deskA response to Robert Gordon’s NYTimes editorial titled “The Great Stagnation of American Education” on September 7, 2013. Dr. Robert Gordon argues that since the U.S.A.’s economic growth has historically “gone hand-in-hand with rising educational attainment,” the current struggle for economic growth is the fault of the public school system. His interest to reverse the economic slide is a valid one.  In Gordon’s favor, there is substantial evidence that shows that students who attend wealthy schools, especially private schools, achieve collectively higher scores on standardized achievement tests than do students attending poor schools. He—and I agree—suggests that our educational systems are being under-valued. But Gordon’s argument blames public education for the economy in a causal way, one that ignores the long-term results of broad U.S. economic policies and overlooks the strides occurring in public schools.

Gordon inaccurately argues that educational attainment determines lifelong earning wages and that “companies pay better-educated people higher wages because they are more productive.” First, publically traded industries often rely upon a how-low-can-you-go workforce, which was a NAFTA impetus to move “American” jobs overseas. The current post-industrial workforce is so saturated with bachelors’ degreed workers, companies like Enterprise Rent-A-Car brag about its over-qualified workforce. In addition, Gordon overlooks increasing numbers of Ph.D.s working as part-time professors and who receive food stamps, as reported by last May’s Chronicle of Higher Education.

Second, meritocracy has long been a myth. Juliet Lapidos in her Sept. 11th, 2013 NYTimes editorial notes that “in 2012, the incomes of the top 1 percent rose nearly 20 percent.” In a meritocracy, how could the top 1 percent’s private education be that much better? If so, that education is deserving to all.

Third, high school achievement on standardized testing has increased two-grade levels over the past 30 years, while the economic roller coaster was initiating its dissent. Over the last 30 years students in public schools have made significant collective strides in educational achievement in mathematics and reading while the economy was tanking. Stanford University Professor, Dr. Sean Reardon analyzed the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores between 1971 – 2008.  This test is given to national cohorts age 9, 13, and 17. Since the 1970s, mathematics and reading NAEP scores have risen. An average nine-year-old today has the mathematics NAEP score of an average 11-year-old in the 1970s–two-years ahead of where the average nine-year-old was 35 years ago. This is cause to celebrate mathematics teachers and their students’ achievement nationally.

Gordon is accurate in the need for quality early childhood education. Dr. Reardon shows that the achievement gap does not change during the school years. High, middle and low-income youth (from 1943-2008 birth cohorts) enter school with differing achievement from their first steps into the kindergarten classroom and that difference stays relatively constant throughout their K-12 experience. He finds that the achievement gap is due to the highest income (top 10th percentile) youth’s scores rising in the past 30 years, which overshadow the rising slant of achievement by low and middle-income youth. This is a good argument to offer the education the top 10% receives, to all youth.

Gordon argues that our economic woes are squarely the result of educational woes by also withholding information about the economic causes of increased income inequality.  During the last 30 years of educational gains, according to Professor Joseph Stiglitz, author of The Price of Inequality, the U.S.A. has more income inequality before tax and transfer income in comparison to other industrialized nations and we do less about it because our government has rolled back policies that “corrected this market inequality.” We must consider how economic gains made on rent-seeking, predatory lending, anti-competitive practices, market manipulation, and the transportation of jobs overseas are causal factors in the economy that are relatively independent of broad achievement gains in public education. Paul Krugman reminds us that inequality is also a product of Bush tax cuts for high-income people. The arc of the rising income of the 1% is significantly disproportionate with their somewhat rising educational attainment.

At the foundation of Gordon’s argument is that the inequitable distribution of income is the direct result of a failing educational system. One: the educational system is achieving not failing. Two: the economic woes rest primarily on changes in economic policies. Three: Blaming schools is a cop out and it is an unrealistic goal for the fragile and under-funded public educational system.  So the question is still unanswered, who really is responsible for this economic crisis and who is going to make the necessary policy changes required to bring the much needed change in our economy?

Consider watching: Joseph Stiglitz: The Price of Inequality|The New School Dr. Sean Reardon: Income Inequality, Schooling, and Educational Outcomes From Graduate School to Welfare, The Chronicle of Higher Education Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error