Education is an Economic Issue

by Brian Gordon
Peoria Education Region for Employment and Career Training

A workforce-centered solution is needed.

Perhaps the greatest reward in education is speaking with former students and hearing how their time as a K-12 student prepared them for success in the workplace or college. In June of 2004, I had the opportunity to speak with a young man named Brian Trusheim, who had just completed his sophomore year at the University of Illinois as an accounting major. Brian was a Morris High School graduate and had taken Accounting I and II from Barb Rath, my department chair.

I asked him how school was going. His reply: “Mr. Gordon, I am still reviewing. Mrs. Rath was a better teacher than anyone I’ve had so far [at the U of I], and she graded harder than any of the teachers I have had so far. My classmates are lost, and I am still going over material I had in Mrs. Rath’s class.”

Brian completed his degree at the University of Illinois and is now a project manager for ALDI. He assured me that he learned a great deal more in his time at the U of I, but appreciated the solid foundation Mrs. Rath had provided him. This is not an indictment on the University of Illinois, but rather it is high praise for Barb Rath and strong commentary on how our educational system should be working. While the accounting classes Brian took would be beneficial to just about anyone, they were particularly helpful to him in his chosen major.

So what’s the point? Unfortunately, with the state raising graduation requirements in “core” areas, these types of success stories are becoming increasingly rare. With the state board and colleges continuing to mandate more core curriculum and dictating entrance requirements, students are having difficulty taking elective classes like the accounting courses mentioned in this story. In many high schools, a student involved in a music program who wants to attend the University of Illinois (thus triggering a foreign language requirement) will never set foot in another high school elective class. The schedule simply won’t allow for it.

Because of No Child Left Behind, the pressure to score higher on standardized tests, and the inaccurate assumption that “more of the same makes students smarter,” we require more core curriculum courses. We are teaching more (and higher-level) core content than ever. This fact was repeatedly confirmed to me on a personal basis while helping my seventh-grade daughter with her pre-algebra homework this past school year. The problem is we are often not teaching these concepts in a relevant and contextual way. If we want more scientists and engineers—the talent pool is out there—we need to teach in a way that attracts our future workforce into these professions.

Apples and Oranges
The practice of comparing U.S. test scores to those of China and Japan is “apples and oranges” at best. The practice of structuring our educational system to “compete” based on test scores as an academic or economic success indicator is dangerous and, potentially, economically destructive. Both China and Japan have just nine years of compulsory education, compared to the United State’s K-12 system. Think about that when we are comparing the test scores of our juniors (11th graders). Our entire 11th grade student population is being tested, where China is down to only “gifted” students. Their nation’s compulsory education has been completed for a huge section of their population. China has set a national goal of sending 15 percent of their students to college. They don’t have “juniors” who are not high academic achievers.

Furthermore, historical data would suggest that a nation’s success on international standardized tests is not an indicator of economic success. In fact, the opposite is true. For at least the past 45 years, our nation has performed “poorly” on this type of test. In his 2009 book, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, Yong Zhao references a study by Keith Baker, a retired officer of the U.S. Department of Education, and provides numerous examples which assert that high test performance has either a negative correlation or no correlation with a nation’s economic success. He also points out that our academically competitive students still do extremely well in international competitions.

In his 2007 study, Baker looked at test scores from the 1964 First International Mathematics Study given to 13-year-olds in 11 developed countries, and the U.S. ranked 10th of the 11 nations tested. He went on to look at those nations’ quality of life, GDP, growth rate, individual productivity and other factors. Baker writes, “In short, the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance.” He concludes:

In the face of such evidence, we can do more than reject the widely held hypothesis that high test scores lead to national success in the future. We can also hypothesize that high test scores are damaging to nations. That the U.S. comes out on top in national success in 74 percent of the comparisons with higher-scoring nations is statistically significant.

We must improve our educational system and do more to prepare our future workforce, but we need to eliminate our focus of using standardized test scores to define whether or not we are succeeding. We need to be emphasizing critical thinking, problem solving and the other “soft skills” so necessary for an effective workforce.

69-27

A lopsided score in a ballgame? No. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 68.6 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college in 2008. In contrast, the Winter 2009-2010 Occupational Outlook Quarterly published by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 27 percent of our workforce between now and 2018 will need an associate’s degree or higher (see chart on page 56). We are sending nearly three times the number of students off to college as our workforce will demand in the decade ahead. By way of contrast, in 1980, just 40 percent of high school graduates proceeded to college.

I am not disputing the value of a higher education. Obviously, a college education is critical for a segment of our population. The interesting thing to note is the tremendous shift that has taken place in the number of students now pursuing college degrees compared to 30 years ago.
Ironically, the day after seeing U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan speak to area educators on the importance of college and career readiness, I attended a task force meeting to address the pending workforce shortage in the trades. While this is difficult to see in the current economy, the construction industry is greatly concerned over the lack of a labor pipeline to fill in for massive retirements in the next 10 years.

According to Marty Helfers, associate director of the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, nearly half of the individuals working in the union construction trades in the Tri-County Area will be eligible for retirement in the next five to 10 years. This will open up tremendous opportunities for individuals to enter the trades. Helfers also mentioned in a recent conversation that a surprising number of applicants to the various building trades programs already possess an associate’s, bachelor’s or higher degree.

An often cited “fact” is that a college degree is worth more than an additional million dollars in earnings over a lifetime. However, a number of recent studies and articles question the value of higher education for much of our workforce. A June 29, 2010 article titled “College: Big Investment, Paltry Return” by Francesca Di Meglio, bore the subtitle, “The value of a college degree is a middle-class article of faith. But exclusive new research suggests it may be far less than previously thought.”

Di Meglio references a study of 554 colleges and universities with some surprising findings. The study examines degree programs by specific schools and looks at the return on investment. He writes:

But new research suggests that the monetary value of a college degree may be vastly overblown. According to a study conducted by PayScale for Bloomberg Businessweek, the value of a college degree may be a lot closer to $400,000 over 30 years and varies wildly from school to school.

Obviously, the current state of our economy has resulted in a series of these types of articles being published as people wrestle with career path options.

Using a Sledgehammer to Fix a Headache
The path we are on continues to take the relevance out of education for students. Research shows this will result in an increase in our dropout rates, particularly among minority students. You may recall the opening from my May article in this publication:

A national study of high school dropouts (The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts) listed the number-one reason students drop out of high school as: classes were not interesting.

In Catching Up or Leading the Way, Zhao sums up his research on the effect of standards-driven curriculum on minority students:

In summary, the gaps between minority students and their majority peers are important, but they have not really been addressed by the recent reform efforts. In fact, the reform efforts may have further disadvantaged minority students by forcing them into a narrow set of subjects and testing them on only one type of ability.

We can all agree that it is important to teach every one of our children skills that will help them function as productive adult citizens. Unfortunately, we have not made classes more interesting, and we are limiting the number of non-core classes students can take as an alternative path through high school. As our government points out in employment projections, “College for All” is not the answer.

Ironically, there is a growing number of college professors and economists who are pushing for changes to the system. A May 14, 2010 article in The New York Times by Jacques Steinberg entitled “Plan B: Skip College” puts the importance of a more career-centered focus in K-12 education this way:

Among those calling for such alternatives are economists Richard K. Vedder of Ohio University and Robert I. Lerman of American University, the political scientist Charles Murray, and James E. Rosenbaum, an education professor at Northwestern. They would steer some students toward intensive, short-term vocational and career training, through expanded high school programs and corporate apprenticeships.

We need to be teaching our students skills that will benefit and prepare them for the workforce or for college. Consider the economic impact of keeping students in school and teaching them skills they can apply to earn a living. The benefits are staggering when we compare them to the societal costs of students dropping out. More students will stay in school if we answer the “Why do I need to know this?” question in a meaningful way. Obviously, we also have some societal challenges to address in helping to improve our nation’s schools.

Our educational system is far from perfect. Brain research has told us for decades that we should teach foreign languages in a preschool through elementary environment. Education does not change quickly, but I again assert that quality educators have students’ best interests at heart and continuously seek improvement. Accountability is important in our schools, but current measures are not helping.

A friend recently asked me why I am writing these articles for what is primarily a business publication. My response was simple: You are the audience that needs to hear this and get involved in education from a policy perspective. Our schools are ultimately successful when we graduate students who possess the skills necessary to be successful at their “next level” upon graduation. We need your input—this is an economic issue. Our singular focus on raising test scores is destroying the very educational system which has encouraged the creative thinking and problem-solving skills that drive the innovations that have made our country an economic power. iBi

Thank you to Don Smoot, recently retired system director from TREES in Joliet, and Francine Ghitalla, system director for Tazewell County EFE, for their feedback and input on this article.

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