Considerable uncertainty surrounds the overall state of school finance coming out of the pandemic. As unemployment peaked soon after the economic lockdowns that involved most states after March 2020, states became very concerned about the expected future tax revenues, and they began planning a retrenchment in all spending, including that for schools. In response to the overall economic situation and recognizing the potential problems of schools, the federal government increased its spending—directing specific portions of funds to schools.
Schools changed dramatically with the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is unlikely that they will return fully to the “old normal.” Moreover, the learning losses for current students since March 2020 are likely to follow them over their lifetimes unless schools actually get better. The structure of teacher assignments and teacher compensation must change to accommodate these new realities. The teaching force must be used more effectively if the accrued challenges are to be met.
When COVID-19 forced a hiatus in federally mandated assessments in spring 2020, it interrupted a quarter century of effort to track, disaggregate, and publicize achievement levels at the school level. The aborted school year put a big data gap where 2020 scores should have been. Combined with the already raging assaults on testing, state education leaders find themselves in a fraught and difficult place.
State leaders should stick with their assessments because they improve student learning and school performance.
The worldwide school closures in early 2020 led to losses in learning that will not easily be made up for even if schools quickly return to their prior performance levels. These losses will have lasting economic impacts both on the affected students and on each nation unless they are effectively remediated.
States and localities cannot avoid dealing with issues of teacher compensation. Not only is it the largest budget item for most local governments, but it is the place of largest leverage for improving the quality of schools. Fortunately, consistent research evidence directly informs ways to optimize teacher compensation.
The United States has a long history of investing in its population through public education. These investments have contributed importantly to the success of the U.S. economy. But the evidence now suggests that the education system is languishing and my not be well-positioned for the 21st Century.
Despite the topic’s importance, surprisingly little scholarship has focused on long-term changes in the size of the achievement gap between students from higher and lower socio-economic backgrounds. Our new research, presented here, attempts to fill this void, using data from four national assessments of student performance administered to representative samples of U.S. students over nearly five decades.
STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT VARIES WIDELY across developed countries, but the source of these differences is not well understood. One obvious candidate, and a major focus of research and policy discussions both in the United States and abroad, is teacher quality. We look at whether differences in the cognitive skills of teachers can help explain differences in student performance across developed countries.
,A country’s development depends on its economic growth, and countries that foster high levels of skills in their population will thrive in the long term. The gains in GDP related to skill improvements lead to substantial gains in GDP per capita, which can be used to finance other objectives, such as those found in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Analysis shows that there are enormous potential economic gains from improving the quality of schools. This finding justifies substantial schooling reforms.
Performance of students in California has recently improved, but large numbers of students still remain poorly equipped to face a world of automation and economic change. Moreover, California’s economic future is in jeopardy, especially if the high cost of living impedes the flow of skilled in-migrants to the state.
Cognitive skills of workers are closely related not only to their own labor market earnings but also to the economic health of the state. The strength of these relationships highlights the need for California to improve the quality of its schools.
The future of the United States is dependent on the skills of its population. A basic problem is that improving these skills, which depends on enhancing the quality of schools, takes a long and consistent policy regime. This has to come from leadership at the top. The states have primary responsibility for the schools, but the federal government can and should be an important actor in setting the agenda and ensuring that the agenda is accomplished.
Blueprint for America
George P Shultz (ed.)
Last year, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, supplanting No Child Left Behind and placing responsibility for public school improvement squarely upon each of the 50 states. With the federal government’s role in school accountability sharply diminished, it now falls to state and local governments to take decisive action. Large economic benefits should accrue to states that take advantage of this new flexibility.
The Coleman Report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” is the fountainhead for those committed to evidence-based education policy. Remarkably, this 737-page tome, prepared 50 years ago by seven authors under the leadership of James S. Coleman, still gets a steady 600 Google Scholar citations per year. But since its publication, views of what the report says have diverged, and conclusions about its policy implications have differed even more sharply.
There is a broad consensus that the United States should expand its current preschool programs, particularly for disadvantaged students. This consensus reflects both a general interest in improving the preparation of students entering schools and a particular concern that disadvantaged students are especially handicapped by current preschool educational experiences. Matched with this desire to improve school preparation is evidence that at least some preschools are able to significantly improve the outcomes of their students.
Perhaps there are people who know from early life what they want to do for their life’s work, but I suspect they are rather rare. The actual process of getting to the right place, at least from my experience, involves a series of iterations that require learning one’s own skills, matching skills with life plans and objectives, and probably something that looks a lot like luck. This autobiographical essay represents my attempt to extract the separate facets of arriving at my current position as an economist who tries to match evidence about education with policy.
Virtually all countries try to meet two goals for the outcomes of their schools: getting high levels of student achievement while minimizing systematic gaps in performance. Dealing with these issues simultaneously frequently presents challenges and policy conundrums. The United States—the subject of this discussion—has felt the weight of these issues where the historic pressures of segregated education have been heightened by a steady influx of immigrants.
“The big picture of U.S. performance on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation…. Fifteen-year olds in the U.S. today are average in science and reading literacy, and below average in mathematics, compared to their counterparts in [other industrialized] countries.”
Over the last two decades, research on student achievement has pinpointed the central role of teachers. While other factors—families, peers, neighborhoods—are obviously elements in a student’s learning, it is the school and particularly the teachers and administrators who are given the public responsibility for the education of our youth. There is a general consensus that improving the effectiveness of teachers is the key to lifting student achievement, although questions remain about how best to do this.
Gregory F. Branch, Eric A. Hanushek, and Steven G. Rivkin
It is widely believed that a good principal is the key to a successful school. Yet until very recently there was little rigorous research demonstrating the importance of principal quality for student outcomes, much less the specific practices that cause some principals to be more successful than others. This study provides new evidence on the importance of school leadership by estimating individual principals’ contributions to growth in student achievement. Our results indicate that highly effective principals raise the achievement of a typical student in their schools by between two and seven months of learning in a single school year; ineffective principals lower achievement by the same amount.
Education Next, Winter 2013
The rewards to improving our schools are very, very large, but the policies that are needed are politically difficult. Nonetheless, we have to change the direction of our schools in order to improve student outcomes.