Friday, January 23, 2009

Ensuring Real Education

It's been months since his PR folks sent me Real Education but I'm finally ready to weigh in on C. Murray's new treatise. Far too many naive bloggers think Murray's hit the nail on the head.

So here's my take: Murray is an opponent of expanding formal education, and especially a college-for-all culture that broadly promotes college aspirations. He argues that academic degrees reflect students’ general cognitive and social skills rather than what they learned in college or how well they will perform on the job. But even though in some sense credentials do act as signals and of course the skills of college graduates are not entirely created by colleges, there is still good evidence that what students learn in school has an invaluable, positive impact on their long-term life outcomes.

Moreover, Murray offers no practical alternatives. He argues that employers should develop testing instruments to better assess skills for specific jobs when, in fact, these assessments already exist in many occupations and organizations. Where such assessment tools are being used, they are at best very weak predictors of worker performance. The bottom line is that formal education both creates important skills and provides signals for employers that are quite valuable.

You won't find me arguing for an increase in meaningless credentialing nor advocating that college to become compulsory for everyone. My take is that by setting expectations for sub-baccalaureate outcomes and equipping community colleges with the resources needed to achieve those outcomes, we can enable a revitalized focus on student learning. I mean both the forms of general and specialized learning needed to perform specific jobs, and the kind of skills that all citizens need, and that colleges are best positioned to provide.

So in conclusion, no-- Murray's Losing Ground didn't change my opinion of welfare, and it sure isn't changing my opinion about schooling. But I do thank the publishers, since Real Education has evolved into a tasty chew treat for my puppy.

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