February 14, 2012
As we pore over President Obama's $3.8 billion budget proposal, it's clear that our national debt will increase to a troubling $18.7 trillion by 2021. We don't know whether cutting government spending, raising taxes, stimulating the economy or all of the above can help reduce our debt. But one thing is clear: America is producing an undereducated and underperforming workforce that will not be able to drive economic growth.
Why America's College Students Don't Graduate
As of right now, with the unemployment rate at an improved but not impressive 8.3 percent, 3.4 million jobs remain unfilled, according to the latest BLS data. One reason is that underwater homes prevent some job seekers from moving to where the jobs are. But another reason is Americans don't have the skills required in today's job market. Manpower surveys of more than 1,300 U.S. employees find the jobs most difficult to fill include skilled trades, sales representative and engineers. And let's not kid ourselves: Those skills are not just math and science related. They are language skills and proficiency in everything from history and geography to literature and philosophy.
Top companies like Google and Apple are looking for the best and the brightest – people who can "think different," as Steve Jobs said. If tech companies aren't the litmus test, try the television industry, which on the surface does not seem to hire high IQ candidates. It is, however, loaded with above-average, smart and dedicated people. One reason – if producers, directors, editors, or on-camera talent do not perform, they're out. Plain and simple. Or try manufacturing. Caterpillar has hundreds of unfilled job openings for sales representatives, machine operators, et al, but can't find qualified people to fill them.
Jobs for the less educated are going away. The knowledge economy has officially kicked in, and we're woefully behind the curve. Clerical workers are being replaced by cloud-based software programs; store clerks are being replaced by self checkout systems; and most dramatic, manufacturers are creating assembly lines that are 100 percent robotic. Cisco's Superbowl ad, showing "assembly lines that fix themselves," is fair warning that when possible, companies will hire a robot that doesn't need salary, a union, health care or a pension before they'll hire a human being.
The result is that we're heading for a 'one percent' workforce. A workforce not of rich people, but of an educated elite that cannot be replaced as easily by technology. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich predicted this conundrum in his prophetic 1991 book, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for the 21st Century. He said, "Each nation's primary assets will be its citizens' skills and insights. Each nation's primary political task will be to cope with the centrifugal forces of the global economy, which tear at the ties binding citizens together – bestowing ever greater wealth on the most skilled and insightful, while consigning the less skilled to a declining standard of living." Closing the income gap will be impossible if we don't close the skill gap, but the burden for closing that gap should not be placed on the shoulders of teachers alone.
Parents as Teachers
Twenty-six years ago, when the millennial generation was in its infancy, I co-founded a parenting magazine called CHILD. We published a number of articles on education and learned about experimental programs that were designed to help disadvantaged children who needed remedial help, and programs for privileged children who benefitted from accelerated learning. The educators and pediatricians we spoke with – Ed Zigler at Yale, who founded Schools of the 21st Century, T. Berry Brazelton, known as America's pediatrician, and Jim Levine, then VP of the Bank Street College of Education and founder of The Fatherhood Project, to name just three – may have had different approaches to educating America's children, but they all agreed on one thing: Without a parent or parents who set a child's expectation for achievement, and who understand and foster the learning benchmarks that are essential to success, the child is set up to fail.
President Obama should be commended for pushing high schools and colleges to improve the quality of their course work and to make education far more affordable for the average American – although his proposals only scratch the surface of the problem. The failure of our schools to educate our children may reflect the quality of our teachers. But it surely reflects the quality of America's parents. Parents have off-loaded the responsibility for educating their children onto the schools. In so doing, they have sent a message to their kids that striving for excellence is not important, that being diligent is useless. The Michigan Department of Education lays it out clearly:
"The most consistent predictors of children’s academic achievement and social adjustment are parent expectations of the child’s academic attainment and satisfaction with their child’s education at school. Parents of high-achieving students set higher standards for their children’s educational activities than parents of low-achieving students."
Government institutions can't solve all our problems, and they can't absolve us of our responsibility. One parent who is not a "tiger mom" told me, "I hope that school doesn't ruin my children's education."