An Interview of
Dr. Eric A. Hanushek – High Quality Education: Elements and Implications
Eric A. Hanushek, Ph.D. is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He is also chairman of the Executive Committee for the Texas Schools Project at the University of Texas at Dallas, a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a member of the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education.Additional bio info
His books include Courting Failure, Handbook on the Economics of Education, The Economics of Schooling and School Quality, Making Schools Work, Improving America's Schools, Educational Performance of the Poor, Education and Race, Assessing Knowledge of Retirement Behavior, Modern Political Economy, Improving Information for Social Policy Decisions, and Statistical Methods for Social Scientists.
"A good school is not necessarily the one that spends the most. A good teacher is not necessarily the one who has a master’s degree or has the most experience. We found there are big differences across schools and they are not closely related to our common ways of judging the quality of schools".
"It is not that somebody knows the current science, because the current science might be wrong, but it is that somebody knows how to learn about new science ... how to learn to do something they never thought about doing when they were in school. That is the key element".
"If students aren't prepared in their reading and comprehension abilities, they fall back in all areas".
The following transcript has not been edited for journal or magazine publication (see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.
David Boulton: I’m interested in formulating and presenting value-case arguments for investing in the health of children’s learning.That’s where your work comes in. In order to get society into that conversation we need to have a solid analysis of what affects the ‘quality’ of an individual’s learning as well as a larger scale view of what is at stake for all of us in having an education system that facilitates quality learning. So with that as a background I’d like to ask you to start with a short sketch of yourself and how your research came to focus on educational quality. I am particularly interested in your personal learning path and how that led you to the work you are doing at the Hoover Institution.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I started as a graduate student participating in a Harvard seminar on what the Coleman Report meant. This was a faculty seminar that Pat Moynihan and Fred Mosteller put together. It led me to write a dissertation in economics on the determinants of achievement, and that got me started looking at education issues. I’ve been doing it ever since.
Over time, I’ve become much more attuned to the fact that the real issues are quality of schooling, what kids know, and their achievement levels, not just how many years of school they get and when they finish.
David Boulton: Where quality of instruction meets quality of the learning environment from birth on.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Precisely. And I’ve spent a lot of time trying to look at how different aspects of families and schools, affects the learning of kids. But one of the things I’ve recently done is try to look at the economic implications of different learning outcomes, both for individuals and for society. There are a whole series of dimensions that you obviously are getting into that go beyond just simple economics. But I find the simple economics to be quite compelling.
David Boulton: Yes, that’s the where the case rises to a level that people can get their heads around it without requiring them to have an intimate understanding of what’s happening inside their children’s minds.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I’ve looked at the economic implications of schooling, and people who know more earn more; nations that do better in school grow faster than other nations. Even if we just look at the economic implications, the quality of our schools is extraordinarily important to us as a society and as individuals.
You brought up the Coleman Report, let’s talk about that.
The Coleman Report:
Dr. Eric Hanushek: The Coleman Report said overwhelmingly that parents were the most important determinant of achievement. There’s truth to the extent that parents are very important in the learning of children. But people went on to say that schools could not overcome these differences. That was the part which, I now think, was overstated at the time.
The Coleman Report was right in one sense, but misleading in another. It was right in the sense that all of the common measures of school quality we typically use are not good indicators of student achievement, and if you look at things like whether the teacher has a master’s degree or not, or experience, or certification and so forth, you find that those things are not related to whether students are going to learn a lot or not, so it was right in that dimension.
What it was wrong in is that schools do have a big influence on achievement. Lots of people walk away from the Coleman Report and say, “Well, this shows that schools aren’t very important.” I think that is dead wrong. With the research that you’ve been doing and others have been doing, the gist is that differences in teachers are extraordinarily important in terms of student achievement. What we found is that schools make a difference and a large difference. It is just that schools are not measured by the things Coleman thought were used to define schools. A good school is not necessarily the one that spends the most. A good teacher is not necessarily the one who has a master’s degree or has the most experience. We found there are big differences across schools and they are not closely related to our common ways of judging the quality of schools.
David Boulton: My question is, looking at the system as it’s functioning as a whole now, in terms of the effects that are attributed to school and the effects that are attributed to families, where is that distribution in your mind?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: It’s [school effects] very small, because what happens is that we don’t insure that many kids get good runs of teachers over time. If you get a good teacher one year, you’re just as likely to get a bad teacher the next year. The schools right now don’t tend to make up for differences in economic background or racial and ethnic background, and they don’t do a very good job at that because they aren’t geared to making sure that these kids get really high-quality teaching. They get this average teacher, which, on average, doesn’t make up for a family background. So I mean, in that sense, the Coleman view is correct, I think.
David Boulton: I think the Coleman view was roughly 80/20 family/school?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I’m not going to put any number on it because that’s really hard to do.
David Boulton: Okay.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I was one of the early people objecting to the way the Coleman Report did it.
David Boulton: Okay. I can appreciate that. Yet, there are clearly some effects that are coming out of the family that’s limiting the range of school effects. We know from work like yours and others that it’s not that we can’t compensate for this…
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right.
David Boulton: …but it takes greater energy, effort and intention to compensate for that, in terms of the quality of instruction these children are getting.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right. It takes different sets of policies to make sure that you get good teachers. Precisely.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to look at how different facets of families and schools, affect the learning of kids. I’ll give you a quick summary statement, and then we can talk.
David Boulton: Good.
The Economic Implications of Education Quality:
Dr. Eric Hanushek: If we look at performance on standardized tests that we’re giving for accountability purposes today, if somebody performs at the 85th percentile on these tests as opposed to the 50th percentile, in other words, if they’re above average on this, they can expect to earn something like 12 percent per year more, each and every year of their working life. It accumulates to a large amount of economic impact on individuals.
If you translate what knowledge means to the economy, you get more startling results. In the comparisons of math and science the U.S. has always performed around the middle or below in international comparison of performance. If the U.S. were to perform at the level of a middle European country, which is not the tops on this test, but doing better than we are, the nation as a whole could expect to have growth rates of around a half of one percent higher per year.
David Boulton: You’re talking about GDP?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I’m talking about GDP growth per capita. A half of a percent sounds like a small number, but it turns out to be a huge number. It has enormous implications for the financial well-being of the U.S. citizens in the future. The reason why we are the richest nation in the world today is that we’ve had the fastest growth rates in GDP per capita over the last century of any other country in the world, and growth rates accumulate to a big number. What my research suggests is that the quality of schooling is really very important, and we shouldn’t neglect this when we look at international comparisons. In the U.S., it is typical to ignore the fact that we don’t do well on these tests, and say, “Ah, well, the economy is doing fine anyways.”
David Boulton: But they’re not in time sync in that way. How well our education system is doing and how well our economy is doing – their relationship correlates but it’s hard to perceive because of the lag time.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: You’ve got it. This is a statement about what happens in the long run. The U.S. has grown well in the past, because it has lots of things going for it. It has free and open markets, unregulated markets for labor and products. It has little regulation. These are things that affect growth rates.
We’ve ignored the growing importance of school quality, so other nations are catching up in terms of opening up their markets, cutting down on regulations, and providing more quantity of schooling. Few people in society realize that the U.S. is only at the middle of the developed countries in terms of the quantity of schooling our population gets. European and Asian nations pushed hard at increasing how much schooling people get, and they’ve done it while maintaining quality.
The U.S. is starting to face a situation where we are not that competitive, in terms of either the quantity or quality of schooling that we’re providing our population.
David Boulton: Yet, there will be a significant lag time before the correlation will be apparent to most.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: People confuse these things by saying, “Well, we have low unemployment rates, or this, that, and the other thing,” and miss the whole fact. We’re talking about the long run and what happens over the next twenty to thirty years, as opposed to what happens six months from now.
David Boulton: Have you or anybody else you know of developed a map to co-register this data so as to show the correlations over time?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I could actually send you a quick paper on it.
David Boulton: Please do. Speaking to this difference and focusing on quality, do we have reliable econometrics to compare or to give ourselves the instrumentation we need to focus on improving quality?
No Child Left Behind:
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I think that we’re getting there with “No Child Left Behind.” And the accountability things are things that I’m very much in favor of. They’re not perfect. No Child Left Behind, you’ve probably heard everybody complain about that.
David Boulton: Sure.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: But in reality, states that have introduced the accountability sooner have done better in terms of performance on these tests. And so you know…
David Boulton: It’s not that we have some perfect or even well defined threshold out there, but the idea of moving towards improving in itself, gives a base reference for everything.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Exactly, exactly. And so you can spin out the implications for what happens over time if we could improve our schooling, and what are the economic implications, which I’ve spent some effort trying to do.
David Boulton: I’m just getting into this dimension of things, and I am delighted to find you.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: It sounds like you’ve gotten quite far into it though. I went to your website and I was quite impressed.
David Boulton: Well, thank you. We have an important mission. And underneath it all is stewarding the health of children’s learning. I think that’s the thing we’re missing metrics on. What’s happening from the time they’re born that is creating the cognitive, emotional, linguistic foundations that radiate throughout learning thereafter? How do schools help or hinder early learning trajectories? And so on.
The Equity Implications of Quality:
We gave a presentation for the Community Literacy Initiative in Oakland, in a church, with a number of people representing the African-American community. People there are trying to light a fire about literacy and its importance. As we started to share certain pieces of research, we found there were a lot of people in that community who feel that the mainstream research informing governmental policy and education’s direction seems to be insensitive to them.
It is a big generalization to hurl out, but in reflecting on your work, you seem to champion the equity issues, trying to help people understand what the data is saying about what works and what doesn’t, about accountability, and how that is radiating to create benefits for disadvantaged groups.
Let us unpack the role of education in creating more equal opportunity for children, regardless of their backgrounds, and what your work has brought to light about what is making a difference and what is not.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Throughout my academic career I have been concerned with a variety of distributional issues: Why is it that black students and black workers do worse than whites on average? What is it, and what are we doing to try to take care of that? With a lot of concern about the distribution of income in society, we know it is closely related to the skills we have given workers over their lifetimes.
If we want to do something about making the outcomes more equal in our society, we have to concentrate on the skills we provide people. Just giving money to people when they don’t have as much money doesn’t always solve the problem. It does not lead to long-run solutions that lead to better operation of the economy and more equitable outcomes. We concentrate on the skills.
David Boulton: Like the Chinese proverb, “I’d rather teach them how to fish than give them a fish.”
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Our society has done well by rewarding people for the skills and work they have. That led to great accomplishments in the U.S. economy, which can be traced back to the skills of the U.S. workers and the ability to innovate, introduce new technology, and increase productivity over time. We don’t want to deal with equity issues in ways that harm the outcomes of the economy.
In the Lyndon Johnson Presidency, we thought of the war on poverty, not as giving more money to people in poverty but solving poverty by changing the skills and the abilities of the people in the economy. Those arguments were right. At the same time, we haven’t done a good job of making sure we equalize the opportunities and skills that are given.
Part of that relates to problems we have in the debate about how to improve schools. Much of the debate about equalizing skills and the quality of schooling has come down to: Are we spending as much in this school as we are in that school? Somehow, people believe that if we spend the same amount we equalize the opportunities and skills in all schools. The research we’ve done over a long period of time shows that is not a good measure. We want to make sure that we provide the best opportunities. Just providing the money has not worked very well at providing the high quality schools we need. When we go to inner cities, the debate over whether we should spend more money or not may be important at some point, but there is a prior debate about how we make sure we have the very best high-quality teachers in these schools, and that is not always related to how much we spend per student.
David Boulton: We need to have a better scientific consensus that more people in education understand about the criteria we are using to allocate our resources.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: We have to worry about how we wisely spend those resources. We are making a lot of progress in setting the right background for these questions. We have now started to provide detailed information about the performance of students.
If we want to talk about equity and equalized opportunities, we should focus on what the distribution of learning is, what people know, and what the black students in Oakland know compared to the white students in Oakland or in Brooklyn. Once we establish that, then we can get down to the business of making them equal and figuring out how to improve our schools and provide the resources and background that lead to equalizing the outcomes. It has been a long time getting to the point where we can talk about equity in terms of the things we care about and what students know.
David Boulton: As indicated by the various assessment mechanisms that we’re employing to tell us how students are doing, what is making the big differences?
Teacher Quality and Student Achievement:
Dr. Eric Hanushek: The quality of teachers is essential and has a huge impact on student achievement, but this is hard to measure. People want to measure teacher quality in simple terms, by their backgrounds or other easily observed characteristics. They are not good measures of teacher effectiveness. The phrase “quality of teachers” means a person who gets higher rates of achievement out of students than other teachers. There are teachers who get high rates of learning out of their students each year, and some do not.
We are getting better at measuring what students know. What you want to look at is: How fast does the knowledge that students have increase over time? We look at students who start fourth grade a little behind. Do they end up at the end of the fourth grade still behind, or do they end up farther ahead than they started? That is the importance of teachers, in my opinion.
David Boulton: You see their shift in the probable trajectories; you see the performance increase in a way that you can correlate with the teacher, rather than the other variables.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Behind all my statements about teacher quality are complicated statistical analyses designed to make sure we know it is the teacher and not other characteristics of the classroom. We look at the same teachers with different groups of students and see if they consistently get achievement improvements. We look at individual students and see whether they learn more with some teachers than with others. By looking at those two things, we narrow the variables to the impact of teachers, as opposed to the impact of the students themselves.
David Boulton: You are not speaking from an ungrounded theory; you are not a philosopher. You’re dealing with data sets and refined scientific methodologies for mining data, to develop hypotheses and conclusions that feed into the opinions which you are sharing now. This is different than many of the opinions that get bandied about.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Much educational research involves people going into classrooms and sorting out what teachers are doing, what students are doing, and making judgments from observations. We have had problems generalizing that to all of the teachers we see. The work I have done has taken available information about the reading, math, and science abilities of students, then looking at what factors led some kids to learn more and some to learn less. We know parents are very important, but we realize that high quality schools can make up for deficiencies children bring to classrooms.
I’ve been doing a lot of work in Texas schools trying to learn why some kids in Texas learn more than others. We went out to find how much variation there is in teacher quality, where we measure teacher quality by the gains that students have in classrooms with individual teachers. We bent over backwards to make sure that we didn’t inflate these numbers, to make sure that we took into account all the facts, that the better parents tend to select certain schools. If you make the most conservative estimates possible, we find that if you have a good teacher, meaning a teacher that’s at the 85th percentile or one standard deviation above the mean. If you had a good teacher five years in a row, you could completely make up for the difference between low-income and middle income achievement, on average. Having good teachers a number of years in a row can offset the disadvantages that some kids have from being less prepared coming to school and from their families not giving them the same start.
David Boulton: This is an important point. Can schools make a difference in compensating for these varied backgrounds children come to school with? My understanding from others is that student performance is predominantly the result of the effects of experiences happening outside of school, but school is where the greatest opportunity is to make a difference that equalizes opportunities.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Sure, absolutely. Parents prepare children at different rates. Some kids come to school much less prepared than others. It turns out to be highly correlated with the socioeconomic backgrounds of parents. That is one of the things that we hope to deal with. How can we deal with differential backgrounds and overcome the fact that some kids get a bad draw, in terms of the knowledge they get from their parents?
There is enough leverage in schools to change where children are, even if they come less prepared to school. Part of the problem we have is that schools don’t systematically make sure there are always top-rated teachers available to every child. Schools provide a really good teacher one year, then the next year, they go the opposite way, so we don’t always add up to a set of schooling experiences that overcome background differences.
A Critical Window:
David Boulton: As you know we are interested in how learning to read affects learning in general, how it affects attitudes about learning, attention span, emotional frustration and confusion tolerance. Drawing from research in the neurosciences, linguistics, and early childhood development, people like Dr. Jack Shonkoff show there is a sensitive period in the trajectory of developmental readiness. It seems as if children who aren’t ready for the challenges encountered in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade, can get in trouble in a way that not only knocks them out of sync with where the curriculum is heading but knocks them out of sync with themselves in a psychological way. There is a critical window in the front end of education, where it is necessary to assess, meet, and read where children are, then give them the scaffolding they need to get into the code before they are get lost in a dangerously negative trajectory.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: The work I have done has tried to look at the growth patterns of students and how we can change their trajectory of learning. What we know is that children come to school, at the very earliest part of school, in kindergarten and first grade, with huge differences in terms of their background and learning. We know their vocabularies are very different. This is associated often with the education and background of the parents.
When we go through the early reading years and get into the tougher business of comprehension of reading materials, how fast we read complicated materials, and how much of it we understand, we see that it is important to be prepared at that point. That is the point where the mathematics curriculum takes off, the social studies curriculum takes off, and the science curriculum. If students aren’t prepared in their reading and comprehension abilities, they fall back in all areas.
When I look at the data on performance later in school, as students get into secondary grades, these scores are highly correlated for any individual. People who read well know more science and mathematics. Part of that might be innate ability, but part of it is the ability to build upon what they know and get to new points.
David Boulton: And also their confidence in learning and frustration tolerance for confusion and others variables. To summarize this point, you are bringing your lens between how well somebody is reading as they come into these more complex areas of curriculum and how well the rest of their school unfolds.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Absolutely, all these things matter. But the ability to pick up a textbook in any area and figure it out relies upon having high levels of comprehension, which relies upon having high levels of knowledge in general: knowledge of history, politics, and society. We are finding that basic comprehension requires lots of basic knowledge, so it all fits together.
David Boulton: So you are seeing a correspondence between reading, student performance in general, worker skills, and life-long economic opportunity.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Absolutely, absolutely. One of the things that economists have looked at in great detail is how skills differ across individuals and how they’re rewarded in the labor market. Economists have spent a lot of time thinking about how much schooling somebody has. Recently, we’ve found that how good the schooling is, is also very important. As we’ve started to measure the quality of what people know, how much they comprehend and how much they know, we find that is related to the performance in the labor market.
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: My interpretation is that if we really look at what differences in teacher quality mean, you see they can overcome pretty severe deficits.
David Boulton: One of the things that I know you’ve spent significant time studying is class size effects.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Yeah.
David Boulton: This plugs back in, as many of these pieces do, to the quality argument.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: My study suggests that reducing class size is a very ineffective way of improving student achievement. Without fighting too hard, I mean — even if we take the magnitude of estimates, that the proponents of class size reduction say there are — these are very small effects, and they’re very expensive. The effects of class size reduction are dwarfed by variations in teacher quality. From a policy viewpoint, if you looked at what’s the right way to improve the achievement of students, I would always go toward teacher quality, as opposed to trying to take the current average teacher and spread them over fewer kids.
The dilemma faced by policy makers, parents and other decision makers is: How do we insure high quality schools and how do we measure them? How do we know when we have achieved something? The problem is that once we have said we want high quality schools, we go to simplistic measures of the resources available in schools. We look at what the class sizes are. We look at what the teachers are paid. We look at the degrees of teachers.
Unfortunately, these are bad metrics. They are bad ways to measure quality. As much as we do not like to believe it, none of these are closely related to student performance. When we go too quickly into the debate about these issues, we lose sight of the fact that we are really concerned about what the students know and student outcomes.
David Boulton: That was really important and well said. We almost have to de-mythologize our general society’s sense of what we have thought makes the difference and learn to come to a new list of what is important. Right now, that is still in the fog. It is people like you whose work is bringing that to attention with a certain quality of scientific rigor that makes it less arguable than all of the general fuzziness out there.
Deeper into Teacher Quality:
David Boulton: If it’s not the class size and it’s not the degrees of the teacher, and it’s not how many dollars per student is being spent, what is it?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: People throw up their hands, because they say: If you can not tell me precisely what it is, what can we do about it? The answer is we can not say precisely what it is. We know there are great teachers who are starting out and do not have master’s degrees or much experience, and we know there are great teachers who have lots of experience and masters degrees. We also know the opposite; there are very poor teachers in both of those situations.
Everybody is looking for an answer that is much simpler than reality, which is that teaching is a complicated business. Classroom instruction and learning, the interaction between the teachers and student, is a difficult business.
To get similar levels of learning out of students, many teachers approach the situation in different ways. Our research methods are currently incapable of sorting out the various ways in which learning goes on in classrooms and the characteristics that are important.
Many people achieve the same results from different avenues and with different backgrounds of the teachers. Our research looks for these ways that lead to better performance. It hasn’t allowed for the complexity of what actually goes on.
Some people compensate for less subject matter knowledge by more preparation and better presentation materials. Other people don’t think much about preparation because they have the background and subject matter knowledge, and they just go in and wing it. In both cases, you can have very good learning going on. You can also have dreadful learning when people are unprepared or do not know their subject matter. It’s hard to pick out the single elements that add up to a good teacher.
The real problem is developing policies based on insuring that certain characteristics are met. When we certify teachers, we have a list of backgrounds and attributes they should have in order to be acceptable.
The economist has a different perspective on this. The economist would say: Let us define what we want to achieve, what our measure of knowledge in learning is, then we will reward more of that, and penalize less of that. Teachers who are able to get more learning in their classrooms should be rewarded or provided incentives to do that and to stay in teaching. Teachers who cannot get the levels of achievement and outcomes in students that we care about should not be encouraged. We should not have incentives for them to stay in teaching, but we should have incentives for them to do other things where they might be more productive.
David Boulton: That makes perfect sense at a high altitude policy level. It sounds like black-boxing. Look inside this box. We’re not telling you what to do, but your box has got to be productive. If it is not sufficiently productive, then we are going to consider that your box isn’t working very well, and you just take your box somewhere else. That creates a motivational pressure on the teacher to have a better box, but it is not informing them in the same way about how to vary their practices or learn ways to be more effective. That has to come from other angles.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: To be sure. How teachers get to be good at this is a little unclear. We have some bits and pieces from research that others have done. Others looked at the effects of varying curricula, on learning; others looked at the effects of different amounts of subject matter, different pedagogy.
We have not been good at getting universal truths in these areas, the things that always work and indicate failure if you don’t have them. That is partly why the economist is more happy with the black box, because if somebody can do well without having all of this background, fine. We will let them do it. Others may be helped by getting some of this material and may become good teachers.
We do not know how malleable anybody is in teaching. There is imperfect information about whether we can take people and make them into high quality teachers with the right professional development, with the right pre-service training. We don’t have that information now about how malleable people are. I don’t want to lean on that as much as I would like to also be more serious about the selection of teachers.
One view of providing incentives is that we make teachers work harder, make them put in more effort, make them do things differently. There’s another view of the incentives which is: We want to use incentives to encourage the good people to stay in teaching, to continue doing well. We want to discourage the others who are not doing well. For one reason or another, either they do not have the right background and training or they do not have the right traits to do this complicated job.
David Boulton: Right. And what are the primary attributes of teacher quality that you track?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Well, this has been the Holy Grail of research, and it’s been about as successful as our searches for the Holy Grail. It turns out that none of the measured attributes of teachers that we commonly use are very closely tied to differences in teacher quality, as seen from what happens in the classroom.
David Boulton: You mean, trying to match attributes of teacher quality to attributes of student learning outcomes?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Yes, whenever I say “teacher quality,” it’s synonymous with the rate of achievement scores of kids in classrooms.
David Boulton: I just want to make sure we’re using the same language.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: This is a little bit confusing, but it sounds like you’re used to speaking in my terms.
David Boulton: I’m trying to learn my way into speaking on the same level with you in these terms because I appreciate the distinctions that you’re bringing in.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: None of the measured attributes that we’ve always used for teacher quality are very closely related to what the student achievement outcomes are in classrooms. My own view of what that implies is that we should just pay attention to what happens in the classrooms. If we’re interested in student achievement, we ought to focus on student achievement, reward those who are good at getting more student achievement, and not reward those that are bad.
David Boulton: I had an interview with Richard Allington who was recently President of the International Reading Association. He is frowned on by many because he, for the longest time, has been a whole language advocate. I’m not a whole language advocate, but I am interested in trying to understand every perspective here. One of the things that came up was that he conducted the country’s largest survey of teachers, relative to how various attributes of teachers correspond to increases in student learning outcomes. Not surprisingly, he found that it wasn’t the knowledge expertise of the teacher, and it wasn’t the self-esteem centricity of the teacher in terms of trying to make the children feel good, it came down to the quality of the teacher’s interaction with students at the level of: constantly recursively calling the child back into inquiry, back into learning.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: That may be true. My own view is idiosyncratic on this. It has been thoroughly researched. I have an explanation for what I’ve seen.
David Boulton: Good. I’d love to hear it.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: My explanation of what we see is that the teaching process is complicated, and it has all kinds of interactions. People behave differently in the classroom, and different behaviors can get the same gains, so that some people can do it one way and other people another way. What all of our research methods do is get a linear model of what contributes to student achievement. If we take a little bit of subject matter knowledge, a little bit of master’s degree, a little bit of experience, and so forth, we can add up to what a good teacher is. In reality, I think that’s wrong. I like to think of it as innate ability, which we might find in our human genome project here. Some people are good at getting students to learn, and other people aren’t. We aren’t able to describe it either in the way Allington does, where he’s looking for which linear factor or what linear measures contribute most to achievement, more systematically because I just don’t think it’s that way. People with the same measure of characteristics produce very different achievement.
David Boulton: That speaks to a certain limitation in the granularity of our understanding of what constitutes good teaching.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I think it’s that. It’s all very nonlinear. I know that I can never tell jokes in the classroom, and so I never try to get their attention by telling jokes.
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I substitute other things, you know. Some people are very warm and loving to kids, and they get their attention. You get kids who want to learn. Some like teachers who are real jerks, but they’re good teachers. Good teachers play to their strengths and do the things that are important. Bad teachers don’t know how to make these substitutions or to get the kids’ attention. They keep doing things that aren’t effective. That’s an idiosyncratic view. I don’t know how to test this. What I have is an explanation for why none of the attempts to find the characteristics have worked well.
David Boulton: There isn’t ‘one right way’.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: That’s exactly it. That’s what the research does. It looks for the one right way to do it. It says, if we could make every teacher do this, then we would be good. We don’t find that right way very often, so anybody who finds any shred that’s statistically, significantly related to achievement, they say, “Here’s the right way.” The research I’ve done and others have done on these variations in teacher quality don’t indicate that’s the way.
David Boulton: It fits well with what we know about student learning, in the sense that there isn’t a right way; the right way is the way that works right for the one who is learning.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I think that is a good analogy.
Performance Based Teacher Incentives:
Dr. Eric Hanushek: What I go to, then, is the policy implications of this and I just lay them out. I mean, the common argument is: if we need better teachers, we have to pay them more. My view is that’s not correct at all. We do have to compete for people who are good in the classroom, but paying everybody the same amount more doesn’t mean that you’ll get better teachers. You know, bad teachers like more salary as much as good teachers, as far as I can tell.
David Boulton: Sure.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: It says that you have to pay attention to the quality in the classroom, and…
David Boulton: And index that to incentives in some way.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Exactly, exactly. But this kind of overview of different incentives does conflict with the views of people in the schools. Some people in the schools are doing an extraordinary job, and we want to keep them there. Other people in the schools are not doing well and their perspectives on whether we should reward performance or not are different.
David Boulton: They are the ones we encounter who are quick to say: “Well, there is a bell curve, and a lot of kids just are not going to make it.”
Cori Stennet: “And I need my job’s medical insurance.”
David Boulton: That’s one of the things Haberman is really good at, talking about, the incentives that support teachers towards not being good teachers.
The difficulty is that the high-level system view of improvement does not connect to the lower-level teacher training, teacher development track. Have you encountered Martin Haberman’s work?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I’ve seen a little bit about it. As I understand it, the evidence is not completely clear. He has these different selection devices, right?
David Boulton: I am not an advocate for him, Allignton or any of the other people we’ve talked to, but it seems there is a remarkable parallel between researchers focused on ways of parenting and researchers focused on ways of teaching. For example, the language engagement that children get early on from their parents affects how well they take off in reading later on in school. There is a certain way parents relate to children that seems to be helpful for getting them up the road.
Allington, Haberman and others studying teacher behaviors seem to be finding similar attributes in good teachers. Both good teachers and good parents meaningfully engage children and support them while pulling them into greater complexity – they help them ‘learn to participate in the learning’ rather than ‘broadcasting at them’.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Well. That’s is getting a little bit more detailed on the black box. We try to stay away from too much speculation.
David Boulton: All right. I appreciate that. Yet, we do want to learn through these various perspectives and if we want to go from the black box to the quantum probabilities inside of it, it seems these kind of orientations play a role.
The Importance of Early Language Development:
David Boulton: One aspect of our work is trying to correlate a number of different fields that show the importance of what’s happening to children from birth until they get to school. There is one plane of that research which is coming from neuroscience, talking about how neurons wire and fire. Another has to do with the frequency of language engagement and the use of complex and different vocabulary which is exercising the brain’s cognitive-linguistic processing. Are you familiar with Hart & Risley’s work?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: No, not by their name.
David Boulton: They performed a study across the socioeconomic spectrum that studied the language exposure children were experiencing from birth until…
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Oh, this is 3,000 words versus 20,000 words.
David Boulton: Well, actually, the difference across the spectrum over four years is like 30 million words.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Oh, is that right?
David Boulton: Yeah, it’s staggering.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I mean, I haven’t seen the numbers, but I know there are huge differences, particularly as correlated with SES.
David Boulton: Although the main correlation is less with SES and more with the degree of talkativeness of parents, in terms of how language exposure/participation predicts IQ, how it predicts picture/vocabulary recognition, and how it predicts third and fourth grade reading scores. It strongly suggests language that’s developing before four years old is having about an 80 percent effect on reading scores in the fourth grade.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Really? That’s a staggering correlation. I’ve seen those answers, and they do condition the way I think about it, although it’s at a different level and different focus than my work.
David Boulton: I understand that. I’m just saying that this is kind of a backdrop. On the one hand, we’ve got the neuroscientists saying something about what’s effective for the brain’s ecology of learning. On another level, disconnected from the neuroscience directly, are these observations made with researchers actually coming into the home and recording and counting and assessing the words and vocabulary, and then correlating that with other research. These seem to overlap and dovetail well, they describe the criticalness of this early developmental window, in terms of the language exercise that is creating the brain’s capacity but also in terms of what you might call the threshold of affect, the degree to which the child can handle frustration and confusion later in life without ‘shaming out’ – without becoming self-negative. Those are powerful pieces, and they’re not well understood in education, yet.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I believe some of this on an intuitive level and have seen a little bit of the research, but mainly summaries. I haven’t looked at the research in any detail. I’m not sure that I have anything specific to say about it.
David Boulton: I understand. This seems to correlate with the effect of families and the effect of schools, and they seem to line up with each other in a certain way, even though that wasn’t their intention, and they’re coming from such different “scopes.”
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I’m willing to believe that. We do know there are huge differences in how well prepared kids come to the schools.
Deeper into Reading:
David Boulton: So in your studies, have you come across any particular models of compensating for these differences? I mean some significant part of, at least K-6 expenditures, are trying to level the field relative to these variations, yes?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Sure. I’m a consumer of these different curricular ideas and we have a lot about teaching kids how to read, and the whole language versus phonics and other things, up to about K-3, about third grade or so. After that there seems to be huge questions, as I see the sort of intensive work on what’s going on, about how you teach comprehension. Although the people I listen to suggest that lots of vocabulary and specific knowledge helps in comprehension and pushing people further.
David Boulton: It’s fundamental, both at the exercise of phonemic differentiation and the speed of processing required…
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right.
David Boulton: …but also in having a backdrop for this virtual reality code-induced experience to play in order to be tracking anything.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I should say one thing here. If in fact that’s true, and you have these huge differences in vocabulary and other things coming into school or in early grades, it really says that you’re going to have a hard time fully making up for these differences, because the kids who are ahead are going to stay ahead, unless you put them in a closet for several years while you try to catch the other kids up.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: No, I don’t know that. You’re in a whole range of things that I only vaguely know about.
David Boulton: Well the point here is exactly what you were talking about. Kids who have the right levelof readiness when they encounter the confusions and challenges of reading are able to sustain themselves through the frustrating confusions and challenges and start to have positive experiences, which bootstrap and ratchet them up into doing better.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Yeah.
David Boulton: Those who don’t, to put it simply, “shame out” in relation to the confusion and enter a downward spiral.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I believe that that could happen. I think some teachers are better able than others to bring people along fast enough to start catching up. That’s what I’ve given most of my attention to, what institutional structures that provide the best compensation. It’s an uphill struggle, and the farther you go along, the more the difficult it is. That’s what I take away from a lot of this work.
David Boulton: Right. I’m going to ask for some numbers, and if you don’t feel comfortable with that, maybe you could point us to other sources for it. How much money do we spend on K-6, and what percentage of that is really trying to compensate for these variations? Do we know that?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: No, we don’t know that. We know, sort of, how much goes into Title One versus other compensatory spending. I am always reluctant as an economist to translate this into spending numbers, for the simple reason that it follows along with the Coleman stuff. Spending is loosely, if at all, correlated with the quality of the schools and what they do, so that if we spend money in the way we’ve been spending it now, we could spend an infinite amount and not get much gain.
David Boulton: Without necessarily saying what the effect of our spending is, we could say that we’re spending so much with the intention of operating…
Dr. Eric Hanushek: With the intention, well, the best numbers would just be that–best numbers. I mean, one set of numbers is the amount that goes into compensatory education, which, as a first approximation, is the federal share of spending, which is seven percent.
David Boulton: OK.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: A second approximation presumably includes what you do about Special Ed, what you do about language, and so forth. Some of that is in the federal share, but a lot of that is in the state share. So 20 percent of our spending probably goes towards Special Ed students, in general. I mean, 12 or 13 percent of the population probably gets 20 percent of the spending. So that goes along to what you’re saying, because most of that is not severe physical — or physical handicaps; most of it is towards learning disabilities.
Learned Learning Disabilities:
David Boulton: Interestingly, if you look at the information on learning disabilities collected by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, or by Reid Lyon, at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, there’s a consensus that at the neuro-biologically innately ordered level we’re talking about five percent or less who have learning disabilities.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Systemic, as opposed to they’re not reading very well.
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I like Jack Fletcher and Reid Lyon’s summary of that work, which says that a number of things we call “Special Ed” now are caused by very bad reading training early on, so that they’re behind, and they look like learning disabled.
David Boulton: Yes.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I accept that work. So that’s, in part, what I’m saying, is to get this estimate. We don’t track things quite the way you asked the question, but it would be basically Special Ed spending, plus probably LEP training, plus compensatory Title One training.
Back to the Costs of Unreadiness:
There’s also a question of how to interpret your question, is it the marginal spending above what we normally spend, or is it the total spending on kids that have these problems? I don’t know how you want to think about that.
David Boulton: I’m just exploring how much of our educational energy and resources are going into compensating for these variations that are developing before school or outside of school.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Just taking the funding streams, my approximation off the top of my head is that 30 percent of our spending is going in that direction. Because if I add up all the spending on Special Ed kids, plus the additional spending on LEP and compensatory things, it’s probably 30 percent.
David Boulton: That’s helpful.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: All of these things have a huge margin of error. That would be my first approximation of what we’re doing.
David Boulton: Right. At the core of all of this, for me, is how do we start to appreciate the capital value of stewarding the health of children’s learning from early on in terms of its effects on school success later? As you know, Dr. James Heckman is working on the productivity argument for investing in young children. I am interested in both the more profound and heartfelt side of the effect of this on the quality of life of the individual, as well as on the effects on all of us, in terms of the socioeconomic implications?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right, right.
David Boulton: And it seems to me as if a significant part of our educational efforts are after the fact, and neurologically…
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Yeah.
David Boulton: …and otherwise inefficient attempts to compensate…
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right…
David Boulton: …for variations happening before our institutions can reach these kids.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: There are still some leaps of faith about what you could do early on. But you know, I agree with that, generally.
David Boulton: Without talking about what to do, just in terms of cause and effect, Iet’s try to separate these out a little bit.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right. I think that’s reasonable. I like the way Heckman has been doing a lot of this with thinking about the timing of investments.
David Boulton: Good.
Preschool Programs (Perry Preschool, Head Start, Even Start):
Dr. Eric Hanushek: The caveat is that if we thought about policies and institutions, we don’t have really strong evidence on what preschools can do. There’s some evidence that’s quite suggestive, that I tend to believe, but the evidence is still a bit thin at this point.
David Boulton: What evidence are you referring to when you say that? Efforts like the Perry Preschool Project?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Oh, the fifty-eight kids in Perry Preschool.
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: You feel a little bit queasy making…
David Boulton: Any generalizations from such a small pool.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: …huge generalizations…
David Boulton: Yeah, right.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: …from fifty-eight kids.
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: It actually goes a little bit beyond that, but not a huge amount beyond that. Perry Preschool was different than Head Start, which we put $10 billion a year into.
David Boulton: Right. Head Start is slowly catching up, from my sense of the conversations with some people there. For the longest time, they were adverse to any intentional compensational instruction.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Yeah, that’s been a disaster. I think originally when Head Start was first developed, the idea was that this would be a compensatory education program. Then they got evidence that suggested they weren’t doing that, so they relabeled it as a health and nutrition program and have stayed away from doing anything that’s educational. They’re now being pushed further in that direction.
David Boulton: They’re now starting to speak about how to intentionally engage children in more complex verbal exchanges and to introduce them to the alphabet and pre-literacy exercises, in a way that is brand new. I mean, it’s only a couple years old with them.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Well, it’s probably too strong, but I tend to view Head Start as a community development employment program as opposed to a learning program as a part of our education.
David Boulton: Right. And do you have a sense of Even Start?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: No.
David Boulton: Okay.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Part of the problem is that the evaluations of these have not been well done, as far as I can tell.
David Boulton: It’s difficult to form any kind of realistic assessment of them given the variables and the sloppiness in the data.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right, and their reluctance to even use programs in the dimensions were discussing.
David Boulton: Right. Well, it seems that though we have not found solid formulas or models for intervening early in the lives of children, either in the family or in the institutions that can reach them, it does seem as if there’s an implicit cost value argument for doing that.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I think we ought to be experimenting a lot more in those forums. A lot of people are jumping on that bandwagon, in part because they’ve found that the school programs haven’t been that successful, and that this is an appealing kind of thing.
David Boulton: Right. The movement towards universal preschool for example. There’s certain evidence from the other side of the fence, from the language studies and neuroscience, that while the preschool can help, they’re still working to compensate for deficits that are at the family level.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I still think we’re short on a lot of evidence about how the institution of preschool might interact with this. I agree with the general point that we see huge deficits of some kids coming into schools, and if we found some way to deal with that, the rest of life would be a lot easier.
Insufficient Learning Environments:
David Boulton: Going back to the point that you referenced with Reid Lyon and Fletcher, 95 percent of the difficulty, if you invert the 5 to 6%, is learned. It’s not a deficit in the children. The children are reflecting a deficit in their learning environments.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Exactly.
David Boulton: That seems like a critical inversion in thinking that hasn’t caught on yet.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: That’s true. There are all kinds of politics and funny things behind it, but this Special Ed lobby is not supportive or hasn’t been supportive of the Lyon/Fletcher view.
David Boulton: I’ll have to investigate that, and I appreciate that you have a unique vantage in overseeing so many different movements here at a macro level. I appreciate the topological view.
Is there anything else that, in the space of this conversation, that’s interested you and that we should talk about? Again, one of the things I’m trying to do is to cross-pollinate different disciplines at the same time synthesize and make these issues more accessible to teachers and parents. We’ve got to connect all these different layers in a fresh way so a more compelling and coherent picture emerges.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I like what you’re doing. I like the way you’re pulling it together. Actually, you can teach me a lot about what some of the neuroscientists are doing. I’ve been watching from afar. It’s hard for me to summarize that and keep abreast of it. I’m looking forward to getting your views on all of that.
The Uniquely Artificial Challenge of Learning to Read:
David Boulton: One of the things that I would share with you, which I think is the most important, in terms of the things that we’ve discovered, is that reading represents a very unique and artificial form of confusion to the human organism. It is distinct from spelling and mathematics, in that it has to be processed at a rate, at a speed, that’s faster than consciousness, that’s faster than conscious volitional thought can participate in. It is unlike spelling or mathematics, where you have time to think about it.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right.
David Boulton: In the course of learning to read, children are having to interface with a technology, this code that we use to write with. This code has only existed for a little while, 3,500 years or so, and in its current form, the English form, only a few hundred years. Only a small percentage of the population used it, until recently. There’s no evolutionary instantiation supporting it. The correspondence between letters and sounds, and the different levels of the construction of our writing system represents a kind of artificially confusing environment that nothing before it prepares a child to deal with.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I’m interested. I am curious about one thing you said. How would you verify that this is something qualitatively different than learning mathematics?
David Boulton: There are a couple of different ways to come to that. Mathematics is something that you can consciously participate in. You can actually, volitionally, intentionally think about how to work things out.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Yes.
David Boulton: The kind of challenges associated with making an internal, virtual-language, experience from this code — reading — are of a different order than anything the child experiences before it. The average time you have to process a letter into a sound is about 25 milliseconds. The brain has to develop the automatic, unconscious, ability to process a confusing technological artifact into a virtual language experience in a way that’s not comparable to anything else.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: It sounds reasonable to me. I’m just pushing you a little bit to clarify what you mean.
David Boulton: Please do. I appreciate the push, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Does that mean that reading problems are all smaller than mathematics problems, and that mathematics problems are big enough that you can grasp, and so the way we look at reading is on a much smaller granularity, or something, than math?
David Boulton: They’re related in a couple of other ways. As you’re probably aware, our system of mathematics is an extension of the alphabet, the idea of place holders, variables, and such are analogs. The kind of cognitive infrastructure that’s developed during the reading process, the ability to manipulate abstract representations and assemble them is part of what makes math possible.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Yes.
David Boulton: So reading is an exercise environment that helps develops the cognitive musculature that supports mathematics when mathematics comes in.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I’m willing to accept this. It’s something I’ve never thought about before, so I’m fascinated by this whole thing.
David Boulton: One of the ways that we’re looking at it, and it’s why we say “Children of the Code” is that when you look at the affect of the alphabet, of our writing technology, it is clearly the most powerful and influential technology in the history of history.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Yes.
David Boulton: Everything sits on top of it. Not only so much of our outside world of institutions but also what reading has done to our minds and how we slice, dice, organize, and describe. There are a lot of people who have done great work on this in terms of our capacity for abstraction, generalization, high-speed processing, and assembly.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Yes.
David Boulton: There are so many things that reading and writing have brought forth in the world outside and the world within us. But we’re also talking about a technological contrivance over which there has been a history of gross negligence, particularly in terms of how the English writing system comes to the shape that it’s in.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right.
The Cost of Reading Failure:
David Boulton: Reading is the gateway to educational success and to worldly success on many levels. And more importantly — and this is the thing that’s another dimension of our work that I think is really important– children who struggle too long are developing what you might think of as a preconscious shame aversion to avoid the pain they feel in this confusion. So children who don’t have the right cognitive and affective development in their early years, when they hit the confusions that go into reading —Reid Lyon speaks to this quite well—they shame out. Their first response to this confusion is not, “Hey, something is wrong with this technology.”Their first response is, “Something is wrong with me.”
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right.
David Boulton: So the technology, and our failure to understand it in relation to the language foundation and all these other dimensions has created a situation where a significant number of our children are growing up learning to feel ashamed of the functioning of their mind in relation to certain complex cognitive tasks. That creates the learning aversion, which becomes the learning disability that Lyon and Fletcher are talking about.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Okay.
David Boulton: So that connects up with the social pathology, because children that develop an aversion to the feel of confusion are also cut off from learning more generally than just that particular confusion.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Yes.
David Boulton: Children who are at risk for reading failure are at risk for emotional learning problems.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right.
David Boulton: I think that should be the framework for the understanding the correlation between the the social pathologies that are attributed or causally connected to reading. It’s not just that not making it through reading is dis-enabling, in the sense that they haven’t acquired the interface and the capability to learn through the medium of writing, but equally or more importantly, it has a collateral negative effect on the health of their learning in general.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: That’s interesting.
David Boulton: That’s the point that I’m most interested in, that latter point.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: This whole conversation brings up one other thing that I’ll throw in. I think it is related and supportive of what you’re saying.
David Boulton: Okay, great.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: In all of the work that we’ve done on student achievement, what we find is that schools have a much greater influence on mathematics performance than on reading performance. This is consistent with what you’re saying. There are bigger influences of school quality on mathematics than on reading.
David Boulton: Yeah, it makes perfect sense to me.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I think that fits in with what you’re saying.
David Boulton: Yes. I mean, for all these various reasons, math success isn’t as critically dependant on what is developing in the home before school, because math is processed in a different ways and at a different rate in the brain.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I’ve learned something from this. This is a very useful conversation.
David Boulton: Thank you. You have helped our learning a lot.
More on the Quality of Teachers:
David Boulton: Suppose educators and parents are watching and reading. What is it they do not understand that you think is really important to understand? Where is the gap from your perspective in how the general population is not getting what makes the difference in education?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: We economists are all about small things. One of the real problems we have in making educational policy is that everybody has been through schools themselves, and lots of people have strong opinions about what is making a difference and what is not. There are commonsense ideas that drive what we do in schools. The best example is the war over class size reduction that we’ve had in the last ten years. It is commonsense to believe that if you have smaller classrooms and fewer kids in each classroom that each student will get more personalized attention, and the educational plan will be more closely aligned with each student.
What is left out of discussions like this is to have smaller classes means you have to have more teachers, and getting the right quality teachers to fit into those added classrooms takes a lot of work. We have not done that well, to date. In my opinion, if you have a class size reduction policy in some districts, the impact of that will depend almost entirely on the quality of the new teachers hired. Whether class size reduction leads to more achievement or less achievement depends upon whether you get better than average teachers in the classroom or worse than average when you hire.
If we took the same 150 or 200 million dollars that California is putting into class size reduction and put it into incentive programs for teacher quality, we might get a much higher return on that investment.
One of the other confrontations when we make educational policy is that the people we look to for the answers are also dependent upon what goes on in the schools. The teachers are not indifferent to the way we run schools. Teachers like to have fewer kids in any class. Why? Well, they might get more satisfaction out of knowing their children better, but they also know that their workload is less when they have fewer children in class. When we have these debates, the teachers, as the experts in how to do our instruction, come in and say: Well, of course, we have to have smaller classes. That leads to some conflicts between developing effective policies in meeting all of our objectives.
David Boulton: The smaller the group, the greater the opportunity for intimacy and for making more relevant connections. From a teacher’s perspective, there are a lot of good reasons why they would want to have smaller class sizes. From the society’s point of view in wanting to spend its dollars and its resources wisely, it would seem that a really good teacher with a larger class would be better than two teachers with smaller classes who are less effective.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Parents often are asked: Do you want smaller classes? I think that’s the wrong question for parents to be asked. The question should be: Do we get the highest quality teacher this way? Because the highest quality teacher in a large class is often much, much better than a mediocre teacher in a small class.
Cori Stennet: When you talked about how we might be better off spending our money in developing a teacher quality program, instead of hiring more teachers, if we’re not really sure how they get to be better teachers, if we can’t say what really makes a difference…
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right.
Cori Stennet: then how are we going to measure the intelligence behind or effectiveness of running the teacher quality programs you mentioned? How can we say they are worth it? Are the programs even working?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: There is a set of questions that relates to how we prepare our teachers. Right now, we rely upon a set of schools of education that have traditionally done this, yet we don’t know how to link what they do to classroom performance very well. This has led to lots of recent questions about whether we should allow for alternative routes into teaching.
My view is that we should loosen up a lot on who gets into teaching but take much more seriously who gets to keep teaching. We should pay a lot more attention to the retention of teachers than putting all of our eggs into how we train teachers.
This is what happens in most professions in the United States, today. We have many people training to be everything from accountants to lawyers to other managerial positions. Many people start out in an occupation and change. We hear cries that we have such high turnover rates in teaching that there must be something wrong, and we must be doing something bad. It turns out that the turnover rates of teaching are about the same as the turnover rates in other professions at the beginning of their jobs. It is just that it is a national crisis when we refer to teaching, and it is not when we refer to other occupations.
Closing: Huge Implications:
Dr. Eric Hanushek: One thing that has become apparent from the study of education from the economists’ standpoint is it is important for the well-being of society in general. We have found that this is extraordinarily important. There are many people who currently argue that the accountability systems we have now are all wrong, because they emphasize narrow things like skills on math and science tests. It turns out that these are the skills that lead to differences in labor forces across countries. It makes a difference whether the population knows more and knows more of the things we are measuring than not.
David Boulton: I have read some of your work on that point. Circling back to something you said earlier about the historical relationship between worker skills and the economy when we talked about what happened fifty years ago, there was a greater opportunity to become skilled in the workplace after school. The dependence on early learning, on literacy, on the trajectory through school, was not as important to how well somebody could fit into the economy and both help the economy and themselves. Over the past thirty years with the explosion of the computer, the information-based economy has come forward rather than the factory-based economy. Now, there is a dependence on a different kind of learning.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: The economy as a whole demands many more skilled individuals today than it did in the past, for just the ordinary jobs in society. It used to be that we did not have to have even a high school education to have high paid productive jobs, but those jobs were different than the jobs that are highly paid now.
Today, there is a minimum level of skills that required, even if you do assembly line jobs. People on assembly lines calculate standard deviations and error tolerances in ways that in the past were not required. There has been a change in the character of jobs and the demands there.
The basic learning trajectories have not changed much. The people who were at the top in the past may not have all completed college educations, but they were on an early learning trajectory that allowed them to learn new things, to comprehend new ideas, to read them in technical materials. Even though they were trained at a lower level, they were still learning much the same thing. Today, it is hard to get away with being a good guy who does not have the skills and the knowledge that is demanded today. I am not convinced that the learning is different. People stopped at an earlier age.
David Boulton: I guess what I mean by that is that whereas it may be true that there’s certain characteristics of a learner that make for success in any age, and that flows into…
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right.
David Boulton: … the question of the value difference between knowledge and learning… but, relative to the low end and middle of our population in the work-skill space, there was a lot of room for somebody who had reading difficulties to still be successful in some other way. The average auto mechanic did not have to use a computer terminal or read lots of books. There were a lot of ways to make money as an intuitive physical mechanic.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: I relate that to people with different skills having different positions in the economy at different points in time. The people who got to any of those skill levels were learning in much the same way; we had a much more selective schooling system in the past than we do today. We are trying to bring everybody along, and I think that is a good and important goal.
“No child shall be left behind” is good, because it is setting expectations and standards that we as a society want to carry through. We don’t know completely how to do this, because we have not succeeded at that. Having that as a goal changes expectations in important ways, and it changes the way schools operate.
David Boulton: A social moon mission? (see Implicity’s version)
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Exactly. We didn’t know we could land somebody on the moon in the past, but we set that as a goal, and we did it. Now, there may be some other goals that we don’t make in the foreseeable future. We might not land somebody on Mars, even if we set that as a goal.
David Boulton: We know for sure we won’t, if we don’t set it as a goal.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Precisely.
David Boulton: Good. Well, absent any last reflections on your part, I would just say, relative to knowledge and learning, and what you said a moment ago when we were talking about people that are successful in one form or another, it seems to me that what differentiates successful people today or historically — scientists, inventors, people that have really made a difference in one form or another in their lives and in society – is that they are/were learning oriented. They were able to drive…
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Sure.
David Boulton: …their own learning where they were interested or needed to go, and bootstrap that process into a trajectory that worked for them, and whereas that includes and stands on knowledge, and knowledge is the fluid that they are traveling through, their success is more attributable to their ongoing learning then to their knowledge.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right. Economists have pondered this a little bit: Why are more educated people paid more than less educated people? Now, if you thought of somebody with a Ph.D., it is not at all obvious that they can put together parts more quickly than anybody else, or do any particular task faster than everybody else. The generally accepted view is that one of the important elements of education is allowing you to deal with new things, to adapt to different circumstances. That is a view of why it is so important to have an entirely educated population.
If you want to introduce new technologies into an economy, you have to have workers who can adapt to these new technologies. New technologies are what leads to increased productivity and growth of national income and the wealth of the population. That is the common view of what is important about education. It is not that somebody knows the current science, because the current science might be wrong, but it is that somebody knows how to learn about new science and adapt. It is also how they learn to adapt to workplaces. Fifteen years ago, very few workplaces had any computers at all in them.
Today, most workplaces have computers everywhere, and everybody from the CEO of a company on down to the lowest administrative staff uses them. Fifteen years ago that was not the case. How did we get there? It was not that we taught these people how to use computers twenty years ago, it is that we taught them to adapt to something different, how to learn to do something they never thought about doing when they were in school. That is the key element.
David Boulton: Excellent, excellent. Yeah, back in those days I was an opponent of the emphasis of computer literacy, on just that ground. My sense has always been that what you just described is the key to all of this, which means: the fundamental intention of our educational system must be to use knowledge, skills, and experience, not as the ‘end’, but as the ‘means’ through which we’re exercising how well children are able to participate and become self-extending in learning what they need to learn when they need learn it?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Yeah, right. Precisely.
David Boulton: How do we now wrap our metrics around that? Until that shift happens, all these black boxes are like Russian dolls, right?
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Right. Many people believe the reason why mathematics is so important is that it gives a structure to how people move from here to there, an analytical structure. You don’t get to mathematics without being able to read and comprehend different materials, so it is all linked together, but it is the skill to go into new things that we have not seen before that seems important for the economy. There has been a little bit of a debate among economists of whether it is just training scientists and engineers that is important, versus the entire labor force. That debate is not entirely resolved, but it seems like both are needed. We have to worry about the people at the top end, but we also have to worry about the entire labor force, because the nature of jobs in the U.S. economy has changed dramatically and can be expected to change in the future.
Our schools have not done particularly well compared to other schools in the world. We know that many European economies and many East Asian economies produce students that have much higher levels of mathematics and science knowledge than we have. We can relate the performance of students to the future growth of the economy after we allow for the other differences in the economies. When we do that, we see there are great economic advantages to improving the quality of our students.
If we could move the typical U.S. student up to the level of a high-level European school, we could expect much better growth out of the U.S. economy. The added income to the U.S. economy from moving to this European level could, in another twenty-five or thirty years, pay entirely for our kindergarten through twelfth grade schooling. In other words, the growth dividend, the bonus that we got from higher quality schools has huge implications for the well-being of society.
David Boulton: Excellent. I think this is a great place to close. I appreciate your crispness. This information will help a lot of people
Dr. Eric Hanushek: Thank you.
Special thanks to volunteer Melanie Miller for her help in editing this interview.