A Choice to Make

There is so much wrong with this article by Eric Hanushek that I fear that anything less than a line-for-line rebuttal will be woefully inadequate as a response. Out of consideration for my readers, I will refrain from providing one, and will rather try to focus on the most important points. Hanushek, of course, is the Stanford economist whose lurch into the field of education has driven much of the recent misguided effort towards “Reform” in today’s educational system. His article does a good job of summarizing his most crucial arguments, so it’s worth some time examining.

The title of the piece is “Valuing Teachers” and a brilliantly disingenuous title it is. Rather than using the word as we might use it (placing a high value on teachers), he is using it as an economist might (assessing the value of teachers). He is measuring how much teachers are worth. According to Hanushek, better teachers result in higher incomes for their students later in life. To make his case, he uses a series of unscientific leaps of logic that will yield easily to a few moments of rationality.

He notes that “a student with achievement (as measured by test performance in high school) that is one standard deviation above average can later in life expect to take in 10 to 15 percent higher earnings per year.” I have no reason to doubt his numbers.

But Hanushek is making the classic blunder of confusing correlation with causation. Do higher test scores in school directly cause higher incomes? Or is it possible that they may have common contributing factors? What about factors that the student brings in, such as intelligence, stamina, and motivation? Is it possible that parental income can be a factor in both standardized testing scores and future income? Hanushek’s famous value-added study attempted to isolate these factors, but he seems content to ignore them when citing this achievement/income connection.

And, as Diana Senechal points out, “there is no evidence (as far as I know) that students in the highest percentiles in high school are those who made the greatest gains on their standardized tests over the years. In fact, I suspect that most of them did pretty well on those tests all along.”

Using future income as a measure of teacher quality is even more outrageous than using test scores. How much does a Stanford professor make compared to a Wall Street hedge fund manager? Is that a function of the quality of education they received? In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I make significantly less than LeBron James. Did he have better teachers?

Hanushek’s solution is to “contemplate asking 5 to 10 percent of teachers to find a job at which they are more effective so they can be replaced by teachers of average productivity.” (Note to my boss: if it should ever become necessary to fire me, I would request that you instead contemplate asking me to find a job at which I am more effective.)

Hanushek’s solution – fire the bad teachers – is very simple, but it requires several assumptions that I don’t think we should be so quick to grant.


  1. Standardized tests accurately measure student achievement.
  2. The teachers whose students don’t make progress on the tests are the bad teachers.
  3. There is a line of average teachers at the door waiting to be hired.
  4. No factors other than teacher quality are significant.

Peruse this list, and note that Hanushek’s plan falls apart if even one of these assumptions is false. In fact, they all are.

Assumption: Standardized tests accurately measure student achievement.

False. The tests that students are given are deeply flawed indeed. Many of the questions do not test what they purport to test, and test-taking itself has become it’s own skill set that schools ignore at their own peril. If we’re careful, we can use some the results to identify areas in need of improvement. But the tests on the whole are way too idiosyncratic to use the overall scores as a basis for high-stakes decision making.

Assumption: The teachers whose students don’t make progress on the tests are the bad teachers.

False. In an August 2010 paper for the Economic Policy Institute, a team of highly distinguished education researchers laid out the case against the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. Bottom line: It doesn’t work. Test scores are simply an ineffective statistical measure for identifying bad teachers. If you don’t find twenty pages of research from a panel of experts compelling, then you can read about this well-respected hard-working teacher who got slammed by a statistical formula.

Assumption: There is a line of average teachers at the door waiting to be hired.

False. In fact, teacher recruitment and retention is becoming a serious problem. A McKinsey study, Closing the Talent Gap, describes the decline in the teaching profession’s ability to compete in the labor market.

However, I suspect there is a bit of condescension towards the profession of teaching when we assume we can just go out and hire average teachers. The implication is that the average person would make an average teacher, rather than acknowledging that teaching requires a particular set of qualities (e.g., diligence, patience, intelligence, and a calling to want to do it) for someone to even be an average teacher. To glibly say that we can just fire the bad teachers and hire average ones is unintentionally insulting.

Assumption: No factors other than teacher quality are significant.

False. Hanushek anticipates this rebuttal, and is kind enough to provide examples of other factors that are not significant:

The initiatives we have emphasized in policy discussions—class-size reduction, curriculum revamping, reorganization of school schedule, investment in technology—all fall far short of the impact that good teachers can have in the classroom. Moreover, many of these interventions can be very costly.

Costly? I thought we were discussing what is most effective. Aren’t we having a national education crisis? Hanushek has moved past his role as researcher and now is making policy judgements. Danny Westneat argues effectively against the idea that class size is irrelevant, so I don’t have to. Teachers already know the importance of class size, and I suspect that the Reformers do as well. Similarly, other initiatives we take to improve education, costly or no, are based on research and accumulation of best practices. Even if we let Hanushek fire all of the bad teachers, we would still want to implement successful education initiatives. Sorry.

Neither side is happy with our current educational system. But Reformers seem to offer nothing but slapdash solutions that keep expenses low but ignore the facts on the ground. It seems, then, we have a choice to make. Do we want to have a public education system in this country? Many do not, and would rather see the free market take over education. Charter schools seem to be a first step in that direction, and I think the Reformers who tout them have become, wittingly or unwittingly, somewhat of a stalking horse for the movement against public education. Diane Ravitch, in her eloquent response to Waiting for Superman, discusses why charter schools aren’t the panacea they’re often held up as. She also discusses the impact of poverty on student achievement, and the dangers of ignoring it in the national discussion. Paying teachers more? Keeping class size down? Addressing the needs of high-poverty schools? It all seems so… costly.

That’s what it’s going to take, though. If we want a high-quality public education system, we’re going to have to pay for it. These may be troubled economic times, but really it’s just a question of priorities. If we’re going to have public education at all, we need to increase, not decrease, funding for it. We need to increase it by a lot. Reformer “solutions” only distract from the real issue. They want us to look at charter schools, but if we look closely enough, we’ll see that the most successful charter schools are able to spend much more per student than the public schools who are expected to emulate them.

And so, we must choose between abolishing public education and funding it adequately. Abolishing it is not really a choice at all, and would lead to an even worse crisis than we have now. But, if we can adjust our priorities and give our students the schools they deserve, then, as Dan Quayle said, “We are going to have the best educated American people in the world.” (Should we be blaming his teachers?)

2 Responses to “A Choice to Make”

  1. Valuing Teachers - Julie BoydJulie Boyd Says:

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