Opinion: Learning the economic realities

Share via

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

The force driving the school reform movement is the conviction that if we don’t college-educate more students, don’t fare better on international tests of math and science, jobs will disappear and the U.S. economy will suffer.

The actual picture is a lot more complicated, various studies have found. The latest, which comes from the Hoover Institution, confirms that education is one important factor driving economic growth--but it’s far from the only one. Other important facts are the extent to which countries value innovation, open themselves to international trade and protect property rights.


It certainly can’t hurt to have a better-educated country. But looking at the issue on the ground, it’s easy to see that higher-achieving kids don’t always lead to booming times. Despite our reportedly lagging achievement, this country enjoyed extraordinary prosperity during the tech bubble of the late 1990s. Japan’s vaunted school system didn’t save it from prolonged economic downturn. It’s worth remembering that India considers the lack of creativity and innovation among its students to be a major weakness in its education system.

Will having more college graduates, more scientists and techies, help? Hard to say. Already, many college grads are underemployed and underpaid. Studies show that much of the growing disparity between the incomes of college grads and high school grads isn’t that the college-educated make that much more, but that the loss of unionized manufacturing jobs to non-unionized service-sector jobs has hurt the income of the less educated. After all, was assembly-line work so demanding that it called for the healthy incomes that union shops delivered? Doesn’t your basic hotel maid work just as hard, while making much less money? And if we do manage to produce more well-trained programmers and other tech people, will they be able to find employment if other countries are producing people with the same training who will work for a lot less money?