January 18, 2023

According to a study published by the Hoover Institute titled The Economic Cost of the Pandemic, (Eric Hanushek, 2023), the author claims he can predict how “learning loss” during the pandemic will impact the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of each individual State in the United States…for the rest of the 21st century!


For example, his “analysis” predicts that New Mexico's total GDP will be 2.3% less over the course of the 21st Century because of pandemic-related learning loss. The author’s “argument” rests on one assumption.
Assumption: schooling leads to more skills, and more skills lead to higher wages.
Also, Mr. Hanushek (through fancy-looking statistical models that are based on some interesting assumptions) can predict what will happen economically in the State of New Mexico for the next 80 years. Not only that, but he also claims that a period between March 2020 and an indeterminate time before the NAEP tests were given in 2022 is the sole reason behind his dire predictions for the economy of New Mexico. In other words, the schools and educators are to blame.
Oh, can we mention that he is comparing two cohorts of students who took the NAEP test for his analysis…the cohort from 2019 and the cohort from 2022. So, his entire argument is based on the test scores of two cohorts. All of us are very familiar with how comparing just two cohorts against each other can lead to very misleading “conclusions,”…especially in our work with Keystone tests and PSSA tests.
Thus, because the test scores of students affected by the pandemic are lower, then they will achieve fewer skills.
I am holding my head in my hands with a death grip, trying to understand how a “researcher” can confidently make such bullshit arguments. 

Let me go deeper

The author cites one of his own papers (Hanushek, et al., 2015) titled “Returns to Skills around the World: Evidence from PIAAC.”  And published in the European Economic Review (73, January) that purportedly “proves” that higher skills lead to higher income.
So, I went and read that 2015 paper. Here are some interesting quotes from the paper.
A caution to our direct estimation approach, however, is that none of the prior studies of the impact of cognitive skills on either earnings or school attainment have provided convincing analysis of the causal impacts of scores. Our main analysis remains in this tradition by not explicitly identifying exogenous variation in skills. In Section 5, however, we explore a series of strategies for dealing with specific concerns about the identification of the impact of cognitive skills on earnings. While none of the separate approaches deals with the entire spectrum of threats to identification, the consistency across different strategies lends support to a causal interpretation of the estimates. (p.107) Highlights are mine
So, the 2015 paper does not even pretend to show a causal relationship between higher skills and higher income earnings and cautions the reader that “Lends support” does not equate to a positive causal relationship.
Interestingly in the 2023 paper released this week, the author does not mention this little fact.
Unfortunately, potentially he allows the reader to misinterpret correlation with a direct relationship between higher skills and higher income. The author states, “Extensive research demonstrates a simple fact: those with higher achievement and greater cognitive skills earn more” (Hanushek et al. 2015).
NO! That is not what you say (Mr. Hanushek) in your 2015 article. You say you can’t make a causal relationship! Come on, at least be consistent with your intellectual honesty. 

More about his 2015 paper

The 2015 paper is based on a survey given to workers in countries all over the world and measures cognitive skills in three areas: literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. The areas are defined as:
Literacy: Ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential; 2. Numeracy: Ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life; 3. Problem solving in technology-rich environments: Ability to use digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks. (p. 108)
So, schooling (and school quality), as defined in the study he conducted (based on the survey), consists solely of numeracy, literacy, and problem-solving achievement in technology-rich environments. In the world of this researcher, education (or schooling) has only these three purposes.
The author explicitly states, “Importantly, almost all international discussion of educational policy is centered on school quality and student achievement. To understand the full economic implications of these discussions, it is necessary to move the analysis of labor-market outcomes to match the analysis of school outcomes.” p. 123.
Let us thank Mr. Hanushek for simplifying education for us. We only need to teach our learners three things aligned with labor market outcomes! And somehow, we are to believe that will bring economic prosperity to each student (and state) in the 21st century, a future where some researchers indicate 50% of all current occupations will be eliminated by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the majority of jobs are yet to be discovered from the disruption of change.
Is that the school system you want for your community? Would parents agree that the purpose of the community school is to align all educational opportunities with labor-market outcomes? 

My Conclusions

As you can tell, this paper got me fired up. It’s not only the hubris of a researcher who believes he can throw some fancy-looking equations and charts around and start making claims about what will happen over the next 80 years…it’s the implied purpose of the paper itself. This is not a nuanced paper that attempts to tease out the many tensions and cross-purposes of education and schooling.
His assumptions are simple…
1. Higher skills lead to higher earnings…
2. The more someone is in school, the higher their skills…
3. These skills are measured by one test score (the NAEP)
4. The NAEP scores are lower; thus, students did not learn.
This leads him to conclude that a large cohort of students will never “catch up” on their skills development (which, by the way, is the only purpose of education), and the economy will be in ruins.
The audacity of his claims is stunning.
I wonder about the purpose of the paper. What is the author, and the Hoover Institute, want the impact of the paper to be? 

The Reality

In my opinion, the reality is that we do not have a “learning loss” problem.
We have a “teaching loss” problem or a “didn’t cover all of the curriculum that was going to be on the test” problem.
But not a learning loss problem.
Those who claim “learning loss” as a problem define learning as information presented to students and then “measured” on a test. By this definition, only something that can be placed in a test format is considered “learned.”
I simply do not agree with such a limited definition of learning. If COVID taught us anything, it was that numerous factors are critically important in defining quality of life. Such also is likely the case as each student (learner) is helped to acquire an “education” as preparation for the good life.
The author also shows his hubris in assuming that all people strive for the highest income possible. If that is the case, then there are only a few occupations students should strive for and even fewer places to live where you can practice those high-paying occupations.
The simple fact is that people have disparate motivations to determine how they want to live and what they consider success. Mr. Hanushek would be surprised to hear that working to gain the highest income may not be the most important determiner of a “successful life” for some people.
Finally, the assumption undergirding both of these papers is that the purpose of education is the simple transfer of skills to students. Although that may be an important part of the purpose of school, do any of you out there want that to be the only purpose of school?
Is it possible that a community may want school to help prepare students to be actively engaged in their community?
What other “purposes” can you think of for schooling that will help your community thrive?
What would graduating seniors tell us is their definition of a quality life in a COVID-19 post-pandemic world?

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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