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Conflicting Views About Education and the Economy

When reports with the imprimatur of two prestigious think tanks draw opposite conclusions about the same issue within days of each other, the public is bound to be confused. That's what happened when the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress published views about the connection between schools and the recession.

On Feb. 8, Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute wrote in "The Overselling of Education" that blaming joblessness on worker skill deficits is flat out wrong: "After all, most of those who are unemployed today were productively employed just a year or two ago. The notion that production processes have radically changed is hard to square with the absence of a surge in productivity or investment."

Mishel makes it clear that blaming unemployment on failing schools ignores the evidence: "The percentage of unemployed who have been out of work for at least six months is the same across all education groups. In other words, unemployed graduates bear the same risk of long-term unemployment as those with high school degrees." He concludes that "the challenge we face with persistent unemployment exceeding 9 percent is not better education and training for those currently unemployed. Rather, we need more jobs."

But on Feb. 11, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, Louis Soares and Louis Caldera wrote in "Disrupting College" for the Center for American Progress that the problem is the result of the failure of colleges and universities to educate. Their reputation is the result of being the best at research and of being selective in whom they admit. The researchers base their assessment largely on what employers maintain: "Employers say paradoxically they cannot find the right people to fill jobs even though the country is facing its highest unemployment rates in a generation. Competition with a rising China and India and their vast populations lend urgency to the need for the country as a whole to do a better job of educating its citizens."

Faced with these dueling views, the public is understandably flummoxed. Which side is right?

The overwhelming evidence favors Mishel's analysis. In Oct. 2007, B. Lindsay Lowell and Harold Salzman published a study, "Into the Eye of the Storm." They reported that about three STEM graduates exist for every new STEM position, not counting openings caused by retirees.

Echoing their finding, in Nov. 2007 Michael Teitelbaum, vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, testified before the House Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation. He cited several RAND Corporation studies that found an overall surplus of qualified employees: "These findings of no general shortage are entirely consistent with isolated shortages of skilled people in narrow fields or in specific technologies that are quite new or growing explosively." Teitelbaum concluded that the depiction of STEM shortages is a claim made by "interest groups and their lobbyists."

Further supporting Mishel's analysis was the Conference Board, which in Oct. 2010 reported that high-tech companies have been slow to hire even workers with advanced skills and years of experience. These formal reports were backed up by a series of letters to the editor published in the Wall Street Journal from experienced STEM professionals in New York, Colorado and Florida who have been unable to find work in their field commensurate with their backgrounds.

However, to be fair to Christensen, Horn, Soares and Caldera, I decided to see if there was corroborative evidence. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 19, 2009 ("Immigrant Scientists Create Jobs and Win Nobels"), Susan Hockfield, president of MIT, wrote: "Graduate and postgraduate student immigrants are essential to creating new, well-paid jobs in our economy. Of the 35 young innovators recognized this year by Technology Review magazine for their exceptional new ideas, only six went to high school in the United States. From MIT alone, foreign graduates have founded an estimated 2,340 active U.S. companies that employ over 100,000 people." No doubt they did. But the jobs they and others created were clearly not enough to fill the demand by STEM graduates.

In Winning the Global Talent Showdown (Berrett-Koehler), social scientist Edward Gordon tries to explain why. He argues that too many of the unemployed lack the specialized training to meet the requirements of an increasingly sophisticated workplace. He says that the baby boomers who are retiring are better educated and trained than the present generation.

That's hard to believe. Of the record 49,562 doctoral degrees awarded in the 2008-09 academic year, 67.5 percent were in science and engineering. This represents a 1.9 percent increase over the previous academic year. Do Gordon and others mean to say that these graduates are not qualified to work in their areas of specialization? If so, why not?

One thing is certain though: This debate is only beginning. I fully expect that the campaign to undermine confidence in schools will continue because it serves to distract attention away from the real problem. All the more reason not to buy into the fiction being created by sophisticated interests. It serves no one but themselves.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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