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October 18, 2013 standard

Back in 2005, then-Harvard University President Lawrence Summers infamously speculated that the gender inequalities in the sciences at his institution may be genetic. Put simply, Summers thought that women were not as talented as men in mathematics.Researchers have been assiduously looking for a math gene since he made those remarks, but have not yet reported success.Those efforts, no doubt, are taking place in parallel with the effort to find the gene that prevents men from asking for directions.

A review of the data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and enrollment patterns at flagship institutions of higher education, such as Harvard, might be helpful while we wait for definitive results from genetic and phrenological studies. In fourth grade, 10 percent of White, non-Hispanic, males score at the Advanced level on the NAEP Mathematics assessment, as compared to seven percent of White, non-Hispanic, females.One percent each of Black male and female fourth graders score at the Advanced level.Two percent of Hispanic males and one percent of Hispanic females reach the Advanced level, while 19 percent of Asian males and 20 percent of Asian females reach the Advanced level in fourth grade math.  

Two aspects of these results concerning students at the beginning of their schooling stand out:  the gender differences are small and do not all point in the same direction; gender differences are dwarfed by differences in students from different race/ethnicities.Of course the race and ethnicity categories are themselves highly questionable.“Asians,” for example, include Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Afghans, Laos, Uighurs and others of diverse backgrounds and genetic heritage.Hispanics are similarly diverse, as are White, non-Hispanics, and Black students.

After four more years of schooling we find that 11 percent of male White, non-Hispanics, reach the Advanced level in eighth grade, as do nine percent of female White, non-Hispanic, students.Up one for males; up two for females.Black students are still at one percent and one percent. Hispanic male and female students are up one percent each to three percent for males and two percent for females and the percentage of male Asian students scoring at the Advanced level has gone up four percent to 23 percent, while female Asian students have gained just one percent, losing their advantage.Again, Asians are twice as likely to score at the Advanced level as White, non-Hispanic, students, while the percentages of Black and Hispanic students at the Advanced level remain very small indeed.

Turning to postsecondary education, we are astonished to find that Summers’ own Harvard University graduates more than twice as many men with math undergraduate degrees as women (24 to 10) and equal numbers of White, non-Hispanics, and Asians (ten each). Within those last two categories White, non-Hispanic, men out number White, non-Hispanic, women six to four, while Asian men outnumber Asian women eight to two.This is quite odd if math talent is genetic.How does it happen that while at grade 4 the percentage of Asian students at the Advanced level in Mathematics is twice that of White, non-Hispanic, students, but by the time they go through Harvard, the numbers are equal?And how has the gender disparity among Asians—Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Afghans, Laos and Uighurs—become so large?  Perhaps the gene in question only “expresses” itself after admission to Harvard.

However, the situation is even more extreme at the University of California, Berkeley, than at Harvard.  There 65 male students received degrees in Mathematics, as compared to 12 female students and 28 White, non-Hispanic, students did so as compared to 20 Asian students.  This in a region and university with an unusually high concentration of Asian-Americans. Nationally, only a quarter of those receiving undergraduate degrees in Mathematics are women.  Black students are the only group with equal gender shares.

Which brings us to how we don’t provide high-quality science and math education to black and Latino children, especially young black and Latino women.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2001 Harvard awarded 74 Bachelor’s degrees in Mathematics and statistics, and, for example, MIT, a few blocks down river, awarded 93. Only three of the Harvard graduates were Latina women, and none were Black women. No Black or Latina women received degrees in Mathematics from MIT in that year. The story is disappointingly similar for 2009, the latest year for which data is available.  Out of a total of 173 Bachelors degrees in Mathematics awarded from these two institutions, only 4 went to Black or Latina women. Not much progress to be seen there.

At least since President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address, the wage gap between men and women in the workplace has again risen to prominence in our national discourse. Serious efforts to close that gap must address both the persistent concentration of women, and specifically Black and Latino women, in lower income occupations, and continuing gender inequities in wages across all occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 60 percent of employed Black women are in the sales, office and service occupations, as are 65 percent of Hispanic women. In the prestigious management, professional and related occupation sectors Black and Latina women work for much lower wages than do White, non-Hispanic, men: $812 and $789 per week compared to $1,273 per week.

The high road to occupational and income equity runs through the STEM fields, especially math. Once a specialized and somewhat arcane field, math is now required for many, if not most, business and governmental management positions and it is essential for careers in the sciences. Black and Latino students nationally have less access to key opportunities that prepare them for school and ensure they continue to succeed once they’re there. All children should, but many don’t, have access to high quality early childhood education, highly prepared and effective teachers, college preparatory curriculum or equitable instructional materials. In many middle schools with predominant Black and Latino enrollment, there are no “gateway” courses to college preparatory math offered.  On top of that, young Black and Latina women must often contend with gender and racial stereotyping that pushes them down a school-to-low-wage-work pipeline. What America needs is a continuous K-12 pipeline of opportunities and resources giving young women, especially young Black and Latino women, access to the STEM fields.

June 8, 2013 standard

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.

Sure, 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.

September 25, 2012 standard

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Fifteen percent of young men and women age 16-to-24 in 25 of the nation’s big cities are neither working, finishing high school, or studying at an institution or program of higher education. Based on an extrapolation of those numbers, that means it is likely that at 5.8 million young adults (and likely more) in those urban communities have essentially been condemned to poverty, prison, and social despair. Many of them are young black, white, Latino, and Asian men, who, unlike previous generations, cannot depend on low-skilled factory and farm work to provide middle class incomes that can sustain families. It is unlikely that they will ever take on any meaningful work, play roles in civil society, or stay off of some form of public assistance. And their disconnection from the mainstream has devastating consequences to the nation’s economy and social fabric in an increasingly global economic age.

This is the sobering news that you learn from the Social Science Research Council’s latest report on the challenges facing young adults as a result of the nation’s education crisis. And the data once again serves as a reminder of why we must continue the overhaul of American public education – and ensure that all children get the comprehensive college-preparatory curricula they need to write their own stories.

Certainly the aftermath of the strike by the American Federation of Teachers’ Chicago local has consumed a lot of discussion about the battle between education traditionalists and reformers about the direction of the nation’s public school systems. But it is important to remember why the reforms traditionalists oppose are needed more than ever: Because we are in a time in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands. As Dropout Nation reported earlier this year in a collection on education and the economy, annual compound growth in real weekly wages for high school dropouts has declined between 1963 and 2008, even as high school grads, those with some higher ed training, and collegians, have seen compounded annual wage growth of at least four-tenths of one percent. This is because dropouts (and even many high school grads) lack the strong reading, math, and science skills needed to gain entry into high-skilled and knowledge-based white- and blue-collar jobs that are (and will continue to be) the biggest sources of economic and wage growth. The lack of skills is one reason why just half of all high school dropouts age 25 and older are out of the workforce, the culprit behind the 14 percent unemployment rate for those dropouts that seeking work, and the key factor for why you see so many middle-aged workers handling the fast food jobs once reserved for teenagers.

The even more grave consequences are now being born by the 16-to-24 year-olds who are among the 10.2 million who dropped out in the past nine years. Lacking the substantial work experience of middle-aged dropouts, along with being bereft of literacy, numeracy, and science knowledge, these young men and women are even less unemployable than earlier generations. Even worse, because of the years of educational neglect and malpractice by those adults working in dropout factories, failure mills, and warehouses of mediocrity, these kids are also unfit to get into apprenticeship programs, traditional colleges, and other forms of higher education. As a result, they are in an economic no man’s land. Little wonder why only 72 percent of 16-to-24 year olds not in school are in the workforce, according to analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Dropout Nation — and the unemployment rate among those seeking work is 17 percent (as of the end of 2011).

But the consequences for these young adults goes beyond the financial. As Sarah Burd-Sharps and Kristin Lewis point out in the SSRC report, when young men and women are unemployable, their social prospects are also gloomy. For young women, the lack of education becomes a vicious cycle: They are more-likely to become out-of-wedlock mothers in part because they see no point in either using birth control or delaying gratification, resulting in 35 percent of young women neither working or in school becoming pregnant versus just 10 percent of peers who are engaged in college and career; once pregnant, they are unlikely to continue on the path to high school and college graduation even though achieving those goals will lead them to becoming employable in the adult world. The fact that 22 percent of young black adults age 16-to-24 aren’t either working or in school is one reason why 70 percent of young black children are borne out of wedlock.

For young men, who make up three out of every five high school dropouts (and part of the reason why young men account for only 43 percent of baccalaureate degrees compared to 57 percent of female peers), the consequences are even more grave. Their low levels of education make them less attractive as future husbands; like 35 percent of male dropouts 35-to-54, they will likely never marry. Like young women without either education or jobs, they will also be less likely to exercise restraint as well, helping to bring more out-of-wedlock children into conditions that perpetuate another cycle of economic poverty. This cycle is familiar to these adults because their parents were also dropouts, condemned to economic and social despair. These young men are also more-likely to end up in prison and homeless than peers who have graduated from high school and gone on to college and career; as Princeton University researcher Bruce Western and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington pointed out in their 2004 study, young black men who are high school dropouts are 12 times more likely to land in prison by age 34 than peers who have some college education, while the risk for young white male dropouts is 16 higher than for their college-educated counterparts. It is also why American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian young men (a group SSRC unfortunately left out of its study even though more than 90 percent of them live outside of reservations and attend traditional public schools) struggle so mightily in the economic and social mainstream.

Meanwhile the social consequences go even beyond out-of-wedlock births. One of the reasons why high-quality education is so important is that it plays a critical part in helping young men and women know their own names. When children can read proficiently, handle algebraic equations, and understand abstractions upon which the world is formed, they build the self-confidence that comes from achievement and learning, the ability to converse with anyone anywhere no matter their station in life, and the capability to build stable lives and be socially mobile in the knowledge-based world. When children grow up unskilled and unemployable, they struggle with healthy self-esteem, emotional stability, and physical as well as mental health. They cannot meet their obligations to God and their fellow men and women to be players in civil society. And their instability (and dependence on the welfare state) ultimately makes the communities in which they live and the nation as a whole unstable.

These are consequences that come in large part from the failures of American public education. One out of every three fourth-graders are functionally illiterate, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress; a mere one in 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 such as “appropriately decide how to manipulate four metal bars made of unknown materials to determine which ones were the magnets”, according to the 2009 edition of the federal test of educational attainment. Shoddy reading, math, and science instruction, often by teachers poorly trained by the nation’s ed schools and protected by near-lifetime employment and performance management policies that allow laggard teachers to stay in classrooms, is one reason for why so many kids are struggling and becoming disconnected. So is the fact that our kids are being provided shoddy curricula, exacerbated by a century of rationing education — especially the comprehensive high school model, gifted-and-talented programs (which falsely perpetuate the idea that they are cordons solitaire from the problems ailing the rest of education), exclusion of  and special ed ghettos used to condemn young men considered unteachable by those unwilling to instruct them. We cannot reduce poverty — and continue to bend the arcs of American and world history toward progress — if we continue to damn these young men and women (and the children they will have) to low expectations.

Which is why the argument made by SSRC — to move away from focusing kids on college and career success — is puzzling. Contrary to its argument, the solution isn’t to move away from the focus on providing kids with comprehensive college preparatory curricula — or to shy them away from attending college and other forms of higher education (including apprenticeships, which require the same levels of knowledge for entry as traditional higher ed institutions). As I made clear last year in criticizing Ronald Ferguson, Robert Schwartz, and William Simons of Harvard University in their rather thoughtless (and racialist) Pathways to Prosperity report, arguing against college preparatory education does little more than perpetuate the decades of educational neglect and malpractice that has gotten the nation here in the first place. If anything, thanks to the focus of reformers on helping all kids get high-quality curricula, we are now seeing fewer kids being condemned to illiteracy and innumeracy. When all kids get college preparatory learning (and we improve curricula and teaching through efforts such as enacting Common Core standards), they get the knowledge they need to succeed in pursuing any path they choose. Which will help their families, their communities, and the nation as a whole.

Reformers must continue to embrace John Taylor Gatto’s adage to treat all children as geniuses. This means battling fiercely (and rallying support from families and communities) to overhaul American public education. The cost of uneducated children is disconnected adults unable to help anyone around them.

July 2, 2012 standard

The average American working in science, technology, engineering, and medical fields will earn $500,000 more in their lifetime than peers outside of those fields — and are more likely to stay employed even in periods of economic recession. Whether or not many of our young men and women will even be able to get jobs in those high-talent sectors — or in any high-paying white- or blue-collar job — remains an open question. And this problem explains why we must do more to advance the overhaul of American public education.

This insight comes courtesy of a report released last month by McKinsey & Co.’s global affairs think tank, which took a look at the global demand for high-skilled labor across the globe. The white paper has garnered attention for its prediction that global economies will need as many as 40 million new college educated workers to fill shortages that may come in the next eight years, and for determining that most of the new high-skilled job growth will happen not in China, but in India and other countries entering into the ranks of the U.S. and other advanced nations. But the most-important data coming from that report lies in how much the world has changed for the worse for high school dropouts lacking in strong reading, math, and science skills (as well as for high school grads lacking both those skills and some training in higher education be it traditional college, technical school, community college, or apprenticeships). Especially in a time in which science and medicine are the dominant careers for earning middle-class wages and gaining entry in becoming entrepreneurs.

Between 1963 and 2008, there has been negative annual compound growth in real weekly wages for dropouts, while high school grads, those with some higher ed training, and collegians, have seen compounded annual wage growth of at least four-tenths of one percent; in that period, the gap in wages between dropouts and college grads has increased by 63 percent in that period, from 1.7 to one ratio to nearly three-to-one. Meanwhile in the United States and other advanced economies, low-skilled workers struggle the most to land and keep jobs, struggling with unemployment rates that are two-to-four times higher than those with higher ed training and higher levels of skills, while also spending more time out of work. Given that the percentage of American workers out of work longer than 27 weeks gained new employment has declined from 20 percent to 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, this means that more out-of-work dropouts are unlikely to get back into the workforce. And that means more young men and women on welfare, adding to the trillions of dollars in long-term burdens that American taxpayers and the economy as a whole cannot bear.

It gets even worse when one looks at the blue-collar sectors in which dropouts used to be able to get jobs that paid middle-class wages. The number of labor-intensive, or low-skilled assembly and factory line jobs, declined by nearly half, with two million fewer workers on the line. As a result, low-skilled jobs as a percentage of all manufacturing positions declined by 29 percent, while the percentage of manufacturing jobs in capital- and knowledge-intensive have increased. While Baby Boomers in manufacturing are now heading into retirement, and the sector is growing again, the need will not be for low-skilled workers, but for those with strong math, science, and even computer language skills (especially in C and Fortran) in order to work as machinists and other knowledge-based jobs in factory settings. The long-term trend — nearly all labor-intensive jobs likely to disappear in the coming decades — is especially clear when one looks at Germany, where nearly all manufacturing jobs are capital- and knowledge-intensive. In short, high school dropouts need not apply because they won’t get passed the door.

While low-skilled Americans (and their counterparts in other countries) will struggle, those with higher ed training are doing better economically. In fact, as McKinsey notes, the decline in low- and medium-skilled labor as contributors to economic growth (from as high as 65 percent in the United States and other fairly young advanced countries during the 1970s, to 50 percent or lower today) explains the growing levels of income inequality across this nation and the globe. Doing especially well are men and women working in science and technology fields. In France, for example, unemployment rates for those with science, engineering, and healthcare baccalaureate and graduate degrees  is below six percent, far lower than the unemployment rates for fellow grads in softer subjects such as communications. A young man graduating from college today with a degree in areas such as nuclear engineering is more-likely to land a high-paying gig and stay employed over time than a high school dropout.

Yet far too many Americans have gotten the education they need to graduate from high school, much less get into science and engineering professions. Thirty-two percent of young men in eighth grade and 37 percent of their female peers were scientifically illiterate, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The depths of science illiteracy are even worse for poor and minority students, who are less likely than middle-class white and Asian peers to get strong science instruction and curricula; two out of every three black eighth-graders, and one out of every two Latino and Native students scored Below Basic on the science portion of NAEP. Our kids are ill-equipped to understand such basic concepts such as hypothesis and the scientific method of inquiry, much less take on the higher-level tasks required for success in STEM careers. None of this is surprising: Thirty-eight states had science curricula standards of C or lower, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s analysis released earlier this year; even when standards and curricula are up to snuff, most kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds can’t get such coursework because of Zip Code Education and rationing of education policies (including denying seventh- and eighth-graders opportunities to take Algebra 1 and other courses).

But scientific illiteracy isn’t just about not knowing how to handle a science experiment. It is about the inability to grasp abstract concepts that come out of science that are important in both careers and in being able to navigate in  complex society. That is a problem that starts with low levels of reading literacy. With 33 percent of all fourth-graders being functionally illiterate, and few children regardless of their socioeconomic background getting the strong reading instruction and remediation in the early grades needed to get up to speed before reaching third, this means plenty of young men and women who struggling with all forms of literacy. And this is a problem that lies with American public education’s failures in providing high-quality curricula and instruction — especially in recruiting aspiring teachers with strong subject-matter competency and training them properly to teach reading, math, and science.

Certainly we should, as McKinsey suggests, increase the number of young men and women graduating from traditional colleges, technical schools, and internships, especially in the science and technology fields. This starts by overhauling American public education and the systems that feed into it. This includes expanding alternative teacher training programs such as Teach For America and launching new forms of schools of education such as Relay in order to improve how aspiring teachers are prepared to teach in classrooms. It also means clamping down on who is allowed into teaching into the first place by demanding that all aspiring teachers have strong competency in math and other subjects they will teach, a major reason why traditional ed schools are failing so miserably. Identifying kids struggling with reading before they reach first grade — and helping them with intensive remediation — is also key. Improving science curricula is critical; the new Common Core science standards being shopped across the country are an important start, but we must do more to provide all kids with strong, comprehensive, college preparatory curricula. And expanding school choice so that families can choose high-quality math, reading, and science instruction is also important.

If we want all children to have the prospect of brighter futures, we must help them get the education they need to take on the careers and entrepreneurial opportunities in the science and technology fields that can make it possible. Anything other than that is economically and even morally unacceptable.

June 27, 2012 standard

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.