Eric Hanushek and the Inconvenient Truth (again)

by Martin Harris

If there’s an academic researcher studying the productivity (or not) of contemporary public K-12 who is more despised by the “establishment” than any other, it might well be Eric Hanushek. While still at the University of Rochester in New York State in the ‘90’s, he began investigating the “truth that dares not speak its name”, the statistically proven failure of the “smaller classes produce higher achievement” argument which at that time had already compiled twenty years of stagnant Federal test score results to prove its fecklessness. In 1998 he published “The Evidence on Class Size”, with this sentence in the introductory Abstract: “In sum, while policies to reduce class size may enjoy popular political appeal, such policies are very expensive and, according to the evidence, quite ineffective.” For this effort, he was quite effectively shunned by career public-school edu-crats nationwide and eventually encouraged to depart SUNY-Rochester for the more objective research environment of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Now he’s back, this time as the co-author of research showing that low US educational achievement eventually shows up in dismal global-prosperity-competition results, specifically, “economic growth and the distribution of income” in the US.

For reasons beyond Humble Scribe comprehension the Hanushek/Woessman 2010 study, commissioned by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, hasn’t been sloganized by the Occupy Movement in support of its “99 percent” wealth-re-distribution demands, even though its members are precisely those young Americans whose recent K-12 and then (ever-more-expensive) collegiate educations have left them in their current distress. Maybe that’s because the study itself, “The High Cost of Low Educational Performance”, hasn’t received MainStreamMedia attention until recently. Another “inconvenient truth” best treated with, (Senator D.P. Moynihan’s perceptive words) “benign neglect” , the MSM might say.

Now the professor has co-authored (with Sec-of-State emeritus George Shultz ) an illustrated summary of his findings. The chart, just published in The Wall Street Journal, shows a statistically forceful relationship between national economic growth (or not) and student scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. In 2009, the US came in at a below-average 487, or 31st for Math, same as Portugal and Italy. He argues that, had the US managed to match Canada, the eventual competitiveness result would have been another20% in worker income. In the text, he writes “Anyone worried about income disparity in America should be deeply disturbed. The failure of the K-12 system for so many students means that issues associated with income distribution –including higher taxes and less freedom in labor and capital markets—will be an ever-present and distressing aspect of our future.”

Some additional PISA Test scores show the breadth of the achievement decline. US students came in at 500 for Reading, same as Poland; and 502 for Science, same as Hungary. Typically near the top (scores in the higher 500’s) are South Korea, Finland, and Canada, on a scale where 500 is normed as the statistical average for all countries. You can see the similarity, in Math for example, in Vermont’s place in this analysis in the 2010 National Digest of Educational Statistics. Table 143 shows the US average on a non-adjusted 0-to-500 scale for 4th graders in 2009 at 239 (38% made Proficient, 62% didn’t) and Vermont at 248 (51% Proficient, 49% not) and Table 144 shows the results for 8th graders: US, 282 (33% Proficient), VT, 293 (43% Proficient). Why is VT seemingly above the US average? Table 146 explains: it shows US math averages, 4th, 8th, and 12th grade, by race. For example, in 8th grade, white scores were 299, black were 281, Hispanic were 266, and Asian were 301. With statistically-near-zero minority population, VT scores should match US white scores. They’re 6 points lower. Nor do they show any positive result from smallest classes in the Nation and near-highest annual per-pupil costs. Eric Hanushek: proven right.

* * * * *

The dismal Federal test scores show something else: why all States except Nebraska have gone shopping for easier tests. Vermont has gone through, first Portfolio Assessment, then NSRE, now NECAP, and soon, perhaps, something hopefully called SMARTER, in the continuing search for seemingly better Proficiency numbers for public consumption. Meanwhile, the Feds have been “mapping the difference” between such easier tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showing that in all States except Massachusetts, the local-choice “Proficient” doesn’t quite match the lower-standard NAEP “Basic”, but no one seems to care.

Except the world of commerce, which perhaps explains why, to quote from a recent op-ed in Middlebury’s oldest weekly, “…many of Vermont’s most progressive employers can’t find enough employees with the skills they need to grow and succeed.” And probably won’t any time soon: “Only 44% of Vermont high school graduates will enroll in a college next year.” Maybe that’s because high school grads recognize, as their edu-crats won’t, that an unrealistic “Proficient” in math won’t actually equip them for real college classroom requirements. Eric Hanushek, proven right, again.

It’s just like all those studies describing the anti-business climate in the Green Mountain State. Although they don’t cite an under-skilled labor force as a deterrent to economic growth, it’s actually of equal gravity with near-national-top scores for taxation and regulation, high (and soon even higher) prices for electric power, and land-use policies which inflate housing costs to unaffordability levels in terms of Vermont wage scales. It’s quite amazing that all these patterns would accidentally come to be so dominant, so un-identified (and presumably so un-desired) by its government, in the nation’s second-smallest State, population-wise . Or maybe not.

That’s because the negative business climate, the tax structure, the regulatory structure, the official attitudes towards energy costs and electronic infra-structure, are all long-standing trends, now several decades in evidence, with clear correlation to business flight (or non-start-up), middle-class out-migration, and ever higher cost-of-stay for Vermont residents. Surely the folks in the corridors of power could have reversed course if they had wanted to, but they have consistently chosen otherwise. Latest example: the shut-down campaign for Vermont Yankee.

The policies which have stimulated middle-class flight show up in the stats (causation or correlation? We don’t yet know for sure) alongside an increase in upper-middle-class, mostly passive-income, in-migration, which has been shown to result in a small but positive net population gain, and a significant rise in median family income. And remarkable political security for elected officials credited with preventing unwanted urban development and “growth” on behalf of a bucolic countryside viewscape and “sustainability”. Not a stated set of policies, this “rural gentrification” pattern, but maybe not an accident either. You decide.

One thought on “Eric Hanushek and the Inconvenient Truth (again)

  1. A genuine implementation of school choice makes SO many issues like this just go away.

Comments are closed.