Can We Make America Smarter?

Report of the Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admissions

William Fitzsimmons, Chair. National Association for College Admission Counseling, 55 pp., available at
Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Pool/Getty Images
Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, with elementary school children at Dodge Renaissance Academy, Chicago, December 16, 2008


However the current economic crisis is resolved, the future living standard of Americans will turn on how productive we are and how much other countries will want what we create. The challenge goes beyond restructuring institutions. More crucial is whether we will be astute enough to hold our own in a world more competitive than we have ever known.

During its first two centuries, this country seemed slated to gain and then maintain global preeminence. Reasons often cited were a political system congenial to an open economy, infusions of immigrants, and the continent’s abundant resources. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, two Harvard economists, have a different explanation. In their new book, The Race Between Education and Technology, they contend that what distinguished the United States was that it became the world’s most educated nation. They combine an acute sense of history with a skillful use of statistics. Thus they note that in the Jacksonian era, access to education opened as “common schools” ceased charging fees. After the Civil War, school attendance and hence literacy became compulsory, creating a more agile and adaptive workforce. Over the decades that followed, “education became the dominant factor determining the wealth of nations.” While Goldin and Katz are hardly the first to focus on human capital, they specify that in America, these assets were fostered by lessons learned in classrooms.

Their principal thesis is that new technologies can bring advances in productivity only if they are matched by a workforce able to operate new kinds of machines. After all, little is gained by installing state-of-the-art equipment if no one nearby can make it work. Thus Golden and Katz conclude that it is added years of schooling that “facilitate the adoption and diffusion of new technologies.” Even early in the last century,

high school graduates were sought because they could read manuals and blueprints, knew about chemistry and electricity, could do algebra and solve formulas, and, we surmise, could more effectively converse with the professionals, such as chemists and engineers, in high-technology industries.

For our own time, they argue, a higher level of education is needed. To start, they say more people should be pursuing degrees in science and engineering—they cite cellular biology and nanotechnology in particular—where other countries are surpassing us. But since many occupations require sophisticated skills, they also want to see an increase in general college enrollments, which they say have been slowing.

Like most economists, Golden and Katz rely on what can be closely measured: output per labor hour, income differentials, diplomas awarded, capital investment. They deploy upward of a hundred tables, based on mathematics many readers will have to take on faith. Yet important human stories emerge from their…

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