On what actually happened following A Nation at Risk et al in the 80's & 90's:
Yet the response of American manufacturers to these analyses was curious. Automakers moved plants to Mexico, where worker education levels are considerably lower than those in the American Midwest. Japanese manufacturers pressed their advantage by setting up non-union plants in places like Kentucky and Alabama, states not known for having the best-educated workers. But high school graduates in those locations apparently had no difficulty working in teams and adapting to Japanese just-in-time manufacturing methods.
And on the current situation:
Another too glib canard is that our education system used to be acceptable because students could graduate from high school (or even drop out) and still support families with good manufacturing jobs. Today, those jobs are vanishing, and with them the chance of middle-class incomes for those without good educations.
It's true that many manufacturing jobs have disappeared. But replacements have mostly been equally unskilled or semiskilled jobs in service and retail sectors. There was never anything more inherently valuable in working in a factory assembly line than in changing bed linens in a hotel. What made semiskilled manufacturing jobs desirable was that many (though not most) were protected by unions, provided pensions and health insurance, and compensated with decent wages. That today's working class doesn't get similar protections has nothing to do with the adequacy of its education. Rather, it has everything to do with policy decisions stemming from the value we place on equality. Hotel jobs that pay $20 an hour, with health and pension benefits (rather than $10 an hour without benefits), typically do so because of union organization, not because maids earned bachelor's degrees.
It is cynical to tell millions of Americans who work (and who will continue to be needed to work) in low-level administrative jobs and in janitorial, food-service, hospitality, transportation, and retail industries that their wages have stagnated because their educations are inadequate for international competition. The quality of our civic, cultural, community, and family lives demands school improvement, but barriers to unionization have more to do with low wages than does the quality of education. After all, since 1973 the share of the workforce with college degrees has more than doubled; over 40 percent of native-born workers now have degrees beyond high school. Additionally, the proportion of native-born workers that has not completed high school or its equivalent has decreased by half to just 7 percent.
These are not problems that can be solved by charter schools, teacher accountability, or any other school intervention. A balanced human capital policy would involve schools, but would require tax, regulatory, and labor market reforms as well. To take only one example, in the daze of college-for-all, what used to be called "vocational" or "career" education has been discredited. It should be brought back. We recently analyzed a group of 21st-century occupations not requiring a college education that, at least for the time being, still provide middle-class incomes. These include firefighters, electricians, machinists, aircraft engine mechanics, electronic technicians, licensed practical nurses, and clinical laboratory technicians. We found that white non-college youth were 50 percent more likely to land one of these "good" jobs than black non-college youth. Equalizing this access will require a combination of stepped up anti-discrimination efforts, job placement services, and skills training directed at schools serving minority youth.