Policy makers in the United States continuously seek the silver bullet(s) -- plural solutions because there is clear recognition that the issue is multifaceted -- that will achieve healthy levels of employment in the nation. Certainly there some paths to increasing employment in the country are less expensive than others, and proposed solutions range across a wide array of complexity and practicality. Invariably, today, education becomes a focal point for discussions and debates about how to increase employment in any nation. This is due largely to the potential promise that solutions based in education can act as levers that are sufficiently effective to induce change.
Solutions to unemployment must be developed through the perfection of the alignment between the education young American receive -- in both secondary (high school) and post-secondary (college / university) educational systems -- and the actual labor market.
In his article in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman argues that educational standards should be higher and that students, parents, and educators need to put more effort into meeting those standards. Friedman argues that there are three fundamental pillars of unemployment in the United States today: (1) Global competition for higher-paying skilled work is "stiffer" than in past decades; (2) the proportion of high-end jobs to low-end jobs has changed radically, skewing sharply to jobs that require higher levels of education and skill; and (3) America has fallen significantly behind its developed (and developing) nation peers with respect to high school graduation rates, college graduation, and standardized test scores in math and critical thinking (Friedman, 2012). Friedman argued that society, parents, and students need to boost their efforts to ensure that American students excel in academics and overall educational performance (Friedman, 2012). The thrust of his position is that everyone needs to get better at what they are currently doing -- parent better, teach better, prepare better, study better. But is trying harder and raising standards going to be enough to improve employment in the U.S.
Unlike Friedman, Andrew Hacker believes that there is a substantive mismatch between the provision of education and the employee preparation needs of employers. Hacker (2012) asserts that educational systems in America need to rethink what they are teaching and why they are teaching it. Part of the problem, Hacker suggests, is that when academic standards are raised, there is a corollary expectation that a growing number of students will fail (Hacker, 2012). For Hacker, the pivotal curricular point is mathematics instruction -- and specifically here, the requirement that all high school students take and pass coursework in algebra. Hacker's (2012) position is based on populist, rather than empirical, research that the skills required to pass algebra courses are not the same skills that are required in the workplace. Hacker reports that "In New Mexico, 43% of white students fell below proficient, along with 39% in Tennessee" (2012). And before the reader assumes that students performing poorly in advanced mathematics are from lower economic strata or are English-learning learners (ELL), Hacker asserts that, "Even well-endowed schools have otherwise talented students who are impeded by algebra, to say nothing of calculus and trigonometry" (2012).
Friedman focuses on comparisons between students -- and their parents -- from different countries -- and detours into the digital youth culture as explanations for the relatively lower achievement of American students. Interestingly, Friedman highlights the increased use of digital devices by American students as a contributor to poor academic outcomes (Friedman, 2012). Yet, the same children of immigrants who earning Rhodes scholarship awards at stunning rates also have high rates of engagement with digital devices -- in fact, the youth in some Asian countries far surpass American youth in their complete absorption of digital devices (Friedman, 2012). The driver for the differences in academic performance among youth across the globe may be less related to the preferences of digital natives and more related to the inherent discipline that is cultural bedrock (Friedman, 2012).
Freidman asserts that parenting styles and levels of involvement with the education of offspring have substantive influence on the academic performance of children, and he argues that immigrant "culture" leads to higher academic effort and, therefor, higher levels of performance among immigrant students (Friedman, 2012). According to Freidman, immigrants are solidly fixed on education as a means to improve socio-economic status of their children (Friedman, 2012). Freidman interviewed United States Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the national dropout problem. Duncan focused on the poor economic outcomes that are now standard for high school dropouts (Friedman, 2012). But the education-employment relation does not exclusively apply to high school dropouts -- it is a relevant metric for college dropouts and for college graduates who did not choose majors linked to industries that have high need for more skilled workers (Friedman, 2012). It is common knowledge that a bachelor's degree is no longer a pass for a well-paying job. Moreover, as Hacker argues, college acceptance is typically based on successful completion of a series of increasingly difficult mathematics coursework. For example, the California university systems only consider prospective student applications where three years of mathematics show up on transcripts, even for majors in history or art where there is very little to no job-related need for advanced mathematics (Hacker, 2012). Moreover, many colleges are looking for SAT mathematics scores of 700 or higher, an achievement that only 9% of the male applicants and 4% of the female applicants are able to attain (Hacker, 2012). Hacker notes that 57% of the students at The City University of New York, where he has taught since 1971, did not pass the university's mandated algebra course (Hacker, 2012). A faculty report from the university concluded that "failing math at all levels affects retention more than any other academic factor." Hacker also asserts that twice as many F's and D's were found in mathematics when transcripts were compared in a national study (Hacker, 2012).
A significant disjoint exists between the demand for mathematics coursework for college admissions and the normal distribution of mathematical aptitude in the high school student population. Community college students are often required to take advanced mathematics for vocational and technical program entry or completion. At current rates, fewer than 25% of community college students are passing mathematics courses, and many students must take the courses several times in order to obtain a passing grade (Hacker, 2012). As a result, many mathematics classes are in high demand, have caps on enrollment, and are not offered frequently enough to permit continual progress through programs. Community college students are often not typical college students, as they are place-bound by jobs and families, often parenting while attending college. Backlogged college classes and poor mathematics instruction cause community college students to excessively expend personal resources and consume institutional resources in their attempts to finally graduate. Many simply become discouraged and drop out (Hacker, 2012).
Evidence from mathematics research experts demonstrates that college requirements do not align well with workplace demand for mathematics. Hacker refers to the math education research and analyses of John P. Smith III, an education psychologist at Michigan State University (Hacker, 2012). Smith concluded that "mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school" (Hacker, 2012). This is true, according to Smith, even in jobs from the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (Hacker, 2012). One of the reasons employers are frustrated by what they see as inadequacies in contemporary education is that employers must provide additional training for the recent college graduates they hire, particularly in the area of commonly used mathematical computations in the workplace (Hacker, 2012).
The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that a mere 5% of workers at entry-level will need to be proficient in algebra or more advanced math (Hacker, 2012). Couple those figures with the current unemployment rates for engineering graduates of 7.5% and for computer scientists at 8.2%, and a confounding disconnect emerges. Is there really is a shortage of graduates in the STEM fields, and just how many graduates can train in these areas for how many actual jobs (Hacker, 2012). Clearly, Hatch asserts, it is easy to see that students attending Caltech and M.I.T. need to be proficient mathematicians. But is not at all clear that students aspiring to write creative fiction or be philosophers must to be able to sail over a very high bar in mathematics (Hacker, 2012). In Hacker's words, "demanding algebra across the board actually skews a student body, not necessarily for the better" (Hacker, 2012).
The analyses provided by Friedman and Hacker both omit a number of important dynamics related to the labor market, the result of which are narrow and incomplete analyses of the role of academic performance as a factor in global competitiveness. It is interesting that Friedman does not address the issues of unionization and offshoring of manufacturing jobs as substantive factors in unemployment in the United States. Friedman's position is well-considered, but it is limited by its acceptance that the…