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Friday, October 7, 2011

Omnipresent Poverty and US Competitive Advantage

Using test-scores to hold teachers accountable for student education variables not under teacher control is clearly wrong-headed, but for some reason, it makes illogical sense to many education policy-makers. Similarly, using test-scores from international comparisons to hold teachers responsible for the nation's economic health makes even less sense. There are just too many variables outside teacher control.

“Although we cannot predict future economic trends, we do know that test-score rankings are a poor basis upon which to understand these trends or to know what to do about them. The reason is clear: Other variables, such as outsourcing to gain access to lower-wage employees, the climate and incentives for innovation, tax rates, health-care and retirement costs, the extent of government subsidies or partnerships, protectionism, intellectual-property enforcement, natural resources, and exchange rates overwhelm mathematics and science scores in predicting economic competitiveness...

“It is specifically the low-income populations... that are at the most severe disadvantage in competing for jobs in a global economy.”

For example, the children of a local county supervisor did not have to go looking for high school jobs. The shakers and movers CALLED HIM to offer his children great jobs. Nevertheless, "the adverse effects of poverty and concentrations of poverty in schools (affects) student performance in all countries." Even so, if international comparisons favored the US, we would be crowing, not attempting to explain them away.

First, our rhetoric has assumed that test-score rankings are linked to a country’s economic competitiveness, yet the data for industrialized countries consistently show this assumption to be unwarranted. For example, the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 global-competitiveness report
ranks the United States fourth, exceeded only by Switzerland, Sweden, and Singapore. Many of the countries that ranked high on test scores rank lower than the United States on competitiveness—for example, South Korea, No. 22, and Finland, No. 7.

The same report shows that the US has actually lost two places in the last year, dropping from No. 2 to No. 4, while Sweden, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands, all in the top ten have each gained two places. What we need to remember is that test-score rankings may be a leading indicator, that is, the significance of the rankings is that they may foreshadow future competitiveness (or lack thereof). The sheer size of the US economy may guarantee its competitiveness, at least in the near term.

Many observers worry about the future competitiveness of the U.S. The reason may be the increasing poverty of US students at a time when US income inequities are increasing at alarming rates.

The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall...Economists long ago tried to justify the vast inequalities that seemed so troubling in the mid-19th century—inequalities that are but a pale shadow of what we are seeing in America today.

My local newspaper just reported that 50% more people fell below the poverty line this year. Poverty, especially chronic poverty, limits opportunity in ways the public does not fully understand. As a simple illustration, even junk mail is different. The poor get credit card offers, the rich get stock tips.

First, growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity. Whenever we diminish equality of opportunity, it means that we are not using some of our most valuable assets—our people—in the most productive way possible

For example, a poor child is not going to be able to study violin to a proficiency sufficient to make a decent living. The instrument, lessons, books, sheet music, competitions, concert apparel, etc. all cost too much. Even a talented musician who works really hard to overcome the effects of poverty and persevered by his own tenaciousness may find the poverty disadvantage too overwhelming. Such an academically high achieving musician will likely be compelled to abandon music in favor of a career that will actually pay the bills, and relegate his superlative violin-playing to a “hobby.” Who knows how much talent has been lost?

America has long suffered from an under-investment in infrastructure (look at the condition of our highways and bridges, our railroads and airports), in basic research, and in education at all levels.

Schools do not lead society; they reflect society's priorities. Education is simply not a priority for US society.
“The top 1 percent may complain about the kind of government we have in America, but in truth they like it just fine: too gridlocked to re-distribute, too divided to do anything but lower taxes...But one big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top 1 percent want it that way.”

The same could be said for education.

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