Tuesday, June 5, 2007

More Stuff Our Children Isn't Learning

Appearing at The Blogging Curmudgeon, My Left Wing, and the Independent Bloggers' Alliance.

Bushisms- Good Question

Via David Sirota, a freshly minted article in the Financial Times provides still more evidence that what we learn isn't what we earn.

Here's the key excerpt:

"Earnings of the average U.S. worker with an undergraduate degree have not kept up with gains in productivity in recent decades, according to research by academics at MIT that challenges traditional explanations of why income inequality is rising...The average graduate failed to keep up with gains in economy-wide productivity, once those productivity gains are adjusted for the composition of the workforce...This casts doubt on the conventional argument that the solution to rising in-equality is to improve the standard of education across the workforce as a whole...The failure of workers even with undergraduate degrees to keep up with productivity is due to a change in labor market institutions and norms that reduced the bargaining power of most U.S. workers." (emphasis added)

That last line is particularly important, so let's unpack the euphemisms a little further. The "change in labor market institutions and norms that reduced bargaining power of most U.S. workers" is business rhetoric for the crushing of domestic unions and the passage of trade pacts that include no basic labor, environmental or human rights protections - trade pacts that force American workers into competition with workers who have no basic rights. Though the Financial Times seems to passively portray those changes as natural forces like, say, a passing thunderstorm or a beautiful sunset, they are anything but. The changes are very deliberate, very calculated and very artificial - they are the result of specific public policies bought by Wall Street and passed by a corrupt Congress.

This isn't exactly news, of course. It's just more evidence against the canard that has allowed free trade enthusiasts to put American workers in direct competition with third world employment markets.

BOB PORTER -- It looks like you've been missing a lot of work lately.

-- I wouldn't say I've been missing it, Bob.

-- That's terrific, Peter. I, I, I'm sure you've, you've, you've heard some of the rumors around the hallway about how we're just going to do a little housecleaning with some of the software people.

-- Well, Bob, I have heard that and you gotta do what you gotta do.

-- Well, these people here. First, Mr. Samir Naga... Naga...

-- Naga...

-- Naga-worker here anyway!

-- Mr. Mike Bolton. We're certainly gonna miss him.

-- You're gonna layoff Samir and Michael!?

-- We're gonna bring in some entry level graduates for us to work in Singapore, that's the usual deal.

-- Well, it's standard operating procedure.

As I wrote here, over a year ago, a good education is not a panacea for what ails our weakening job market. As per Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post.

Also dying, if not yet also kaput, is the comforting notion that a good education is the best defense against the ravages of globalization -- or, as Bill Clinton famously put it: What you earn is the result of what you learn. A study last year by economists J. Bradford Jensen of the Institute for International Economics and Lori Kletzer of the University of California at Santa Cruz demonstrates that it's the more highly skilled service-sector workers who are likely to have tradable jobs. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the proportion of jobs in the United States that require a college degree will rise by a measly one percentage point -- from 26.9 percent in 2002 to 27.9 percent in 2012 -- during this decade.

So what kinds of jobs will the global marketplace provide for America's college graduates? Again, from Meyerson:

In the new global order, Blinder writes, not just manufacturing jobs but a large number of service jobs will be performed in cheaper climes. Indeed, only hands-on or face-to-face services look safe.

STAN -- I need to talk about your flair.

JOANNA -- Really? I have 15 buttons on. I, uh...

STAN -- Well, ok, 15 is minimum, ok?


STAN -- Now, it's up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Well, like Brian, for example, has 37 pieces of flair. And a terrific smile.

JOANNA -- Ok. Ok, you want me to wear more?

STAN -- Look. Joanna.

JOANNA -- Yeah.

STAN -- People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, ok? They come to Chotchkie's for the atmosphere and the attitude. That's what the flair's about. It's about fun.

JOANNA -- Ok. So, more then?

STAN -- Look, we want you to express yourself, ok? If you think the bare minimum is enough, then ok. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, ok? You do want to express yourself, don't you?

JOANNA -- Yeah. Yeah.

STAN -- Great. Great. That's all I ask.


But a few studies by reputable researchers will not stop factually challenged, globalization apologists like Thomas Friedman from trotting out the education myth at every opportunity. It's far too useful as a tool for shutting down debate on outsourcing. And all this bloviating about the importance of education isn't slowing the erosion of an economy that now sees a decline in income for 90% of the populace. It's not doing a whole lot for our educational system either.

My daughter started kindergarten this year. She's lucky. She's in a top-rated school district; not one that has being punitively starved for being malnourished to begin with. I did learn, however, what accounts for a good education these days. It starts with homework for 5 year olds. It's not like the kindergarten of my memory. I colored and made macaroni necklaces. She has a math test every week. Did I mention that she's 5?

So, my husband and I did a little research and learned, to our horror, that 5 is really not an appropriate age for today's kindergarten, and that parents all over the country are pressing their school districts to hold their kids back a year, called "redshirting," so they can keep up with the rigorous demands of the kindergarten classroom.

Children who turn 5 even in June or earlier are sometimes considered not ready for kindergarten these days, as parents harbor an almost Darwinian desire to ensure that their own child is not the runt of the class. Although a spate of literature in the last few years about boys' academic difficulties helped prompt some parents to hold their sons back a year, girls, too, are being held back. Yet research on whether the extra year helps is inconclusive.

Fueled by the increasingly rigorous nature of kindergarten and a generation of parents intent on giving their children every edge, the practice is flourishing in New York City private schools and suburban public schools. A crop of 5-year-olds in nursery school and kindergartners pushing 7 are among the most striking results.

While the push to make our kids more "competitive" is resulting in grade school standards that are increasingly out of sync with normal, developmental stages, politician's and the corporations that pull their strings enjoy endless benefits.

The political emphasis on education does even more for corporate America than provide a fig leaf for outsourcing all our jobs to India and China. Long before "No Child Left Behind" started making millions for Neil Bush, pharmaceutical companies learned they could profit by medicating our "disruptive" kids. The problem traces back to a dubious study called "A Nation at Risk," which correlated our educational system with the ebb and flow of the greater economy. One result is an increase in diagnoses of ADD/ADHD and prescriptions for drugs like Ritalin.

Despite the unsoundness of the conceptual underpinnings of A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report led to a substantial rewriting of federal and state laws regarding education. Many states now employ "high stakes" testing, which, by definition, means that state funding is allocated preferentially to school districts showing the greatest improvement in test scores. Principals are hired or fired depending on their school's test score results. Superintendents are promised large bonuses if their school districts' test scores rise; if the scores fall, a superintendent will likely be sacked. School test scores now affect many aspects of a community's self-image, including property values. If your family has to choose between moving to town A or town B, and A's schools get higher test scores than B's, aren't you more likely to move to town A? Other things being equal, the town with higher scores will have higher property values.

Principals and teachers aren't stupid. Faced with pressure to raise test scores, they change the curriculum to increase the likelihood of students scoring high. Because standardized tests measure reading, writing, and math skills, more time will be devoted to reading, writing, and math. Because the tests do not measure skills in music, art, gym, or playground social skills such as learning to play fair in a game of kickball, less time will be devoted to music, art, gym, and recess. In some schools, recess is being eliminated altogether. After all, if your mandate is to raise test scores, what's the point of recess? Some superintendents are so intent on doing away with recess that they are building new elementary schools without a playground. "Many parents still don't quite get it," says Dr. Benjamin Canada, the Atlanta school superintendent. "They'll ask, 'so when are we getting a new playground?' And I'll say, 'There's not going to be a new playground."26

The elementary school curriculum has been speeded up. If you want your second-graders to excel on their standardized tests, then first grade is too late to start them reading. Start them in kindergarten. The result is that kindergarten, in the sense that it existed in the 1960s, no longer exists in most American school systems. The first-grade curriculum has been pushed down into kindergarten, which Time magazine wryly suggested should be renamed "kinder grind." "Forget blocks, dress-up, and show-and-tell," said Time. "Five-year-olds are now being pushed to read."27

My daughter can write her own name, now. Most of the time the letters are well-proportioned and face in the right direction. A few weeks ago, she finally grokked the relevance of "homework." Well, better late than never. At this rate, by the time she graduates from college she should be well prepared to compete for a job against a commensurately educated Vietnamese worker who will work for pennies on the dollar... Or she can always waitress. I think she has a real flair for "flair." She'll probably need it.