Expensive Education Fails To Increase Economic Opportunities For Many Citizens

Our future as a democracy depends a lot on whether we can answer this question:  How can our democracy provide increasing economic opportunities for all of our citizens?

Education, education, education is usually the answer.  But this answer deserves a closer look.  A nation has only so many resources.  As it is, we already spend tons of money on education, yet, regardless, many people who have gone through our educational system are still disenfranchised from enjoying significant opportunity.  It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that, if we spend even more money on education, somehow this opportunity gap will be significantly closed.  It seems clear that however hard we try to educate or however much money is spent on educational programs, inevitably, a huge block of citizens will not realize much economic benefit from the investment.

Charles Murray, makes these observation: “Half of all children are below average, and teachers can do only so much for them. It’s a simple truth: Half of all children are below average in intelligence. We do not live in Lake Wobegon.

“Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited. It is a matter of ceilings. Suppose a girl in the 99th percentile of intelligence, corresponding to an IQ of 135, is getting a C in English. She is underachieving, and someone who sets out to raise her performance might be able to get a spectacular result. Now suppose the boy sitting behind her is getting a D, but his IQ is a bit below 100, at the 49th percentile.

“We can hope to raise his grade. But teaching him more vocabulary words or drilling him on the parts of speech will not open up new vistas for him. It is not within his power to learn to follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity, any more than it is within my power to follow a proof in the American Journal of Mathematics. In both cases, the problem is not that we have not been taught enough, but that we are not smart enough.”

Charles Murray is notorious for disputed ideas in his “Bell Curve,” and is accused of racism.  But, his point needs to be answered.  He writes,

“There is no magic point at which a genuine college-level education becomes an option, but anything below an IQ of 110 is problematic. If you want to do well, you should have an IQ of 115 or higher. Put another way, it makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. Adjust that percentage to account for high-school dropouts, and more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college–enough people to absorb everyone down through an IQ of 104.”

Murray speaks too much in absolutes.  My experience as a teacher showed me over and over again how effort and attitude were more powerful than IQ, but, regardless, we need to consider this:  If the purpose of our huge investment of expenditures on education is to provide economic opportunity for our citizens, then the evidence is overwhelming that this investment strategy, overall, has failed, and that however it is refigured and refinanced, it will continue to fail.  Other strategies designed to increase economic opportunities, in addition to education, should be advanced.  And, more importantly, the purpose of public education in our democracy, the rationale for huge public expenditures, must be a purpose that transcends a focus on creating personal prosperity, one that, instead, focuses on understanding and advancing the common good.

I’ve heard the argument that says that, in this country, wealth is apportioned according to a system of meritocracy.  Those who advance that argument point to success stories like those of Barack Obama’s and Michelle Obama’s to show how, through education, individuals from humble beginnings can rise to positions of economic prosperity and social prominence.  But we need to look at the total picture of how our system works.  Everyone likes to think their personal prosperity is deserved — justified by educational accomplishments, by hard work, by the level of contribution to society.  But, if we look at the foundation of economic success in this country, honestly, like I tried in, “Why Are We Rich?,” we know we are fooling ourselves.  It is absurd for anyone to think he or she “deserves” $ BIG MONEY per hour, while a Walmart clerk “deserves” $ PITTANCE per hour.

One big unspoken purpose of our educational system, that it accomplishes brillantly, is to provide a rationale and a structure for economic injustice, to give a societal justification for economic injustice.  Our educational system delivers the message:  If you did crummy in school, you “deserve” a crummy life. If you failed algebra, our society says, you “deserve” to be stuck in your lousy Walmart job.

It is interesting to consider what it is that one “deserves.”   If, virtually all citizens had a college degree, then, would everyone “deserve” to be prosperous?  Where would the wealth come from?  Who would be making out the checks?

I was disappointed in Barack Obama’s recent speech about education, because, in that speech, he seemed to find only one purpose for education:  economic opportunity.  Obama said, “My plan calls for giving every child a world-class education from the day they’re born until the day they graduate from college.” Wow.  Obama made clear that his motivation is to provide every child with economic opportunity, and, that he believes education is the surest way to economic success.  Yes, it is — but for many individuals it is not.  Education is not a strategy that can work to give economic success to everyone.  And, more importantly, it doesn’t realistically give even the opportunity for economic success to most people.  For many people, the idea that education is the way to personal prosperity simply is a false hope.

America should seek to achieve an ownership society in which all citizens participate.  Acquiring an education is one route to economic success for many individuals. But, to suppose that education is the path to ownership for most individuals defies the evidence accumulated for many years.

The world-class education, from birth through college (or advanced technical training) that Obama’s plan calls for could easily have a price tag of $200,000 per person.  Obama is recommending a big investment, and, I’m all in favor of that idea that our democracy should make a big investment in every citizen.  The question, however, that needs to be debated is:  How should this $200,000 per person best be spent to give each person authentic opportunity? Pouring money into the educational system seems not the best way. The question is:  How should a democracy best spend money to most effectively invest in and empower all of its citizens?

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2 Responses to Expensive Education Fails To Increase Economic Opportunities For Many Citizens

  1. Stan Hirtle says:

    Murray’s numbers will certainly be less exact than he lets on. But his point, otherwise than justifying the present distribution of wealth and power, can make us ask how we can have an economically just society that produces a good life not for just the few but the many.

    Today’s average CEO from a Fortune 500 company makes 364 times an average worker’s pay and over 70 times the pay of a four-star Army general. Executive Excess 2007, page 7, jointly published by Institute for Policy Studies and United for Fair Economy, August 29, 2007. The 1965 numbers from State of Working America 2004-2005, Economic Policy Institute.1n 1965, CEOs in major companies made 24 times more than the average worker. In 1980, CEOs made 40 times more than the average worker. And most CEO’s are just working stiffs compared to the owners of the world’s wealth. Our wealth imbalance far exceeds our income imbalance.

    Education is the poverty program with the most support, particularly as physical labor paying a living wage disappears overseas, but it has obvious limitations. I saw an article written by a founder of “Odyssey Project”. Set up by Illinois Humanities Council and taught by faculty at the U of Illinois, it provides low income adults with courses in humanities, philosophy, US History, critical theory and writing, which transfer 6 credits to a university or community college. The project provides books, childcare and bus tokens free of charge. However barriers to higher education remain high, particularly for those with children and jobs. The author said:

    “And despite much talk along these lines, education is not a sufficient and not even a practical solution to poverty. The economy does not need many more workers with university degrees than it already has. As Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute has said, ‘Education is a supply side policy: it improves the quality of workers but not the quality or quantity of jobs. A danger of overreliance on education in the poverty debate is that skilled workers end up all dressed up with no place to go.’ Indeed most of the jobs – over half – that our economy will create over the next decade will not require a college degree. What will keep these low wage service and manufacturing workers out of poverty is not education but better economic policies: full employment, a more generous earned income tax credit, a solution to crippling health care costs to name a few.”

    All the talk about a knowledge economy also has limitations. Knowledge is only good for so much. And whatever people with the highest IQs have to offer is only a small portion. IQs do not necessarily do good, as can be seen by the intricate schemes that lead to the mortgage meltdown, largely caused by excessive complexety and a knowledge imbalance enabling a machine fueled by greed.

    We have not really had a functional peacetime economy since the depression began. And few have a vision of a just economy or how to get there. Our dismal results at the low end of education reflect the damage done by poverty and oppressive social conditions, even as they contribute to it. There is no level playing field between those who have resources and those who do not. We need a big investment in creating the institutions of capital that would end poverty. we also need to organize society in a way that everyone gets to contribute, so we don’t have masses of people excluded from employment and health care. And of course this is now a global issue and not just a US issue. Furthermore everyone needs to be educated to be a participant in a democratic society, even if they are not a nuclear physicist or hedge fund manager.

  2. T. Ruddick says:

    In the first place, Murray needs to bone up on his knowledge of mental development. It’s been decades since any informed person thought that an IQ score measured any more than a tiny fraction of the many facets of human intelligence; equally long since anyone thought that an IQ score was an immutable trait. Give the proper environment and stimulus, and the IQ score can be increased.

    That said, let’s focus on Mike’s specific question.

    (1) What will it cost? Well, the more expensive K-12 systems spend $10K or more per student per year; that’s $130K per high school diploma. Let’s say we’re going to get half of the students through a 2-year technical program and the other half through a bachelor’s degree; the cheapest options would take us to around $16K for the AAS degree and $56K for the BA/BS. These totals don’t include infrastructure (e.g. buildings and grounds). But I think Mike’s estimate is a little high if the available lowest-cost options are used; it’s going to average $150K per student, approximately. That’s expensive, but the alternative (ignorance) is worse.

    (2) How to ensure that we get the most “bang for the buck”? Multiple things to consider here.

    a. Currently the USA has a high-cost, open-access system. We love “choice” so much it’s breaking us. We want local control of school districts, competition among colleges, students who drop out to be able to complete whenever they take a notion. The notion that our public schools need to compete in an open marketplace leads to that natural by-product of capitalism, public relations expenditures. I submit that our education dollars are ill-spent when they go for billboards and TV commercials; higher education is spending more on marketing, recruiting, and student incentives (‘student activities’ like free entertainment, extracurriculars, and celebrations) than on faculty and library materials.

    The rest of the industrialized world has low-cost, limited access systems. There are no autonomous local systems, all are administered nationally. Students are required to complete programs on time, and upper-level study is only available to those whose test scores indicate likely success. A student who considers dropping out knows that opportunity may never reappear. Those other nations spend more on teachers and materials than on student enticements.

    Switch to the European-Japanese-Chinese system–centralize administration and impose that expectation that students will devote themselves to their studies and earn their pass to the next level, and we’ll save lots of resources–and some of the savings can be used to lavish the deserving students with better facilities and more dedicated instruction. And I and my higher education colleagues will be able to expect our first-year students to know such elementary information as what the world’s continents are, what a noun is, how to solve a binomial equation, and whether Beethoven is alive or dead.

    b. Lose the morbid fascination with innovation. Yes, we must continue to come up with new and better ways to communication the material to students, we must keep up with new knowledge, and we must incorporate new technologies into our methods. But let’s quit innovating for its own sake. In the end, learning will be achieved only through the student’s effort; time and again, we’ve seen that motivated students will learn despite substandard conditions. Let’s focus on motivating the students whenever possible, not on new ways to adapt the curriculum to the unwilling.

    c. Stabilize the teaching profession. Currently we hire new graduates as a full-fledged teachers and throw them into classrooms with uneven levels of guidance and mentorship; then most of them leave the teaching profession within five years. We need to create a system wherein experienced master teachers monitor and direct novice teachers closely and apprentice teachers regularly. At the same time, let’s incentivize the profession so that teachers are less attracted by the comparatively greater rewards available in the private sector.

    d. Quit expecting schools to be all things to all people. The purpose of schools should be to educate eligible students to their best potential for the benefit of society. IF the school can address other worthy issues–integration, substance abuse, community service, social services, psychological interventions–without compromising the primary mission, then fine. But too often we’re requiring schools to address secondary concerns to the detriment of the primary mission.

    There. That’s a start.

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