Delivering better education to more students can combat inequality.
You know, it doesn’t add up. People need more and better education to make a good life for themselves, but in this country we’re still having a hard time delivering that to all of our children.
The United States is far from the only country where access to high-quality education is a problem. But we have both a voracious need for skilled people and the resources to deliver education that can help us give more of our people those skills.
Maybe you read the story last week that said a study of 50 U.S. cities found Seattle has one of the biggest gaps in access to good schools. Seattle, like the rest of the country, has seen inequality grow rapidly for years.
The study, done by the Center on Reinventing Public Education affiliated with the University of Washington Bothell, found Seattle had wide race and income-based gaps. For instance, white students were almost 10 times more likely than black students to attend an elementary or middle school with reading test scores in the top 20 percent citywide, and eight times more likely to attend a school with high math scores.
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Give students a challenging curriculum, support and a good environment and they are more likely to thrive, but we don’t always do that.
A separate study of math education in 33 countries found that students in all economic levels did better when they had a challenging, rich curriculum. One of the authors of that study said U.S. schools are making inequality worse.
“Because of differences in content exposure for low- and high-income students in this country, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” said William H. Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University. “The belief that schools are the great equalizer, helping students overcome the inequalities of poverty, is a myth.”
The idea of making top quality education more broadly available usually raises the question of how to pay for it. There never seems to be enough money.
Washington courts are even now leaning on the Legislature to fully fund education. Legislators say they are hard-pressed to find those dollars. And that is a matter of our will as residents to pay what it would cost.
The money we do pay in taxes goes to things we’ve decided are greater priorities, something that’s true at the state and national levels. Arne Duncan, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education, put a proposal on the table: He’s urging local and state governments to spend less on locking people up and direct the savings, estimated to be $15 billion a year nationally, to higher teacher pay.
The money is there. It’s our priorities for spending it that need to change.
A few decades ago, the Soviet Union sent a tiny craft called Sputnik into space and scared the stuffing out of U.S. policymakers. We made changes because we believed they were critical to our national survival.
Sputnik launched in 1957 and was followed by the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which provided federal money for improving American schools and encouraging more students to go on to college.
Inequality ought to frighten us today, as we look to a future in which we will depend on children in school now to preserve our quality of life and standing in the world.
That first study I mentioned found that some cities have found ways to bring greater equality to their schools. There’s no single formula, but it can be done.
Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said in her introduction to the report that researchers want the document to be both a source of urgency and of hope.
She wrote, “America is at a profound moment of social struggle. More children grow up in poverty, more young people end up incarcerated, persistent racial bias holds back opportunity. School improvement cannot wait for us to solve poverty or racial injustice. We can create great school options now for young people that can help to mitigate these other social challenges.”
Better education will yield better outcomes.