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MSPnet Blog: “Education and economics: seeing a little daylight between them”

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posted October 9, 2017 – by Brian Drayton

I am not the only one who has noticed, with sorrow, the relentless intensity with which education policy is distorted (and has been for decades) by the assertion that education holds the key to American economic well-being, and that therefore education must be retooled so that as much as possible it serves the needs of The Market, that clay-footed idol.

A few posts ago, I wrote about research that made the basic point, evident to many from their own experience, that education is not necessarily the key to upward (economic) mobility  — and one can question other assertions that are used to strategize about ed policy.  There is reasonable evidence, for example,  to question alarms about a STEM labor shortage of crisis proportions  (start here and here for an introduction to the topic and some research) —  at the least, the existence or not of such a shortage cannot be shown except by examination of specific job types or fields, and specific demographics.

Yet the rhetoric of “reform” continues to rely more than anything else upon the claim that [1] the economy is now dramatically, radically different from what it was just X years ago; [2] that public schools are not preparing our students for this reality, that [3] this is because “traditional” schools still are based on a 19th (or 18th or 17th, depending on the rhetorician) century model, and therefore [4] we need to do Something Disruptive as soon as possible.  In recent years, we also are told that the new education being advocated will solve the problem because at last we are putting the student at the center.   (I have not added links for all these, because the language is so pervasive in publications from think-tanks, private foundations, and public agencies.  This report from the Aspen Institute can serve as as sort of omnibus sampler.  We will return to this report among others in a future post).

I recommend now a recent post by Larry Cuban, “Questioning the unquestionable: Schools and the economy.”   Cuban characterizes the mainstream viewpoint quite neatly:

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.

Cuban introduces a wide range of recent studies (be prepared to spend several hours with his post if you follow all the links!) which present evidence that school quality is only one factor among many — and not the most important — that determine one’s job success (at least in economic terms).  Other factors which are shown to matter include segregation, family structure, income inequality, and “social capital” — a term that actually means things like one’s social relationships, and the patterns of communication and mutual aid that obtain in one’s network, here nicely captured in a quotation from Lyda Hanifan:

those tangible assets [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit

One reads with a certain sadness, given recent trends and policy towards unions,  this note from one of Cuban’s sources (and this is not the only study he cites that makes the same point):

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.

Discussions about education are so determinedly focused on students as economic factors, playing into parents’ fear for their children’s futures, that we get concerns about rigor and productivity even in connection with pre-K (see here for a characteristically acute and acerbic discussion by the indefatigable Peter Greene).

Though alas we all know that policy very often is made in defiance of the evidence,  I hope Larry Cuban is right in his hope that the dominance of economics as the fundamental concern in education is starting to wane:

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

Go read his post!

Note:  The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.