Education Opinion

Is Education Really All That Guilty

By Clark Kerr — February 27, 1991 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Guilty of what? The charge is that education is “the key to the nation’s competitiveness” and that it is, thus, the major source of the decline of America’s competitiveness in international markets.

Who says it is guilty? Among many others, the National Governors’ Association and the Conference Board in a 1987 report to the National Science Foundation. The report said that “all three groups--business, academia, and government” so agreed.

Is this a major crime of which to be guilty? Yes. The rise in the productivity of American workers has fallen to half the rate in other industrial nations. In some recent years, it has actually been at zero.

If I should argue that the answer to this question is “no--not guilty,” is this an act of treason to education? I think not. I realize that an answer of “yes--guilty” helps support, at least in the short run, efforts to get more money for education and it badly needs it--for higher teachers’ salaries, for smaller class sizes, for better equipment, and for much else. But if the answer really is “no,” then, in the longer run, giving an answer of “yes” can be a disservice to education since, after getting more money it cannot, largely by itself, restore the competitiveness of the American economy and will be subject to intensified criticism. If education is not the main cause, it is unlikely that, by itself, it can be the main cure.

It is also a disservice to American society, since those who really are guilty will not be fully subject to the pressures which should be directed toward them for better performances. Education will have been a scapegoat for them.

Let me make it clear that education needs more financial support and much reform. If it performs better, then it will make some modest contributions to economic competitiveness particularly as the changing job structure, in part at least, requires higher levels of formally trained skills, but also major contributions to better citizenship, to a greater ability of individuals to cope with the many facets of their increasingly complex lives, to the cultural life of the nation.

What is the most common “proof” that education is “the key?” It is that scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (and the American College Testing program test) began to fall about 1965, and that productivity increases began to fall at about the same time, but with a general lag of about two to four years--a lag which continued when they both began to rise again: thus it is argued post hoc ergo propter hoc. But let us take a closer look:

Test scores fell in the range of 5 percent (mathematical) to 10 percent (verbal), while productivity increases totally collapsed from 3 percent a year to zero. It does not follow that this relatively minor decline in test scores was so primarily guilty for this major collapse of productivity increases.

Test scores affected, at first, only 5 to 10 percent of the total labor force over a two- to four-year period--the new entrants. But productivity fell for 100 percent of the labor force. It does not follow that education was so guilty--what about the productivity of the other 90 to 95 percent of the labor force?

In addition, half the fall in the test scores was due to the changing composition of the test takers as we moved from mass to universal access to higher education. Thus we are talking about a real decline in test scores of 2 to 5 percent. It does not follow that so small a decline makes education so guilty of such major consequences.

Furthermore, one-third to one-half of all the “education” that goes into work skills takes place on the job and not in the schools. It does not follow that education in school was all by itself so guilty.

Also, the Nation’s Report Card tests that began in 1971 show, on the average, no declines in achievement in the schools at a time when sat (and act) scores kept going down--very constant results instead of surprising fluctuations year by year. This throws doubt on the standard “proof” that education was so guilty.

And “value added” in higher education rose, since test scores out of college generally declined less than out of high school. Higher education offset some of the losses at earlier levels, particularly in mathematics. It does not follow, since about two-thirds of all trained skills in the workforce are found in that one-quarter with college degrees, that education as a whole was all that guilty.

I conclude that it has not been proven that education has been “the key to the nation’s competitiveness"; that there has been too much blame with too little proof.

Have others reached the same conclusion? Yes. Edward Denison of the Brookings Institution explicitly found no negative impact from education in the period to 1982 (Trends in American Growth, 1929-1982). Robert Solow and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Made in America (1989), give only marginal attention to education, as does William Baumol of Princeton in his Productivity and American Leadership (1989). The late Lawrence Cremin in his ultimate book, Popular Education and Its Discontents (1990), says: “To contend that problems of international competitiveness can be solved by educational reform, especially educational reform defined as school reform, is not merely utopian and millennialist, it is at best foolish and at worse a crass effort to direct attention away from those truly responsible for doing something about competitiveness and to lay the burden instead on the schools.” I fully agree.

My own view is that seldom in the course of policymaking in the United States have so many firm convictions held by so many been based on so little convincing proof.

If not education almost alone, then who else did it? Everybody. For illustrative purposes, here are a few of the other culprits. We spent too much and saved too little and invested too little. We spent too little of our research-and-development funds on industrial improvement and too much on the military. We turned too much to easy self-gratification, as in drugs and alcohol and crime, and TV for the children instead of homework. This wave of the counter-culture affected all levels of American society and not just recent high-school graduates. We put too much emphasis on advertising and too little on quality in production. We paid too little attention to human relations in industry--Japanese-managed firms in the United States achieve Japanese levels of quantity and quality from American workers. As Mr. Denison of Brookings has written: “Everything may have gone wrong.”

A final comment. If everything went wrong and not just the schools, then, for everything to go right, more than just the schools will have to go right--all of American society. We will find the solutions everywhere the problems are found and that is nearly everywhere. Paraphrasing Leviticus: It is not enough to send one scapegoat into the wilderness.

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 1991 edition of Education Week as Is Education Really All That Guilty


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: January 12, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education School Bus Driver Retires After 48 Years Behind Wheel
Charles City school bus driver Betty Flick sat behind the wheel for the final time last week, wrapping up a 48-year career for the district.
3 min read
Charles City school bus driver Betty Flick poses with one of her farewell signs. Flick has been driving for Charles City School District for 48 years.
Betty Flick quickly fell in love with the job and with the kids, which is what has had her stay in the district for this long.
Courtesy of Abby Koch/Globe Gazette
Education Briefly Stated: December 1, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: November 17, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read