According to a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, the United States has grown less competitive internationally than it used to be. On a global report card, the United States ranked first in the world in high school educational attainment for those aged 55 to 64, but 10th for those aged 25 to 34 — a nine-place drop in the span of 30 years.
Likewise, college attainment in the United States dropped from third among 55- to 64-year-olds to 13th for 25- to 34-year-olds. Preschool enrollment rates for the United States are 12 percentage points lower than the global average, while college dropout rates are 23 percentage points higher.
“The real scourge of the U.S. education system — and its greatest competitive weakness — is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student’s academic career,” wrote Rebecca Strauss, associate director for the council’s Renewing America publications.
Strauss argues that while the United States spends the fourth-most in the world on per-student primary and secondary education and the most by far on college education, the funds are not equally distributed. Due in part to the fact that public education in the United States is funded by local property taxes, poorer communities have less access to educational funding.
For example, the gap in per-student spending between the most-open and the most-selective colleges increased from $13,500 in 1967 to $80,000 in 2006, with the test score achievement gap between the lowest decile and the highest decile by income being 75 percent wider for those born in 2000 than for those born in 1943. This is creating a situation in which the economic gap between socioeconomic groups is increasing proportionate to the achievement gap.
Despite this, the National Center for Educational Statistics has announced that since 1971, the achievement gaps between Black and White students and Hispanic and White students have decreased.
“Both 9- and 13-year-olds scored higher in reading and mathematics in 2012 than students their age in the early 1970s,” reported the executive summary from the Nation’s Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress 2012. “Scores were 8 to 25 points higher in 2012 than in the first assessment year. Seventeen-year-olds, however, did not show similar gains. Average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year.”
“Since the last administration of the assessments in 2008, only 13-year-olds made gains—and they did so in both reading and mathematics,” the report continued.
Federal commitments to education
As of 1994, the federal government has been involved in setting up educational standards in an attempt to improve national education levels and close the achievement gap. Starting with George H. W. Bush’s declaration of national achievement goals in 1990 and continuing with Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000, the federal government set out that all children in America will start school ready to learn, that the national high school graduation rate will exceed 90 percent, that the U.S. will be first in science and mathematics achievement, that every American will be functionally literate, that every school will be safe, that the nation’s teachers will have the means to continue their education and professional development, that parental involvement will be increased, and that all students leaving grades 4, 8 and 12 will have demonstrated competency over a suite of subjects including math, foreign languages, civics and economics.
While raising math proficiency and increasing the number of students “ready to learn” when entering kindergarten, Goals 2000 ran into a wall of opposition from Republicans who resented federal control of what was perceived to be a state issue. In 2002, George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law, which replaced Goals 2000 in its entirety. Ironically, No Child Left Behind increased the federal government’s role in education by mandating that states must hold their schools to the state’s standard via annual student assessments.
No Child Left Behind placed a heavy preference on standardized test scores, meaning that enrichment programs — such as art, music and programs for gifted students — were deemphasized or cut completely. Due to traditional lack of resources, many schools were unable to meet the standards and ultimately closed. Other schools “gamed the system” by intentionally manipulating test results. Although test scores improved, they improved across the board, preserving the achievement gap.
New thinking and sequestration
Many experts now believe that attempts to close the achievement gap must be started early, including access to quality preschool and early childhood programs, smaller class sizes for minority students, more individual instruction, more parental involvement, and a focus on teaching and improving critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Enrichment and personal instruction programs, such as Teach for America, have been shown to dramatically improve test scores.
President Barack Obama acknowledged as much in February in The President’s Plan for a Strong Middle Class and a Strong America. In the proposal, the president introduced the concept of “universal preschool.”
“For this country to succeed in the 21st century, America must have the most dynamic, educated workforce in the world, and that education has to start early in life,” the president’s proposal reads. “Every dollar invested in early learning and development programs saves about $7 down the road in higher earnings that yield more revenue, and lower government spending on social services and crime prevention. But today, most four-year-olds aren’t in a high-quality public preschool program, and only ten states and the District of Columbia require school districts to provide free, full-day kindergarten.”
However, many of these programs are immediately endangered by automatic cuts due to sequestration. According to the National Head Start Association, the program’s 2013 budget — estimated at $7 billion — will see a reduction of about 5 percent by September, which will result in about $150,000 in cuts per local program. The NHSA has announced that it will meet these cuts by cutting the school calendar, reducing the number of enrollment slots, cutting bus services and laying off staff. Many of the surviving staff will face unpaid furloughs. This will cause hardships and voluntary terminations, as the typical Head Start teacher makes only $26,000 per year.
Sequestration will also impose $740 million in cuts to Title I, which offers financial assistance to low-income school districts, as well as $644 million in Part B cuts to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The National Education Association projects that 7.4 million students will be directly affected by the across-the-board cuts.
Addressing the achievement gap will demand a commitment from the top to make educational attainment fair and equitable. Without such a commitment, the income and education gaps between the races will increase, and as the nation grows more and more diverse population-wise, the future prosperity of the nation will dwindle.
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