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Cross-posted at Education Week
Why do some countries grow rich and others languish in poverty? This is the question addressed in a very important new book, The Knowledge Capital of Nations, by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, and in a paper by the same authors titled, “Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain,” published by the OECD with an introduction by Andreas Schleicher. The book and paper make a very carefully documented and well-reasoned case that the academic skills of a nation’s labor force, as measured by the skills they leave high school with, contribute far more than any other single factor to national economic growth in the long run.
Over the last few decades, leading economists have been working hard to quantify the contribution made by the education and training of the labor force to the growth of national economies. But this effort to quantify the contribution of education to national economic growth has had its problems. They used the average numbers of years of education among the workers in a nation as a measure of how well educated that workforce was. When they correlated the number of years of education in the workforce over time with economic growth in the same economy, they got a significant effect, but they also got lots of anomalies.
Take Latin America and East Asia, for example. Back in 1960, average income in Latin America substantially exceeded that in East Asia. And the workforces in Latin America were much better educated, as measured by average years of education attainment. The income head start, combined with their great advantage in educational attainment, should have enabled the Latin Americans economies to have grown much more quickly than the Asian economies, leaving East Asia as a whole far behind. But, as we all now know, that is not what happened at all. The East Asian economies quickly outstripped Latin America with growth rates that have eclipsed Latin American growth rates for decades. How could that have happened if education is the principal driver of economic growth? Over time, questions of this sort have led analysts and policy makers to have less faith in investments in education as an essential driver of economic growth.
But, as it turns out, it is all in the measure that is being used. In this case, the measure of education and skill being used was average number of years of educational attainment. What Hanushek and Woessmann wanted to know is what would happen if, instead of using quantity of education as the measure of workforce quality, we used the quality of education instead. Back in 1960, there was no reliable measure of education quality that could be used on an international scale to compare school academic achievement. Years of attainment was all that the economists of the time had to go on. But since then, such measures have been developed, most importantly TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA. The researchers used the simple average of all observed math and science scores between 1964 and 2003 for each country in their study. The results are startling.
The Latin America anomaly simply goes away. When economic growth rates for Latin America and East Asia are plotted against school test scores, they are almost perfectly correlated. When economic growth rates for the two regions are plotted against years of attainment in school, there is hardly any correlation at all. This holds true over a period of 50 years.
What is really eye opening is not the finding that education makes a big difference in economic outcomes but how much of a difference it makes. The achievement-based models used by the authors accounted for three-quarters of the international variation in economic growth rates. Compare this with the old models, based on educational attainment, which accounted for only one-quarter of the economic growth in the countries studied. The authors calculate that a difference of one standard deviation in the cognitive skills of a country’s workforce is associated with approximately two percentage points of higher annual growth in GDP. A full standard deviation is a lot to expect under any circumstances, but one quarter of that (about 25 points on the PISA scale) has actually been accomplished by Germany, Mexico, Poland and Turkey recently and in Finland earlier. So let’s imagine what a gain of one half of one point in the annual growth rate of GDP (the amount produced by an average gain of 25 points on the PISA scale) would do for the United States. According the Congressional Budget Office, the cumulative losses from the Great Recession from 2008 to 2012 were about $4 trillion. But an improvement of just 25 points on average for American students would bring in about $67 trillion over the next 50 years. How’s that for a return on your investment?
Projections of this sort are based on models. The researchers make assumptions, plug them and the data into their models and watch the results pour out the other end. Again and again, the authors use their models, the conceptual frameworks that underlie them, the data they have gathered and their statistical skills to make their points in a very convincing way.
With one exception. By the end of the next-to-last chapter, the reader wonders how anyone can doubt the author’s claims that school achievement is a very powerful contributor to economic growth at a national scale. But that leaves the convinced policymaker with an important question. Just what is it exactly that I need to do to make sure that my country is doing what is necessary to raise the academic skills of our high school students so we can enter the ranks of the wealthiest countries?
At this point in the narrative, all the models, data and statistical finesse of the rest of the book cannot be used to answer this question. While I can easily agree that the best research concludes that the quality of a nation’s teaching force has a very strong bearing on the achievement of its students, I have a little more trouble with the use of relative teachers’ salaries as the measure of teacher quality. I have even more trouble with basing the claim that school choice is an essential component of high-quality schooling based on the claim that high proportions of students enrolled in Catholic schools produce superior national education results. The authors would have done much better, in my opinion, to have left this part of the argument to others. Indeed, on this point, I would refer you to Andreas Schleicher’s clear, well-argued and passionate introduction to the paper the authors did for the OECD, which he ends with a much more compelling summary of what the data say about what makes for effective education systems than the one supplied by the authors.
So far, I have stuck to the main line of the story–how higher school achievement leads to stronger economies. But there is a subtext related to equity that has many dimensions and is very important. First there is Andreas Schleicher’s invitation to the authors to write a paper focusing on what the economic outcomes would be for countries that succeed in bringing all their students up to the Level I level of proficiency on the PISA tests, the lowest level on the PISA scale. One quarter of United States students do not meet this standard. In many underdeveloped countries, that percentage is much higher, but in many developed countries, it is much lower. If the United States were to achieve this goal of universal basic skills, it would add $27 trillion dollars to the gross national product over the working life of the students. But the authors show that, in addition to adding an enormous amount to the wealth of the country as a whole, it would greatly reduce the growing gaps in income that are beginning to threaten the social fabric of the country. Schleicher points out that this is very different from and much more acceptable to many Americans than addressing income inequality by using tax policy to take earned income from one class of citizens and give it to another.
But better education is not an elixir. The models do not produce the predicted results when national economies cannot absorb better-educated workers. Sound fiscal and monetary policy still matter. Many countries whose economies depend largely on the sale of natural resources, especially oil, might have used their wealth to educate their people against the day when their natural resources run out or are no longer needed, but have failed to do so.
But these points do not in any way detract from the contribution that Hanushek and Woessmann have made with their analysis. It is stunning.
Cross-posted at Education Week
In several blogs that preceded this one, I have made the case that mandated annual testing of all students in the United States, when coupled with an accountability regime in which the data produced by those tests is used to make important decisions about the employment of teachers, is a counterproductive reform strategy for all students, but has the most serious negative consequences for low-income and minority students. In my final blog in this series, I will address what I take to be a serious by-product of these accountability policies: the corrosive conflict between some civil rights advocates who view the opposition from many teachers and their unions to annual testing as a racist act and some teachers who, in reaction to the use of standardized tests to fire teachers whose students do not perform well, are calling for the abolition or suspension of standardized testing. This conflict between natural allies is destructive and unnecessary.
Let’s consider first the position of the civil rights advocates who hold the views I just described. They argue, first, that testing all students and then releasing the scores for minority and low-income students separately makes it possible for the first time for everyone to see that, even though average student performance in a school or district may be acceptable or even superior, most low-income and minority students have performed far below the level of the average student.
It is essential, they argue, that this hard-won feature of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) be preserved, because, if schools, districts and states are allowed to conceal the performance of disadvantaged students behind the performance of the average student, many will do so. I agree.
They further argue that this kind of accountability will be greatly weakened if students are not tested annually, as required by NCLB. But, as I have argued elsewhere, there is no evidence for this proposition. The performance of low-income and minority students at the high school level has not improved over the entire 15-year life of NCLB. The rate of improvement at the elementary and secondary levels over the same period has been slower than it was before NCLB became the law of the land. It was even faster in the 1960s.
Not only is there no evidence that annual testing improves achievement of low-income and minority children, but there is evidence that it suppresses their achievement by creating incentives for teachers to focus on kids whose performance is just below the pass points and ignoring those with the lowest performance, by narrowing the curriculum for low-income and minority students more than for majority students and by creating an environment in which low-income and minority students, more than other students are subjected to a deadening endless round of mindless drill and practice and basic skills testing through the entire school year.
Now let’s look at the world of test-based accountability through the lens of many teachers. When NCLB was passed, the results of the tests the legislation required the states to administer were used to hold schools accountable. But when the Obama administration came into office in the midst of the Great Recession, it created the Race to the Top program that, among other things, effectively changed the form of accountability administered by the United States government. Under the Obama administration, teachers, not just schools, were to be held accountable, based on the scores of their students on the standardized tests required by law.
Many of the nation’s most distinguished researchers pointed out that the methods available to connect an individual teacher with the performance of her students were deeply flawed. Students’ performance is greatly influenced by many factors over which teachers have no direct control, factors that vary greatly from school to school, from class to class within a school, and even for the same teacher from year to year. The predictable result was that a given teacher might be declared a great teacher one year and a poor one the next. But the federal government was not deterred. It insisted that the states implement systems for tying very important decisions about individual teachers to their students’ performance on standardized tests. It even insisted on doing this for teachers whose students did not take standardized tests! Teachers widely admired by their students, parents and their fellow teachers were fired as a result. Many cases were widely publicized. Researchers found that, “…value-added measures of school effectiveness distort incentives and are likely to discourage good teachers and administrators from working in schools serving concentrations of disadvantaged students.” It is hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that teachers in many parts of the country turned against both standardized tests and the use of those tests as an important tool for teacher evaluation and personnel decisions.
Civil rights advocates want to get as many great teachers in schools serving disadvantaged students as possible. They do not want schools serving disadvantaged students to have a very narrow curriculum while more advantaged students in other schools get a much richer one. They do not want a regime in which teachers of disadvantaged students have strong incentives to attend to the needs of kids just below the pass points while virtually ignoring the needs of those who are performing at lower levels. So it should be the case that civil rights advocates want a system in which the schools are required to use standardized tests to assess student progress at reasonable intervals as they progress through the grades, but it is not very important to them to have those tests administered every year.
Why would it be? It is the requirement for annual testing, combined with the way the scores are used to punish teachers, that narrows the curriculum, focuses teachers’ attention on the student just below the cut scores at the expense of those who need them even more and provides good and great teachers with an incentive to avoid schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students.
This is the essence of my point. The administration’s goal of using student test scores to punish teachers cannot be achieved without annual testing, because, without annual testing, it is not possible to connect the performance of the teacher to the performance of a particular group of students. Civil rights groups and teachers should be on the same side of this fight. Teachers are not opposed to the civil rights of their students. To suggest that they are is really outrageous. What they are opposed to is a system that is patently unfair to teachers and creates conditions that make good teachers want to give up teaching.
My point is that annual testing is no better for low-income and minority students than it is for teachers. It is bad for both.
Just as there are people in the civil rights community who think teachers are racists because they oppose annual testing, there are teachers who are so disgusted and angry about the use of test-based accountability systems to punish teachers that they want to abolish standardized testing or call a moratorium on it. Both, in my view, are wrong.
The schools the teachers teach in are public schools funded by the taxpayers, and the public has a right to know how well the students are learning what they are supposed to learn. There will and should be accountability and there will be testing. The question is what kind of accountability. I have proposed a system the country could afford that would provide for much higher quality tests while at the same time providing the data needed to make sure that the public knows how its schools and each protected group of students within the schools are doing as they progress through school. It would not require year-by-year testing. In some years every student would be tested; in others, only some students would be sampled and students in protected groups would be over-sampled.
Although there are teachers who have called for an end to standardized testing, their unions have not. Over the years, the teachers and their unions have been strong advocates of the civil rights of minority groups in the United States. And civil rights groups have often made common cause with the teachers. As far as I can see, the interests of both are identical in this matter. It is my earnest hope that others can see this as well.
Cross-posted at Education Week
Commencement speakers typically exhort their captive audience to follow their dream instead of being careerists. Everyone else is telling young people to be practical, forget the liberal arts, pick out a career in a high-demand field and go for it. In an age in which college graduates are thankful just to get jobs as waiters and waitresses and can’t imagine how they will ever pay off their college loans, leave their parent’s house and get one of their own, the commencement speaker doesn’t stand a chance.
But the commencement speaker is right…sort of. And so are the advocates of practicality…sort of. In a job market in which jobs are scarce, employers want someone who can hit the ground running with a high level of technical skill that fits the employer’s needs. If they can get it…why not?
But be careful. Fewer employers these days are offering full-time jobs with benefits and clear paths to a career in the firm to most of their staff. They are offering that only to a small core. More and more are offering temporary contract jobs with no benefits and no career paths. Jobs are being automated at an unprecedented rate in more and more fields. The specialized job for which you are preparing may not be done by humans when you get your sheepskin. Entire industries are being put out of business by disruptive technologies.
This sounds like a no-win choice: either specialize in a high demand field and find yourself without the skills needed to do something else when that field collapses or prepare yourself for everything in general and nothing in particular and find yourself waiting on tables.
But that is not the choice. The challenge, I think, is clear. Young people do need to enter the job market with strong marketable skills that include the technical skills needed to both do the work they are first given and to pursue a career in that field, whether that young person is going to be a specialty welder, a computer systems analyst or an attorney. But they need more arrows in their quiver than that.
Now, more than ever, they need a solid education in the liberal arts. That is partly for very old reasons—because we need responsible citizens who vote and can make well-informed decisions when they go to the polls; adults who understand where liberty and freedom came from, how fragile they are and what it takes to preserve them, people who as adults will know what is right and what is wrong and will do the right thing even when no one is looking; and adults who are able to appreciate the finest art and music the world has ever known.
While the idea of an education in the liberal arts is widely written off these days, much is made of the need to help our students grow up into adults who are creative and innovative. But what does it take to do that? Experts in creativity like Amabile, Gardner and Sternberg think that one of the major wellsprings of creativity consists of the application of the conceptual framework from one field or discipline to the problems being worked on in another field or discipline. That only works, though, for people who have a deep knowledge of both fields. Which is how Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist, won the Nobel Prize in economics. But where does the deep understanding of the concepts and frameworks from these fields come from? The answer, of course, is the kind of understanding that lies at the heart of a sound education in the liberal arts.
But there is another reason that the liberal arts are more important than ever. While many people think of an education in the liberal arts as the antithesis of a practical education, I think otherwise. Nothing is more practical than being ready to undertake another career as the one you chose becomes obsolete, or to undertake many careers at once, as a growing number of independent contract workers are doing either by choice or design.
The phrase “learn how to learn” comes trippingly off the tongue these days. But much less is usually said about what makes it possible to learn new things quickly. We know that learning something new depends importantly on having a mental framework to hang it on or put it in. The most important of those frameworks are the conceptual structures underpinning the disciplines.
And much is made of the importance of interdisciplinary knowledge. But that knowledge will do you little good unless you first understand the disciplines themselves, not just superficially, but at a deep conceptual level. As one builds up that kind of knowledge in multiple disciplines, it becomes possible to draw on the knowledge and concepts in those domains to see the connections among them. Learning new things is much easier when you can build on this sort of foundation.
One hundred years ago, people thought that learning required thinking and thinking required mental discipline and mental discipline could be taught by studying something that obviously required mental discipline, like, say, Latin. But we know now that this is not true. Being facile in one discipline may give one some novel tools to analyze phenomena in other disciplines, but there is not much transfer. Each discipline has its own rules. This is yet another reason for studying the core disciplines with care to build a firm foundation for later learning.
But what does it mean “to think”? It surely has something to do with the ability to analyze complex problems and, at the same time, with the ability to synthesize information from many disparate sources to find a solution to a complex problem. When you think about it from this vantage point, it should come as no surprise that what it means to think is different for problems in physics than for problems in literary analysis or marine engine repair. Nor should it surprise us to find that gaining a lot of experience in analysis across the liberal arts should make it easier to learn a new field. You have more frameworks to hang new knowledge on, more tools to analyze new problems with, larger and more complex frameworks with which to integrate new information with old, more possibilities for bringing fresh perspectives to old problems by bringing the frameworks from one field to bear on the problems in another.
And now consider writing. If you cannot write well about it, you probably don’t understand it. If you cannot marshal the facts from a wide assortment of sources to make a compelling, logical argument, your command of the facts may be shaky and your ability to weave them together in a logical way may be just as shaky. Writing and complex thought are close companions. Even if you have got it straight in your head, if you cannot communicate it clearly, then you are at a huge disadvantage in today’s world, a world in which little can be accomplished by individuals who do not work in concert with others. From my point of view, good writing is the acid test of a good liberal education.
I have been presenting here an ideal of a liberal education which is far from the reality in too many places. Too few students leave college able to write well, whether or not they have studied the liberal arts. At too many colleges, the liberal arts curriculum can be no more than a random assortment of giant survey courses and idiosyncratic subjects tied more to what interests the faculty than what students need to build a solid foundation. Many universities and colleges make it all too easy for young people to study a discipline in the liberal arts in the expectation that it will lead to work in that discipline when little or none is available while, at the same time, failing to offer a broad and deep education in the liberal arts.
But there are colleges that still offer a first-rate education in the liberal arts of the sort I have been talking about. So hold the idea of that sort of education in your head for a moment. And now imagine that that it is married to the idea of preparing all of our students not just with a strong liberal education, but also with the skills and knowledge needed to hit the ground running with a strong technical education in a specialized area in strong demand from employers. That is what many people call the “T-shaped curriculum,” a curriculum that goes very deep in one area, but sits on top of a very strong liberal arts foundation that provides the flexibility for the entire workforce to keep learning and changing occupations throughout their entire life.
To do this at a price that nations and individuals can afford will require a much more efficient education system than most nations have now. We cannot keep piling on cost and more years of education. We will have to figure out how to educate everyone far faster and far more deeply then ever before, and we will have to figure out how to make academic education far more applied from the very beginning, with no sacrifice in academic understanding.
Cross-posted at Education Week
Two weeks ago, I published a blog post suggesting that some leaders of the civil rights community might want to reassess their support for annual testing in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Since then Kati Haycock and Jonah Edelman, two ardent supporters of annual testing, have taken issue with me. In this blog post, I respond to their comments.
Haycock says that she is astonished at my arrogance in attacking the leaders of a civil rights community that is “unified” on this issue and accuses me of “baiting” them. What she does not do is rebut any of the arguments I made or offer any evidence that would call my arguments into question.
The civil rights community is not united on these issues. A recent piece by Judith Browne Dianis, John H. Jackson and Pedro Noguera is titled “DC civil rights organizations fail to represent education civil rights agenda.” In it the authors, all respected figures in the civil rights community, take issue with the civil rights leaders who signed on to annual testing and take positions on the issue very similar to those I have taken. They are not alone. Far from being unified on this issue, the civil rights community is rather divided.
I have great respect for the leaders of the civil rights community. But I often disagree with people I admire and they often disagree with me on particular issues. The charge that I was out to “bait” the leaders is outrageous.
Haycock is certainly entitled to her own views on these issues. But I think she owes her readers more than a personal attack on me as a response to what I have written. She owes it to them to respond to the points I have made with counterarguments of her own, point by point, and she owes them solid data and research to support the positions she takes. I argued that there is no evidence that the tough accountability measures contained in NCLB, including annual testing, have worked. I argued that the research shows that poor and minority children have been harmed by the systems required by NCLB more than majority students. I argued that a different testing regime with fewer, higher quality tests could provide data on the performance of specific groups of poor and minority students every bit as effective as the results obtained from annual testing, and that poor and minority students would be much better off if that happened. I offered solid evidence for all these propositions.
As I said above, Haycock offered neither rebuttals to my arguments nor evidence that would refute them. Until she does, I stand by what I wrote.
Unlike Haycock, Jonah Edelman does address at least some of the points I made. But his first point is a non sequitur. “In arguing against the need for annual assessments,” he says, I “…seem to forget America’s long and sorry history of neglecting kids at risk.” That is not an argument. Edelman evidently takes it as obvious that, if you care about kids at risk, you should be for annual testing. But the second half of this proposition does not follow from the first. My whole blog post made the case that, if you care about kids at risk, you should be against annual testing. I am against annual testing precisely because I care about kids at risk.
I cited several research studies showing that the design of our test-based accountability system creates powerful incentives for teachers to focus on kids just below the pass points and to ignore kids who are doing marginally better than that and, most frightening, kids who are really struggling and who will therefore be harder to bring to the pass point. Edelman attempts to refute that point by citing a statement by a group of teachers of the year in Education Week. It is a statement supporting the Common Core (which I also support). It says nothing at all about the merits or demerits of annual testing or any other point I made in my blog. Edelman says it proves that award-winning teachers all across America disagree with me. It proves nothing of the sort.
I made the point in my blog that, because annual testing is being used to drive teacher accountability, it is leading to an exodus of high quality teachers from our schools, especially those serving poor and minority children, and to a plummeting rate of applications for admission to education schools. Edelman responds by pointing to recent data showing that 70 to 80 percent of new teachers remain in the classroom for at least five years, rather than the 50 percent previously reported. That is bit of a non sequitur too. The data Edelman cites simply don’t address the core point I made, which has to do with the rates of retirement of experienced teachers; the choices that good, experienced teachers make about which schools to teach in and the rate at which young people are choosing to go into teaching.
I also made the point that the requirement for annual testing is forcing schools to buy many cheap tests, rather than fewer and much better tests. And I said this is more of a problem for poor and minority kids than for wealthier majority kids because teachers of wealthier and majority kids tend not to teach to the basic skills tests because they know their students will do well on those tests anyway. Instead, the teachers of poor and minority kids give them an endless round of deadening drill and practice for the basic skills tests, thereby denying them access to richer and more challenging curriculum. Edelman’s response is to point out that the cost of testing is only one half of one percent of the cost of schooling. But personnel costs typically account for 80 to 85 percent of school district expenditures. Only 15 percent to 20 percent of the total cost is available for everything else, including testing. In the wake of the Great Recession, school districts all over the country were laying off teachers, after savaging every other part of their budget. Most districts have not yet fully recovered. Good tests cost three to four times what we have been spending on accountability tests. For all these reasons, the costs of the tests cannot be dismissed.
Edelman ends his piece by getting to what he says is his bottom line: “Civil rights leaders wisely understand that the growing resistance to accountability is directly related to the fact that it’s starting to work.” I’m sorry, but that is not true. It is not starting to work. I pointed out in my blog that, after 15 years of NCLB, there is no evidence that poor and minority students leave high school any better off than they were before NCLB. And I also point out that the rate of improvement of academic performance for poor and minority students before the passage of No Child Left Behind was greater than it has been since it was passed. Edelman did not refute that data. Nor did he offer any evidence for his assertion that tough test-based accountability is working for poor and minority children.
I pointed to several studies showing that tough test-based accountability creates incentives for teachers to ignore the kids with the worst academic performance, kids who are overwhelmingly poor and minority. Edelman offered no evidence to the contrary. I pointed out that tough test-based accountability creates incentives for the most capable teachers to avoid schools serving poor and minority kids. Edelman offered no evidence to the contrary. I pointed out that countries without any form of tough test-based accountability systems are producing not only much higher average student achievement, but also much more equity than the United States. If, as he asserts, tough test-based accountability is so essential to higher performance for poor and minority students, how is it that countries without it are doing so much better for their poor and minority kids while we, who have been using such systems for fifteen years, are doing so much worse. Edelman says these countries don’t have as many poor kids as we do. He’s wrong. Some of the top performers have higher proportions of poor kids. More to the point, socio-economic status is a better predictor of academic achievement in the United States than in many countries with higher proportions of poor kids and no test-based accountability systems.
The facts ought to count for something. What both of these critiques come down to is an assertion that I don’t have any business urging established leaders of the civil rights community to reconsider the issue, that I simply don’t understand the obvious—that annual accountability testing is essential to justice for poor and minority students, that anyone who thinks otherwise must be in the pocket of the teachers unions. Well, it is not obvious. Indeed, all the evidence says it is not true. And anyone who knows me knows that I am in no one’s pocket. I know the leaders of the civil rights community to be people of great integrity. They aren’t in anyone’s pocket, either. I think they want what is best for the people they represent. And I do not think that is annual testing.
Date: July 2, 2015
Date: July 1, 2015
Date: June 19, 2015
Date: June 11, 2015
Date: June 5, 2015