Paul Peterson Commentary: The Education Industrial Complex

May 9, 2008
by Paul Peterson

New York Sun

The latest international test results in math and science show America trailing the average international score. Embarrassingly, America now trails Poland, which lifted its scores more than any other nation. Meanwhile, Finland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and our next-door neighbor, Canada, won high marks.

So why isn’t the condition of the nation’s schools a top issue in the 2008 election? Why is lagging student performance going unnoticed, hardly discussed by candidates, debate moderators, and TV pundits alike?

Foundations set up by Bill Gates and Eli Broad promised to pour $50 million dollars into making education a top priority in the 2008 campaign. They even succeeded in getting the former governor of Colorado, Roy Roemer, to head up the undertaking. But their impact thus far has been miniscule. If candidates talk about education at all, it is only to propose throwing more money at the system, not correcting its defects.

Yet if a nation can reform its schools so as to shift student performance upward from the international educational average to world leadership status, its economy will eventually grow by an extra 5 percentage points annually. So say economists at the Hoover Institution, Eric Hanushek and his colleagues, in the latest issue of the education policy journal, Education Next.

The pay off from creating a great educational system does not come immediately, however. The full 5 percentage point impact will be felt after 20 years — as the better educated generation moves into the work force.

Ah, there’s the rub. Most of the economic pay off comes too late to fall within the four to eight year horizon of our duly elected public officials. If a country fails to educate its young, the nation does not suffer the consequences until all those candidates are writing their memoirs or have become subjects of posthumous biographical commentary.

Candidates must worry about the present — and the present requires that one pay close attention to the education-industrial complex, most notably the powerful teacher unions that pour vast sums into political campaigns.

Between 1989 and 2006, the National Education Association came in fourth among all entities contributing to national campaigns, right behind the National Association of Realtors. With the NEA opposed to meaningful accountability, genuine school choice, and anything resembling merit pay for teachers, politicians have little to gain from trumpeting reforms that might get schools back on track.

Before the education-industrial complex was erected, America led the world in its commitment to education. From the earliest days of our Republic, many small towns each heavily invested in the community’s students, more so than any other nation. Teachers and students were held accountable to community expectations. Local investments contributed to a vibrant educational system that expanded rapidly, helping to propel the nation to the world’s pinnacle by World War II.

Around 1970 or thereabouts, the educational-industrial complex was hammered into place: School boards gave teachers collective bargaining rights. State governments assumed greater responsibility for financing the schools. The courts instructed schools on the civil liberties of their students. Regulations multiplied. America gained a federal Department of Education. And state and federal dollars poured into the system.

If the political and legal activity was frenetic, education itself was put on pause. Grades inflated, learning faltered, graduation rates stagnated. The mammoth, expensive, drug-infested, security-obsessed high school was better suited for incarceration than learning.

Forty years later, the impact of the education-industrial complex on the economic well being of the country has become increasingly apparent. As the world has become “flatter,” the importance of human capital has escalated, say Mr. Hanushek and his colleagues. The nations of South and East Asia are on the march. Corporations are moving operations offshore in order to find appropriately educated workers at the going price. Universities are finding it easier to recruit top level scientists and sophisticated social scientists from abroad than cultivating them at home.

America should not sit quietly while the world passes it by. Moving its students from average performers to among the world’s leaders is not impossible. Finland did it between 1980 and 2005. Astounded at their neighbor’s success, the left-leaning Swedes have introduced a system of school choice that goes far beyond anything attempted in America. Meanwhile, Canadians are reaping increasing benefits from the competition between their public and Catholic schools.

If politicians in America attended more closely to the needs of the next generation than the interests of unions and bureaucrats, the country could use its ingenuity to create once again an educational system the world would seek to emulate. To do so, however, politicians will have to take on the education-industrial complex.

Paul Peterson is director of Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard Kennedy School. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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Professor Paul Peterson

Paul Peterson, director, Program on Education Policy and Governance

"If politicians in America attended more closely to the needs of the next generation than the interests of unions and bureaucrats, the country could use its ingenuity to create once again an educational system the world would seek to emulate."