What is the use of education in America?

Education looms quite large in today’s social environment. We are worried about successfully competing in the global economy. We are concerned about education’s promise to raise the lower class out of poverty. And so we debate education and make changes. As education is a large thing — looming so large — these changes are slow. In a fourteen year span the No Child Left Behind Act was instituted, defamed and made to depart — fourteen years! Common Core is the new panacea offering reform. Like NCLB, Common Core’s rise is concomitant with criticism. Some families have made a radical change themselves in opting for home schooling.

What do we get with simply more educated people? More, better-educated, burger-flippers according to this recent piece from The Guardian:

“The majority of jobs being created today do not require degree-level qualifications. In the US in 2010, 20% of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, 43% required a high-school education, and 26% did not even require that. Meanwhile, 40% of young people study for degrees. This means over half the people gaining degrees today will find themselves working in jobs that don’t require one.”

This story cuts both ways: on one side a de-emphasis on education almost seems a rational choice for our society to make. On the other side a reevaluation of education and society is implicit: how can we make education and societal demands match up? We don’t want to intentionally dumb down our populace so that the labor pool mirrors industries’ needs, right?

Thomas Frank has looked at how the political rhetoric surrounding education fits into the broader economic framework. Supposedly education is for the betterment of everyone. With better education — the reasoning goes — the poor will be able to compete for better jobs and improve their standing in society. Unfortunately, more educated people doesn’t equal more jobs. Frank writes:

“[I]t doesn’t take an advanced degree to figure out that this education talk is less a strategy for mitigating inequality than it is a way of rationalizing it. To attribute economic results to school years finished and SAT scores achieved is to remove matters from the realm of, well, economics and to relocate them to the provinces of personal striving and individual intelligence. From this perspective, wages aren’t what they are because one part (management) has a certain amount of power over the other (workers); wages are like that because the god of the market, being surpassingly fair, rewards those who show talent and gumption.”

That is the all-American, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps convention and Frank points out that it is wrong. In his view, when it comes to inequality, education is not the problem. The relationship between the workers and the management is the problem.

“Before the late 1970s, productivity and wage growth had always increased in unison — as workers made more stuff, they earned more money. But by the early 1990s, the two had clearly separated. Workers made more stuff then ever before, but they no longer prospered from what they made. Put differently: Workers were working as hard and as well as ever; they simply weren’t reaping the profits from it. Wall Street was. […] The people who produced were losing their ability to demand a share in what they made. The people who owned were taking more and more.”

This is a difficult thing to talk about — shifting the onus from the behavior of individuals to the behavior of larger, more, shall we say, corporate entities. But still the cry echoes: “Education! Why can’t your save the economy!”

Getting back to education itself, separate from other relations and influences, suggestions for improvements do exist. In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell examines how individual’s educational performance is related to the time of year they are born. Each grade level has one year of variability in age: the older the student — those born closest to the upper-end age cutoff — are more developed and perform better:

“Gladwell . . . note[s] that in countries like the United States, where ability grouping begins in early childhood, students who are among the oldest in their grade will begin the school year more advanced than students who are among the youngest. He claims these older students are then placed in higher-level ability groups, thus beginning a cycle of cumulative advantage and more opportunities for achievement and success. He provides Denmark as a counterexample, where, based on national policy, ability grouping does not begin until age ten, noting that the impact of relative age on success and achievement in school is nearly unheard of there.”

Does that seem like too difficult of a change to try out on the slow, lumbering — looming — beast that is the educational system in America? Even if there are not enough jobs out there for people, a better-educated populace still seems like something to strive for.

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