Questioning Mainstream Wisdom about Schools and the Economy

The fairy tale about the Emperor with no clothes is (and has been) a metaphor for the damages incurred from groupthink. Fear of appearing silly or losing status among peers in raising questions when a consensus–the wisdom of the group–occurs daily in all organizations. When that consensus extends to the nation and involves ideas that have consequences for the entire citizenry, then yelling out that the Emperor is naked is everyone’s duty in a democracy.

For the past thirty years the groupthink idea of public schools solving a national economic crisis and rising inequalities  has been the idee fixe of civic, business, educational, and academic leaders. This “educationalizing” of an economic problem has steered school reform for three decades. Here is what President Barack Obama said in 2009:

The source of America’s prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people. This has never been more true than it is today. In a 21st-century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there’s an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know — education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it’s a prerequisite for success.

Not only President Obama, however. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W.Bush,  Bill Clinton, George W. Bush,  governors, state legislators, and business leaders have made similar statements. This idee fixe has led to new laws, new curriculum standards, and scads of new tests. The belief that the nation’s slipping economic competitiveness and increasing inequalities between the wealthy and everyone else is largely the result of future workers being educated poorly has been reduced to a bumper sticker slogan: Strong schools=strong economy.

From time to time, an occasional voice of reason challenges that groupthink. When it is an economist who does–since most economists have contributed to and embrace this mainstream wisdom–the nakedness of the emperor gets unusually displayed. Enter Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman.

In a recent op-ed piece, he summarizes the current “wisdom.”

We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change. This “skills gap” is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills but stagnate or decline for the less educated. So what we need is more and better education.

My guess is that this sounds familiar…. It’s repeated so widely that many people probably assume it’s unquestionably true. But it isn’t.

….[T]here’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment. After all, if businesses were desperate for workers with certain skills, they would presumably be offering premium wages to attract such workers. So where are these fortunate professions? You can find some examples here and there. Interestingly, some of the biggest recent wage gains are for skilled manual labor — sewing machine operators, boilermakers — as some manufacturing production moves back to America. But the notion that highly skilled workers are generally in demand is just false.

Readers know, as does Krugman, the quality of schooling is important to each graduate’s well being, career advancement, and lifetime earnings. Public schooling, for all of its faults, still remains the best hope for the recent immigrant, the poor, and the middle class of this nation. To the degree that graduates find jobs that match their skills and motivation, they do contribute to the economy.

But other facts overwhelm what indirect contributions schools make to the economy. Schools do not generate manufacturing jobs; they do not make corporate decisions to install new technologies in factories that reduce numbers of workers; they do not decide to build plants in other countries; they do not downsize companies that send ex-employees into unemployment offices.

So saying that improving the quality of schooling will pump up a sagging economy and reduce inequalities, the prevailing wisdom of the moment, is misleading, even mischievous in redirecting attention away from corporate and governmental decisions that affect the economy directly. Again, Krugman:

Now, there’s a lot we could do to redress this inequality of power. We could levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families. We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize. It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal.

But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

What we have had since the mid-1980s is a groupthink acceptance of “mainstream wisdom.” Much arm-waving and  bellicose words about transforming schools into leaner, smarter, and efficient organizations–as corporate firms have supposedly done. Once called “restructuring,” and the rage among educators and business leaders pressing for school change, that hot rhetoric has cooled considerably in the last decade.

Now we hear far more about reauthorizing No Child Left Behind and Common Core and, of course, standardized tests accompanying the new standards that determine whether a failing school needs to be “restructured” and whether teachers are effective.

Why? Because the current “wisdom” says that the nation’s economic crisis is an educational problem that must be solved.

What is far more important, however, is the groupthink idea that drives school reform. The assumption that improving public schools will revive a weak economy and ease inequalities remains largely unexamined and, is, ultimately flawed by illogic, facts, and data. Yet it continues to fuel one fad after another to improve schools.

How many shout-outs that the emperor is naked will it take before we dump the  assumption that public schools are bootcamps for the economy?


Filed under school reform policies

13 responses to “Questioning Mainstream Wisdom about Schools and the Economy

  1. Louise Kowitch

    Having spent my Fulbright sabaatical studying instructional practices in India, it’s asfe to say we should be GLAD that our students are competing for jobs with students from China and India. We do a vastly superior job educating the masses and the elites of our children. That is why so many Chinese and Indian parents come here, and not visa versa. Obama got it dead wrong, and administrators buy Into this dogma because it lets the rationalize their work of perpetual policy changes masquerading as reform.

  2. Thank you
    Thank you
    How can we get this heard?? You’ve said it all and so well

  3. Thanks Larry. Excellent observations… I’m especially concerned about the idea that current programs like Common Core will help all our youth to be college and career ready and that a test in second grade can determine that. The future is unknown and that’s something we need to prepare students for.

  4. Gary Ravani

    A lesson I recall from (way, way, back) Sociology 101 concerned the history of immigrant and working class populations and family size. The “conventional wisdom” was that once families figured out that having fewer children would lead them to improved economic circumstances then birth rates declined. Actual sociological/historical analysis showed just the opposite to be the case. As conditions for the working class improved, often by labor organizing and immigrant groups found their way to increased political organizing, their economic circumstances also improved, birth rates began to go down, family size went down, and these groups entered the middle-class.

    More recently the “conventional wisdom” asserted that teenage girls who were unmarried and bore children were undercutting their own chances of achieving economic independence. The proposed “solution,” besides abstinence education [sic], was to promote marriage and “family values.” Analysis by social scientists (those pesky folks again) asserted that it wasn’t failing to be married that caused poverty for these young women, it was poverty that was, for various complex reasons, causing them to remain unmarried and be single parents.

    And so it goes with the prevailing “conventional wisdom” about education and poverty. Increasing educational “achievement,” and the draconian and demonstrably failed reforms to “accomplish” that, will help solve poverty and other alleged economic problems. The truth is that it is poverty that needs to be alleviated and educational achievement will follow.

    Of course this means that elites and politicians must admit to the truth that poverty is the key issue and that might mean enacting policies, including tax policies, necessary to deal with poverty. And, as the man once said: “You [the elites and politicians] can’t handle the truth.”

  5. Sandy

    Ah politics. Political pundits don’t even know which side of the reform they come down on. Latest case in point, Gov. Hogan of MD, wants to expand charters, bust teacher unions, under-fund the education budget, and oh, cancel some of the tests those kids are taking because? they are aligned to the Common Core. Did I mention Hogan is a Republican? or is he Republicrat?

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