This month, Marc Tucker has written two blog entries for Ed Week that together present a frequently-used argument about the decline of America’s schools.1 On April 16, Tucker argued that a reduction in the difficulty level of high school senior textbooks has led to the watering down of college curriculum. Here’s the argument and payoff in a nutshell:
Could it be that many community colleges and even four-year colleges are really offering what used to be a high school college-bound curriculum and many college students cannot even successfully complete that? If so, it would go a long way toward explaining the slowdown in wage growth in the United States.
In other words: We used to be great, but now we are an aging superpower with sagging muscles–uh, brains. We coulda been a contender! The human-capital explanation of wage stagnation and inequality is common, and would be plausible but for a few small, inconvenient facts, especially this one: the bulk of recent inequality growth is at the very upper reaches of the income and wealth scales. Mr. Tucker, do you really believe that the wealthiest and/or highest-earning 0.1% of Americans is better-educated and more knowledgeable than the wealthiest and/or highest-earning 5%, and that the highest-earning 5% truly knows less than the highest-earning 5% from 50 years ago? This argument feeds into the dynamic of seeing education as the solution to inequality. Jacob Bernstein argues that the primary problem with wage growth in the short term is weak demand. And a bunch of smart economists are worried about secular stagnation in the longer term.2
- While such claims are sprinkled through the last 100 years, the modern progenitor is the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, with its claims about “a rising tide of mediocrity.” [↩]
- This complex picture does not mean that education is unimportant, but that the economic argument for education reform is overstated. In education policy, as in Facebook relationship statuses, life can be complicated. [↩]