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Education and the Stimulus

February 8, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


In his blog two days ago, NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a post, Throwing Schools out the Window, that opens with the observation, “So this is what the Senate seems to be coming down to: keeping bridges and throwing students out the window. The effort to prune the stimulus package to make it more palatable to Republicans is focused on slashing money for education.”

Let me quote more from Kristof, since his remarks made a strong impression on me:

I’m increasingly of the view that our nation’s top priority — which I used to think was a national health care system — must be revitalizing our education system. The good suburban schools are great, and do just as well as Singapore’s or Hong Kong’s. But our inner city schools are a disaster, and they fail the students and our country’s economic future.

My thinking shifted partly after reading The Race Between Education and Technology, by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, one of last year’s most important books. As I wrote at the time, they argue that the central reason America became the most important economy in the world was its emphasis on broad education, at a time when Europe educated only the elites. Yet that edge has disappeared, and America is the only country today where parents are more likely to graduate from high school than their children. If we want to maintain America’s economic greatness, then we need roads and bridges, yes, but we also need a more educated work force. …

Come on, senators, education is the best way to fight poverty, the best way to break the cycle of the underclass, the best way to ensure a broader distribution of opportunity in America, the best way to preserve our country’s economic competitiveness. And it’s just as good for stimulus purposes as repaving a road — and you still want to throw those school children out the window?

I got the Goldin-Katz book yesterday. I’ve skipped around in it, reading passages here and there to get a sense of their argument. I won’t say more about the book until I’ve read further.

I will make one side observation though, that has nothing to do with the substantive issues of education, technology, and inequality. Rather, it has to do with the bizarre world of book blurbs. There are six blurbs on the back cover, including praise from two former university presidents, Larry Summers of Harvard (who was a faculty colleague of the authors) and William G. Bowen of Princeton. The blurb that caught my eye was the first one, from Sylvia Nasar, best known as the biographer of John Nash (A Beautiful Mind). She writes, “A staggering achievement of historical research and analysis, and required reading for anyone who’s tired of glib, ideologically-inspired, trendy prescriptions for how to fix America’s educational system.” Staggering? Staggering? Really? Give me a break.

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