A Strategy to Improve Student Achievement

Published May 1, 1998

State legislatures and Congress could place an “indelible positive stamp on the Nation’s future” if, instead of mandating specific approaches to school reform (such as reduced class sizes), they mandated research into how schools can be improved, argues Eric A. Hanushek, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Rochester. Today, he says, we simply do not know enough to implement an effective program to improve student performance.

For example, while there is considerable evidence that student achievement is related most strongly to the quality of teachers, “nobody in today’s schools has much of an incentive to improve student performance,” says Hanushek. “Careers simply are not made on the basis of student outcomes,” he adds, faulting the present organization and incentive structure of public education.

Arguing that something more than a change in teacher certification is required to improve the quality of teaching, Hanushek makes the following proposals to improve student achievement:

  • Evaluate teacher performance. Evaluations of a teacher’s actual teaching performance in the classroom should be used in school decisions.
  • Test proposals before implementing. Instead of arbitrarily lowering class sizes everywhere, the federal and state governments could initiate more random-assignment trials and evaluation of the effects of lowered class size.
  • Test alternative incentives schemes. The federal and state governments also could develop a series of experiments to investigate the construction and implementation of incentives such as merit pay, private contracting, and a wider choice of schools.

“Much of our knowledge about treatment therapies in medicine is directly related to prior experimentation,” observes Hanushek, noting that the last period of social experimentation by the federal government in the 1960s and 1970s produced many useful policy insights.