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October 13, 2007

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Interesting article over at the American Prospect (pointer via Ryan Avent) on education and economic inequality. The title is right on - "schools as scapegoats."  I agree with the authors and with Ryan that schools and education are like mom and apple pie. It's a great way for folks on both the right and the left to avoid the issue. If we want to fix inequality, they say, fix the schools and increase the education level for everyone.  Sure it's true that the past several decades have seen what economists call increasing returns to education.The college educated earn more, and they tend to marry one another so the gap has grown. So far, so good.

But consider the fact that a huge number of those at the very top of the economic spectrum are college dropouts - Bill Gates, Michael Dell and many others.  These folks found the school system constrained their ability and focussed their attention on building hugely successful companies.

Our education system is broken, plain and simple. According to recent studies, a huge number of students are bored to death and learning takes place an hour or two of the school day.  We totally screw up the important thing - making sure everybody has adequate early childhood development, make it so that both parents have to work and can't spend enough time with their kids at this critical level, and then totally screw up education after around grades 5 or 6, with high-school for most kids a near waste of time.

But education isn't the driver of inequality. The real problem is less on the supply side than on the demand side. Our economy (as I've said many times) is generating two kinds of jobs - creative and service. The service jobs pay poorly and are career dead-ends.  If we were serious about dealing with inequality, we'd stop blathering on about education and do something to make those service jobs better.

People are creative. We like challenging and creative work. Most of us do not need to spend more time in educational prisons sitting like a bump on a log in class or getting ready for the big game, the pep rally or the prom. We need to be involved in stuff that activates creativity. Bruce Springsteen recently told 60 Minutes, more or less: "I guess I was a smart kid. But you wouldn't know it in school. Until I discovered the guitar and my band, and I found out how to use my creativity." Bingo.  How many of us have felt like that.

The real issue is on the demand side. As my colleague Charlotta Mellander is fond of saying, the key is how to increase the demand (and the pay) for creativity. Those service jobs are the place to start - from the coffee shop to the hair salon and more.

It's time our business and political leaders stop whining about education and get focussed on that.


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» Education as Panacea from Freedom Democrats
Via Richard Florida's blog, American Prospect's Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein describe how "education!" has incorrectly been offered as the solution to all of life's economic problems. While the economy has done well because of productivity gains [Read More]



Richard, it sounds like your next book will be on education? ;-)

What would be interesting to note is whether education elsewhere in the world is fundamentally different than in the US, or more appropriate to inspiring creativity.

Yes, education is generally considered to be "better" in many European and Asian countries than it is in the US. But, this is often based on standardized test scores or high school and college completion rates. If we can measure it on the same scale, it is not "different" from what is offered in the US.

What countries or regions or cities or even schools or philosophies (like making it possible for parents to work less) are producing the best "creative" minds in the 21st century?

Is any one small region exporting a lot of creative talent? or creative product? is their education system or philosophy different?

I can't think of any off hand (but I'm not that knowledgeable about world educational systems).

Maybe the whole world needs an education revolution - afterall, the current education system used in much of the world was largely designed for the industrial age to get children used to the rythyms of the time clock and indoctrinated with certain ideas.

Old Guy

OK, let's assume you are right in identifying the problem. And let's assume that you are a creative person (Why else would you include the word "creative" your identity?) You have done the easy part; you have written the beginning of an article. Now write the middle and the end. Tell us how you would fix the problem.

To be realistic, you have to recognize the constraints that any solution must face. Such as the fact that education is in the hands of 50 states and thousands of school districts. And the fact that the total education budget cannot be increased (you cannot just say "pour more money" into education). And the fact that you cannot fire all the teachers and administrators and hire new ones. And the unfortunate fact that we have red and blue states. And the fact that most school districts in the U.S. have a much more diverse population than any other country (thus you cannot simply import the education models from places such as Japan and Finland).

I would love to read a workable solution to the problem. It is very tiring to read articles and blog posts that point the finger at education and then offer no solution (as this post did) or propose totally unrealistic solution.

Home school mom

One solution to the problem of the current educational system on a small scale is homeschooling. Homeschooling allows for individual differences, maximum flexibility and discovery of creativity. Students enjoy learning.

Home school mom

One solution to the problem of the current educational system on a small scale is homeschooling. Homeschooling allows for individual differences, maximum flexibility and discovery of creativity. Students enjoy learning.


Great points all. Home schooling is becoming a viable alternative for many people in the creative class. Not just because parents have control, but because it matches flexible work styles and families who want to travel or live in more than one place. I was tuned in about an hour a day in school. Think about what an engaged parent can do for their kids in a couple of hours. Add to that some great a la carte options for music, art, and sports and voila. Plus it probably costs a heck of a lot less than private school. More on that indeed in Who's Your City.

Wendy - You are right. Education has become near completely disconnected from regional outcomes. You can have great schools and your kids can leave. You can disinvest in schools (California-style) and import talent. Like I always used to say in Pittsburgh, the great export was no longer steel but talented kids.

Teachers are not the problem. Sclerotic bureaucracy and disengaged teachers are. Virtually every teacher I have ever met wants to help kids learn. The sclerotic bureaucracy paralyzes them. Like the Gallup study found, want better schools you need more engaged teachers.

I can sum this up simply. Imagine every single young person had a college degree, but our labor market and economic system stayed the same - divided into creative and service jobs, with factory work in decline. Would that increase in education and skill really change wages. Doubtful. The key is on the demand side. We have to make service jobs better paying and more creative.

We have to engage those pizza place workers (and I'm not kidding here) into using their knowledge and creativity into making pizza production, delivery and customer service more efficient and value-adding. Think it can't be done: go visit your local Whole Foods or Starbucks. And there's still a long, long way to go.


Home schooling can certainly be a wonderful experience if done well. But, it isn't really a solution to class stratification and further releasing creativity for all Americans (or global citizens). The children of children of children who did not receive a good education, who are borderline illiterate or innumerate, would not be able to home school their children in such a way that they would "catch up" to the children of 5th generation university degree holders (as a general rule -- there are exceptions, of course).

Releasing creativity in any form (music, art, engineering, economics..) generally requires a reasonable about of basic knowledge (literature, history, geography, nature) and basic abilities (math, reading, writing, etc.)

Maya Frost

The task is simpler than any of these posts and comments suggest.

The solution is to simply MAKE IT OKAY to leave high school early and get ignited by whatever stirs up that creativity. (By "okay" I mean make it socially acceptable and provide tools and support for this.)

All right, I can hear the roar: "But if kids drop out at 16, they'll just sit on the couch all day! They'll give up on education completely!"

I don't buy it. In fact, I think that the greatest thing any parent can do for their bored high school student is support them in getting out early and CONTINUING in a direction that is far more likely to inspire them.

We can't wait for the government to "fix" education. Instead, parents need to partner with their kids to discover better options.

The good news? They are already available, in a dazzling array of styles. Your kids can get a fantastic education by skipping high school, and they can slide into college easily and with tremendous clarity and confidence by avoiding the manic college admissions process that dominates the senior year of high school.

I'm writing a book about this--based on lots of research and my own experience with four daughters who are all in college at the moment. Check out my blog at http://www.CreativeU.wordpress.com for more.

Michael Wells

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school It's a wonder I can think at all
-- Paul Simon

I thought it was just me (don't all teenagers?), bored but no idea where else to go. My main reason for applying to college was to get out of Modesto, California. Then I graduated HS and was admitted to Berkeley, only to find it was more of the same. Sit in rows and memorize stuff to write on the tests.

I think Maya's idea is fantastic for self-directed kids or ones with strong interests. Involved parents who get it help a lot. For those drifting, I don't know. I don't think we can wait for the government(s) to fix education for individual kids, but on a large scale it's absolutely necessary.

Home school mom

A good book on releasing the creativity of young people and allowing them to learn through their communities is the Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn.


Gotta agree with OLD GUY above. Hundreds of would be education fixers publish exactly the same thing, "the problem." I'd sure like to read some blog entries on how to fix this problem.

Brian O'Connell

The problem is not American education. This is written by a school principal from New Zealand.

Yes it is easy to identify the problem as OLD GUY says. But how to fix the problem?
But the lack of creativity and 21st Century learning in the education system is the reason why it is so hard to fix. We need creativity to fix the problem but education works against creativity.

Schooling is essentially a conservative (conservative as opposed to innovative, not politically conservative) process. In a conservative organisation change is not easy. Most conservative organisations in rapidly changing times fail. Why should schools be anything different?

Two possible solutions
1. A politican with the political courage and leadership to force change.
2. Or everyone pushing. All those who care taking small continuous steps to make the change.

Number 1 is a dream that leaves number 2. Lets all start pushing

Brian Plunk

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