Dr. Jay P. Greene has modestly and cautiously reported exemplary research on the costs of deficient basic skills in Michigan. He makes defensible assumptions and, as he points out, provides conservative estimates. His best estimates of the current annual costs of basic skills deficiencies are $601 million in Michigan and $16.6 billion in the United States.
Greene points out some costs left out of his calculations. But there also are some costs he not only left out, but also didn't mention.54 For example, wasted years in school means potential earnings lost. Is this loss comparable to what might have been earned full-time at unskilled work in factories, on farms, or in service industries? We should, moreover, consider the costs of lost human capital and other forms of capital.55 Such costs are no less important than immediately foregone earnings, even if their size cannot be easily calculated. Efficient schooling, for example, would yield not merely basic skills mastery but even advanced skills. Most parents, citizens, educators, and policy-makers rightly assume that such proficiency and advanced skills not only repay the individuals who acquire them but the society that invests in them.56
Higher cognitive skills result in increased productivity, which contributes to greater economic growth. This advantage applies not merely in the first year on the job or in college but to three-quarters of a lifetime or so beyond high school. Long-range economic growth, in turn, can provide a better quality of life.
As a psychologist specializing in educational productivity, my preference is to emphasize the lack of school standards and the resulting poor academic performance of our students despite unprecedented outlays of money and resources. My recent analysis of reports from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that, among students in economically advanced countries, U.S. students made the least gains in reading, mathematics, and science during the school years studied. Yet, our per-student costs were third-highest.57
Why should the most economically productive nation on the planet have the least efficient school system? Many students put little effort into their schoolwork, and colleges have long imbued future teachers with anti-competitive, anti-standards views. More than any other factor in my view, this accounts for Greene's findings of high costs.
The evidence: A 1997 Public Agenda national survey58 of high school students showed that three-fourths believe stiffer examinations and graduation requirements would make students pay more attention to their studies. Three-fourths also said students should not graduate who have not mastered English; a similar percentage said schools should promote only students who master the material. Almost two-thirds reported they could do much better in school if they tried. Nearly 80 percent said students would learn more if schools made sure they were on time and did their homework. More than 70 percent said schools should require after-school classes for those earning Ds and Fs.
On these issues, however, teacher-educators differ sharply from students and the public. A 1997 Public Agenda survey of education professors showed that 64 percent think schools should avoid competition.59 More favored giving grades for team efforts than did those who favored standards of accomplishment.
Teacher-educators also differ from employers and other professionals on measuring standards or employing them at all. Employers, for example, use standardized multiple-choice examinations for hiring. So do selective colleges and graduate and professional schools for admission decisions. Such examinations are required in law, medicine, and other fields for licensing because they are objective, efficient, and reliable. Yet, 78 percent of teacher-educators wanted less reliance on them. Such attitudes, encouraged among school students, obviously ill-educate them for college and the workforce.
Nearly two-thirds of teacher-educators admitted that education programs often fail to prepare candidates for teaching in the real world, and only 4 percent reported that their programs typically dismiss students found unsuitable for teaching. Thus, even starting with their undergraduate education, many educators are laden with anti-competitive ideas against standards and incentives.
Seventy-nine percent of the teacher-educators agreed that "the general public has outmoded and mistaken beliefs about what good teaching means." They apparently forgot that citizens, who pay for schools, constitute their ultimate clients. The public and students are right: Standards can work in schools as they do in much in the rest of society, and Greene's quotes of Michigan observers support this view.
In addition to the human capital generated by maintaining high educational standards, we should not overlook various forms of "social capital," a term referring to the social benefits that accrue as a result of educational success. In his best-selling book Cultural Literacy, for example, E.D. Hirsch showed that schooling deficiencies in civics, history, geography, and other subjects severely limit students' potential civic and cultural engagement and contributions to society.60 If young people lack knowledge and appreciation of American history and laws, for example, how can they vote wisely and serve well on juries? If they lack knowledge of current events and skills in reading and speaking, how can they participate in civic and cultural affairs or appreciate their significance or importance?
Another kind of social capital is family capital.61 Better-educated parentsthose with more knowledge and greater skill levelsare far more likely to raise children who are similarly well prepared for their own lives and participation in society. Similarly, family members who understand and communicate effectively with one another can negotiate and reach agreements, trust others and focus effectively on what they have agreed to do.
More broadly, high levels of social capital allow greater trust among individuals within nations. "High-trust" societies like Japan and the United States develop flexible organizations that operate within the global economy with far more alacrity than those of "low-trust" societies such as like China or France.62 This benefit is threatened by long-term, widespread educational failure. American students undoubtedly acquire a measure of trust through participation in sports and other leisure activities requiring teamwork, but are today's kidsso many of whom come from broken homeslearning the kind of trust required in families, work, and civic life? And do they acquire the human capital of knowledge and skills to carry out their parts of group efforts?
Dr. Greene is right to conclude with recommendations for substantial reforms. Already, some of his recommendations are being slowly and timidly enacted throughout the United States. In the future it may become typical to see schools that fail to make learning gains put on probation. If they make little progress, they may be closed or the staff may be replaced. Alternatively, all students in a district or state may be given publicly funded scholarships that allow them to go to public, parochial, or independent schools of their choice. Schools that attract more students may receive more funds, a principle that introduces competition, which appears to improve schools.63 Another twist is to grant only those students from failing schools the ability to use a scholarship voucher to attend public or private schools of their choice.
Such reforms would certainly introduce real incentives into the current system and give more students a better chance to succeed in life.