Photo by Connie Matthiessen
By Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor
There’s growing evidence that the U.S. lags behind so many other countries in educational achievement (17th among developed countries, according to recent analysis by The Economist) not because of lazy children, incompetent teachers, or mediocre schools — but because of deep inequities in the quality of the education kids receive.
A new report, “For Each and Every Child,” written by the Equity and Excellence Commission of the Department of Education and delivered to the desk of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week, provides a clear and unflinching look at the education gap:
“Our education system, legally desegregated more than a half century ago, is ever more segregated by wealth and income, and often again by race. Ten million students in America’s poorest communities—and millions more African American, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaska Native students who are not poor—are having their lives unjustly and irredeemably blighted by a system that consigns them to the lowest-performing teachers, the most run-down facilities, and academic expectations and opportunities considerably lower than what we expect of other students.”
Linda Darling Hammond of Stanford, one of the commissioners, illustrated this educational segregation in a recent NPR report by providing a stark example: the Beverly Hills school district spends 50 percent more per pupil than Baldwin Hills, a poor, primarily African American district just five miles away.
The Commission reached some blistering conclusions about our commitment, as a country — not only to equity in education, but to excellence in education, compared to other countries around the world:
“America has become an outlier nation in the way we fund, govern and administer K-12 schools, and also in terms of performance. No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has, despite some efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children. Sadly, what feels so very un-American turns out to be distinctly American.”
This American Life
The timing was coincidental but the parallels were striking: a recent segment of the radio program, This American Life brought the Commission’s findings to life in its riveting examination of an impoverished Chicago high school. At Harper High School, an all-black school located in Chicago’s South Side (the school has a GreatSchools rating of 1) violence is common. Last year alone, 29 current and former Harper High students lost their lives. The first episode of the two-part series ends on a cliffhanger as the principal tries to decide if she should cancel the upcoming Homecoming football game and dance, because she’s afraid the festivities will devolve into a battle between rival gangs.
The radio segment plunges the listener into the reality, on the ground, of the educational achievement gap. The fact is that some kids in the U.S. are getting a great education at schools that are safe and thriving – but far too many are not. As a society, we have become comfortable with, or at least accustomed to, this deep educational divide, but as the Commission report argues, it’s hurting us all – not just morally, but economically as well.
Enhancing lives, boosting fortunes
On a more hopeful note, the report includes a host of very doable strategies to close the education gap — from overhauling education finance systems to improving teacher training and early education. It also makes the case that improving schools would not just enhance the lives of countless children — it would boost the fortunes of our country as a whole:
“Imagine what we could achieve if we made American public schools competitive with those of a higher-performing country such as Canada in mathematics (which means scoring approximately 40 points higher on PISA tests) over the next 20 years. As our higher-skill-level students entered the labor force, they would produce a faster-growing economy. How much faster? The potential is stunning. The improvement in our GDP over the next 80 years would exceed a present value of $70 trillion. That’s equivalent to an average 20 percent boost in income for every U.S. worker each year over his or her entire career. This would generate enough revenue to solve the U.S. debt problem that is the object of so much current debate.”
Read the report and let us know what you think!Follow @CMMatthiessen