Keep Faith With the Promise

by Dave Schuler on September 8, 2009

I think it’s completely appropriate for the president of the United States to address schoolchildren and I think that the concerns about indoctrination and furthering a political agenda are completely overblown.

However, I do want to comment on one thing in the president’s remarks. The president urges kids to devote themselves to their educations:

Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But, unfortunately, the converse isn’t true. It’s possible to work as hard as you can, graduate from high school or even college, and still not be able to get a good job. To understand how that can be so you’ve got to consider the numbers.

In the United States there are more than 35,000 high schools (roughly 25,000 public high schools and 10,000 private high schools according to the Digest of Education Statistics, 2001, Table 89). That means that if the #1 student in each of those schools did well, graduated from college, and applied to medical schools half would be rejected because there are only that many available billets in medical schools. It’s probably even worse than that. My intuition is that 90% of physicians went to about 10% of the schools. Someday I really must explain what I mean by some of the terms I use. By “intuition” I mean that I don’t have any proof but I do think that’s the case.

The same is true of many of the really good jobs. To become an associate at a top law firm you’ve got to have graduated from a top law school, to get into a top law school you’ve got to have graduated from an elite college, and so on.

Additionally, our economy isn’t creating enough new jobs, particularly in the sciences, for kids to qualify for when they graduate. That isn’t just true now in a recession in which the economy has shed, literally, millions of jobs. That’s been true for a decade during which the economy was allegedly booming and during which the number of jobs created has fallen short of the number of young men and women entering the work force.

President Obama isn’t precisely the best messenger for his message but he’s an excellent example of the point I’m making. Because of his grandparents’ financial resources and clout he was able to attend an elite school in Hawaii, Punahou. I’ve got college friends who graduated from Punahou and there’s no question in my mind that it’s an elite school.

Despite being, by his own account, a mediocre student he graduated, eventually got into Columbia University where he didn’t particularly distinguish himself academically, and then entered Harvard Law School where he did distinguish himself.

How did he accomplish all of this? It almost certainly wasn’t hard work. I would suggest a combination of native intelligence, money, and pull (of various kinds).

I suppose President Obama could have said “work hard in your crappy, boring, mediocre high school and you might qualify for a crappy, boring, mediocre job” but that doesn’t sound particularly good in a speech.

Rather than whining about the unfairness of it all I’m going to urge President Obama and all of us to keep faith with the promise that President Obama is making in his speech which is, essentially, the promise that has been called “the American dream”.

The problem isn’t simply one of money. We are paying a half trillion dollars per year educating young people in this country. There is a dreary similarity between the problems in healthcare and the problems in education. On a per capita (i.e. per child educated) basis we are paying a multiple for education of what any other developed country is paying and getting poorer results than practically any other developed country.

We need to decide what sort of country we want to be. If we’re going to be a country defined by birth, money, and connections, we should accustom ourselves to racial, ethnic, regional, and other set-asides, quotas, and other methods of leveling that playing field because we can’t afford simply to dismiss the greater proportion of our population.

If we’re going to be a country in which more people have more opportunities, proportional to their abilities and to how hard they work, we’re going to need an economy that creates a lot more high quality jobs and we’re going to need to change our educational system.

The problems in education aren’t the students and they aren’t that we’re not spending enough. The problems are systemic. We’re spending the money foolishly. Here are a handful of the things that we need to change but they’re merely scratching the surface:

  • Resources need to be concentrated where they’re needed, not necessarily where the money is coming from. We’ve got to abandon the real estate tax as the primary vehicle for funding schools.
  • Bureaucracy is one of the biggest problems. We’ve got to re-engineer education so that isn’t the case. Staffs must be trimmed so that more resources can be devoted to the key mission, education.
  • Pay expectations for administrators in the highest levels have got to be reduced. The fact of the matter is that we’re not attracting top executives away from businesses, top school administrators don’t get jobs as top executives in business, and the notion that the standard for pay for top school administrators should be that they should be competitive with the private sector is patently absurd.
  • We need to reaffirm and revitalize a commitment to the public schools. Most kids in the United States will attend public schools. That’s just what the numbers dictate. Doing otherwise means we’re just dismissing most of our students.
  • Leaders need to lead by example and not just with words. Here in Illinois right now we’re dealing with a scandal in which people who had connections got admitted to slots in law school they weren’t qualified for. That’s a perfect example of the role of clout. What’s the message here? Work hard so you’ll get bumped by the son of an alderman?
  • Higher education needs to adjust the number of billets available in their programs to the number of jobs available. We need to stop graduating so many English and art majors unless there are jobs for English and art majors to do. The students are not the customers in education. “Supply and demand” doesn’t mean teaching students what they want to be taught.

This is going to be a lot harder than graduating from high school.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

michael reynolds September 8, 2009 at 9:21 am

I agree with all your points except the last one. Education is a good thing in and of itself, it doesn’t necessarily have to be matched to a particular job. My son tells me that Steve Jobs dropped out of college having taken only a course in calligraphy. And thus, perhaps, the visual elegance of Apple.

There are other problems with education that schools have yet to even consider. My son attends (as of today, yay!) a private school for gifted kids. They assign lots of algebra homework. Fortunately he’s good at math but he wouldn’t need to be: Wolfram Alpha will solve your algebra equations and show the work, too. It’s as though the teachers don’t own computers.

Schools haven’t even begun to think about teaching in a Google world. They try to push back the clock by banning iPhones and other web devices from class, but that’s not going to work. They need to find a way to teach in the world as it is: a world where penmanship is an archaic skill, where all data is instantly available everywhere, where reading is fractured into multiple screens. The ability to find, digest, contextualize and appraise information is the core skill, not memorizing facts.

The kid carried two boxes full of ruled paper, graph paper, binders, folders, pencils into school — but had to leave his MacBook behind in the car. You know, the slim little device that holds an essentially limitless supply of folders? School haven’t caught up with the late 20th century let alone the 21st.

Peter Appleby September 8, 2009 at 9:33 am

I agree that it is definitely not ideal for kids who work really hard at school to not be able to get a job at the end of it.

Maybe alongside english, science & history lessons we should be doing more to teach kids about the world of work & how to succeed despite the lack of experience that many of them leave college with.

Here’s a good article on the subject:

http://www.workbloom.net/career-advice-for-graduates/

Looking forward to hearing everyone else’s views.

Dave Schuler September 8, 2009 at 10:32 am

Michael, if, as a matter of policy, we view education as a path to employment, as the president said outright in his speech, then it matters a great deal whether that’s the case or not.

If education is like the fine arts, to be appreciated for its own sake, then let’s not continue the charade that there’s a relationship between education and employment. And let’s not allow degrees to be barriers to employment.

Jimbino September 8, 2009 at 10:51 am

Obama missed the opportunity to point out to kids that it is not necessary to master math or a foreign language because:

1. None of the Supremes, except for Breyer, is adept at math or science.

2. Only about 8 of our 535 Congessmen are adept at math or science.

3. Of our presidents, none but Carter and Hoover is/was adept at math or science, and the last who could speak a modern foreign language fluently was Teddy Roosevelt (French). Obama is a perfect example of a leader inept in math, science, economics and foreign languages.

4. If you are totally ignorant of math, science and, especially, economics, you have a bright future in politics and law.

PD Shaw September 8, 2009 at 2:58 pm

It was only in Classical Greece that the Philosopher Kings needed to study mathematics.

E.D. Kain September 8, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Excellent post! Let me chew on all of this for a while and try to wrangle up a better response.

Brett September 8, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Resources need to be concentrated where they’re needed, not necessarily where the money is coming from. We’ve got to abandon the real estate tax as the primary vehicle for funding schools.

Good point. We arguably should have abandoned the “land tax” model for education funding as soon as it became administratively possible to do so. The only downside I see with this is that it tends to lead to even greater domination from the top – whether the state education leadership or the federal leadership.

We need to stop graduating so many English and art majors unless there are jobs for English and art majors to do. The students are not the customers in education.

I think you would need to really couple this with a reform of the public school system. Part of the reason for the rise of all these degrees is due to the effective neutralization of any meaning involved with high school graduation in many areas.

Drew September 10, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Ah, yes. Do we send our child to MIT, where they will simply learn a “trade?” Or to Harvard, where they will be “educated?” Or to Juliard, where they will become “artists”……..or, uh, tradesmen/women?

Sigh.

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