Edward L. Glaeser

A lesson for America

Education may be the best way to reduce future unemployment

By Edward L. Glaeser
January 14, 2011

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THE MEAGER growth in employment during December is a reminder that the recession remains painful, especially for the least educated. The new Republican House leaders may have a cost-cutting mandate, but let’s hope that they don’t get penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to human capital. America’s economic future depends on our skills, which means that we need a vigorous new version of the flagship federal education program, No Child Left Behind.

We seem to have another jobless recovery. Seasonally adjusted, there are no more employed Americans today than there were in April. Only 58.3 percent of adults have jobs, less than most of last year.

America’s unemployment teaches a stark lesson about the value of education. Almost three-quarters of adults with college degrees have jobs; fewer than 40 percent of high school dropouts work. The unemployment rate is 15 percent for high school dropouts, 10 percent for college-less people with high school degrees and less than 5 percent for college graduates. Educating America may be the best way to reduce future unemployment.

But just throwing money at schools doesn’t improve education. The big idea of No Child Left Behind was to use federal funding intelligently to create incentives for schools to improve. It achieved significant results, improving the math scores of fourth and eighth graders, but it can surely be improved. Successful reform faces dangers from both the free-spending left, which likes funding schools but not testing, incentives, and choice, and the budget-cutting right, which likes choice, testing, and incentives but not the spending that change requires.

But education isn’t optional. Republican enemies of infrastructure and health care spending can plausibly argue that the country doesn’t need more roads in Montana, and that ObamaCare was a distraction from fighting the recession. No one can argue that America doesn’t need human capital.

Every adult in the country has experienced a labor market that rewards expertise and penalizes poor schooling. Anyone who worries about American decline must recognize that skills drive Asian economic success. In December, we learned that children in Shanghai were massively outperforming Americans on standardized tests, and President Obama understandably called for a new “Sputnik moment,’’ when America would again invest massively in its children. Now he must ensure that his party puts students ahead of teachers unions.

For their part, the Republicans must forgo their fondness for federalism and fiscal prudence, and follow their old faith in national strength and self-determination. They must be, once more, the party of Abraham Lincoln. While nuclear weaponry may have made America mighty during the eras of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, going forward, our nation can only succeed by out-thinking our competitors and that requires education. Reducing the federal commitment to education may save money today, but in the long run, a less-educated America will earn less and require more spending on the social programs that support the less educated. One reason to hope that the GOP embraces education reform is that the debate needs both Democratic generosity and Republican hard-headedness.

Teachers are the most important ingredient in school quality, and even kindergarten teachers seem to impact adult earnings. Improving teacher quality requires high wages for stars, to retain them, and less money for poorly performing educators, to encourage them to find another occupation. Republicans are usually more comfortable with wage inequality in the boardroom, so they should champion pay-for-performance in the classroom.

Across countries, there is a strong connection between instruction time and test performance. Long hours also help many charter schools succeed. Republicans who believe in individual discipline and traditional values should fight for longer classroom hours and more school work for teenagers.

Increasing student hours also provides a means for creating more free-market competition, without eliminating traditional schools. Why not fund extra hours of schooling, as well as summer and weekend classes, as long as private providers can compete to provide that training? New York has already brought an innovative nonprofit, “School of One,’’ into its schools to provide tailored e-learning. This type of out-sourcing could be encouraged everywhere, which could support a nationwide industry dedicated to smartening our children.

The renewal of No Child Left Behind offers a chance for politicians to become statesmen, for in education, national need must triumph over partisanship.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is author of the forthcoming book “The Triumph of the City.’’ His column appears regularly in the Globe.