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On Education, Obama Blows It

Ohanian Comment:
Gerald Bracey is right on target. We need to
keep pounding home the fact that President
Obama is spouting Business Roundtable rhetoric
about education. As we've seen, he's had the
same line for years

by Gerald Bracey

I have not the expertise to address the merits
of President Obama's speech to Congress on the
issues of the economy. I do claim some
expertise on education. He blew it.

He accepted the same garbage that the
propagandists, fear mongers such as Lou
Gerstner, Bill Gates, Roy Romer, Bob Wise,
Craig Barrett and many others-God help us, Arne
Duncan?--have been spewing for years.

Obama said, ""Right now, three quarters of the
fastest-growing occupations require more than a
high school diploma, and yet just over half of
our citizens have that level of education.
Scary, huh? Not really. This statistic was a
favorite of ex secretary of education of
education Margaret Spellings, about whom we can
all express a sigh of relief that the operative
word is, "ex."

If you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics
stats on job projections, it is almost true
(but not really) that what Obama said is right.
But there are two hugely compromising factors
that make this statistic much less fearsome
that it first appears:

1. The definition of "more than a high school
diploma" is a weasel phrase, an incredibly
slippery statistic. It does not mean a B. A.,
an Associates Degree, nor even a year of on-
the-job training. The BLS projects that the
overwhelming majority of jobs to be created
between now and 2016 will require "short term
on the job training." That's one week to three

2. The "fastest-growing occupations" account
for very few jobs. For every systems engineer,
we need about 15 sales people on the floor at
Wal-Mart (and we have three newly minted
scientists and engineers for every new job in
those fields). The huge job numbers in this
country are accounted for by retail sales,
janitors, maids, food workers, waiters, truck
drivers, home care assistants (low paid folk
who come to take care those of us who are
getting up in years), and similar low-trained,
low-paid occupations. Note that I did not say
these people are "low-skilled." As Barbara
Ehrenreich showed after she spent two years
working in "low-skilled" jobs, there really is
no such thing (see her Nickel and Dimed: On
(Not) Getting By in America).

"We have one of the highest high school dropout
rates of any industrialized nation, and half of
our students who begin college never finish."

Because test scores no longer work to prove
American school failure, the statistic of
choice to prove what a lousy job we're doing is
the graduation rate. How dare those European
and Asian nations have the audacity to recover
from World War II! The dropout rates across
nations are, so far as I can tell,
incomparable, since secondary school programs
in other nations range from two to five years.
In other nations, once students finish the
equivalent of 8th grade, they are tracked into
vocational, technical or precollege programs
whereas American students go to comprehensive
high schools (although, as we all know, there
is plenty of informal tracking within those).

Many people do not complete college for many
reasons. One of my major regrets as a
researcher is a failure to follow up, in the
late 60's, on groups of black students who
failed to complete their education at Temple
University, a center city school in
Philadelphia vs. those who finished on time-at
the time restrictions to access to personal
data were much freer. The standout statistic in
the data I looked at was that the SAT scores of
those who finished in four years was only
infinitesimally higher than those who had
dropped out or been dismissed for academic

I also don't know much about college completion
rates in Europe, but do know that you can hang
around as a student at the Sorbonne in Paris
forever. Incidentally, you want a riot in
Europe? Try imposing college tuition.

The World Economic Forum, and the Institute for
Management Development, two Swiss think tanks,
rate the U. S. as the most globally competitive
nation in the world, IMD using 50+ nations,
WEF, 135. What things will look like when their
new rankings emerge from the current
catastrophe this fall is hard to say. But
looking at tests, high-scoring Iceland is an
economic basket case. High-scoring France is on
strike. And even higher-scoring Japan, the idol
that "A Nation At Risk" prostrated itself to in
1983 because its test scores surely ensured
economic prosperity, endured a "lost decade" of
recession starting around 1990 and, in 2007 was
in recession once again. Japan's students still
ace tests.

When will we ever learn?

— Gerald Bracey
Huffington Post





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