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Education Reformers Turn Economic Logic Upside Down

Waiting For Superman director Davis Guggenheim, on the Colbert Report, explained, "...we are basically failing the American dream. Everyone in America, no matter who they are, no matter what language they speak, no matter how much money they have, deserve a single thing, which is a great education." He explained a bit more, "if they work hard, and they go to school, they have a chance at the American dream." Then he put this in economic terms. "...what happens to them affects all of us. It affects the price of your home, it affects how safe your neighborhood is, and it affects our economy. We're not producing enough skilled workers for the modern economy."

So according to Guggenheim, improving our schools is the key to a prosperous future for these students, and for America as a whole. This is the vision offered by the education reformers, from President Obama to Arne Duncan to Bill Gates. It sounds reasonable - even enlightened. What could be the problem?

They have the situation exactly backwards. These visionaries imagine that high wage jobs will magically appear when the workforce has been trained for them. But the jobs did not disappear because of a lack of workers, and I find it hard to believe that they will reappear just because we produce more educated people.

I invite you to watch a fifteen minute story from a BBC reporter Paul Mason, visiting Gary, Indiana. The focus of the story is on how federal stimulus dollars are impacting life in this most dilapidated of rust belt cities. We learn that manufacturing has departed, and walk through the modern ruins of once glorious theaters and concert halls. Then we come to the schools. "So far, most of the stimulus money has been allocated here, to the school system. Most of Gary's secondary schools have been closed and replaced by specialist colleges, like this one, dedicated to the performing arts. Many of these students come from neighborhoods classified as gang-infested. A small number are homeless." A student named Amber McMillan says, "Here at Emerson, we have very good training, and then we have the academics that would help us succeed. Because we can sing like Pavarotti, just like our teacher says, but if we don't have the education, we have nothing."

The reporter concludes this section by saying, "The benefits of money spent here will be felt, but in the long term. In the meantime, Gary has an improving school system, a collapsed city center, and an acute financial crisis. If they do make it, many of them know success will probably take them somewhere else."

It seems to me that Gary, Indiana, is a microcosm of our nation as a whole. We have a collapsed industrial base and our economy no longer produces things that the world wants to buy. Our corporations have figured out that most of what we used to make can be produced more cheaply elsewhere, and the owners are loyal only to their shareholders and the bottom line. According to economist Robert Reich, the gap between haves and have-nots has grown to the point that it is the same as in 1928. Reich recently explained

The evidence is all around us. It's no mere coincidence that 1928 and 2007 marked historical high-water points for shares of national income going to the top 1 percent. Today's median wage is now 5 percent lower than it was at the start of the decade, taking inflation into account, while top earners are doing better than ever. The core assets of most Americans are their homes, whose values are now 20 to 40 percent below what they were three years ago, while the key assets of America's wealthy are shares of stocks and bonds, whose values have declined far less. The official rate of unemployment is 4.4 percent for college graduates but 10 percent for those with only high school degrees and almost 15 percent for high school dropouts.

According to Reich, our economy cannot recover so long as wages keep dropping and unemployment remains high, because our economy is driven by consumer spending. And if the consumers lack the money to spend the economy will continue its downward spiral.

So where does that leave us in the schools? Watching the show about the situation in Gary, Indiana, brings to mind the old Roadrunner cartoon, and the moment when Wiley Coyote accidentally blasts away the cliff on which he is standing. The rock under his feet falls away, but for a few seconds, his feet spin wildly as he tries to run in mid-air. Our schools have had the earth pulled out from under them. We can continue spinning our feet for a while, keep students like Amber focused on a future we promise them will be bright if only they are well-educated. But the earth is disappearing underneath all of our feet, and unless we can rebuild a solid economy based on actually producing useful things, we may be headed for a fall.

What do you think? Will improved schools lead us out of economic troubles? Or do we need to focus more on fundamental economic changes?

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