Forbes on Why Investing $6.2 Trillion in Public Education is a Good Idea

I have a love hate relationship with economics as a discipline. On the love side, to my very core, I am an analyst, and I love the structure and the neatness of it. It gives the illusion of clear answers on complex questions and canonizes words like efficiency and incentives. Benefits outweigh cost? Good. Other way around? Bad.

On the hate side, it’s a cold calculus, and it can be difficult to inject values other than those that can be measured numerically into the analysis and have that taken seriously, particularly by economists of the armchair variety (of which I am one, full disclaimer).

So I’m always excited when economic analysis lines up with social welfare—as it does with a vengeance in this Forbes piece on investing in education. Forbes identifies 5 strategies for moving the U.S. up the ladder in global competitiveness in education. Don’t get excited yet—these are not new strategies:
1. Improve teacher effectiveness
2. Universal pre-k
3. Common Core standards
4. School leadership
5. Blended learning

They defined some specific policies in each of those areas, gathered up a group of A-list researchers (some real economists among them, famous ones), and set out to figure out if it was worth it. And as it turns out, it is. Really worth it. They calculated a $225 trillion return on a $6.2 trillion investment over time. So, here are their strategies in a nutshell.

Pay teachers a lot more—citing the McKinsey study suggesting that if teachers were paid 50 percent more, the majority of teachers would come from the ranks of top college grads. I wrote about this topic previously here; and I really think this is key. Pay teachers very well. Make the teacher labor market competitive. Get better teachers. An economist’s dream.

Pre-k for everyone—Research has long supported the benefits of high quality early childhood programs. The naysayers will point to negligible benefits for higher-income kids, an argument for means-tested programs versus universal. I would say it’s all about ease of access. If PreK is important enough, there’s an argument for making it easy for parents and not creating bureaucratic hoops for low-income families to jump through to get their kids into high quality programs. In Forbes’ analysis, the benefit of universal pre-k far outweighs the cost of all the negative societal outcomes of not supporting the kids who benefit the most and who are the least likely to access quality early childhood programs without publicly supported options.

Common Core—The political debate about this wears me out, and I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty details here. But establishing standards around what high school graduates ought to know and be able to do seems pretty logical to me. Seems pretty logical to the Forbes researchers as well.

School leadership—Educate and empower school leaders to lead. Give principals executive authority over what happens in their buildings—who works there and how the money gets spent. Pay them well. If you’re going to commit to a highly paid, competitive teacher work force, you have to commit to the leadership to manage it.

Blended learning—Leverage technology in meaningful ways. A well-designed, integrated technology-based system can expand the reach of great teachers and personalize learning to meet students where they are to augment, assist, and expand what they are getting through other modes of instruction. That integration piece is key, though—making sure our highly paid, high caliber teachers have the skills to facilitate truly blended learning.

So, we’ve got a list of strategies that make some sense- though none of it is easy or foolproof. We have evidence that it’s going to be worth it in the long run. What’s stopping us? The trick is in getting from point A to point Z. We are so far from these policies in so many places and in so many ways, particularly at scale. And I’m not sure that states have $6.2 trillion to spend. I worked on state public education budgets for a decade; and I can tell you that big change happens in small moves.

The rhetoric against increasing public education budgets in the context of historic spending growth and lackluster student achievement over the long haul is strong and pervasive in many state houses. The buzzword is efficiency—and so often what it really means to policymakers is “make more with less.” I would argue that what’s needed is two big pushes—one on the policy side to create a system that supports evidence-based strategies, and one on the money side to fully fund them. And that’s a big leap to ask of policymakers.

So, perhaps the goal is small moves—keep building proof points around policies like the ones called out by Forbes so that they can grow and spread across communities until their edges touch. And here’s hoping that in the future, some group of economists can do a retrospective piece that says loud and clear: We told you so.