The real problem with our education system

Our education system is producing too many thinkers and not enough doers.

We have an excess number of market researchers and not enough salespeople. We have too many education-policy evaluators and a shortage of teachers. We have too many people studying poverty and not enough mentors and caseworkers in the trenches. We have too many human-resource specialists creating studies and training strategies and not enough front-line managers coaching employees.

What's the reason for this? Thinkers are paid better for much easier jobs than the people who deliver services.

Pensive man reflected in window
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The college-for-all mantra has driven this development, and higher education has only been too glad to oblige with relentless recruiting and the creation of new majors, certificates and degrees.

College for all

Conversations with social work students often reveal that they went to college with dreams of working directly with clients but then decided to go into policy-making. This is usually because they realize the stress and low pay of providing direct services to the people they want to help.

Students visit me weekly saying they want to work in educational policy, but don't want to be teachers. The current boom in testing is generating many jobs for thinkers.

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With college-for-all and the demand that college degrees lead to "fulfilling jobs," we have created generations of people whose idea of fulfillment consists of generating studies and ideas to save the world. In reality, they end up generating speculation, which is what thinking becomes once it hits the paper or air. They would rather speculate, like sports-talk people, than play the real game of helping others.

How employers respond to this oversupply

Employers over the years have decided they need these thinkers. Decision-makers don't want to be shamed into failing to use the latest research when they make their decisions, even though findings of that research are tentative at best.

Our business, non-profit and government leaders find it useful to support and occasionally listen to the speculation of these thinkers so they have someone to blame for failure and many people to blame for indecision.

You could say they are becoming more academic in their approach to making decisions, and we all know what that means: All talk and no action.

Too many Ph.D.'s

Higher education has a long history of preparing too many graduates for too few jobs. The starkest example of this is the production of Ph.D.'s in the United States. Professors who teach undergraduates find meaning and happiness in encouraging those students who show scholarly traits to become professors. We don't have to get into why they do this. Let's just say they do. As a result, Ph.D. programs have been over-populated for decades given the size of the potential markets for Ph.D.'s. There are more Ph.D. programs and more students in these programs than ever.

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Those who do get their Ph.D. have a very difficult time finding the kind of full employment their professors pushed on them when they were naïve and clueless sophomores.

Higher education has responded to the over-production of Ph.D.'s by increasing post-docs, visiting appointments and the number of non-tenured professors. The Ph.D. used to be a union card to an academic job. Now, Ph.D. programs are marketing themselves as a card to any kind of thinking job even remotely related to that discipline.

The boom in speculation

Thinkers are great at making jobs for themselves. They convince government and private foundations to subsidize their speculation under the guise of discovering knowledge. Big business, despite its protestation that it is more efficient than the other two sectors, is not immune to this pressure. The revolution in technology has increased access to information that all decision-makers hire more people to find the needle in the haystack.

I have worked with many local and state government officials who have conducted surveys required by their national affiliates. Every one of the surveys has been much too long and complicated for the same reason a car salesperson wants to sell cars loaded with extras. They create questionnaires that take 20-30 minutes to complete and provide more information than the agency will ever use, if they read them at all, to charge more.

The negative consequences go beyond the creation of jobs that provide little use for society. They have also allowed entitled college students and 20- and 30-somethings to avoid doing the jobs that are needed.

Creating more doers

You can't blame our college students entirely for their choices. The K-12 curriculum provides very little opportunity for students who want to deliver direct services. The stigma attached to "vocational programs" re-enforces the incentive of more money in those jobs that study rather than do.

Employers should stop using the college degree as a gatekeeper in looking at job candidates. They complain in surveys about the poor attitudes and competence of our college graduates, but they are not ready to reduce the role of that filter in their employment decisions.

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We should also turn down the federal governmental spigot that funds the research that produces no definitive or even near definitive findings. The Administration for Children and Families puts out $150 million per year on researching social programs, for example. This money could be used to hire more and better staff to run these programs.

Are any of these suggestions likely to happen? Not as long as the college-for-all mentality permeates our education system and thinkers control hiring decisions to ensure they can have colleagues who can speculate with them.

Commentary by Bill Coplin,a professor of public policy at the Maxwell School and The College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. He is also the author of, "Ten Things Employers Want You to Learn in College." Follow him on Twitter @ProfCoplin.

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