Getting it Backwards

Those who dispense anxiety about America's schools have got it all backwards. Bill Gates, Roy Romer, Bob Wise, Bill Bennett and many others look at the results of international test-score studies and make dire predictions about the future of the U. S. economy. Instead, they should brag about the U. S. economy and impugn the quality and validity of the international test-score comparisons.

British economist S. J. Prais put it this way: "That the U. S., the world's top economic performing country, was found to have schooling attainments that are only middling casts fundamental doubts about the value and approach of these [international] assessments." Yes, that's the way the causality should go. As George Washington University's Iris Rotberg recently observed, "The fact is that international test-score comparisons tell us very little about the quality of education in any country."

The Institute for Management Development (IMD) and the World Economic Forum (WEF), both Swiss organizations, love our economy. The WEF usually ranks the U. S. first in global competitiveness, never below second, among 131 nations; in the IMD rankings, the U. S. replaced Japan as #1,in 1994 and has enjoyed that position ever since.

You remember Japan. In 1983, A Nation at Risk (ANAR) painted it as an unstoppable economic juggernaut. Its students scored at the top tests and high scores produced economic health. America, on the other hand, was threatened by a "rising tide of mediocrity." After the report appeared, the U. S. Department of education dispatched assistant secretary of education, Chester Finn and a team of school critics to Japan to determine if we could import the Japanese education system.

Neither ANAR's authors nor Finn's team said "Ooops" when Japan's economy sank into the Pacific seven years later even as Japanese students continued to ace tests. Other "Asian Tiger" economies soon tanked as well. While the Japanese economy needed life support, the U. S. economy took off for the longest sustained economic expansion in the nation's history. Had ANAR been right, America's surge would have been impossible. The mediocre high school students ANAR described in 1983 are now in their early 40's and we're still #1.

The notion that the U. S. economy depends on K-12 education represents a triumph absurdist thinking. The IMD and WEF use hundreds of factors to determine competitiveness. Education and training are only two. The WEF especially likes innovation and ranks the U. S. first. But maybe not for long, according to Robert Sternberg, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. The developer of the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence laments that in our obsession with standardized tests, as manifest most clearly in No Child Left Behind, we have devised one of the greatest instruments in our nation's history for suppressing creativity.

If the U. S. is slipping into recession now or losing its competitive edge, it might actually be due to a school catastrophe: the failure of America's Business Schools to instill ethics in future entrepreneurs. The Enron, WorldCom, and other corporate scandals and the current subprime mortgage scandal both reflect the failure of businessmen and bankers to act ethically. Subprime mortgage lenders suckered low-income blacks and Hispanics into loans that lenders knew they couldn't handle.

If an economic collapse does come, it will derive not from the schools, but from what journalist Rick Perlstein calls e.coli conservatism. E. coli conservatism kills, because e. coli conservatives won't spend enough money to maintain the infrastructure, including schools, or to regulate and oversee industry. Minnesota governor, Tim Pawlenty, revealed himself as an e. coli conservative when he vetoed a bill providing more money for roads. As if on cue, a bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul fell into the Mississippi, killing and injuring many. If you don't have sufficient oversight over industry, you get e. coli-poisoned beef and spinach, salmonella invades eggs and salmon and, most recently, tomatoes.

My abiding fear is that, somehow, the school bashers will manage to portray the failures of Bear Stearns and Countrywide, the collapse of that Minnesota bridge, and people doubling over in pain from e. coli-infested foods, as the failure of the public schools to adequately teach reading, math, and science.