General Ramblings: Failing Grade

April 2, 2012       Paul Clolery      

It was announced with some fanfare recently that the nation’s high school graduation rate improved 3.5 percent from 2001 through 2009 and that 75.5 percent of high school kids graduated in 2009.

And according to America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., the U.S. needs 22 million students to earn a college degree during the next decade to meet the projected demands of the workforce, but is expected to fall short of this goal by at least three million.

That means roughly 25 percent of Americans are not able or do not want to avail themselves of a free, public high school education. The percentage of America’s fourth-graders scoring at or above proficient in reading increased from 29 percent in 2000 to 34 percent in 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It’s incredible to think that barely one-third of U.S. kids in the fourth grade can read at that level.

That’s pretty damning about a society and its failures – from parents to school systems to nonprofits working to improve education. It also means that based on these numbers there will be three million jobs that the U.S. economy can’t fill if you base it on education qualifications.

High school graduates will, on average, earn $130,000 more during their lifetimes than high school dropouts. The dropouts from the Class of 2011 would have generated up to $154 billion in additional earnings during their lives had they graduated from high school, according to America’s Promise.

If one student from the dropout column instead graduated it would yield more than $200,000 in tax revenues and decreased government expenditures during the person’s lifetime, according to the data. Graduating half of one class of dropouts would hypothetically save the U.S. taxpayer $45 billion in that year.

The numbers are grim but somehow don’t mesh with other data. The U.S. unemployment rate is roughly 8.3 percent, depending on who is counting. Yet, the projections are that the U.S. will fall short of people with the education required to handle jobs. You can’t equate the education to earnings if millions of Americans can’t find jobs. Tying the statistics to those with jobs doesn’t show a complete picture of the workforce and its financial underpinnings.

Shouldn’t the focus be on the more than 70 percent of Americans who are unwilling or unable or unprepared to go to college so the workforce can fill those gaps?

If we don’t have an educated workforce, then who will be creating those jobs that can’t be filled? If there is such a need for more of an educated workforce, why are there daily stories about someone with a Ph.D. flipping hamburgers because there are no jobs?

There is no doubt that an educated nation is the foundation for survival. But if the nation can’t employ those already with college degrees is the high school diploma or college sheepskin really worth all of the effort?

This nation needs specialized managers and workers and that often does not involve a college degree. Automobile service centers near this office charge $100 an hour for labor. Other than the shop’s manager, it can be assumed that none of the mechanics have a four-year degree from an institution of higher learning. But, they are phenomenal mechanics rebuilding systems that this four-year degree holder can’t figure out.

Should the goal of education advocates be a four-year degree for everyone or should it be to ensure that everyone has the skill and education required to be a productive member of society? Those are very different goals.

Leaders in the community college and continuing education field have it correct when they advocate for technical retraining of the American workforce. School systems should help develop the minds of children who can then make their own decisions about where they fit into this evolving national and global economy.

America’s Promise benchmarks for elementary and middle school years are correct. We need to get the minds of the young nimble and ready to learn. Where they take that ability is up to them. The American entrepreneurial spirit of seeing a need and exploiting it will take over from there. NPT