Education and the Good Old Days
David Brooks makes two observations about education:
An information revolution has increased the economic rewards of education and punished those who lack it.
A pedagogical revolution has led to ferocious competition to get into the top universities but a decline in quality at the primary and secondary levels. For the first time in the nation’s history, workers retiring from the labor force are better educated than the ones coming in.
The first of these is almost certainly true. A high school diploma is worth less than it was a generation ago but it’s almost impossible to earn enough to make a decent living without one. And a college education is almost a requirement for most white collar jobs.
I’m less persuaded by the second point. Have we really seen a decline in quality in our elementary and secondary schools? I don’t think so.
When I graduated high school in 1984, there were no advanced placement courses available; now, they’re commonplace. They’re learning about genetics in elementary school nowadays; we barely touched on it in high school when I was coming up and Biology and Anatomy were elective courses (which I took). Schools are under national-level scrutiny these days and students are subject to standardized testing throughout their academic careers. And many if not most states now require passing a high school graduation exam.
It’s true that SAT scores are down from a generation ago but that’s mostly a function of college being a virtual expectation of middle class life. As higher education went from the domain of the elite to a mass product, it naturally meant that less talented students went on to college. This is offset in large measure, though, by the fact that more people are getting a college education.
Can it possibly be true that “workers retiring from the labor force are better educated than the ones coming in”? Today’s 65-year-old retiree was born in 1943 and graduated high school — assuming he did — in 1961 or thereabouts. According to the Historical summary of public elementary and secondary school statistics, roughly 82.2 percent of school age children were enrolled in school then, compared to 91 percent now. There were 1.627 million high school graduates annually then, compared to 2.8 million now. And, certainly, many more people are getting bachelors degrees, not to mention graduate and professional degrees.
So, in what sense are we less educated now than my parents’ generation?