Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Demographic Dilemma –– Part III

In an op-ed piece in The New York Times in October of last year, Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman wrote, “If you had to explain America’s economic success with one word, that word would be ‘education.’ In the 19th century, America led the way in universal basic education. Then, as other nations followed suit, the ‘high school revolution’ of the early 20th century took us to a whole new level. And in the years after World War II, America established a commanding position in higher education.”

Krugman has also written this surprising statement, “Most people, I suspect, still have in their minds an image of America as the great land of college education, unique in the extent to which higher learning is offered to the population at large. That image used to correspond to reality. But these days young Americans are considerably less likely than young people in many other countries to graduate from college. In fact, we have a college graduation rate that’s slightly below the average across all advanced economies.” Imagine –– slightly below the average –– and here we thought Americans were all above average.

Bob Herbert in a December 2009 op-ed piece in The New York Times, wrote, “For me, the greatest national security crisis in the United States is the crisis in education.” He then exclaims, “It’s no secret that American youngsters are doing poorly in school at a time when intellectual achievement in an increasingly globalized world is more important than ever. ”

As described in Part II and Part I in this series, you might have been impressed by Joel Kotkin’s (and David Brooks’) grandiose, almost Utopian vision of America in 2050, as a result of an increase of 100 million more Americans. C onceivably, we will also benefit from a younger population demographic that will help support our social commitments to that segment of our population that is aging –– once again a huge advantage over other countries. However, it would have been desirable if they had addressed the subject of the quality of education represented by this enlarged group. B oth Kotkin and Brooks not only ignored the implications of education deficits relating to blacks, but more importantly, they disregarded the educational system’s disappointing results, particularly in the Latino community, the fastest growing population group through 2050.

But even assuming a 40 percent growth factor and a younger population demographic, last month’s article ended with this question, “Will the demographic composition of the population by mid-century be competently educated, scientifically skilled, intellectually prepared –– to fill the ‘Knowledge Job’ requirements for the Information Age?” If Krugman (a Nobel Prize winner), and Herbert (a Pulitzer Prize winner) are right, and an educated populace is the key to our economic future, we could be in very big trouble. At present the answer seems to be NO! Why?

The problem is typified by this shocking statement from a 2009 editorial written by Mort Zuckerman, owner, and Editor-in Chief of U.S. News & World Report: “In a land where education opportunity is supposed to be the great equalizer, the average black or Hispanic 12th grader in the United States today has the reading and math skills of a white eighth grader.”

In the article by Bob Herbert mentioned above he explains: “Consider the demographics. The ethnic groups with the worst outcomes in school are African Americans and Hispanics. The achievement gaps between these groups and their white and Asian American peers are already large in kindergarten and only grow as the school years pass. These are the youngsters least ready right now to travel the 21 st century road to a successful life.”

Herbert then contends, “But between now and the middle of the century (which is closer than you might think) such youngsters will likely hold an even more important place in the American work force. By 2050, the percentage of whites in the work force is projected to fall from today’s 67 percent to 51.4 percent. The presence of blacks and Hispanics in the work force by mid-century is expected to be huge [38%], with the growth especially sharp among Hispanics.” If America is to maintain its leadership position in the world and provide a first-rate quality of life for its citizens here at home, the educational achievement of American youngsters across the board needs to be ratcheted way up.”

Adding emphasis to that statement, as well as abolishing any implications of racism, is the fact that the author of that op-ed piece, Bob Herbert, is an outspoken advocate for education who happens to be African American. Herbert has exhorted and sermonized on this subject for several years. For example, in August of 2005, he wrote an article in the Times that was quoted in a 2006 Viewpointe article as follows:“First the bad news. Only about two thirds of American teenagers (and just half of all black, Latino, and Native Americans teens) graduate with a regular diploma four years after they enter high school.”

Is There Really a Latino Education Crisis?

“The most urgent problem for the American education system has a Latino face. Latinos are the largest and most rapidly growing ethnic minority in the country, but, academically, they are lagging dangerously far behind their non-Hispanic peers. For example, upon entering kindergarten 42% of Latino children are found in the lowest quartile of performance on reading readiness compared to just 18% of White children. By 4th grade, 16% of Latino students are proficient in reading according to the 2005 NAEP, compared to 41% of White students. A similar pattern is notable at the 8th grade, where only 15% of Latinos are proficient in reading compared to 39% of Whites. (Not that these numbers for Whites are that great.)

With respect to college completion, only 11% of Latinos 25 to 29 years of age had a Bachelor degree or higher compared to 34% of Whites, and the latter number has not changed measurably for four decades. [Newer statistics show Asian Americans at 50%]. Perhaps most distressing, however, is the fact that no progress has been made in the percentage of Latinos gaining college degrees over a 20-year period, while other groups have seen significant increases in degree completion.”

Here again, some might take issue with the bluntness expressed by claiming the above to reflect racial intolerance or discrimination. However it is a direct quote taken from a book titled The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies, published this past March in paperback by Harvard University Press. The authors are Patricia Gándara, professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Frances Contreras, professor of education at the University of Washington.

Exactly four years ago, starting in June of 2006, this column presented a five part series titled, “Are We Losing the War For Innovation? Unfortunately, despite the fact that the material is now some four years old, most of the facts, including the numbers, have changed little over that period. The following segment from that article is still particularly relevant today:

“Citizens Against Racism and Discrimination (C.A.R.D.), is an organization whose name denotes its purpose. In a web posting this past August [2006] C.A.R.D., an organization that obviously abhors all vestiges of prejudice and discrimination made the following statement:

‘How do we lovingly, yet honestly diagnose the large economic, education and success gap between black/Hispanic America and white/Asian America? The problem of crime, educational failure, drugs, gangs, teenage pregnancy, and unemployment that bur-den certain groups threaten our collective future. We need to think about these problems with a new sophistication; increasingly scholars are saying ‘culture matters’ [my emphasis].”

Even more tellingly, C.A.R.D. then propounds the following, apparently no longer radical theory: ‘I suggest that these groups whose culture and values stress education, hard work, and success are those groups that succeed in America — regardless of discrimination. I further suggest that, even if discrimination were removed, other groups would still have massive problems until they developed the traits that lead to success.

In a speech to the National Education Association a year ago, Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education said, “Where you see high–performing schools, it's the culture—every adult taking responsibility and creating a culture of high expectations.” How does one change a people’s philosophical predisposition in order to create and develop a culture that reveres education? Is it at all possible? I will end this series with the same thoughts that ended the 2006 series with slight changes that are italicized: “We are not only losing ‘the war for innovation,’ as well as what might be termed ‘the war for education,’ but unless we quickly and firmly change cultural attitudes, we are certain to fall even further behind in tomorrow’s world. A world deeply ingrained in the Information Age requiring highly educated Knowledge Workers. Unfortunately, at our current rate of educational progress (the more accurate word would be regression), the 21 st century will certainly not be another American Century.