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To Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody: Really?

Not long after our new report on the American accountability system was released, Diane Ravitch responded in a blog.  She began with a very brief but accurate summary of the main points I made.  Then she quoted at length from a critique by Anthony Cody, peppered here and there with her own approving comments.

What got my attention was what Cody characterized as his "most fundamental problem" with our report: its suggestion that "the economic future of our students will only be guaranteed if we educate them better." 

"On the whole," says Cody, "it is still an advantage for an individual to be well educated.  But the idea that education is some kind of limiting factor on our economic growth is nonsense.  And the idea that the future of current and future graduates will be greatly improved if they are better educated is likewise highly suspect."  Really!  Ted Schultze and Gary Becker got the Nobel prize for their contributions to human capital theory and Robert Solow and, more recently, Paul Romer received the prize for their contributions to growth theory. Both bodies of theory hold that, for both individuals and nations, people's stock of education and skills is a major determinant of economic growth.   Economists from Adam Smith on have held that the advancement of national economies is, in the long run, a function of improving productivity, and improving productivity is mainly the result of higher levels of knowledge, skills and technology, which is itself a product of higher levels of education and the competence derived from education.  Among students of these matters, the idea that the future of current and future graduates will be greatly improved if they are better educated is, at least among those who have some knowledge of the subject, incontrovertible.  Recent data on this point (see, for example, the work of Anthony Carnevale) shows that the lifetime income of high school graduates in the United States is substantially higher than that of those who don't graduate.  The lifetime income of those who have some college is substantially higher than that of those who have only a high school diploma.  The lifetime income of those who have a baccalaureate is substantially higher than that of those who have only some college.  These differences in income have been growing steadily. Cody is wrong on the theory and wrong on the facts.

Cody acknowledges that the idea that education has important economic consequences for individuals and nations is seductive for teachers, "because it makes them feel important," and because it can be used to argue for more funds for schools.  But, he says, that view carries a price.  "If we accept that our economic future depends on our schools, real action to address fundamental economic problems can be deferred.  We can pretend that somehow we are securing the future of the middle class by sending everyone to pre-school....We need some accountability for children's lives, for their bellies being full, for safe homes and neighborhoods, and for their futures when they graduate.  Once there is a healthy ecosystem for them to grow up in, and graduate into, the inequities we see in education will shrink dramatically.  But that requires much broader economic and social change--change that neither policymakers or central planners like Tucker are prepared to call for."

Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody are not the only supporters of the view just expressed.  Which is a substantial comfort to millions of otherwise beleaguered American teachers who often see themselves as blamed for the failings of the larger American society. 

I am very sympathetic to that view. But it is all too easy to take that sympathy one step further, to the position that there is nothing wrong with the American education system, that American students would be performing as well as any in the world if income were distributed more fairly, jobs were no longer shipped offshore by employers seeking lower labor costs, young children and their families had more support from the state of the kind they have in northern Europe and so on.

The argument that Cody and Ravitch are making is comforting to some teachers because it absolves them of any responsibility for the poor performance of American students.  It is comforting to many advocates of fairer social policies because they worry that, if the public and policy makers see education as the route to more opportunity for those at the bottom, they will not make the policy changes these advocates are seeking in other arenas.

But, like it or not, the evidence that education really is a major key--perhaps the major key--to economic progress for individuals and nations is overwhelming.  And the evidence that the American education system is underperforming that of other nations is also overwhelming.  Our system costs more and produces lower achievement that those of a growing number of nations surveyed by the OECD.  Social class has more effect on student achievement in the United States than in most of those nations.  Smaller proportions of our students achieve in the higher ranges of student performance as measured by the PISA survey than is the case for the countries with the best education systems.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ravitch, Cody and others that it is unfair and counterproductive to punish American teachers for the poor performance of the American education system.  That system, based on the use of cheap teachers treated like blue collar workers, was devised a century ago for a world that no longer exists.  That failed system was not designed by teachers.  It is the result of decisions made by legislatures, governors, and school boards over the course of a century.  So we are all responsible for those failings.  The solution is not to beat up on the teachers, but to change the system.  Part of what we need to do--what the top-performing countries have already done--is to recruit our teachers from the upper ranges of high school graduates and provide them a first-rate education and training. No less important is changing the way our schools are organized so that we can offer a real career in teaching, offer leadership roles to teachers and give teachers the time they need to work together to systematically improve the curriculum and develop their own skills.  There is nothing exotic in this agenda.  It is just getting the basics right. 

Yes, I too would very much like to see a fairer distribution of income, less poverty and more support for young children and their families.  And there is no doubt that our students would perform at higher levels if our society were able to make real progress on these goals.  But that shouldn't stop us from working hard now to redesign our education system to meet today's needs.

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