Teacher Quality Is Vital

The Jacobs Foundation spoke to Dr. Eric A. Hanushek. He is a leader in the development of economic analysis of educational issues. The interview took place during this year’s Jacobs Foundation Conference at Marbach Castle on Lake Constance, Germany. The conference aimed to bring together leaders in the field of Economy to engage in a discussion of how the research perspectives in the economics of education can become more influential in policy discussions and policy decisions.

Each of us knows the problem: It is hard to transform evidence into actual policies that promote child and youth development on a broad scale. Where do you think the problem is coming from?

There are several problems that contribute to this. Educational policy making is very complicated and involves a variety of factors. In this, policies often incorporate both the interests of students and the interests of the adults that operate the schools — and these interests are often not the same. This divergence of interests recurrently leads to political pressure against changes in the schools. It is frequently difficult to translate research results directly into an actual policy, largely because few research efforts are by themselves definitive. Finally, little of the existing research includes information about both program effectiveness along with program costs, which would make it possible to compare alternative approaches on the basis of the productivity of expenditures in different uses.

Knowing and appreciating many years of your research experience: What practical implications have been implemented?

I think the most significant outcome of policy that flows from my research has been the focus on teacher quality and on the evaluation of differences in effectiveness of teachers. My work in developing ideas of teacher value added is now broadly accepted as a primary way to judge differences in teacher effectiveness. Moreover, from this work, it is now very generally accepted that the quality of the teacher is the most important element in school quality. These findings have been translated, particularly in the U.S., to a wide variety of laws and regulations designed to improve the evaluation of teachers and to employ evaluations of performance in personnel decisions – both pay and retention.

A second area of my work that is brought directly into policy is the conclusion that just adding more resources does not consistently improve schools. In particular, how resources are used is recognized as being more important than how many resources are available. Of course, this has its limitations, but it does focus discussion directly on ensuring that more resources are translated into better student outcomes.

Can developed countries like the U.S., Germany and Switzerland apply their theories in Kenya, India etc.?

The ability to generalize research results from one country to another is a topic of considerable current discussion. There are no definitive answers right now, but some generalizations are beginning to emerge. First, the impacts of broad institutional factors – such as incentives for teachers or the degree of local decision making – seem to provide lessons across countries. On the other hand, the impacts of specific programs, which typically depend on the institutional structure in which they are imbedded, are more difficult to generalize. Second, the farther apart the countries are economically, the less likely results are to generalize across countries.

What are your next steps regarding broadening the perspective of how to get from interventions to policies? What does social investment provide?

We know that early investments are important, but the evidence of how to provide this early childhood education is much less clear. We do not know how to structure a “quality preschool experience” because the very large investments that have been most studied (Perry Preschool and Abecedarian) are not easily translated into broad governmental programs because they are extremely expensive. The research on components of a successive program is less understood. Second, we do not know how to provide these programs to disadvantaged children in anything but a universal program. But universal programs are expensive and tend to be heavily subsidized for middle and upper income families. In both areas, the use of experiments with different options seems strongly advised.

We also know that stopping these investments at preschool yields virtually no positive outcomes. The important take-away from Heckman’s message is that “skills beget skills.” Starting early provides the foundation for subsequent learning, but it is also necessary to focus attention on primary and secondary schools in order to capitalize on a good head start. The quality of primary and secondary schools is very important for all students – disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged.