Having spent all my professional life working to educate America’s children, I naturally bristle when I see a headline like the one that appeared in my Twitter feed from the Washington Post this morning: “Globalization isn’t America’s problem, education is.” I clicked on the link, prepared to be annoyed and to argue with yet another businessman who blames education for the country’s problems. Companies are in the business of rewarding those who show promise. Schools are in the business of convincing children who aren’t showing promise that they have something to offer the world.
To my surprise, when I opened the article, I found a reasoned, clear explanation of the forces at work in our economy, a topic I usually struggle to understand when I read articles written by economists who hold PhD’s. According to the editor’s note, the writer, Peter Blair Henry, is the dean of NYU’s Stern School of Business, and a photograph revealed that he is also a person of color.
Curious, I searched and found his biography on NYU’s web site—an impressive resume of professional accomplishments. A paragraph at the end of the bio stated that he was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1969, and became a U.S. citizen in 1986, the year my daughter was born.
Nowhere in Henry’s extraordinary list of accomplishments is there any indication that he has interest or expertise in the field of education. I realize that the Washington Post’s editors determine the headlines for articles and that Henry himself may have had absolutely no input on how his article would appear online. But the headline suggests that the education system is to blame for our tenuous economy, which is not at all a representation of the content of the article. In fact, Henry says this:
But the lack of equal access to higher education is a major obstacle to upgrading the overall skill level of the U.S. workforce. A child born in the top quartile of the income distribution in the United States has an 85 percent chance of going to college. Born in the bottom quartile the odds drop to 8 percent. A recent study also shows that 17 percent of high-achieving high school seniors come from this lower quartile. Taken together, these numbers suggest that a large fraction of high-ability high school seniors will remain in the low-skilled part of the workforce in spite of their potential.
Providing this group of young Americans with the same access to university education as their peers in the top quartile could lead to a material reduction in income inequality and vastly improve U.S. productivity.
Few public school teachers would disagree with Henry’s assessment here. However, it is a vast oversimplification, though it is clearly based on a sound understanding of economic principles. The author’s resume states that his work, “overturn[ed] conventional wisdom on the topics of debt relief, international capital flows, and the role of institutions in economic growth.”
What is missing from Henry’s piece, perhaps because it is only one in a series of articles on the decline of America’s middle class, is the expertise in education that would give him an equally clear understanding of what is needed to lift up not just the high-achieving children in that bottom quartile but to lift up all children, both the fragile and the resilient.
I was one of those children from that 8% of the bottom quartile who went to college. Perhaps Henry came from poverty as well: Though I could find no information on his childhood, the dates on his resume suggest that he left Jamaica as a 17-year-old to attend college at UNC Chapel Hill.
What I know as an adult is that children of poverty who achieve success often become the poster children for both sides. On the one hand, liberals point to us and say, “Look what could happen if we educate poor children.” On the other hand, conservatives point to us and say, “See. They worked hard, and look where they are! Why don’t the rest of you get a job and stop trying to live off the government!”
Within an hour after I responded to the Post’s tweet, another reader responded, “did you know that the top 1% you speak of are the political hacks you vote for, stupid?” When I looked at his Twitter page, I saw that it was filled with incoherent rants directed at those he perceived as parasites. His writing could not have been more of a contrast to Henry’s article.
And because readers like this man are attracted by inflammatory headlines such as the one on this article, the comments of rational readers who might further the dialogue and move our country forward are lost in a roiling sea of anger.
Vitriol and venom have become the single greatest impediment to moving this country forward. While I have no desire to repress freedom of speech, perhaps credible news organizations should follow their Terms and Conditions and remove the rights of such commenters, blocking them if they persist in ugliness and name-calling. Or, if the media allow all comments in the interest of the right to free speech, perhaps editors could flag those that seek only to attack so that readers could sort them out and hide them as social media sites do.
Usually, by the time I finally gather my thoughts again after reading such vitriol, I have expended all the energy I had to respond to an author’s ideas, and I walk away in disgust—not at the writer but at the drivel I’m forced to read to find substantial responses to the writer’s thoughts.
I feel, though, that Dr. Henry has begun what could potentially be a constructive dialogue about how to fix what ails our economy—and even more, our society. I began by saying that I believe Dr. Henry has oversimplified the issues. But what if he and experts in other fields came together, without politics and politicians, to pool their expertise in the service of the common good?
Here are a few of the questions I think must be asked and discussed with seriousness and depth in any constructive dialogue about this issue:
- To what degree is income inequality mitigated when workers in the bottom quartile are paid a living wage?
- How do we equip parents in the bottom quartile to better nurture their children’s educations?
- To what degree does it level the playing field when students in the bottom quartile do earn a college degree? (See the Post’s article from October 8th, “Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong.”)
- How do we encourage poor students who graduate college with a mountain of debt to go into the fields where they are so sorely needed (e.g., education, social work, health care) instead of into fields where they can make far more money?
- What courses should we require for high school graduation that would address the needs for students to meet the increased demands for technology?
- How can the 1% better use their charitable contributions to help the fragile children who need it even more than the high achieving children do? (If, for example, the wealthy donated money to buy tablets and Internet access for every child in the country whose family receives meal assistance, how might that affect those children’s lives?)
I’m sure there are many more questions, but let’s begin with the assumption that most parents want what’s best for their children and the assumption that all children can learn if given the support they need. If you care about the future of our children, then let’s kick-start a more productive discussion than the ones we’ve been having that have done little to help our people and our country become stronger.
Whether you agree with me or not, I invite you to add your own stories and reasoned arguments. If every single person in this country would stop laying blame and begin looking for solutions we haven’t tried yet, then we might find a way out of this morass.