"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Check Your Underlying Assumptions

Wisdom tells us to examine the underlying assumptions of any argument before agreeing with it. That way, when offered two options, neither of which is palatable, one can sometimes show that the underlying assumptions behind the two options are flawed and a third more agreeable option will make itself apparent.

The President, the US Department of Education, DESE, even the Missouri legislature are pushing for changes to education to "prepare students for the workforce of tomorrow." There's a lot of talk about whether this approach to learning is appropriate, whether it is communistic in nature, who should design it etc. But let us for a moment examine the underlying assumption behind it.

Why should the federal or state government CARE if students are educated? Because an uneducated child frequently becomes an unemployed adult and the government (on all levels) has instituted safety nets, otherwise known as entitlement programs (welfare, WIC, food stamps, public housing, free lunch etc.) to catch these people. All of these programs cost money and those out of work people don't contribute to the economy, which doesn't increase the tax base, which makes the government harder to run.

If we peel back one more layer, however, we come to the assumption that better educated children will lead to employed adults. Education will reduce unemployment, boost the economy and overall aid the operation of government. But the Economic Policy Institute says THIS assumption may not be valid. The argument frequently given is,

"[T]the jobs problem is not a lack of demand for workers but rather a mismatch between workers’ skills and employers’ needs. Another version of the skills mismatch is also being told about the future: we face an impending skills shortage, particularly a shortfall of college graduates, after the economy returns to full employment.

The common aspect of each of these claims about structural problems is that education is the solution, the only solution. In other words, delivering the appropriate education and training to workers becomes the primary if not sole policy challenge if we hope to restore full employment in the short and medium term and if we expect to prevent a (further) loss of competitiveness and a further rise in wage and income inequality in the longer term."

An EPI Briefing Paper challenges this critical assumption and throws into question whether we are shoving a whole lot of money towards the wrong solution for the wrong problem. The paper, citing the work of several Federal Reserve Banks and researchers, found:

  • There is no one education group—particularly not the least educated, as the structural argument would suggest—fueling the rise of long-term unemployment in this recession. If there has been some transformation of the workplace leaving millions of workers inadequate for the currently available jobs, then it was not based on a major educational upscaling of jobs.
  • The challenge the nation faces as high unemployment persists is not better education and training for those currently unemployed. The problem is a lack of jobs.
  • It is hard to find some ever-increasing need for college graduates that is going unmet: college graduates have not seen their real wage rise in 10 years, and the pay gap with high school graduates has not increased in that time period. Moreover, even before the recession college students and graduates were working as free interns, a phenomenon we would not observe if college graduates were in such demand.

EPI contends not that we don’t have enough people with the right skills to fill the jobs in the American workforce, but rather that we don't have enough jobs to employ the people looking for work. This makes the question not, “How do we best educate people for the jobs of the future?” but rather, “How do we create jobs in the future?”

We know that small businesses are usually the ones that develop jobs that bring the nation out of recession. In other words, jobs are created by people recognizing and then working to fill a demand for products or services. Even more simply, the best way to get people working is for them to make their own jobs, not wait around for someone else to create them. Education certainly plays a role in this process. It can provide a foundation of basic skills like math, communication and maybe even a little science. To prepare students to succeed in an entrepreneurial society, it should promote creativity and an urge to look beyond oneself to find what others want and then meet those wants.

Looking at the current trend in education towards group think, group projects (where individual achievement and creativity are reigned in) and standardized testing (of what we already know) it does not appear that we are preparing the students of today for the needs of tomorrow. To claim that we can even know what skill sets are going to be needed tomorrow in a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy is illogical on its face. If we knew what was needed then some entrepreneur would already be working to supply it. The whole argument for preparing our students for the workforce of tomorrow falls apart if the underlying assumption that we can identify skill sets that are going to be needed tomorrow is false. We are chasing a phantom. We may find that we have a fabulous education system where everyone scores really well on the tests and yet our unemployment numbers continue to rise. We may push a whole generation into the debt of post secondary education with little or no hope of getting a job to pay off that debt. Maybe, before we plunk our money on the table, we should spend a little time checking the underlying assumptions.


  1. This article can be summarized thusly:

    Does the United States need more JOBS or more COLLEGE GRADUATES?

    I vote for jobs. I see enough college graduates unemployed.

  2. There are, to my thinking, three components to creation of employable workers: they must be healthy, educated and equipped (with the right tools). In the inevitable revamp of our economy that the debt threat requires, let us concentrate on wealth creation, which requires all three of these elements. Let us exempt from taxation health care insurance and other expenses, educational expense broadly defined, and all net savings. Combine these with a greatly increased personel exemption, a negative income tax for those with meager incomes, ans a high tax rate, approaching 50%, on disposable income. The high rate would provide a substantial offset on health care and educational costs, and a strong incentive to save, creating a pool for investment. Then let the market, and individual choices for individuals, rather than government "entitlements" based on "studies" by academics, provide us the appropriate workforce.

  3. "Anonymous said...
    There are, to my thinking, three components to creation of employable workers: they must be healthy, educated and equipped (with the right tools). In the inevitable revamp of our economy that the debt threat requires, let us concentrate on wealth creation..."

    Wow read the entire post, this is EXACTLY what we have been doing for as long as I can remember. Maybe instead, we should focus on wealth creation, by allowing the creators to determine what is important. The market can, and will supply the tools. I have faith that Americans know how to make a dollar. The problem, in my view, is that Government is always trying to manipulate those dollars "for the greater good" which has resulted in high unemployment and poverty. Economics is rather simple, it is not a complex set of equations, two presidents in the 20th century have got it. The first, FDR; and the second Ronald Reagan. We need to turn loose the American public, cut government expenditures, and watch the problems get easier to manage. The individual knows they can not ever get rich with debt... Any bank branch is nicer than most peoples houses, consumer debt bought that... The government, however, does have the ability to print money, but to do so devalues the currency, and is a hidden tax on the people. As a nation, we cannot spend ourselves into prosperity. Washington doesn't have enough money, sorry Dr. Keynes.

  4. Therebis some job creation going on by spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on creating a new generation of computer-based tests. Wong solution at the wrong problem....exactly.!


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