ABC News Propagandizes That 5% Increase In Student Test Scores Would Boost U.S. Economy $41 Trillion

Last night on ABC News, David Muir made a truly whopping claim. With a straight face he reported that, according to a Stanford study, “a 5% increase in American test scores would translate into a $41 trillion increase in the American economy in the next 20 years.”

Wow.  Let that idea sink in.  It’s amazing propaganda. As I’ve previously concluded: The idea that the focus of our system of public education should be to maintain and improve the American standard of living is an idea so often expressed, we don’t recognize it as propaganda.

The study Muir referred to — “The High Cost of Low Educational Performance: THE LONG-RUN ECONOMIC IMPACT OF IMPROVING PISA OUTCOMES” — as it turns out, is not nearly so confident about a test score / economic growth causation as ABC News would have its viewers believe.

The study offers “five approaches” to argue test score / economic growth causation.  But, significantly, the report admits:  “none of the approaches addresses all of the important issues. Each approach fails to be conclusive for easily identified reasons. However, the combination of approaches, with similar support for the underlying growth models, provides some assurance that the most obvious problematic issues are not driving the results.”

“Some assurance” in its conclusion, is a far reach from the confidence about the study’s conclusion that ABC News projected last night.  “Some assurance” suggests, maybe, a 20% possibility, not a 100% certainty reported by ABC News.

The study centers around results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of 15 year olds from around the globe. Last night ABC news reported the latest PISA results:  “The U.S. now ranks 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading out of the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.”

Diane Sawyer said the report was a “wake-up call.”  David Muir said the numbers were “stunning,” and quoted President Obama as saying, “this is our Sputnik moment,” and showed a video clip of John Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign speaking with alarm concerning the Soviets’ space breakthrough.

Muir, in the context of this PISA report, gave an amazing interpretation of history — “Money was poured into math and science and 10 years later we put a man on the moon” — implying that a ten year effort to improve high school math and science resulted in our moon shot!  This is breathtaking propaganda — deliberate misinformation.  The actions that actually succeeded in bringing the space program together had zero to do with efforts to improve high school education from 1960 to July 20, 1969.

Then, Muir repeated the impossible notion that that a 5%  increase in American test scores would translate into a $41 trillion increase in the American economy in the next 20 years. “Just a 5% increase,” Muir said to Diane Sawyer, who replied, evidently referring to the notion that improved high school education led to the 1969 moon walk, “We did it before and we can do it again.” (Hear the message: just like in the 1960’s, when we responded to the Sputnik challenge by gearing up our math and science education, we now need to respond to the current economic challenge by gearing up our math and science education.  If how to gain $41 trillion in 20 years is the question, then achieving greater educational rigor is the answer.)

The notion that a 5% increase in student test performance will translate, over 20 years, into $41 trillion increase in the economy is a truly stunning claim.  The statistical analysis needed to justify such a conclusion is very much debatable. The study identifies the key issue: “Work on cross-country growth analysis has been plagued by legitimate questions about whether any truly causal effects have been identified, or alternatively whether the estimated statistical analyses simply pick up a correlation without causal meaning.”

Here is an abbreviated version of the “five approaches” that together, according to the report, give “some assurance” of causation:

  • First, this estimated relationship is little affected by including other possible determinants of economic growth. …
  • Second, to tackle the most obvious reverse-causality issues, Hanushek and Woessmann (2009) separate the timing of the analysis by estimating the effect of scores on tests conducted until the early 1980s on economic growth in 1980-2000. …
  • Third, the analysis traces the impact on growth of just the variations in achievement that arise from institutional characteristics of each country’s school system (exit examinations, autonomy, and private schooling). This estimated impact is essentially the same as previously reported, lending support both to the causal impact of more cognitive skills and to the conclusion that schooling policies can have direct economic returns. …
  • Fourth, one major concern is that countries with good economies also have good school systems – implying that those that grow faster because of the basic economic factors also have high achievement. To deal with this, immigrants to the United States who have been educated in their home countries are compared to those who were educated in the United States. … Looking at labour-market returns, the cognitive skills seen in the immigrant’s home country lead to higher incomes – but only if the immigrant was educated at home. Immigrants from the same home country schooled in the United States see no economic return to home- country quality, thus pinpointing the value of better schools.
  • Fifth, perhaps the toughest test of causality is reliance on how changes in test scores over time lead to changes in growth rates. This approach eliminates country-specific economic and cultural factors. Figure 8 (see below) simply plots trends in educational performance and trends in growth rates over time for OECD countries.25 This investigation provides more evidence of the causal influence of cognitive skills. The gains in test scores over time are related to the gains in growth rates over time.  As with the other approaches, this analysis must presume that the pattern of achievement changes has been occurring over a long time, because it is not the achievement of school children but the skills of workers that count. Nonetheless, the consistency of the patterns and the similarities of magnitudes of the estimates to the basic growth models is striking (see Hanushek and Woessmann, 2009).

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One Response to ABC News Propagandizes That 5% Increase In Student Test Scores Would Boost U.S. Economy $41 Trillion

  1. Rick says:

    Mike, you make an excellent point. That claim by David Muir was propaganda on gargantuan scale. The President can say this is our Sputnik moment, but he and the Democratic Party are in bed with the teachers unions and will oppose any meaningful reform.

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