WASHINGTON, D.C. – Think the economy is bad now?
Just wait a few years. Unless the United States gets busy producing a generation of math- and science-savvy students, tomorrow’s Americans will view today’s low-growth economy as “the good old days.”
However, if the U.S. can ramp up students’ math and science proficiency scores to match those of Canadian students – which would be no small feat – the American economy could “dramatically increase” to the tune of $77 trillion over the next 80 years. To put that into perspective, the U.S. economy produced $16.62 trillion worth of economic activity in 2012.
That’s the argument a trio of well-respected education scholars – Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann – make in their new book, “Endangering Prosperity.”
Hanushek is with the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, Peterson is with Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, and Woessmann teaches economics at the University of Munich.
The three scholars base their “good news, bad news” predictions on two arguments.
The first is that America’s built-in economic advantage – which has aided our strong economic growth for generations – is coming to an end.
“The U.S. economy is built on open markets, secure property rights, generally favorable tax rates, a higher-education system at the top of the world, and favorable immigration policies that permitted highly skilled people to enter,” Hanushek and Peterson write in a new Wall Street Journal op-ed.
While those values and policies are still alive and (mostly) well in the U.S., they can also be found in numerous other countries now, too.
The playing field, in other words, has been leveled.
“In the future,” Hanushek and Peterson write, “U.S. growth will depend on the skills of its citizens, and currently those skills are not competitive with other countries.”
Which brings us to the book’s main point: U.S. schools are failing to produce students who have the math and science chops to compete with their international peers.
“Only 32 percent of U.S. high-school students are proficient in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” they write in the op-ed.
By comparison, the math proficiency rate in Canada and Germany was 49 and 45 percent, respectively.
All told, U.S. students rank 22nd in the world for math ability.
Why does that matter?
“(Math) appears to be the subject in which accomplishment in secondary school is particularly significant for both an individual’s and a country’s future well-being,” the authors claim. “Existing research, though not conclusive, indicates that math skills better predict future earning and other economic outcomes than other skills learned in high school.”
Math and science are key
Using scores from “well-vetted international tests given to students since the 1960s in 50 countries” and gross domestic product data, the authors determine that countries with “very high test scores” in math and science experienced “extra-rapid” economic growth between 1960 and 2009.
Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, for example, all experienced annual economic growth that was nearly 2 percent higher than would have been expected if their students’ test scores had been average, according to their analysis.
The opposite also is true. Nations with low math and science scores – South Africa, Argentina, the Philippines and Peru – experienced economic growth “that was almost 2 percent less per year than would be expected had their student test scores put them at the world average,” they write in the op-ed.
Those findings match what many citizens understand intuitively: A nation’s capacity for producing goods and making technological advances is connected to the math and science skills of its workforce.
The question then becomes, what can Americans do to turn things around?
The authors don’t delve too deeply into which K-12 reforms would be most effective for improving math and science scores, but they do offer a few suggestions for bolstering student achievement in general.
Chief among them: Schools must do a better job of spending the money they already have.
“More money” is not the answer, the authors note. “The U.S. spends on average $12,000 per pupil in grades K-12, one of the highest amounts in the world.”
Instead of demanding more revenue, K-12 leaders should scrap “expensive but ineffective policies such as class size reduction … (which) have not raised achievement,” they write. “Better accountability, more school choice, market-based teacher compensation and retention policies can, on the other hand, boost achievement without adding materially to school costs.”
They also suggest that getting rid of teacher unions and their accompanying labor contracts – filled with numerous “Thou Shalt Not” work rules – would help schools focus more on students’ needs, which would lead to better academic performance.
The authors acknowledge one hitch to all this: It will take decades before Americans experience the economic benefits of any increases in math and science achievement.
“Nationwide, the biggest economic gains will come many years after school improvement takes place, a fact that probably helps to explain the reluctance of the political class to commit itself to genuine school reform. Confronting the power of teacher unions and other vested interests is politically costly,” they write.
“But the failure to improve the education system is more costly still.”