Weak Scores, Strong Economy: How Can This Be?

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When results from an international study recently showed American high school seniors near the bottom in math and science, the long-running debate about whether the health of the U.S. economy depends on the quality of K-12 schools took yet another twist.

A belief that the country's performance in the world marketplace is tied directly to the performance of American schools underpinned the great push for education reform that began in the 1980s. Anxiety that Japan and other rivals would best the United States economically went hand in hand with fears about lagging achievement by U.S. students.

Robert Zemsky

By the time of the recession of the early 1990s, however, a vigorous debate had been joined in academic and policy circles over whether that link was illusory, or at least overstated. ("Some Economists Challenging View That Schools Hurt Competitiveness," Nov. 13, 1991.)

Today, the U.S. economy is the most productive in the world, and the nation's dominance in high technology is virtually unrivaled. And yet most other participating countries outscored American 12th graders in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study assessments, the results of which were released in February. ("U.S. Seniors Near Bottom in World Test," March 4, 1998.)

Howard Gardner

That apparent paradox has rekindled debate in recent weeks among educators, economists, and commentators. As Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson put it: "If our students are so bad, why is the economy so good?"

For researchers who have long taken a revisionist view of the link between the economy and the schools, the seeming discrepancy is easily explained.

"The schools have very little to do with the health of the economy," said Gerald W. Bracey, an independent researcher and writer based in Alexandria, Va. The competitiveness of the U.S. economy depends mainly on international trade policy and decisions made by President Clinton, Congress, and the Federal Reserve Board, said Mr. Bracey, the author of the 1997 book Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the United States.

Bruce J. Biddle, a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Missouri, agreed.

"The simple-minded notion that there is a direct link between K-12 education and the economy--I don't think has any credence anymore," said Mr. Biddle, the co-author of The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools, published in 1995. "It always was a silly argument, because you couldn't get a direct relationship pinned down between an investment in education and whether or not the economy was booming."

Most economists and education experts say they continue to believe that the quality of precollegiate education affects the economy. But, by and large, they're no longer talking about competitiveness as the driving force for school reform, as A Nation at Risk did in 1983.

Income Gap

That influential national commission report put forth what became the prevailing view: The United States was in danger of losing its "slim competitive edge" in world markets unless it reformed its schools through such measures as tougher graduation requirements.

"Workforce 2000," a 1987 report by the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis, reinforced that view by asserting that "from an economic standpoint, higher standards in the schools are the equivalent of competitiveness internationally." The report warned that the poor state of K-12 education would lead to a national shortage of workers to fill high-skills jobs.

Where much of the argument has now shifted is to a belief that schools must be improved to help close a troubling income gap between people with high and low skills.

"The widespread agreement that the economy is doing well, thank you, is largely an agreement in the top two-fifths [of the population]," said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy. "People with high skills find their incomes rising. People with low skills find their incomes falling."

Mr. Tucker and others make a distinction between the strong performance of the economy and whether Americans are benefiting equally from the good times.

"We have a growing income gap in this country, and it is very much tied to education," said Evelyn Ganzglass, the director of employment and social-services policy studies for the Center for Best Practices at the National Governors' Association in Washington.

"There is an interaction between schooling and business," agreed Marvin Kosters, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, also in Washington. "Employers have begun to place more and more emphasis on more schooling and better schooling. People who are only high school graduates--their relative pay has declined over time."

It would be a mistake to take the pressure off schools to improve just because the economy is doing well right now, experts in this camp argue.

"The argument has changed, but the reason to be worried about the quality of American education being related to the economy is still there," said Richard J. Murnane, an economist in the Harvard University graduate school of education.

"The problem with students' leaving high school with weak skills is not so much that this will be a drag on economic growth," said Mr. Murnane, the co-author of the 1996 book Teaching the New Basic Skills: Principles for Educating Children To Thrive in a Changing Economy. "The problem is they won't be able to earn enough to support the next generation of children."

This shift in thinking is reflected in the differences between the Hudson Institute's "Workforce 2000" report and its more recent offering, "Workforce 2020," published last year.

The original report mentioned competitiveness twice in its executive summary, but the word appears not at all in the summary of "Workforce 2020." The newer report stresses the need for a more equitable distribution of income.

"We can't achieve the kind of distribution that's consistent with a democratic society if the mass of our workforce is poorly qualified and a small part is highly qualified," Richard Judy, a senior research fellow at the institute, said.

No Thanks to Schools

Most experts are skeptical of the possibility that the current boom is attributable to improvements in U.S. schools since the 1980s.

Robert Zemsky, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, argues that the economy has compensated for a poor K-12 education system by "importing a lot of smart people" who have been educated in other countries.

"This country has been a net importer for human capital. We've taken advantage of other people's school systems more than most people realize," he said.

Others point to changes in business management, the introduction of technological advances, government deregulation, and an American ethos that fosters innovation and experimentation.

Anthony P. Carnevale, an economist for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., said the scale and flexibility of the American labor market helps the United States keep its competitive edge.

"The Asians and the Europeans are too rigid," Mr. Carnevale said.

David Shapiro, the executive director of the Manufacturing Institute, which is affiliated with the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers, argued that the problems with the schools have been masked by the internationally respected U.S. system of higher education. He said he worries that the United States might reach a point where "colleges can't make up for" the poor performance of high school graduates.

"There's no question that our members are finding they have to do a lot more of the training themselves, particularly at the entry level," Mr. Shapiro said.

Value of Tests

The debate over the link between schools and the economy has also spilled over into questions about the value of tests such as TIMSS, which included results from 21 nations. Some say the tests are useful only to assess students headed for advanced careers in math and science and give little indication of whether schools are preparing most students well in scientific or math reasoning.

"The relationship between how you do on tests like these and how you will do in life is very tenuous," said Howard Gardner, an education professor at Harvard University who pioneered the idea of "multiple intelligences" that are more varied than traditional academic abilities. "Rather than trying to raise test scores, we should turn it around and say, 'What kind of human beings do we want to have, and what kind of society do we want to have?'"

Mr. Gardner said he's more worried that high school graduates don't know the difference between astrology and astronomy than the fact that their TIMSS scores are low.

But most of those interviewed said students' poor results on international tests should be a cause for concern.

"That the U.S., which has never done well, continues to do poorly is not a good sign," said Eric Hanushek, an economist at the University of Rochester in New York. His research shows that at least until 1990, the growth rate of countries in Southeast Asia and even some countries outside that region corresponded with how well their students did on international science and math tests.

"I think the relationship with the quality of schooling and the quality of the labor force in connection with growth is still there," he said.

Gerald Holton, a member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education that produced A Nation at Risk, shares that view.

"To a very large degree, our economy is now running on the fruits of advances made 20 or 30 years ago, whether we're talking about lasers or computers," said Mr. Holton, a professor of physics and of the history of science at Harvard. "We are indeed a nation at risk We should not fall for the soporific idea that because the stock market is high, we can afford to have our students--our future supposed leaders--be at the bottom of the international list of achievers."

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  • Read about the latest TIMSS scores at the U.S. TIMSS site at Michigan State University.
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