In the late 1960s, a Stanford University psychologist began conducting his now famous “marshmallow test” to understand “delayed gratification” – the ability to wait.
He would place a 4-year-old alone in a room with a single delicious marshmallow, promising to give him two marshmallows after a short wait. Some children succumbed to temptation, while others held out for the bigger reward. The children who could control their impulses went on to become better, higher-achieving students.
Why do we bring up this iconic experiment now, in the midst of the 2012 election season?
We believe that helping American children get access to a great education is a two-marshmallow political test. In contrast to relatively quick fixes like even more quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve or temporary deficit spending fiscal policies, addressing the challenges facing U.S. schools and students cannot be achieved over the course of a quarter (or even an election cycle). But underperforming labor markets and the alarmingly high 8.1 percent unemployment rate make the goal of improving our public schools even more obviously critical to America’s future. Making smart fixes to the public education system now, as outlined in our recent Council on Foreign Relations report, will pay off later.
Consider the context: America’s gross domestic product today is at its highest level ever – but we are accomplishing this level of output with about 4.6 million fewer workers than at the top of our last economic expansion. Today, the unemployment rate of people with a college degree or higher is 4.1 percent, compared with 12.7 percent for people with less than a high school degree. Demand at home and globally for low-skilled workers is falling, and the only way to address this long-term trend is through education.