Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, with whom I have a running debate about global education, recently wrote about a new book: Someone Has to Fail – The Zero Sum Game of Public Schooling.
The book, written by Stanford academic Dr. David Labaree, specifically calls out my film Two Million Minutes as “the video version of the Nation At Risk report.” He is sharply critical of both 2 Million Minutes and A Nation At Risk.
Mathews felt “thrilled” that Labaree “disembowels the argument made for higher U.S. school standards made by Bob Compton.”
Now having now read Labaree’s book, I can say I don’t feel “disemboweled” at all. And I disagree with both Labaree and Mathews.
Labaree deserves more than a small measure of respect, as he is clearly an expert on the evolution of US schools since their creation 180 years ago.
Unfortunately, Labaree strays from the subject he knows so well and meanders into areas that he doesn’t understand, e.g. – global economic change, business management, entrepreneurship, venture capital and global job creation.
He is simply naïve about how business works and what role education plays in global economic growth.
Labaree’s primary criticism is about “the film’s central argument…that students in China and India are putting their time to good use by concentrating on studies (particularly math and science)…[while] American students are spending their time on everything but their studies…”
He concludes, “the film makes a strong argument that…the Americans are wasting their two million minutes on marginalia…I make the opposite argument.”
LABAREE MAKES HIS CASE
Dr. Labaree sees the American school system as the superior one for these reasons (pp. 211 – 221 in his book, unless otherwise noted):
- The American model let’s “students delay specializing until the last possible moment…keeping their occupational options open."
- American high schools produce “generalists, with thin knowledge about everything”
- Thin knowledge provides “good prospects for changing careers and adapting to a future unanticipated by their schooling.”
- “What students learn in the classroom is irrelevant; what matters is…a diploma – which they can cash in on a good job.” P 196
- “Silicon Valley start-ups are often populated with college dropouts” p 169
- “Education provides a signal to the employer about an applicant’s trainability.” P. 207
- American schools “encourage students to lag in their studies early, but take them more seriously as they…get closer to specialization and employment.”
- Historically, “the primary value of American schooling has been its accessibility to all and it’s low academic standards.” pp. 206 & 220
- American students learn how to “game the system…how to do the minimum to satisfy school…”
- American schools produce “a smaller number of zealots and a larger number of accomplished hustlers”
- “Both students and society may be better off if schools focused more on producing hustlers.”
- “Maybe the lesson is, it is dangerous for individuals to take school too seriously.”
- Intensive focus on academic learning creates “stressed out students”
- For the economy, society and the individual “it may turn out to be advantageous…to have an American-style approach to education, which discounts learning and encourages the students to game the system.”
- “The best preparation for life, in short, may not come from getting an education, but from doing school.”
Where to begin? Wow…
Spending the past 25 years as a professional venture capitalist, entrepreneur and angel investor, I see the 21st century a tad differently from Dr. Labaree.
Here are my views of what lies ahead:
1) This century will be the most competitive in modern times, with China and India displacing Japan and Germany as the second and fourth largest global economies and as other countries – Brazil, Russia, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and Korea – continue to expand rapidly,
2) China and India will have the world’s fastest growing large economies and wealth will accumulate very quickly in both countries,
3) While economics is not a zero-sum game, there will be individual winners and losers in global competition; America will likely lose some of its major industries and leading companies,
4) The economic winners will be those that create new knowledge and have a sufficient quantity of people with the education and skills for fast growth,
5) Money will move to the economies with the highest risk-adjusted rate of return,
6) Production of goods and services will move to areas which have the most talent of the right quality at the lowest cost,
7) The new companies that entrepreneurs start will create most of the good-paying jobs of the future,
8) The majority of good paying jobs will require more technical knowledge and more cognitive skill than in the 20th century,
9) Undergraduate engineering, science and math degrees are among the few that can be “cashed in on a good job,” as Labaree puts it. They will continue to be the highest paying degrees – at graduation and at mid-career http://www.payscale.com/best-colleges/degrees.asp
10) High school students who have taken four years of math plus physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, English literature & grammar, world history and four years of a foreign language (preferably Spanish or Mandarin) will keep the most occupational options open, particularly for high paying careers. Additional electives and extra-curricular activities are recommended.
If one believes my points about the 21st century to be true, it does not follow that American high schools should have “low academic standards” or produce graduates with “thin knowledge.” It is a stretch to see how such students would succeed in life “doing the minimum to get by” and “gaming the system” or being a “generalist hustler.” As an entrepreneur, I see nothing compelling about Labaree’s students.
In addition to a different view of the future, Labaree makes a few incorrect assumptions about business, entrepreneurship and hiring talented people. It’s obvious he has never created a product, sold a service or met a payroll from his own bank account.
First, college dropouts do not “populate” Silicon Valley start-up companies. The Valley does see the very rare new venture started by a uniquely brilliant and exceptionally talented college dropout – e.g. -Steve Jobs, 35 years ago.
Most Valley start-ups that I know are hiring savvy engineers, technical sales reps, seasoned marketing execs and well-educated finance professionals just as fast as they can. A few college dropouts, with valuable recent work experience might get in, but they hardly “populate” the Valley.
Second, start-up executives don’t look for diplomas as a “signal” of trainability. They look for technology smarts, product creativity and marketing savvy. In the early years, high growth start-ups are hiring experience, not trainability. Degrees that demonstrate cognitive skill, perseverance and an intensity of concentration are well regarded in high growth businesses.
My conclusion is that Labaree and Mathews just don’t see the link between the education of a populace and that society’s ability to educate people who create new technologies that lead to new products, new companies and new jobs.
I believe American education, particularly in high school, must make radical improvements if America is going to remain an economic leader in the 21st century.
I’m joined in that belief by the authors of Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future:
Dr. William Baker, Chairman, Bell Labs (retired)
Dr. Craig Barrett, CEO, Intel Corporation (ret)
Dr. Gail Cassell, VP Scientific Affairs, Eli Lilly
Dr. Steven Chu, Director Lawrence Berkley National Lab
Dr. Robert Gates, President, Texas A&M University
Dr. Charles Holliday, CEO, Dupont
Dr. Shirley Jackson, President, Resselaer Polytechnic Institute
Dr. Joshua Lederberg, Nobel Prize Winner & Professor emeritus, Yale
Dr. Richard Levin, President, Yale, & former Chair of Yale Economics Dept.
Dr. Dan Mote, President, University Maryland, former Engineering Chair, Berkley
Dr. Cherry Murray, Lawrence Livermore National Labs
Dr. Lee Raymond, CEO, Exxon Mobil
Dr. Robert Richardson, Professor of Physics, Cornell
Dr. Roy Vagelos, CEO, Merck (ret)
Dr. Charles Vest, President, MIT (ret)