The Obama con of the week

Barack Obama has joined with the National Association of Manufacturers in a program to provide a half million community college students with training for manufacturing jobs. Said Obama, “If you’re a company that’s hiring, you’ll know that anyone who has this degree has the skills you’re looking for. If you’re a student considering community college, you’ll know that your diploma will give you a leg up in the job market.” Obama also cited improving education quality as key to new jobs.

The problem with this is that – both historically and at present – such an argument is misleading.

For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics gives this assessment of manufacturing jobs:”Overall employment in this sector will decline by 9 percent as productivity gains, automation, and international competition adversely affect employment in most manufacturing industries. Employment in household appliance manufacturing is expected to decline by 24 percent over the decade. Similarly, employment in machinery manufacturing, apparel manufacturing, and computer and electronic product manufacturing will decline as well. However, employment in a few manufacturing industries will increase. For example, employment in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing is expected to grow by 6 percent by 2018; however, this increase is expected to add only 17,600 new jobs.”

Further, since the recovery began, businesses have only spent two percent more for employees while 26% more for equipment and software to help to replace them.

The truth is that education doesn’t improve jobs; education improves if the jobs are there. The long term problem with urban public education has been the lack of jobs for its students. Everyone in the system – students, parents, teachers – understand this and reacts accordingly.

Sam Smith, The Great American Political Repair Manual, 1997: Educational systems rise and fall in response to the economy they serve. A dramatic example occurred at the beginning of World War II. During the Depression years there was an assumption that many of the jobless were either too dumb or too lazy to find employment. After Pearl Harbor, however, such assumptions collapsed. America needed everyone and in schools, factories, and the military the allegedly uneducable suddenly were able to learn.

Today there is an assumption that many of the urban jobless are either too dumb or too lazy to find employment. But unlike during World War II, this assumption is not being tested because we simply don’t need everyone any more. Instead we have let the social triage of race and class takes its course.

To be sure, there are plenty of over-bureaucratized, unimaginative, and just plain incompetent city school systems, but reforming them would be infinitely easier if students, administrators, teachers and parents knew there was going to be an economic pay-off at the end. When fifty percent of a city’s welfare recipients have a high school diploma, there is a strong hint that something is very wrong other than the educational system.

Further, the word gets around. Politicians and the media may have abstract fantasies about the value of education; kids tend to be a bit more realistic.

So the most important first step towards a better urban school system is a better urban economy.

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