Last week, under the headline, “Knowledge Isn’t Power,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote a dangerously misleading article suggesting that the shortcomings of the educational system should not be blamed for income inequality.
As a devoted reader of Krugman, I know income inequality in America is primarily driven by tax policies that allow the wealthiest to underpay, globalization that moves U.S. jobs to low-wage countries, and the decline of private-sector unions. None of those factors have anything to do with education.
But his critique of “people insisting that educational failings are at the root of still-weak job creation, stagnating wages and rising inequality” is off-base. Few people blame education for income inequality although many believe that improving education can help reduce it. Those are two different things.
The Hamilton Report Krugman references does not “blame” education for income inequality. It does, however, suggest that the education system could help address income inequality by focusing more directly on providing the skills needed in the new global economy.
Numerous studies show lifetime earnings are much higher and unemployment rates much lower for college grads than for high school grads. Yet, only about 40 percent of young Americans today earn any kind of degree after high school. Shouldn’t we shoot for 60 percent, as President Obama has proposed?
It is also true that many schools in America are not producing students who are ready for college. They will have fewer options in an economy with fewer high-wage, low skill jobs. Again, lack of rigor in public education is not the cause of income inequality but greater rigor is part of the solution.
Moreover, some fields like advanced manufacturing cannot find enough skilled workers. As Krugman suggests, higher wages would help address this problem. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering whether there is a mismatch between what’s being taught in schools and what the economy needs.
Krugman singles out J.P. Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon for blaming the mismatch on education, but that is not exactly what Dimon says. Dimon co-writes, with Marlene Seltzer:
The job opportunities that are opening up do not necessarily require college degrees, nor do they demand an educational background beyond the reach of most job seekers. But they do require specialized skills that can only be attained through focused and effective training.
School systems are not built to rapidly adapt to changing economic conditions. That’s why we have job-training programs.
But it doesn’t mean schools shouldn’t strive to be more relevant in the new economy. The shift to new Common Core learning standards is an effort to begin teaching 21st-century skills like critical thinking and problem solving. Krugman should be celebrating it. We all should.
It may also be true that America is producing a lot of well-educated liberal arts majors, but not producing enough doctors and software engineers. Now, some studies suggest that liberal arts majors do better over the long run. In any case, it’s still hard to argue that “knowledge isn’t power.”
Opponents of efforts to improve public education should not interpret Krugman’s argument as proof that American education is doing fine and we don’t need to get better. For students in the bottom income quartile, about 14.5 percent go on to a four-year degree in 10 years, 8.2 percent earn a two-year degree, and 12.8 percent earn a certificate of some kind, which presumably qualifies them for a job. That’s still a lot of people left behind.
So, whether it’s about earning skills or getting a liberal arts or professional degree, education is the best and surest path out of poverty. The last thing we should do is accept today’s educational outcomes for poor children.
In this instance, I take to heart the words of my favorite economist at the top of this very same article: “Just to be clear: I’m in favor of better education. Education is a friend of mine. And it should be available and affordable for all.”