Tucker’s Lens: Memo To The Next President

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tightening their grips on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

Mark Tucker
by Marc Tucker

“I love the uneducated,” said Donald Trump…many times. As well he might. If he is elected president, it is the uneducated who will have put him over the top.

Neither candidate has said much about education, but, in fact, the whole election is about education. The statistics are clear enough: Most of those with only a high school education or less are going for Trump and the more educated for Clinton. The less educated are opposed to global trade; seeing it as their undoing. The more educated are for it by large majorities, because they know they have benefited from it greatly. Which is why the less educated are furious. And because they are sick and tired of being scorned by the degreed experts who make them feel like dirt. But the issue isn’t really trade. It’s about the education that the uneducated don’t have. The reason trade did them in is because they don’t have any more skills than hundreds of millions—literally hundreds of millions—of people who have the same basic skills as Americans with only a basic education and are willing to work for much less because much less is still much more than the world’s poor used to make. But that is not the big problem.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tightening their grips on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

The looming problem is that most of the less educated are almost certain to find themselves put out of work by intelligent machines that are faster, more accurate, stronger, blessed with more endurance and cheaper than the less educated humans they will replace, to say nothing of the likelihood that they will not complain about their working conditions, demand more pay and benefits or go on strike.

When you get right down to it, the future belongs to the more educated and the future is deeply frightening to those without much education, because they have no future in an economy that will be increasingly dominated by artificial intelligence, neural networks, 3-D printers and intelligent machines of all kinds, from the tiny to the massive.

Donald Trump may have the less educated in his corner now, but he will not have them in his corner very long if he becomes President and fails to provide them with the skills to compete in the new economy. But he has no plan for doing that. His only proposals in the arena of education are to quash the Common Core and to allow almost anyone to sponsor public schools. He would have no power to kill the Common Core (those decisions are made by the states, not the federal government), and there is no record of any nation or state anywhere producing a world-class education system by allowing anyone and everyone to sponsor public schools. If he wants to keep his base for the next round, he will have to come up with a whole new plan.

While Mrs. Clinton does not have the less educated in her corner now, I would argue that her presidency will fail if she does not win a significant number of them over. Even if she were to wind up with majorities in both the Senate and the House, she would still face an implacable opposition willing to routinely use the filibuster to frustrate any and all legislative proposals from the White House, which would in practice mean that the White House would have to muster supermajorities to get anything significant done.

The question, then, would turn out to be how to get reliable supermajorities. It turns out that the only way to do that is to peel off the less educated from the Republican fold. The less educated are already in full-scale revolt against the mainline Republicans. Mrs. Clinton could not do that simply by making nice. She would have to convince them that making them whole economically is her top priority. Let’s be clear here. She cannot make them whole by ginning up road and bridge building projects, although we do need a robust infrastructure program. She cannot do it by providing modest tax cuts for the middle class, though that should be done, too. Nor can she do it by renegotiating trade treaties. The companies that went to China for its low wages are returning without renegotiating the treaties, because Chinese wages are much higher than they used to be. But the jobs that went to China will not be coming back with the companies, because they are being automated, a fact that trade treaties cannot alter. The companies that have stayed in China to serve expanding Asian markets will stay to do that, however the trade treaties are structured. The biggest threat to the Chinese worker is robots, which are now replacing Chinese manufacturing workers by the millions. Robots and their cousins, machines run by neural networks accessing the cloud, not Chinese manufacturing workers, are the greatest threat to less-educated Americans. Neither candidate has explained that to the electorate in this campaign.

If President Clinton wants to gain the confidence and support of the less educated, without which she will get very little done, she will have to explain the hard truth to the doubters. The hard truth is that the only way the less educated are going to have a future for themselves and their children is to get more educated. That is true for both the young and the old. There is no substitute for getting the skills they will need as digital equipment takes over the only jobs for which they are now qualified.

If Mrs. Clinton is elected President, her most important task will be to develop a massive program to build up the skills of the undereducated already in the workforce, as well as the young people who are graduating our high schools now who are themselves adding to the ranks of the undereducated in very large numbers every year. If she offers such a program to the Congress, and the undereducated see it as their salvation, the Republicans could oppose it only if they wish to commit suicide.

The obvious question is what such a massive program of education and training would look like.

The place to begin is to be clear about the scope and scale of the task ahead of us. I’ll start with the workforce. According to a reanalysis by the Educational Testing Service of a report from the OECD, the millennials in the American workforce ranked last or nearly last in the most recent survey of the skills of national workforces around the world. The United States has gone from having the best-educated workforce in the world 30 or 40 years to ago to the least-well educated. The OECD ranks American 15-year-olds slightly below the median in performance on tests of reading, mathematics, science and problem solving among a list of over 60 countries, a mediocre performance. Data also show that the average American high school graduate is graduating two to three grade levels below the countries at the top of the rankings. We not only have a higher proportion of students performing at the lowest performance levels on the OECD survey than many of our competitors, we have lower proportions performing at the top levels.

Other research shows that, whereas the top performers are sending their high school graduates to colleges and universities that offer college-level programs of study, the typical high school graduate is headed to something called a college or university that is actually offering a program pitched at the high school level, and the majority of our high school diploma holders are not ready to succeed in such a program. They are in fact going to high school in an institution that is charging them for college. There are high schools in the United States that are granting diplomas to functionally illiterate students, with the full permission of their state governments. Other data show that when observers look at the typical college in the United States, and survey both entering freshmen and students finishing their sophomore year, they find little or no difference in their mastery of the soft skills that a college or university is supposed to provide (such things as critical thinking, analytical capacity, ability to synthesize material from many different sources, ability to write a document that makes a compelling argument, etc.). These institutions may or may not be adding to the knowledge that students have in particular professional domains, but it would appear that they are not contributing much to their mastery of the core skills that are supposed to be the essence of their offering.

The federal job training budget is on life support. It was roughly five times larger in the Carter administration than it is today. The nation’s vocational education system is widely regarded as a dead end for most students, what you do if you cannot do academics. With exceptions in some states, vocational education in most parts of the United States is on its last legs in our high schools and is largely done in our community colleges. Some are very good indeed, but are struggling to make ends meet and few have the kinds of connections to employers that would enable them to offer state-of-the-art training on state-of-the-art equipment or instructors who are themselves working at the state-of-the- art. In an age in which margins are tight and employers are cutting back on their full-time workforce, relying more and more on contingent labor, it makes less and less sense for employers, except for those in very hot labor markets, to invest much anymore in the continuing education and training of their employees.

What I have just described is the system that has produced Donald Trump’s core constituency: the undereducated. They are roughly 35 to 40 percent of the adult workforce. They are the product of an education system, the cost of which has gone up at a rate greatly exceeding the rate of increase in inflation decade after decade, at both the elementary and secondary and post-secondary levels, with no visible improvement in all that time in the quality of the students they graduate or in the proportion that winds up with some sort of certificate or degree. This is the crux of the problem facing the next President. We have not been able to solve our education crisis by throwing more money at it. We have been increasing spending on elementary, secondary and post-secondary education faster than the rate of inflation year after year, decade after decade, and the results are mediocre, in terms of attainment, achievement, equity and the productivity of the whole enterprise.

These hard facts are not the fault of our educators. It is the fault of the system in which they are working. Turning the screws on them will not improve the situation. The challenge is to redesign the whole system for higher performance. How do I know that? Because I have looked at the countries that are producing much better-educated graduates for much less money and observed that they are using a different system. Though these countries are as different as Singapore and Finland or Shanghai (a megalopolis bigger than most countries) and Canada, their systems of education are built on very similar principles. I am not supposing we can do much better. I know we can do much better because I have studied countries that are actually doing much better. If we learn enough from them to stand on their shoulders, there is no reason we cannot at least match their performance. We should be able to do it even better than they do by combining in one high-performance system many of the best features of their systems and adding some secret sauces of our own.

That said, what would I have the next President do?

It should begin, on the new President’s first day in office, with the creation of the President’s Task Force on the Future of Work and Skills. I know, I know. Ordinarily, Presidents create task forces to defer action, not to force it. But recall the effect that A Nation At Risk had on the direction of education policy in the United States when it was released. I have in mind something whose members would have even more prestige and clout and certainly more presidential backing than that commission had.

Yes, it needs to produce a report on an expedited schedule, working night and day at it. The report will have to describe what is at stake and propose a bold program to deal with the challenges we face. To do that, the Task Force needs to fully understand how the global economy has been changing and how modern information technology is evolving in such a way as to make it virtually certain to eliminate millions of jobs. It also needs to understand how a growing number of other countries has been able to get so far ahead of us in providing their high school graduates, college graduates and workers with the knowledge and skills they will need to cope with the swiftly advancing technologies that are destroying so many low skill and intermediate skill jobs.

And then it needs to help the American people understand what they have learned and to help them see that we will all go down together unless the country finds a way to provide everyone, including the adult members of our current workforce, with the knowledge and skills they will need to survive and prosper in the years ahead. They will need to explain why we will need to educate everyone to a standard we only thought we needed to educate the elite to.

Yes, the Task Force will need to include some experts, but it also needs to signify in its composition that its charge is among the new President’s top priorities. It should have among its members people from both parties, including members of Congress, who can reach out to every major group in the population with its message of hope and determination.

It needs to get on airplanes and go and visit the countries that have gotten so far ahead of us and not rely on the reports of scholars and staff for that purpose. Seeing is believing and the public will believe only if the members of the Task Force have seen for themselves what is possible, and, seeing it, have said to themselves, “Yes, we can do this. We have to do this.”

The Task Force has to include in its membership people who can get many federal agencies, businesses of all kinds, educational leaders of every stripe and many others to come together on behalf of its agenda.

If it were up to me, I would ask Joe Biden to chair this Task Force. That is because Biden has deep empathy for what Donald Trump calls “the uneducated.” No less important, he has the respect of the nation and could speak on behalf of the President and the Administration in a way few others could. It will take someone with Biden’s political skill to get key actors to commit to the kind of changes in public policy that will be needed.

Once the Task Force had issued its report, it would share its analysis and proposals with the whole country, setting off a national discussion of our skills future, selling the proposed legislative package to the Congress and then, in partnership with the states, inspiring a reformation of the nation’s education, job training and continuing education system, providing direct supervision of the federal government contribution and giving support and encouragement to everyone else.

Let me anticipate here some of what the Task Force might find and some issues it will have to deal with.

It will discover that several of the Scandinavian countries are way ahead of most other countries in providing continuing education and training to their workforces. They will see what a well-developed and well-funded system of adult education and training looks like there, with employer-developed standards for skill training, arranged in a skill standards system that is modularized, so that workers only have to study what they do not already know in order to learn a new trade or adapt to increased skill requirements in the occupation they’ve already chosen. They’ll see a system that makes it easy for firms to access customized training while workers can access training that enables them to move to another employer who recognizes the skills acquired while they were working for a competitor. The Task Force will look at Singapore and see a system for anticipating workforce skill requirements that is first in its class and see in Switzerland a system for guidance and counseling for workers that is very high quality and easily accessible as well as a system in which industry associations make sure that all the workplace-based training is available that is needed to complement what is learned in the classroom instruction provided by the state and by individual employers too small to offer everything a worker might need. And they will also find in Singapore an evolving system for providing workers with access to a training fund that is available through the worker’s whole work life. It will take all this into account as it starts to weave these ideas together into something uniquely adapted to the American scene, something that will work at least as well as anything they saw elsewhere.

In Switzerland, the Task Force will find what is perhaps the world’s best system of career and technical education for young people, one that deeply involves employers in providing opportunities for young people to learn on the job in an environment in which they can develop the skills they need using state-of-the-art equipment from instructors who themselves work at the state-of-the-art. Switzerland’s system grew out of the medieval guild system, thus creating an environment in which Swiss companies expect to play a key role in the career and technical education of young people. In Singapore, the Task Force will find the world’s best example of a country that is figuring out how to get many of the advantages of the Swiss system without having an industrial history that started with the medieval guilds.

The Task Force will quickly figure out that Finland and South Korea set the global standard for attracting top high school graduates to careers in teaching, that Singapore is reaching for that standard and that Singapore and Shanghai set the standard for organizing and managing schools so as to provide high-level professional careers for teachers.

They will see that Australia, Germany and Canada provide excellent examples of countries that have figured out how to run a federal education system in which the states play the lead role in education policy without getting the federal government and the state governments in a war over who is running the show.

In Ontario, they will see a tenacious focus on equity that has paid off handsomely. In British Columbia, Japan, Singapore, Finland, and Hong Kong they will see developments in curriculum and instruction that hold great promise for creating mass education systems that will enable all students to cope with a very challenging future.

Everywhere they look among the top performers, they will see countries providing more resources for schools serving disadvantaged students than others, expecting even the most disadvantaged students to achieve at high levels, making sure that students who fall behind quickly catch up to their peers, turning teaching into a highly desirable career for top high school students, making much more effective use of the funds available for education, reaching higher completion rates for all students, and producing remarkably high average achievement at all levels with much greater equity than we see in the United States.

One last point. If it were the case that the United States was spending less than our best competitors on education, then we could solve our problems by spending more. That is indeed the case in the arena of job training and continuing education, but it is not the case either for elementary and secondary education or postsecondary education. In these areas, we spend more and more and get less and less for it. Clearly, we are not spending it wisely. The next President may want to spend more money on these high priority areas, but he or she would be foolish to put in more money without some assurance that he or she will be getting much better value for the money spent than the country has been getting for decades.

There are many groups that benefit from the current spending patterns and those groups will not easily accept the shifts in spending that will be needed to create a much more effective system. The challenge the Task Force will have to take up is essentially political: How to create an accord in which all the major players will have to give up something they never thought they would give up in exchange for getting something they never thought they would be able to get. One great advantage of looking at how the top performers have succeeded is the opportunity it affords for seeing how they managed the politics involved in greatly improving the opportunities available to their people without greatly increasing the cost of providing those opportunities.

Half a century ago, the United States had the best-educated workforce in the world. And that gave us the most successful economy in the world. Today, the people we have failed to educate—the undereducated—at least 35 percent of our entire workforce—are in full scale revolt against the whole system. They haven’t had a raise in decades, if they are lucky enough to have any job at all. As the digital revolution gathers force, it will only get worse for those who lack an education. We know now—or ought to know—that failure to address these issues with a massive program to radically improve our systems for education, job training and continuing education and training could lead to the destruction not just of our economy but also of our democracy. There has never been so much at stake.