This is the most important post you will read this month or maybe even this year. It refutes the basis of American education policy.

This is major study of the relationship between scores on PISA and economic growth. It demonstrates that there is none.

It was written by Hikaru Komatsu (Associate Professor at National Taiwan University) and Jeremy Rappleye (Associate Professor at Kyoto University, Graduate School of Education) for the Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training. The authors criticize the work of Hoover economist Eric Hanushek and demonstrate how his theories of human capital development were widely adopted by American and European organizations and became the convention wisdom.

Komatsu and Rappleye demonstrate the flaws in Hanushek’s theories, which have led to unprecedented emphasis on improving standardized test scores in many nations.

They begin by reviewing a paper published by the European Commission, based on Hanushek’s human capital theories. Open the link to see the graphs.

The EC report was written by Eric Hanushek (Hoover Institute, a think tank on the campus of Stanford University) and Ludger Woessmann (University of Munich, ifo Center for Economics of Education). It laid out the same findings, methods and arguments that can be found in a range of publications in the United States dating back to the early 2000s (e.g., Hanushek & Kimiko, 2000), and reaching back even – with a bit more historical awareness – to the heady Anglo-American neo-liberalism of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s (e.g., Hanushek, 1981, Hanushek, 1986). These claims were articulated strongly in a 2013 book by the same authors, published by the Brookings Institute and intended to reach US policymakers, entitled Endangering Prosperity: A Global Look at the American School. These same findings were also publicized in major reports by the World Bank (2007) and the OECD (2010, 2015), both of which commissioned Hanushek and Woessmann to write their findings into development policy. The World Bank would later officially adopt the model as the underpinning logic of Learning for All (2011) (see Auld, Morris, and Rappleye, 2019), while the OECD’s 2010 report entitled The High Cost of Low Educational Performance – The Long-Run Impacts of Improving PISA Outcomes would be virtually transferred carbon copy into the EC’s 2019 report. That is, the EC 2019 Report claims that an aggressive, focused 15-20 year reform push to raise scores by 25-points would “add €71 trillion to EU GDP over the status quo” and which “amounts to an aggregate EU gain of almost 3 times current levels of GDP and an average GDP that is seven percent higher for the remainder of the century”. Based on the Hanushek and Woessmann numbers, Andreas Schleicher enticed European leaders with precisely that same narrative in 2010, as shown here in a slide from his presentation below (Slide 34 in the original presentation). Schleicher claimed that a PISA-improvement reform add 30% of the current GDP in 2100, which makes the total economic value of this reform is equivalent to 340% of the current GDP – the exact value shown in Figure 2…

For quite some time, we and others (here, here, here, and here) have pointed out that the Hanushek and Woessmann “findings” are deeply flawed. Our work includes a number of published papers, newspaper articles, and blogs published since 2016. We have tried to call attention to this situation in two previous NORRAG blog pieces here and here. Our argument in the main 2017 paper was simple. Hanushek and Woessmann used a relationship between students’ performance in international tests and economic growth for estimating the economic value of improving 25 points of PISA scores. However, Hanushek and Woessmann surprisingly compared students’ performance for a given period and economic growth for the same period. However, as it logically takes several decades for that cohort of students to occupy a major portion of workforce and then contribute to economic growth. We logically compared students’ performance for a given period and economic growth for a subsequent period. Surprisingly, in doing so we discovered virtually no relationship between them, casting strong doubts on the purportedly strong causal claims (Komatsu & Rappleye, 2017). While we find it disheartening that there has been no response to our work, it is far more disappointing that find that now the EC have turned to Hanushek and Woessmann, paying them hefty consultancy fees to write policy recommendations for Europe. We wonder aloud: Why does the EC Directorate for Education, Youth, Sport, and Culture need to turn to American think tanks to generate new policy ideas?…

Returning again to the larger picture, it seems that now the EU and OECD, alongside the World Bank, OECD and often highly influential figures in UNESCO, are now utilizing the same Hanushek and Woessmann Knowledge Capital claims. What makes this ‘Western consensus’ so alarming – at least to us – is not simply that education and economics are being so tightly coupled or that PISA is being embedded deeply into policymaking goals through these works. It is, instead, that so many leading minds in the West seem unable or unwilling to think differently.

A decade ago, when I wrote The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, I quoted a study by Keith Baker, a statistician who worked for many years in the U.S. Department of Education. Baker pointed out that the U.S. had placed last in the first international assessment in 1964, yet over the next half-century had outperformed the eleven nations with higher scores. He concluded then that test scores do not predict economic growth or anything else. Every time the results of a new international assessment are released, whoever is in charge says that the performance of the U.S. students is horrible, shameful, alarming, and proclaims “a new Sputnik moment.” And every time I point out that the U.S. has never been number one on international assessments and that these scores are meaningless. But the press reports the lamentations without contradiction anyway.