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NEPC: Test Scores and Economic Competitiveness

Author: William Mathis, Managing Director, National Education Policy Center
January 24, 2011


What does international economic competitiveness have to do with kids' test scores?

Not much.

If we look at it from a jobs perspective, 70 percent of United States jobs require only on-the-job training, 10 percent require technical training, and 20 percent require a college education.

Although the Obama administration claims that the jobs of the future will require much higher and universal skills, the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution says that the country's job structure profile will remain about the same. The proportion of middle skill jobs (plumbers, electricians, health care, police officers, etc.) is not expected to decline.

In stark contrast to the school reform rhetoric, the dramatic job slowdown will be in the more highly skilled jobs.

The cry reaches fullest volume when talking about science, math and technology training. This is where we are supposedly behind the “economically competitive” needs for the 21st century.

Unfortunately, only one-twentieth of United States jobs require science and math backgrounds. For these positions, there are three times as many qualified applicants as there are available positions. Far from any shortage, the United States produces 25% of the world's most talented youth.

The problem is not the failure to “supply” a sufficient number of qualified applicants; it is with the failure of the “demand” side of the equation to supply enough high tech jobs. Underemployment or unemployment among the college educated afflicts 13% of people with bachelor's degree people and 9% of those with post-graduate training.

Paradoxically, the universal ascent of technology requires less proficiency – not more -- for most jobs. For example, flashing items under a scanner requires less skill than hand- keying in prices. Despite the economic downturn, if the objective is to be internationally competitive in science, math and technology, then the private sector has to invest in these types of jobs. The numbers demonstrate they have not.

Contrary to the simplicity of the sound bite, the drivers of national economic competitiveness show a much more complex and nuanced connection with education. The United States fell from its usual first place in the World Economic Forum's (WEF) competitiveness index to fourth in the latest ratings (China is 27th). The reason for this fall was not education. Rather, it was macro-economic instability.

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