First published June 2015. Updated February 2017.
When we first speak to people interested in doing good with their careers, they often say they want to get involved in education in the US or the UK. This could mean donating to a school, doing education policy work, or becoming a teacher.
However, we haven’t prioritised careers in education at 80,000 Hours. We don’t dispute that education is a highly important problem – a more educated population could enable us to solve many other global challenges, as well as yield major economic benefits. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to be very easy to solve or neglected (important elements of our problem framework). So, it looks harder to have a large impact in education compared to many other areas. In the rest of this post, we’ll give five reasons why.
The following isn’t the result of in-depth research; it’s just meant to explain why we’ve deprioritised education so far. Our views could easily change. Note that in this post we’re not discussing education in the developing world.
1. It’s harder to help people in the US or UK
Everyone in the US or UK is rich by global standards: the poorest 5% of Americans are richer than the richest 5% of Indians (and that’s adjusted for the difference in purchasing power, see an explanation and the full data). In general additional resources go further the poorer someone is, and working on US or UK education means focusing on helping those who are rich by global standards, so we should expect it to be a relatively challenging area.
2. Not much is known about how to improve academic performance
There’s a growing body of evidence about how to improve academic performance, but there’s still a lot of a disagreement, and lack of clearly effective interventions.
The non-partisan Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy wrote in 2013 that:
“A clear pattern of findings in these IES studies is that the large majority of interventions evaluated produced weak or no positive effects compared to usual school practices. … A total of 90 interventions have been evaluated in IES-commissioned RCTs. Of these 11 interventions (12%) were found to produce positive effects [and] 79 interventions (88%) were found to produce weak or no positive effects.”
GiveWell, a leading non-profit evaluator, spent a year or two surveying the literature to try to find proven programs for improving academic performance, initially thinking it would be the most promising cause, but they were unimpressed by the results, and ultimately decided to look elsewhere. The most effective interventions they identified are expensive and have weak effects.
There is some evidence that good teachers produce big effects on the income of their students, though these studies are disputed. Moreover, these results were measured retroactively – we don’t know how to predict which teachers will turn out to be good.
3. Not much is known about the benefits of improved academic performance
Even if you successfully improve academic performance, there’s surprisingly little research or consensus about the link between improved academic performance and improved life outcomes, or social outcomes. The reason is that even where improved performance seems to lead to an improvement in life outcomes, it’s hard to be sure whether this is due to:
- Genuinely improved skills.
- Selection effects (i.e. more talented people tend to receive the intervention, people who would have had better life outcomes anyway).
- Signalling (getting difficult-to-obtain credentials provides a way for employers to spot talent).
- Indirect benefits (e.g. going to university provides an opportunity to network, which helps people later in life).
There are a few fairly well-settled results: for instance, it’s widely accepted that going to university is associated with an increase in income, and that this isn’t simply due to selection effects. However, it’s unclear how much of this is due to genuinely improved skills compared to other benefits of university, and therefore it’s unclear whether improving university teaching or expanding access to university will have a positive impact. See Bryan Caplan’s work for one prominent example of an education skeptic.
A common response is that education is about producing good citizens, rather than improving income. However, even less is known about the relationship between improving education and turning people into better citizens.
As an aside, if your strategy for doing good is to produce good citizens who go on and benefit the world – rather than help the students themselves – then you may want to focus on working with talented students who are most likely to hold leadership positions in the future; rather than disadvantaged students, which are the focus of most philanthropy.
4. It’s hard to do better research
It takes many decades for a change in education to filter through to life or social outcomes, so it takes a long time to study. Moreover, studying the effects of education involves extremely messy social science, and it’s rarely possible to do randomised controlled trials, so it’s difficult to obtain reliable evidence, even if the effects are being measured. And they usually aren’t.
5. Education is one of the most popular causes
All of the above might be overlooked if education in the US and the UK was a highly neglected cause, but instead it may be the most popular social cause in these countries today.
Government funding for education is substantial – around 4.6% of GDP in the US (800 billion dollars) or 5.5% in the UK (100 billion pounds). US public spending on education has risen substantially over the last 40 years while test scores have changed little.
In addition it’s one of the most popular targets for philanthropists. In a survey of the top 100 US foundations by GiveWell, the two of the most popular causes were US education and US higher education, accounting for 15% of spending, and beaten only by healthcare. This includes some of the most strategic foundations, such as the Gates Foundation.
US and UK education also receive a lot of top talent. The success of Teach for America and Teach First has meant that a substantial fraction of top graduates try out careers in teaching. In the UK, Teach First has for several years been the largest single recruiter of graduates. In 2009-10 18% of Harvard seniors applied to Teach for America (though this has since declined).
Finally, education has been a major policy priority for government for the last two decades, especially in the UK. One of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s main campaigning slogans was “education, education, education” and subsequent governments continued to put a lot of emphasis on the area. We’ve been told by several people in policy that the education department is a magnet the most talented people in the civil service.
And let’s not forget, private spending on education is even larger than public spending – 6.7% of GDP in the UK and 6.2% in the US.
Overall, going into education twenty years ago might have been a smart move, but today it looks like a relatively crowded cause.
With all this effort already going into the area, it’s harder to find low hanging fruit. If you want to make a breakthrough, you’ll have to find something promising that’s different than what the above groups are already trying to do.
Who should go into education?
Education is still an important cause, so if you are particularly well-suited to working in this field (e.g. you have lots of relevant knowledge or think you’d be a fantastic teacher), and you plan to do something innovative, then it could still be a promising area. However, if you’re not already committed, then we think it’s worth considering other causes, or at least ensuring you keep your options open.
Which areas seem best?
There are also some areas of education that seem especially exciting.
One is online education (and education technology broadly), which seems like it could cut the costs of education dramatically in the coming decades.
Another exciting area is education research and especially the evidence-based education movement, which is gaining strength. For instance the UK government recently founded The Education Endowment Foundation to fund randomised controlled trials in education. This movement holds the promise of resolving some of the problems identified above. For instance, this economics paper outlines five practices believed to have improved student math achievement in charter schools by 0.15-0.18 standard deviations per year.
If you’d still like to enter education, consider getting involved in one of these two areas.
If you’re interested in going into education research, you can read our interview with someone working in the field.
If you’re interested in teaching, see our short profile.
If you’d like to donate to a charity that works on US education, KIPP seems like a reasonable choice.