Education as a cure all?

Somewhere, perhaps in the 1970s, the idea of rates of return became the overarching mythology of the policy discourse about education. Interestingly, this has not always been the case. In fact the first notable use of production functions in education was in 1960s when James Samuel Coleman wrote the famous Coleman Report [But my research on this matter may be inadequate, so please read it critically and correct me through your comments if you know this claim to be wrong].

The returns-on-education story became the mainstream policy paradigm in the last two decades of the 20th century and remains so to this day. Since policy science was presumably an extension of the discipline of economics, the returns narrative became strongly entrenched in the policy debates. I am not for or against this paradigm. Here I am just blogging that this storyline wasn’t always dominant –not for nearly 100 years of public education in the Western world, i.e. from the mid 19th century until the 1960s–that it popped its head in the last three decades or so of the 20th century, and that it may be collapsing again.

The story runs something like this: Investments in education have returns, the quality of education can be conceptualised in terms of standards, children can be tested to measure whether or not they had met those standards, and policy should base its rewards and punishments based on the results of tests based on the standards.

Let me focus on the idea of standards to push this conversation. There is little evidence of the use of language of standards in the mainstream discussions of education until the mid 1970s. One of the firsts in standards was the state of New Jersey that put out ‘new standards’ in November 1975 [See New Education Standards Approved by the State Board]. The standards-based reforms is a thing of 80s and afterwards.

Thinking of education in terms of returns and the associated idea of standards as measures has become naturalised since the 1980s. John Dewey , the famous American education reformer, also defined standards as precisely measurable attributes, but such that could be used solely for comparison of physical attributes of things not individuals and/or the works of arts. Standards, Dewey thought, could not be used to evaluate the works of art. As he put it:

When, therefore, the word “standard” is used with respect to judgment of works of art, nothing but confusion results, unless the radical difference in the meaning now given standard from that of standards of measurement is noted. The critic is really judging, not measuring physical fact. He is concerned with something individual, not comparative—as is all measurement. (Dewey, 1959, Art as Experience. New York: Perigee Trade, p. 307)

But it is individuals, and groups, that measurable standards in education would ultimately come to compare as part of the standards-based reforms. Eventually the idea of measurable standards, measured through the standardised tests, came to dominate the policy discourse.

The reason I discussed standards is because this discourse of standards has become an integral part of an existing narrative about education as a ‘cure all.’

There are signs that this consensus about education may be changing in the West. Below I quote at length from a piece by Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein published in the American Prospect (Oct. 2007) [It was this piece that prompted this post in the first place]:

…the elite consensus on education as a cure-all seems now to be collapsing. Offshoring of high-tech jobs has deeply undercut the Clinton-era metaphor of an education-fueled transition to the information age, since it is all too apparent that college educations and computer skills do not insulate Americans from globalization’s downsides. Former Clinton economic advisor (and Federal Reserve vice chairman) Alan Blinder has emerged as an establishment voice calling attention to the potentially large-scale impact of continued offshoring. Blinder stresses that the distinction between American jobs likely to be destroyed by international competition and those likely to survive is not one of workers’ skills or education. “It is unlikely that the services of either taxi drivers or airline pilots will ever be delivered electronically over long distances … Janitors and crane operators are probably immune to foreign competition; accountants and computer programmers are not.”

A growing number of other mainstream economists now also caution that blaming inadequate schooling for falling living standards and growing inequality might be too simplistic. In a series of papers, David Autor, Larry Katz, Melissa Kearney, Frank Levy, and Richard Murnane, mainstream Cambridge-based economists who promoted the story of a technology-based transition to the 21st century, now have revised their account. They assert that prior to the 1990s, technology increased demand for more educated workers across the board, but that now there is “polarization,” where technology disadvantages middle-skilled workers relative to those with both more and less education. Their finding severely undercuts the suggestion that upgrading human capital is the solution to inequality.

Alan Greenspan’s successor as Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, has also adopted a less simplistic analysis. While concurring that skills matter, Bernanke also observes that a poorly educated workforce cannot explain “why the wages of workers in the middle of the distribution have grown more slowly in recent years than those of workers at the lower end of the distribution, even though, of the two groups, workers in the middle of the distribution are typically the better educated.”

Prominent free-trade economists now also acknowledge that education reform cannot address Americans’ economic insecurity nor solve globalization’s political problems. In a recent analysis prepared for the financial services industry, two prominent former Bush administration economists (Grant Aldonas and Matthew Slaughter), and one from the Clinton administration (Robert Z. Lawrence), wrote that since 2000, “only a small share of workers at the very high end has enjoyed strong growth in incomes. The strong U.S. productivity growth of the past several years has not been reflected in wage and salary earnings, and instead has accrued largely to the earnings of very high-end Americans and to corporate profits. The bottom line is that today, many American workers feel anxious—about change and about their paychecks. Their concerns are real, widespread, and legitimate … For college graduates and those with non-professional master’s degrees, this poor income performance is a new and presumably unwelcome development.”

And Robert Reich no longer believes that being a symbolic analyst is adequate income protection. He now blogs, “The only people who are getting much out of this economy are in the top one percent—earning over $800 grand a year. They’re taking home almost 20 percent of total income. Back in 1980, the top one percent took home 8 percent of total income.”

In a paper recently posted on the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Web site, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Frank Levy and Peter Temin wrote, “The current trend toward greater inequality in America is primarily the result of a change in economic policy that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s.” They went on to say that “the recent impacts of technology and trade have been amplified by the collapse of these institutions,” by which they mean the suppression of unions and the abandonment of the norm of equality.

These are not problems that can be solved by charter schools, teacher accountability, or any other school intervention. A balanced human capital policy would involve schools, but would require tax, regulatory, and labor market reforms as well.

So the returns to education story line can also get into trouble under certain circumstances, when education won’t necessarily result in an appreciable growth in the incomes–we know that from our experience, don’t we?

But this new storyline is coming from the West. Here, the policy proposals, captive as they still are to the myth of returns, may begin their gradual tectonic shift. What if the heavy investments in standards and standardised testing, and in efforts to improve the test scores for majority of the kids do not mean any appreciable future returns. Someone is likely to use the same framework to advise against these investments citing diminishing returns to education.

In the developing countries, the mere potential for economic growth can continue to bolster arguments in favour of investments in standards, standardised testing, and accountability. However, the emphasis on outcomes and accountability has foreclosed the debates on other purposes and on the kinds of educations that can support development of open, tolerant, and democratic societies. You hardly notice any of those debates? The policy debates narrowly focus on returns, standards, testing and accountability and how to get there.

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

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