Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What's the Value?

A quick lesson in economics:

Marx said that the value of something was equal to the labor put into making it. That's why profit should belong to the workers - they were the ones who instilled it with value. My grandfather always used to say that something is only worth what you can get for it. He wasn't a great economist, but as a banker he did have a certain level of valuable insight. By either measure, the value of a high school diploma is in real trouble if this story from the New York Times is accurate.

For those of you who are linkophobic, the story says that states tend to lower their standards when it becomes apparent that many students aren't going to pass state exit exams. I think I've mentioned before that the Times is sometimes a little slow in getting to these education stories, so you probably aren't shocked to be hearing this. But once it's in the paper of record, it's worth noting.

Let's assume the best case here and ignore the fact that the reason standards are being lowered is that no one wants to be in charge when a bunch of kids are denied diplomas who thought they would be getting them. Let's assume that the standards game is a way to ensure that more kids get diplomas because we know that those are valuable for job seeking and other endeavors.

There's that v-word again. What is the value of a diploma? If standards are being lowered and kids don't need to work as hard for it, then Marx would say that it wasn't as valuable. If employers know that kids with diplomas aren't necessarily ready for meaningful work, then diploma holders aren't going to get as much for having one. Whether you listen to Marx or my grandfather, the value of a diploma is goes down when standards go down.

The bottom line - and I don't think this is controversial - is that we need to make sure more kids are getting diplomas, but we need to do it by raising the kids to the level of the diplomas, not by lowering the diplomas to the level of the kids. In the end, we aren't really helping anyone by doing that.

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