Education Policy: Can America Learn from Germany?

At Power Line, Steve Hayward quotes from a Wall Street Journal report about how college does not improve the typical student’s skills at critical thinking.

Freshmen and seniors at about 200 colleges across the U.S. take a little-known test every year to measure how much better they get at learning to think. The results are discouraging.

At more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table, The Wall Street Journal found after reviewing the latest results from dozens of public colleges and universities that gave the exam between 2013 and 2016.

At some of the most prestigious flagship universities, test results indicate the average graduate shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years. . .

For prospective students and their parents looking to pick a college, it is almost impossible to figure out which schools help students learn critical thinking, because full results of the standardized test, called the College Learning Assessment Plus, or CLA+, are seldom disclosed to the public. This is true, too, of similar tests.

Then Hayward makes a very good point. This level of failure and deception in other industries might easily be deemed unlawful and a form of consumer fraud.

[T]his deliberate opacity and failure to deliver the promised service would attract the attention of the Federal Trade Commission and other government “consumer protection” agencies. But the higher education cartel is too well wired politically for this to happen.

A big part of the problem here is the American notion that everyone has a ‘right’ to go to college, even though it’s an evident fact of life that most people have neither the need nor the aptitude to pursue higher academic study. A more practical system is that of Germany, where students at an early stage are placed on one of three tracks that can loosely be described as academic, technical, and trade.

Some people think the US might be able to learn something from the German system. Eric A. Hanushek, an economist at the Hoover Institution, pours cold water on that idea, but I don’t find his arguments very convincing.

Over half of young Germans enter apprenticeships, which can lead to certification in more than 300 different careers. Many are blue-collar jobs ranging from construction to baking, but apprenticeships also cover white-collar fields like information technology and engineering.

An apprenticeship generally involves two to three years of work and study after secondary school. In Germany’s “dual system,” apprentices work on the job for three or four days a week and spend the rest of the time in academic instruction paid for by the government. This setup has been shown to ease a student’s transition into work. Openings in apprenticeships are based on employers’ demands for workers, youths who’ve earned a vocational certificate are readily hirable.

Sounds good. So what’s the problem?

Workers enter the job market with skills that often become obsolete as industries change. The early-career advantage is offset by disadvantages later in life. Research shows that after age 50 German workers with general education do better than vocationally trained ones, many of whom leave the workforce.

But in Germany the people with ‘general education’ are generally those with jobs requiring cognitive ability. We would naturally expect them to do better after age 50 than those who rely on more physically demanding types of work.

Furthermore, an ‘early-career advantage’ that doesn’t go away until age 50 sounds pretty good, and a lot better than nothing. If a worker graduates from an apprenticeship at age 21 or 22 and keeps his job until age 50, that’s a good 28 or 29 year career. Many of America’s unemployed and unemployable youth can only dream of having a good job for 28 years.

Germany and the European Union recognize the need to retrain people whose earlier skills become obsolete. There are continuous calls for “lifelong learning.” Unfortunately, governments have not figured out effective ways to retrain older workers, and companies often don’t see the advantage of doing so.

Even if the U.S. succeeded in expanding apprenticeships, the problem of skill obsolescence remains. The American model of providing vocational training to those who do not like or do not do well in the general curriculum does not augur well for adaptation when new skills are required.

It sounds like Hanushek is arguing that no training at all is better than having to someday be retrained, which is absurd. I’m sure Germany does have a problem in retraining their certified workers when their skills become obsolete. In America, in contrast, nobody talks of having to ‘retrain’ our college-graduate Starbucks baristas because they were never trained for anything in the first place. The girl who cleans the toilets at my gym is a college graduate (art) as was the guy who delivered my bedroom furniture (business).

[In Germany,] [t]raining over the course of a career is significantly more prevalent among workers with a general education.

Again, in Germany these are the people with generally more academic and cognitive ability. So not surprisingly, these people are more adaptable and easier to retrain.

The largest problem of skills in the U.S. today isn’t a shortage of young workers with specific competencies. Instead it is a need for more general cognitive skills that give workers the ability to adapt to new circumstances and new jobs.

But American 4-year colleges are neither teaching ‘specific competencies’ nor improving ‘cognitive skills,’ at least for a large proportion of students. For many of these students, learning some kind of competency would offer a dramatic improvement over the current system, which does nothing except burden students with enormous student-loan payments.

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