State budgets this year face huge rev enue losses, thanks to the recession and the end of federal stimulus money. Each threatened interest group has mobilized to try to escape any impact but none as effectively as schools, which have a special weapon: the courts. The argument in the courts -- playing out now in New Jersey and likely soon in New York -- is simple: The state Constitution protects us from taking any share of the pain of the fiscal calamity.
Meet Eric Hanushek, who is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and an expert on education policy. He was the first scholar to measure the effectiveness of a teacher based on the learning gains of his or her student. You may have also seen him in the movie, “Waiting For ‘Superman.’” Hanushek was kind enough to answer a few of our questions.
Each time international tests of student achievement are released, there is a parade of glib commentators explaining why we should not pay much attention to the generally poor performance of U.S. students. The arguments have become fairly standard. Don’t worry, these tests really do not indicate anything that is very important. Moreover, if one reads the results carefully, it is possible to find areas where the U.S. looks pretty good. And if we just look at our best students, they are competitive with students from other countries.
In an unexpected action last summer, the Los Angeles Times published the ratings of teacher effectiveness for 6,000 teachers by name. This is a potential game-changer.
The publication created a firestorm. The unions were apoplectic. A vocal set of commentators attacked this action from a variety of viewpoints. Nonetheless, it shows signs of spreading – to New York City and elsewhere. Since my research started this development, I believe it is useful to share my perspectives on how we should judge this development and whether we should stop its spread.
No longer is education reform an issue of liberals vs. conservatives. In Washington, the Obama administration's Race to the Top program rewarded states for making significant policy changes such as supporting charter schools. In Los Angeles, the Times published the effectiveness rankings—and names—of 6,000 teachers. And nationwide, the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which strongly criticizes the public education system, continues to succeed at the box office.
Many Americans were shocked to learn how poorly U. S. students were doing when the Program on International Student Assessment (PISA) released its study of math achievement for 2006. U. S. 15-year-olds came in 35th among the 57 nations who participated in its administration. The U. S. average score was 474 points (against an average of 500 for students in the industrialized countries that have been accepted as members of the Organizations of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA’s sponsor).
Many people find it hard to believe that student performance has been flat for four decades when we have more than tripled funding for schools and when we have put into place a number of reform measures. Those facts are clear, but the explanation is less clear.
There are a variety of educational policies that simply conflict with research. One of the largest is pay for master’s degrees. Across the nation, extra pay for a master’s degree is deeply ingrained in the salary schedule. Overall, some ten percent of the total salary bill goes to pay bonuses to teachers who have master’s degrees. Yet one of the most consistent findings from research into the determinants of student achievement is that master’s degrees have no consistent effect. In other words, we regularly pay bonuses for something that is unrelated to classroom effectiveness.
We are entering the season for dire warnings about the loss of teacher jobs unless school funding is improved. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has given high-level credibility to this story by providing administration support to Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s new $23 billion stimulus bill in Congress.
Over the past decade, Florida has shown its laser-focus on student performance. Beginning with Jeb Bush and his able and imaginative education team, Florida moved forward on a reform agenda. But it was a reform agenda with a difference. Instead of following tradition and simply doing more of the same old things, Florida did two things. First, the rhetoric was not about “helping schools”, which too often translates into helping the adults in schools. Instead it was about student achievement – first reading and then achievement more broadly.
The effectiveness of charter schools in raising student achievement has become an intensely debated issue. When we last considered this topic (10/08/2009), the Department of Education was pushing charter schools but dueling studies introduced uncertainty. CREDO had done a national study that found more charters doing badly compared to their feeder schools from the traditional public sector, and an NBER study in New York City found substantially better performance of charters versus traditional public schools.
School accountability for student outcomes is central to current policy discussions. While the policy idea is often attributed simply to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), 44 states already had some form of test-based accountability when the 2002 federal accountability law came into existence. With NCLB, test-based accountability became a national strategy. It placed a clear goal on improvements in student achievement and established a series of actions and penalties for failure to meet annual improvement goals.
Over the last 40 years, the state courts have become important players in the funding of America’s public schools. During this period, only a handful of states have escaped state court scrutiny over the allocation and amount of funding they devote to their K-12 schools. Initially, these state court orders focused on the allocation of money between school districts, requiring many states to change their education financing systems to more equitably distribute school funding.
This has been a good year for evidence on the effectiveness of charters, highlighted by a major national study from CREDO and a new study in the continuing work from New York City. Nonetheless, understanding and interpreting the scientific research within the political and media environment is made more difficult by the political context. Charter schools have received considerable attention since President Obama put them on the administration’s policy agenda.
One sleeper in the flurry of decisions at the end of the last U.S. Supreme Court term has to be the decision in Horne v. Flores, a long-running Arizona case about funding special programs for English Language Learners (ELL). In overturning lower court decisions calling for continued court-ordered school spending without regard to student outcomes, the Court may lead to a new era of more rational and effective court involvement in school funding policies.
Eric Hanushek of Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the current state of education and education policy. Hanushek summarizes the impact of No Child Left Behind and the current state of the charter school movement. Along the way, he and Roberts discuss the role of testing as a way of measuring achievement.
California's budget woes are known nationally. On May 19, voters overwhelmingly rejected a series of five ballot initiatives that were central to the state's plans for feigning a balanced budget. While there might be an element of sport in watching politicians flail around trying to deal with more than $20 billion of red ink, the stakes for California and the nation are huge. Perhaps the most significant impact will come through what happens to California's public schools
How to finance our schools remains controversial, and is the subject of continuous rancor in courthouses and statehouses across the nation. There are many movements, replete with Web sites and annual reporting, that advocate, among other things, proposals such as the “65 percent solution” and weighted student funding. None of the approaches that have been tried, however, has led to significantly improved achievement by students or has closed the nagging achievement gaps that continue to plague schools.
Eric Hanushek of Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the strange evolution of school finance in the last four decades. In particular, the courts have played an important role in recent years in mandating expenditure increases for public school systems. Hanushek talks about why this has come about and the lack of effect these expenditures have had in affecting student achievement.
Professor Eric Hanushek of Stanford University talks about the economics of education, discussing issues including the returns to quality teaching, the effectiveness of incentive-based pay for teaching, and how to close the educational achievement gap in the United States.