Questioning Educational Assumptions
Two recent publications, one in the United States and one in the United Kingdom, raise fundamental questions about the way we organize the education of our children and the soundness of the assumptions on which education systems are built. The publication of Eric A. Hanushek's "The Economic Value of Higher Teacher Quality,"1 in December 2010, is beginning to attract deserved attention beyond the academic economics community. A readily accessible document (apart from short sections of statistical formulae), the paper merits reading by every school committee, principal, politician, and professor of education.
As a layman, I cannot say that Hanushek's conclusions are correct, but they are credible and appear to be sound. As such, they deserve public debate on many levels, refinement, and, if correct, action.
In brief, the article challenges -- by statistical analysis -- a number of the core beliefs and practices in education. These include the benefits of a) teachers being required to have education qualifications, b) small class sizes, c) the disconnect between teacher pay and student achievement, and d) awarding pay increments for advanced degrees and length of experience.
Hanushek finds no significant correlation among teacher training (or the lack there of), the size of classes (after the age of about 6), teachers with higher degrees, and teacher experience (after about three years), and the achievement results of students. These facts interest Hanushek as an economist, as they form the basis of teacher pay.
Hanushek notes, "The national expenditure in 2007 on bonuses for advanced degrees amounted to approximately $19 billion. The total bonuses for teacher experience are roughly three times as large."2 Put simply, this means we're spending more than $70 billion annually on teacher bonuses for no appreciable return.
I am reminded of an informal conversation that Professor Paul H. Hirst5 had with some members of his Philosophy of Education class who met in the basement of an Education Department building at Cambridge University for coffee during a break. He said that in the 1960s and '70s, the focus had been on the relationship between the teacher and the pupil, but that the really crucial relationship was between the teacher and his subject. That relationship created a vortex into which the student was drawn. This observation suggests a reason why teaching qualifications, length of experience, advanced degrees, and even class size may be of less consequence than presently supposed.
The final argument considers the economic benefits of improved student achievement. Hanushek postulates that the U.S. could raise its academic achievement levels to those of Canada by replacing the bottom 5% of teachers with just average teachers. If we could replace the bottom 8%, our education system could be as effective as Finland's, and, over the course of a lifetime, the benefit to U.S. GDP would amount to $112 trillion.4
With towns, cities, counties, and even a number of states facing credit downgrades at best and bankruptcy at worst, these figures will be hard to ignore.
Politics and education being what they are, it may be even harder to act.
My reading of Hanushek's paper coincided with the publication of "Degrees of Success: University Chances by Individual School,"5 from the Sutton Trust, which looks into admissions of students from U.K. schools to the top 20 universities.
While schooling -- in organization and practice -- is completely different in the U.K. from that in the U.S., the report raised a number of issues worth considering by those involved in American education.
Schools often talk about the success they have enjoyed in helping place students in colleges and universities, but few publicly subdivide their results to identify the numbers who have gone to leading universities6 and those who have gone elsewhere. The assumption -- and sometimes the reality -- is that students have been guided into institutions of higher learning best-suited to their needs.
However, this is probably a dangerous assumption, and various marketing and PR departments at schools and in town halls almost certainly will have had their influence. Of course, the real measure of success is how many students complete their studies at the institutions to which they were first admitted. Few public school systems have the resources to follow former students for four years, but isn't this what taxpayers have some right to know, given that they've funded thirteen years of education?
One question raised by a reading of the Sutton Trust report is, "How can teachers who have not themselves attended top-flight universities either know what their standards are, or adequately prepare students for them?"
To some extent, in the U.S. this gap is filled by the college board examinations and the universities' admissions procedures, but this does not fully address the question of taxpayers getting value for money.
Another question is, "To what extent are schools pushing for excellence?" I'm not suggesting that they aren't, but measuring university admissions and graduations would be a good indicator. I can't see that that is being done on any scale.
The focus on the less able and the underprivileged has, to too great an extent, overshadowed the attention that students at the top end of the scale deserve to realize their full potential. It has been easier for the private sector to maintain a sharper focus on higher achievers, but able children at public schools deserve the same academic opportunities, if they are capable of the achievement.
Taken together, these two papers offer insights and opportunities for politicians and educators. The concept of equality of opportunity unites the imperative of improving the quality of teaching with the cultivation of aspirations to the highest possible levels of achievement and enlightened economic self-interest.
It now falls to all of us to do something with these insights.
P Michael Reidy (BA, MA [English], MA [Philosophy of Education], FRSA) taught for 15 years in the U.S. and U.K. and is chairman of the governing body of a large secondary boys' school where he has been a governor for 18 years. He is also a PR/marketing consultant.
1 Hanushek, Eric A., "The The Economic Value of Higher Teacher Quality" The National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 16606, also by The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), The Urban Institute (http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/1001507-Higher-Teacher-Quality.pdf)
4 Hanushek, op. cit., p. 22-23
5 The Sutton Trust, July 2011 (http://www.suttontrust.com/research/degree-of-success-university-chances-by-individual-school/)
6 The Sutton Trust's report lists those universities it considers to be the top ones; I won't presume to make one for the US, but it would be reasonable to start with the Ivy and Poison Ivy League institutions.