In Chapter 9 of her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch challenges the assertion of many that “Our economy will suffer unless we have the highest graduation rate in the world.” Ravitch says there is no evidence for this claim. In this Ravitch is correct.
Ravitch is also correct to wonder whether college degrees “obtained under pressure to reach a target represent real learning or will they be reached by credential inflation, credit recovery, and other schemes that devalue the meaning of the diploma.”
This has certainly been the case with high school graduation rates and diplomas. The attention on graduation rates and test scores distracts us from the more important question, “what are our students actually learning?”
It is difficult to have a meaningful dialogue about some of these issues when Dr. Ravitch and I are in such disagreement over the existence of a crisis in public education. Meaningful dialogue requires that there be a common premise, somewhere. I continue to assert that we need to stop defending public education and start defending our schools and teachers. The problem is not schools and teachers but rather an educational process that does not allow teachers to do what we need them to do and that does not meet the needs of a majority of American children. We cannot fix something until we are willing to acknowledge its inefficacy.
Is there any doubt that the world marketplace is an economic competition on a grand scale? Are not the results of any competition, irrespective of scale, contingent upon the relative performance of the competitors? Is not performance a function of the level of skill, knowledge, and preparation of the performers?
The generation who emerged from the Great Depression and led us through World War II understand that the US has not always been the dominant economy in the world marketplace. Their children and grandchildren, on the other hand, have never lived at a time when the US was not the dominant economic force on the planet. We have come to take American economic power for granted.
Any student of history should be able to tell you that America’s rise to economic preeminence came at a time when the playing field was anything but equal. In the aftermath of World War II, while the American industrial and commercial capabilities were in full bloom, having been ramped up during the war, the economies of Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union were faced with the challenge of rebuilding in the aftermath of a devastating war. The economies of China, India, South Korea, other Pacific-rim nations, and the Middle East were either non-existent or embryonic.
Not only was the US production process in full gear following the war but our employers, thanks to the American systems of public education, were able to draw on the most highly educated workforce in the world. This was also a time when the nation had great confidence in itself, when there was great clarity in values, and when the populace was highly motivated to insure that their children would not be subjected to the deprivation they experienced during the Great Depression. Just as importantly, American society was not yet confronted with the series of social challenges that would commence with the civil rights movement and, soon thereafter, the anti-war movement.
In the ensuing five-and-a-half decades, while the United States was beginning to believe that its economic supremacy was a God-given right and while we were also becoming more and more distracted by our nation’s social challenges, the world was in the midst of transformational change. The rest of the world, led by Western Europe, Japan, and the other emerging economies of Asia and Eastern Europe were working furiously to catch up with the US. As we approach the last half of the second decade of a new century these nations have pretty much caught up and are, in some cases, threatening to surpass the US in economic production and wealth.
Many of these nations, but certainly not all, have less poverty, offer better healthcare, provide a comparable level of personal liberty to their people, and are also challenging us with respect to the effectiveness with which we education our children. That they are doing this at a time when we are destroying our systems of public education with nonsensical reforms has frightening consequences.
The American people, immersed in their many social and political challenges, are only beginning to understand the ramifications of what can only be described as a re-balancing of global economic power; with the loss of jobs and devaluation of the dollar the most obvious examples. The future consequences of a reality in which the largest percentage of ownership of America’s economic assets is in the hands of foreign investors cannot yet be fully envisioned.
So, Ravitch is correct in saying that there is no evidence that U.S. college graduation rates is connected to our success in the world marketplace. Unfortunately, it is a pointless issue and we are asking the wrong questions. The appropriate questions begin with whether or not our high school and college graduates are able to utilize, in the real world, the knowledge, skills, and level of understanding about the world that will be necessary to keep the U.S. in the game, economically. This question must be followed with “Are we teaching our children what they most need to know?”
We cannot answer the second question until we are able to identify the fundamental purpose of an education. This, however, is a topic for another day.