Michael Hicks: Education should get back to basics


Indiana’s economic future will be primarily determined by the share of Hoosier adults who graduated from college.

If that share remains low, our economy will languish, our incomes will continue to fall further behind the national average and our best-educated citizens will relocate elsewhere. This truth cannot be too often repeated, but it begs other questions, mostly about schooling, and the needs of citizens who do not go to college.

For most of us, the bulk of our formal education comes in K-12 schools, rather than college or graduate school. Public schools remain the most common preparation for college and life afterwards. A good K-12 experience can prepare us to learn throughout our life, while giving us the basics of science, mathematics, literature and the arts.

For kids heading to college, rigorous high school programs are important. But, for kids not heading to college, the rigor and substance of K-12 is even more critical. This is the last time those students will receive formal education designed to make them a learned person. That fact is reason enough to question the way the state now focuses vocational education. Yet, the Indiana General Assembly has legislation before it to align curriculum from primary to college to meet workforce needs.

Now, to be clear, I don’t know what specific skills today’s middle school kids will need in two decades, but neither does anyone else. I am merely being honest about my inability to know the unknowable. For the record, acknowledging such limits to knowledge used to be a feature of conservatism.

Continuing labor market changes, including automation, artificial intelligence and much more widespread adoption of today’s technologies, make it nearly impossible to predict job-specific skills of the future. Asking business leaders these questions is folly. A full half of today’s businesses will be gone by 2030, and they are as ignorant as the rest of us about these changes.

To accentuate the point, imagine today’s labor markets and technologies from the vantage point of 2000. The first Blackberry phone was two years away; China was a modest importer; and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was a high school sophomore. Now, imagine how a committee in Indianapolis is going to design an effective, integrated curriculum to meet workforce needs two decades into the future.

They are not. The state’s recent track record on such matters should generate significantly more humility.

The only skill that we are certain will be needed by today’s kids in 20 years is the ability to learn and master new skills. Our certain ignorance about the specific skills needed in 2040 is a compelling argument for more focus on basics in K-12 education; stronger basic math, science and literacy. The focus on vocational schooling is stunning hubris.

We will always need workers with skills that differ from those taught in a college classroom. Workers with different types of education bring to bear different skills into labor markets. But, it is a remarkable fact that both wages and productivity for high school graduates are highest in places with large shares of college graduates.

Today, the worst employment options for non-college graduates are in cities with few college graduates. This suggests that labor markets reward non-college skills that complement those of college graduates. These skills are almost certainly not those we are presenting to unwitting middle and high school students as a gateway to non-college careers.

Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers. Sends comments to [email protected].


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