Of Misleading Comparisons and False Narratives—Debunking the “Skills Gap”

A new international survey of adult skills purports to show that American workers are slipping behind those in other industrial countries. The “Skills Outlook 2013” report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tells us that American adults are at best only average performers, badly outclassed by those in Japan and other nations. But what the report really shows, like many others of its kind, is how easily international comparisons can be misused to reach invalid conclusions—as in the New York Times write-up of October 8, “Stubborn Skills Gap in America’s Work Force,” which concludes based on the OECD study that our nation has “a skills deficit that has been a generation in the making” and “this deficit is an albatross around the economy’s neck.”

Enter Diane Ravitch, education historian and critic of the current conventional wisdom that supports assorted half-baked school “reforms,” to offer a corrective for the mistaken inferences drawn from the OECD survey. Here from her blog is her brisk takedown of the OECD study as “Another Scary (and Wrong) Report About the Skills Gap”:

“President Obama has often said that American workers are the most productive in the world. In his 2011 State of the Union address, he said: “’Remember—for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world.  (Applause.)  No workers—no workers are more productive than ours.  No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs.’

“Others agree: This came from a UN organization in 2009:

‘American workers stay longer in the office, at the factory or on the farm than their counterparts in Europe and most other rich nations, and they produce more per person over the year.

‘They also get more done per hour than everyone but the Norwegians, according to a U.N. report released Monday, which said the United States “leads the world in labor productivity.” Norway’s productivity is based on its vast oil wealth extracted from the sea.’

“Each U.S. worker produces $63,885 of wealth per year, more than their counterparts in all other countries, the International Labor Organization said in its report. Ireland comes in second at $55,986, ahead of Luxembourg, $55,641; Belgium, $55,235; and France, $54,609.

“Yet the OECD put out a report [‘Skills Outlook 2013’] saying that our population is actually quite dumb and is losing ground to other nations. The OECD report garnered headlines across the nation, because it reinforced the common but erroneous narrative that we as a nation are entering into a steep economic decline, all of which can be blamed on our faltering public schools.

“Let me point out that this is the same refrain we have heard since the days of the Puritans. The younger generation is no good, we are going to hell and damnation, and soon comes the apocalypse, all the result of our sins (or in modern terms, our public schools). Since neither voucher schools nor charter schools outperform our public schools, this refrain is getting tiresome yet it persists.

“It is also false.

“As I explain in ‘Reign of Error’ [Ravitch’s latest book], these scare reports are wrong. First, they say that our college graduation rates are falling behind those of other nations, and we should be very, very upset. They never point out that our college graduation rate is almost double the college graduation rate of Germany, which is the most dynamic economy in Europe.

“Then, they say that the jobs of the future will demand a huge increase in college graduates, but that is not what our own Bureau of Labor Statistics projects. The BLS projected that two-thirds of the jobs available between 2008 and 2018 would not need any post-secondary training. Most would require on-the-job training. Jobs for computer engineers and nurses require college degrees. But the larger number of jobs for home health aides, customer service agents, fast-food workers, retail salesclerks, construction workers, and truck drivers do not require college diplomas. (See pp. 88-89 of ‘Reign of Error’ for citations.)

“If we really want more college graduates, we should make all community colleges free to students. Our society, if it truly cares, should shoulder the burden of college costs so that more students can get the education they want but can’t afford. Colleges won’t get cheaper for students by producing data about cost and outcomes. They will get cheaper if more of the cost of attending college is assumed by government, not students.

“For many years, there were free community colleges. Now there are few. Why?

“Don’t complain about the college graduation rate unless you are willing to make the cost far, far lower to students.

“And don’t believe for a minute that standardized tests are accurate measures of productivity. In 1964, our students scored last on the world’s first international test of mathematics, and we went on to outperform the other 11 nations that took the same test.

“What we need more of is independent thinking, divergent thinking, innovation, ingenuity, responsibility, dedication, creativity–none of which is measured by the ability to check the right box on a standardized test.”