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Dan Morris

Education Once Meant: Insurance and Unemployment Protection

The news of Obama’s pick for education secretary has reignited the debate over the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Once again, we’re fixated on achievement, accountability, tests, data--everything but connecting education to history and progressive policy.

The failure comes in part from forgetting that public secondary education began as a grassroots movement and that upward mobility is the movement’s great success story.

Fortunately, two economic historians from Harvard, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, have filled in the narrative details that have been left out of the education debate. I am referring to their book, The Race Between Education and Technology, which some columnists have cheerfully cited, though without examining all the implications for today.

The main Goldin/Katz thesis that has David Brooks and Paul Krugman equally intrigued is this: inequality can be understood as a race between the supply of skill (education or human capital) and the demand for skill (technological change). The authors find that technological changes are not themselves responsible for the recent increase in inequality, nor were they responsible for the decrease in inequality in the early twentieth century. Inequality has been affected most not by the demand for our educated labor but by the supply of it. So stop blaming outsourcing, the Internet, globalization, they suggest: sluggish growth in our educated workforce is a homegrown problem we have to fix.

“For a good part of the twentieth century, the vast majority of parents had children whose educational attainment greatly exceeded theirs,” they observe. “Educational change between the generations then came to an abrupt standstill. An important part of the American dream--that children do better than their parents--was threatened. The slowdown in education is robbing Americans of the ability to grow strong together.”

How did we do better in the past? As historians, this is the question that Goldin and Katz are most interested in answering, and plenty can be learned from what they have to say.

Beginning about a hundred years ago, there was a sharp increase in education attainment that quickly led to a sharp decrease in inequality. It was not mandated by the federal government, there were no lobbyists involved, and the courts were focused elsewhere. (Shhh... Don't tell Margaret Spellings.)

It happened when large groups of ordinary parents mobilized after becoming convinced that the path toward a better life could not be found in factories and on farms. Parents wanted their children freed of physical labor and not all young people were willing to work on family land. Local public high schools were quickly built, and a movement was born. Crucially, it had to do with fulfilling what we now call middle-class aspirations.

“Success meant more than the ability to earn a greater income. By enabling their children to obtain more education, parents could free them from various hardships in life…. Education was also a form of insurance, allowing the more education to respond faster to economic change and thereby providing some unemployment protection.”

Flexible skills were seen as insuring and protecting people as adaptable employees. Flexibility meant transferability across occupations, industries, and business cycles. Dead-end jobs required only very narrow skills to be used on the same tasks, whereas gateway jobs required more general, portable skills to be used on a variety of tasks. This was true for blue-collar jobs and white-collar jobs. Employers of manual workers began to demand the same high-level skills that other workers learned in secondary schools. Skilled manufacturing was not about more tricks of the trade--it was about more learning.

Then as now, broadening the cognitive capacity of our young people has positive economic consequences for prosperity, mobility, and security. Narrowing that capacity, and preventing it from growing, through cheap, easy-to-adminster standardized tests is where the educational slowdown and the economic slowdown meet. So long as No Child Left Behind survives education is not a safety net because it leaves students unprepared and unskilled.

“If the skills currently demanded are produced slowly, and if the workforce is less flexible in its skill set, then growth is slowed and inequality widens,” Katz and Goldin conclude. “Those who can make the adjustments as well as those who gain the new skills are rewarded. Others are left behind.”

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Posted at 2:18 AM, Dec 19, 2008 in Education
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