Yidan 2018 Laureate Larry Hedges on education to “bridge social divides”

Named by President Barack Obama to the National Board of Education Sciences and recipient of the 2018 Yidan Prize for education research, Larry Hedges’ ground-breaking work with statistics has been redefined the way schools and universities gather metadata for creating more equal learning environments.

The City Paper (TCP): China is making education a pillar of its economic growth. How does the U.S fare with education?

Larry Hedges (LH): I believe there is good evidence to support that the U.S used to have a compelling advantage over other countries. But, that advantage has begun to erode and by some calculations has practically disappeared. The reason why education is getting more attention in the U.S in the last 20 years than the past 50, is precisely for this reason. Policymakers understand that national competitiveness is strongly dependent on the quality of the education of the workforce. I am not naive enough to think that the interest in education during these last two decades is the consequence of a sudden discovery– or enlightenment – of caring for children. It has a lot more to do with caring about the competitiveness of our economy.

TCP: How has the education model changed over these last two decades?

LH: I think the challenge for the U.S and other large, diverse countries is to create an egalitarian system with high levels of achievement. Very large and diverse countries struggle with this and none of us – China and India included – have it solved. The good news is that the U.S is paying attention to inequality. The No Child Left Behind Act, which is much reviled in many quarters because it set impossible goals, did have one visionary characteristic: it forced schools to actually measure their inequality by collecting data. For the first time, schools began having the capacity to know just how unequal they were, especially with the historically disadvantaged. We knew quite a bit about inequality at a national level, but we had no idea what the pattern of inequality was around the country. This was shocking to a lot of Americans.

TCP: China and India have powerful economies, but does this mean an educated workforce?

LH: All countries are facing the same kind of questions as they move from a system that tries to educate an elite, to one that tries to educate very broadly with high levels of competence. In the U.S, we have moved from a system that did a very good job to educate a small group of people to elite standards, and a large number of people to lesser standards. That’s not good enough in the modern world. We are going to have to educate a much bigger proportion of the population to levels that historically were unreachable. This is a challenge China also faced. They have proven that they can educate at the very top, but what they haven’t figured out, is what we haven’t figured out, either: educate a large group of people whose parents never went to college. We are deceiving ourselves if we believe that we know all the answers.

TCP: So, what solutions are out there to broaden the scope to education?

LH: This calls for an attack on the problem like we addressed with public health. In the 1890s we knew that people could live into the seventies with productive lives. But most didn’t. Life expectancy for a white male was 38 years. We didn’t get to a life expectancy of 78 years because doctors got smarter. We got here, because we decided to have a society that emphasized scientific research. As we gradually learned how to make improvements in medicine there were occasionally giant strides, such as the discovery of antibiotics, but hundreds of smaller innovations, transformed the possibility of us now enjoying healthy and productive lives. That is going to happen in education.

TCP: There is a perception that the U.S education system remains one of haves and have-nots. Your life story, however, has defied this perception.

LH: The perception may be more optimistic than the reality. I think there is a belief in the U.S that it is easy to transcend one’s past. My sense is that people fail more often than they should, and more often than the methodology suggests. In one sense, it’s important to get reality in line with the perception and thereby work to improve reality.

TCP: How has the “return stage” to an education changed since you went to college?

LH: As education becomes more important to society in terms of how much money one makes in a lifetime, over the last 20 years we have seen this “return stage” to a college education increase dramatically. At one point, a student had to sacrifice four years out of the workforce to earn a degree that only meant a small increase in salary over someone who with a high school education, and remained in the workforce. Today, the differences are dramatic. This has fueled a desire by more people to go to college, and it has also fuelled the creation of the education equivalent of patent medicine.

TCP: How do you view the situation in the U.S between a public and private university system?

LH: When I was a college student at the University of California it was well funded and viewed as a crown jewel of the state’s accomplishments. The public university system is increasingly poorly funded and many have had to scramble to pay their bills. In fact, the high cost of tuition has also priced many poor students out of the market if they can’t get a scholarship. Our private universities, on the other hand, are outrageously expensive and because of their tuitions have managed to ear-mark wealth. Much of this wealth is going to fund scholarships for students who cannot afford to pay. They are also reaching out to communities that didn’t typically come to their universities. This is creating opportunities as education must bridge social divides.