I have not the expertise to address the merits of President Obama's speech to Congress on the issues of the economy. I do claim some expertise on education. He blew it.
He accepted the same garbage that the propagandists, fear mongers such as Lou Gerstner, Bill Gates, Roy Romer, Bob Wise, Craig Barrett and many others--God help us, Arne Duncan?--have been spewing for years.
Obama said, ""Right now, three quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma, and yet just over half of our citizens have that level of education. Scary, huh? Not really. This statistic was a favorite of ex secretary of education of education Margaret Spellings, about whom we can all express a sigh of relief that the operative word is, "ex."
If you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics stats on job projections, it is almost true (but not really) that what Obama said is right. But there are two hugely compromising factors that make this statistic much less fearsome that it first appears:
1. The definition of "more than a high school diploma" is a weasel phrase, an incredibly slippery statistic. It does not mean a B. A., an Associates Degree, nor even a year of on-the-job training. The BLS projects that the overwhelming majority of jobs to be created between now and 2016 will require "short term on the job training." That's one week to three months.
2. The "fastest-growing occupations" account for very few jobs. For every systems engineer, we need about 15 sales people on the floor at Wal-Mart (and we have three newly minted scientists and engineers for every new job in those fields). The huge job numbers in this country are accounted for by retail sales, janitors, maids, food workers, waiters, truck drivers, home care assistants (low paid folk who come to take care those of us who are getting up in years), and similar low-trained, low-paid occupations. Note that I did not say these people are "low-skilled." As Barbara Ehrenreich showed after she spent two years working in "low-skilled" jobs, there really is no such thing (see her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America).
"We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation, and half of our students who begin college never finish."
Because test scores no longer work to prove American school failure, the statistic of choice to prove what a lousy job we're doing is the graduation rate. How dare those European and Asian nations have the audacity to recover from World War II! The dropout rates across nations are, so far as I can tell, incomparable, since secondary school programs in other nations range from two to five years. In other nations, once students finish the equivalent of 8th grade, they are tracked into vocational, technical or precollege programs whereas American students go to comprehensive high schools (although, as we all know, there is plenty of informal tracking within those).
Many people do not complete college for many reasons. One of my major regrets as a researcher is a failure to follow up, in the late 60's, on groups of students who failed to complete their education at Temple University, a center city school in Philadelphia vs. those who finished on time--at the time restrictions to access to personal data were much freer. The standout statistic in the data I looked at was that the SAT scores of those who finished in four years was only infinitesimally higher than those who had dropped out or been dismissed for academic reasons.
I also don't know much about college completion rates in Europe, but do know that you can hang around as a student at the Sorbonne in Paris forever. Incidentally, you want a riot in Europe? Try imposing college tuition.
The World Economic Forum, and the Institute for Management Development, two Swiss think tanks, rate the U. S. as the most globally competitive nation in the world, IMD using 50+ nations, WEF, 135. What things will look like when their new rankings emerge from the current catastrophe this fall is hard to say. But looking at tests, high-scoring Iceland is an economic basket case. High-scoring France is on strike. And even higher-scoring Japan, the idol that "A Nation At Risk" prostrated itself to in 1983 because its test scores surely ensured economic prosperity, endured a "lost decade" of recession starting around 1990 and, in 2007 was in recession once again. Japan's students still ace tests.
When will we ever learn?