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These days, there is plenty of debate over the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, and sparring over the future of the No Child Left Behind Act and its strong accountability measures. But the unemployment data released yesterday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics should once again remind us why we must overhaul American public education: Because the prospects are bleak for high school dropouts and even those high school graduates without some form of college education, especially in an age in their low levels of reading, math, and science proficiency renders them unfit to take on high-paying knowledge-based white- and blue-collar jobs. And their slide into the economic and social abyss will weigh down heavily on the nation’s economic future.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngSure, President Barack Obama may be a tad happy about the relatively positive news that 175,000 people found jobs in the economy last month (on a seasonally-adjusted basis). But the reality is that the nation’s unemployment rate of 7.6 percent is just six-tenths of a percentage point lower than at the same period last year, which means that few Americans are attaining jobs. More disturbing is that there are 4.4 million Americans who have been out of work for longer than 27 weeks  — and may never find the kind of middle class-paying employment that will allow them to sustain themselves and their families. And that number, by the way, doesn’t include the 2.2 million “marginally attached” citizens who were unemployed, but didn’t seek either jobs or unemployment benefits in that month — and often gave up looking for work.

As bad as the data on long-term unemployment seems to be, it is actually worse when one looks closer at the long-term data. The current level of long-term unemployed is four times higher than the 1.1 million who were out of work in May 2007, just months before the financial meltdown and the current economic malaise. The long-term unemployed also make up a larger percentage of all those on hiring lines, accounting for 37 percent of all unemployed workers versus a mere 16 percent six years ago. It isn’t as if the long-term unemployed can simply string together two part-time jobs (or one full-time and part-time gig) just to make ends meet; the percentage of Americans working two or more jobs declined by 7.4 percent between 2007 and 2013.

Certainly the hangover from the economic malaise — including the tightening up of home mortgage and commercial lending after the meltdowns of the housing and financial markets– along with the myriad shortcomings of the stimulus efforts undertaken by both the Obama Administration and that of George W. Bush — are among the culprit for long-term unemployment. So is the Federal Reserve Board’s sometimes misplaced focus on using monetary policy to stimulate consumer demand and stave off inflation. But as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development pointed out in a study released last year, 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. And contrary to arguments made by economists such as Stanford University professor (and one-time adviser to former president George W. Bush) Edward P. Lazaer, neither the increased duration of unemployment benefits (currently as long as 73 weeks) nor a 13 percent increase in the number of dependents on Social Security’s disability welfare program since 2009 offer a full reason for the high levels of long-term unemployment.

What is clear is that many unemployed workers will remain so because they don’t have the high-quality education needed to succeed in an increasingly global economy. The unemployment rate for high school dropouts aged 25 and older, now at 11.4 percent, is nearly double that in 2007  — and that’s not including the fact that 55 percent of all dropouts are not in the labor force at all. But things aren’t much better for high school grads without some college education. The 7.4 percent unemployment rate for high school graduates without some form of higher education, though 4 percentage points lower than that for dropouts, is still nearly double unemployment levels in 2007; one out of every two high school grads without a diploma are out of the workforce, versus two out of every five six years ago.

This is a particular problem for workers from poor and minority backgrounds, who are the most-likely to not have been provided high-quality education. After all, black high school dropouts and high school grads without any college experience account for 49 percent of all African-Americans in the civilian population age 25 and older and a whopping 64 percent of Latinos; just 42 percent of whites and 30 percent of Asians were dropouts and high school grads without college experience. The lower the levels of education in a community, the more – susceptible it is to economic and social distress. Unemployment rates for black high school dropouts 25 and older stood at 24.8 percent in 2012, double the levels of unemployment in 2007, while the 13.4 percent unemployment rate for high school graduates in that age range without college experience is nearly double the rate at the end of 2007; the percentage of black dropouts in the labor force declined from 39.1 percent to just 36.5 between 2007 and 2012, while the percentage of black high school grads in the workforce declined from 65.4 percent to 61.9 percent in the same period.

Meanwhile dropouts and high school grads without some college education face a daunting challenge. The sectors that used to be their go-tos are either contracting or not growing economically. There are 2.8 million fewer jobs in construction in 2012, according to BLS data, while the retail and transportation sectors have, respectively, shed 388,000 and 379,000 fewer jobs in that same period. While high-skilled jobs in manufacturing such as welding and machine tool-and-die making  are in demand — and go unfilled because of the lack of talent to fill those positions — the overall sector has shed 1.6 million jobs over the past six years thanks to decades of innovations that have rendered low-skilled assembly line jobs obsolete. Even when the economy recovers, low-skilled Americans will have dwindling options for high-paying employment. The average high school dropout earned 35 percent less in median weekly wages in 2012 than a high school graduate who attended college, a gap that has been growing for some time.

With the nation’s current and future economic growth (and that of the global economy overall) coming from knowledge-based sectors that demand strong math, science, and literacy skills, dropouts and high school grads without college education are stuck in the economic abyss. The consequences aren’t just borne by themselves, their children, and the communities in which they live. 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.

The only way to help the children of dropouts and high school grads avoid economic struggle — and keep the nation’s economy strong — is to continue the overhaul of American public education. Contrary to the arguments of Common Core foes, implementing the standards is a key step toward providing all children with the comprehensive college preparatory curricula they need to succeed in traditional colleges and other forms of higher education (including apprenticeships, which require the same levels of knowledge for entry as traditional higher ed institutions).

But high quality standards standards alone won’t lead to better outcomes for kids. Districts and other school operators have to be held accountable for improving student achievement. This is where the accountability provisions of No Child come in. By tracking how districts are providing teaching and curricula to children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — states, families and reformers can advance efforts that will lead to kids getting the knowledge that they need to succeed in the knowledge-based world.

The latest jobs data is another reminder that systemic reform is critical to helping our children and the nation as a whole. We can not afford to do anything less.

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