Rothstein: School Improvement Has Been Hunky-Dory
This month’s topic at Cato Unbound is "Can the Schools Be Fixed?" and it kicks off with an essay by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein is from the Economic Policy Institute, and it shows; he seems to be more concerned with barriers to unionization than with the education system. According to him, the public schools are getting better and don’t need to be changed drastically. He argues that we are so alarmed about test scores that we don’t pay enough attention to labor policies that would have a greater effect on our economy.
Rothstein is right that we shouldn’t look to Asian countries, panic, and try whatever last-ditch effort comes to mind. But he’s wrong when he claims the education system doesn’t need major reform. He rests his contention on the rise in NAEP scores, particularly in math, over the past 35 years. But as Michael Strong points out in his reaction essay, the gains have gone to elementary- and middle-schoolers. That’s better than nothing, but not good enough; nobody hires a fourth-grader. And we shouldn’t conclude that there’s no education crisis just because the schools were once even worse. Students’ inability to identify key cultural references and facts, and their poor performance relative to other countries, show that school quality is way below what it should be.
The United States has enjoyed spectacular economic growth despite the mediocre school system. Rothstein takes that as evidence that schools don’t matter for growth. But economists who study the relationship between education and growth have found that schooling does matter. In this article in Education Next, the authors first consider the effects of time spent in school on growth across countries, then find that math and science test scores have an even larger effect:
When we performed the analysis again, this time also including the average test-score performance of a country in our model, we found that countries with higher test scores experienced far higher growth rates. If one country’s test-score performance was 0.5 standard deviations higher than another country during the 1960s?a little less than the current difference in the scores between such top-performing countries as Finland and Hong Kong and the United States?the first country’s growth rate was, on average, one full percentage point higher annually over the following 40-year period than the second country’s growth rate.
The U.S., with high growth rates and low test scores, has been an exception. We shouldn’t count on being an exception forever. Our free institutions and stable rule of law have given us a head start over many countries. As their institutions catch up to ours, academic achievement is going to matter more.
So improving education is a worthwhile issue to ponder. I’m looking forward to reading the plans for improvement in the upcoming essays.