President Biden’s official account tweeted, “The fact is 12 years of education is no longer enough to compete in the 21st Century. That’s why my Build Back Better Agenda will guarantee four additional years of public education for every person in America – two years of pre-school and two years of free community college.”
This form of argument is odd, and it’s really an own goal. What Biden is essentially saying is that education is less productive than it used to be, so we should use more of it.
One definition of productivity is output / time. Any time you’re talking about units of output per a unit of time, you’re talking about productivity. For example, someone who can assemble a chair in 30 minutes is more productive than someone who can assemble a chair in an hour. Expressed as a rate, the first person can assemble two chairs per hour, the second can assemble only one chair per hour.
In the context of Biden’s tweet, the “output” (pardon the mechanistic expression) is a well-rounded student who is prepared for a good job. That’s what the education system seeks to produce. The “time” is measured in years of school.
Biden is positing that in the past, that number was 12 years of school. It’s not clear that that’s actually the case (in part because kindergarten through 12th grade is 13 years), but let’s grant it for sake of argument. Now, he’s saying the number should be 16, since he believes we should add four years.
The numerator in the productivity equation (a well-rounded student who is prepared for a good job) has not changed. That’s still what the education system is trying to produce. The denominator, in Biden’s telling, has increased from 12 to 16. Dividing by a bigger number yields a smaller result. Unchanged numerator / bigger denominator = lower productivity. Biden is saying that education has become less productive.
When confronted with lower productivity, the normal response is to find out why and seek to increase productivity, not just use more of the good in question. Imagine a landscaping company that used to be able to do a whole property in two hours now finds that it takes four hours. The solution is not to just hire more landscapers. Something has gone wrong that has caused the currently employed landscapers to be less productive. The owner of the landscaping company will try to figure out why his or her crew isn’t as productive as it used to be.
There are plenty of possible reasons why education is less productive than it used to be. One that’s tricky to change is that our cultural expectations have extended adolescence much longer than it used to be. But there’s plenty that can be improved within the school system. Students spend lots of time memorizing things, which isn’t very useful anymore since you can Google pretty much everything in seconds. Most students graduate from high school knowing that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, but they don’t know how to use Excel. Teachers spend lots of time doing paperwork to comply with various bureaucratic mandates, which takes away from their time to teach.
Twelve years is a long time to accomplish a goal. If educators can’t adjust to the modern economy and accomplish the same goal they used to accomplish in twelve years, the proper response is to figure out why and make changes to restore their productivity to what it formerly was. Don’t make the rest of us pay for their lower productivity.