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Is Education Reform a Faith-Based Belief System?

The latest entry in the Bridging Differences blog is a fascinating look at the belief system guiding the most fervent advocates of modern education reform. Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute raised some interesting arguments.

Mr. Petrilli writes:

Rather than accept a future of low-skill, low-wage work for our impoverished young people, we aspire to build their "human capital"--their knowledge, skills, capabilities, talents, habits, character, however you want to phrase it--so that, among other things, the labor market will one day repay their contributions to society with a wage that far exceeds any minimums. I acknowledge that not all of our young people--low-income or otherwise--will make it to the level of a high-skilled worker, but surely we can help most of them learn valuable, remunerative skills that allow for self-sufficiency and the chance to make a significant contribution in the workplace and in the community.

But here's the thing, Deborah: I can't figure out how to get from here to there except through better schools. Whatever the question, stronger schools seems to be the answer:

He goes on to suggest:

Do you in fact not believe that tomorrow's schools, like those of yesterday, can be lighthouses that help young people find a brighter future? And if you share my faith in the power of great schools, how can we help educators see their role as a point of pride, rather than something that feels like an accusation?

 It is interesting that Mr. Petrilli uses the word "faith" to describe his belief that schools will somehow rescue the poor from impoverishment. This solution seems similar to that offered by every faith healer that ever offered to cure what ails us. We must invest our belief in a practice that may, on a random basis, yield success, while ignoring widespread evidence that such results are unlikely at best.

First of all, let's zoom out a bit to get the biggest picture possible of the job market in the coming years. We cannot satisfy ourselves by considering these issues on an individual basis - we need to look at where jobs are being created in the economy as a whole. If Mr. Petrilli is suggesting that we can rescue large numbers of people from poverty by increasing their level of education, we hit a major obstacle when we look at where the jobs are in our economy.

 According to this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education,

approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled--occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less. Only a minority of the increment in our nation's stock of college graduates is filling jobs historically considered as requiring a bachelor's degree or more.

According to this report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistic, looking forward to 2018, only 23% of all job openings require a bachelor's degree or more. About 67% require a high school degree OR LESS. Increasing the number of people with college degrees (or "certificates of competency") may make employers happy. But given that there is no real shortage of skilled workers, an increase in their number is only likely to push wages downward.

Petrilli also suggests that efforts to directly address poverty are likely to be counterproductive:

 If we raise the minimum wage dramatically, won't employers replace workers with robots or export the jobs to far-away places?

Clearly, employers are already outsourcing as many jobs as possible, and given Mr. Petrilli's free-market credentials, he is unlikely to favor anything that might restrict this practice. This leaves American workers in a "race to the bottom," competing with cheap labor elsewhere. Since workers overseas work for as little as a dollar a day, we have quite a ways to go before we are fully competitive. Our minimum wage has barely budged over the past decade or more, so its real value has been falling steadily and is below that of most Western economies. 

Historically wages have risen when workers were able to organize and force employers to pay them more. Perhaps we might invest some faith in this idea, and seek to expand the number of people represented by unions?

 As Diane Ravitch has recently been reporting, the number of students graduating from high school has been increasing steadily over the past few decades. We now graduate more than 90% of our students, counting those who may take an extra year or two. The proportions of students applying for college has also been on the upswing. 

However, if larger economic trends are not confronted, then far too many of the students we graduate are unlikely to find success. Meanwhile, families who live on minimum wage will struggle mightily to survive, and the children in these families will suffer the direct effects of crippling poverty. Raising the minimum wage is no panacea, but it is the least we ought to be abe to do to support our students living in poverty.

What do you think? Do you have faith that education will rescue the poor from their plight? Or should we be pursuing other means of raising wages and living standards for all?

 Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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