Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Race is On
One reason I haven't been posting as much is because it doesn't feel very satisfying these days to put up blog posts that essentially link to someone else's article, to which I mostly add "what s/he said." But sometimes the point is so important that I'll do it anyway, and so here we are with David Brooks on one of his good days:

Between 1870 and 1950, the average American’s level of education rose by 0.8 years per decade. In 1890, the average adult had completed about 8 years of schooling. By 1900, the average American had 8.8 years. By 1910, it was 9.6 years, and by 1960, it was nearly 14 years.
America’s edge boosted productivity and growth. But the happy era ended around 1970 when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl. Between 1975 and 1990, educational attainments stagnated completely. Since then, progress has been modest. America’s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment.

This threatens the country’s long-term prospects. It also widens the gap between rich and poor. Goldin and Katz describe a race between technology and education. The pace of technological change has been surprisingly steady. In periods when educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is flooded with skilled workers, so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.
[T]he skills slowdown is the biggest issue facing the country. Rising gas prices are bound to dominate the election because voters are slapped in the face with them every time they visit the pump. But this slow-moving problem, more than any other, will shape the destiny of the nation.

Second, there is a big debate under way over the sources of middle-class economic anxiety. Some populists [...]say we need radical labor market reforms to give the working class a chance. But the populists are going to have to grapple with the Goldin, Katz and Heckman research, which powerfully buttresses the arguments of those who emphasize human capital policies. It’s not globalization or immigration or computers per se that widen inequality. It’s the skills gap. Boosting educational attainment at the bottom is more promising than trying to reorganize the global economy.

As noted above, I strongly share Brooks's sense that this is the single most important issue the U.S. faces on the economic competitiveness front. But the answers aren't obvious, and there's a strong temptation to skip to the end--looking at college completion and skills attainment--when the real sources of the problem are early childhood development and primary and secondary school education, where we're really falling short. Brooks doesn't get into that one, but he does allude to the importance of early childhood development, citing the work of James Heckman, who "directs attention at family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years."

(A digression: Brooks's contention, that inequalty is widening because "educational progress" hasn't kept pace with the advance of technology, is at least a little dubious. The number of Americans with four-year college degrees rose fairly sharply from 2001-2007. But over the same period, real wages for college graduates have declined by 1.7 percent, a sharper falloff than for high school graduates, two-year degree holders, or Masters holders. Professional degree holders have seen their compensation rise by four percent, so this certainly has been a good time for lawyers and doctors. You can see these numbers, and related statistics on education and compensation, here. The article to which it's attached is very worthwhile as well.)

So what's to be done? Support for universal pre-kindergarten seems to be gaining some political currency. (Ezra Klein writes about it, with another hat-tip for James Heckman, right here.) Tough to do, though, in a recessionary climate, no matter how much promise Heckman offers for the potential returns on investment, or how self-evident his conclusion that "[r]emediation for impoverished early environments becomes progressively more costly the later it is attempted."

And if support is gathering for some national role in pre-K education, how about for K-12 schools? This is something I'm working on for CUF right now, in connection with a publication that won't be out for four or five months yet; I'm trying to come up with recommendations for federal policy action to improve the performance of public schools here. There are a few tweaks to No Child Left Behind--a piece of legislation that, notwithstanding the high-minded language of its defenders about closing the educational attainment gap, manifestly wasn't written with big urban centers in mind--that would be helpful and more or less cost-efficient.

But I can't quite let go of The Big One: calling for much more national standardization of public school education. Blame Matt Miller, whose thinking definitely has had a big influence on me here... but the basic premise--if students in Brooklyn and Kansas are competing in the same "flat" world, shouldn't they be charged to master the same skills?--seems pretty irrefutable to me. And if the public views economic competitiveness as primarily a national challenge, isn't it logical that a national response would be appropriate?


The Navigator said...

Guns, schools - most Americans don't want federally mandated changes on these things because most Americans live in areas where the outcomes are basically okay, and they're not interested in surrendering local or state control just in order to achieve outcomes that will mostly benefit young people in big cities.

That's my sense of it. I do wonder if the increasing number of communities with Spanish-speaking influxes will change that pattern, at least on schools. Once we get past the Lou Barletta - Hazelton xenophobic stage, that is.

David said...

There are a lot of non-urban communities essentially dying, at least in our part of the country. Improving the K-12 schools might not be the most direct way to help them--that would be massive economic investment--but I doubt they'd be opposed, or particularly pleased with the status quo.

The other point is that it's really the business community that drives major public investments and policy entrepreneurship more broadly. If Bill Gates and friends bang their wingtips on the table for long enough, something will happen.