Research, Education and Economic Growth

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This essay is on Wikiversity to encourage a wide discussion of the issues it raises moderated by the Wikimedia rules that invite contributors to “be bold but not reckless,” contributing revisions written from a neutral point of view, citing credible sources -- and raising other questions and concerns on the associated '“Discuss”' page.

Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and his collaborators have documented how countries whose elementary and secondary school students displayed more knowledge of math and science tended to have higher rates of economic growth. Based on this, they have suggested that any reasonable investment that actually increases student achievement will ultimately increase productivity to the point that education becomes essentially free -- paid for by income the nation would not have with a lower skilled workforce. Dumber nations have slower economic growth, other things being equal. Former US Secretary of Treasury Lawrence Summers has endorsed this conclusion.[1] Former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said, “America's failure to educate is affecting its national security.”[2] Hanushek further supports pre-school programs, because they have been shown to increase educational achievement.[3]

This article reviews some of the literature on preschool programs, other programs to increase student achievement, and the need for more and better research.

Preschool programs[edit]

Valuable documentation of the value of preschool involves the “Perry Preschool Program.” This intervention ran from 1962 to 1967,[4] during which period 123 children ages 3 and 4 were randomly assigned to either a treatment (58 children) or a control (65 children) group.[5] It became a prototype for the much larger “Head Start” program.[citation needed] Researchers followed up with the Perry Preschool participants at age 27 and found that they had spent 1.3 fewer years on average in special education, had a 44% higher high school graduation rate (66% vs. 45%), and had a much lower proportion of out-of-wedlock births (57% vs. 83%).[5] At age 40, the Perry Preschool group was 46% less likely to have been incarcerated (28% vs. 52%), 33% lower arrest rate for violent crimes (32% vs. 48%), 42% higher median monthly income ($1,856 vs. $1,308), and 26% less likely to have received government assistance (e.g. welfare, food stamps) in the previous ten years (59% vs. 80%).[6]

Meanwhile, evaluations of the much larger “Head Start” program have failed to produce an academic or political consensus about the effectiveness of the program.[7]

  • For supportive research, see, e.g., Deming (2009).
  • For equivocal results, see, e.g., Barnett and Hustedt (2005).
  • For research claiming essentially not impact, see, e.g., Bernardy (2012); see also Armor and Sousa (2014).

More research is needed to understand the differences: If we can identify which versions of “Head Start” were more effective, we may be able to improve the effectiveness of that program overall.

Other programs to increase student achievement[edit]

Many programs claim to be able to help keep children in school, learning, and out of trouble. One such program in Kansas City is “Youth Ambassadors”, which pays at-risk youth minimum wage to do useful things after school and on weekends, when they would otherwise be most likely to get into trouble.[8] There are many other programs like this that could and should be studied: If we can keep the youth occupied with productive, educational activities, we can increase the knowledge they will be able to use as adults while simultaneously reducing their involvement in all kinds of self-destructive, antisocial and criminal behaviors.

Real (inflation adjusted) Gross Domestic Product per capita in the US, showing the presidencies of Herbert Hoover, when average annual income dropped by 8 percent per year for 4 years, and Franklin Roosevelt, when the average annual income in the US increased by over 8 percent per year for 12 years. The vertical red dashed line marks the entry of the US into World War II. Hanushek [e.g., Hanushek, Peterson and Woessmann (2013), Hanushek and Woessmann (2015) claim that increasing the educational achievement of students in the US to the levels of Canada or Finland, for example, would increase the rate of economic growth so much that the increase would generate enough additional wealth to pay for the entire education system.

Need for more and better research[edit]

The real average annual income (Gross Domestic Product per capita, adjusted for inflation) in the US has averaged over 2% per year increase since World War II, adjusted for inflation; see the accompanying figure.[9] If we spend, say, 10% of that increase in productivity on expanding research into programs that improve educational achievement -- and then on expanding funding of the better programs -- Hanushek's results suggest that ten or twenty years later, we will start having a substantially higher rate of economic growth, to the point that we can ultimately pay for our entire education system from income we would not have without that increase in research and the resulting improvements in the quality of education. Of course, that assumes other things are equal -- and we know they won't be.[10] However, that uncertainty should not deter us from making investments like this in understanding which educational innovations work best and replicating them, while continuing to monitor the expanded programs to continue improving our understanding of what works.

See also[edit]



  1. Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann (2013): “Forward”
  2. Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann (2013, p. 4).
  3. Hanushek and Woessmann (2015, p. 198).
  4. Perry preschool study Wikidata Q56849495
  5. 5.0 5.1 Schweinhart et al. (1993); see also w:HighScope#Effectiveness of the program.
  6. Heckman et al. (2010); see also w:HighScope#Effectiveness of the program
  7. For more references than cited here, see [[w:Head Start (program).
  8. Youth Ambassadors, Wikidata Q56879668
  9. What Was the U.S. GDP Then?, Wikidata Q56881105
  10. Hanushek's models contain other variables besides educational achievement. For example, political corruption could produce any number of changes that prevent those productivity improvements from occurring. For details, see, e.g., Eric Hanushek; Paul E. Peterson; Ludger Woessmann (2013), Endangering prosperity: A global view of the American school, Brookings Institution Press, ISBN 978-0-8157-0373-0 Wikidata Q56849246 and Eric Hanushek; Ludger Woessmann (2015), The knowledge capital of nations: Education and the economics of growth, MIT Press, ISBN 978-0-262-02917-9 Wikidata Q56849351.