Education: A Rotten Foundation for a Crumbling Life

January 19th, 2013
in Op Ed, syndication

Written by John Lounsbury

An article four weeks ago by Steven Hansen and a resulting comment exchange on that article at Seeking Alpha brought me back to a focus that has recurred to duncebusinessmanme again and again:  Why do so many Americans seem ill equiped to prosper in the 21st century?

There are many reasons for the current slack employment economy.  Of course there is a massive debt deleveraging adjustment in the economy.  This has inhibited a level of business investment and expansion that occurs in more normal times.  And there has been great productivity improvement through automation so fewer people are producing more goods.

Follow up:

Shortage of Skilled Workers

But, even in this deflationary era we keep hearing anecdotal stories about job openings for skilled workers that go unfilled.  Even if those stories only represent a small percentage of the numbers of unemployed, partially employed and want-to-be-employed-but-have-given-up-looking, every journey starts with a step.  An excellent step on the journey to regaining a higher level of employment would be to increase employment by small percentage in highly skilled jobs.

Is There an Optimal Income Distribution?

These jobs are very attractive to developing a macroeconomic improvement:

  • They are generally highly compensated, adding much more to the level of consumption compared to a minimum wage job.
  • These higher paid jobs spend a much of the increased consumption on labor intensive services (such as medicine, retail shopping, restaurant dining, personal grooming and self improvement services, home improvment and residential construction, etc.) that create an employment multiplier effect much larger than the same income distributed among several burger flippers.

I have been looking for a good study of the economic benefit derived across the personal income spectrum.  I am biased to feel that a skilled worker earning $75,000 a year has a stronger economic impact than five minimum wage and part-time jobs earning $15,000 each.  I have not seen a study that would justify my bias.

It is also likely that more of the $75,000 stays in circulation in the economy each year for five such workers than  for an individual making five times that amount ($375,000).  Again, I am revealing a personal bias - I'm still looking for good research on this.

Why is There a Shortage of Skilled Workers?

There are many reasons for this.  Back in the middle of the last century many corporations hired young workers out of high school and college into what were essentially training positions such as machinist apprentice, filing clerk, mailroom aid, laboratory assistant  or junior engineer.  After one or two years these positions led to job titles of "assistant this or that" and a skilled worker career was started.

Also there was a much higher percentage of union jobs 50 years ago.  Regardless of what you think of unions overall, in one respect they filled a roll that is nto filled today:  Unions provided apprentice positions and training for skilled occupations.  Some companies did the same but the unions carried the heavy load.

Companies also do some of that training today through internships.  But (again my undocumented bias) this is not your grandfather's ubiquitous training of old;  the unions were highly motivated to make that investment because they were "growing" their membership which supported their existence via dues.

Today I believe that on-the-job training is much less widespread.  Yes, there are entry level positions for engineers, computer scientists and the like, but the day of less specialized education leading to skilled position apprenticeships seems to be gone.

Why is that?  Several reasons come to mind:

  • Many of the old labor intensive jobs are gone forever, lost in a wave of computerization and automation.
  • The Great Recession has left a surplus of already trained workers in the 25 to 54 age demographic who are unemployed or underemployed.
  • Senior workers are available and wanting to work more years for either economic necessity or just to continue being useful.
  • The greater technological aspects of entry level jobs is beyond the preparation levels of  today's high school and college graduates.
  • Private sector union membership has declined.  Unions no longer provide widespread "apprenticeship" programs to train the untrained.  Union agreements required employers to have a certain percentage of apprentices in the workforce.

The Decline of Useful Education

I will focus on the final point in the preceding section.  This is an excellent time to introduce the Steven Hansen article and resulting comment stream that prompted this essay.  The article is titled:  Are Student Loans Destroying Consumption?

Of the topics covered in the article the expansion of the discussion of the quality of education in the comment stream is quoted here.  (No editing for typos has been done.)

Steven Hansen: I believe the biggest problem is the people who never go to university. most people leave high school with no skills or real world ability (balancing checkbooks, trade skills, computer skills, etc). if you want a nation of idiots, the lower and secondary education system is preparing most to be idiots.

billdrummer: I must agree with you.  I serve on the board of a charter high school that targets at-risk students (didn't fit in regular curriculum, had problems with credits, poor attendance, challenging home situations, learning disabilities or mental health issues) and while many students do graduate who wouldn't have, had they attended 'traditional' high schools, most of them don't possess the basic skills needed to get along in modern society.

They have difficulty filling out job applications, don't have any idea about how bankbooks work, have no 'marketable' skills that employers are interested in, and typically find themselves at the bottom of the economic food chain for the rest of their lives.

Many of them already have children, which makes their situations even worse.

Some work in menial jobs and use the money to help their families make ends meet.

As a board member of this school, it seems that my responsibility is to help craft the curriculum so that it becomes relevant and productive for the vast majority of students.

It's a given that we won't be able to reach everyone. But if we can make a meaningful impact on the lives of a majority, I will be able to say that our purpose has been fulfilled.

Thank you for opening this dialogue.

Stanley J G Crouch: b[illdrummer],  I laud your efforts and know from whence you speak, having financed many charter schools in my career. Overwhelmingly, yours is a noble cause, if there ever was one.

Upon one dedication of a community-transforming institution located in the most challenged area of Detroit, I remarked to the assembly of my believe that we faced a stark societal choice. That being, fully supporting efforts such as the Academy we dedicated or building more prison beds.

In addition to serving a student population challenged by life's harsh realities (virtually every child was eligible for free nutrition programs and OVER 50% HAD NO PARENT in the home), these youngsters, and their extremely supportive guardians/parents (applications and interviews are required..!!), have WAY outperformed their peers in the failing traditional schools in the district by an increasingly wide margin. Yet, the misguided, and self-serving, vitriolic diatribe AGAINST these institutions, is continued by the 'powers that be'. Is it any wonder that we are in the soup we're in..??

Please continue your efforts. We need them..!!

Roger Erickson: The roots of this go deep but can be tracked. While working at the NIH campus in Maryland, I joined a volunteer group of PhD scientists who would visit local elementary school districts when requested.

1) it all started when one county school board approached the NIH, wanting to "reinvent" how they taught science education

2) out of ~5500 PhD scientists, they were only able to drum up ~50 volunteers (even with formal endorsement by the NIH Director! NIH lab chiefs & bureaucrats ridiculed the idea, and made it known that it would NOT help tenure prospects)

3) not a single one of the other 25 county school boards in Maryland even followed suit! (go figure)

4) it was an education for most of the scientists, who hadn't been back to an elementary school in ~30 years; WE learned more from the kids & teachers than they learned from us (can tell those stories another time)

5) most telling response from teachers was "please don't ask us to do one thing MORE!" [they had their curriculum micro-managed down to 15 minute intervals, and were monitored as to whether they were spending all the appropriate minutes on each mandated subject! most of it was all theory & as Steve says, actual "practice" at anything wasn't in the cards]

6) 2nd most telling response from experienced teachers was "whenever I want to explain some difficult topic, I dig out one of my hoarded old textbooks from the 1950s - they're way more useful than today's textbooks"

7) drop out rate for new teachers was abysmal, & getting worse! If I recall correctly, the majority quit after their 1st year! Older teachers were mostly appalled at what was happening to curriculum, but felt outvoted & overwhelmed. Like with other policy processes, the whole process had become dominated by the vendor industry (textbooks, supplies, teaching aids, facilities, etc, etc - not so different from the mil-industrial complex; just swap edu for mil).

8) Our group of NIH scientists was recruited by the one school district to help them "reinvent" science education for elementary school curriculum. Yet after ~6 months, most of us in private agreed that they needed to reorganize their entire approach to education & training, from ground zero. When we tried to bring that up with a few teachers, they begged us not to mention their names, and in private said nothing would change unless someone took the battle directly to the teacher-training colleges and especially the CURRICULUM PLANNING departments and "specialists." The "curriculum specialists" had become entrenched in all school boards and in "accreditation" services & state education depts. Finally, all county-based school boards had become bureaucracies of their own. [The whole edu logistics chain is rather reminiscent of orthodox economics, S&P et al rating agencies, and politicization of the Fed/Treasury - i.e., theory increasingly separated from practice, operations & outcomes.]

9) In the process of all this, we became aware of literally thousands of similar TOKEN efforts coast to coast, all sponsored by either universities, associations (chem assoc, math assoc, engineering assoc, etc, etc) or corporations .... ALL blissfully unaware of one another, all totally uncoordinated, and hence nearly all a vast waste of everyone's time. In discussing this last topic, one principal burst out laughing & showed me a huge cabinet (~4'x5'x2'deep). Every fall it would start out empty, and slowly fill up with all the proselytizing material sent by various "educational improvement groups" whom he said were all nice people, hard working, well-meaning & totally lacking in any understanding of how an elementary school is actually operated. Hence - it was all totally useless to him. Every spring he would call in a truck, and have all the crap hauled off to a dump. It was an eye-opener to me.

10) This whole experience drove home the realization that researchers at places like the NIH were stockpiling more & more information, while in parallel we simultaneously produce citizens less & less aware of how to actually achieve "recombinant" integration of unpredictably diverse options! (My own son was attending these schools just described, and it was obvious that he wasn't gonna absorb the impetus at school to invent novel "snowmobiles" out of random parts. If anything, the local school curriculum staff were doing their best to drain kids of any remaining imagination. The term INNOCENT FRAUDS comes to mind today. Our visiting teams of scientists ended up talking about how to protect kids from their school experiences. It became depressing if you dwelled on the statistics instead of personal interactions.)

11) What to do about this whole, uncoordinated mess? It would literally take a Constitutional Assembly to quickly reorganize US education top down, so it ain't gonna happen any time soon. Rather, the best hope is far more bottom-up audacity that focuses on protecting students from micro-managing standards enforcers. The most impressive school principal I met confided that if the school board knew how he ran his (rural, edge of county) school, they'd try to put a stop to his methods (which locals absolutely loved). My conclusion is that Iceland or some other tiny country could again overrun the world someday, simply by producing a small crop of people with a culture10x more innovative than the entire rest of the planet combined. It could easily happen. While all other "interest groups" are perfecting resistance to change, the group that embraces change will, by accident, fall into a faster ... ADAPTIVE RATE? Just saying.

12) Conclusion to the NIH experience?
a) a new NIH director took over who immediately closed down the program's NIH endorsement; he wanted researchers to focus on getting tenure, and leave science education to "professional" educators. [go figure!]
b) the local school board already had what they thought they wanted anyway [a "science-in-a-box" menu list, that allowed any teacher, regardless of experience, to literally open a box of prepared materials & "teach science" in the allotted 15 min time slot :( ] Subsequently, they wanted the visiting scientists out of the schools, due to the "disruption" they caused to students, teachers & the school board. The county school administrator was actually a fan of WalMart logistics, and wanted his county school system to be run the same way! Hence, the commoditized "science-in-a-box" concept. I think they capped all of "science" at 7 standard box versions. [Weepin' Buddha on an incline!]

Outcome? Most permanent outcome was that more than one previously dedicated scientist permanently lost interest in research as an industry, and became more interested in "nation-tuning" as an inevitable consequence of full SituationalAwareness.

How to make a difference? You can't tune an system if you don't at least map the moving, interacting parts and produce a rough semblance of a real-time decision-support interface. If that interface is too big & distributed for Central Control, then you have to do what the USMC says - focus on instilling methods that improve the "QUALITY [including tempo] OF DISTRIBUTED DECISION-MAKING".

Are we doing that anywhere in our country? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ... [stop it, you're killing me]. Sorry, gotta catch my breath.

How Have We Gotten into this Situation

The personal stories of efforts of highly trained individuals to interact with the educational system that are recounted in the comment exchange above summarizes a lot of what I would designate as the problem.  Education has become a mass production process.  These types of processes are designed to turn out a high volume of identical products.

Roger Erickson referred to the implementation of "Walmart logistics" in education.  I would submit that the cookie-cutter approach to education is one of the problems.  When the "No Child Left Behind" program was implemented I referred to it as "No child gets ahead."  Forcing the education system to implement an equality of education for all students necessarily inhibits those with ability to rise above the mean.

I did not say "prohibits", I said "inhibits".  There are still students who do rise to their potential inspite of the cookie cutter philosophy.  There are still teachers who find a way to give the talented child the support they need to rise to the top.  But the system is defined by the median and the median has been dumbed down.

How Do We Get out of This Mess?

There are several things I would suggest:

  • Knowledge of the subject matter being taught should be emphasized above the ability to regurgitate a "canned curriculum".
  • The curriculum should be topical and not methodological.
  • Teachers do need some training in "how to teach" but that cannot be a substitution for knowing "what to teach".
  • What to teach must come from an experiental source of each teacher, not from a downloaded instructional module.
  • Teachers must know what they teach, and it must come from a personal experience base.
  • There must be a sound mixture of theory and application.

It used to be said decades ago that "those who can do and those who can't teach."  Unfortunately, that canard has not been diminished in applicability.  It seems that it has only been strengthened.

We need to return to a more fundamental view of education.  High schools should be turning out graduates who know how to balance a checkbook, write out a budget, compose a letter, write a simple original essay, make an oral presentation to a group, understand basic algebra, geometry and trigonometry, etc.

Those not aspiring to attend college should understand how the basic arithmetic logic will enable then to function in the world that awaits, as parents, retail and construction workers, etc.  Those attending college should not be graduating from high school in a situation that requires a college freshman chemistry professor to teach two weeks of elementary algebra before actually starting to introduce chemistry.  That was my experience teaching college chemistry from 1993-2004.


We are in the world today that was envisioned 50-60 years ago.  Automation has taken over many of the functions that required manual and intellectual labor.  The future of increased leisure time has arrived and yet increased prosperity has not.

The 20th century futurists who envisioned a liberated workforce did not envision a society that did not prepare the populace to remain productive and useful in this new world.  They did not envision a distribution of income gains from increased productivity that would not add to mass economic advancement.

But income distribution is not at the heart of the problem.  The fundamental thing the futurists did not envision was an education system that would not do anything to change the ability of the masses to adapt to the new world.

Read other Analysis and Opinion articles about education.

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