The State Of Education In America Today: Are The Poor Being Served?
In 2010, only five African-Americans and 13 Hispanics graduated from the Madison Metropolitan School District college-ready. As of 2011, Madison had a metropolitan population of 236,901, with 7.3 percent of the population (17,294) being African-American and 6.8 percent being Latino (16,110), according to the 2010 Census.
In an article for the Daily Page, Pat Dillon discussed her experiences with the Madison, Wisc. school district.
Dillon’s twin daughters attended Madison’s Hamilton Middle School and West High School. One of her daughters was placed into the district’s special education system, which is a catch-all for all that have needs external to the school’s primary curricula. Dillon’s daughter was tested into special education due to an auditory processing disorder. She was advised against this, because “if she tested into special education, accountability and academic expectations would diminish.” Dillon recalled. “The first time I met with her special ed teacher, she was upfront with me: I should keep my expectation for achievement low. She had a full caseload and few resources.” Her other daughter was an academic high-achiever, who received the school’s full academic support.
Her high-achieving daughter went on to college. Her overlooked daughter ultimately completed CNA (Certified Nurse’s Aide) training, and is beset with back-breaking, low-paying labor, as most minorities that graduate from the Madison school district are.
Madison is not alone. As reported in the Huffington Post, while Asian students graduated high school in 2011 nationally at a rate of 79 percent and White students at 76 percent, Black students completed high school at a rate of 60 percent and Latino students at 58 percent.
However, criticism of a school district really does depend on what demographics the student falls in. Parenting listed Madison, Wisc. as the seventh-best city for education in their national list of best cities in America for education.
This difference between the education those served by the system can expect versus those disenfranchised by the system is known as the achievement gap. Prior to the nationalization of school curricula, the dropout rates for minority students were astronomical. The college preparedness rates were worse. For the most part, focus was placed on the high-achieving, high-income portion of the student body, allowing the lower-income, lower-performing portion to be formulaically written off. Programs, such as President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and President Obama’s Common Core State Standards Initiative have made the states directly responsible for raising the testing levels for students directly affected by the achievement gap at the cost of their federal funding.
This is a controversial measurement. In the case of Madison, Wisc., the argument if this school district is a failure or a success depends on the scope of your view. If you are looking at the school district as a whole, the district’s test scores and its rate of improvement across all groups would make it among the best in the nation. However, if the focus was just on the underserved community (as the federal government does) success was measured against the success of the served community, then Madison is severely lacking.
Recently, the State of New Jersey’s Department of Education released a statement in defense of its use of achievement gap measurements. The statement reads: “In December, the NJEA (New Jersey Educational Association) distributed a press release suggesting that my claim that New Jersey has a ‘shameful’ achievement gap was a ‘straw man’ and based on a ‘deliberate misuse of data.’ Instead, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian argued that while there is an achievement gap in New Jersey between white and African-American students, and also high-income and low-income students, we really shouldn’t worry about it because it is not as bad as the gap in some other states … Before we look at the evidence, let’s look at why this matters. The notion of an achievement gap may not be something that matters to the NJEA. But it matters to the nearly 40 percent of our students who can’t read at grade level in 3rd grade – an indicator closely tied to future success in school. It matters to the thousands of students that drop out of high school or even before high school each year. “
The statement continues: “And it matters to a high school dropout that faces a radically different future than a college graduate. On average, a college graduate will earn $1 million more than a high school graduate over a lifetime. Between 1998 and 2008, the job market has drastically shifted in favor of those with a college degree. During that time period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 10 million jobs were created for those with a college degree, while 600,000 jobs were lost that did not require a high school degree. Lastly, high school dropouts are 47 times more likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime than a college graduate.
“Because each of those children has a face and a name, it is astonishing that the most well-funded and vocal education group in the state would say that we should be content with any achievement gap at all. The complacency inherent in not wanting to call a system ‘shameful’ in which a child’s zip code largely determines whether he or she will have a fair chance to be successful in life is the exact reason that this problem exists.”
The cost of not educating our kids
There will be a heavy cost to be exacted if America is not able to raise its educational standards.
Dan Kaufman is the senior vice president of Widmeyer Communications. An education expert with 20 years of K-12 and higher education experience, Mr. Kaufman has taught education policy at American University. In a discussion with Mint Press, Mr. Kaufman discussed the state of the American educational system: “For the first few decades after World War II, the U.S. education system was the envy of the world, whether you looked at achievement rates, high school graduation rates or college completion rates. And as the federal government began providing greater funding for and focus on educating low-income and minority students that had been largely ignored, we were making progress in closing the achievement gap. But since then, despite a series of state and federal education reform efforts, including the No Child Left Behind law, we’ve been largely running in place. When you compare how the U.S. has done over the last decade on international test and high school and college graduation rates compared to other developed nations in Europe and Asia — and even some developing nations such as China — we’re usually around the middle of the pack.”
Kaufman continued: “Poverty and social issues are inversely correlated with student achievement, but we also have plenty of examples of teachers and school succeeding with children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The problem is that overall educational opportunity is not equally distributed — the kids from the poorest families tend to have the most inexperienced teachers and attend schools with the fewest resources — and we know that it takes better teaching and more resources to provide a quality education to these kids because they are often way behind in their development by the time they start kindergarten. But this is not a foregone conclusion — many of the high-performing countries do a much better job than we do of closing the achievement gap by ensuring that the children from the highest-poverty backgrounds receive the additional help they need.
“Although there are many teachers, schools and school districts doing great work, right now we’re losing ground on creating a highly-educated workforce relative to many other high-performing nations in both the developed and developing world. But if policymakers, educators, parents, academia, the business community and other key education stakeholders work together and focus on the reforms that are proven to make a difference, we can ensure that the United States rises to the top of the world again.”
The sad truth is that the United States does not — currently — have enough trained and educated workers to fuel its industry. There are not enough science, technology, engineering and mathematics-skilled (STEM) individuals in this country to meet the public and private demands for new scientists, engineers, computer programmers and electronic infrastructure designers. As such, most of the major American companies have to rely heavily on outsourcing or on trained immigrant labor.
Empirical evidence suggests that this trend is not improving. In The Learning Curve — a 2012 report by Pearson — the United States finished 17th in the developed world in education, with Finland and South Korea topping this list. More damningly, the United States finished 25th out of 34 in math and science.
This is a national security threat.
This situation threatens the military. Currently, the military must spend a large sum of money to train recruits in the fundamental STEM skills needed to build, maintain and operate the military’s increasingly digitalized arsenal. As such, trained soldiers are more apt to pursue higher paid private sector jobs; the military faces a manpower crisis.
This situation threatens the gross domestic product (GDP). This problem, as reported by the Huffington Post, can cost the nation $75 trillion over the next 80 years. Based on National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) 2007 data, of all 50 states, only Massachusetts had at least half of it students performing at or above the NAEP proficiency mark. Mississippi — the poorest state in the Union — came dead last in the ranking. Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed an interesting factoid, however: White, economically privileged American children were the single highest-scoring demographic on the PISA in the world. The achievement gap is so severe in the United States that it drew down the composite score for the nation.
The NAEP showed that there was a 26-point difference in scores between Black and White students in the fourth grade in mathematics, and a 31-point difference in the 8th grade. For reading, the difference with White students in the fourth grade was 27 points, and 26 points in the eighth grade. For Hispanic students, the gap with White students were 21 points for mathematics in the fourth grade, 31 points in the eighth grade, 25 points for reading in the fourth grade and 24 points for the eighth grade.
As 40 percent of the population is affected by this achievement gap, this same 40 percent is effectively locked into low-paying, low-achieving jobs. As reported in The Learning Curve: “Increasing the percentage of proficient students to the levels attained in Canada and Korea would increase the annual U.S. growth rate by 0.9 percentage points and 1.3 percentage points, respectively. Since long-term average annual growth rates hover between 2 and 3 percentage points, that increment would lift growth rates by between 30 and 50 percent.”
During the 2012 presidential campaign, former Republican candidate Rick Perry (R-Texas) boasted about his state’s low unemployment numbers, only to be reveal that most of Texas’ residents work in low-paying, low-achieving jobs — typically in retail or fast food. This country’s fortune and success is based on its resource wealth and its industrial might. Without an educated workforce to drive the nation’s industrial engine, the nation cannot survive as a superpower.
Rick Perry’s vision of full employment actually reflects the slow death of the nation.
The road forward
Most agree that the American model of education is antiquated and unique from any other aspect of everyday life. The idea of a teacher lecturing a class is singular in the sense that interpersonal communication typically doesn’t work in that manner. In a typical exchange, a person listens to an argument, ask questions and interact toward a mutual understanding. Lecturing, as the primary function of American education, assumes that everyone is at the same level of understanding and attention.
Most educational researchers now feel that this is a broken assumption. Everyone goes into a school with an unique set of requirements and needs. Many argue that the “achievement gap” is really a reflection of the inequitable distribution of resources.
Bob Bowden is the executive director of Choice Media, an education reform news service. He is a spokesman for National School Choice Week, which advocates for parental rights to choose the school of their choice for their kids. In a conversation with Mint Press, Mr. Bowden discussed the realities of what he perceive is the “achievement gap.”
Mr. Bowden believes the difference in achievement levels among people of different socioeconomic backgrounds has little to do with societal concerns. “A family can have money and lose all of it, and the kids will not get dumber,” Mr. Bowden stated.
The difference lies in the fact that the family with money had access to resources to assist their children, while those that do not have the economic access are forced to do with less. Bowden argues that while wealthy parents can move their children to better districts or private schools, poorer children have to put up with incompetent teachers, overpaid administrators and a general misappropriation of resources.
Bowden argues for school vouchers, which is a de facto scholarship which takes the portion of public funding that was allocated for the student and allow the student’s parents to decide which school should his/her student should enroll in and receive the money. This places schools in direct competition with each other, in theory, and would drive bad schools out of business. The surviving schools would have to improve services to attract new students, which would force a general improvement in educational standards.
In reality, this is a flawed idea. First, school choice would not force schools to compete with each other, but school districts to compete. If students transfer from one school in a school district to another, the public funding did not shift. What is actually happening is that one school now is responsible for another school’s shortcomings, which draws down the new school. More importantly, the old school — which serves as an anchor to the community — now receives less funding from the district and actually become worse. If a student switches districts, the old district will lose the money allocated for that student, but because it still have to serve its community, is forced to do more with less.
More damningly, single-parent families and those in deep poverty cannot have their children bussed out of their area for school. Doing so would be an unnecessary burden on the parent, who must make arrangements to get to the school in order to participate in parent-teacher programming and other parental engagement activities. While allowing the parent the right to pick the school of his/her choice seems democratic and fair on the outside, doing so needlessly burdens the community and those who are most vulnerable.
A better solution is to improve the system as a whole.
Programs such as No Child left Behind Act of 2001 and the Common Core State standards Initiative have steered the conversation of curricula reform toward a national conscience for the first time. Prior to 1994, education was hyperlocal; schools were bankrolled primarily from local property taxes, the local school boards choose the curriculum (with input and oversight from the state), and the federal government stayed out of the way, with the exception of the occasional recommendation which may or may not be ignored.
The Clinton administration’s The Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994 set as a federal mandate that high school graduation rates increase to at least 90 percent, the United States’ students will be first in mathematics and science achievement, all American adults will be literate and every school will be drug-, violence- and firearms-free.
While none of these goals were met, federal investment into education reversed downward growth in educational levels and showed signs of progress among minority students. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 removed the federal curriculum requirement. Instead, it required that all states developed a curriculum, establishment assessments to measure students’ competency to the curriculum and punish schools that fail to meet the state’s minimum requirements.
This push toward ensuring the minimum undercut programs for those with accelerated learning curves; federal funding for gifted education was cut by a third over five years. Michigan cut its gifted funding by 90 percent. Also, the expectations of 100 percent compliance for all students to minimum state requirements proved to be mathematically impossible, as — in any statistical group — there are those that are impossible to group for various reasons (NCLB’s standards incompatibility with students with mental impairments, dropouts, etc.). This led to a “gaming of the system.” As such, this program was commonly seen as a “race to the bottom.’
As part of his stimulus package, President Obama sought to rectify the problems with the NCLB legislation with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which creates a “national curriculum” that states can adapt to ensure a consistent level of education for all students.
Previously, states were free to declare the priority that were important for their states. Southern states tend to de-emphasize math and science in favor for language skills. Northern states favored math and sciences at the cost of the arts. The argument is that a consistent standard and incentive to participate (federal “Race to the Top” grants for participating states) would improve the national educational level. The fact, however, that this is the third federally-mandated change to the educational system, that this policy removes the local school board from decision regarding curriculum and that the standards in the Common Core may be less than some states’ existing standards were not lost on a group of states. Currently, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska and Minnesota have rejected the Common Core.
The curricula, however, is only one part of the problem.
The question of the treatment of teachers have became a cankerous, political hot potato. While most agree that teachers should make a living wage and should be accountable for their in-classroom successes and failures, actually making this happen has been a continuous challenge. Adding to this is the gulf between teachers’ and administrators’ salaries. A reform of the tenure system is needed, but the nature of such reforms is beyond the scope of this current argument and would need its own analysis to properly understand.
From resources to political will, access to digital media and the Internet to teaching efficiencies, philosophical shifts to political realignments, the nature of change to our educational system is complicated and convoluted. In future articles, some of these approaches will be examined.
However, change is needed. In the Greater Twin Cities United Way’s Faces of Poverty 2013, it is stated: “While there are no panaceas, education in general is one of the best anti-poverty strategies known. Education — particularly schooling beyond high school — is the primary and most consistent driver of sustained upward mobility. People with higher levels of academic achievement and more years of school earn more than those with less education: Individuals with some college but no degree earn 18 percent more in wages than high school graduates; individuals with a college degree earn 62 percent more; and those with a master’s degree earn almost twice as much (College Board, 2007). Early intervention in the form of high-quality childcare and preschool can help children get off on the right foot. Continuing support throughout
the school years and helping to connect these youth to post-secondary education will have a positive, long-term effect on lifetime earnings.”
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