If schools produce well-educated and skilled graduates, the nation’s economy will grow. That belief has been at the very heart of school reform since the late-1970s. Yet the belief is suspect, Larry Cuban points out, ”because even economists, the ones who are expected to know, cannot point with assurance at precisely which factors cause economic growth.”
In 2004, a group of top economists published the Barcelona Development Agenda announcing in it that ‘there is no single set of policies that can be guaranteed to ignite sustained growth.’ Not that economists are shy about identifying factors that explain economic growth. It is just that there are too many explanations. One recent survey found 145 separate factors linked to economic growth, yet most of these factors could not be isolated as ones that caused heightened growth. Yes, formal education was one of the 145 factors.
Cuban writes on his blog that no one cites the example of Switzerland, which is one of Europe’s wealthiest countries, “yet has the lowest university attendance and graduation rates among OECD countries.” Similarly, he points out, several developing African nations including Angola, Zambia, Ghana have made major investments in education and increased their graduation rates with little discernible economic impact. The Stanford education professor cites ventriloquist Todd Oliver and Irving, his talking dog, as a “harmless shared illusion,” since no one really believes the dog can talk. But the idea that education exists to grow the economy, he writes, is not a harmless illusion.
There are many reasons to have strong schools in a society beyond, but including, economic ones. Although they hardly get mentioned by policymakers save in throwaway lines at graduation ceremonies, expanded literacy in service of developing an engaged citizenry who, in fulfilling their civic obligations, build better communities and live moral lives are, and have been, historic reasons for investing tax dollars in American schools.
“Historically, schools have sought to serve society and the individual in many ways beyond job preparation,” Cuban writes. “Not now.”