What Has Done More to Improve Living Standards: Indoor Toilets, Air-conditioning, or Smart Phones?

by Larry Cuban from Larry Cuban on School Reform

Living in the heart of Silicon Valley–where bullet-proof coffee, gluten-free muffins, and traffic gridlock prevail–I am surrounded daily by unrelenting optimism about the promise of technology making our lives better. I would guess, then, that fellow Valley-ites, if given the above choices, would pick “smart phones.” *

Were they to do so, they would be wrong. According to economic historian Robert Gordon, between 1870-1970 standards of living rose far more dramatically than the half-century since 1970. As he puts it:

The century of revolution in the United States after the Civil War was economic, not political, freeing households from an unremitting daily grind of painful manual labor, household drudgery, darkness, isolation, and early death. Only one hundred years later, daily life had changed beyond recognition. Manual outdoor jobs were replaced by work in air-conditioned environments, housework was increasingly performed by electric appliances, darkness was replaced by light, and isolation was replaced not just by travel, but also by color television images bringing the world into the living room. Most important, a newborn infant could expect to live not to age forty-five, but to age seventy-two. The economic revolution of 1870 to 1970 was unique in human history, unrepeatable because so many of its achievements could happen only once.

And since 1970 and the advent of computer technology in daily life? Gordon says:

… economic growth since 1970 has been simultaneously dazzling and disappointing. This paradox is resolved when we recognize that advances since 1970 have tended to be channeled into a narrow sphere of human activity having to do with entertainment, communications, and the collection and processing of information. For the rest of what humans care about—food, clothing, shelter, transportation, health, and working conditions both inside and outside the home—progress slowed down after 1970, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Thus, an unheralded, stunning century of innovation and economic growth produced the telegraph, phone, television, house lighting, automobile, airplane travel, and, yes, indoor plumbing. These inventions networked the home and workplace in ways that raised living standards and increased workplace productivity considerably. It was in that same century that medical advances reduced infant mortality and lengthened life of Americans dramatically.

The half-century since 1970 has surely seen innovations that have enhanced these earlier inventions but the template for economic growth was laid down for that fruitful hundred-year period.  In past decades, new technologies have clearly expanded communication and entertainment, making life far more instantaneous, convenient and pleasurable. But social media, immediate communication, and constant access to photos, video clips, and films have not increased the standard of living as had the decades between 1870-1970. This is the argument that Gordon makes in the Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016).

What does Gordon’s argument and enormous evidence he compiled (the book is 762 pages long) have to do with the current school reform movement prompted in large part byA Nation at Risk that appeared in 1983?

Recall that the highly influential report that CEOs, philanthropists, and political leaders embraced was driven by an economic rationale–the human capital argument–for improving U.S. schools:

If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all—old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority.

Linking school reform to economic growth and competition, the Report spurred a generation of reformers to raise curriculum and performance standards for both students and teachers, increase testing, and create accountability frameworks that included rewards and penalties in subsequent decades. Marrying school reform to the nation’s economic growth–the human capital rationale for schooling (see here and a rebuttal here)–occurred, according to Robert Gordon, at roughly the same moment–1970s–when the “special century” of inventions, innovations, rising standard of living and productivity were ebbing.

In other words, reforms aimed at getting U.S. students to perform better on international tests for the past three decades–think No Child Left Behind, expanded parental choice in schools, more computers in schools, and Common Core state standards–was of little influence on growing a strong economy, raising median income, or lessening inequality, according to Gordon. These reforms, while aiding low-income minorities in many instances, overall, contributed little to improving productivity or raising standards of living.

Of course, Gordon and others (including myself) see schools as crucial in a democracy for many reasons. But one of them is not better schools leading to economic growth, an enhanced standard of living, and workplace productivity especially since that standard of living had dramatically improved between 1870-1970. Gordon, like others (see here and here), have begun to undermine the dominant rationale for school reform since the early 1980s: the belief that public schools’ primary focus must be economic in preparing a skilled and knowledgeable workforce. That prevalent human capital rationale has ignored for more than a quarter-century other historic aims of schools: civic engagement to keep democracy vital, independent decision-making, and a well-rounded schooling that enlarges children’s and youth’s potential and sensibilities. Preparing the next generation for the workforce remains as an abiding goal, of course, but not the dominating one it has been for over three decades. And that is why Gordon’s argument and evidence is useful for those seeking to build a political coalition of policymakers, practitioners, researchers, civic and business leaders, and parents who question the shotgun marriage of schools to a growing economy.

Gordon, like some other economists and policymakers, recognize that economic growth has slowed down, productivity has lessened. and inequalities have risen. All of these have occurred because the “special century” has ended and because “the basic elements of a modern standard of living had by (1970)… already been achieved along so many dimensions. including food, clothing, housing, transportation, entertainment, communication, health, and working conditions” (p.641). In his final chapter, Even with his argument that the “special century” ended decades ago, Gordon does see policy interventions that can help reduce current economic inequalities and lowered productivity. He lists ten such interventions such as raising the minimum wage, more progressive income tax reform–earn more, pay more– and eliminating many deductions, and encouraging high-skilled immigrants to come to U.S.

For education, however, only three of the ten interventions appear–investing in preschools, state and federal school financing rather than local taxes, and reducing student indebtedness in higher education. Not a word about the dominant school reforms in 2016–Common Core standards, standardized testing, technologies in schools, charter schools, accountability (see p. 648).

In questioning the dominant beliefs in current school reform as essential to economic growth, Gordon’s argument and evidence are useful to those politically active decision-makers, teachers, parents, and researchers who know that a democracy needs schools that do more than prepare children and youth for the workplace.


* At a coffee shop near Google campus in Mountain View (CA), I overheard one software engineer say toa friend: “I lost my phone and didn’t find it for two days. I thought my life was over.” For the references to bullet-proof coffee and gluten-free muffins, I thank Janice Cuban.