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CONTRARY TO THE ARGUMENTS of anti-trade activists, expansion of free trade and globalization offers plenty of job opportunities.
Nor is this growth just in trade-related sectors such as transportation or merely for white-collar workers. The median hourly wage for welders increased by 13 percent since 2001, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, thanks in part to the improved outlook for exports among American manufacturers. And the need for new welders will grow in the next decade as baby boomers look to retire from the trade.
But aspiring welders need strong math skills — notably in Trigonometry and Algebra — in order to get into apprenticeship programs and technical schools that provide the necessary training. This need for higher-level skills is a reality throughout the working world. Even a prospective employee in an automotive plant now needs at least two years of college in order to get a job.
The nation’s public schools, however, aren’t helping young Americans meet the challenge. One out of every three freshman who made up California’s original Class of 2007 dropped out of high school, according to the state’s education department. Some 127,300 students, therefore, are essentially condemned to low-wage fast-food positions, working in the informal economy or dependent on the welfare state for their survival.
This is typical throughout the nation. A quarter of America’s high school freshmen eventually leave school without a diploma. And the graduation rates among racial and ethnic minorities are even worse: Just 47 percent of young black men in the nation’s Class of 2006 graduated from high school, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education.
Those who do graduate aren’t getting the kind of rigorous academic training needed to succeed. A mere 31 percent of 8th graders scored “Proficient” or higher on the math portion of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s most-accurate standardized test, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Just 29 percent of 8th grade students scored “Proficient” or higher on the reading portion of the exam.
The woeful academic results should cause anti-trade activists to look at overhauling public schools or even proposing alternatives such as charter schools and voucher programs. Or for that matter, challenge teachers unions and suburban parents — the most obstinate opponents of school reform — to admit that today’s schools aren’t up to the task.
That, however, would mean actually admitting that free trade isn’t the bogeyman they want it to be.
RiShawn Biddle is co-author of a report on the role of state policymaking on teacher quality. He wrote about Michael Bloomberg’s success as New York City mayor last May.
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