Endangering Prosperity

by Eric A. Hanushek

"Compares the performance of American schools with that of other countries against the background of an increasingly globalizing world, introducing new competition for talent, markets, capital, and opportunity, and shows mixed results for U.S. students and recommends areas where American schools and education should be improved"--

Endangering Prosperity


A Global View of the American School

By Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, Ludger Woessmann

Brookings Institution Press

All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8157-2271-7


1 An Economic Future Imperiled.............................................1
2 Human Capital and Economic Prosperity....................................17
3 A Global View of U.S. Student Proficiency Rates..........................33
4 U.S. Advanced Performance in Global Perspective..........................47
5 Economic Benefits of Higher Performance..................................57
6 A Global View of Growth in U.S. Achievement..............................69
7 Substantive Concerns and Political Obstacles.............................85
A Methodology for Comparing U.S. and International Performance.............105
B Two Measures of Reading Proficiency......................................117



We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. —Barack Obama, 2011

Americans like to believe that their youth are truly exceptional. A glow of pride spreads across the land whenever young U.S. athletes win more medals than any other nation in the Olympics, as in Vancouver in the winter of 2010 and in London in the summer of 2012. It is true, as the German author of this book likes to remind his colleagues, that at least in the most recent Winter Olympics, Germany won more gold medals than the United States, but however you count these things, the United States was at or near the top of the heap. So it is not pleasant when Americans learn that their education system does not perform at the same world-class level as did those U.S. athletes in Vancouver. For example, among the twenty-five nations who won at least one medal—gold, silver, or bronze—in Vancouver (and also participated in the PISA international student achievement test), the United States came in eighteenth in advanced math achievement, just edging out the United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, Latvia, Croatia, and Kazakhstan.

It is fashionable to attribute these results to sizable numbers of minority students, or to student home environments, or to the quality of schools in urban areas, certain states, or regions. And it is true that African American and Hispanic students perform at a lower level than do white and Asian students, that student performance in urban areas is particularly discouraging, and that some states and regions of the country have students who score at higher levels. But we show in this short book that the problems in American education are not limited to gaps in performance between white and black, Asian and Hispanic, northern states and southern ones, or even between cities and suburbs. Even when we look at the best the United States has to offer, we seldom find performances that lift the United States to the top of the world, especially in mathematics.

Nothing is more important for the long-run future of the United States than the knowledge and skills of the next generation. On this score, the United States is in trouble, because its future, as indicated by the math, science, and reading skill levels achieved by today's students, looks quite depressing compared to what is possible and what has been achieved in other countries. Realizing the country's potential is still within reach, but doing so will take more than small steps and timid actions abetted by general confusion as to whether serious policy changes are worth their political costs.

Many commentators put the problem of schools in the context of generational conflict. The retirees are pitted against the children. They are portrayed as wanting nothing more than greater Social Security and Medicare payments along with lower taxes, implying that educational spending must give way to those priorities. By this argument, as the population ages, the educational needs of children will face an uphill battle for support.

Our view is different. The battle is not young versus old but a conflict between the needs of school-age children and the interests of those adults who have agreed to educate them in our public schools. The school workforce—teachers, principals, superintendents, other administrators, and ancillary personnel—too often favors only those changes to the status quo that enhance their income or lighten their workload. They oppose changes in the organization and structure of the school system that would likely enhance the learning opportunities of those for whom they are educationally responsible. When that happens, the promise of our nation's prosperity is endangered.

The available evidence about the economic gains possible with improved schooling underscores the common interests of our young and our old. With higher economic growth, something we can expect with improved schools, we could solve the long-run fiscal problems that are adding to the debt load of state and federal governments while threatening the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare. And we could lessen, if not eliminate, the divisive political conflicts over the size and shape of government that have overwhelmed our policymakers.

The Cacophony of Unmet Goals

Leaders have long known that education is key to the nation's prosperity and security. Immediately after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, the U.S. Congress in 1958 passed the National Defense Education Act to ensure the "security of the Nation" through the "fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women."

National security was no less on the minds of members of a 2012 task force that inquired into the extent to which U.S. schools were competitive with those in other countries. Sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, and chaired by former New York City schools chancellor Joel I. Klein and former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, the task force warned, "Poorly educated and semi-skilled Americans cannot expect to effectively compete for jobs against fellow U.S. citizens or global peers, and are left unable to fully participate in and contribute to society." They further summarized the overall problem, "In short, America's failure to educate is affecting its national security."

In between those dates, publicly expressed concerns about the quality of U.S. schools steadily intensified. In 1983 a government task force submitted to the Reagan administration a widely heralded report carrying the title A Nation at Risk. In 1989 President George H. W. Bush, together with the governors of forty-nine of the fifty states, set the goal that U.S. education would be at the top of world rankings by the year 2000. In 1993 President Bill Clinton urged passage of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, "so that all Americans can reach internationally competitive standards." Two years later, the legislation was enacted into law by a wide, bipartisan congressional majority. In 2006 President George W. Bush observed that "the bedrock of America's competitiveness is a well-educated and skilled work force."

Despite these proclamations, the position of the American school remains problematic when viewed from an international perspective. Only 7 percent of U.S. students in 2009 performed at the advanced level in mathematics, a percentage lower than that attained by twenty-nine other countries and political jurisdictions. The problem is not limited to top-performing students. In 2009 just 32 percent of eighth graders in the United States were deemed proficient in mathematics, placing the United States thirty-second when ranked with participating international jurisdictions.

Nor is the public unaware of the situation. When a cross section of the American public was asked how well the United States was doing in math, compared to other industrialized countries, the average estimate placed the United States at eighteenth, only modestly better than its actual standing. Americans do not find it difficult to agree with the summary words of the Council on Foreign Relations task force report: "Overall, U.S. educational outcomes are unacceptably low."

State leaders are no less aware of the challenges facing American education. Many governors—most notably, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and George W. Bush of Texas—lifted their own national profile by adopting reform policies within their states. The strategy has gone on for more than a hundred years. Charles Aycock, governor of North Carolina during the first years of the last century, is remembered as "the 'Education Governor' for his support of the public school system.... He felt that no lasting social reform could be accomplished without education. He supported increased salaries for teachers, longer school terms, and new school buildings."

A host of Aycock successors have echoed his calls, hoping that moniker would be applied to them as well. The 1989 meeting of governors made every subsequent governor into an "education" governor. The united effort, which crossed partisan and ideological boundaries, is less surprising than it might seem, as education is one of the most costly of state government responsibilities and one that is of great concern to the general public. A gubernatorial candidate cannot succeed without making firm commitments to school improvement.

Oddly, political leaders are seldom punished for the gap between educational promises and educational outcomes. A common commitment to high achievement has, for the most part, failed to translate into broad, substantive, real-world accomplishments. The reasons for lack of gubernatorial accountability are not altogether clear. Perhaps gubernatorial terms of office are too short for voters to assess whether or not promises have been fulfilled. Perhaps the educational workforce cares mainly about policies of concern to their material well-being, while the public at large is poorly informed or easily distracted by other issues. What we do know is that school failures seldom generate much more than calls for renewed effort, backed by additional spending, reinforced by still more steadfast commitments to move forward. New goals leapfrog unattained past goals.

The Distraction of the Present

We do not join with those who connect the call for educational reform with current economic difficulties. A dramatically enhanced education system today would do next to nothing for next month's unemployment rate, or next quarter's growth in gross domestic product (GDP), or next year's federal and state budget deficits. Too often, facts from the immediate present are used in campaign and legislative debates to justify—or oppose—adoption of long-range educational reforms. It is quite understandable that the sluggish recovery from the 2008 recession haunts political conversations about nearly every conceivable public issue, even when the connection is remote. For some, a short-term surplus of educated workers is interpreted as evidence that young adults are too well educated, while, for others, high rates of short-term unemployment are attributed to an inadequately trained workforce.

Such rants completely miss the fundamental problem that needs to be addressed. Linking the schools of today to current unemployment levels or quarterly rates of economic growth invites erroneous comparisons and conclusions. It may be true that our economy performed at lower levels in the first decade of the twenty-first century because student achievement reached a plateau during the 1970s, but that long-run impact must be kept distinct from the impact of the recent financial crisis and economic recession. Certainly the quality of schools now is of no significance to our economy today. High school students in 2013, no matter how skilled or unskilled they might be, have nothing to do with the contemporary state of the economy. Even the skills of those schooled five to ten years ago have only marginal effects on today's economy, as they constitute but a small segment of the workforce. The recent slow-growth experience in the United States is a warning about the costs to society of economic stagnation, and it may be due in part to educational stagnation over the past half century, but fixing U.S. schools will not immediately alter the course of the current business cycle.

Consider, for example, discussions of the short-term employment prospects of highly skilled workers in the midst of the 2008 recession. Isn't it the case, the argument went, that scientists, engineers, and other highly qualified technicians are unemployed or forced to accept jobs that made inadequate use of their skills? If those with skills are unemployed, why do we need to worry about educating more of the same? That perspective takes a very static view of the U.S. economy and ignores the dynamic nature of economies in general. When a society becomes more productive, jobs open up most quickly for those who are the most skilled, and their work then creates still more jobs. That kind of dynamic interaction between skills and economic growth has long been the hallmark of U.S. success. Conversely, if a society does not supply the skills and if the pace of technological change slows, the potential demand for those skills will never become apparent.

The Long-Run Imperative

The immediate future is locked in, not capable of being altered by anything that happens in the nation's schools. The focus here is on the well-being of the citizens of the United States when our children and grandchildren are active adult members of our society. We are not writing about next year nor even the next decade. Barring some catastrophe, the United States will over the short run continue to be the world's dominant economy, and the people of the United States will continue to enjoy the fruits of that reality. The immediate future could be a little bit better or a little bit worse, depending on the actions taken now, but short of some external shock, the range of possible near-term futures is quite small.

The range of possible futures widens steadily as one peers further into the future, as that is not locked in by past decisions in the same way that the next few years are. And the long-term path depends on decisions that are now being made, either explicitly or implicitly. Unfortunately, the consequences of those decisions will not be fully known until they, too, cannot be altered.

The long-run future of the U.S. economy depends crucially on the capacities and skills of those being educated today. Those skills will have their impact when today's youth become the core of our labor force and our society. Unfortunately, we know that the United States today is not doing as well as other countries either in lifting all students up to math and reading proficiency or in bringing a significant share up to an advanced level of accomplishment. When only 7 percent of students perform at the advanced level in math and only 32 percent are deemed proficient, and when at the same time an educated workforce is key to international standing and economic growth, a long-term challenge stares a nation in the face.

Comparisons with other countries tell us what can and must be done. The United States is in the middle of the pack among developed nations in terms of the skills that demonstrably drive national economic growth. The performance of its students on international math and science exams provides a valuable metric for assessing its standing, and the U.S. record in this regard is mediocre at best. The failure to develop adequate skills, what economists call human capital, has truly profound implications for U.S. productivity growth in the next half century. And of course, the skills being developed in other countries will have their own implications for growth in productivity throughout the industrialized and developing parts of the international economy.

In simplest terms, nations that have a highly skilled labor force grow faster. This key fact has become the conventional wisdom throughout the world and is proclaimed repeatedly by political leaders. Yet in practice, this bare fact has yet to be fully appreciated, if actions, rather than words, are the measure of the seriousness with which it is truly understood. Those responsible for education policy have yet to show that they know and care that a high level of human capital induces long-run growth in productivity, which leads to greater GDP and, in turn, to improved living standards.

We are not arguing that the United States should attempt to retard the educational progress of other nations in order to promote its own citizenry. On the contrary, growth in human capital around the world will redound to the benefit of all, as countries exchange the products of their better-educated workforces. We do not live in a zero-sum world, where growth in other countries comes at the expense of the United States. The gains of other nations will not subtract from gains achieved in the United States, nor will faster growth by the United States diminish the prospects for other nations. A world with higher levels of human capital will, in the absence of war, be of great benefit to all nations. The relative growth of the different nations will, however, affect the future prestige and influence of each. It will have implications for the kinds of jobs and economy that we have and whether we exhibit technological leadership or take a more supporting role. The United States cannot afford to ignore investments in human capital in the hope that it can benefit from the accomplishments of others. If the United States takes that strategy, it will endanger the prosperity of the next generations.


Excerpted from ENDANGERING PROSPERITY by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, Ludger Woessmann. Copyright © 2013 THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

A Blio eBook
List Price: $22.95
Our Price: $21.19
You Save: $1.76 (8%)



Full Title: Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School
Author: Eric A. Hanushek / Paul E. Peterson / Ludger Woessmann
Publisher: Brookings Inst Pr
Date Published: June 28, 2013
Format: eBook, Blio
Feature: Text to Speech Enabled
Platform: XPS Enabled
Length: 125 pages
Language: English
ISBN: 0815722710 / 9780815722717
Categories: Education / Methods & Materials / General
Politics & Government / Public Policy / Social Policy
Education / Educational Policy & Reform