Education doesn’t always lead to strong economy: Ask Greece

One of the few conservative ideas that has sufficient appeal for progressives to embrace is that you can’t solve problems just by throwing money at them. The parting of the waters comes when conservatives can’t accept the value of money in meeting the most basic of economic needs such as unemployment insurance or infrastructure safety.

Perhaps because I’ve spent most of my life in education, I am somewhat skeptical of the idea that, by providing more money for schools, we will have a more educated populace. Look at the chart below. I saw it first in former President Bill Clinton’s book, Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy.

High school graduation rates

No data is provided for Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Netherlands, and the Russian Federation.

Source: Education at a Glance 2010: OECD indicators.


President Clinton’s logic is premised on the principle that a smart government will result in a strong economy. This is based on the assumption that smart government comes from good schools. We know whether or not we have good schools based on certain measurements. One of those is the high-school graduation rate. Public opinion is with him; we’re constantly told how important it is for students to stay in school.

It should be no surprise that, as indicated in the chart above, Germany has outstanding schools and perhaps the world’s healthiest economy. Education is valued and an astonishing 99.5% of students complete high school. However, the validity of the theory comes to a screeching halt with the country that has the third highest percentage of high school graduates, Greece. The birthplace of modern democracy has a graduation rate of 96.2%, clearly the envy of virtually every other country in the world.

The problem is that the high-school  graduation rate does not guarantee as  strong an economy as President Clinton suggests. The twenty-seven nation European Union is struggling to reverse its current economic downturn. We frequently hear of a doomsday scenario in which the European economy collapses due to more debt than it can service. This scares economists, investors, and other so-called financial experts in Europe. On bad days, the fear leaps over the Atlantic, while Americans are asleep, after which they wake up to a bearish stock market. The momentum crosses the Pacific and flummoxes the Asian markets. It may continue the next day in Europe, or due to some unexpected or inexplicable reason, the trend stops and then is reversed.

Key to Europe’s economic problems is debt,  and in no country is it more of a problem than Greece. The public debt of Greece is $436 billion; 143% of its Gross Domestic Product. The interest on Greece’s long-term debt is 18%. No other EU country has a rate over 12%. Debt is not Greece’s only problem. In 2010, its GDP dropped 4.5%; a figure that represents a growth rate slower than 210 other countries.

A big contributor to Greece’s public debt is the failure of individuals and corporations to pay the taxes they owe. This raises an obvious question: if the citizens of Greece have the third highest high school graduation rate of any country, then why are they not smart enough to know to pay their taxes?

All that the 96.2% graduation rate tells us is that almost all high school students completed the secondary schooling. It doesn’t tell us anything about what the students knew, about what they learned while in school, or about what was lacking in their education.

Far be it for me to disagree with President Clinton about the importance of a strong educational system to ensure smart government and,  in turn,  a strong economy. It’s just that a high school graduation rate is arbitrary and potentially misleading. Think about college graduation rates from Division 1 NCAA schools. Coaches like to brag when their roster has a high graduation rate. What does that mean? It means that a relatively high percentage of students playing sports graduate from college. It doesn’t mean anything about what they learned, or what they didn’t learn. It doesn’t tell us anything about what courses they took. It doesn’t tell us whether professors inflated their grades because they were athletes.

If Greece, or any other country, is to have a strong economy, it needs a workforce that is skilled and committed to working hard and working smart. We all know that there are students who graduate from high school without being very skilled and without working either hard or smartly. Graduation rates or test scores will not tell you if someone can help a country increase its Gross Domestic Product in a way that improves the quality of life (i.e. fighting poverty rather than fighting discretionary wars). It will not tell you if citizens have the strength of character and commitment to the general good to willingly pay taxes, to support programs that promote the general welfare, and to provide necessary oversight and caution to ensure quality control.

We live in a world in which we can try to quantify virtually anything and everything. It would serve us well to remember the old adage, “There are three ways to not tell the truth: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” When it comes to using statistics, it might be helpful to remember the words of advice from Sgt. Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues, when he dismissed his officers to take to the streets, “Let’s be careful out there.” Even Bill Clinton has reason to believe that.