Questioning the Unquestionable: Schools and the Economy

Maybe, just maybe, the deeply entrenched “wisdom” that quality schools graduating students will strengthen the economy ain’t the “wisdom” it has been since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983.

Schools surely matter in building citizens, strengthening character, teaching students to live in culturally and socially diverse communities, and, yes, preparing students to enter the workplace with essential skills and knowledge.  But it is the latter goal that has come to dominate public policy for schools in the past 35 years. The iron-clad belief that schools create human capital as students march to Pomp and Circumstance and enter the workplace to build a strong competitive economy in the global marketplace is pervasive. It is as if public schools serve the economy and if graduates cannot fit in the workplace or find the right job, it is the school’s fault.

Yet other factors beyond the school’s door such as where one lives, the local labor market, and the pace of automation eating up skilled and professional jobs are crucially important in determining where high school and college graduates end up in jobs and climb the rungs of the social ladder.

Some economists are now challenging this pervasive and dominant “wisdom.”  In various studies, economists have found that students’ performance and the future of high school graduates in an economy and society riven by ever-increasing income inequalities point to differences in job markets  across the country, and other factors. In other words: schools do not produce jobs for graduates, employers do (see here, here, and here).

In questioning the unquestionable “wisdom” of the moment, these economists may have more influence on policy direction than teachers ever wield (see here and here). Here are some things those economists say:

*In a series of studies  (2014), economists said the following: [A] poor child raised in San Jose, or Salt Lake City, has a much greater chance of reaching [the top of the social ladder] than a poor child raised in Baltimore, or Charlotte. They couldn’t say exactly why, but they concluded that five correlated factors—segregation, family structure, income inequality, local school quality, and social capital—were likely to make a difference.

*Jesse Rothstein, using the same data cited above found that differences in local labor markets—for example, how similar industries can vary across different communities—and marriage patterns, such as higher concentrations of single-parent households, seemed to make much more of a difference than school quality. He concludes that factors like higher minimum wages, the presence and strength of labor unions, and clear career pathways within local industries are likely to play more important roles in facilitating a poor child’s ability to rise up the economic ladder when they reach adulthood

*Some results from economists’ studies may not be self-evident to most teachers and school officials but speaks to the context in which big city schools are located. One study concluded: follows:

Based on the research for this report, it is clear that there is a strong relationship between union membership and intergenerational mobility. More specifically: Areas with higher union membership demonstrate more mobility for low-income children.

[C]hildren growing up in union households tend to have better outcomes than children who grew up in nonunion households, especially when the parents are low skilled. For example, children of non-college-educated fathers earn 28 percent more if their father was in a labor union. This analysis helps provide evidence suggesting a link between unions and economic mobility.

And I did not even mention that many of the current skilled and professional jobs will have portions (or all) of their work  automated (e.g., lawyers, money managers, dermatologists, and coders–yes, coders) in the next decade or so.

Such findings  raise serious question about the historic rationale (at least for the past 35 years since A Nation at Risk) for preparing the young for jobs by having a common curriculum, extensive testing and holding schools accountable for those scores.

While these contemporary school policies of standards, testing, and accountability may produce increased academic achievement in some schools, they do not necessarily lead to graduates exceeding their parent’s lifetime income or moving up the socioeconomic ladder; other factors come into play when jobs are concerned. Economists challenging the mainstream policy “wisdom” of the moment about the linkage between the quality of the school and students getting “good” jobs reasserts the self-evident and experienced-produced knowledge that teachers have accrued over time that far more than their classroom lessons influence what graduates do in succeeding years.

None of these studies that challenge the current “wisdom,”—important as they are–  diminish the continuing task of improving school quality for reasons other  than economic ones. Better schools that are safe, engaging, ambitious in getting students to learn and places where students and teachers work together to reach common goals is worth striving for beyond whether such schools strengthen the economy.  Bravo, I say, to those economists that question the unquestionable “wisdom” of the moment.





Filed under school reform policies

13 responses to “Questioning the Unquestionable: Schools and the Economy

  1. Chester Draws

    And I did not even mention that many of the current skilled and professional jobs will have portions (or all) of their work automated (e.g., lawyers, money managers, dermatologists, and coders–yes, coders) in the next decade or so.

    This has been threatened for decades now, and never quite comes to pass.

    The US has falling unemployment in a time when “automation” is meant to be taking jobs. Despite most Americans working long hours and with few holidays by European standards. Ah, but those jobs are “McJobs” is the cry, despite the simultaneous claim that it is precisely unskilled work that is apparently most threatened!

    So I tend to think this “wisdom” is more conventional wisdom that is, for the most part, wrong. It belongs up there with the predictions of Rev. Malthus, which has been shown wrong time and again, yet continue to linger because they are “obviously” true. Yet an aging population, a move to more services, increased holidays, and a generally richer population will pretty much keep people in jobs.

    Teachers shouldn’t push such ideas, because it sends out a message that whatever a student does that jobs will not be there anyway.

  2. We have been making this case (as a voice in the wilderness) in Michigan. Thank you for this article!

  3. The thing is, people have been pushing the “Education is the cure to poverty” for so long that any attempt to disconnect the two leads to accusations.

    I remember reading someone effectively obliterate the “growth” case for preschool, using available evidence. Preschool won’t fix the achievement gap. It’s a waste of money trying to improve educational outcomes for poor kids.

    I pointed out that this seems to be the case, but isn’t it worth examining another case for preschool funding? Many young children are in bad environments, often with troubled (and young) parents. Maybe it’d be a good idea for children like this to grow up thinking the government cared about finding them safe places to learn and play.

    He actually got angry with me, pointing out that the rationale for Head Start was fixing the achievement gap, and now I’m going to pull this bait and switch?

    He’s right–not that I’m pulling a bait and switch, but the people who pushed Head Start did. And they still believe it. So while he’s yelling at me for changing the ground rules, the pro-Head Start people are yelling at him (and me) for doubting Head Start.

    (I’m using Head Start, but the same debate happens at any point along the let’s close the achievement gap line.)

    The big guns in the debate are arguing over whether or not education fixes poverty, closes the achievement gap. No one’s making a serious case for the more qualitative outcomes.

  4. Pingback: Education and economics: seeing a little daylight between them | bloghaunter

  5. Hi, Larry,
    Excellent! I blogged about it here:
    (you could join a conversation with the MSPnet community about it here:

    — brian drayton

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