Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Education = Prosperity?

In his blog, Professor Jim Horn observes
"What makes this morning’s New York Times
school demonization
any different from the average garden variety one, is that this time, in its
haste to lambaste the schools by making test score comparisons with other
nations, Staples does not bother to note that the other better nation, this time
Japan, has been in economic recession for over 15 years, despite its seemingly
advanced education strategies grounded in homogeneity and groupthink. I ask you,
Mr. Staples, is this the kind of model that we should emulate to keep America
from becoming “a second-rate economic power?”
I think Professor Horn is trying to get our public education system off the hook for being the chief cause of all ills in America, and I agree with him on this point. He makes a great observation that Japan has an education system which is widely viewed as a producer of well-educated kids. Yet their economy is not doing well at all. You could say the same thing about Germany.

But if you buy into this perspective, I think one of the actions you would have to argue for is allocating fewer resources to something we're not so good at (running the public education system), and allocating more to developing the economy to drive up employment and GNP.

Did America become a great economic and political power because our educational system was exceptional -- producing a smarter population than anyone else? If you go back to the dawn of the American industrial age, I don't think that was the case. America's strength flowed from: a) a political environment that allowed entrepreneurs to have a shot of success; b) a wealth of natural resources for the taking; c) a labor force that was willing to work hard to get their shot at the good life; and, d) having the good luck to form our country at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

You didn't need much education to work in a steel mill and earn a good wage. But that was because we had lots of steel mills, and came to dominate the world market. We've lost many of those manufacturing jobs to other countries. The whole middle class is disappearing from our economy. We increasing have only highly educated professionals and hamburger flippers, with not much in between. We need to have industries that employ lots of people. Even better if those products are desired outside our country and we can generate export income.
Many American jobs have been lost to uneducated workers elsewhere in the world. Maybe its more important to have employed Americans than educated Americans. These aren't mutually exclusive conditions, but you can't eat a diploma.

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