An Interview with Eric Hanushek: Endangering Prosperity

Aug 20, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) In Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School, you and your fellow authors paint a pretty bleak picture of American education. First of all how did this book come about?

Each of us has spent considerable time trying to evaluate the state of education both in the U.S. and internationally. From this, we have seen that the U.S. has not done well relative to other developed countries. The new element, however, was our investigation of the economic implications of this performance. It is one thing to say that other nations are scoring better than us in math. It is quite another to say that this is costing us trillions of dollars and that it might endanger our economic future.

2) Eric, I was around as a doctoral student when “A Nation at Risk“ came out. I guess no one listened to that report—Money wasted?

A Nation at Risk” started to get the nation’s attention, and we can see greater concern of parents and citizens that began with that government report and has carried forward. But, the report also showed vividly that the answers necessarily involve doing things differently and better. The report resulted in substantially increased spending and in smaller classes, but it did not lead to improved achievement. The report was actually short on prescriptions for how to change the schools so it was easy to adopt the “moonshot perspective” that all we had to do is push forward with what we were doing.

3) Your book was co-authored by Harvard’s Paul E. Peterson, and University of Munich’s Ludger Woessmann. Were you all influenced by the data, or anecdotal reports or what did you examine or look at ?

We are all driven by the data. Indeed, we feel that too many educational decisions and policies are made without understanding what the data say. Many people, for example, still believe that the U.S. provides more and better education than other countries. We are below average in our math skills as measured by the international assessments and we have fewer people finishing high school than the average developed country of the world.

4) I have been to Finland which consistently seems to outperform all other nations—but their children do not start school until age 7 and those teachers are put through a VERY rigorous training program. Your thoughts?

Finland has improved its schools to the point where it is one of the best performing countries in the world. What I take away from their experience is a sense of what is possible – both in terms of improvement and of the skills that can be developed in students. It is more difficult to take away specific messages about how we should change our schools. The problem is that people have pointed to perhaps a dozen different explanations for their success (and many commentators simply choose the explanation that most fits their preconceptions).

I think that teacher quality is undoubtedly a significant part of the story. But we do not get much firm guidance on what we can do to reach their level of teacher quality. Instead we need to find ways that work within the schools that we have.

5) Eric, I suppose it is politically incorrect to go there- but I think we ALL have to examine the issue of children with serious exceptionalities being mainstreamed into the regular education classroom. Surely this has had SOME impact on the education of all children. Or am I psychotic?

We do not have very good evidence about the impact of special education on our achievement. This area is one of the important ones where evidence has not been very prominent in the debates. Instead people push policies that square with their own personal judgments. Further, we have not had a very active debate about the trade-offs that might be involved – gains in finding ways to teach handicapped children and potential impacts on other children.

Based on the limited information that exists, I think that it is fair to say the special education has been very costly and has absorbed a significant portion of our school dollars. At the same time, I doubt that it has had a really substantial impact on the achievement of other children, but there is surely a group in special education that has benefitted considerably.

Finally, I should note that other countries are facing the same issues – and few have really solved them yet.

6) I have colleagues in Estonia and those children will probably grow up to out-earn our American children. Will this be a world wide trend?

Those are specifically the concerns we have. Many countries are outperforming us in terms of schools and the skills of the future workforce. Coupled with the fact that they are working hard to improve other aspects of their economies, we can expect them to develop at a substantially faster pace than we do. We are not hurt in an absolute sense when they do better, but our prestige and influence internationally is likely to suffer. For this reason, Joel Klein and Condi Rice identified the state of our schools as a threat to national security in their report for the Council on Foreign Affairs.

7) I have heard very very very little from our current President about education. I have heard a little from this guy Arne Duncan. But there does not seem to be a person speaking out about the need for change, and renewal in American education- or am I off on this ?

I think the President spoke strongly about these issues during his first campaign and his first term. Since then I think you are right that he has receded from the debates and has let his Secretary of Education carry the ball. Whether this is a result of changed political calculations or of other priorities, I do not know – but it is just one more element in the difficulty of getting the needed changes.

8) Brief but intricate question—do we need to have a longer school day ? Or longer school year?

The first thing we need is a better school day. Simply reproducing the same things we are doing more but with more intensity is not going to solve our problems. With a better school day, we may or may not decide that lengthening the time in schools is also a good idea.

9) And do we need to look more carefully at grade retention as an option?

Grade retention is again one of those items that has not been sufficiently researched. I read the currently available evidence as a bit mixed on the impacts of grade retention. One powerful reason for supporting grade retention policies is that it acts to provide greater incentives to the students. Students are clearly the largest input into education, and we have to find ways to motivate them to work hard.

10) Just about every teacher says to me they need more parental support at home—any chance of them getting it ? Or is this an impossible dream?

Parents are clearly an important part of schooling. And parents are the reason why families with higher income and better educated parents have children that do better in schools. We do not know much about how to make better parents. We have had some disappointing experiments that have suggested that governmental programs are generally not very good. On the other hand, a number of the “no excuses” charter schools work very hard at involving parents. So it is possible.

11) Are we in worse shape than we were when “ A Nation at Risk “ was released?

In terms of achievement and school completion, we look very close to the place where we were at “A Nation at Risk.” What has happened, however, is that the world has changed. World economic competition has picked up. Other countries are pushing for a more skilled workforce and for better economic conditions. Thus, I think we are in greater risk even if we have managed to stay at roughly the same place. (It is also true that we devote significantly more resources to schools today – so we are worse off in that sense.)

12) The top main points you want to make in your book ?

Main points:

  1. We are not competitive internationally in terms of our schools and the skills of our population.
  2. Other countries have shown that it is possible to improve. Indeed some of our states have shown the same thing: Maryland, Delaware, Florida, and Massachusetts,
  3. If we can improve, the potential economic gains are huge. If we do not improve, we will be seriously hurt in the future – and the era of the “American Century” could come to an end.
  4. A number of people – particularly those currently working in the schools – resist the fundamental changes that are needed, but we must find a way to improve our schools.
  5. Improving our schools is not a partisan issues but one that faces all of our citizens.

13) How can interested, caring individuals get a copy of the book?

The book is published by the Brookings Institution Press and may be purchased on Amazon

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