Wednesday, August 8, 2012

No, Mr. Friedman, Average is Not Over

Thomas Friedman has written two columns on the theme "Average is over." He wrote in his first article back in January that:
"In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over." (Average Is Over)
As an example of the kind of competition American workers have to deal with, he enthusiastically relate technological advances and alternative markets where global producers can get much more for much less:
“Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly-line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the [Chinese] plant near midnight. A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day. ‘The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,’ the executive said. ‘There’s no American plant that can match that.’ ”
If only American workers were as dedicated and desperate as those mostly young Chinese workers in their dorms. The answer to this challenge is of course education, which is the subject Friedman tackles in part two. He has been talking to Andreas Schleicher whose team at the OECD coordinates the international PISA test.

The results are dire, while the parents obviously think they live in Lake Wobegon:
"The U.S. does not stand out. It’s just average, but many parents are sure their kid is above average."
The solution that Friedman falls for is of course more technology. He quotes Schleicher:
“Imagine, in a few years, you could sign onto a Web site and see this is how my school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world,” says Schleicher. “And then you take this information to your local superintendent and ask: ‘Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?’ ” (Average Is Over, Part II)
But is this really the solution? Is it even the path towards one?

I'm not saying that America's educational system is in a good shape. Not at all, but I question the fundamental reasoning behind Freidman's techno-optimism. And I doubt very much that the socially, ethnically complex and diverse American nation could replicate the schools in Finland and Shanghai even if the parents could compare fMRI scans between school districts across the world.

Education is not an olympic sport where all that counts is a gold medal, or maybe a silver or a bronze. The big question is why we can't find a way to share the amazing wealth we have created. If we could address that question, there would be much less need to fight for a seat at the table.

Average is not over. It just needs to be better.

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