Dean’s Policy Breakfast Explores Education and Economic Growth

Dean Mary Brabeck’s Education Policy Breakfast series returned this year with a focus on the challenges—and promises—of STEM education. The three-part series invites distinguished scholars to present their research to an audience of educators, policymakers, practitioners, and corporate and nonprofit leaders.

In the first talk of the series, two respected scholars of education and economics presented their views on the often-cited argument that a sure-fire way to increase a country’s economic growth (measured by GDP) is to increase education across the board.

Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management, King’s College London, and author of Does Education Matter?, presented a contrarian view, arguing that the notion that more education leads to improved growth has been a “seductive” model for politicians and legislators in both the U.K. and the U.S. Those who subscribe to this model point to the fact that the returns for individuals with higher education are generally greater than for those with less education. The argument, in essence, is that greater returns to education mean greater productivity; therefore, a more educated populace is more productive and increases a country’s economic growth.

The problem, as Wolf sees it, is not that education does not matter – she argues that education and human capital are hugely important – but that policymakers cannot assume that increased investment in education will yield greater economic growth, all else being equal. She cites numerous examples of nations with strong economic growth but low investment in education. Likewise, some countries with high educational investment, such as the Philippines, have not seen improved growth. Furthermore, she cites studies that reveal that a large number of workers are over-educated for their current jobs, suggesting that more education is not the answer to improving economic growth.

For Wolf, what encourages economic growth in a global economy is not just heavy investment in one area (such as education)but the right combination of investments across a range of inputs (physical capital, human capital, land, etc.). More emphasis on innovation, according to Wolf, might be a better way to improve a country’s growth.

Henry M. Levin, William H. Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of Privatizing Education, further critiqued the economic growth model by focusing on the strategy of measuring students’ cognitive achievement, endorsed by entities such as the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), and economists such as Eric Hanushek.

Levin argued that economists who use international tests that measure cognitive skills, such as TIMMS and PISA, tend to overstate the relationship between cognitive achievement and economic growth, since such tests ignore non-cognitive dimensions that contribute to cognitive attainment. The non-cognitive skills that are necessary for a productive workforce are hard to measure, such as patience, time management, organization, cooperation, respect and tolerance for others, and conflict resolution. Levin cites studies of employers who say that the skills that are most lacking from their employees tend to be the non-cognitive skills.

Furthermore, the argument that increasing education is the sure road to economic growth is weakened when one considers countries such as Brazil and Argentina, whose students measure poorly on international cognitive tests, but whose growth rates in recent years (around 10 percent) are higher than more educated countries such as the U.K. and the U.S.

Levin ended by arguing that cognitive outcomes are important for economic development, but are only one dimension. Research on the relationship between education and growth must be accompanied by an examination of non-cognitive traits, he argues, since non-cognitive traits contribute significantly to learning itself.

Pictured, left to right: Brabeck, Levin, Wolf and Jack Buckley, associate professor of applied statistics, NYU Steinhardt, and panel respondent.

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