Though academic achievement of U.S. students is improving, it still ranks poorly compared to other developed countries and is not catching up, Stanford University education economist Eric Hanushek told a room full of students Tuesday.
If U.S. students could catch up with Canadians over the next 20 years, it would translate into 20 percent higher paychecks for U.S. workers for decades to come, he said.
Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, spoke in a speaker series sponsored by the Center for Educational Policy Analysis in Stanford's Graduate School of Education.
He presented economic graphs to illustrate his recently published book, "Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School," which explores the link between a nation's academic achievement and economic growth.
Hanushek's view clashed with that of education historian Diane Ravitch, who two weeks ago criticized the education reform movement and called for a boycott of standardized testing in remarks at Palo Alto High School and Stanford.
"Diane Ravitch said you shouldn't pay attention to tests but if you do pay attention to tests the U.S. has done better over time, and it's true," Hanushek said Tuesday. "The U.S. has improved, but it has not changed places in the international standings."
But some states within the U.S. -- Maryland, Florida, Delaware and Massachusetts -- do much better than others, he said.
"If the rest of the nation go to this level we'd be improving and getting to the positions" of higher-performing countries like Germany, Canada and Finland," he said.
A nation's economic growth is far more important than business cycles, taxation and regulation in determining prosperity, he said.
The economic costs of the 2008 recession "pale in comparison to the cost of not improving our schools," he said. "Long-run economic growth depends on skills of the population, human capital.
"Discussion of regulation, taxation are interesting and important in the small, but they're dwarfed by the skills of the population." And educational attainment for people at the bottom as well as the top matter for the nation's prosperity, he said.
Hanushek has argued that spending is a poor predictor of educational quality.
"Spending per pupil has quadrupled in real terms since 1960 yet the performance of our 17-year-olds is flat," he said Tuesday. "That suggests we've been putting money in the wrong places.
"We've increased teacher salaries and cut class size but neither has been particularly effective in pushing achievement forward. The only thing that does matter is teacher quality and we haven't had policies that ensure an effective teacher in every classroom, contrary to what my friend Diane Ravitch says."
Internationally, he said, higher performing countries tend to have accountability systems, good examination systems, more pay for performance, more choice and more preschool education, but there's wide variation on how such policies are implemented.
Hanushek's new book, co-written with Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann, was published in June by Brookings Institution Press.