensions. It does raise the question by the way--what's the gap between, say, Massachusetts and the middle? What's Massachusetts's test score proficiency versus say the middle or toward the bottom? How big a gap? Is it 42 down to 34? What's the range, within the United States? Guest: The gap with California, which unfortunately has near the bottom of the rankings in this performance--the average student in California is at the 24th percentile of a Massachusetts student. So, if we looked at the entire distribution of Massachusetts kids in terms of their math performance, the average kid in California is only at the 24th percentile. Russ: So we're talking about a big difference. So, it raises the question: What's Massachusetts doing well? Is there some secret? You said in some ways it's easy to get better because you can copy. You think California could copy something Massachusetts is doing and get there? Guest: Well, it's always hard to say what precisely did Massachusetts do, because they tried a lot of things; and they actually improved over the period after you graduated from public school. Russ: Yeah. It was easier. Those were the golden years, after I left. They started improving when? Guest: Well, we only have actual data from 1990 at the state level. But they were not at the top in 1990; I think they were about 10th in 1990. As compared to Iowa, which was 1st in 1990. Today, Massachusetts leads all the states and Iowa is 18th. So that there are movements that occur. The people in Massachusetts relate a lot of this to an improved accountability system where they had high standards set up and they tested these standards and held kids in school systems responsible for them. So, graduation of students was dependent upon passing a fairly tough graduation test, and the performance rating given the schools that had some impact on their future depended upon students getting up there. But it's hard to pin down precisely what they did. They also spent a lot more money. Then there are other states like Florida that actually grew a little faster than Massachusetts over the 1990-today period, and they spent virtually no more money. Russ: Than they did before. Guest: Than they did before. In 1990 in real terms they are spending about the same. They emphasized accountability and particularly reading performance in early grades. When Jeb Bush was governor, he had 'Florida Reads' as the headline on every scrap of paper written in Florida. Maryland and Delaware have done a lot better. They've emphasized other things. So it's not a single thing that stands out as, if you do this you'll perform better. To me, it's actually only one single thing. It's that you somehow end up with better teachers. Russ: I want to come back to that in a second; first I want to compliment you because as many listeners know--I think we did a podcast on this maybe 7 years ago--Rick, you are probably the most well-known skeptic about the value of more spending as a way to get better educational outcomes. So I think it's nice that since most of our listeners don't have the data at their fingertips that you did concede that Massachusetts did better and did spend more; then you add the point that other states did better and didn't spend more. And I just want to digress for a second. Your confidence in the lack of a relationship between spending and educational outcomes I think has not changed in recent years. And it's always good when I talk to you just to mention the level of spending in the United States in the past. So, a lot of people think: We know how to fix the schools; just spend more money. And that's often a good way to get more of something--buy more of it, spend more on it. But you remain skeptical of that, correct? Guest: Absolutely. Since 1960 till today, spending per pupil in real terms, inflation-adjusted-- Russ: Corrected for inflation-- Guest: has increased more than fourfold. So that we are spending a lot more money. Russ: We just didn't spend enough, obviously. That's one possibility. Guest: My interpretation, my follow-on to your general statement is that on average we don't get any results from just putting more money in. That doesn't mean that money never has an impact or that it can't have an impact. It just says that the current incentives in schools aren't aligned with using funds in schools in a productive way. And so we don't see, create, gains in performance of students just by putting more money in without doing other things.
30:48Russ: So let's get back to your--I was going to ask a more general question and you can get back to your point about teachers. School in the United States generally is a local issue. When I think about my own kids' schools and when I think about being a teacher, it's really local. One bad teacher can ruin a year. One fabulous teacher can change a kid's life. The generic phrase 'better teachers' is a nice idea. What do you have in mind when you say that, and how would we get there from here? If you are interested in the book, it's a nice book that Rick has written with his co-authors. It's very short. It's pithy. It's got a lot of interesting charts. And it's not a long read. You can learn a lot in a relatively short period of time. And you try to answer a lot of the objections, some of which we've talked about already. But it does raise the question: How do we do better? Guest: Well, in my opinion, all of the research points to the fact that the teacher is the essential ingredient and effective teachers are extraordinarily important. To put this in perspective, what we talked about before, in terms of Canada, I did the following calculation. We know a lot about how much difference there is between the more effective teachers and the less effective teachers in terms of student learning. We know how much more a good teacher can get out of a class compared to a bad teacher. For example, a study I did a long time ago suggested that the best teachers in an urban district, all urban district, were getting a year and a half worth of learning in an academic year. The worst teachers were getting half a year of academic learning in a year. So that in one single academic year, say 5th grade, there can be one whole year difference in the amount of learning at the end, depending upon what classroom you are assigned to. Russ: If you get in the good one, you get a free year--you get a year ahead. You get the equivalent of a free year. Guest: Absolutely. Think of doing the following. Rank order all of the 3.5 million teachers in the United States in terms of how effective they are, and start at the bottom end and say: What would happen if we replace the bottom 2% of the teachers with just an average teacher, not a superstar, or the bottom 4%. Well, the currently available evidence, which is pretty consistent across all kinds of schooling situations, is that if we could replace the bottom 5%-8% of our teachers with just an average teacher, we could beat Canada. We could get this 20% per year increase in everybody's paycheck for the next 80 years by thinking of replacing just the very poorest of teachers. Now if you have a school with 30 teachers, we are talking about the bottom 2-3 teachers in the school. And these are ones that aren't unknown. If you walk into almost every school in the country and ask people about the range of teacher effectiveness, very quickly they point to the 2 teachers that they don't think should be there. Everybody consistently--the principal, the teachers, the parents--everybody points to the bottom 2 teachers. It's just that we don't have any system that leads to replacing those bottom 2 or 3 teachers with an average teacher. Russ: So, let me push you--I want to--we're going to go into this in depth, but I want to push you on this for a second. You could take any field--rocket scientists, economists, fast-food checkout people--there's a range of skills. There's a range of ability. Major league baseball players. There are some at the top; there are some that are lower. If you said, if you took the bottom 5-8% of baseball players on a team, on their offensive ability, and you could upgrade just to the average player, it would be so much better. But there aren't always enough to go around. So, sometimes some people are better than others. You are saying something more than that, I assume. Guest: So, I am saying something more than that. This is not the General Electric program of every year lopping off the bottom 10%. I'm saying if we could do it once and increase essentially the average quality of the teaching force, we could get our students up to the level of Canada. So, it's a one time thing that's behind this calculation. Of course as you get teachers retiring and new teachers coming in, there's a small percentage--5-8%--of the new teachers that probably don't make it and you have to worry about that. But every industry in the United States makes decisions about who is in their field and who stays in their firm. Most firms don't go out and just willy nilly hire people. But they do make adjustments and convince people and counsel them out of the firm, or sometimes fire people, if they aren't up to the standards of the firm. And this happens all the time, outside of the public sector. Russ: So again, your claim is not just that there is a group of teachers at the bottom, but that there is a group of teachers at the bottom who are doing a really awful job. Guest: They are harming kids. There's a group that's harming kids. And they are well recognized. And when you ask officials in schools or other teachers they sort of shrug their shoulders and say, yeah, they shouldn't be here but what can you do? Russ: So, one of the things you hear sometimes when you talk about for example, merit pay, meaning for example the idea that good teachers should make more than bad teachers, one of the arguments against that is: Well, it's too hard to measure. We don't know who the good teachers are. We don't know who the better teachers are. You are suggesting that there's nothing tricky here. In any school, there's a consensus that there are a few teachers that are not doing their job. Guest: I think it's very obvious who they are. Now, designing a system that uses that information is what we have had trouble doing. What you need is an evaluation system that is viewed as reliable and fair and that you can use for these personnel decisions. We haven't had that in most schools until recently. We are starting to get that, actually, in a large number of states now because state legislatures are demanding that the evaluation systems for teachers be improved. And that's why I'm somewhat optimistic at this point, because we've seen some fairly significant changes in attitudes toward evaluating and using evaluations in personnel decisions across a large number of states. Russ: Why do you think that's happened? Do you have any idea? Guest: I think that it perhaps is somewhat random, from a larger sense, in that we've had a few governors that have taken leadership positions on this and that individuals have had an influence. I think that many people are now aware that our schools aren't up to snuff, that they are not competitive internationally, and they see on the other side that the economy is in international competition and what's being bought and sold depends upon the quality of the firms in the economy. And all of a sudden people are more alert to the fact that the PISA scores and the TIMS scores in the United States are not competitive. And so legislators and policy makers and parents and others have started to beat a drum to try to get some improvement.
40:06Russ: You picked an example which was getting rid of the worst teachers, which could make a big difference. I'm sympathetic to that argument. It seems plausible to me. Of course, that's just scratching the surface. You could obviously motivate, inspire, lead, good teachers in any school system become great teachers; if they don't want to be that maybe replace them with better teachers. There's an enormous range of potential improvement. But you point to a very dramatic example, which is: Bad teachers don't get fired in the public school system in the United States. Is that undeniably true, is it usually true? Is it true in some states? And then my next question would be: Is it true in Shanghai? Is it true in Finland? Is it true in South Korea? Guest: I think it has been nearly universally true in the United States that we do not fire the teachers that shouldn't be there that are obvious. I don't think many other countries explicitly say: We have a firing policy. I think what you see internationally is that the best school systems, one way or another, don't let bad teachers stay in the classroom for very long. Now, one way or another means there's lots of counseling, they move them to other jobs, there's training that goes along the way, whatever. It's hard to sort of think of emulating what different countries do. But I think other countries have found that one way or another they can do this. Now, it's a hypothesis, but I think that the unions in some of our competitor countries have become more accommodating to the idea that you have to have a good product. Our unions are only slowly getting around to the fact that having a good product might be important to their future. And I think that other countries--all countries are unionized in terms of teaching--but other countries have moved to the position where unions are working with the school systems to try to ensure that there's a high quality product. Russ: It's a remarkable thing. There are obviously variations in pressure, political competition of various kinds that are going to make a difference in how unions respond to the competitive environment, whether they are willing to embrace it and how much. But it is disgusting to me and shocking to me how badly run some of our schools are. I'll be open-minded--I shouldn't say that; I'm not open-minded about it; that's not quite the right way to say it. I'm open to the possibility that there are many explanations for why public schools do very poorly in the United States in certain places. There's culture. There's home environment. There are a thousand things. But the unwillingness to embrace change in the face of poor performance is a scandal to me. And I find it remarkable that people put up with it. I don't; I send my kids to a private school. I'm able to. I'm grateful and blessed that I'm able to do that. But it seems to me that parents--they don't burn down the school. These are their children. If their children came home hungry every day and in rags after they sent them out well clothed and fed, they wouldn't just say, Well, there's nothing you can do about it. Why isn't there more outrage? Because I don't think you are at the extreme of people who are upset with the current system. The current system is atrocious. Guest: So, let me--I think we're on the same page, but let me just expand a little bit on what you said first. This is not just a problem of inner city schools, of places where society and the schools have broken down. It turns out that variation in teacher effectiveness is found across the board, in some of our best public schools. Now in the suburban public schools there may be a little bit more movement of the worst of the worst teachers out of the schools. But in general they tend to argue: Well, we are doing well on our state tests, so how can you object to what we are doing? And they also make it clear that they could do a better job if in fact we just funded the schools a little bit better. And they sort of co-opt the parents into working with the schools, because their kids are in the schools and they can't really get into a huge fight with their current teachers, and so forth. But this is a problem where our kids, our white kids, don't compete very well internationally, our kids of college-educated parents don't compete well internationally. So that the test score story I told you before is not just one that we have more minorities-- Russ: Which is a common argument some people advance to explain some challenges we face. Guest: That's the argument that people use all the time in California, even though the-- Russ: Kind of a racist argument, it seems to me. Guest: It's a racist argument, to suggest first that we can't education people that aren't white children of college-educated parents; and secondly it's incorrect. That's not what's driving the situation. Russ: I was struck--there's a fascinating chart in your book that looks at proficiency on one of the exams just based on parents' education. And it's a pretty dramatic relationship. If your parents didn't finish high school, you do very poorly. I think it's 12%. If your parents went to college, the average proficiency is 44%. So you have a huge advantage if your parents went to college. You still don't do very well. But you do have a dramatic advantage. So there are--and of course there are a thousand things going on at the same time. There's where you live and what kind of school your kids are in. Guest: Can I jump on that for a second. Russ: Yeah, go ahead. Guest: It's absolutely clear that parents are really important in this whole thing. And we haven't discussed that. But what all the data suggest is that if you are a parent, are more educated, and in general higher-income that goes with that, the kids do better. But the data suggest that that is not completely determinative. Good schools, as I mentioned about this inner city school where some of the teachers were getting this year-and-a-half worth of learning gains each year: goods schools can make up for the difference in family background. It takes extra work. And some of these schools are really hard to work with because the parents aren't being very supportive. But we know how to deal with our schools. We know how to improve our schools. That's where we have to work. We're not going to go in and have the government intruding into the families and trying to change what the families do. Russ: Correct. There's a point I'd like to come back to which is somewhat related to this, but I'd forgotten this point I wanted to make earlier. I'd like to come back to it and get your reaction to it. Which is that: you had mentioned in other countries, unions have gotten more interested in other outcomes and maybe a little less interested in job security. Or realized that there may be a relationship between the two. What interests me, strikes me, is that in the United States, you have this wild thing called home schooling, which is really a fascinating cultural movement, somewhat based on religion but not entirely. We have vibrant private schools, which a lot of other countries don't have; we are wealthy enough that we can have a very vibrant private school system. So in many ways the public school system is under some competitive assault. Not much, because they've insulated themselves from quite a bit of it. But overall, there is still a lot going on that you'd think would cause there to be some movement toward more accountability, more caring about outcomes. And with the advent of the internet-based educational opportunities, the massive open online courses-- so-called 'MOOCs'--Kahn Academy and immense resources for self-education, that I think are only going to get better, you'd think that this would start to put some pressure on the public school system to be a little more motivated. Guest: I think that the public school system, at the very minimum, is going to change dramatically. We do have technology that can dramatically improve over the instruction that we see in some classes. And I think that we'll see that more and more. We haven't quite figured out how to harness that yet. Russ: True. Guest: We haven't figured out how to get classroom teachers using technology to be more effective. I think this is partly an incentive issue. Russ: It's also--[?]--people are going to learn a lot in the next 10 years. Guest: I think we are. In general, nobody wants their kid to just sit in front of a TV screen for 18 years. Russ: Yeah. But they might prefer it to sitting in front of a really unmotivated teacher for 18 years. Guest: Well, there are some teachers that they might prefer it to. And they might not do it for 18 years, but they might substitute for 1 out of 5 teachers that is doing a really bad job. And we are going to see a lot more of that. How quickly we see it and whether that brings the United States back into line with what other countries have shown they can do is an open question. Russ: Yeah, I know. I agree.
50:32Russ: Let's put some closure on this teacher discussion and move on to a final topic. And actually, one more thing though, first. I think I mentioned Finland; you had mentioned it before. And occasionally, I get emails, and EconTalk listeners email me when we talk about education: If private incentives are so powerful--which I believe they are--and if a private school system with charity providing scholarships potentially for poor kids would do better than the current system. And I want to move to a fully private system and be able to say, what about poor kids? And poor kids are being served very poorly by this current system that's supposed to be for the general good. It's atrocious. So, my listeners then will say: What about Finland? Finland, that's a government system. They are doing well. So, you know more about Finland than I do. Tell me a little bit about Finland. Then we'll close on this teacher quality issue. Guest: Well, Finland is this tiny little cold country at the top of Europe that has, over the last number of years, at least over the last 30 years, managed to lift the achievement of its students. There is a lot of controversy and a lot of people want to draw different lessons for how they did it. We have basically one data point, one observation. And we have about 15 lines that we can draw through that data point, and everybody chooses their favorite line. So some say: Well, it's all that they don't test students. And others say: It's that they start school late. Others say that it's teacher quality--and I tend to agree with that. For some reason, being a teacher in Finland seems to be very, very attractive. And more attractive than you would guess, given the relative salaries, which aren't all that high in Finland. So lots of people want to go into teaching. How they did it, I'm not sure; how they maintain it. Others say, well it's the fact that teachers can make their own decisions about what they teach; they have a lot of autonomy and aren't pushed by rigid things. Others say, well, it's that Finland is very homogeneous as a society without any poor people. Russ: Finland starts with the letter 'F' and we should change the 'United States' to 'Finited States'. Guest: Of these arguments, it's clear that if teaching was a more attractive profession and we had a wider choice in our schools, we could probably improve. How we do that is unclear. Finland is a successful story. As are several other countries that have improved over time. Canada has improved over time. Germany has improved in recent years, after being flat. Again, there's some research that suggests a number of things that are consistent across a wide range of countries. One is having more choice, that you mentioned about, where parents have more ability to choose what schools they are in. Another is pay for performance, or some relationship between rewards in teaching and rewards in school, seeing the performance of schools. Another is having a good accountability system where you measure what performance is and hold schools somewhat accountable for it. And a final, at least within the most developed countries, is having more local decision making. This is actually the model that is in the back of my mind. You hold schools and teachers responsible for the performance of their students--for their value added of the school--and then let them make decisions about how to get there. Which seems like the right answer that we see throughout most of the U.S. economy. Russ: Right. We don't tell auto makers that they ought to hire so many people per shift and have the equivalent of so many students per class. We let them--competition forces them to find ways to do better. Guest: And then there's the accountability system of the economy that sorts out who is doing a good job and who isn't, and which the consumers like and which they don't like. But we don't have that well developed in schools, so we say: How can we run a school that looks like that? In fact, talking about using market forces is a pejorative term in education, even though the U.S. economy has thrived by in fact having market forces making decisions about where things are produced and what's produced.
55:46Russ: My sarcastic response to that, of course is: But education is different. Maybe. But I think the serious response I had to that came up in a conversation I had with Diane Ravitch a long time ago, which is that I think importing market mechanisms into non-market processes can be problematic. But to me market means voluntary; market means competitive. And adding more voluntary choice and competition in the school system I think would be a good thing. To come full circle now, back to this question how to get better teachers: giving public school principals the right to fire teachers, I can understand that might not be the right way to get there. Which is what a private system would do. That's a good example of the point I'm trying to make, which is: In a private system, the private teacher has to face the threat of dismissal. 'So let's give the public school principal that right and he'll solve it.' Well, if you don't have everything else that goes with it, maybe it won't. So, have you thought about ways to improve teacher quality that might be politically plausible and realizable in this current environment? Guest: Well, there are several forces that are starting to push us in that direction. Whether they'll make it or not is unclear yet. But the best example is actually Washington, D.C., where Washington, D.C. has, by its contract 4 years ago, put in place a teacher evaluation system that actually leads to serious personnel decisions. The best teacher as measured either by student performance or outside ratings, can get huge increases in their base salaries. And the worst teachers get fired. So that in the last 3 years, Washington has given bonuses to some 1000 teachers, and they've fired 300 teachers. Russ: Which is amazing. Guest: Which is so different from history. Russ: How did that happen? How did the teachers' union in Washington, D.C. accept that bargain given that they fight it relentlessly everywhere else? Seem to. Guest: Well, they fought it in Washington, but the school system in Washington is a peculiar one because it's actually run by the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Congress has an influence on it. But what we've seen is that another dozen states or so have dramatically changed labor laws as applied to teachers. They have lessened the impact of tenure. They have increased the time till somebody gets a more permanent job. They have called from the state capitol that each school district has to have a serious evaluation system that takes into account student performance. There have been a series of actions by state legislatures that I think suggest that we might have some movement. The other thing that these actions of state legislatures do is that they put pressure on the teachers' union to cooperate and to participate in designing a system that everybody can live with. Until now, if somebody said, well, the evaluation system isn't very good, let's sit down and have a plan for how to improve this; and the teachers' union would say, yes, it's really important to have a good evaluation system , let's have a committee. And the committee meets for 5 years and may or may not have a conclusion at the end of 5 years; but nothing happens. Now the legislators and the legislatures in different states are saying: You've got to have a system in place. And this leads to some more serious discussions about how should we evaluate our teachers. Russ: Well, that's encouraging. I think. Guest: I have to add one other thing. We keep saying 'teachers'. We shouldn't say teachers. We should say 'teachers and administrators'. Because you can't have the principals of schools and the administrators operating with a different set of incentives than the teachers. So you have to reward and punish principals who get the same kind of success that we are looking for in teachers. Otherwise, then, principals could, if they wanted, hire their cousins or whatever. Russ: Yeah. You could imagine a test that would see whether teachers are keeping up with the field, are staying current or at least paying attention or have some basic proficiency in mathematics or science or anything. But it would be harder to test administrators to see what their proficiency is in administration. But you can, perhaps, measure some outcomes for the school as a whole, I guess. Guest: It's measuring the outcomes for the schools that is the key. And it's also for the classroom. It turns out--you mention, we could test teachers or find out if they have the right professional development or so on. All of the research suggests that not of these are very predictive of effectiveness of teachers or whether they get better or worse. And so, there appears to be no substitute for paying attention to what you care about. And that's student learning and student achievement. Russ: Yeah. I was talking to my wife yesterday; we were taking a hike together and just chitchatting about the challenges of improving one's own teaching. And her bottom line, which I think is so true, is: It's just really hard: Really hard to be a great teacher, to be a good teacher. And it's not something that's easily--you are not born; it helps; there are some genetic advantages that a good teacher can have. But it really is a craft that requires focus and a desire to improve. That's not easily done. So that's part of the challenge. Guest: Well, that's part of the challenge. It is a craft. But it's not clear how you develop that craft. If I were talking about woodworking, I would know how to put together a course that taught people how to do good woodworking. Now, there might be differences in the quality that you get at the end. But I would know the basic ideas. When we look at schools, education schools, we don't see that they have a good idea of what to do in order to create good and effective teachers. So, you said they're not born. But at some point, you might say that the ability to teach is pretty fixed in teachers and we ought to just hire on the basis of that and not other things. Russ: That would be part of it. I really do think that a great teacher--let me try to say it a little more carefully. It's easy to--not easy, but you and I can identify a great lecturer. Somebody who is a great public speaker. And I think a lot of people from their college experience think of their favorite teachers as the people who were spellbinding or funny or passionate. All of which are useful in a college setting, in a lecture setting. We're thinking about K-12, which we tend to forget because it was a long time ago for some of us. It's so much more complicated than that, and the skills--I would say one of the most important characteristics is devotion. There are devoted teachers who, even in the worst environments, even with the worst colleagues, that work hard no matter what. But there's a huge range of folks who will only work hard if they are motivated. And need to be motivated. And I don't think our school system does a very good job of that. And that's hard to do. Guest: There's a little bit of that. I'm not sure that I agree completely with you on that. What we have had is a few experiments where we offer fairly sizeable amounts of money to people if they do a better job. And what we've seen is that student learning hasn't increased that much. Russ: Has not. Guest: Has not. In these experiments. And my interpretation of this and some other evidence is that the vast majority of our teachers today are trying really hard to do a good job. And they are doing the best they can. I mean, they could do a little bit better, of course. But they are working as hard as they can and trying to be effective. They don't want to be a failure. And some are just better at it than others. You and I were together at the U. of Rochester a long time ago. And I remember that I was in charge at one point of assigning people to teach. And I had you teaching the Intermediate Microeconomics course. Russ: 151 if I remember the number correctly. Is that right? Guest: It may or may not have been. Russ: I'm not sure. 151. Guest: I didn't know beforehand that you were going to be the spectacular lecturer and spectacular teacher you were. And I don't think you were trained. At all. Russ: No. For sure, not. Thanks for the kind words. But I certainly wasn't trained. I don't know if I was spectacular or not. Guest: I, when I taught your students after you had them in Intermediate Microeconomics could tell the students that had had you and those that hadn't, because they could think through economic problems. So I have always rated you highly in your classroom teaching. But it's not something that is due to the U. of Chicago providing you with a lot of training in how to teach microeconomics. Russ: Well, thanks for the kind words.
1:06:01Russ: I do think it is an interesting phenomenon that at the college level we certify people as qualified to teach because they've finished a Ph.D., and watched a bunch of other people teach; and then we say, Good luck. Whereas at the K-12, we reward people for getting a degree in something called Education, which we don't require a college professor to have--good or bad. Which you'd think would make you a much better teacher. As you said, if you knew what the craft required--you majored in it. The craft, not the subject matter. You majored in the craft. You may have even gotten a Master's Degree. You've specialized in the craft at an advanced level. And I don't think there's any evidence that training of that kind is useful in the classroom. Guest: No, that's what we've found. All of the studies of teacher performance have tried at the same time to identify what are the characteristics or the background or training that make for people that are particularly effective or not. And this research has been a dismal failure, in the sense that it has not identified a set of characteristics that you want to develop in your education school or that you want to sort on or look for. In fact, it's worse than that. It's all of our standard measures of teacher effectiveness, which include years of experience in teaching. It includes whether you have a Master's degree or not. It includes whether you are fully certified according to the state standards. It includes whether you've got some amount of professional development. None of these things are closely related to effectiveness in the classroom. So we go around in--sometimes we even reward those things, like salaries are determined by experience in academic degrees, even though they have nothing to do with effectiveness. Russ: So, we're way off the subject now, but it's interesting so I'm going to push on. Do you think there is--if you were running a school, if you were a principal, how would you staff? How would you hire? What would be the criteria you would use, given that everything you say suggests that the research says we can't identify those and can't figure them out? Guest: I'd make my best guess at who would do well in the classroom. I'd have an interview system and maybe even have a practice lesson or something like that, recognizing that I'm not going to be very accurate in that guess. I would then evaluate who does well in the classroom and who doesn't, and I would give large rewards to those who did well in the classroom to try to keep them in the classroom. And I would make decisions that some people should be doing other jobs. Russ: Which is, I think what a principal at a private school does. And probably is not very much what a public school principal does. Guest: No, precisely. That's precisely the case.

COMMENTS (45 to date)
A.grant writes:

Though I agree that we over spend on education and bad teachers/bureaucracy is apart of the problem; I do not think the majority of the blame can be placed on them.

What hasn't been discussed in this podcast is the increased of single parents home over the last 50 years especially in minorities households. Though it may be a "racist" argument to say it's more difficult to educate minorities, you can not ignore that 66% of black children live in a single parent home and 40% of hispanics live in single parent homes. Kids living with only one parent have less supervision, they're more likely to watch more hours of tv and fall behind because their parents aren't around to make sure that they're doing their homework or encourage them to get help when they're falling behind.

Broken homes are the biggest impediments for a child's ability to learn.

SJ writes:

The key question here is the one that Russ Roberts asks five minutes into the podcast. Given that U.S. scores have been so mediocre since we started testing, how do we explain America's continuing technological and scientific success?

I'll make a couple of observations, and then give my speculative conclusion.

1. Hanushek never says exactly what scores he's comparing, but presumably he's comparing the countries' mean scores. But it's not obvious that mean scores are the best indicator of countries' capacity for development. Americans in the fiftieth percentile are future cops, electricians, and secretaries. They're good people who deserve the best in life, but they don't get too many patents, let alone Fields Medals.

2. Countries like Singapore and Finland have more homogeneous populations than America's, and different ethnic and socioeconomic groups have substantially different mean performances on standardized tests. The reasons for the variation are debatable, but the variation itself is well-established and apparently intractable. Roberts and Hanushek summarily dismiss any discussion of this topic as "racist", but in doing so they're refusing to think about a serious piece of the puzzle.

My guess is that the U.S. score distribution has a larger standard deviation than does the distribution of many other countries, and that the top (say) 2% of U.S. students are highly competitive with similar percentiles in other countries. But the top percentiles do a dramatically disproportionate share of all scientific and technological innovation. That would explain why America has kept its innovative edge even though its mean scores are unremarkable, and would allay Hanushek's fears that we're headed for economic disaster.

Maybe another listener who's familiar with the data can confirm or deny this.

Floccina writes:

Correlation is not causation. I am still not convinced that PISA measures anything important.

Steve Bacharach writes:

I was surprised to hear that Russ sends his kids to private schools. Based on his recent employment history, I assumed he lived in northern Virginia and now in or near Palo Alto. I'd heard that N.Virginia public schools were some of the best in the country, and I lived near Stanford for several years and know that those public schools are some of the top in the entire state.

I am a public high school math teacher, but I also taught three years in a private school, so I can make some comparisons. The private school, non-unionized, paid terribly. In the Bay Area, it was not a sustainable wage. Not all the teachers were great teachers or were let go for "poor" performance. In those environments, you better make sure the parents have your back since those are your real customers.

At my current school, my pay is better. I credit this fact directly to being in a union. At the same time, there are downsides to the all bargaining as one idea. Different teachers at different grade levels in different subject areas, even within the same district, can have very different jobs.

So do you pay teachers better across the board to attract more of the "best and brightest" or do you pay them less so you just get people who "really love the job"? Obviously, neither option is really a solution.

I wish I had the time to go on more about this, but my next class starts in 10 minutes!

John Strong writes:

I like Hanushek a lot, but he puts too much emphasis on teachers, just like everyone else. Stop paying teachers to teach. Pay students to learn and let the rest sort itself out.

lloydfour writes:

http://gladwell.com/most-likely-to-succeed/

An old article by Malcolm Gladwell comparing selecting a quarterback with selecting a teacher, mentioning... Ed Hanushek.

GS writes:

The immigration issue might not be that relevant. According to the 2009 PISA testing report in Australia (https://www.acer.edu.au/documents/PISA-Report-2009.pdf), there was no real difference between immigrants and non immigrants (first generation students seemed to perform marginally better).

Also Australia performed marginally better than the US, and has a much higher proportion of the population as immigrants or children of immigrants than the US.

Greg G writes:

Thanks for an interesting and informative discussion as always.

I always feel frustrated when listening to any discussion on this topic. Much more attention needs to be directed at how discipline in the classroom has deteriorated in the last few decades. The main cause is bad public policy, not bad teachers.

The no child left behind, every child must succeed, approach has resulted in many more disturbed and disruptive kids staying in mainstream classrooms. In many cases this is good for those particular kids but bad for everybody else. An economics site is the perfect place to discuss these tradeoffs.

Most public school classrooms today have at least one (you are lucky if it's only one) profoundly disturbed and disruptive child. When that happens a huge percentage of the teacher's time is devoted to dealing with that one kid instead of teaching the other kids who are ready to learn.

Sure good teachers handle this much better than bad teachers. I would argue the cost is even greater in the classrooms of good teachers because their lost teaching time is much more valuable.

We do it this way so we can say there is equality of opportunity. It's not working except to make us feel better about accepting the level of inequality that results.

My wife was a Kindergarten teacher for many years. I used to think Kindergarteners were little blank slates. Not so much. She has had kids who kicked, hit and bit her and other kids. She has had kids who refused to stay in their seats and refused to stay in the room. She had a kid who intentionally dropped his pants and defecated on the carpet. In none of these cases was the kid removed from the classroom for long. She was a great teacher and got great results but she could have accomplished a lot more if she could have spent more time with the kids ready to learn and less with the profoundly disturbed.

Another problem is that this mania for testing has cut into instructional time in a way that is counter productive.

Another factor (can't really call it a problem) is that, now that women have effectively achieved equal opportunity in the workplace, we don't have as many highly talented women entering teaching as we did when they were denied many other opportunities.

I was on a school board for three years. Yes, it is way too hard to fire an incompetent teacher. My wife would say "But if you don't have tenure then teachers could be fired for the wrong reasons." I would always reply "You mean like everybody else?" Just to be clear, I don't think it should be as easy to fire a teacher as it is in private industry but the current system is not working.

When I was on the Board we would get a report every spring that 15 or 20 kids (out of maybe 250) were in danger of not graduating. The implication was that we needed to take some emergency action. My reply was always, "Don't we have 15 or 20 kids who shouldn't graduate? If we succeed in getting to the point where everyone graduates, a diploma will signify that you have a pulse."

Woodah writes:

Russ Roberts asks why public schools in other countries seem to do better than public schools here if the problem is simply one that the "free market" can address. I didn't hear a direct answer to the question. I also didn't hear why (I guess) both public schools and private schools in the US seem to produce kids who don't do well on the PISA test. A freemarketeer would assume the private-school kids would be scoring well above socialized Finnish kids. Is that the case?

Russ Roberts also asks rhetorically why parents aren't outraged by the state of our public schools. Something to watch might be the California parent trigger law passed in 2010, where an outraged majority of parents can legally take over a public school and reconstitute it with new educators and administrators. It's hard to do, and it probably should be, but it is happening:

http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/08/13/los-angeles-parent-trigger-school-sets-precedent-with-public-charter-hybrid

Paul writes:

These sort of statistical discussions literally make me feel ill. To take GDP growth, one of the most complex and causally dense areas of human life,and equate it with math scores is a complete waste of time and energy. My greatest fear is that someone may listen to this and then quote it at a cocktail party.

MCM writes:

Mr. Roberts mentioned homeschooling and private schools as competition to public schools. Unfortunately, public school districts don't really face much competition from these options. In fact, they probably benefit at the margins when parents choose not to use the public schools.

The public districts still get the tax revenue. They also save whatever marginal cost there is to the additional student. And they get people (like me) who are ideologically opposed to having our kids educated by the state out of their hair. So when parents choose not to use the public schools, we don't really produce any pressure on public schools to improve or change. We in fact reduce the pressure on them.

So the lack of true competition means we get what we have here.

I'm still not buying that GDP growth is caused by math & science education achievement as measured by PISA scores, though.

Kurt writes:

To add to Paul's point, if you take Hanushek's argument to the logical extreme, 2% percent of teachers (the bad ones) or roughly 75,000 people (perhaps less if you are only considering math and science teachers), are having an enormous impact on our GDP growth. I think his argument about poor teachers having an inordinate impact on student's is a compelling one, but by trying to draw such a direct causal relationship with GDP he really hurts his position.

SaveyourSelf writes:

Mr. Hanushek said, “…Other things affect economic performance and economic growth. One of which is the character of the economic institutions. So, we've had free and open labor in product markets, we've had limited intrusion of government, and a variety of other things: good property rights. A variety of other things that people generally attribute as being good institutions.”

  • I am curious. Mr. Hanushek uses the word, “institutions,” which to me means government-agencies and NGO’s, but he is using the word to describe market-assumptions and environmental factors. Is this a common use of the word “institutions” among economists?

Mr. hanushek said, “We know how to deal with our schools. We know how to improve our schools.” (47:40)

  • From a system/macro perspective, this is hubris. We can say that we know what environmental changes are likely to encourage changes favoring innovation and efficiency and thus probably improve educational outcomes, but to say that we know what those innovations and changes are ahead of environmental changes is most likely just fantasy. [Hanushek goes on to describe these desirable environmental changes at 53:40]
Mr. Hanushek said, “We’re not going to go in and have the government intruding in to the families and try to change what the families do.” (47:50)
  • We already do this! First the government takes the family’s education money. Then it decides how to spend that money for the family. Both of these government actions change what families do regarding education.
Russ Roberts said, “To me market means voluntary; market means competitive; and adding more voluntary choice and competition in the school system I think would be a good thing.” (56:15)
  • Well said!
SJ writes:
The immigration issue might not be that relevant. According to the 2009 PISA testing report in Australia (https://www.acer.edu.au/documents/PISA-Report-2009.pdf), there was no real difference between immigrants and non immigrants (first generation students seemed to perform marginally better).


Australia is one of the exceptions that proves the rule. Its restrictive immigration policy favors skilled immigrants: traditionally Europeans, and now increasingly Chinese and Indians. This very interesting chart tells the story.

I notice in the chart that Israel is another country with a restrictive immigration policy and a very successful immigrant population.

Shawn Barnhart writes:

You can't open a newspaper without reading an article or op-ed piece on the disparities in standardized testing results. It is simply not believable to have Hanushek claim that there isn't meaningful racial disparities in PISA scores within a single country.

And I was shocked to hear Russ Roberts simply rubber stamp this with the claim that it's racist to suggest otherwise. Given that the statistical evidence of racial disparities in test scores is so pervasive, Roberts needs to do his listeners a favor and challenge his guests when they make claims without evidence for things that widely available evidence suggests are false.

I think it greatly undermines Hanushek's principal argument to deny racial dispartiy. My first thought and continuing thought during the entire podcast was "What happens to U.S. PISA scores if you select for race?" and I kept waiting for this to be discussed only to have the entire concept dismissed as racist by the guest and the host.

I do think he makes good arguments about the power of teachers in the classroom and personal experience with my son's school and teachers really underscores these arguments. I suspect that in many cases the school system creates bad teachers as much as it tolerates them, so fixing this problem over the long run and keeping it fixed likely requires understanding how teachers go bad and improvements in hiring so that "bad" teachers can be identified early and not go on to become permanent hindrances to learning.

I'm not convinced that the bottom percentage of teachers can be eliminated all that easily or that we should even try -- the political capital required to do so is enormous and it's a one-time payoff without any understanding of why they are bad teachers or how they got that way. Fix hiring and improve a system that may produce this and attrition will solve the existing bad teacher problem.

Grieve Chelwa writes:

Interesting podcast. It will be nice to get Roland Fryer on the show as well to speak more about his experience with paying students to learn, in line with what John Strong said above.

Rick Hanushek writes:

Thanks to the listeners for some interesting and useful comments. It seems useful to make a few generic responses to the comments.

1. It is clearly true that family background has a huge impact on student achievement. This is one of the most well-established points of educational research. My remarks should not be interpreted as denying this. My perspective is simply that we have the population that we have, and we must educate this population. And on this score we have evidence that it is possible -- some teachers and some schools have found ways to overcome the background deficiencies with which students come to school.

2. The emphasis on teachers is not a matter of blame. It represents my view that good teachers are the only answer we have for some of the low achievement we have-- low achievement for both disadvantaged students and all students. I am always a little puzzled why people in the schools rise up to object about the power and influence of good teachers. The research uniformly shows that good teachers can have a lasting influence on their students, regardless of the students' backgrounds. Mentioning the importance of teacher quality is not the same as blaming teachers for the level of student achievement.

3. There is now substantial research that shows the powerful influence of cognitive skills -- as measured by PISA or by NAEP -- on economic growth. A review and critique of the evidence can easily be found on my website (http://hanushek.stanford.edu/). In terms of magnitudes, it is not entirely conclusive, but to me existing evidence provides enough reason to believe that having higher achievement is significantly better. (There is NO evidence that having higher achievement hurts).

4. The overview of the growth results was based on average scores, but other evidence shows that both improved top-end scores and elimination of bottom-end scores are important. It is not just selecting a few stars to be scientists and engineers, but it is having an overall better educated population.

5. In terms of racial differences, they exist and are large. To me, it is shameful that we as a society permit the existing gaps to continue. We do know that good schools can work for all children regardless of racial or ethnic background. Simply saying that these gaps "explain" our low scores denies both the data on school quality and (to me) the societal obligation to work to eliminate these gaps.

Steve Sedio writes:

I hear lots of reasons why schools fail that have little to do with what a school can control.

But, schools do poorly on what they can control.

Tenure and unions remove positive feedback for teachers that excel, and eliminate negative feedback for teachers that fail.

Classrooms intermix kids of different base education, aptitude, interest, self discipline, and grasp of the language. How many hours of actual education do kids get from a good teacher, compared to the late 60's? (Greg G did a good write up on this above).

As far as testing goes. How else do you determine how well a teacher, a school district, or state is doing?

Mike M writes:

Two words, Mr. Grant: BEN CARSON

Halvard writes:

If a free market approach to education is the solution, then Finland's results are even more impressive. Finland is free market people's worst nightmare, and should underperform. So from a free market point of view, Finland's performance now is nothing to what it would preform under a free market model.

Finland has unions, no incentive pay, no national testing, the kinds are playing etc. So these poor kids, with strong math and science skills, most of them speaking three languages must be suffering from an academic point of view.

Hopefully the free market people can help these poor kids and give them a proper school system.

Russ, maybe you should interview someone from Finland also....

Alex writes:

As a product of Finnish school system, I have always found it very surprising that they keep awarding our schools.

In my opinion, Finnish schools are extremely boring places to study and they don't support creativity at any level. Specially that is true at higher level. There is zero innovation and enthusiasm amongst students and teachers. I studied one semester in Canada and I can prove that it was totally different there.

Education is actually huge problem here. People are extremely over educating themselves. All schools here are "free" plus government gives some money for rent and living. That is not very much, but you can make pretty easy living for 6 years. And many people do so. Result is that most people won't start working until age of 26.

And people don't find very good jobs any more. There is just way too much educated people. Actually best jobs are now at low level like construction sector. Plumbing, electrical work and others don't require any higher education. These field are well payed and there's ton of work to do.

Eitan Chatav writes:

Hey, cool, Mr. Bacharach above was my geometry teacher in 9th grade. Now I have my PhD in math, so thanks Mr. Bacharach!

Mark writes:

Toward the end of the interview H says that teaching is a craft like woodwork but he is not sure it can be taught like woodwork.

As a former teacher, current wooden boat builder and struggling thinker I believe he has hit the wrong nail on the head.

Teaching is a craft, it is just that the full Craft of teaching is rarely taught. Generally teachers are trained to deliver subjects. Either one, several or many, depending on the age they will be teaching. They will spend a fraction of their course time on "Classroom Skills". In other words the Craft of teaching.

To extend H's simile, When learning woodwork one is introduced to the material and the tools, over time you learn their quirks and how to get the best out of each. You build a variety of projects, whilst all the time improving your handling/understanding of the tools and material. Eventually, when competent, you choose to specialise in chairs, tables, boats etc.

When learning to teach you are first asked what you want to build; chemists, physicists, mathematicians, sports stars, artists etc then you research the subject in great depth. You are briefly introduced to the tools and the raw materials. You don't really get to practice with a variety of development projects, you are simply expected to be able to build a chair based on your ability to write an essay about chairs.

If we accept that good teaching is the application of a skill set, then we are in danger of admitting that anyone can do it. This suits none of the vested interests.

The tools of teaching include organisation, planning, evaluating, communication, target setting, differentiation, teaching styles, feedback conflict management, diplomacy and project management.

The materials are the pupils, parents, community and culture.

A person who understands, loves and respects these materials. Commands and confidently wields these skills can teach ANY subject at any level, to any student from any background.

Mark writes:

My wife is a school teacher and we talk about these issues whenever they come up. It's striking to me how the public discussion always starts with a great idea, "This works in business. Why not translate it to public schools?" And then they do something that's intellectually similar to what happens in the private sector, but that for one reason or another is fundamentally divorced from the conceptual idea they were trying to implement.

For example, in Ohio our legislature recently instituted a 'merit-based' teacher compensation system. In this system, teachers are rewarded if their students' test scores improve.

So we compared that to my job in the private sector: I work in an office in a cubicle and have a direct supervisor who has a direct supervisor - very Dilbert, except I'm not an engineer. If I do a good job and make an extra effort to please an important client, or step in to save a difficult situation, my boss will know about it. When I go in for my semi-annual performance review we will discuss my contribution to the company and a change in my pay will be reflected by that performance review. That is a standard model of merit-based pay in the private sector.

Now compare that with my wife in a public school: She gets a new group of students each year. She and her principal know the problem students and the efforts she makes to call up parents to inform them when their students are failing and how they can work together to help those students improve. Her principal knows how she comes in early (before 7 am) and is almost always among the last to leave (after 5 pm). In a corporate environment, she should have an annual or semiannual meeting with her principal and they should review her performance and the challenges she faced since her last review. Instead, her 'merit-based' pay is based on student test performance. If she gets a bad group of kids and makes a huge effort to help them, but is rebuffed all along the way, it will not be reflected in the test scores. If she gets a great bunch of students whose scores improve, she gets credit even if she didn't do anything special to deserve it. How does that equate with what the private sector does? How is that rewarding our most talented teachers? Could we pick out who these teachers are in each school based on test scores alone? Maybe sometimes?

We see this same thing play out with dozens of different programs, and they all have good intentions but end up with fatal flaws that are lucky if they don't make the system worse off! One 'solution' had kids testing for full 3 days of every 10. Student test scores plummeted. How could they not, given the students spent their time testing instead of learning! I asked, "Why do they keep doing it, then?" "Because they're 'doing something' about student performance." she answered.

The problem isn't that everyone is sitting on their hands ignoring the issue, as Russ seems to suggest. It's that when we talk about the public education system, we're really talking about everyone's children; so this subject is everyone's business, and everyone gets righteously indignant that "nothing is being done about this!"

Wrong. Too much is being done about this. Calm down. Back off. Let the teachers do their job for a change. Give the principals power to fire them if they aren't. Don't create a new test/metric that students or teachers have to pass or we'll punish them for it. We've been 'solving' the problems in our public school system for decades now, and it seems the two constant features of the system we've built are:
1. New top-down interventions are always being implemented.
2. School performance continues to decline.

There's a great demotivational poster that applies to this situation. The tag line reads, "The only constant in all your failed relationships is you."

Chris N writes:

I think about education frequently. My wife was an elementary teacher, who is currently staying home with two of our children. My oldest is currently a second grader in the public schools, and to this point has had excellent teachers. He does fine in school, yet I feel something is missing.

There have been some good comments that I agree with.

1. Parents are responsible for their child's education. A child's desire to learn has to be there, and I think it comes from home. I think many of the problems in education are due to poor family life or family priorities (sports, entertainment, etc being higher priority than education).

2. Good teachers are important, but I don't think are the key to success. Again, a child must desire to learn. I found this essay by Albert Jay Nock interesting:

mises.org/daily/2765#IX

It has been a while since I read it, but section VIII discusses the shift of the burden of education from the student to the teacher. I realize he is commenting on universities here, but I think it fits the current problem. Currently, it seems we focus solely on the teacher. I think the focus should be on the student.

Steve writes:

It seems to me that perhaps the USA has more top performers that drive our overall economic innovation and that looking at the average is somewhat irrelevant.

Bogart writes:

I find the claim that teacher quality as the force behind bettering education to be dubious at best. First because individual children get the educations not some statistical sampling. Secondly, I feel that the knowledge and calculation problems facing bureaucrats: teachers and administrators are simply unsolvable. I would look towards the source of funding of the school systems via taxes to be the cause of most of the deterioration in the educational statistics. And from everything I have seen in the educational systems around the USA, that can not be improved with improvements in teaching.

The educational system in the USA is up against both the information problem described by Hayek and the calculation problem described by Mises. There is no way for bureaucrats in the education system, teachers and administrators, to use scarce resources efficiently given that the students are forced to be there and the people paying for the system have no choice in doing so.

The only way out is to go back to the voluntary education system that existed in the USA prior to public school. If the USA does that then it can be the most education group of people in the world.

wef writes:

Dalton in

http://www.rti.org/pubs/op-0005-1105-dalton.pdf

notes,

"In short, the United States is neither a poor, average, nor above-average country when it comes to the educational performance of its youth. Rather, it is a country characterized by world-class achievement by some of its students and dismaying performance by a notable minority. Our divided performance makes overarching assertions about general US achievement unhelpful from an analytical or policy perspective. With additional research comparing the performance of US racial/ethnic groups with similar groups in other developed countries, identifying specific areas of weakness within individual groups, and linking local patterns to national ones, the United States has the potential to build a stronger foundation for effective educational policy and practice than is currently being derived from international assessment
programs. "

Richie writes:

MCM,

In California (and maybe other/all states), schools get funded based on "average daily attendance", so if enrollment drops, the funding for those schools will also drop.

Richie writes:

Mr Hanushek wrote:

My perspective is simply that we have the population that we have, and we must educate this population.

But dismissing the differences in our population doesn't really help to solve the problem. The differences exist. Schools need to have ways to deal with them. I don't know the answer, but somehow schools need to have the ability to create consequences for students who are behavior problems or choose not to work.

My wife is a teacher in California, and here are a couple issues she has had to deal with multiple times:
- Students are removed from school for up to 2 months at a time (usually near Christmas) to visit the rest of their families in Mexico. How is a teacher supposed to teach a student like this?
- Students perform poorly and/or have bad behavior in the classroom. The principal says my wife has to solve this. My wife calls the parents, who don't care. Or worse, the parents blame the teacher for the problem.
- Over and over my wife's day is interrupted by behavior problems that the school and district administration do not help her to solve them. Instead, they just expect her to take care of it. (While also teaching multiplication tables?)

These are not always race-specific issues, but it is clear that some cultures simply do not value education in the way that others do.

I know when I was in school, if I brought home anything less than a "B", my parents weren't blaming my TEACHERS. It was always my fault for not putting in the effort.

raijin writes:

The PISA scores for the 2009 test are available online. The combined reading and literacy test scores for 15-year olds are listed in Table 3. The US average is 500, which puts it equal to Iceland and Poland, and above Germany. For the OECD group the US ranks 13 out of 34. Now let's look at the average US scores by race listed on Table 5.

white 525
Asian 541
black 441
Hispanic 466

How do these scores rank? Our Asian students are rank one! The Top. Our white students come in at rank 3, below Finland and Korea and just above Canada. Mexico's average score of 425 is dead last. Note that US Hispanics score better than Mexicans. Thus you cannot ignore the race variable if you want to understand the test scores.

How about science? From Table 8 we see the U.S. average score comes in at 502 which is rank 17 right in the middle. What happens when you breakdown the scores by race? The report suppresses this data, but if drill down deeply at the PISA website you can find this data.

white 532 rank= 5
Asian 536 rank= 4
black 435 rank = 33
Hispanic 464 rank= 30

We see the same effect with science literacy.

Now mathematics. Here the US comes in at 487 which is rank 25 out of 34. This does look bad. But again let's look at the racial breakdown.

white 515 rank= 8
Asian 524 rank= 7
black 423 rank = 33
Hispanic 453 rank= 30

Our white and Asian students do well and we see the low ranking is caused by the low back and Hispanic scores. Again you get a distorted picture from the average score because the scores within the US have a multimodal distribution.

We should note that our science, engineering and mathematics professionals are recruited from the upper tail of the score distribution, so comparing averages is deceptive. We should compare (say) the upper decile scores across countries.

Finally I note that Israel comes out low in the OECD rankings. Yet Israel produces more patents than all other countries except the US. That's not patents per capita, it's the absolute number. Again If you have to breakdown the scores by groups, I suspect that Ashkenazi Jews will have much higher scores than Israeli Arabs, and the oriental Jews.

brian writes:

Thanks for the information raijin. That data is pertinent to the discussion, and I am shocked that Russ and Eric didn't discuss it. Hanushek says the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. How is this possible when the majority of students, white and asian, are already at the top of the league tables?

I would like to see a graph showing achievement against population. I think Hanushek's assumes a bell curve (or normal distribution) and he thinks we can move the average by shifting the all the datapoints towards higher achievement. This is wrong, we have a lower average because of a long tail of drastic underachievement

It is obvious why charter schools have been successful in test scores. These schools are selecting for kids with parents that care about heir child's education. The parents have to act to sign their kids up for the charter school. I am amused that Eric says that Teachers are the most important.

Tim Smith writes:

Thanks for this interesting discussion. A few observations:

I agree with the above comments and suspect what drives real innovation and growth in a country is probably the top 5%, and I am sure in the US our top 5% do just as well as anyone. However, I have not seen the data.

We home schooled briefly because during graduate school it was too time consuming to drive out of our awful neighborhood to a school that was good in Minneapolis (of which there are many). My wife and daughter, doing school only 4 hours a day, did 2 complete grades (3 and 4th). I say that to support what I have found for all my children in school - school is completely inefficient and I feel bad every day sending my children to public schools. They spend an incredible amount of time doing fluff.

This does not even get into other bizarre aspects of school like teaching environmental advocacy as science. I joke with my friends just sending their children to public schools that I used to be a pro-environment guy, but to counter balance that absolute insane extremism my children are taught in school I have become anti-environment where I actually must teach my children to burn tires and pour chemicals in river just to get back to a baseline (of course I am joking - we don't actually burn the tires).

For some reason children with severe discipline problems are kept with the other children even when they have a clinical diagnosis. My son would joke about the child in his class who had "anger" issues for which he did not get in trouble and took up much of the teachers time.

School has become miserable. When I went to elementary school I got recess 15 minutes before lunch, 45 minutes with lunch if I ate fast, and 15 minutes after lunch. My children ALL at most get 15 minutes a day. Recess is often cancelled. I am in the top 5% of academic achievement in the US (I am currently an unproductive academic but I did great in school K-12) and as a small hyper boy I would have been as miserable as my hyper boys are sitting in a classroom all day with little outlet. Summer keeps getting shorter. I don't see a single positive trend in school for enjoyment. Let me back off that a little - my children watch more movies at school than they do at home and they like that - so that is a win for them.

The endless testing, retesting, pre-testing, ect for standardized tests. I don't mind teaching to good tests, but it has become such an obsession they seem to do little else. From my casual observation this effort on testing eats up 25% of the time. In the good old days when I went to school on Monday they announced we would take the Iowa exams on Friday and on Friday we took them and returned to learning.

Some teachers really are bad. After my sons teacher taught him something wrong and doubled down on it my wife had to write a letter to her explaining percents. She pulled my son aside and told him that his parents were correct, she never corrected the class. We are pretty supportive of teachers, but that was insane. My daughter had a teacher with cancer who during this tragic time continued to try and teach but essentially never taught - my daughter lost an entire year of English and was woefully under prepared for the next year.

So, in summary as a parent of several children now with 1 in high school my experience is that public education is an inefficient, ideological, miserable, test obsessed, and expensive enterprise and if I had the means to opt out of paying for it and do something different for educating my children I would in a heartbeat. But I cannot stop paying for it, lack the means to send my children to private schools, and lack the time to homeschool so we must do what every other middle class family does- buy a house we cannot afford to go to a school that has "good scores" but still has all the above problems, just less so.


Finally, any discussion about testing that does not address the heterogeneity of the US population relative to the homogeneous populations we are being compared to is incomplete. We would probably have better gains in testing in 2 generations by instituting policy changes that encouraged fathers to stay in the home than we would of firing the lowest 5% of teachers every few years (which would also be fine by me - we have had 1-2 bad ones and they were really bad).

MCM writes:

Richie,

Fair enough. I didn't think that through very well. I'm in Ohio, where school funding is based on enrollment and property wealth, according to the OH Dept of Ed. So there may be some marginal cost to the school district. But even if the school doesn't get my dollars, I don't get them back.

The other points still apply (I'm sure the local school district does NOT want me involved!). And homeschool and private school are often very costly for parents, in terms of tuition or time or both. (We're using private schools and are considering homeschooling next year to save cash and leverage my awesome wife's teaching & parenting ability. It's a big burden and my tax dollars back would be a nice help. But that's how taxes work.)

So there's still very little competition, and it's much more difficult for parents to exercise their choices than it is to, say, go to Target instead of Wal-Mart.

Most of my circle of friends thinks hard about what to do for their kids. But I know plenty of other people who just go along with the default and let the system take their kids and do whatever it does. I guess we all make tradeoffs according to our values and opportunity sets.

S writes:

Its hard to see how the simpon's paradox that raijin points out doesn't completely dismantle this thesis.

Michael Raijin writes:

@S

Exactly. For the PISA exam, race is the lurking variable. Unfortunately the U.S. is about the only country that provides a racial breakdown on the PISA scores. It would also be very helpful if they provided the score distributions for each country. Surely this would be easy to do, and be very helpful for analysts.

The distorted picture we get from the average scores provides exactly what the U.S. tech industry wants. An excuse to raise the caps on the H-1B non-immigrant visa program to provide them with cheap labor. They can point to the low rank in mathematics and claim the U.S. educational system is deficient. Therefore we have to import more skilled labor. This is fine with the educational industry too as it means they can ask for more money to correct the deficiencies that don't exist.

In my opinion, it's inexcusable that Hanushek has not discussed the lurking variable problem and we get no push back from Russ.

Notice how quiet they are.

[Let me get this straight. Rick Hanushek responded in the comment thread with a substantive comment already on the 28th. Russ has since interviewed another guest and produced another podcast even though we just had a 3-day holiday weekend--Labor Day. Plus we have all been working here on a bonus 2-hour video/audio podcast scheduled for tomorrow, Wednesday. But you are so impatient that you want to call on readers to interpret Russ and Rick not having more time to add still more in this comment thread or respond to you since your comment in the last 24 hours as their somehow meaningful silent inability to have any reasonable responses? I think you might learn some patience. Not every nonresponse means that there is nothing to say. People might just be busy. --Econlib Ed.]

Richie writes:

raijin wrote:

white 525 Asian 541 black 441 Hispanic 466

A while back I was looking at test scores in California (I don't think it was PISA - but it might have been) and comparing to the demographics of the various school districts. Hispanics and blacks typically had lower scores than Asian and white. Also, the lower economic districts had lower scores.

One thing I noticed is that the DISTRIBUTION of students seems to have an effect. If a school has 75% white+Asian students, the blacks and Hispanics generally had higher scores than if a school only has 50% white+Asian students.

Anecdotally, I can see how this would happen. In a school with a high population of students who are not interested in learning, they will tease the students who work hard (call them "nerds" or "teacher's pet", etc.), which would encourage some students to not work as hard. On the opposite end, if a school has a high percentage of good students, it would encourage some of the borderline students to work harder.

Richie writes:

Tim Smith wrote:

For some reason children with severe discipline problems are kept with the other children even when they have a clinical diagnosis. My son would joke about the child in his class who had "anger" issues for which he did not get in trouble and took up much of the teachers time.

Interesting statement. My wife (a teacher) was just describing a nearly identical situation to me the other day. She has a student (4th grade) who started the school year with extreme behavior problems. He has slightly improved, but she still lets him get away with way more than other students, because if she spent too much time punishing him, she'd have no time left for the rest of the class.

Richie writes:

s wrote:

Its hard to see how the simpon's paradox that raijin points out doesn't completely dismantle this thesis.

I don't see the Simpson's Paradox.

S writes:

Richie

The paradox is that the US can rank at the top, or near the top, in each ethnic catagory (speculating a bit on hispanic and black), but come out only 13 (at least in reading/literacy) because of overall demographic composition.

Best

Michael Raijin writes:

@Econlib ed

On Aug. 26, SJ made points similar to mine, albeit in a less quantitative way. On Aug. 28, Hanushek made a generic response, but he ducked the main issues. In his (2), he wrote,

"It represents my view that good teachers are the only answer we have for some of the low achievement we have-- low achievement for both disadvantaged students and all students."
But the PISA data contradicts his assertion that all American students have low achievement. As I wrote, our Asian students come in at rank one, and our white students come in at rank three. Where is the low achievement? We don't see that in the PISA data.

In his (5) he wrote,

"To me, it is shameful that we as a society permit the existing gaps to continue. We do know that good schools can work for all children regardless of racial or ethnic background. Simply saying that these gaps "explain" our low scores denies both the data on school quality and (to me) the societal obligation to work to eliminate these gaps."

This is really off topic because our K-12 system produces an ample supply of good students for higher education. In fact we have an over supply of engineers, physicists, mathematicians, lawyers etc. Of course it's always desirable to have a better educated citizenry, but it's not clear that the observed achievement gaps can ever be fully closed. Let's look at data. Here are the average IQ scores for the PISA testing groups.

Asian: 105
white: 100
black: 85
Hispanic: 90

Unless one believes that better teachers are somehow going to equalize the group IQs, we will always get significant score differentials on cognitively intensive tests. For example, the one standard deviation white-black difference has remained approximately constant for the last 80 years despite the changes in society and the huge increases in money spent on public education.

Finally I note that about a year ago EconTalk had an interview with Ronald Coase (who just died) where he lamented "blackboard economics." In my opinion, Hanushek has given us just that. In his interview and comment he's remained silent on the issues discussed my myself, SJ and others. He has failed to prove that the American educational system has significant problems. And that's good news!

Richie writes:

S,

According to the data above, the US ranks almost at the bottom for the black and Hispanic scores. Am I mis-reading something?

Bill writes:

Distracting exercise with cutting this x% here to get in the y% in the PISA (though I totally agree about dismissing terrible teachers). What are some institutional differences that cause such disparity between Canada and the US? Both are roughly analogous in terms of ethnic heterogeneity and income per capita.

It's clear that higher levels of state educational spending don't correlate with better results (Exhibit A: USA).
It also seems clear that it's not level of unionization (Exhibit B: Scandinavian countries), and I personally don't understand how ethnic homogeneity has much to do with anything.

Work rules and accountability?
Possibly. Cultural eagerness to learn? Meh.
Statistical issues (like international healthcare rankings wherein the metrics are designed to equate higher government involvement with better health care)?

S writes:

Richie

You are right but, like I said, I am speculating a bit on those categories because the comparison is between OECD countries. And there is only one non European Hispanic OECD country, and none that are predominantly black. And the one Hispanic country, Mexico, ranks last, below American Hispanics.

So it could be the case that the Hispanic mix here is more "favorable" than in Mexico making for an apples to oranges comparison.

It also could be the case that African Americans would score lower than Africans/Haitians/whoever (not sure they even take the test), but this one I wouldn't put money on.

Best

(P.S. as always, I could have missed something)

GCS writes:

Having gone through the California public school system and having taught in South Korea at a private academy (that students attend in the evenings AFTER public school), one of the biggest differences I have observed is the level of parental involvement between these two countries.

In South Korea parents are incredibly involved in their children's education, even going so far as to use up a significant portion of their paychecks to pay for additional private tutoring for their children. This is not just a common practice among the highest earners, this is typical for most middle-class families as well. How many parents in the US are willing to give up a major part of their paycheck so their children can get additional tutoring after public schools?

While one could argue that a 12 year old being in a classroom for 10 hours a day might be too extreme, I think it shows the dedication of the parents to their children's education that this practice is fairly common in South Korea. It also demonstrates why South Korea students tend to perform well on these international standardized tests.

Also, I didn't think the quality of teaching was any better. In fact, the English proficiency for a lot of the Korean teachers was pretty low.

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