The skills gap

Americans’ commitment to education, hard work and economic freedom — rooted in “a ferocious belief that people have the power to transform their own lives” — made the U.S. the world’s economic superpower, writes David Brooks in the New York Times.

Starting in 1870, more Americans spent more years in school, far outpacing our European rivals.

In 1950, no European country enrolled 30 percent of its older teens in full-time secondary school. In the U.S., 70 percent of older teens were in school.

But America’s educational progress slowed and then stagnated from 1970 to 1990. Our foreign competitors caught up and some passed us by.

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.

High school graduation rates peaked in the U.S. in the late 1960s, at about 80 percent, writes James Heckman of the University of Chicago. Heckman blames weak families.

Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.

I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability.

Brooks sees government-funded preschool as a human capital strategy. But if the problem is inadequate parenting, the solutions may not be found in schools.

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  1. His conclusion was lame. Conservatives, like McCain, should embrace, ala Obama, comprehensive educational policies like publically funded preschool. If adding years of schooling and additional funding improved education, why hasn’t performance improved in the last 40 years, as funding increased and full day kindergarten became more common?

  2. Wow, the family might be part of the problem?
    There’s a shocker.

    Teacher’s have only been saying this for decades.

  3. “Brooks sees government-funded preschool as a human capital strategy. But if the problem is inadequate parenting, the solutions may not be found in schools.”

    Early institutionalization of children is counter-indicated.
    1) States which compel attendance at age 6 have lower 4th and 8th grade NAEP Reading and Math scores than States which compel attendance at age 7. Later is better.
    2) Institutional daycare damages kids and degrades family relations.

    Just what magic do people see in State (government, generally) operation or subsidization of an industry? The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition*). People do not become more compassionate, better-informed, or more capable (except in their access to violence) when they enter the State’s employ. Tax subsidization requires taxation. Taxation reduces parents’ disposable income and so their ability to provide for their own children. The “public goods” argument, that charity (e.g., daycare for children of poor parents) is a public good which a market will undersupply, fails, since corporate oversight is a public good and the State itself is a corporation. State (ghovernment, generally) provision of some “public good” transforms the “public goods” problem but does not solve it.

    “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”–George Washington
    “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”–Mao Tse Tung
    “…(t)he monopoly on legitimate violence.”–Maz Weber

    Since monopolies are seldom absolute, the substitution “largest dealer” makes Weber’s definition more accurate. Since the State itself defines “legitimate”, that part of his definition is nearly circular.

  4. Andy Freeman says:

    If parents are the problem, how will giving more money to teachers help?

  5. > High school graduation rates peaked in the U.S. in the late 1960s,

    Hmmm, about the time public education budgets started to surge.

    Now there’s a correlation the observation of which could get you horse-whipped in more then a few venues.

  6. linda seebach says:

    If no European country in 1950 had more than 30 percent of its older teens in school, that was an inefficiency that the United States could exploit to its advantage. But if every young person who can benefit from staying in school long enough to graduate is already doing so, there’s nothing further to exploit.

    We can argue about what the ideal high school graduation rate should be, that is, what the criterion for graduation should be, and what needs to be done to ensure every child who is capable of meeting the criterion has resources and opportunity to do so. But it is delusional to believe that we can have both a meaningful criterion for graduation and a 100 percent graduation rate.

    I suspect the true graduation rate should be between 80 and 85 percent. Maybe we could push it to 90, subject to the law of diminishing returns, if we poured every possible dollar into the last few marginal students — though, as Heckman has demonstrated, we’d get much higher returns if we invested the money when they were little.

    Something similar operates all along the line of returns to increasing education. There are non-economic returns to more education, but they don’t depend on credentials. If everyone who is capable of benefiting economically from higher education is already able to earn a degree, there is no further inefficiency for the U.S. to exploit.

    If other countries have larger percentages of their populations who are capable of benefiting from more years of education than the U.S. does, well, what are we supposed to do about that?

  7. This is nonsense. First, the only research that has been done on pre-school shows that it has no effect on learning. Second, we have hardly been passed by. American businesses succeed despite the school system, by training employees.

  8. American businesses succeed despite the school system, by training employees.

    oh my gosh…..while trawling Amazon today I discovered a whole, massive, crazed, lousy-education situation gripping U.S. business, too….

    which I suppose should come as no surprise

    the business world is the one realm as daffy and fad-ridden as education, it seems

  9. Ragnarok says:

    “oh my gosh…..while trawling Amazon today…”

    Nice to see that somebody knows the difference between trawling and “trolling”!

  10. thanks!

    but I have a feeling I may only have discovered the difference of late

    possibly in a comment left on a blog somewhere…