Monday, December 2, 2019


The United States is facing an educational crisis. Even as government spending per student eclipses most other developed countries, America’s youth continue to underperform in math, reading and science compared to their pupils around the world year-after-year. And it isn’t getting any better.

According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress — commonly referred to as the “nation’s report card” — scores continue to tumble. Most concerning are reading levels. At both the fourth- and eighth-grade age groups, scores have dropped in 17 and 31 states, respectively, since 2017. We are doing worse than countries most people couldn’t locate on a world map.

As most understand, the end goal of the education system is not to teach students how to extrapolate the numerical value of “x” in an equation or comprehend the deeper meaning behind “Huckleberry Finn.” In the real world, these exercises are largely meaningless. Instead, the goal is to equip students with the problem-solving and analysis skills that will help them become productive members of society. More specifically, we want students to be capable of financially supporting themselves.

Predictably, persistent failures in the education system are beginning to have measurable consequences. As recently reported by Politico, low rates of adult literacy in the United States are responsible for up to a $1.4 trillion loss in gross domestic product.

A reduction in literacy translates to weaker economic activity by exacerbating feeble business performance and ultimately slower wage and job growth rates. This isn’t a red vs. blue political issue. Yet bipartisan efforts do little more than treat the symptoms of the problem. As fewer Americans are equipped with the necessary skills to support themselves or their families, government is in the life raft business when it should be fixing leaks in the boat.

One example of dysfunctional policies is the current attempt to double the federal minimum wage. Although entry-level employment opportunities are meant to be temporary and simply provide a path to a future career, the biggest victims of the education gap are relying on these jobs for longer periods of time. Many have lost sight of the term “entry-level” and believe these positions should provide higher levels of compensation.

Some argue for as high as $15-$20 an hour. But as we learned in basic physics, for every action there is a reaction. And with $30,000-$40,000 in mandated wages for people who can’t read a map or manage a basic computer, there will be reactions.

As businesses are compelled to pay more for workers with few skills, pricing realities to retain customers force businesses to cut costs — including reducing hours or job positions, implementing automation and adding self-service functions. All opportunities that would have provided employees with valuable learning experiences that make them more attractive for future employers.

You often hear the line that you can’t get hired without experience, yet you can’t get that experience unless some employer will take a chance. While the labor market is tight right now with some employers lowering their standards and offering these chances, recessions are a part of the business cycle. Unskilled youth will be the first to go. Many will be permanently sidelined.

Policymakers need to get serious about their responsibilities to ensure workers are equipped with the skills necessary to succeed in a modern economy, rather than trying to prop up an entry-level job market with unrealistic wages.

Step one would be to address structural deficiencies in our school system. Most school administrators don’t have the ability to fire underperforming teachers. This has always puzzled me. In the manufacturing sector, an employee who produces an unacceptable amount of imperfect widgets is replaced. And craft unions generally won’t fight to retain a member who can’t do the job.

Why isn’t this system of meritocracy also applied to school staff? Are the education unions so powerful that they can paralyze a country that graduates kids who can’t read their diplomas?

Lawmakers should also encourage school choice. Charter schools — which are publicly funded, but privately operated — offer alternative educational opportunities with unique teaching strategies that often result in improved education outcomes. As an added benefit, minorities and other groups who are frequently letdown by traditional public schools perform better when attending these institutions. In education, just as in every other sector of the economy, the more options, the better.

The current state of education in America brings the reality of cancer to mind. We know it’s better to aggressively treat the disease at an early stage, rather than wait until it spreads. When kids in Slovenia and Estonia provide better reading comprehension skills than America, we are watching a cancer grow.

• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Co., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.

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