Education Fuels Economic Growth: Another Shared Illusion

When Todd Oliver, the ventriloquist and comedian, gets his dog Irving to talk and sing, the audience knows that it isn’t really the dog talking and singing but Oliver. Yet the audience engages in the shared illusion that the dog is, indeed, talking because the dog jaws are moving and Oliver cracks very funny lines in his routine. This is a harmless shared illusion.

Some shared deceptions prepped and pushed by leaders and celebrities, however, are hardly harmless. Think of Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction or, on a more personal level, the beliefs in Tiger Woods pure self-discipline and stainless-steel integrity. Prominent education leaders do their share in propagating illusions also.

Consider the prevalent belief that has been at the very heart of school reform since the late-1970s. If schools will produce knowledgeable and skilled graduates, then the nation’s economy will grow. Evidence to support belief? High rates of high school graduation and college attendance are strongly correlated to economic growth, believers assert. Report after report, beginning with the Nation at Risk (1983) have repeated the mantra that far too many high school dropouts and low college attendance shrink the flow of graduates into an information-driven labor market thereby undermining economic growth. Schools that produce graduates who go on to higher education, then, are engines for economic growth. Since the early 1980s, the entire reform movement (i.e., standards-based curriculum, testing, and accountability) is anchored in that belief. Yet the belief is suspect because even economists, the ones who are expected to know, cannot point with assurance at precisely which factors cause economic growth.

In 2004, a group of top economists published the Barcelona Development Agenda (PDF: Was_Development_Assistance_a_Mistake), announcing in it that “there is no single set of policies that can be guaranteed to ignite sustained growth.” Not that economists are shy about identifying factors that explain economic growth. It is just that there are too many explanations. One recent survey found 145 separate factors linked to economic growth, yet most of these factors could not be isolated as ones that caused heightened growth. Yes, formal education was one of the 145 factors.

Yet U.S. federal and state policymakers and business leaders have assumed for decades that the dominant factor among all of the competing explanations for economic growth, is fostering “human capital” in our schools–get those high school graduation and college attendance rates up. Recall that in the 1980s, U.S. policymakers including corporate leaders looked to Japan with its remarkable annual growth and pointed to its schools as driving the economy. Educators, economists, and sociologists traveled to Japan to study its schools and contrast them–in highly positive terms–with U.S. schools. But the contrasts fell flat in the 1990s when Japan’s economy nose-dived for that decade until just recently. Few policymakers today use Japan as a model for U.S. schools.

No one I know points to Switzerland, one of the wealthiest European countries, yet has the lowest university attendance and graduation rates among OECD countries. Nor do many policymakers highlight African developing nations (e.g., Angola, Zambia, Ghana) that have made major investments in formal schooling and increased their graduation rates yet their economic growth is disastrously low compared to similar nations.

Surely, higher graduation rates are correlated with economic growth but the linkage, as we have all heard over and over again, does not mean that one causes the other. Especially when you have 145 factors correlated with economic growth. None of this is to say that investing in schools is unwise.

After all, there are many reasons to have strong schools in a society beyond, but including, economic ones. Although they hardly get mentioned by policymakers save in throwaway lines at graduation ceremonies, expanded literacy in service of developing an engaged citizenry who, in fulfilling their civic obligations, build better communities and live moral lives are, and have been, historic reasons for investing tax dollars in American schools.But not now with the three-decade concentration in educational policymaking on equating higher graduation rates and college attendance with economic growth.

Which brings me back to the notion of a shared illusion. Todd Oliver and Irving, the talking dog may be an example of a harmless deception but not policymakers propagating the current shared illusion dominating public school decision-making. From NCLB to a de facto national curriculum narrowed to meeting college entrance requirements beginning in kindergarten, schools have one over-riding purpose: grow the economy. Historically, schools have sought to serve society and the individual in many ways beyond job preparation. Not now.


On a personal note, I wish readers of this blog a year of good health and much satisfaction in your life.


Filed under school reform policies

2 responses to “Education Fuels Economic Growth: Another Shared Illusion

  1. Pingback: Education, The Economy, and Talking Dogs at The Core Knowledge Blog

  2. Thinking about necessary conditions versus sufficient conditions can help here. An educated population would seem to be a necessary condition for a productive economy, but it is not a sufficient condition. And we might further think about limiting factors, contributing factors, and perhaps others. If there are 145 factors that economists say are important to the economy, then there would be many adjectives that might be applied to these factors. If a factor is identified as a necessary condition, that is saying something important, but not everything. To say that education “fuels the economy” is to invite the conclusion that increasing education will boost the economy. But that may be totally false. Once a necessary condition is met, more of it is often irrelevant. Limiting conditions are then what’s important. A good car in the garage may be a necessary condition for a good vacation. Six feet of snow in the driveway may be a limiting factor to that good vacation. Washing and waxing the car in the garage, or adding a quart of oil, may be worthwhile things to do, but those things won’t result in a better vacation so long as the six feet of snow remain in the driveway.

    If there are 145 factors that affect the economy and we want the economy to grow, then what factors should we attend to? I don’t know. Economists can’t agree. If we ask “What factors make the economy grow?”, then we want to know about necessary factors and contributing factors. But if we ask “Why isn’t the economy growing faster?” then we want to know about sufficient conditions and limiting factors.

    I don’t know a whole lot about these things, reform in particular. But to say that boosting the economy has been a driving force of educational reform doesn’t sound right to me at all. I always thought that fuzzy thinking and good intentions were the main driving force of a lot of reform. To me the prime evidence of this is that so often people will simply advocate for “reform”, but never get around to telling us what reform they have in mind. My view is that boosting the economy is at best useful rhetoric, not a driving force.

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