Notes on the Alleged “Skills Deficiency” Crisis in U.S. Education and Employment

This post rambles a bit. Fair warning.

Politicians have complained about the quality of public education in the United States since at least the 1910s, when all states passed laws making k-12 school attendance mandatory. Since that time our country’s leaders have essentially lathered, rinsed, and repeated the warnings echoed in the Reagan administration’s 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report: “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people . . . Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them.”

Today, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have targeted a growing “skills deficiency” crisis in public schools. We are told that students today can’t read, write, do basic math, or think critically, nor are they prepared for college or employment in a competitive workforce. These assumptions, readily accepted as legitimate ideas in American thought about education, are repeated in internationally-reputable publications like the New York Times, who unabashedly argue that the “skills deficiency” in today’s students is a “troublesome fact.” “The American work force is less educated than it needs to be at a time when most jobs in the new economy will require some college education.” At the same time we are also told that the nation’s education system continues to fall behind other nations like Finland, South Korea, and China.

Rich philanthropists like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg want more students of all ages learning “practical” skills like coding. Florida Governor Rick Scott thinks liberal arts and humanities majors like anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and ethnic studies are a drain on the state’s higher education dollars, and he’d rather shift that money to “STEM” degrees (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Ivy Tech Community College President Tom Snyder agrees, saying that a liberal arts degree is “a poor investment” and that students must consider skills-based training in STEM fields of study.

To justify these claims and address their shortcomings, the Obama administration continues to rely on Bush-era policy precedents in high-stakes testing and performance-based financial incentives to address accountability issues and motivate students and teachers to get those scores up. The bottom line results, however, haven’t changed since 2000.

But what if these assumptions about “skills deficiencies,” lack of STEM-based training, and a nation’s education system falling behind the rest of the industrialized world are faulty? A new study by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute suggests that our assumptions need to be reevaluated:

EPI Unemployment Chart

The above chart shows that today’s labor market is not stifled by a lack of skilled employers entering the workforce. Rather, a “broad-based lack of demand for workers” is preventing skilled workers from obtaining gainful employment. That is also (and especially!) the case with STEM-based employment fields, where the U.S. Census Bureau reports that only one in four STEM graduates with a bachelor’s degree have a STEM job and the industry struggles with too much supply and stagnant wages for those in the field. And it turns out that U.S. students have struggled with standardized tests for at least fifty years, according to Diane Ravitch. To wit:

It is worth noting that American students have never received high scores on international tests. On the first such test, a test of mathematics in 1964, senior year students in the US scored last of twelve nations, and eighth-grade students scored next to last. But in the following fifty years, the US outperformed the other eleven nations by every measure, whether economic productivity, military might, technological innovation, or democratic institutions. This raises the question of whether the scores of fifteen-year-old students on international tests predict anything of importance or whether they reflect that our students lack motivation to do their best when taking a test that doesn’t count toward their grade or graduation.

I’m sure there are plenty of students entering college who struggle with basic comprehension skills. I do not, however, subscribe to the idea that there are too many people in college or that the majority of those coming out of school are unprepared to enter the workforce. Only one-third of today’s 27-year-olds (yours truly included) have at least a bachelor’s degree, contrary to those who assert that a college degree is today’s equivalent of a high school diploma. Some also argue that there’s a “college dropout epidemic” in U.S. higher education. I find President Obama’s proposal to make community college free to all students intriguing, although there are many questions that still need to be addressed, including whether or not students should automatically have their tuition covered or if there should be performance-based strings attached. The working conditions of teachers in k-12 and higher education should also quesitoned, although I’d be shocked if they actually were.

We need to understand, however, that deeper structural problems within today’s labor market prevent many young people from obtaining gainful, full-time employment. For example, long-tenured Baby Boomer generation employees are retiring from the workforce and their jobs are simply going away rather than being filled by a younger person. Full-time jobs are becoming part-time jobs without benefits. Real wages for most workers have stagnated since 2000.

Getting an education is important for the simple reason that the experience of learning is valuable in and of itself, regardless of employment prospects. No one can take your education away from you. Liberal arts/humanities degrees will be relevant as long as we desire to learn more about the human condition and think critically about it. But gone are the days in which “go to school” was enough to guarantee career success. Getting a college degree and obtaining “skills” don’t guarantee much of anything in today’s labor market, regardless of field. Finding employment these days seems to be based on who you know and where you come from rather than where you’re going and how much potential you have.



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