The Skills Gap Myth: Standardized Testing and the Economy


Metamodern Education. Skills Gap

“Americans are ill equipped with the skills for the technological demands of the 21st Century.” – Conventional Wisdom

By Damien Rush
Video with Richard Rothstein

Education and economics go hand and hand. Skills are taught and learned in preparation for an individual’s economic sustainability for the rest of their lives. According to the conventional wisdom in Washington, there is a shortage of skilled workers coming into the American workforce. The root of the problem many experts claim lies in our education system. Analysts and legislators hold to the argument that international or standardized test scores have a direct impact on U.S. employment and productivity.

Programs like No Child Left Behind and standardized testing come with mixed reviews, but they do have some well intended results if applied wisely. These are vehicles that provide for any child, no matter how economically challenged, access to the same education standards as any other child. But what are the standards? And how do we apply the knowledge gained from these tests?

A paper was written by Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein entitled What Do International Tests Really Show About U.S. Student Performance? The thrust of their thesis is in how policymakers and analysts tend to focus too much on U.S. Students’ performance compared to the international average as an economic indicator. As justification for new policy and education initiatives, they frequently reference the poor performances of American students. The widely circulated myth is that students are lacking the necessary skills to keep up with the demands of a 21st Century economy. This mindset has become etched into the popular discourse in metamodern education.

To date our technical productivity is higher than any industrialized nation with higher standardized test scores. The automobile industry; Japan for example has technically sophisticated plants operating in the southern United States, where their education system is considered to have the most challenges. This does not support the frequent assertions that our schools are not producing qualified technicians. Our modern education system is resisting the downsizing of the sciences, history, the arts, trades and physical fitness for good reason. Other research has shown that too much specialization and not enough diversification leads to extinction; biologically and anthropologically.

The test scores across the board internationally between advantaged and disadvantaged students by nation has the U.S. well within the norms of each comparative nation. In other words the quality of our education is not the eminent threat to our economic sustainability as the experts portend.

It is not our education system that threatens our economy. It is the economy that threatens our education system. The conventional wisdom claims that the “American workforce lacks the specialized skills that employers are seeking” and that this “skills gap” is the main reason for persistently high and long term unemployment rates. That there is a correlation between international test scores and economic development.

This is not to say that we couldn’t use some improvement across the board with our public education system, but the widely publicized myth of an existing “skills gap” in career opportunities as a result of a failing education system becomes disingenuous in the face of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The data shows that the degree of unfilled skilled positions is not that far off of historical records. And if those skills are so hard to come by, wouldn’t the wages be higher as a matter of supply and demand? As a matter of fact all wages skilled and unskilled have remained flat for the past ten years.

Much of the accountability to the skills gap/employment issue lies with the business sector and not the education sector. After listening to Richard Rothstein’s presentation it may compel one to think that it is not our education system that’s horribly lacking. International test scores have nothing to do with the economic conditions responsible for persistent shortages of good paying jobs and higher unemployment.

The amount of college graduates who are working low wage and part time jobs not related to their technical degrees has risen. Both African American and White college graduates have doubled since the 70’s. More people with specialized skills are graduating with less jobs coming on line to accommodate them. The “skills gap” is not responsible for this anomaly.

Economics and education go hand in hand. We have an ever increasing population coming out of school with the skills, and an ever decreasing amount of skilled and unskilled jobs that are providing minimal opportunities for either demographic. Vocational training at one time was needed more than ever but vocational training in the public schools has been phased out in the majority of districts nationwide. Why is that? Did the demand for skilled craftsmen fall? Yes, after the 70’s when domestic manufacturing and the industrial arts slipped into rapid decline with the advent of Free Trade. Before then, public school systems were providing both college prep and skilled trades almost at the same rate. In our current economic environment a much higher demand for college degrees in electronics and digital technologies are over-shadowing many other professions that are only minimally available to high school students or graduates not seeking a college degree.

Of course the demands for specialized skills are increasing but as Rothstein claims, the BLS shows that approximately one quarter of all new job vacancies in America over the next ten years will not require a college degree.


Dr Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. Dr. Noguera is a Sociologist whose scholarship and research focuses on ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as by demographic trends in local, regional and global contexts.

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