Uncommon Sense

January 22, 2017

Fueling the Economic Engine of the U.S. … Not

The U.S. emerged as a major economy in the later 1800’s and then grew from there. A certain source of that economic growth came from having a capable workforce. Consider the following points:

During the mid-nineteenth century, America surpassed the impressive enrollment levels achieved in Germany and took the lead in primary (grammar, elementary, or common) school education (Easterlin 1981). But by the turn of the twentieth century, various European countries had narrowed their educational gap with the United States (Lindert 2004). As the high school movement took root in America, however, the wide educational lead of the United States reappeared and was expanded considerably to mid-century.”

“In the first several decades of the twentieth century, the United States pulled far ahead of all other countries in the education of its youth. It underwent what was then and now termed the “high school movement,” a feat most other western nations would achieve some 30 to 50 years later. We address how the “second transformation” of American education occurred and what aspects of the society, economy, and political structure enabled the United States to lead the world in education for much of the twentieth century.”

“From 1910 to 1940, America underwent a spectacular educational transformation. Just 9 percent of 18-year olds had high school diplomas in 1910, but more than 50 percent did by 1940.

Quotes are from “Why the United States Led in Education: Lessons from Secondary School Expansion, 1910 to 1940” by Claudia Goldin (Harvard University and the NBER) and Lawrence F. Katz (Harvard University and the NBER)

Now, in addition, in the 1960’s in what is certainly a third transformation of American education, the U.S. expanded college attendance hugely at both four-year institutions and in a fast growing population of two-year colleges. We now find in a major report issued last week (available here) that many colleges are engines of moving students out of the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to higher up that ladder.

Gosh, could American schools be like, you know, a major cause of economic prosperity? If so, what should we do?

According to the neo- and ordinary conservatives, we need to cut education funding. Heck, students don’t vote and all those teachers are pigs at the public trough, locked slavishly to their unions, and mostly vote Democratic, too. So what if we diminish a major driver of economic success, rich people will still be rich and as the majority of Americans get poorer, they’ll look even richer.

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