Tuesday, July 3, 2012
I have been contemplating a model of education where students are required to attend school, but not required to attend any particular class. That is, school should still serve the babysitting function and provide opportunities for education but we shouldn't make learning mandatory.
One implication of this model is that we would have to change our concept of high school graduation. Just attending school for 12 years would be pretty meaningless in terms of signaling educational attainment if you haven't actually gone to any classes. We would probably need a series of exams that students could take to prove competency in a particular subject (if they wanted to).
In this scenario, we might have a lot more students who don't live up to current educational standards. For example, they may never learn algebra. I don't think society is ok with this. Should we be ok with it?
A number of people have made the argument that one of the big drivers of economic growth in the US has been the increasing number of people who have graduated from high school (and college). Tyler Cowen makes this argument in The Great Stagnation. But what is it about high school that has been so important for economic growth?
This interesting blog post discusses the fact that after the 1952 birth cohort (who would have graduated around the year 1970) the high school graduation rate leveled off (hence the great stagnation). Interestingly, this article describes another phenomenon that leveled off in about 1970: agricultural employment. Perhaps high school graduation rates did not drive economic growth. They were a result of changes in the economy. I don't think that fewer people worked on farms because more people were going to school. I think more people went to school because they were no longer needed on farms.
As agriculture grew more efficient, fewer people were needed to supply our demand for food and so kids were sent to school. Also, since there weren't as many farm jobs available people sought other kinds of employment, including employment in jobs that require a certain level of education. I think that the lack of agricultural employment created demand for education just as it made room for kids to spend more time at school.
Note that Mississippi was the last state to enact compulsory education laws in 1917. But it still took more than 50 years before high school education was the norm. Again, I think the graduation rates were driven by changes in the economy.
I that the nation benefited a lot from increased educational opportunity. There were probably a lot of really bright kids working on farms in the early 20th century who could have been more productive in other sectors. However, I don't think that the benefit came so much from having everyone graduate from high school so much as it came from giving everyone the opportunity to do so. When everyone has educational opportunities (as opposed to the expectation that they stay home and work on the farm) bright kids are identified and steered toward higher educational attainment. But the majority of high school graduates still end up in jobs that don't really require them to know algebra.
So my argument is that as long as we have a system that can give all people equal educational opportunities we don't really actually need them to have equal educational attainment. If we let kids play when they are young and eventually decide for themselves what they want to learn the economy will not collapse. The needs to the economy will still dictate what jobs are available and wages will be set according to the balance of supply and demand. But trying to force every student to learn before they are ready is a Sisyphean task.