Decoupling Education & Upward Mobility
March 26, 2008 - 11:44am ET
Like some middle class kids in my generation, education was a high priority. In my house it was emphasized as the doorway to upward mobility. (The idea of learning for learning's sake was something I discovered later.) If I wanted a "good job," I'd better — at least — get an undergraduate degree. It wasn't a question of if I'd go to college, but where, as far as my parents were concerned.
"Where you'll go," I recall my dad saying, "I don't know. But you're going to somebody's university." My dad's desire for me to go to college was probably due in part to his never having been. The son of sharecroppers, he left the far via the draft, and never looked back. Despite his lack of a college degree (he did earn technical school degree, as I recall), my dad managed to find a "good job" and make a "good living" to provide for his family. He believed getting a college education would help me do the same and do better.
My dad did well despite not going to college, and I believe I've benefited immensely because of the college education he helped me get. I doubt I'd be doing the kind of work I'm doing without it. But in the current economy, stories like my dad's and mine may be fewer and far between.
I was reminded of my Dad when I read that good jobs are harder to find for less educated workers.
The steady loss of "good jobs" by less-educated workers has left them more vulnerable to recession than at any time in nearly 30 years, and signs are mounting that a recession is either already here or coming soon.
High-school dropouts and even high-school graduates who lack specialized job training have seen their already limited employment prospects steadily decline during America's decades-long shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service economy.
For how man American families was this kind of job — a blue collar job with a livable wage and good benefits — a doorway to upward mobility, securing the education of their children, and ensuring they might do better economically than their parents? My family was one of them, and I wonder if one of the reasons my dad emphasized education for us was because he was already seeing that shift occurring.
Of course, the "good jobs" described in the article didn't simply vanish. They had help disappearing.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research defines a "good job" as one with health insurance, a pension plan and earnings of at least $17 per hour. That works out to about $34,000 a year, the inflation-adjusted median income for men in 1979, when U.S. manufacturing jobs numbered 19.6 million, an all-time high.
Since then, however, the economy has lost nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs — 52,000 in February alone. Among them were many of the 3.5 million "good jobs" lost from 2000 to 2006, according to John Schmitt, a senior economist at CEPR.
As those jobs disappeared, many blue-collar workers were forced to take jobs with far less pay and benefit security.
...Helping fuel the loss of good jobs has been a decline in union membership, industry deregulation, increased outsourcing of state and government services and economic policies that focus more on containing inflation than on maintaining full employment, Schmitt said.
Anti-unionization, deregulation, and increased outsources are all hallmarks of contemporary conservatism. So, at least we know who to thank for our current situation. But that's the unspoken message of conservative economic philosophy in a globalized economy: the only way Americans can "compete in a global economy" as envisioned and delivered by conservatism is to accept a lower standard of living. As low as the market demands. How low? Read up on working and living standards in just about any country you can find on any label on just about anything in your own house.
When those high school graduates and high school dropouts find few of the kind of "good jobs" mentioned above are available to them, they'll find themselves increasingly competing with educated, experience, unemployed white-collar workers for those jobs.
An unusually large share of workers have been out a job for more than six months even as overall unemployment has remained low, a little-noted weakness in the labor market that analysts said threatens to intensify the impact of the unfolding economic downturn.
In November, nearly 1.4 million people -- almost one in five of those unemployed -- had been jobless for at least 27 weeks, the juncture when unemployment insurance benefits end for most recipients. That is about twice the level of long-term unemployment before the 2001 recession.
The problem is ensnaring a broader swath of workers than before. Once concentrated among manufacturing workers and those with little work history, education or skills, long-term unemployment is growing most rapidly among white-collar and college-educated workers with long work experience, studies have found, making the problem difficult for policymakers to address even as it grows more urgent.
"What has happened is a polarization of the labor market. It was very strong at the very top and very strong until recently at the bottom," said Lawrence F. Katz, a labor economist at Harvard University. "But in the recent weak recovery, and now recession, demand has been very weak" for jobs in the middle.
..."When people are losing good jobs these days, they have a very hard time getting back to the type of job they had before," said Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group that presses for more generous unemployment benefits.
Are we approaching a point at which education is no longer a reliable route to upward mobility? Can people no longer educate themselves in to the middle class and beyond?
Probably. What this means is that educated, skilled workers facing unemployment in the context of the global marketplace, will be faced with the reality of accepting work that their skills and experience surpass, and with it they will accept lower wages, fewer benefits and a lower standard of living. These are people who were sold the idea of membership in the ownership society, some of whom maybe even "voted like owners," who will take their place in the society of the owned because they have bills — subprime mortgages, credit card bills, etc., — to pay.
The final adjustment may be the looming reality that — as college education is priced beyond reach for many Americans, and student loans become harder to get — the ranks of college educated, skilled workers may decrease to the same level as the demand for such workers. And upward mobility will disappear in the education gap.
Economic mobility, the chance that children of the poor or middle class will climb up the income ladder, has not changed significantly over the last three decades, a study being released on Wednesday says.
The authors of the study, by scholars at the Brookings Institution in Washington and sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, warned that widening gaps in higher education between rich and poor, whites and minorities, could soon lead to a downturn in opportunities for the poorest families.
The researchers found that Hispanic and black Americans were falling behind whites and Asians in earning college degrees, making it harder for them to enter the middle class or higher.
This will effect students in areas hit by the subprime mortgage crisis and foreclosures as school budgets are impacted by declining revenues from property taxes. The conditions under which students in these communities must learn will become less and less conducive to learning.
As is often the case with conservatism, we don't find out how bad things are until they've gotten almost too bad to tackle. Preferably, perhaps, we don't find out until something reaches near disaster proportions. From the war in Iraq to the subprime mortgage crisis, seven years of conservative failure have left us with a set of crises that will require a great deal of time to fix before we can even think about progressive change.
Add "the dropout disaster" to the list, brought to us care of "No Child Left Behind."
When it comes to high school graduation rates, Mississippi keeps two sets of books.
One team of statisticians working at the state education headquarters here recently calculated the official graduation rate at a respectable 87 percent, which Mississippi reported to Washington. But in another office piled with computer printouts, a second team of number crunchers came up with a different rate: a more sobering 63 percent.
...Like Mississippi, many states use an inflated graduation rate for federal reporting requirements under the No Child Left Behind law and a different one at home. As a result, researchers say, federal figures obscure a dropout epidemic so severe that only about 70 percent of the one million American students who start ninth grade each year graduate four years later.
...The multiple rates have many causes. Some states have long obscured their real numbers to avoid embarrassment. Others have only recently developed data-tracking systems that allow them to follow dropouts accurately.
The No Child law is also at fault. The law set ambitious goals, enforced through sanctions, to make every student proficient in math and reading. But it established no national school completion goals.
NCLB may be one of the reasons kids drop out, as it focuses more on "teaching to the test" and on individual students' learning needs. Schools are so torn between helping struggling students and meeting NCLB requirements that some students fall through the cracks.
Most troublesome to some experts was the way the No Child law’s mandate to bring students to proficiency on tests, coupled with its lack of a requirement that they graduate, created a perverse incentive to push students to drop out. If low-achieving students leave school early, a school’s performance can rise.
No study has documented that the law has produced such an effect nationwide. Experts say they believe many low-scoring students are prodded to leave school, often by school officials urging them to seek an equivalency certificate known as a General Educational Development diploma.
“They get them out so they don’t have them taking those tests,” said Wanda Holly-Stirewalt, director of a program in Jackson, Miss., that helps dropouts earn a G.E.D. “We’ve heard that a lot. It happens all over the system.”
Schools are so focused on meeting NCLB requirements, that they have no time to focus on meeting the needs of students who may have learning disabilities or difficulties — or who may just learn differently than the methods NCLB requirements demand. So, now NCLB is being adjusted again.
But, to a degree, the damage has been done. And we have more dropouts than we thought. What they're going to do — what they'll be able to do, or what there is for them to do — is anybody's guess. But — in a economy where decoupling seems to apply not only to economies, but to the relationship between education, employment, and upward mobility — their stories probably won't be like my father's or like mine.
Now, I'm a father. I look at our five-year-old, and I see how well he's reading already, how curious he is, and how sharp his mind is. I even look at our three-month-old, and I see how he loves to be held upright so he can see the world around him, and how he's already started figuring out that he can make something happen when he pushes one of his favorite toys. We've already started saving for their educations, but I'm no longer sure that education will ensure for them, what my father hoped it would for me.
Instead, I find myself hoping their stories will be somewhat like mind. I know I'm supposed to hope their stories turn out better, and I'll do everything I can to make that happen. But if "making the grade" is no longer a path to "moving on up," then it looks like the decoupling of education from employment, upward mobility, and the American Dream is at least underway. Or maybe it's already happened.
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