Economist Eric Hanushek Reflects on Winning ‘Education’s Nobel Prize’

Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, has long been one of the leading educational economists of our time. He has authored books and hundreds of influential scholarly articles exploring the impact of schooling on national well-being and challenging the received wisdom on topics like class-size reduction and school spending. Just recently, Hanushek was awarded the prestigious, $3.9 million 2021 Yidan Prize for Education Research for his work strengthening the bridge between economics and education. I reached out to chat with him about winning “education’s Nobel Prize,” his work, and lessons learned during an iconic career.

— Rick

Rick: First off, congratulations on being awarded the Yidan Prize! What was your reaction to hearing that you won?

Eric: I was clearly thrilled by this award, in part because it validated the path I have taken in my career. When I started, virtually no economists looked at issues related to education, and more traditional people in education either ignored or were hostile to economic analysis of education. Both of those perspectives have changed, as evidenced by this year’s Yidan Prize, with rigorous evidence becoming an increasing part of educational policy deliberations. I like to think that I have contributed to this changed perspective.

Rick: Can you talk a bit about your scholarly work that earned the prize, for readers who aren’t as familiar with it?

Eric: I somewhat accidently got into the study of education. When I was in graduate school in economics, the famous Coleman Report came out of LBJ’s White House, and its pioneering examination of American education was interpreted as saying that schools were not very important. This conclusion was hard for me to believe, and I ended up doing a thesis on student performance using the data developed for that massive governmental study. I have pursued this general topic ever since. A portion of my work has focused on what factors determine student achievement, with a particular emphasis on schools. There are many parts to that line of study, but two general conclusions emerged. First, inputs to schools — including money, class size, and teacher degrees or experience — are not consistently related to performance of students. At the same time, teachers are really very important. This latter is a fact we have learned with a vengeance from the pandemic closures. The other portion of my work has focused on the impact of achievement on the earnings and other lifetime outcomes of students and on the functioning of the aggregate economy. In both areas, my work has involved considerable statistical analysis of data, although I try to relate scientific findings to various implications for education policy. It always involves considering student outcomes and student learning, as opposed to more distant proxies for what outcomes might be.

Rick: The prize comes with a substantial project fund: Any plans yet on this count?

Eric: I have become convinced that all successful educational improvement programs must have a strong local element. No matter how effective the evidence indicates a program should be, there’s no guarantee it actually will be successfully adopted and implemented at the local level. The project funds that come with the Yidan Prize will be used to start a program to develop local capacity for educational policy in developing countries, beginning in countries in Africa. The program will select a group of fellows who will work with educational researchers around the world to scale up their skills in evaluation methods, in understanding data, and in communicating results. The fellows will then be in a position to develop and implement policies of educational improvement in their own countries.

Rick: Over time, you’ve collaborated with an impressive number of scholars from across disciplines and national boundaries. Can you offer any words of wisdom about doing so?

Eric: I should say that, after the initial euphoria of being awarded the prize, I fairly quickly turned to a humbler perspective — recognizing the importance of having strong colleagues and co-authors. I have worked with over seventy-five co-authors and obviously have closely interacted with a larger number of both scholars and people involved in the policy process. As a simple rule, I look for people who share my desire for improving our education system. In the end, however, finding good partners is a big dance that sorts out which people promise mutually beneficial interactions and which do not. These beneficial interactions are not solely dictated by academic pedigree, although that does factor in. It’s hard to identify the set of complicated intangibles that makes someone a good partner, similar to how simple identification of traits of effective teachers is so difficult.

Rick: You’ve had a remarkable career. Looking back, what are a couple pieces of your scholarship that you find especially gratifying?

Eric: There are three broad lines of research where I think have had significant impacts not only on policy but also on the kinds of questions that are asked both by researchers and by policy actors. Very early on, I suggested that, if you look at the outcomes of education, you often got a different impression than if you looked at the inputs. Because of the inconsistency with which schools use resources to produce student achievement, I suggested that how money is spent was often more important than how much is spent. In trying to understand better what did lead to higher student achievement, if it was not simple resources, I got to the second line of research that has had direct impacts on policy — measuring the effectiveness of teachers. I thought — and still believe — that teacher effectiveness should be determined by the learning of students. This idea led me to develop the original “value-added” estimates of teacher effectiveness, a concept that has been both refined and broadly entered into education policy decisions. This work provided an explanation of the inconsistency of impact of resources: Teacher effectiveness is largely unrelated to the teacher’s salary. For the third area, I think that I have been able to establish the overwhelming importance for individuals and for countries of having high student achievement. Economic success is closely related to skills. These skills can be measured in large part by student-test scores, and this is the output of our schools.

Rick: Finally, for the researchers out there, what are a couple of lessons or insights you’d urge them to keep in mind?

Eric: My research is exciting to me, largely because I do not know the answers to questions before I do the research. But this aspect of education research is precisely what is challenging. While the research answers may be unknown, many participants in the education system have strong preferences for certain policies regardless of what the science might say. When I first publicly stated my concerns that money per se might not be the answer to our schooling problems, I got an early lesson into the interaction of politics and science. I was attacked from a range of places because of the answers. The lesson for other researchers is simple: Be true to the science. Do not shade the evidence to match the prevailing politics. At the same time, do not be surprised if the best findings are not immediately acted upon. Moving ideas into policy takes patience, persistence, and a willingness to engage directly with decisionmakers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.