Analyses of the benefits of education have a long history in the economics literature. Studies have established that spending on education is an investment with a return. Conclusions about education’s contributions to productivity are well established. The literature counts hundreds of studies that estimate the economic benefits of investments in education. The link to growth is especially critical. After establishing the link between education and growth in the 1960s, the causal association came under attack in recent years. Adding the important dimension of quality – what students know, or cognitive ability – re-establishes the link between education and economic growth (Hanushek and Woessmann 2007). The crucial factor is learning achievement. Improving learning outcomes, along with the expansion of schooling, will improve labor productivity, reflected in workers’ earnings, and will contribute to higher and sustainable rates of national income growth. The crucial next step is to establish what policies and programs can improve learning outcomes. There are important efforts underway in a number of countries to document through rigorous impact assessments the causal links between reforms and learning outcomes.
There is also a need to better measure learning outcomes. While many countries have examination systems and national standardized tests, too few countries participate in regional or international achievement exercises such as the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement’s (IEA) (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) or the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). However, more and more countries are signing up for TIMSS and PISA. In 2000, 43 countries participated in PISA, rising to 57 countries in 2006, to 66 countries in 2009.
Researchers have begun to use international assessments to analyze the determinants of learning. They have focused on such issues as central examinations, curriculum, school autonomy, teachers, unions, student assessments, parental participation, administration and competition, among other factors. The approaches vary but most use an education production function. More recently, researchers have begun to take advantage of over time data and applied more rigorous empirical strategies in order to get at the vexing question of causation. There is a growing use of international assessment results to analyze the determinants of learning in developing and emerging economies.