Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tropes about Education

David Brooks, the venerable (or maybe merely venerated) New York Times columnist, authored these words in a recent piece evaluating the claims of an America in decline:

The United States became the wealthiest nation on earth primarily because Americans were the best educated.

Ahhh, truer words were never spoken or written, you say?  A trope, I say.

It seems like an obvious correlation.  We are wealthy and we (were) well-educated.  We seem to be declining in "wealth" and we all know our education is worsening.  It seems further sensible that education is the thing causing the wealth, not vice versa, particularly in this story of only two factors.

But just how well does this assertion hold up?

First, we need to define our terms, in this case two variables that we think are causally related to each other.  We are indeed wealthy, for I am certain we are all talking about a measurement of GNP or GNP/capita, or some such.  That's clear enough.

"Best educated" is much less clear.  By that do we mean, we have the highest standardized test scores?  We have the most interesting classes?  We have the freest thought in our class rooms?  We provide a high quality education to everybody in the society?  We have good math skills?  We have a wonderfully flexible education system (especially at the university level)?

To some of these we have to answer No.  To others, Yes.  But we answer thusly and can still make an argument that we are the best educated.  We don't have the highest standardized test scores, but it remains clear that those American students in the upper reaches of the standardized test outcomes are doing quite well.  And by plenty of measures, student performance has been improving.  SAT scores have been swinging upward for 20 years.  (Before you dismiss that test for bias or lack of control across time, remember that it's the longest standing standardized test, and we've always put plenty of faith in its measurements.)

Brooks' claim has another difficulty, historically at least.  It's not clear we were ever "best educated"   in any sense that we just talked about.   As I mentioned last week, the 1931 standardized test for passing 8th grade in West Virginia had some serious weak spots.  But those kinds of artifacts are most often held up to show (even if implicitly) that kids know and can do less today than they could then.  Such is the anecdotal evidence of "better education back in the day."

Education wasn't so widely available to all Americans at the time we were becoming "wealthiest," either.  That 1931 test was a bar that a student needed to surpass in order to gain entry to high school.  I don't know how many students there were that didn't pass so didn't go to high school, but presumably there were some.  

And, of course, 1931 (and some years beyond) was well within the Jim Crow years.  African-American students had far less opportunity to go to school, and far fewer school resources available if they did go.  "Best education" was not extending across the social landscape, and we answer in the negative another of those variable-defining questions.

(Most historians, economists, political scientists and the like agree that the US was ascending to world dominance, leadership, wealth, etc., in the first half of the 20th Century.)

Look at the story from another angle.  Our per capita GNP is high, our GNP is high, our share of global GNP has remained at a whopping 25% for years, our productivity growth rate (the source of real gains in well-being) has been healthy--or, sometimes, less unhealthy than similarly developed economies.  

In other words, we're still wealthy.  The dependent variable hasn't changed as much as it is supposed to have changed.  Or perhaps Mr. Brooks is reading the future....Current bad education is about to cause losses of wealth.  We've heard such claims for some time, though.  And, like I say, there is evidence that in some ways education is indeed getting better in the US.

Mr. Brooks' assertion was tossed off too easily....I assume he was embracing the trope.  

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