Why academic achievement matters

Socrates famously said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He was reflecting on the private benefits of learning about ourselves and the world around us. The more we learn about our own thoughts and desires, abilities, limitations, and surroundings, the better able we are to make informed choices about our health, family, occupation, recreation, and myriad other parts of our lives. The non-monetary benefits of learning may be difficult to measure, but they shape and determine what we recognize to be the quality of our life.1

Academic achievement produces public as well as private benefits. Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution and his colleagues have shown the strong relationship between school achievement and economic growth.2 Hanushek and former secretary of state George P. Shultz estimate that if our school mathematics scores were comparable to Canada’s over the next 20 years, U.S. gross domestic product (the value of goods and services produced in the country) would improve by $70 billion over the next 80 years, a figure equivalent to an income boost of 20 percent for each U.S. worker.3 That would be a considerable social benefit.

Academic achievement also benefits democratic institutions. When compared to other nations, those with higher levels of education and ability show stronger democracy, less crime, and greater political liberty.4 Corruption is less common in countries where citizens are well educated.5

Within societies, academic abilities increase in step with levels of education, and a nation’s relative wealth increases along with both.6 Cities also tend to grow more quickly when this kind of human capital creates a capable workforce that remains economically productive over time.7

Nations tend to benefit to the degree their citizens fulfill their potential. When citizens develop their abilities, liberty tends to expand and moral behavior tends to be higher.8 Following Hanushek’s work, Heiner Rindermann of Germany’s Chemnitz University of Technology and James Thompson of University College London found a nation’s overall abilities and knowledge are deciding factors in a nation’s wealth, scientific progress, and economic freedom.9 The world’s wealthiest nations have sustained strong intellectual traditions that result in notable accomplishments in engineering, mathematics, technology, and basic and applied science.10 Cross-national studies emphasize the importance of encouraging exemplary learners to achieve as much as they are able. Societies that support top performers and seek to maximize their abilities appear most likely to benefit all their citizens.11

Finally, the quick early learners become ever more knowledgeable and skilled as time goes on, the result of what is called the “Matthew Effect” after this passage in the Bible’s Book of Matthew: “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance.” Their work becomes increasingly better than others’ and easier for them, which can reinforce their desire and ability to persevere through ever-more-difficult challenges.12 Academic achievement in elementary and secondary school can foster higher levels of achievement in college and beyond.

Effective primary and secondary schools offer learning opportunities and rewards for acquiring the knowledge and developing the thinking skills students need to succeed in college and workplaces and to participate as citizens in free societies.13 If more students can achieve at high levels, they, their compatriots, and their society stand to benefit.

Herbert J. Walberg and Joseph L. Bast are chairman and president, respectively, of The Heartland Institute and authors of Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn – and why teachers don’t use them well (October 1, 2014; ISBN 978-1-934791-38-7), from which this article is excerpted.


1. Luis E. Vila, “The Non-Monetary Benefits of Education,” European Journal of Education 35, no. 1 (March, 2000): 21–32,

2. Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, “The Role of School Improvement in Economic Development,” PEPG 07/01, Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard University, January 9, 2007,

3. Eric Hanushek and George P. Shultz, “Education Is the Key to a Healthy Economy,” The Wall Street Journal, April 30, 2012, SB1000142405270230351340 4577356422025164482.html.

4. Heiner Rindermann, “Relevance of Education and Intelligence for the Political Development of Nations: Democracy, Rule of Law, and Political Liberty,” Intelligence 36, no. 4 (July–August 2008): 306–22.

5. Edward L. Glaeser and Raven Saks, “Corruption in America,” Discussion Paper Number 2043, Harvard Institute of Economic Research (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2004).

6. Heiner Rindermann, “Relevance of Education and Intelligence at the National Level for the Economic Welfare of People,” Intelligence 36, no. 2 (March–April 2008): 127–42.

7. Edward L. Glaeser and Albert Saiz, “The Rise of the Skilled City,” Discussion Paper Number 2025, Harvard Institute of Economic Research (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2003).

8. Heiner Rindermann, supra note 6.

9. Heiner Rindermann and James Thompson, “Cognitive Capitalism: The Effect of Cognitive Ability on Wealth, as Mediated Through Scientific Achievement and Economic Freedom,” Psychological Science 22, no. 6 (June 2011): 754–63.

10. Heiner Rindermann, Michael Sailer, and James Thompson, “The Impact of Smart Fractions, Cognitive Ability of Politicians and Average Competence of Peoples on Social Development,” Talent Development and Excellence 1 (July 2009): 3–25. Knowledge in the humanities, social sciences, and literature may also promote aspects of national well-being, but fair and objective measures in these fields are nearly impossible to develop.

11. Nancy Ewald Jackson and Earl C. Butterfield, “A Conception of Giftedness Designed to Promote Research,” in Robert J. Sternberg and Janet E. Davidson, eds., Conceptions of Giftedness (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 151–82.

12. Herbert J. Walberg and Shiow-Ling Tsai, “Matthew Effects in Education,” American Educational Research Journal 20, no. 3 (Fall 1983): 359–74; Marian J. Bakermans-Krannenburg, Marinus H. van Ijzendoorn, and Robert H. Bradley, “Those Who Have, Receive: The Matthew Effect in Early Childhood Intervention in the Home Environment,” Review of Educational Research 75, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 1–26.

13. Edward L. Glaeser, Giacomo A. Ponzetto, and Andrei Shleifer, “Why Does Democracy Need Education?” Journal of Economic Growth 12, no. 2 (June 2007): 77–99.