ESSA, Measuring the Benefits of School Improvement: And How To Do It

Even by the crudest measures, education benefits the individual in terms of earnings and the economy as a whole in more productive workers. The longer an educational system holds on to students, the better for both the individual and economy. The years of education is a measure is called “educational attainment.”

Dissatisfaction with the number of years of schooling as a measure of economic impact led Eric A. Hanushek and two international colleagues to develop a measure that better captures what students have actually learned during their years in school. As Hanushek, et. al. describe educational attainment: “…it hardly matters how long one sits at a school desk if one learns little while occupying the seat.” (Hanushek, Ruhose, & Woessmann, 2016)

The model developed by Hanushek, et. al. uses a measure which they call “knowledge capital” which is a state’s NAEP mathematics scores over time. This measure,  added to traditional measures provides a way to document the long-term impact of student-achievement levels on economic growth, as well as the value of the monetary return for school improvement efforts, state by state[1].

By measuring the growth of each of the fifty U.S. states for the period 1970-2010, the authors show that a state’s knowledge capital is related to the state growth in per-capita GDP.

States like Alabama, Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah suffered from both low math achievement and low economic growth, while states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Virginia had both high levels of math achievement along with higher levels of economic growth.

While there are exceptions to the general findings, the authors conclude that “achievement levels that are 1 standard deviation higher — for example having the average worker in a state achieve at the 69th  percentile rather than the 31st   percentile of the overall distribution of cognitive skills — yield an average annual growth that is 1.4 percentage points higher.” (Hanushek, Ruhose, & Woessmann, 2016)

The article includes a an interactive map that can be used to project future gains in GDP growth under four different reform scenarios.

For example, first scenario describes what would happen if all the states were able to take actions that would increase the knowledge capital to the level of Minnesota (the best in the U.S.). Under that scenario “the overall gains would equal, in 2015 dollars, $76 trillion, or more than four times the current GDP of the United States.”

South Carolina ranks 40th  in terms of growth 1970-2010. Its per-capita DGP is $31,819 and has grown 1.99% over the period.  Under the “all states to the U.S. best” scenario, the value of South Carolina reform efforts would be $992 billion which equals 485% of the state’s current per-capita GDP and would increase the state’s GDP by 41% by 2095.

Hanushek and his colleagues are careful to point out that school reform is a long-term project. They assume that it takes a decade of effort before a reform is fully implemented, with student skills steadily improving over that time.

The message from Hanushek, et. al, is that the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives state and local educators a great deal of flexibility to take decisive action that will improve their state’s knowledge capital.  Given the potential of large gains for taking the right actions, the question becomes what kinds of action would help the state build its knowledge capital?

Massachusetts underwent a serious reform effort that began in the late 1980s. Its example suggests the necessary conditions for sustained and successful reform.

The success of reform in Massachusetts is supported by the fact that if it were an independent nation it would rank among the top ten nations in student learning. Its eighth graders rank number two in science and sixth in mathematics. Low-income children of color do much better than their peers in other U.S. states.

It wasn’t always that way.

In a 1991 report authored by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education it was reported that the state faced a crisis because “the public education system is failing to provide its students with the knowledge and skills necessary for them to be productive, informed citizens in coming decades…The inability of many public school students/graduates to qualify for entry-level jobs or to compete successfully with their counterparts from other industrialized countries is a clear signal that the education system needs to undergo dramatic improvements soon.”(MBAE, 1991, pp.  ES-1)

Noting that Massachusetts over the past two decades has been consistently near the top of any list of states with the most successful school reforms (it ranks 2nd  in the Hanushek, et. al. analysis), looked at the decisions Massachusetts made beginning more than 20 years ago and which resulted in sustained improvement in the state’s knowledge capital.

In the Achieve analysis, there are six “key strategies” identified. It seems to me that two of these stand out because they are the most difficult to do but seem to the ones that set the Massachusetts reform apart from those in other states.

What stands out in Massachusetts was what was termed the “grand bargain” are two factors: equitable funding and the political will to stick to the plan.

First, a change in how the schools were funded began in 1993 with the promise that within seven years, all of the town and city school departments would have the resources to carry out the goal of student mastery of the state standards. “In our poorest communities in particular, [state] aid is the lifeline that brings a high quality education within reach of children and frequently supports more than 80 percent of the total expenditures of in the neediest districts.”(Chester, 2014, p.  6)

The second remarkable aspect has been the consistent support from state’s leadership,  governors, business leaders, and legislature. The support helped maintain the reform even “during the highest levels of political opposition to the reforms. Governor Jane Swift never blinked on the MCAS high school graduation requirement. Governor Romney also kept the momentum going by sustaining the foundation budget for the K-12 public education.”(, 2009, p.  9)

Note: Schools in New England states are generally departments of the town or city they serve. Instead of a school district, the schools are a department of the town. So it is the school department rather than the school district.

Resources: (2009). Taking Root: Massachusetts Lessons for Sustaining the College and Career-Ready Agenda. Achieve: American Diploma Project Network. Retrieved from

Chester, M. D. (2014). Building on 20 Years of Massachusetts Education Reform. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Hanushek, E. A., Ruhose, J., & Woessmann, L. (2016). It Pays to Improve School Quality. Education Next, 16(3). Retrieved from

MBAE. (1991). Every Child A Winner. Retrieved from


Every Student Succeeds Act, education, economy, knowledge capital, school reform, Massachusetts

[1] The analysis used data from the U.S. census to make adjustments for the migration of workers in and out of each state. While workers move from state to state, 87% of students receive their K-12 education in their birth state.


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