Why Systemic Reform: OECD on the Risk of America’s Long-Term Unemployment Problems
Certainly the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s report yesterday on America’s economic trends didn’t get as much coverage as, say, the wildfires out near Colorado Springs, or the latest mutterings of Rielle Hunter, the onetime lover of writer Bret Easton Ellis whose affair with former U.S. Senator John Edwards precipitated the onetime presidential aspirants much-deserved fall from grace. But the economic organization’s observations on the nation’s long-term prospects after this current economic malaise passes offers more reasons why we must continue the much-needed transformation of American public education.
As Dropout Nation reported earlier this month from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment levels still remain above eight percent, with plenty of Americans remaining on the unemployment lines. But according to the OECD’s analysis, the time spend searching for work is longer than ever. The average American spends 20 weeks searching for a job, according to OECD, double the amount of time seeking work in 1984, at the tail end of the recession of early 1980s. Meanwhile more than 35 percent of all unemployed workers have been out of work for a year or longer; the United States’ own long-term unemployment rate has now reached the levels of countries such as Japan, France and Spain, whose governments have mismanaged economic policy to the point of turning slowing down long-term competitiveness on the global front (and in the case of Spain, has helped contribute to the fiscal and economic collapse besetting all of Europe). As a result, OECD declares that there is a “significant risk that long term unemployment could evolve into chronic problems that persist long after” the nation’s current economic doldrums.
Certainly the economic recession caused by meltdowns in the financial and housing sectors have contributed to the nation’s unemployment problem, as has the thoughtless stimulus efforts that both President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, embarked upon since 2007. But as OECD points out, the housing collapse has actually had little to do with the nation’s unemployment woes, and, as it had happened after similar recessions in 1973 and 1979, a good number of unemployed workers will return to the workforce. Nor has the increased duration of unemployment benefits (to as long as two years at the height of the recession behind this current malaise, and 73 weeks currently) has affected length of unemployment.
The bigger problem, as OECD’s data suggest, has to do with the reality that many unemployed workers will remain unemployable because they don’t have the high-quality education they need to succeed in an increasingly global economy.
Unemployment rate for high school dropouts still hovered around 13 percent, based on first quarter 2012 data gathered by the OECD from BLS — and that’s just for the half of all dropout who are actually participating in the workforce. But that data only hints at the extent of the problem. The unemployment rate for all 16-to-19 year olds is at 24 percent — and 38 percent for young black men and women; while some of that is due to the fact that more young men and women are attending college, as much of the problem lies with the reality that kinds of part-time fast food and retail jobs that used to be filled by those students are now being filled by high school dropouts aged 25-and-older whose lack of skills and college credentials make them unemployable for all but the menial of jobs. There’s also the reality that far too many teens are themselves high school dropouts, and thus ill-equipped to gain middle-class employment; with only half of young black men graduating from high school, their unemployment and labor force participation rates will continue to worsen because they can’t be meaningful contributors to the nation’s economy. This isn’t just true for young black men alone. Declares OECD: “Nearly half of the sharp decline in youth employment over the past four years has appeared as withdrawals from the labour market rather than increases in unemployment.” With fewer dropouts of all ages working, and more Baby Boomers heading into retirement, America’s economy may struggle for decades to come.
Then there is the fact that dropouts and high school grads who don’t have at least some college experience cannot get into high-paying blue- and white-collar professions also has an effect on bolstering the nation’s future economic growth and reviving our poorest communities. Average annual earnings (in 2010 dollars) for male high school graduates with no college credits to their background has declined by 33 percent between 1980 and 2010, while earnings for male dropouts have plummeted even further. At the same time, earnings for those with at least some form of college education — especially those with baccalaureate and graduate degrees — have continued to either hold steady or grow strongly.
The reality is simple: Most of the nation’s current and future economic growth (and that of the global economy overall) is in knowledge-based sectors that demand strong math, science, and literacy skills. This includes those white-collar professions such as statisticians and those in the tech fields, as well as blue-collar jobs such as machinists and elevator installers-and-repairers; it will also include professions that have become more knowledge-based such as marketing (in which analyzing statistics has become more-important than conjuring ad taglines) and even automotive repair (which more-resembles information technology work than grease monkey activity). More importantly, in an age in which being tied to one company or career path is no longer the norm, having strong knowledge will allow workers to move from being mere employees to becoming entrepreneurs and business owners who can advance innovation and economic growth.
None of this bodes well for dropouts and high school grads without the strong knowledge needed to get some form of higher education, be it traditional college, technical school, or apprenticeships. They are already falling behind economically and socially — and will continue to do so. It’s even worse for kids in school today who aren’t getting the high-quality, subject-matter competent-based teaching, and strong, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula needed to succeed as entrepreneurs, workers, and productive citizens. As the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology noted earlier this year, 60 percent of high school graduates entering college looking to get degrees in science-, technology-, engineering-, and mathematics-based professions never complete a degree in those fields. Just one out of every two fourth-graders — and two in five eight-graders and high school seniors — had gotten the science instruction needed to successfully take on hands-on science tasks, accordingto the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress; a mere 24 percent of students could take on tasks such as “appropriately decide how to manipulate four metal bars made of unknown materials to determine which ones were the magnets.”
But the cost isn’t just limited to our children. Because dropouts and low-skilled high school graduates will likely end up on welfare and Medicaid, they will add to the fiscal burdens (including $1.1 trillion in teachers’ pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs) being borne by taxpayers and the nation’s economy for decades to come. Just as importantly, because they don’t know enough to be valuable in the economy, the United States will struggle to maintain its status as the world’s leading economic power — especially given that our immigration system discourages foreigners who account for most of the nation’s science and technology college graduates from becoming citizens.
What we have is an education crisis that cannot simply be ignored or explained away with the kind of Poverty and Personal Responsibility myths touted by education traditionalists and others unwilling to to transform American public education. This means overhauling how we recruit, train, evaluate, and pay teachers, as well as providing all children with the kind of college preparatory curricula (including that developed from Common Core reading and math standards) that can help all children know their names and be successful economically. And as OECD notes, the economic benefits of systemically overhauling how we provide education (and improving the quality of instruction and curricula) to all children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, is astronomical, not only for kids and their families, but for the communities in which they live.
The OECD report is another opportunity for school reformers to make the case for transforming the systems that make up American public education. The futures of our children, and the nation as a whole, is dependent on addressing the problems wrought schools whose practices are no longer fit for preparing our kids in the knowledge-based economy.