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Schools and the Economy

I'm not an apologist for public schools in this country. I readily admit that some of them are abysmal. But I think it's reasonable to expect those who blame them for the economic health of the nation to provide credible evidence to support their views. I'm referring now to the remarks made by Robert Gordon, a professor of the social sciences at Northwestern University ("The Great Stagnation of American Education," The New York Times, Sept. 7).

Gordon asserts that economic growth in this country has gone "hand in hand with rising educational attainment," and that schools have not done their job in graduating better educated students than in the past. Certainly improved skills of workers can make companies more profitable, which in turn have the potential to make the economy more robust. But I think fiscal policy and corporate accountability play a far more important role in this regard. The causes of the protracted recession have nothing to do with the shortcomings of public schools. Anyone doubting this needs to read Lawrence Lindsey's The Growth Experiment Revisited ("How the Fat Years Were Born," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 10).

Yet Gordon rejects this explanation, preferring to focus instead on education. He claims that the most productive people are paid higher wages. But that is also questionable. Nearly 40 percent of the nation's highest paid CEOs over the past two decades were either fired, forced to take government bailouts or in charge of companies that paid huge sums in fraudulent claims ("Many highly paid CEOs end up as failures, report says," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 28). These CEOs were extremely well educated, many with degrees from marquee-name universities. Yet they proved that nothing succeeds like failure in the executive suite.

Like other critics, Gordon points to scores on the Program for International Student Assessment as proof of the failure of public schools. But as I explained in a letter to the editor published on the same day that his essay appeared in the same newspaper, there is a difference between a testing meritocracy and a talent meritocracy ("School's In," The New York Times Book Review, Sept. 8). Students can score high on standardized tests and still lack the wherewithal for success.

Gordon compounds his error by citing the Knowledge Is Power Program and the Harlem Children's Zone. He says that they have "erased racial achievement gaps." That's not true. They have narrowed the gap largely because they have benefited from huge financial resources available to them from their board members ("Is the Promise Real: The Harlem Children's Zone Becomes a Template for National Change," City Lights, March 2010). For example, the annual budget of the HCZ has grown from $6 million in 1994 to $74 million in 2008. (I do not have the latest figures.) Moreover, it enrolls about 1,200 students, which is a fraction of the number of students in the neighborhood it serves.

I don't deny that public education is at a crossroads, and that it has the potential to affect the economy. But if schools are going to take the correct path in the years ahead, it's important to understand the facts. Gordon does not help.

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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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