Sunday, November 6, 2011

Our Education Problem

The New York Times has been called the default national newspaper, even though it is politically a little more liberal than the nation as a whole. Similarly, I guess that TIME is the closest we have to a national magazine, with a look at the issues that are of the most interest to Americans each week. It may be slightly to the right of the New York Times, while still just a bit to the left of center. Yet more than any other magazine, it's the world's window on the American mind, week by week.

So I use TIME a lot to let me know what's going on and to feel the nation's pulse. This week the magazine's lead story was on declining social mobility in America. Two other stories splashed across the cover are closely related to that lead: one about the growing divide between young and old, the other about the sad state of education in the U.S.

The story Whatever Happened to Upward Mobility takes a look at how America's unwritten contract over the ages - we accept greater income inequality here because of the greater opportunity to move up and into a higher income level - has weakened recently. In other words, it's harder to move up from middle-income to wealthy; harder still to move from poor to wealthy. There's not a lot new in the article, much of it having been subjects of discussion for several years, and it reminds me of a story in the Washington Post yesterday on the same topic. One example of this "so what else is new?" idea is when columnist Michael Gerson writes "An economy that rewards skills and other forms of human capital is not a good place to be a dropout with a child out of wedlock." Wait - what? Really? So mostly, it's stuff we already knew.

Yet TIME's story makes it clear that there has been a shift and that some of the causes of decreased class mobility - and the accompanying greater income inequality - are societal and largely beyond most individuals' ability to change. One is the greater emphasis our economy has put in the financial sector relative to the past and to other countries; for the most part, this has not been a good thing for the country. The other is how the relatively smaller "social safety nets" in the U.S. have made it harder for lower and middle-class citizens to move up the ladder, compared to European countries, although Europe's current economic crisis shows there's a downside to that, too. But the bottom line is my Income Inequality essay of 2007 was wrong, to the extent that it didn't recognize the changes in social mobility. That's partly due to developments over the last 4 years, but also my failure to see all of the signs of those changes back then.

Nevertheless, the TIME story's main message overall is that we need better educated workers to get and keep decent paying jobs. That quite simply is the bottom line: education is the best way to reverse these negative trends. So this finally takes us to the magazine's article When Will We Learn?

Again - this is mostly stuff we already know. But with kind of an exclamation point on it! When Steven Jobs graduated from a California high school in 1972, the state's schools were widely recognized as the best in the world. Fast forward to today when California's schools "...rank at the bottom of the country, just as the U.S. now sits at the bottom of the industrialized world by most measures of educational achievement." The country's educational system now ranks 26th in the world; even worse in science and math.

In a world where low-skill jobs can be done much cheaper elsewhere, this is the single biggest cause of our high unemployment and stagnant incomes. While other countries have beefed up their math and science instruction, we instead have funneled college students into new "fields like sports exercise and leisure studies." The article sums it up with "Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today's marketplace." If people are to move ahead in society, a good education is the number one requisite, and we as a nation aren't doing the job.

The solution? A combination of harder work on the part of students, more money for teachers, and more innovative teaching strategies. Students in Shanghai, which just last week scored higher than any other high school students in the world, go to school 2 hours a day longer than U.S. students; they study formally after school every day, and on weekends too. TIME cites South Korean students, who have two more full years of school than their American counterparts. Past essays on this site have described the lack of motivation on the part of the typical American student; this is also different from students in other countries, and thus another reason we rank 26th.

How will we add two hours a day, two more years overall to our children's schooling? That's all about the money, not to mention serious push-back from teacher unions, parents, and especially students themselves. And to be just totally blunt, that still leaves the motivation issue, which will only be solved, IMO, by an extended economic depression that finally slaps this message into our kids' heads: "If you want any kind of decent life, you better start working a lot harder than you have been!"

TIME once again brought up teachers in Finland, which has one of the world's most successful educational system. As you may already know, all Finnish teachers must have a Master's degree, teachers are considered as prestigious as doctors, and only one out of ten applicants are accepted into teaching programs. Meanwhile, a teaching career, and the people it attracts in the U.S., is not quite at that level, to put it gently. All this matters, says Bill Gates, who's spent $5 billion of his own money to improve U.S. education. He believes that the biggest single factor in improving student achievement is better teachers. He mentions a study that "estimates that if black students had a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row, that would be enough to close the black-white test-score gap."

"More money for teachers" has been the mantra of just about everyone in America for many years - but it just never happens, and probably never will. At least not in the foreseeable future. We were exploring the concept of opportunity cost in my classes the other day, and one of the examples we considered was reducing the national debt vs. spending more on education. Almost everyone agrees that we need to seriously boost our educational system, and that will cost money. But at the same time, almost everyone agrees we need to do something about the national debt. These two things truly are mutually exclusive - at least in the short-run. In the long-run, a better educational system will help solve many of our problems, including the debt. But we simply can't afford to spend more on education right now. At the same time, we can't afford not to. A dilemma of the greatest order....

This of course relates to TIME's The New Generation Gap, and my own Generational Warfare essay of last month. The elderly are taking a larger and larger piece of the pie, and they are politically very powerful. In a time of especially scarce funding, they're sucking away money that could, that should, go to improving our educational system. In the long-run, we all win from better schooling - assuming that the teacher unions and students themselves see the light. Unfortunately, our country doesn't have a good record lately on sacrificing in the short-run in order to create a brighter future. That's gotta change, or else we're all sunk.
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