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Report distorted the debate

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Report distorted the debate

Education reform is no cure-all for low-income, low-achieving schools

By Lawrence Mishel

For a quarter-century, A Nation at Risk has set the terms of debate on education, with mixed results. Risk inspired reformers to prescribe high-stakes testing, culminating in No Child Left Behind. Schools are cutting back history, civics, the sciences, art and music, just to prepare for tests in math and reading.

Worse yet, Risk has distorted the debate on economic policy. In 1983, the economy really was at risk. Industries such as auto, steel, consumer electronics, and clothing and textiles were closing factories; unemployment approached 10%; and workers’ wages were flat lining.

Risk offered an explanation that was simple, seductive — and wrong. The report claimed that increased market shares for Japanese automobiles, German machine tools and Korean steel reflected those nation’s superior schools. This analysis should have seemed flimsy then — and foolish later.

Didn’t automakers move plants to Mexico, where education levels are lower than in the USA? Meanwhile, foreign and domestic manufacturers set up low-wage, non-union factories in the southern states, where the schools were worse than in the industrial Midwest. Then, a decade after Risk was released, American workers’ productivity increased dramatically. Presumably, the graduates of the same schools that Risk decried were mastering modern technology.

Now that the economy is in a tailspin, Bush administration officials are blaming the schools. Yes, we need to improve education from kindergarten through grade 12, as well as expand opportunities for college education and career training. But we also need to fix the credit crisis, expand health coverage, renegotiate unfair trade deals, invest in transportation and technology, and restore workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain for better pay and benefits.

In fact, education reform, by itself, isn’t even the cure-all for low-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods. Kids in these communities need better nutrition, health care and dental care so that they can come to school ready to learn. As long as adults don’t have decent jobs with health coverage, children will have a hard time breaking the cycle of poverty. That’s a sobering thought on the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk.

Lawrence Mishel is president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.


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