Sunday, March 13, 2016

American Workers Come in Last

It’s one thing to bring the jobs back home. We are all in favor of economic growth and prosperity. The problem is, when it comes to the skills required to do the jobs, American workers score at the bottom of the international heap.

The International Assessment for Adult Competency, performed by the OECD, concluded that when it comes to “using technology to solve problems” American workers come in last in the world.

Douglas Belkin reports for the Wall Street Journal:

A new report finds U.S. workers rank dead last among 18 industrial countries when it comes to “problem solving in technology-rich environments,” or using digital technology to evaluate information and perform practical tasks. The consequences of that emerging competitive disadvantage is energizing the volatile undercurrent of this year’s presidential race, some observers say.

American workers lack the literacy and the numeracy needed to perform the tasks. This suggests that our educational system has failed. Johnny can’t do math and Johnny can’t read. But, I guarantee you, Johnny has high self-esteem. And Johnny believes in climate change.

But, we do not want to know how badly our children are doing in school. So we dumb down the curriculum and give everyone a good grade. As long as our children exist within their own local cocoon, all is well. Once they start competing against the rest of the world, things start going south. As long as we are required to compete against people who hold different cultural values, we will have a problem. Closing ourselves off from the world will not solve the problem.

This is not exactly news. And yet, we are approaching it wrongly. I recall a math professor from Berkeley writing that the Common Core approach to math will do nothing to help students learn how to do math. Beyond that we are arguing about diversity. It’s almost as though we have convinced ourselves that rigorous academic standards are discriminatory, that they are being imposed by those who enjoy white privilege.

American educators and intellectuals have generally rejected the more Asian approach to education because it gives out too much homework. And they have slandered it by saying that children who have Tiger Moms end up suicidal and depressed.

Are they more concerned about the best interests of students or their own jobs? If they worry about their students, do they think that students who discover that they cannot compete against their peers in Asia and in Scandinavia are going to feel good about themselves?

Since American educators value self-esteem and creativity over getting the right answers, the outcome is what we would expect it to be: an undereducated workforce.

As for the unemployed, most of them lack the most basic technological skills. Belkin continues:

One stark revelation is that about four-fifths of unemployed Americans cannot figure out a rudimentary problem in which they have to spot an error when data is transferred from a two-column spreadsheet to a bar graph. And Americans are far less adept at dealing with numbers than the average of their global peers.

“This is the only country in the world where it’s OK to say ‘I’m not good at math,’ ” said Mr. Provasnik. “That’s just not acceptable in a place like Japan.”

Unfortunately, there is no political fix for this. One might think that American workers need more education, but one suspects that after you have reached a certain age you will have a great deal of difficulty acquiring new math skills.

Even if you have policies that bring jobs to the unemployed, they cannot do the jobs that require a higher level of problem-solving and tech skills. One reason that jobs are migrating outside of the country might well be that the American unemployed cannot do them anyway.

In earlier tests (in 2012), the study found that America had a two-tiered educational system. Out best workers were the best in the world. The rest of American workers were barely competent.

Americans with the most cerebral jobs—those that demanded high levels of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills—fared the best against the rest of the world in the earlier tests. The potential problem lies in the growing complexity of traditional middle-class jobs in fields like manufacturing and health care. Workers unable to grow in those jobs will lose their positions or face stagnant wages.

Increasingly, middle class jobs require more sophisticated technological skills. American workers who do not possess them will lose out to foreign workers. Surely, there are many reasons why companies move their factories abroad or why they outsource so much work. I have mentioned some of them. Commenters on the blog have generously provided a more detailed analysis. We must emphasize the fact that the American educational system has failed American children.

If I read the article correctly, Belkin is reporting that now, in the 2014 report, even the best educated Americans are falling behind their peers.

The new report does nothing to dispel that gloom. Data on 16- to 34-year-olds, for instance, found even workers with college degrees and graduate or professional degrees don’t stack up favorably against their international peers with similar education levels. Fewer of these most-educated Americans perform at the highest levels on tests of numeracy and problem solving with technology.

The cultural revolution that began in the 1960s must have influenced this trend. After all, the countercultural revolutionaries did not go out to sell insurance or to work in industry. They gravitated toward the educational system and they have done their best to transform it into an indoctrination mill that values ideological conformity and high self-esteem over learning. Note the career of one Bill Ayers.

Belkin reports on Marc Tucker’s assessment. Tucker is the CEO of the National Center for Education and the Economy:

“American workers, once the best educated in the world, are now among the least well-educated, in the industrialized world,” Mr. Tucker said in a statement. “That has economic consequences and those economic consequences are now turning into political consequences” as voters head to the polls this presidential election year.

In the 1970s, the U.S. had the most educated workforce in the world. Since 2000, the skills and knowledge of U.S. high-school graduates have stagnated while those of other countries have increased rapidly. That failure to adapt means global employers can get cheaper, better educated labor in many other countries.

“The only way we can compete and live well in this country is if people in other parts of the world want what we have to sell them and we can only get there if we have a population that is very well educated and well trained,” Mr. Tucker said. “If people with the same skills are willing to work harder and charge less, that’s where the jobs are going to go.”

As much as this is a political problem, it’s a cultural problem. The current administration is certainly aware of it. The last Secretary of Education certainly wanted to fix it.

Yet, we cannot fix it without having a major cultural reform. We need to have more stable homes and families. And we need families that value education and that push children to do their homework. And we need more teachers who know how to teach math and science, and not in the Common Core way. We need teachers who know the difference between right and wrong answers.

Right now, that seems like a pipe dream, like tilting at windmills. The damage wrought by the counterculture will not be undone in a day or with an election.


Baloo said...

All good points, but one factor left out is that one motive for the dumbing down and self-esteem, etc., is to "close the gap". White students are undereducated in order to make NAM's feel better about themselves. And, of course, even when that's not done deliberately, the teachers' time is used up dealing with the disruption caused by the NAM's and neglecting the Whites to devote more time to them. As long as that game is played, it'll just get worse.

Ares Olympus said...

Don't worry. We now have Fox news to educate us.

Fictional beliefs like climate change can be avoided with proper care in avoiding public television and science magazines.

When an employer interviewer tests our critical thinking skills by asking "What is climate change and what can be done about it?" We'll know the right answers. Just say "It's a hoax perpetrated by scientists to do useless research, avoid real work and to laugh at gullible people." and you'll be hired on the spot, despite our weak educational system.

David Foster said...

While the results are indeed disturbing, I question how much of this really has anything to do with "technological literacy," where the technology in question is "computers." The question about comparing numbers on a spreadsheet to a bar graph, for example, would have made perfect sense in 1911 (with paper spreadsheets, of course), and I'd expect that the typical senior clerk in a business or government agency would have been able to handle it with no problems.

The fundamental issue with the schools is *not* that they have failed to "keep up with changing technology," etc, but rather that they have actually fallen behind their earlier counterparts.

Also, our discussion of education and technology would benefit greatly by eliding comments like "“Just because you’re a digital native, doesn’t mean you’re tech savvy." There is nothing particularly significant about being able to do Facebook on a mobile phone.

Sam L. said...

Ares proves his point, though not the way he thinks he does.

"And we need more teachers who know how to teach math and science, and not in the Common Core way. We need teachers who know the difference between right and wrong answers." We may have them. I suspect that what we need are administrators who demand them. And support them. And can fire those teachers who don't know the difference. Still, that would likely hurt their diversity rankings.