Greenberg: A Way Forward on Education Reform

Over the last week, I’ve been taking a look at some issues related to higher education in Arkansas (You can read those here and here). For my last installment, I’d like to lay out some ideas for education reform in Arkansas.

First, let’s admit that some people just don’t like school and will find it hard to spend four productive years there. If you are the kind of person who writes reports on the importance of higher education reform, or if you are the kind of person who likes to read weblogs about Arkansas politics, you may find this hard to understand—but it’s true.

This report from the Gates Foundation (opens in PDF file) suggests that the biggest reason many students in a similar population drop out of school is sheer boredom: “Nearly half (47 percent) said a major reason for dropping out was that classes were not interesting.” When adults don’t want to be in school, we should listen to them.

Second, one thing that the “Access to Success” report’s recommendations seem to ignore is analyst Charles Murray’s main point about the current value of a college degree: that it signals a certain amount of intellect and perseverance, but beyond that it supplies little evidence of marketable skills. As Murray says, “Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.”

The oft-quoted statistic that a college degree will get you a million dollars extra in lifetime earnings is vastly overstated. It’s possible that many Arkansas employers would be just as impressed by an honorable discharge from the military, which could signal an equally impressive record of hard work, discipline and perhaps even some relevant job training. Murray’s point, that it is hard for employers to tell very much from a college degree, has many implications; his proposal that the nation would benefit from tests in some fields that quantify job skills is hard to argue with.

Third, the “Access to Success” authors conclude that Arkansas is far behind, when compared to other states, in college degrees and individual incomes. That is true. But the conclusion they draw—that awarding more college degrees will make us wealthier—is on shakier ground.

One of Arkansas’ biggest problems is that many of the people we educate leave the state in search of greater economic opportunity. Awarding more degrees won’t affect migration to other states: opportunities outside our state will always attract talented Arkansans.

Access to Success also argues that more Arkansas degrees will cause more Arkansas economic development. I am not so sure. I think what will spur economic development is a tax code that makes it more attractive for businesses to invest and grow here, a state legislature that hunts down and kills wasteful government spending, a regulatory environment that encourages growth and production and keeps prices low, and an educational system that provides vocational value and that is willing to preserve and extend measurement and testing.

Accomplishing those goals will be difficult. For instance, nobody really likes measuring or being measured, so there is immense resistance to anything that keeps track of whether Arkansas students are really getting any value out of all the time they spend in classrooms. Nonetheless, these four policy goals will bring Arkansas much more prosperity than will cranking out more college degrees.

Ultimately, it is measurement and testing that must be at the center of any successful education reform program. This is a question that Access to Success skips over, but it is the question that always must be asked about education. It is the question that our president famously and inelegantly asked: Is our children learning?

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