Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The “Resource Curse” in 21st century America

Back in the mid-1970s when I was in 6th grade, I spent a year in the French school system. Even just a month or two into my classes, I was struck by how much more challenging content there was—and not just because I was struggling to understand the language of instruction. In math there were multi-step word problems that, like the 6th grade word problems of Singapore Math, cry out for algebraic strategies; instead of social studies, there was classical history and geography; there was also biology, drawing, a vigorous gym class, music (with music theory), English (as a second language), and a French class (for native speakers) that had weekly dictations, weekly in-class compositions, and weekly grammar drills. Comparing this, and the similarly rigorous K12 education my parents had gotten a generation earlier, to my 5th grade class back in Chicago--a class in which we spent most of our time filling in the blanks in under-challenging workbooks and Weekly Readers--I wondered how on earth America was maintaining its status as a superpower.

In her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley has an answer. As the New York Times digests it in its review:

Historically, Americans “hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional.”
And those sources of wealth have been pretty constant, if changing: from natural resources, to slave labor, to industrious and entrepreneurial immigrants, to our country’s uniquely unscathed emergence from World War II, to our unique (if recently shaky) status as a global currency reserve, to our uniquely vast reserve of native speakers of what is currently still the world’s most highly-valued lingua franca. Like the proverbial stunted, natural-resource-cursed country, we’ve never had to worry about providing a rigorous education to the majority of our human capital.

Since my time in French classrooms several decades ago, our human capital development has only worsened. As reported a month ago in the NY Times:
American adults lag well behind their counterparts in most other developed countries in the mathematical and technical skills needed for a modern workplace, according to a study released Tuesday.
The study, perhaps the most detailed of its kind, shows that the well-documented pattern of several other countries surging past the United States in students’ test scores and young people’s college graduation rates corresponds to a skills gap, extending far beyond school. In the United States, young adults in particular fare poorly compared with their international competitors of the same ages — not just in math and technology, but also in literacy.

More surprisingly, even middle-aged Americans — who, on paper, are among the best-educated people of their generation anywhere in the world — are barely better than middle of the pack in skills.

Among 55- to 65-year-olds, the United States fared better, on the whole, than its counterparts. But in the 45-to-54 age group, American performance was average, and among younger people, it was behind.
Once again:
“The first question these kinds of studies raise is, ‘If we’re so dumb, why are we so rich?’ ” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Our economic advantage has been having high skill levels at the top, being big, being more flexible than the other economies, and being able to attract other countries’ most skilled labor. But that advantage is slipping.”

In several ways, the American results were among the most polarized between high achievement and low. Compared with other countries with similar average scores, the United States, in all three assessments, usually had more people in the highest proficiency levels, and more in the lowest. The country also had an unusually wide gap in skills between the employed and the unemployed.

In the most highly educated population, people with graduate and professional degrees, Americans lagged slightly behind the international averages in skills. But the gap was widest at the bottom; among those who did not finish high school, Americans had significantly worse skills than their counterparts abroad.

“These kinds of differences in skill sets matter a lot more than they used to, at every level of the economy,” Dr. Carnevale said. “Americans were always willing to accept a much higher level of inequality than other developed countries because there was upward mobility, but we’ve lost a lot of ground to other countries on mobility because people don’t have these skills.”
Indeed, as Riply notes in her book, by now:
Everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor.
In short, we’re doing worse than ever at a time when it matters more than ever.

Will anything change for the better as a result of this latest study? Not any time soon. The problem isn’t that education establishment has too few ideas about positive change; the problem is that it has too many, and that they’re all wrong: Common Core Standards and tests; more technology in the classroom;  more hands-on, group-centered, Project Based Learning; and more so-called “higher-level thinking.” The Powers that Be in education are willing to try just about anything that they claim other countries are doing—without looking to see what's actually going on in the classrooms of the smartest kids in the world.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I think that US upward mobility is a myth also. We have very little movement out of the lowest quartile from one generation to the next. I believe that there are European countries with more economic mobility now.

Cynthia812 said...

I disagree, gasstation. Here's a good overview of the situation: Also, if you look into the work Mike Rowe is doing, you see a lot of opportunity out there. Whether people are taking it (and whether schools are providing a decent education to make it easier to take) is another question.