Beware Educational Hysteria

When it comes to flushing billions down the toilet and relentlessly aggrandizing Washington's power, nothing, absolutely nothing, outshines "fixing" our supposedly woeful schools. This disorder conspicuously erupts every three years with the release of the international education performance data on reading, math, and science issued by the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA). PISA has been around since 2000 and the 2012 results are typical: U.S. students are generally mediocre, especially compared to our economic rivals in Asia. Though hardly unexpected given past outcomes, the findings always elicit a sky-is-falling as if economic doom is eminent. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results, a "picture of educational stagnation." A December 4th, 2013 Wall Street Journal lead editorial exemplifies this near panic:

Such results should trouble anyone concerned about America's economic future and the human capital produced by the K-12 system. Economies grow by exploiting scarce resources, people most of all. The ultimate source of wealth is ourselves and the PISA findings suggest that U.S. schools are failing tomorrow's labor force. Too few students are being prepared with the skills they'll need to compete in a worldwide market and sustain America's economic dominance.

It is easy to dismiss this editorializing as the usual cliché-ridden boilerplate that always bubbles up when the topic is education. Such pronouncements undergird such ill-fated Washington initiatives as Bush's No Child Left Behind and President Obama's Race to the Top that erode American federalism. Predictably, when confronted with the PISA scores, Secretary Duncan said that we must invest in early learning, redesign high schools, raise standards and support great teachers, all expensive nostrums that have repeatedly failed.

Worse, the prestigious "conservative" Wall Street Journal insistence to "do something" gives cover to all the radicals intent on capturing America's public schools (e.g., today's ideologically infused Common Core standards) under the guise of overtaking education-obsessed China and Korea. It is often (and accurately) said that war is the perfect rationalization to expand state power and limit constitutional rights and this adage now applies to an alleged economic war. In a nutshell, yet more doomed-to-fail fixing education schemes are the Left's perfect Trojan horse, all the while cheered on by the misguided Wall Street Journal.

Consider the basic premise that the ticket to economic progress is a workforce skilled in reading, math, and science. A partial truth, at best. Ask any employer he will explain that being a "good worker" requires far more than mastering basic science or math. More important are traits like punctuality, a willingness to follow directions, eschewing alcohol and drugs, honesty, agreeability with coworkers and customers, and strong motivation to perform the job correctly and shouldering additional responsibilities if necessary. In today's legal climate an employer might add disdaining filing frivolous discrimination lawsuits, not insisting upon costly "rights" (e.g., gold-plated health insurance), and not striking for economically unjustifiable salaries. What boss would hire Albert Einstein if he was lazy, chronically late, and endlessly connived to collect undeserved disability pay?

To my knowledge, there is no PISA-like international test assessing these absolutely vital worker traits though businesses deciding where to locate usually know the score. Japanese auto firms typically build factories in the American South or the rural Midwest, not Detroit. Ironically, the South has some of the lowest standardized tests scores in the nation. In fact, Vermont and Massachusetts have test scores comparable to the best worldwide but companies go elsewhere. BMW, Mercedes, Kia and all the rest know that the "good old boys" generally make decent workers -- they can't solve quadratic equations to save their lives but nevertheless do an honest day's work without suing anybody for good but not extravagant paychecks (and keep in mind that assembling cars today is hardly donkey work).

Moreover, do we really need millions of workers who suddenly have superior reading, math, and science skills? How much algebra must a worker know to cut the grass or help pour concrete? There are millions of such jobs that must be performed well, even in a high-tech economy. After all, today's cash registers permit even a semi-innumerate cashier to calculate taxes and make the correct change. In addition, capable workers can often acquire the necessary proficiency while on the job as opposed to learning in school, and PISA cannot capture this acquired knowledge. A Marshall Plan to boost PISA scores also risks upping production of better-educated but unemployed youngsters more inclined to loll about in Mom and Dad's basement versus doing challenging work "beneath them."

And just how many super-smart people are really necessary for a nation's prosperity. A million? Ten million? Nobody knows and, I suspect, that the answer is incalculable. Would Apple's net productivity soar if its engineering workforce tripled? Upping a nation's brainpower is not akin to spending billions to extract an ounce of U-235 from tons of U-238.The raw quantity of brainpower is only one of many factors in the national economic productivity and it is foolish to insist that just increasing this one equation element is the magic bullet.

To appreciate this iffy link, consider Israel's mediocre PISA performance. Its overall scores are percentage-wise comparable to U.S. numbers, for example, only about 9% score proficient on math and Israel is in 40th place in science and math. Since the U.S. is about 39 times the population of Israel, one might guess that Israel is struggling in a world where brainpower counts the most. The reality is, of course, quite different -- even in absolute terms Israel is a world leader (also here) as reflected in medicine, military technology, physics, irrigation, and computers plus multiple patents and cutting-edge startups. High-tech firms like Intel, Motorola, Sony, and Microsoft have major facilities in Israel to utilize local intellectual talent despite the lowly PISA scores. Clearly, quantity is not everything when it comes to brain power.

Mediocre PISA results are not marching orders to spend yet more billions to create educated workforce 2.0. That call to arms blithely assumes that America's intellectually inadequate labor pool can be upgraded as if U.S. schools can extract blood from turnips. This is pure fantasy given the sorrowful past record of countless curriculum reforms, expensive techie gimmicks, teacher accountability schemes, school choice, and dozens more failed nostrums. Just ask anybody who has tried to teach today's youngster, particularly at community colleges that are often viewed as the solution to our workforce woes. Teachers will tell you that educating these youngsters is an uphill battle. Courses are often just remedial or rehash what was supposedly learned in high school while many students soon jump ship. Perhaps those who wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial (and similar fervent calls to action) have a secret guaranteed-to-succeed education 2.0 upgrade, but I seriously doubt it.

The bottom line is simple: beware of the alarmists who insist that unless we spend billions more "investing in the children" and further expand Washington's overreach, the Chinese will rule the world. Actually, it's more likely that we must pour yet more money into uplifting blacks and Hispanics since these two groups pull down the national average. The PISA statistics are real enough but they cannot explain why the U.S. struggles economically. If test scores were all that mattered, Vermont would put Silicon Valley to shame. Valid reasons exist for our economic tribulations but obsessing over PISA is a Left-friendly subterfuge and not the pathway to progress. Attempting to raise scores will only make matters worse.