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Don't Blame Schools for the Economy Again

It's not often that intellectual heavyweights disagree so fundamentally about the same issue in commentaries published days apart in the nation's two most respected newspapers. I'm referring to Paul Krugman, whose column "Wasting Our Minds" appeared on Apr. 29 in The New York Times, and to George P. Schultz and Eric A. Hanushek, whose essay "Education Is the Key to a Healthy Economy" appeared in The Wall Street Journal on May 1. The subject was the relationship between educational outcomes and economic growth.

Let's start with Schultz and Hanushek. They wrote: "Over the past half century, countries with higher math and science skills have grown faster than those with lower-skilled populations." As scores rise (presumably on tests of international competition) so does economic growth. The only reason the U.S. is still in the game, according to Schultz and Hanushek, is that it has benefited from the free movement of labor and capital, strong property rights, limited government intrusion in the economy, and excellent colleges and universities.

But if test scores reflecting math and science skills are indispensable to a healthy economy, then how do Schultz and Hanushek explain what happened to Japan? Although its students consistently score high in math and science, Japan's economy tanked in 1990 and has never fully recovered. I think what Singapore's Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in an interview with Newsweek on Jan. 9, 2006 is closer to the truth: "We both have meritocracies. Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well - like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if that means challenging authority."

Even if the U.S. produced countless more graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, the relationship between their presence and the nation's economic growth would not be causal. The more likely villains are companies themselves, according to Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the Wharton School. There is an abundance of workers to choose from, but employers want to find perfect candidates who won't require training ("Why Companies Aren't Getting the Employees They Need," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 24, 2011). As for the complaint about skill shortages in STEM fields, Cappelli says it exists only because candidates won't accept jobs at the wages offered. That's why companies want more H-1B visas issued. They know that STEM workers from abroad are willing to work for lower salaries.

Paul Krugman agrees with Cappelli about the disconnect between education and the economy. Although the U.S. is producing more college graduates than ever before, they can't find work commensurate with their education. He blames economic policies. As Lawrence Mishel wrote almost five years ago: "The singular obsession with schools deflects political attention from policy failures in ... other realms" ("Schools as Scapegoats," The American Prospect, Sept. 24, 2007). Critics say that the high number of graduates in the U.S. contributes to a false sense of accomplishment because it too easily masks the number of strategic majors. However, Iris C. Rotberg, editor of Balancing Change and Tradition in Global Education Reform (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), counters that the U.S. has a "large pool of students with the academic credentials needed to enter science and engineering fields and an ample supply - and sometimes an oversupply (for example, of chemistry Ph.D.s) - to meet labor-market demand."

It's easy to blame public schools for the economic ills of the nation. This is nothing new. What is different this time, however, is the intensity of the attacks. But they are misdirected. The demonstrations on May 1 in Oakland and Seattle are evidence that some voters understand the real cause of the protracted recession.

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

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