Economics and Education

When those who support a global free market are asked whether the United States can maintain low unemployment with so many manufacturing jobs being shifted overseas, the usual response is affirmative.  That affirmative answer depends in part on the transformation of the American economy from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.  It depends further on the belief that in a service economy a higher level of skill is required for most jobs than is the case in a manufacturing economy.  Higher levels of skill require more education.  American success, especially, in the area of post secondary, or higher education, is in part responsible for the transformation of the economy to a service economy.  It also holds the key to the future growth and development of the American economy. 

Those public figures who make a more realistic assessment of American education. may be somewhat less confident about the future success of the American economy, especially, in sustaining low unemployment.  Alan Greenspan, e.g., believes that the American economy can be successful as long as there is a well-educated work force.  He recognizes that the American educational system, especially, at the elementary and secondary levels is not being successful at the present time.  He basis his hopefulness on the capacity to attract an educated work force from other countries.  To the extent that the success of the American economy depends upon attracting educated workers from other countries, there may be huge segments of the American workforce that may end up unemployed because of their lack of the higher order skills on which a successful service economy ultimately depends. 

Before taking a look at education in the United States it is important to recognize that, presently, the expansion of jobs in the service sector that require less skill will not solve the problem of unemployment for many American citizens.  This can be seen by reflecting on the immigration debate.  Those politicians defending temporary work permits for immigrants often argue that the presence of these immigrants in the workforce is necessary because American citizens will not work in the jobs that immigrants typically fill.  This claim overlooks two major realities.  First, the nature of the jobs being filled by immigrants is not a fixed pool..  Over the past ten years immigrants are seen doing more and more jobs beyond those which they were filling ten years ago.  Ten to twenty years ago immigrants were most frequently observed working in agriculture.  Today immigrants can be observed working in restaurants, engaging in domestic work, and more importantly, filling positions in the construction industry.  What is of interest with respect to all of these positions is that prior to their being filled by recent immigrants, they were routinely filled by American citizens with varied racial and ethnic backgrounds.   The second reality overlooked by those defending temporary work permits for immigrants is that If these jobs are no longer appealing to the American citizens who previously held them, it is because the wages and benefits associated with these jobs have dramatically declined.  One cannot sustain even a modest lifestyle for a family on the basis of the compensation received for these positions.  Immigrants are able to sustain a lifestyle by having multiple families occupy the same household and pooling incomes, as well as by working multiple jobs. 

It should be noted further that the development of a service economy with jobs requiring higher levels of skill will not automatically result inthe availability of more jobs in the United States.  Many service sector jobs for which higher levels of skill are needed are being shipped overseas along with manufacturing jobs.  This is true for many jobs in the area of customer service, computer technology and programming, and in such business functions as accounting. 

But is it possible that through education a sufficient quantity of jobs in the service sector can be created to assure that there will always be jobs available in the United States both for those with lesser skills, and those whose skills can only be developed through post-secondary education?  An affirmative answer to this question depends on the effectiveness of the American educational system.

So how effective is the American educational system?   The National Center for Educational Statistics has reported the following trends in high school education:

[NCES publishes an annual report that allows readers to compare dropout rates over time (McMillen et.al., 1994)].

1.    Nationwide, dropout rates have declined during the last decade:

·        The status dropout rate for 16- to 24-year-olds declined from 14.6 percent in 1972 to 11.0 percent in 1992 and 1993;

·        The event dropout rate for ages 15 through 24 in grades 10 through 12 has fallen from 6.1 percent in 1972 to 4.5 percent in 1993; and

·        The cohort rate [3] for students who were sophomores in 1980 and dropped out between grades 10 and 12 was 11.4 percent, while the cohort rate for a comparable group of 1990 sophomores was 6.2 percent.

 

2.    Even though the rates are declining, they still represent a large number of people. In 1993, approximately 381,000 students in grades 10 through 12 dropped out of school, and approximately 3.4 million persons in the United States ages 16 through 24 were high school dropouts.

3.    Dropout rates are about the same for males and females, but the rates are not the same for students from different ethnic groups or different income levels. In general, rates are higher for minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The 1993 status dropout rate was:

·        7.9 percent for white students, compared to 13.6 percent for black students and 27.5 percent for Hispanic students; and

·        2.7 percent for students with a high family income level, compared to 23.9 percent for students with a low family income level.

 4.   Rates for American Indians and Alaska Natives are quite high, while those for Asian-American students are quite low.  The dropout rate is greater in cities than in other locations, and is highest in the West and South (OERI 1993).

              

Education has been seen as a prerequisite to getting a job.  Education has been seen as the key to assuring that even as lower skilled manufacturing jobs shift overseas, the American workforce will have sufficient knowledge and skill to qualify for higher-skilled jobs, primarily in the service sector.  To this end, the federal government with the support of both parties has strongly supported two forms of post-secondary education: education that focuses on vocations or careers that involve primarily technical skills, and traditional college or university education leading to professional degrees, or liberal arts degrees that can be utilized to achieve appropriate employment. 

Both parties have emphasized teaching and learning in the schools and the need for accountability for both teachers and students.  Achievement levels have been set and frequent testing has been introduced.   Administrators, too, have had their feet held to the fire.  Under the No-Child-Left-Behind Act, entire schools are threatened with a loss of federal support if they are not effective in educating students.  Here and there one can find evidences of some improvement.  Democrats have continued to stand behind the public school system and have supported the provision of the necessary financial resources to fund improvements in facilities, in technology, and in the compensation of teachers.  Republicans have inclined toward taking a market approach to education, offering parents a choice among the public schools in their districts, as well as offering a choice among private schools by means of a voucher system. 

The drop-out rates, especially, for inner city schools, completely undermine the strategy of using education as a door to opportunity.  The situation is compounded by the lack of preparedness of students who do graduate from high school for college level work.  A recent report indicated that half of the students currently entering the nation’s colleges and universities require remedial work.  The failure of the educational system to provide graduates not only of high school, but also of college, with the necessary knowledge and skills for better paying jobs, mostly in the service sector, thwarts the nation’s strategy for keeping the United States economy competitive in a global, free-market economy. 

It is easy enough under such circumstances to cast about looking for persons and institutions to blame.  More recently, Democrats have joined Republicans in stressing the importance of the family, specifically, of parents in working toward the success of schools.  Both parties have emphasized the need for transmitting moral values and developing character through such institutions as the family, the church, and also the schools themselves.   But the schools themselves, administrators and teachers (and the National Education Association, the teachers’ union) have been assigned most of the blame for what many readily describe as the failure of the schools. 

There is, however, a reality with which both parties need to come to terms.  There is an inverse relationship between the expectations that are directed toward schools and the capacity of schools to meet those expectations. As the expectations directed toward schools have increased, the capacity of schools to meet those expectations has declined.  For example, for the past forty years the schools have been the battle ground for combating racial discrimination.  Schools and the children attending them have been expected to achieve a level of integration which the parents themselves have been unwilling to achieve in their own personal lives, and especially, in their neighborhoods.  Schools are expected to feed children who come to school hungry, to provide hygiene and health care for those children who have no support for or access to these through their homes.  It has become the responsibility of the schools to prevent very young children from coming to school with loaded fire arms, or with various illegal drugs in their possession.  It has become the responsibility of schools to provide personal counseling to students who come from homes and neighborhoods in which there are repeated patterns of irresponsible and sometimes violent behavior, or homes from which a parent, or parents, are missing.  It has become the responsibility of schools to care for children before and after school while a parent, or both parents, are working.  There is nothing pertaining to the total experience of the child for which some expectations are not directed toward the schools.  In an urban school system millions of dollars are spent on the retention of a school police force to assist in maintaining discipline. In these schools there may be more social service providers than teachers.

The families and the neighborhoods from which the children come to urban, intercity schools are not looking for the government to intervene and begin to control their lives and the lives of their children.  It is far better for many of the problems of the inner city to be addressed by those living there, and for the solutions to the current problems surrounding the lives of children to be developed by the family and neighbors of those children.  But some government initiatives and some government funding may be needed.

It should also be pointed out that inner cities and urban school systems are not the only contexts in which the circumstances described are to be found.  Increasingly, similar problems are to be found in suburban and small town and rural communities.  Columbine High School which witnessed one of the worst events ever to occur in a school was a suburban high school.  In all of these contexts the expectations being directed toward schools go far beyond the qualifications, experience, and resources of those responsible for education.  Simply throwing programs, especially, federally-developed programs at cities, suburbs, towns, and neighborhoods will not solve the complex problems to be found in these places.  The problems in society—in cities, suburbs, towns, and neighborhoods—will not be solved without government funding, but this funding should not take the form of simply throwing large sums of money in the direction of problems in the hope that somehow they will be solved.   For the problems that stand in the way of schools carrying out their proper functions simply to be discovered and addressed, not to say, solved, there needs to be immense involvement of citizens, families, religious institutions, voluntary associations, and as an initiator and facilitator, government, especially, local government, with financial support from the state and federal governments.  But it is time for practical politics to enter the scene, for ideological critiques of the American social order and the endless playing of the blame game to be set aside.  The pubic interest in education must be at the front of center stage.   Partisanship needs to give way to rolling up the shirt sleeves and getting down to hard work. 

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One Response to “Economics and Education”

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