US becomes a country of 'downward mobility'

A young man sits beside a freeway off ramp holding a sign that reads 'Homeless Plz Help' (AFP Photo / Frederic J. Brown)
An expert on education with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that the economic dominance of the United States is at risk because fewer Americans are pursuing advanced degrees.

Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education at the OECD, tells the BBC this week that current trends in the US indicate that generation of Americans in school will likely be less educated than their parents. At this rate, he says, the US will be the only major economy on Earth where the younger generation doesn’t receive an education on par or better with what their parents received.

The result, he fears, would be the United States falling behind other countries, economically speaking, because a smaller proportion of adults will be qualified to carry out the jobs that will be in high demand for the generation skipping out on secondary school. According to the BBC’s take, “downward mobility” is threatening the American Dream by making it more difficult to prepare younger generations today with real-world situations to face in the future.

"It's something of great significance because much of today's economic power of the United States rests on a very high degree of adult skills – and that is now at risk," Mr. Schleicher tells the BBC.

"These skills are the engine of the US economy and the engine is stuttering.”

Schleicher’s comments come following the release of a just-published OECD report that takes into consideration what levels of education are being pursued across the world. According to those findings, the US is starting to slip in terms of how many Americans are educated on a college level. Sadly, he fears, the result could be catastrophic for the country’s economy down the road.

"If you lose the confidence in the idea that effort and investment in education can change life chances, it's a really serious issue," he says.

Citing school system mismanagement and federal legislation as potential reasoning for the depressing trend, Norman Poltenson of the Mohawk Valley Business Journal writes this week that it isn’t impossible to turn the downward mobility around.

“US public high-school graduation rates have declined for the past three decades with only a recent, slight uptick. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, on-time, public high-school graduation rates have remained below 75 percent for the past 20 years. The rate has actually declined over a 40-year span, and the gap between minority and majority graduation rates have not converged at all over the last 35 years. Also, the decline of graduation rates is growing among young males, exacerbating a corresponding gender gap in college attendance with increasing numbers of women attending colleges and universities,” he writes.

“What’s missing in this rush to drive up the quantity of teachers and bureaucrats is a concern for quality. You don’t have to be a professional educator to recognize that teacher effectiveness is the most critical component in education. This relentless focus on putting teachers in the classroom hasn’t been accompanied by a concern to hire and retain outstanding teachers. Moreover, the explosion of bureaucracy has hampered teacher performance rather than enhanced it,” opines Poltenson.

Tackling the teaching issue might not be the surefire solution to make sure students strive to succeed, though. Other statistics released as of late reveal that children in the US don’t have it as easy as generations before them, with around 23 percent of US children currently living in poverty according to the OECD.

Meanwhile, schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee may have found a solution. Those five states agreed this week to add an additional 300 hours of teaching time, affecting around 20,000 students in 40 schools over the next three years, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"I'm convinced the kind of results we'll see over the next couple of years, I think, will compel the country to act in a very different way," Education Secretary Arne Duncan tells the paper.