Here's a Plan to Turn Around U.S. Education and Generate $225 Trillion

This story appears in the December 15, 2014 issue of Forbes.
Break down any political discussion of education policy and you’ll get the kind of rhetoric typical of a wealth manager. The need to invest in our kids. The untapped resource of our young minds. Children as our greatest asset.

There’s a reason, of course. When you look at massive public spending areas, defense keeps us safe and health care keeps us alive, but it’s education alone that has the promise of a numeric return on a collective investment. What’s missing from all the blathering, however, are actual numbers. As in, exactly what should we be investing in? And if we did, how much specifically would society gain from it?

With that in mind, FORBES sought to spur debate by quantifying the seemingly unquantifiable. We set out to determine the costs and benefits of taking U.S. schoolkids from their middling global rankings to top five in the world, as measured by math scores and rates for high school graduation, college entry and four-year college completion.

This effort brought together an all-star lineup of education policy experts, who identified five policies that, if fully implemented, could each vault results into the top five (and if undertaken together, would surely take us to number one): teacher efficacy, universal pre-K, Common Core standards, blended learning (incorporating technology into how students are taught) and school leadership (training and empowering principals). Robin Hood Foundation and Tudor Investment founder Paul Tudor Jones volunteered to underwrite their efforts, though neither he nor FORBES had any hand in the results.

There’s no other way to put this: The resulting numbers were big. Really big.The investment required to implement all five would run somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.2 trillion, spread over 20 years. Or $310 billion a year in today’s dollars. And the payoff, as calculated by factoring in all those additional, better-skilled high school and college graduates on our national GDP? Almost $225 trillion, spread over an 80-year time horizon, which incorporates an entire generation’s professional achievement.

There are, of course, numerous assumptions in this exercise, from the political (school leadership gains would require new collective bargaining agreements in many states) to implementation (initial forays into universal pre-K have produced results well short of our expectations). But we did encourage the researchers to be conservative in their approach. The blended-learning assumptions forecast none of the personnel or textbook cost savings that would almost surely come from having students learning in part via online tools. Teacher efficacy focuses solely on recruiting great new teachers, versus removing lousy ones. And so on.

It’s also important to note that the ROI and the cumulative return are not the same thing, since the former is based on the investment required while the latter deals with total economic benefits. Regardless, both produce striking forecasts. If you were a for-profit investor, you could discount these findings as much as you want, and you’d still be falling over yourself to invest.

So what’s stopping us? To find out, we then convened a roundtable of top leaders from the four key constituent groups: the federal government (represented by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), state government (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo), the teachers unions (American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten) and local school boards (D.C. public schools chancellor Kaya Henderson).

Their dialogue, moderated by Paul Tudor Jones, was lively, with more consensus than a casual observer might expect. “We should move full speed ahead and scale on all five,” said Duncan, echoing the group. As our kids could tell him, the math is overwhelming.


What This Is: Attract top college graduates to the profession, measure their effectiveness and retain the good ones.

How We Achieve This: Salaries. Specifically, make teaching a highly compensated profession that mirrors its role in society and attracts top college graduates. A major McKinsey study estimates that raising teacher salaries by 50% would mean that a majority of teachers would come from the top third of college graduates. Right now it’s a paltry 23%. Efficacy would solely be derived from student outcome data.

Investment: $4.8 trillion
Return: $64.5 trillion
Adjusted ROI: 12x

Researcher: Eric Hanushek, Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Larry Robbins

SOURCE OF WEALTH Hedge funds (estimated net worth, $1.7 billion)

HOW HE SUPPORTS TEACHER EFFICACY:Board Member, Robin Hood Foundation; Chair, Relay Graduate School of Education

PASSION POINTS: “All four of my boys play hockey. We have a better national development program to get 20 people to raise a gold medal than we do a national development program to develop teachers in the United States.

“If we want to have an economic incentive, one fairly blunt instrument: Just pay everybody more. It’s very expensive, but nonetheless it would have some great effect. Or no federal income tax for high-performing teachers or high-performing students that chose teaching. That would cost less than our subsidies to agriculture, excluding food stamps. It would cost one-third of that which we are spending on wars. Should there not be a war for teachers?”



What This Is: Guaranteed pre-kindergarten for every American. (Right now only 52% of pre-K-age kids attend.)

How We Achieve This: More than just building pre-K into every elementary school, our assumptions include teacher observation, coaching, curricular integration with the requirements of kindergarten and extensive professional development.

Investment: $1.1 trillion
Return: $38.4 trillion
Adjusted ROI: 34x

Researcher: Robert Pianta, Dean, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

J.B. Pritzker

SOURCE OF WEALTH Inheritance, investments (estimated net worth, $3.4 billion)

HOW HE SUPPORTS EARLY EDUCATION:Pritzker Children’s Initiative, Pritzker Consortium on Early Childhood Development

PASSION POINTS: “Many children arrive at kindergarten far behind their peers and not ready to learn, with poorly developed vocabularies and foundational skills, such as the ability to focus, to pay attention, to control impulses, and learn from teachers and peers. You can put them in a good kindergarten classroom, but too often they slip farther and farther behind their peers. Ninety percent of brain development occurs in the first five years of life, with most of that occurring in the first three years. That means you’d better not mess up those first few developmental years–because, if you do, it’s almost impossible to recover.


What This Is: Improve outcomes by empowering–and holding accountable–school principals to deliver educational results.

How We Achieve This: Reform state laws to allow principals to act like any other division head, including hiring and firing and managing budgets. Raise principal salaries by 26% to attract higher-level talent. Create principal training academies–a de facto executive M.B.A. for school administrators.

Investment: $11 billion
Return: $61 trillion
Adjusted ROI: 5,551x

Researcher: Paul Hill, Founder, Center on Reinventing Education, University of Washington Bothell

John Fisher

SOURCE OF WEALTH Inheritance, Oakland A’s (estimated net worth, $2.7 billion)

HOW HE SUPPORTS SCHOOL LEADERSHIP:Chair, Charter School Growth Fund and KIPP Foundation; Special Advisor, Fisher Fund

PASSION POINTS: “Our main focus as a foundation is on the replication of high-performing charter schools. My father grew up in San Francisco, going to all public schools and yet sent his kids to all private schools and concluded that, unless we could do something to have a positive impact on what he called the know-nots,’ that we were going to have a very difficult time as a country. In the late ’90s, he saw a video from 60 Minutes about of a couple of young teachers who had started KIPP, Knowledge Is Power Program.’


What This Is: Arming students with computers and delivering rote lessons in part through digital media, personalized and optimized to individual needs and pace, allowing teachers more value-added.

How We Achieve This: National broadband coverage, computers for every student and training and coaching teachers and schools on how to integrate online learning within a brick-and-mortar school.

Investment: $44.3 billion
Return: $33.1 trillion
Adjusted ROI: 746x

Researcher: Michael Horn, Executive Director for Education, Clayton Christensen Institute

Fred Wilson

SOURCE OF WEALTH Venture capital (oversees $1 billion)

Board Member,

PASSION POINTS: “I am a technologist. But blended learning is not really about technology. Blended learning is about teaching. It’s a repudiation of the one-size-fits-all model that we’ve used for the past century here in the United States, with a teacher standing up in front of the classroom, ‘Womp! Womp! Womp! Womp! Womp!’ and the kids in the classroom snoring, right? That doesn’t work. Blended learning changes the way classes are designed, the way schools are designed, the way that scheduling is designed, the way teaching is designed and leveraging technology to make that all possible in a way that’s actually cost effective, so that we don’t radically increase the cost of education.


WHAT THIS IS: Creating high national standards to ensure college-ready, globally competitive graduates.

HOW WE ACHIEVE THIS: Recent steps are preliminary. New instructional materials, assessments and professional development help ensure success. While Common Core has critics on both extremes of the political spectrum, those in the sensible center rightly view high national standards, coupled with tools to achieve success, as a no-brainer.

INVESTMENT: $185.4 billion
RETURN: $27.9 trillion

RESEARCHER: Patrick J. Murphy, Professor, University of San Francisco; Senior Fellow, Public Policy Institute of California

Emma Bloomberg

SOURCE OF WEALTH: Inheritance (her father, Michael Bloomberg, is worth $36.5 billion)

HOW SHE SUPPORTS COMMON CORE/COLLEGE READINESS: Chairman, Stand for Children, Leadership for Educational Equity

PASSION POINTS: “Essentially, Common Core is bringing our education system in line with the way the world works today standards intended to help address America’s lagging international tech scores, our inability to produce college and career-ready graduates and the growing inequality in educational opportunity, not just among socioeconomic classes but among states.

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