Home > Uncategorized > Maybe Public Education High School’s AREN’T the Problem After All

Maybe Public Education High School’s AREN’T the Problem After All

A few days ago I wrote a post in response to Mokoto Rich’s NYTimes article on a report linking the increase in the percentage of students earning diplomas to the diminishing rigor of the high school diploma itself. Yesterday the Nation offered a compelling counter-argument to this narrative in Michelle Chen’s article “Skills Are Not Enough to Land a Job”.

Chen opens her counter-argument by noting that the report Rich based her article on was written by a think tank funded by corporate leaders who did not base their findings on much beyond anecdote and rhetoric. Chen writes:

Rich cites some “business leaders” expressing alarm that state graduation requirements “vary in rigor,” sometimes lacking key courses like Algebra II, and that “a state’s graduation rate may not match how many students graduate ready for college and careers.” The research cited comes from Achieve Inc., a think tank spearheaded by said business leaders (funders include ExxonMobil, Intel Foundation, and JP Morgan Chase Foundation). It seems they are very alarmed by a lack of qualified job applicants.

Chen uses a report issued by a “left-leaning” think tank to undercut Achieve’s findings:

But other analyses of the academic data, by the left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and independent economist Joydeep Roy, place the modern diploma in a more complex economic frame. First, while Achieve compares various states’ graduation criteria, as EPI President Lawrence Mishel explains, “None of their comparisons are historical, showing a change from an earlier period.” Yet historical trendlines suggest that skills required in high school curricula today might often exceed those the job market demands—linked in part to the so-called “deskilling” of certain conventional trades, which some economists argue is pushing highly trained workers “down the occupational ladder” (read: baristas with BA’s). If there is a gap in qualifications, it seems to center on overqualified workers who can’t find positions commensurate with their credentials. (By the way, the same research reveals steadily rising portions of high schoolers taking Algebra II, along with calculus, chemistry and physics—so maybe it’s not the school system lacking rigor, but the labor market).

So…. who’s right about this? Both parties tend to argue from self-interest, but it seems to me that if the marketplace was operating as efficiently as the businessmen believes it does that wages would be rising intros areas where there are shortages and over time the supply of trained employees would increase. But “left-leaning” economists and journalists see something else at play: a manufactured crisis that sustains an existing marketplace glut that enables employers to suppress wages.

In the context of overarching unemployment patterns, EPI contends, the impoverishment of this generation “did not arise because young people today lack enough education or skills. Rather, it stems from weak demand for goods and services, which makes it unnecessary for employers to significantly ramp up hiring… not workers lacking the right skills or education.”

The perceived diploma crisis parallels the slippery rhetoric around the so-called “STEM crisis,” which corporate giants have portrayed as a systemic lack of qualified graduates to fill scientific and technical positions. Yet empirical analyses of STEM field job markets reveal distinctly little evidence of a widespread, systemic lack of graduates across the STEM fields. Perhaps an immediate “shortage” of software engineers might appear alongside a glut of chemistry PhDs, and plenty of science majors work outside their field. That could reflect graduates taking divergent paths to seek coveted good-paying jobs. It certainly doesn’t mean science and tech are not important educational fields to develop. But these patterns do not point to a structural educational crisis.

In posted reactions to several articles in past months that make the same points and draw the same conclusions: the STEM crisis is something the corporate world created to undercut arguments supporting public education and to sustain a steady enough supply of STEM employees to keep wages low and working conditions intense. Chen certainly holds that belief. While acknowledging the substantial need to improve opportunities for minority students and those raised in poverty, Chen suggests the all of the various crises affecting public education might be a diversionary tactic:

There are, of course, serious problems with inequality, inconsistency and racial segregation across the public education system. And many high school graduates start community college needing major remedial coursework, and may struggle to catch up to college-level academics. But cynicism about lackluster diplomas may be misplaced, or more dangerously, distract the public from holding corporations and policymakers accountable for dismal job prospects.

While Chen’s conclusions and those of EPI may seem paranoid and far-fetched, they are grounded in research and supported by the way the economy is working (or more accurately NOT working) when it comes to job creation that demands the skills Achieve claims are needed.

So if schools aren’t the problem, is business the problem?

Yes… and no. I believe the problem is not businesses per se but rather the way our system is currently established to value short term profits over sustained economic growth and— more importantly— a sustained quality of life of the provision of equal opportunity. If the rise in robotics is paralleled by a decline in jobs requiring technical skills and a diminished need for workers, maybe we need to debate how to structure work. There is emerging thinking that a four-day work week might create openings for more employees and the corresponding reduction in time spent on the job would result in an improved quality of life for everyone. Instead of arguing over why our current paradigm is failing we should examine the paradigm that is emerging and find a way to make it work going forward. Instead of debating whether we are preparing students for today’s workforce we should spend more time debating what we want the work force to look like in the future.

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