The Perils of Investing Only in the ‘Winners’

The U.S. is lagging behind other countries in its efforts to maximize the potential of all of its people.

US President Barack Obama tours a class at Bladensburg High School April 7, 2014 in Bladensburg, Maryland. Obama visited to school to announce 24 recipients of $107 million in Youth CareerConnect grants, including $7 million for Bladensburg, intended to help better prepare students for higher education. 
AFP/Getty Images
Ronald Brownstein
April 10, 2014, 5 p.m.

The money in­volved was re­l­at­ively small. But when Pres­id­ent Obama on Monday an­nounced a new grant pro­gram to en­cour­age com­munit­ies to de­vel­op hy­brid high schools that blend a sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion with ca­reer train­ing and col­lege cred­it, he cor­rectly iden­ti­fied a chal­lenge that is grow­ing stead­ily more ur­gent: widen­ing the circle of young Amer­ic­ans with the skills to reach the middle class.

On bal­ance, the evid­ence doesn’t sup­port the of­ten-ex­pressed fear that a short­age of ne­ces­sary skills — a skills gap — is mean­ing­fully en­lar­ging today’s un­em­ploy­ment rate. If em­ploy­ers really lacked enough high-skilled ap­plic­ants for avail­able open­ings, wages for such work­ers would be rising. And there’s no sign that is hap­pen­ing, as Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics Com­mis­sion­er Erica Groshen noted at a Na­tion­al Journ­al for­um this week. But over the long term, a de­fi­cit of skilled work­ers could con­strain pro­ductiv­ity gains, widen in­equal­ity, and prompt em­ploy­ers to loc­ate de­mand­ing, high-wage jobs over­seas.

The skill level of the adult Amer­ic­an work­force fol­lows pat­terns fa­mil­i­ar from the col­lege out­comes for our young people. At its pin­nacle, the Amer­ic­an high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tem is a mar­vel that lures the best and bright­est from around the globe. Yet in 11 oth­er coun­tries, a lar­ger share of young people now com­plete post­sec­ond­ary de­grees than in the U.S. And the Amer­ic­an stu­dents who cross that threshold tend to be those with the good sense to be born in­to op­por­tun­ity: Chil­dren whose par­ents hold col­lege de­grees are now five times more likely to gradu­ate them­selves than those whose par­ents do not.

The in­ter­na­tion­al Or­gan­iz­a­tion for Eco­nom­ic Co­oper­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment found sim­il­ar res­ults when it con­duc­ted a ground­break­ing study last fall of the skills held by the adult work­force in ma­jor eco­nom­ies around the globe. On tests that meas­ured com­pet­ency in read­ing, math, and prob­lem-solv­ing, U.S. adults scored be­low the in­ter­na­tion­al av­er­age each time. Bril­liant Amer­ic­an in­nov­at­ors such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuck­er­berg have defined the In­form­a­tion Age as much as Rock­e­feller and Carne­gie shaped the in­dus­tri­al one, but over­all the U.S. trailed 15 coun­tries (of 23 meas­ured) in read­ing, 20 in math, and 13 in prob­lem-solv­ing.

Part of the prob­lem was that Amer­ica’s best per­formers as a group didn’t match the stand­ards of the highest fli­ers in Nor­d­ic or Asi­an coun­tries. But the lar­ger reas­on for the dis­ap­point­ing U.S. per­form­ance is that our res­ults dis­played what the OECD au­thors called a “par­tic­u­larly large gap” between those at the top and the bot­tom. The spread between the per­form­ance of adults with col­lege de­grees and adults with only high school de­grees was lar­ger in the U.S. than any­where else. The gap between the per­form­ance of adults whose par­ents had ob­tained a col­lege de­gree and those who had not also ranked among the largest. The dis­tance in lit­er­acy between work­ers with the most and least edu­ca­tion was more than one-third lar­ger in the U.S. than in chart-top­pers Ja­pan and Fin­land; the lit­er­acy gap in the U.S. between work­ers whose par­ents had ob­tained the most and least edu­ca­tion was more than twice as large as in Ja­pan and 50 per­cent lar­ger than in Fin­land.

These find­ings send a com­mon mes­sage: While the U.S. con­tin­ues to nur­ture is­lands of spec­tac­u­lar achieve­ment, it is less com­mit­ted than its com­pet­it­ors to max­im­iz­ing the po­ten­tial of all of its people. The flag­ship U.S. col­leges and uni­versit­ies, which still re­cruit dis­pro­por­tion­ately from af­flu­ent white fam­il­ies, spend at least twice as much per stu­dent and pro­duce far bet­ter res­ults in gradu­ation and em­ploy­ment than the less-se­lect­ive pub­lic four- and two-year in­sti­tu­tions that en­roll most of the grow­ing num­bers of minor­ity stu­dents.

Like­wise, the OECD study found that the Amer­ic­an work­ers who re­ceive the most train­ing on the job are those with the most-ad­vanced skills to be­gin with. (This prob­lem is more com­mon in oth­er coun­tries, too.) In the U.S. edu­ca­tion­al and train­ing sys­tem, “we in­vest only in people who do well,” An­thony Carne­vale, dir­ect­or of the Geor­getown Uni­versity Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force, said at the Na­tion­al Journ­al for­um. “Every new dol­lar in the Amer­ic­an sys­tem only goes to­ward the win­ners.”

The Youth Ca­reer­Con­nect grants Obama an­nounced Monday of­fer one way to push back against those trends. These in­vest­ments, in in­sti­tu­tions from the P-TECH high school af­fil­i­ated with IBM in New York City to six tech­no­logy-fo­cused ca­reer academies in Los Angeles, build on prom­ising mod­els that al­low young people to sim­ul­tan­eously earn high school and com­munity-col­lege cred­it tar­geted to­ward job-spe­cif­ic skills in areas from health to man­u­fac­tur­ing, while also ap­pren­ti­cing with em­ploy­ers. “This isn’t a pan­acea, but I think this is a very prom­ising mod­el,” Labor Sec­ret­ary Thomas Perez told me at the for­um.

As Carne­vale says, “The old Amer­ic­an com­pet­it­ive­ness mod­el” of tol­er­at­ing me­diocre edu­ca­tion­al res­ults for most while in­cub­at­ing a world-class elite “is not go­ing to work in the fu­ture” as in­ter­na­tion­al com­pet­it­ors mint lar­ger num­bers of their own top tal­ents. Tra­di­tion­ally, in­vest­ments in young people from mod­est back­grounds like the in­nov­at­ive hy­brid train­ing pro­grams Obama boos­ted have been jus­ti­fied mostly on grounds of fair­ness. But in­creas­ingly, such in­ter­ven­tions look in­dis­pens­able to Amer­ica’s com­pet­it­ive­ness.

What We're Following See More »
WEST WING REDUX
Allison Janney Takes to the Real White House Podium
11 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Carolyn Kaster/AP

STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
12 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
13 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
14 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
16 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
×