This interview focuses on a chapter from A Nation at Risk +40, a report by the Hoover Education Success Initiative (HESI) that looks back at the birth, struggles, and future of the modern school reform movement. (Download the publication here.)

Eric Bettinger, a senior fellow (joint) at the Hoover Institution and the Conley-DeAngelis Professor of Education in Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, studies how educational systems contribute to student outcomes, both in the United States and in the global south. He spoke with Chris Herhalt about the innovations attempted in American schools since 1980.

Chris Herhalt: In A Nation at Risk +40, you discuss small schools and magnet schools, saying that they show great promise and will continue to expand as a share of schooling in the United States. Is this a model that offers the benefits of the charter school approach without the apprehensions about charters that sometimes come from parents and teachers in traditional public schools?

Eric Bettinger: I think that’s right, to some extent. Two different things are going on here. With charter schools, you have school choice and all the principles that seem to come with it. And then you also have innovation. People worry about the administration and governance in these places; that’s the common criticism. But you do combine the principles of school choice—people are really trying to find the right match, where there’s some competition across the groups—with the goal of innovation.

Herhalt: You write about “ superstar” superintendents, and idea that seems to be a recurring theme in public management around the world: paying a senior bureaucrat like an executive, to get executive-level results. You cite research that says this really does very little on balance to improve student achievement.

Bettinger: I almost always wish that I were the one doing the research in this field, because I can speak to my research better than I can that of others, but at this point we don’t have a significant body of evidence that suggests one person can come in and turn things around and make it work. One research paper seems to demonstrate that superintendents can make a difference but that the difference is very, very small relative to the kind of increased pay that we’re offering. As we think about what’s the right practice, one thing we have to recognize is that school performance is always better the closer it’s linked to the actual educating. We find big effects of teachers; we find pretty good effects of principals. But we just don’t have anything that suggests that the superintendent is generating large effects that would justify these big paydays.

Herhalt: Innovation zones are growing in popularity because they so often pay higher salaries to teachers. Is this a way to attract young people to the profession in the United States?

Bettinger: It could be, but I think we’re not at the scale where we could say that globally. There’s a nice paper that argues that it does bring in better teachers and does create a situation where teachers want to go there because of both higher compensation and the increased freedom in their work. What I couldn’t figure out, as I was going through the literature, was whether it’s a zero-sum game, where we take an existing teacher and just move them from one school to another, or whether we actually are attracting more teachers. The scale’s just not large enough to know if we’re having an impact on the overall quality of the profession.

Certainly, within the zone itself, you do see this migration of good and strong teachers, but you don’t see overwhelming evidence yet that the scale is providing greater and greater opportunities. The hard part remains not knowing if we’re just taking a great teacher out of someplace else.

Herhalt: Let’s talk about extending the school day and the school year. You point out that a number of districts have made school days longer, but then you cite data pointing out that the school year still averages about 180 days.

Bettinger: History and tradition play such a strong part in the way we create things. It’s almost unheard of to threaten the sanctity of a summer break, for instance. So, I think just from a political perspective it’s very difficult to squeeze in a few extra days. On the other hand, squeezing in a little bit of extra time and having that aggregate up to something greater—that’s how we’re going to get at it. The only movement we see is in stretching out the day just a little more. I think that in charter schools the average is something like 0.4 hours per day. When you multiply that by 180, you get some action there.

Oftentimes, it’s almost a blessing to many families that are working because they don’t have a good game plan for who’s going to watch their children when they get home from school. It solves two problems: more schooling, as well as potentially more daycare.

Herhalt: Who would object to 0.4 additional hours per day?

Bettinger: Well, in public schools, the teachers are there longer, and so you’ve got to compensate them more and make it worth their while to be there. I didn’t bring this out as much in the paper, but in some places where you have seen this kind of shift, you see teachers just taking the same tasks and stretching them out so they take longer. It may not be improving instructional time.

Herhalt: You make a good case that because of COVID and teacher-retention issues, it’s getting harder for districts to maintain smaller classes. Do you think spending on small class sizes is worth it, or is the jury still out?

Bettinger: The experimental evidence we have suggests that there are positive impacts from smaller classes. But the problem with that evidence, in my view—and it’s one of the things I try to bring out in this chapter—is that although we put extra money in there, we put in all this extra attention, and we ran this great experiment in Tennessee that gave us the class-size evidence, we’re not adding money when we switch over. And the trade-off that has to be made is consequential.

My favorite paper on this is by David Sims, who describes how California attempted a great reduction in class sizes in the early grades, and then by the fourth and fifth grade, classes just ballooned in size. When we moved to California, my kids started going through that system, and it was uncanny how big the changes in classes were once we left that legislative umbrella. And as Sims found, that seems to undo a lot of the benefits.

I was trained to love randomized experiments, so I’ve always put that Tennessee STAR Project up on a pedestal. It was hard in this paper to tear it down a bit, recognizing that problems arise if you don’t inject more money into the system. I think that’s the biggest problem. So, do I think it’s a worthwhile investment? Yes, but the question is always: where are you taking the money from? If you can find inefficiency in the system or places where the money’s not being spent well, and if that money is such that you could do it, you’re in great shape. But if you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, at some point it’s going to catch up with you.

Herhalt: You cite research that teacher safety improved between 1994 and 2016. Prevailing wisdom among parents today is that the opposite is true—that somehow, it’s like a jungle out there for the teacher, in addition to fears about school shootings and gun violence. What do you think accounts for this?

Bettinger: We’ve put in a lot of time over the past thirty years trying to improve safety, and so safety on average went up. There’s been a generational shift with the presence of security guards, metal detectors, and active planning about how to reduce sources of conflict. And school uniforms, too, are aimed at reducing differences between individuals.

But thirty years ago, when an incident happened—say, a fight that got out of hand afterwards—we didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t as prevalent. Today, with social media, it goes viral. As a result, when there is an incident, it creates a perception that we’re probably more unsafe than we are. This surprised me, because going into this my perception was that security was failing and there were problems. And then when I saw that study, I realized that we had made major changes.

But again, one of the themes across education is that every time we put money into something, we’re taking money from something else. It isn’t necessarily that the pie is increasing; we’re just redividing the pie. And in the meantime, the more we have to spend on safety items, the more it creates a perception of rising threats.

I still feel scared when I think about my kids going to school, and the pressures that are on them. We just don’t have a lot of evidence here. We just have that one study. The study does make an interesting point, saying we’ve been innovating and working on this for thirty years. So, yes, there are some victories out there. Overall, though, we don’t have great studies that define the landscape more generally.

Herhalt: You mention a Mexican program, Progresa/Oportunidades, where good attendance plus health checks equals cash for parents. Do you think that for schools with the worst outcomes, serious truancy issues, and parents who are struggling, this approach holds promise for the most at-risk populations?

Bettinger: This is a place where I do research. I’ve been studying parental inputs for the past five or six years, so I’m probably more passionate about this than some of the other things we’ve talked about. I recently published a paper, which I cite in the chapter, about helping parents understand what’s salient. What I mean by that is people want to be good parents, but often they don’t know how. They want their children to succeed, but they don’t understand that their asking about math, potentially helping with the math, is going to help math outcomes improve.

And we find that when you put it at the top of parents’ minds and say, “Look, this is an important thing, you should know about this,” people respond. So, when Progresa put money in parents’ pockets, they became very vigilant about both attendance and health. On the one hand, I’d love to tell you it was the money and the incentives that somehow did it, but on the other hand, it’s clear that just training parents and giving them ideas about how they can work with their children—merely pointing them in the right direction—can be very useful.

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