Why did the United States become the leading economic power of the 20th century? The best short answer is that a ferocious belief that people have the power to transform their own lives gave Americans an unparalleled commitment to education, hard work and economic freedom.Brooks goes on to discuss the "skills gap" which has allowed the US economy to continue becoming more and more productive, in great part as the result of technological innovation created and used by the educated elite. (Just under 30% of the US population aged 25-34 has a bachelor's degree or higher.) Brooks argues that the US educational system lost steam and direction in the 60s and 70s, resulting in our relative loss of global competitiveness since that time (the US remains one of the strongest economies in the world, but it's not as much stronger than the rest of the world as it used to be). I think his analysis on why this happened and what to do about it gets a bit more spotty, though:
Between 1870 and 1950, the average American’s level of education rose by 0.8 years per decade. In 1890, the average adult had completed about 8 years of schooling. By 1900, the average American had 8.8 years. By 1910, it was 9.6 years, and by 1960, it was nearly 14 years.
As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz describe in their book, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” America’s educational progress was amazingly steady over those decades, and the U.S. opened up a gigantic global lead. Educational levels were rising across the industrialized world, but the U.S. had at least a 35-year advantage on most of Europe. In 1950, no European country enrolled 30 percent of its older teens in full-time secondary school. In the U.S., 70 percent of older teens were in school.
America’s edge boosted productivity and growth. But the happy era ended around 1970 when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl. Between 1975 and 1990, educational attainments stagnated completely. Since then, progress has been modest. America’s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment.
This threatens the country’s long-term prospects. It also widens the gap between rich and poor. Goldin and Katz describe a race between technology and education. The pace of technological change has been surprisingly steady. In periods when educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is flooded with skilled workers, so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.
...Using his own research, Heckman also concludes that high school graduation rates peaked in the U.S. in the late 1960s, at about 80 percent. Since then they have declined.Brooks argues that for the long term, the "skills gap" is the largest single contributor to inequality and thus middle class angst, much more so than energy prices and globalization. However, since it's hard to fix the education system, no one is emphasizing it much, though he says:
In “Schools, Skills and Synapses,” Heckman probes the sources of that decline. It’s not falling school quality, he argues. Nor is it primarily a shortage of funding or rising college tuition costs. Instead, Heckman directs attention at family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years.
Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.
I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists....
...[I]t’s worth noting that both sides of this debate exist within the Democratic Party. The G.O.P. is largely irrelevant. If you look at Barack Obama’s education proposals — especially his emphasis on early childhood — you see that they flow naturally and persuasively from this research. (It probably helps that Obama and Heckman are nearly neighbors in Chicago). McCain’s policies seem largely oblivious to these findings. There’s some vague talk about school choice, but Republicans are inept when talking about human capital policies.It seems to me that there's a serious lack of imagination here. If, as Brooks cites Heckman to say above, many of the educational/developmental problems that we're seeing appear by age five, it's hard to see how public education policies (including Obama's desire to have full 0-5 public education available) are going to make the difference. Public schools and public daycares (or private ones, come to that) are not well suited to forming the minds of those under five so that they will be good learners and stable personalities in the years to come. That's what families are for. So if we're seeing children who by age five are already seriously unsuited to learning and stability, what we're seeing is probably at least as much family and cultural break-down as an educational one.
TangoMan of Gene Expression points out that part of the problem in this regard may center around immigration.
Having an immigration policy which pulls in tens of millions of 6th grade educated, Spanish-speaking immigrants is a policy that creates inequality. Goldin and Katz would do well to control for immigrant status, legal and illegal, in the ranks of the low skilled.... [D]emography matters. When we celebrate diversity and when we hold all cultures to be equal then we discount the importance that cultural practices, traditions and views have on real world factors, like education and economic productivity. Heckman notes that "some children" benefit from family practices that promote human capital development, but that many don't. I'm willing to wager that racial and cultural factors correlate to a good deal of this disparity....It's fantasy to posit that the skills gap is independent of group measures of human capital stock. ParaPundit shows the dismal embrace of higher education by Hispanics even after 4 generations in the US.This may be something of a factor, but frankly, there was plenty of immigration in the first half of the 20th century, and in the 19th, and those immigrants often had much less than a 6th grade education. But there is, clearly a stark difference. Schools thrived even among the immigrant communities (whether they were often seen as the means to improving your economic status) during the period that Brooks identifies as the boom time of American education and economic expansion. Not only the public schools, but the Catholic school system, Hebrew schools, etc.
Given the 60s/70s inflection point at which we seem to see a downturn in American education (and the appearance of the "skills gap") I can think of two clear areas for improvement:
Rediscovering Education -- By almost any standards, our public education system fell apart in the 70s. Educational theories came and went, and it became fashionable to suggest we should only teach what is "relevant" to students. Traditional ideas of the Three Rs and classical liberal education were left behind as wonky ideas ranging from the "new math" to "Afrocentric curriculums" were attempted. In many ways, the broader educational system has never recovered, in part because administrators and teachers are now almost all people who received non-educations back in the 70s, 80s and 90s. And anyone who deals with todays college students can attest that 12 years of education often results in someone with no logical skills, poor reading comprehension, and no writing ability. And that's among the half of high school students who actually go on to attempt college! We desperately need a return to basics: reading, writing and arithmetic in the early grades; the liberal arts and sciences in the later grades.
The Family as Foundation -- Just as importantly, however, we need to develop the cultural understanding that parents and families hold the primary responsibility for educating their children. Much of the education, after age five or so, may often go on in schools with teachers, but parents are still responsible for providing children with the understanding that education is important and worth doing, and providing them with the family support, motivation and help to be successful in education.
And for too many people, the two income family in which both husband and wife have full time "fulfilling careers" while raising their children is not only the normative way of life, but the only imaginable way of life. Some families may have little choice in that matter, in that where they live and how much they earn require both parents to work. But there is, I think, a need to recenter cultural expectation (especially for the earliest years of a child's life) to see child rearing and early education as something that deserves the full time attention of a parent if at all possible. (Something which, at least in the corporate world that I find myself in from eight to six, seems an alien concept to many.) Professional help is all very well, but it can never be as personal and as concentrated as that of a parent or other relative.
Clearly, there's much room for improvement in US education, both culturally and institutionally. However, I'd disagree with Brooks as to where we need to look for solutions on the political spectrum. First of all, our biggest problems are cultural, not policy. And so the solutions we need most involve cultural change which can perhaps be advocated by politicians, but can certainly not be ennacted by them. Much though we often wish to solve our problems by simply electing some particular politician, I don't think this is one that politicians can solve for us. And to the extent that it is, I don't see an emphasis on parents taking primarily responsibility for education and a return to classic liberal education as being something we're going to see out of the Democratic party any time soon. Seeing as what we need in our education is a rollback of much of the progressive educational theory of the last fifty years, it would seem an odd thing to come from the left. Also, too many proposals from the left (and, indeed, from the mainstream right) put the focus on the professionals: testing, schools, public daycare and pre-K, etc. These might be nice-to-haves, but they do nothing either to change our understanding of what education is, or to bring families back to the center of education. That, indeed, seems to be something that simply does not fit in the current political axis -- and which is advocated by occasional voices of both the intellectual left and right, but few in the political or party establishment.
Finally, I think we may need to ask ourselves: At what point does a "skills gap" become inevitable? I'm sure that we can do a much, much better job at education and culture than we do now, but is there some point we could take our technology and economy to where a significant percentage of the population is simply not capable of keeping up?
I don't really want to think that, as I find the idea of IQ and objectively limited intelligence unappealing. I would prefer to think that everyone is capable of being highly intelligent and educated if given the right upbringing and education. And yet, I'm not sure that this tabula rasa view has support in reality. Is it possible that in a highly technological society a "skills gap" becomes inevitable at some point?