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Digital textbooks. That is the latest idea from the White House for lifting the performance of American schools — a strategy on which Korea and other countries are already ahead. Something certainly needs to be done; a new report from the Harvard Business School identifies the education system from kindergarten through to the end of high school (K-12) as one of the root causes of the country’s decline in business competitiveness.
Whether technology really is the solution, however, is in doubt. A must-read book published last week warns that America is coming apart culturally and not just economically. Marriage, the work ethic, respect for the law and religious practice are values increasingly absent from even white working class homes, while very much holding their own among the upper class, says author Charles Murray.
But without those supports it is difficult for children to benefit even from the best schools. And when they don’t, it is not only bad news for them but another nail in the coffin of US competitiveness.
In the 1980s US business was losing ground against Japan; today it’s the world, especially the developing economies where there is not only cheaper unskilled labour but also, according to 1700 Harvard Business School alumni personally involved in decisions about where to place business activities and jobs last year, “better access to skilled labour”.
Among those respondents, two-thirds of their decisions about placing business went against the US, say Michael E Porter and Jan W Rivkin, directors of the school’s US Competitiveness Project, in their report, Prosperity at Risk. Two thirds. “Facilities involving large numbers of jobs, high-end work [research, development and engineering], and groups of activities located together moved out of the US much faster than they moved in.”
When asked what they saw as the main problems with the US business environment the business leaders put the K-12 eduction system at the top of the list along with America’s tax code and political system. It was one of six weaknesses they viewed as getting worse.
What exactly they thought was wrong with education is not reported, but clearly the system is not turning out sufficiently skilled, productive and adaptable people. The businessmen themselves agree that they can and must be part of the solution — by supporting educational institutions and investing in workforce sills, among other things. But to fully address these practical issues they need to look deeper.
As a number of academics and scholars have pointed out, America (and the West in general) has been running down its human and social capital for some decades now. Charles Murray is just the latest to point out that the effects have been distributed in a very lopsided way. He writes:
When Americans used to brag about “the American way of life”—a phrase still in common use in 1960—they were talking about a civic culture that swept an extremely large proportion of Americans of all classes into its embrace. It was a culture encompassing shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work and religiosity.
Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.
The withdrawal of the working class from marriage (just 48 per cent of 30- to 49-year-old adults with only a high school education are now married), divorce, the rise of single-parenthood and cohabitation, the loss of community and moral support from church attendance and membership of other civic groups, combined with rising crime, unemployment and erosion of a work ethic — all this has put a huge swathe of children at a disadvantage in the education system.
Murray’s work confirms the landmark 2010 study, When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America, by W Bradford Wilcox and colleagues. Their report sounded the alarm that the erosion of marriage had reached deep into American society, affecting the 58 per cent of the population that is moderately educated, threatening “the American Dream” of economic mobility and, in particular, the emotional and social welfare of children. They said:
“We know, for instance, that children who grow up in intact, married families are significantly more likely to graduate from high school, finish college, become gainfully employed, and enjoy a stable family life themselves, compared to their peers who grow up in non-intact families.”
By the late 2000s, they noted, non-marital childbirths accounted for a disturbing 44 percent of children born to moderately educated mothers — up from 13 per cent in the early 1980s, and 54 percent of children born to the least-educated mothers, but only 6 percent of children born to highly educated mothers. Only 58 per cent of Middle American kids today will grow up with both their mom and dad to the age of 14.
This is the reality that business leaders and Harvard heavyweights need to come to grips with.
If children do not have a stable home, if their parents are not committed to one another, if they split up and a step-parent enters the scene, if the father is absent, the mother struggling alone or in successive relationships with boyfriends — how much more difficult it will be for them to settle to homework, to get help with it, to focus on the world of learning and think in terms of a college or vocational degree. Chances are they will prefer to escape family tensions by immersing themselves in television or the internet.
(A recent study found that “students who have experienced repeated changes in their family structure status will be less successful academically” even when attending schools with a strong academic culture and support for students.)
And how much less likely children are to learn the virtues that will make them reliable and ambitious workers — honesty, delayed gratification, industriousness — when parents themselves do not have the traditional supports for morality, especially the church, or any replacement for them, and this at a time when unemployment, crime and the culturally corrosive power of the mass media are all against them.
Academics, as Wilcox has noted, have been reluctant to accept that the trends affecting family life in much of American society (as elsewhere) are a problem. Many hold to the line that the family is just changing, not declining.
This is not a mistake that business leaders or smart politicians should make. They should let the data talk. Today, 38 per cent of kids from intact families will continue their education and get a college degree compared with only 20 per cent from non-intact families. Children and adults who are not connected to an intact family, says Wilcox, are significantly less likely to strive to succeed and save.
The When Marriage Disappears report suggested that,
Given the current trends, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that the United States could be heading toward a 21st century version of a traditional Latin American model of family life, where only a comparatively small oligarchy enjoys a stable married and family life—and the economic and social fruits that flow from strong marriages. In this model, the middle and lower-middle classes would find it difficult to achieve the same goals for their families and would be bedeviled by family discord and economic insecurity.
That, combined with a North American model of the job market would seem to be the worst of all possible worlds for Middle America, and indeed, for the whole country. Not just America but any nation that wants to compete in the globalised economy will have to first look after the family. Then the family will produce the social capital that will make everything else work. There is no other way.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.