Education, The Economy, and Talking Dogs

by Robert Pondiscio
December 31st, 2009

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.”


  1. I too think schools are about way more than breeding homo economicus (forgive my Latin). But I struggle to find words to express what else schools should be doing in a way that doesn’t sound pompous and distasteful to my listeners. “Cultivate”? “Refine”? “Make more interesting humans” (a la the Frank McCourt anecdote)? These expressions fall on unsympathetic ears in our culture. I’ve been reading a biography of a Ming scholar –what a pro-culture, pro-erudition culture that was!

    Comment by Ben F — January 1, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

  2. Schools are oriented that way for two reasons: policy and fear. OK, maybe that’s the same thing. If there’s one thing we know about educcation, is that the pendulum swings one way, then the other. I suspect that as more and more people become dissatisfied with our tendency toward a narrow focus and the limited education that seems to be the inevitable result of well-intentioned accountability measures, we will see a correction. At least that’s my hope.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — January 1, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

  3. Did Larry Cuban miss the Hanushek and Woessmann (2007) paper that concluded that educational quality (not years in school which had been the measure used by previous economic analyses) did significantly improve economic growth?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — January 1, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

  4. It’s been awhile since I read the Hanushek and Woessmann paper, but I believe they were interpreting “educational quality” differently than the average reader might. From the abstract: “There is strong evidence that the cognitive skills of the population – rather than mere school attainment – are powerfully related to individual earnings, to the distribution of income, and to economic growth. International comparisons incorporating expanded data on cognitive skills reveal much larger skill deficits in developing countries than generally derived from just school enrollment and attainment.”

    So it’s not a clear equation of “quality” schooling causing economic growth–it’s the same complex mix of culturally embedded factors Cuban describes that determined economic growth, with measured amounts of schooling being less important than increasing “cognitive skills” in a population. When you factor the international nature of the research into H & W’s conclusions, we’re no closer to predicting economic growth on the basis of education. Just too many variables, one being the defining of correlated cognitive skills. The greater the percentage of the population that is, say, literate and numerate–the sharper the economic growth curve. That’s different than tracking a credential like a college education in an already social-capital rich population like the Swiss.

    David Labaree wrote a fantastic paper about a decade ago, tracing the purpose of schooling in America, from Horace-Mann style democratic equality and citizenship, through social improvement (job training)–to what we are left with: credentialing. “Economic growth” sometimes functions as a rhetorical shield for reproducing social perks. Thus we can blame the underclass (and public schools) for not teaching poor kids well enough to get the college degrees they need for jobs that don’t exist.

    The last paragraph is the best: the reason to pursue a better-educated populace is to give more people at shot at better communities and more satisfying lives.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 1, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

  5. Nancy,
    Given the nature of a culture, how would you imagine “cognitive skills” increasing without improvements in formal schooling?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — January 2, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

  6. Erin– Your question skirts the point. Hanushek and Woessmann (disingenuously, I believe) use the term “quality schooling” which would lead the reader to believe that it’s a westernized concept of quality schooling (“rigorous?” “content-rich?” traditional?) that builds cognitive skills leading to economic improvement. In a poverty stricken third world country, a teacher with 75 students and little chalk boards teaching kids to read would be radically improving cognitive skills–but we wouldn’t call that quality schooling in America.

    There’s plenty of research showing that a very basic education improves economic outcomes in very poor countries, but anything beyond 6th grade or so is not measurably helpful to populations living at subsistence level. Hanushek blurs these conclusions when he says that “quality of education improves economic outcomes.”

    Do I think cognitive skills increase without formal schooling? All the time–and historically, the building of cognitive skills in groups happened most commonly without formal schooling. Still, the societies I admire most are places where social conditions are equitable enough that virtually all citizens are literate, and access to formal schooling is desired for both economic and personal reasons.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — January 3, 2010 @ 9:09 am

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