The School of Hard Knocks: Educating Our Way out of the Financial Crisis
A panel of experts discusses the value of investing in human potential to bring about economic recovery and growth
The relationship between education and economic growth is not just a theory. It’s right there on the x and y axes, according to a 2009 study by the Bertelsmann Foundation.
Bertelsmann Executive Board Member Jörg Dräger launched a panel discussion on education at the Foundation’s second annual conference on the financial crisis with the study’s findings. The data show a direct correlation between student test scores in different countries and their rates of economic growth.
Dräger was joined by Carol Goss, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, which supports improved education and neighborhoods in Detroit; Henry Levin, professor of economics and education at Columbia University; and Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement at the US Department of Education. Ron Brownstein, political director at the Atlantic Media Company, moderated.
“The better… the math and reading ability of your students, the better… your economic growth,” Dräger said. On hand to back up his assertion was a chart showing that more than 20 percent of 15-year-olds in the US and Germany are barely able to read, write, or do math at the elementary-school level. Those numbers, which are more than twice as high as Canada, Korea and Finland, reflect populations that are losing hundreds of billions of dollars in potential gross domestic product.
“What happens if we cut that to only a few percentages?” Dräger asked before answering his own question. “It has an enormous effect on the economy… Every year we don’t tackle this, education reform will cost us a couple of hundred billion euros.”
The signs that our countries are moving toward long-term education investment, however, are dim. Germany spends more money on renovating school buildings than teaching, according to the Foundation’s study.
The numbers provided fertile ground for discussion among the panelists.
Professor Levin said that at least 30 percent of US students don’t graduate from high school, and those numbers are increasing.
That’s a discouraging trend, he said, pointing to studies that show every dollar spent on education leads to $1.50 to $4.00 of decreased costs for the criminal-justice system, public health and welfare.
Goss of the Skillman Foundation introduced more bad news about the decline in numbers of young people getting jobs. Not only do they not have the technical skills required, but “probably more important,” she noted, is that kids just don’t like school.
“Young people today are totally turned off by what’s happening in education. They are not being challenged in school. They are not happy,” she said. As a result, just two percent of kids who graduate from Detroit public schools are prepared for college math, and just 11 percent are prepared for college English.
Panelists agreed that countries must invest in education and ensure that it is the right kind of education.
“We’ve made a lot of our [educational] decisions not necessarily based on facts and evidence of what works,” the education department’s Shelton said. “We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.”
The good news, however, is that educational failures are not directly related to schools in economically depressed areas. Half of the 30 percent of US students who do not graduate attend just 2,000 of the country’s 130,000-plus elementary and secondary schools.
Some schools in depressed areas report two to three times the performance levels of schools in similar areas, he said.
“Are we willing to actually have these common high standards recognized?” he asked. That means weeding out bad teachers, and closing schools that are not effective – actions that carry a heavy political price.
While those policies are still being worked out, panelists said there needs to be a change in curricula, with more support from the communities surrounding schools, to boost the motivation and drive of students to perform better and, as a result, have better job prospects after graduation.
Levin said schools need to take better advantage of the digital age in which students are growing up, shaping education around their interest in electronic games, the Internet, YouTube, and cell-phone texting.
“What are we doing to enrich those types of experiences?” he asked. Rather than video games that are predominantly violent, why can’t governments subsidize companies to manufacture games that incorporate science and technology, or create YouTube channels that encourage writing, literary activities, and math?
“It’s understanding how children are learning, what are their influences, and intervening in all these places,” Levin said.
Such tools, along with greater communal peer support for education, are keys to increasing students’ success, panelists agreed.
“If you don’t believe something is coming out for you,” Dräger said, referring to student motivation, “you just don’t attempt to do it.”
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