Explaining persistent low education attainment

Insightful blog by Marc Tucker CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Tucker’s topic is why America for decades has failed to reverse its standing as an international laggard in student achievement. Its not that that reality is unknown or that business, political, and media leadership hasn’t identified it as an important problem. But despite that little has changed.

Tucker writes about what is common to the countries that do well on international tests. He writes:

It is also true, and very important, that in most—but not all—of these cases, that sense of urgency to build a new education system on a new paradigm was linked to a new vision of the society these countries wanted to build.  For different reasons, at different times, these top-performing countries came to a consensus on the kind of economy they wanted.  What distinguished Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Finland, Canada, Switzerland and others from many of their competitors is that they decided at a certain point that they were not going to compete internally or in international trade on the price of their labor, but rather on the quality of the goods and services they offered to each other and to the world.  They wanted broadly shared prosperity.  They understood that no nation can get rich as its citizens get or remain poor.  They understood that the only way a country can provide broadly shared prosperity is to create an economy in which the whole workforce is adding a great deal of value to the things it makes and the services it provides, and the only way that will happen is if everyone, at every level of the workforce, is deeply educated and highly trained.  So they decided, in effect, to compete on the quality, not the price, of their labor.  The commitment to education and training is an ineluctable consequence of the commitment to broadly shared prosperity.

As for America Tucker writes:

The United States sits on the fence.  As a nation, we are home to many enterprises run by people who believe they will go out of business if the price of labor rises.  Those enterprises compete on the price of labor, not on the quality of labor. The people who run such businesses are not likely to make the kind of commitment to improving the quality of our education system that is needed to make the fundamental changes necessary to greatly improve the quality of our labor force.  It is also true, of course, that there are many other enterprises run by people deeply committed to adding as much value as possible to the things they make and the services they render.

This analysis is consistent with what Michigan Future has identified as Michigan’s fundamental challenge. Vision of what kind of economy we want. If, as has been the case for decades, political and business leadership wants a Michigan driven by factories, farming and tourism improving education attainment is not very important. The consequence, primarily  because good paying blue collar factory jobs are rapidly disappearing, is that kind of economy makes you a poor state. Which, of course, is what Michigan now is. 37th in per capita income in 2013.

If on the other hand, as Michigan Future is an advocate of, the state’s vision of the economy we want is one of shared prosperity characterized by a rising standard of living for most Michigan households we would need to transition to a knowledge-sector driven economy. (Those are the sectors that combine robust employment growth and the highest wages.) Then education attainment becomes the economic priority. Because the asset that matters most to knowledge-based employers is human capital/talent. As Tucker writes: “The commitment to education and training is an ineluctable consequence of the commitment to broadly shared prosperity.”

Michigan is a national laggard in a country that is an international laggard in education attainment. We will continue to be one of the country’s poorest states until that is reversed. But we won’t reverse that until and unless the state makes shared prosperity its economic priority. As long as we are satisfied with the kind of economy we have now––growing employment and stagnant incomes––we are not going to do the tough work that is required to substantially improve education attainment for all.


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