Don’t Say You Weren’t Warned!

Don’t call me and my friends Chicken Littles or “boys (and girls) who cried wolf.” The sky was beginning to fall —and the wolf was approaching the lamb—three decades ago when we joined the National Commission on Excellence in Education in warning that the country’s future and the career (and income and social-mobility) prospects of millions of its citizens were in jeopardy due to the weak condition of our education system.

A quarter-century or so later, we face a slack economy, widening income gaps, and diminishing prospects for those who lack a solid education—as well as all manner of other problems that befall them.

As Northwestern University sociologist Robert Gordon recently wrote, “Companies pay better-educated people higher wages because they are more productive. The premium that employers pay to a college graduate compared with that to a high school graduate has soared since 1970, because of higher demand for technical and communication skills at the top of the scale and a collapse in demand for unskilled and semiskilled workers at the bottom.”

To be sure, multiple factors have conspired to raise unemployment and hold down wages for unskilled and weakly skilled Americans. Included on that list are globalization, outsourcing, robots, recessions, bubbles, bankruptcies, declining unions, and deteriorating families. But the line of causation runs in two directions: A weakly educated population also holds down the national economy, the evidence of which is admirably summarized in Endangering Prosperity, the recent book by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann. As Lawrence Summers states in a perceptive foreword to that book, “[I]n a knowledge economy nothing is more important than the cognitive quality of those who produce goods and services. And so education has become and likely will continue to be even more important for economic performance at the individual and the national level.”

Now (if you’re old enough) think back to the resistance, denial, and pooh-poohing with which most American educators greeted A Nation at Risk. Or read this excerpt from Tom Toch’s fine 1991 book, In the Name of Excellence:

The reform movement received scant support…from the powerful professional organizations that represent the managers of the nation’s schools and school systems. By and large, organizations such as the…American Association of School Administrators and the Council of Chief State School Officers were cool, and in some cases openly hostile, to the calls for education reform. They charged that the indictments of public education in A Nation at Risk and the other reform reports were overstated. And they argued that the critics’ recommendations for reform were in many cases ill-conceived….The executive director of the National School Boards Association, writing in a July 1983 column, condemned the “stridently negative view of public education” and the “near-hysterical narrative” of A Nation at Risk….The solution to the crisis in the schools, the organizations argued (even as they denied that a crisis existed), lay not in a spate of reforms but in increased spending on education.

They were wrong. The Excellence Commission was right. And so, forgive me, were a bunch of the rest of us. Examples follow.

1981: “[U]nless and until we can agree that the future of America, the betterment of society and the security and survival of generations to come are directly and inseparably related to what and how well we teach our children—and how well they learn—we will continue to pursue a course fraught with peril. …The United States cannot risk passing through another decade with its elementary and secondary education system in disrepair. At state are the lives and minds of our children: nearly 47 million of them….” (Yes, that’s me, writing in Life magazine.)1985:  “Because of the growth of professional, semi-professional, and technical occupations and the decline of industrial and manufacturing jobs, schools have an important mission to perform in preparing youngsters to fill these new, more intellectual careers. Job training will be of less importance in the year 2000 because of the rapid pace of technological change….Because the social and political trends of our nation are increasingly egalitarian, we will want the school in the year 2000 to provide for all children the kind of education that is available today only to those in the best private and public schools.” (Diane Ravitch, The Schools We Deserve)

1986:  “[T]ypical high school graduates in the class of 1987- who will be only 31 years old in the year 2000- will hold a variety of jobs and undergo many educational experiences in their lifetimes. There is no way to prepare them in detail for the specific requirements of each. And if we work too hard now at helping students become cooks or typists or auto mechanics, we may cripple their ability to make the shifts that lie ahead….[S]chools can fulfill their utilitarian role without a great deal of difference between the curriculum of those who are college-bound and those who are not. All students need preparation for life’s transitions and for the worlds of work and of future education and training.” (Me again, in The Phi Delta Kappan)

1987: “Hard economic times and slumping tax revenues might once have suggested cutting back on education and human development spending, he said. ‘But that will not work today. In our highly integrated, highly competitive world economy, either we press ahead or we are pushed back. There is no status quo.’” (President Bill Clinton—then governor of Arkansas—in his 1987 “Making Arkansas Work” inauguration speech, quoted in Friends in High Places)

1989: “If you care about the distribution of educational opportunity in this society, it seems to me you have got to care about the fact that an awful lot of young people are not even being exposed to the things that we hope they will learn. If we are not prepared to go through with the exposure, we are plainly not going to achieve the standards.” (Sorry, I said that, too, in National Standards: A Plan for Consensus)

1991:  “[E]fforts to restructure education must work toward guaranteeing that all students are engaged in rigorous programs of instruction designed to ensure that every child, regardless of background or disability, acquires the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in a changing economy.” (Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, America 2000: An Education Strategy)

1992: [The study’s outcome was a] “clear warning that even good schools are not properly preparing students for world competition.” (Lamar Alexander, commenting on a new international comparison of student achievement)

No, Japan didn’t eat our lunch. We got that part half-wrong. Today it looks more like China, Singapore, and maybe Brazil. But our predictions about leaving behind those of our fellow citizens who lack strong educations—that part we got right.

The education establishment was completely wrong then. So are today’s deniers, excusers, and blame-shifters (including, alas, the new Diane Ravitch). But they haven’t given up. Indeed, if history repeats itself, they’ll continue to prevail on most of the big issues. And Americans will continue to pay the price.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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