One key assumption behind No Child Left Behind – and pretty much every major education reform effort of the past half century – is that a strong education system is essential to American economic growth.
However, as Larry Cuban points out, although multiple reports and even more politicians have repeated the mantra, even economists don’t have evidence to support it.
And current attempts to connect school reform and economic growth are nothing new. Remember our past love affair with Japanese schools?
Recall that in the 1980s, U.S. policymakers including corporate leaders looked to Japan with its remarkable annual growth and pointed to its schools as driving the economy. Educators, economists, and sociologists traveled to Japan to study its schools and contrast them—in highly positive terms—with U.S. schools. But the contrasts fell flat in the 1990s when Japan’s economy nose-dived for that decade until just recently. Few policymakers today use Japan as a model for U.S. schools.
So, if it’s not going to make us a lot of money, is there a good reason to pay for a strong public education system?
After all, there are many reasons to have strong schools in a society beyond, but including, economic ones. Although they hardly get mentioned by policymakers save in throwaway lines at graduation ceremonies, expanded literacy in service of developing an engaged citizenry who, in fulfilling their civic obligations, build better communities and live moral lives are, and have been, historic reasons for investing tax dollars in American schools. But not now with the three-decade concentration in educational policymaking on equating higher graduation rates and college attendance with economic growth.
Although you wouldn’t know it from visiting most of our schools, there IS more to a good education than getting a high school diploma and going to college.