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Chalkboard project says the way to do that is through teachers

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The hallway of Franklin High School in Portland. A new report out Wednesday says that if Oregon improves its test scores to that of the highest-achieving state in the nation, the state could raise its GDP more than a half-trillion dollars. How do we improve school quality?

According to a new report, that’s the nation’s $76 trillion question.

Stanford University economist and researcher Eric Hanushek led a study How much income tax Oregon schools get that says Oregon alone could realize $574 billion more in gross domestic product during the lifetime of a child born today, if it improved school quality to the level of the best-educated state in the nation. That would more than double Oregon's total economy by 2095.

As impressive as $574 billion sounds, that rate of return is actually lower than average. According to the report, if the lowest-achieving state, Mississippi, improved its school quality to the level of the highest-achieving state, Minnesota, it would multiply its current GDP by 10 — gain of 1,000 percent — over 80 years.

“It gives a real reason for states to take the hard steps that are often needed to change the schools,” Hanushek says.

The report’s authors say political leaders need to make school quality a top priority. But figuring out how to do that will be tricky.

“I think Oregon is a microcosm of challenges facing the nation,” Hanushek says. “Oregon is going to be faced with: how should they figure out how should they hold schools and teachers and students accountable for their performance?”

Interestingly, Hanushek says the way to improve school quality isn’t necessarily by throwing more money at districts.

“How you spend the money is much more important than how much you spend,” he says.

Path to better schools through teachers

In Oregon, a think-tank called the Chalkboard Project has been using scientific research to improve school quality at six districts.

Julie Smith, senior director of educator effectiveness and innovation, says they have found a key way to improve schools is through giving teachers more of a say in the school.

“Chalkboard does not believe there is a silver bullet in programming but maybe there is one in process,” Smith says.

For example, Smith’s team found that in the six school districts, teachers all felt that their professional development courses were not helping them very much in the classroom. But when researchers dug deeper, they found the reasons for that were very different.

“The ‘whys’ were vastly different,” Smith says. “So the solutions are going to be different even though the problems are the same.”

Researcher Hanushek comes at this from an economist’s perspective. He says a key way to improve schools, and thus improve economic vitality, is through teacher pay. Effective teachers are the best indicator of student success, but throwing more money into salaries district-wide isn’t a good idea, he says.

“Some districts have used the money well and wisely and others have done just the opposite,” he says. “The school districts will always say: ‘We could do better with more money,’ but they have to demonstrate that.”

Know more, earn more

Hanushek says economists have long wondered what the driving force is behind improving the economy as a whole and boosting individual wages. But until now, they haven’t had accurate measurements of what people know and how that affects what they earn.

“It turns out that people with higher test scores, that means they in fact know more. And individuals who know more, earn more, and so forth,” Hanushek says. The longtime researcher adds that he believes the testing opt-out movement is damaging researchers’ ability to conduct accurate science that would improve school quality.

The new study used test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, called the “nation’s report card” under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education. NAEP tests have a high level of participation.

The Hanushek report says that if all Americans could improve school quality to the level of the highest-achieving state, it could realize a theoretical 9 percent boost in GDP every year for the next 80 years.

The study also accounted for movement of people across state lines. If a state like Oregon improved school quality but neighboring states didn’t, the immigration of poorly educated people and the emigration of well educated people would shave about a third off the anticipated GDP growth.

In Oregon, school funding experiences major boom-bust cycles due to its reliance on income tax. (See related story: How much income tax Oregon schools get.)

Hanushek says those in charge of school funding need to take a more permanent view.

“It takes a while before you make a smarter adult,” Hanushek says. “Once you do, you see it has economic value.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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UPDATE: Chose to highlight a different statistic for Oregon's possible rate of return on investment to a statistic that more readily compares to the statistic referenced later for Mississippi.

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