One important note on the PISA tests, and other international benchmarks of student learning, is that the United States has never led the globe in student achievement — it has always been about where it is today, sitting around 15th place internationally, yet we have the largest GDP and most productive workforce. This suggests that educational achievement is the only factor in productivity and employment. As Friedman notes, this is partly due to the fact that we once had an economy rich in manufacturing — which required less skill in the workforce. Some believe the preference toward education and skill is overstated though. Harry Holzer and labor economists have shown that there is still, and will continue to be, a significant middle skill job sector in America. What they find is that these middle jobs will require some postsecondary training — in programs that may only be a few weeks or months at venues like community colleges.
Most American workers (about 70 percent currently) do not work in jobs that require a college degree (nor does 70 percent of the population hold the degree). Even as the country becomes more “high tech” and more “new economy” only 40 percent of workers (in the highest of estimates) will need a college degree. The major gap in learning is for workers who will need “some” postsecondary training, but not a degree. Our educational system doesn’t address the educational needs for future non-degree holding workers as well as it does for those continuing to a four year college.
Friedman is also correct that students who do best on PISA tests feel some ownership over their education. America could build more student “ownership” over education by providing more than one track of learning. This could happen by building out a significant career and technical training program in America’s schools. The Harvard Graduate School of Education makes a similar argument in its important Pathways to Prosperity report.