An Essential Book on Education

Does education matter? That is the title of an absolutely essential book by Professor Alison Wolf.

Yes, of course education matters. The author, who holds the Sir Roy Griffiths professorship of public sector management at King’s College, London, is not questioning whether education is good at all. Rather, she questions whether governmental efforts to expand “access” to higher education and public training programs are justified. The book’s subtitle – myths about education and economic growth – suggests that her answer is in the negative. It certainly is. In my view, Professor Wolf has given us one of the most useful books on education policy in many years because she quietly and carefully demolishes the conventional wisdom that it is imperative for government to “invest” more in higher education. After reading the book, I believe that most people will agree that the best we can do is to provide a solid education in each child’s early years and forget about trying to manage higher education and workforce training.

Wolf, who has worked both in the U.S. and in Britain, has heard the standard political rhetoric about the new “knowledge economy” and how it supposedly compels governments to make higher education almost universal. In the finest academic tradition, she asked whether those beliefs are true and found them not to be. She writes, “But doesn’t follow is that vast amounts of public spending on education have been the key determinant of how rich we are today. Nor is it obvious that they will decide how much richer, or poorer, we will be tomorrow. The simple one-way relationship which so entrances our politicians and commentators – education spending in, growth out – simply doesn’t exist.” Saying that in today’s education-infatuated world is not unlike saying that the sun doesn’t go around the earth in Galileo’s time.

A standard — but completely unsubstantiated – notion in America, Britain, and other advanced countries is that the economy is changing dramatically in ways that call for greater knowledge and skill among the workforce and therefore if a nation fails to educate its workers to a greater extent than in the past, it will find itself falling behind. For example, in a recent paper that I wrote about, former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt states that “The emergence of a global and highly competitive new knowledge-based economy…requires enormous numbers of workers with education and training beyond high school.” Wolf is one of the few who doesn’t accept that idea. “Politicians may think it is clear that everyone’s work will soon be dependent on ‘creativity’, ‘ingenuity’, and ‘knowledge capital’ in a way that is quite different from the past: but it is no such thing. It is just as likely that we already have an over-educated workforce as that we need more graduates for a high-skills economic future.”

Instead of beating the drums for increasing “access” to higher education through more government spending in the mistaken belief that more formal education is always better, Wolf contends that the modern economy calls for nothing other than the same solid education in “the basics” that we used to do quite well. “The ability to read and comprehend, write fluently and correctly, and do mathematics appears more important than ever,” she writes. “It isn’t obvious why this means pouring extra resources into more years of education, rather than maintaining quality in the places that already teach these skills.” I would only add that maintaining quality is not the problem in lower education; it will have to be restored. Nevertheless, Wolf is absolutely right that putting people through college who have not mastered reading, writing, and mathematical fundamentals will do very little to make up for their academic deficits. Moreover, conferring college degrees on such people does nothing to improve a nation’s productive capacity.

We keep hearing that if a nation “invests” more in higher education for its people, then it will be rewarded with better economic results, but Wolf demonstrates that a national commitment to increasing the percentage of citizens who go to college is neither necessary nor sufficient for prosperity. Switzerland is an example of the former proposition. The Swiss have one of the world’s highest standards of living, but only about a third as many Swiss go to college as in other developed countries. On the other hand, Egypt is an excellent example for the latter proposition. Wolf points out that Egypt embarked on a campaign to raise the level of education among its population beginning in the 1970s, more than doubling the rates of secondary schooling and university participation. During that period of time, the nation went from the 47th poorest in the world to …. 48th poorest. Formal education is no panacea.

The World Bank has done a number of analyses finding that there is a negative relationship between education levels and economic growth across the developing nations. Unfortunately, the widespread belief that there is a direct and positive relationship between education and economic growth has, Wolf writes, “led many developing countries, notably in Africa, South-East Asia, and South America, to spend a very great deal of money without creating successful economies in the process.” More seat time in classrooms does not automatically mean that students will be more productive than they would otherwise have been.

After burying the “more education equals faster economic growth” myth, Wolf changes focus to ask what kind of preparation for work business leaders would like to see in young people. While she writes specifically about Britain, I have no doubt that the U.S. is no different. She writes, “For the most part, businessmen’s views about the public education system were – and are – quite simply expressed. They are that schools turn out pupils who simply do not have the relevant skills or personal qualities. They can’t add up; they can’t write a business letter; they don’t know how to work in teams, or talk to customers, or to understand the need to turn up to work on time… In fact the schools are doing a dreadful job for a lot of money and need to improve, fast.”

The most beneficial educational reform, in other words, would be for K-12 to graduate students who have the basic skills to be readily trainable. Wolf is not a fan of government “job training” programs that supposedly compensate for the less-than-optimal degree of training that businesses provide. She doubts the assertion that businesses don’t provide the ideal amount of employee training and further doubts that even if it were to some extent true, government could devise any useful policy to improve matters.

What will be the result of a concerted program to raise the “educational attainment” of the populace? Answer: more credential inflation. Employers often use the possession of a college degree as a screening device. That is why it’s so often true that when a job ad specifies that a college degree is a requirement, it does not indicate that any particular studies are necessary. As educational credentials escalate, so will employer demands. Although she doesn’t cite his work, I believe that Wolf is in agreement with Stanford professor David Labaree, who has observed the ratchet effect of ever-increasing levels of formal education. Labaree writes in his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning, “Consumers have to spend increasing amounts of time and money to gain additional credentials because the swelling number of credential holders keeps lowering the value of credentials at any given level….Employers keep raising the entry-level education requirements for particular jobs…but they still find that they have to provide extensive training before employees can carry out their work productively.”

Education is a sacred cow in the U.S. and few people question the idea that more of it is necessarily beneficial. However, it is no more true that adding education (i.e., formal classes for credit) is always a good thing than it’s true that adding more fertilizer to a field is always a good thing. Congratulations to Alison Wolf for challenging the sacred cow and giving us this extremely insightful book.