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. This interview is a
merged version of both our telephone and video recorded
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
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
You brought up the Coleman Report, let’s talk about
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
If we want to talk about equity and equalized
opportunities, we should focus on what the distribution of learning
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
David Boulton: That speaks to a certain limitation in
the granularity of our understanding of what constitutes good
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
David Boulton: Although the main correlation is less
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
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,
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
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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
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.
David Boulton: That's precisely the point of
Stanovich's work, in what he called the
Matthew Effects. I don't know if you've encountered that.
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
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
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
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
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
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
David Boulton: Without talking about what to do, just
in terms of cause and effect, Iet’s try to separate these out a
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
David Boulton: Right.
Dr. Eric Hanushek: You feel a little bit queasy
David Boulton: Any generalizations from such a small
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
David Boulton: A social moon mission? (see
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
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,
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.