Monday, August 9, 2010

America's Future Depends on Eliminating the Education Achievement Gap

A severe crisis looms in the horizon.  I'm not talking about the federal deficit.  Rather, I refer to a pending shortfall in workers with the skill-sets and degrees that America needs for innovation and global competitiveness.

America is falling behind in educating its citizenry.  We have two very serious problems:  an achievement gap (how well students learn, perform on standardized tests, and progress through high school and college) and an attainment gap (the percent of young adults who earn high school degrees, certificates, and college degrees).  Neither is easily fixed. 

Middle class and upper-middle class white students outperform their working class peers.  Similarly, white students as a whole outperform minorities, particularly African Americans and Latinos. The gap is severest in poor, urban, and predominantly minority communities.   Urban schools are more likely to be dilapidated,  deteriorating, overcrowded, and more likely to have new and often non-certified teachers. See data here.

It is not uncommon for minority children in urban schools to enter the 6th grade one or two years behind their grade level. This is especially true for limited-English students who must learn English as well as subject matter.  Minority and low income students are more likely to drop out of high school and are less likely to attend college. They are more likely to require adult basic education, ESL, and secondary adult education, and more likely to require remediation when they do attend college.

Latinos represent the  fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, accounting for roughly half of all new births. Latinos, most of whom are native born U.S. citizens, already represent a majority of the K-12 population in many of this country's largest school district and are becoming a larger share of the U.S. high school and traditional college-age population. By 2020, nearly 10 million Latinos will be 15-24 years of age, accounting for nearly one-fourth of the U.S. total U.S. traditional college age population.

Unfortunately, Latinos are among the least likely to graduate from high school, among the least prepared for college, are more likely to require remediation, and less likely to graduate from college within six years of graduation from high school. In fact, only about 30% of Latino young adults (25-34) have attained an associates degree or higher, compared to 43% of African Americans and 81% of whites.

According to a report of  the Alliance for Excellence in Education, a single dropout in 2008 cost the U.S. economy $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity.  If all those students who dropped out of high school in the class of 2008, had instead graduated, it is estimated that the U.S. would gain $319 billion in wages, taxes, and productivity.

The achievement gap of Latinos, African Americans and poor whites costs America billions of dollars in remediation, lost incomes, revenues and GDP. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education projects that if the U.S. doesn't eliminate the achievement gap, U.S. productivity could decline by 50%, with a total loss of personal income of roughly $400 billion.

According to a recent report by the McKinsey Quarterly entitled "Economic Cost of the U.S. Education Gap," the educational achievement gap cost the U.S. nearly $2 trillion just in 2008. The McKinsey report found that the effect of the academic achievement gap on U.S. GDP was worse than the last three recessions combined, including the current recession!  So, eliminating the achievement gap is essential to America's future.

How about the attainment gap?  The U.S. is tenth internationally in college attainment (the number of adults with an associates arts degree or higher). Canada leads the world in the percentage of adults with some college education (with 55% of Canadian adults with some college).  Similarly, the U.S. is 23rd in high school graduation rates. The U.S. ranks 17th in the world in production of scientists and engineers, which are key to creation of knowledge and technology jobs. Only about 35% of U.S. young adults (25-34) hold a college degree compared to roughly 50% of the same age cohort in Japan and Korea.

Worse, the U.S. is one of only two industrialized nations where older adults (45-54 years of age) are more likely to have attained a college degree than young adults (25-34 years of age).  By 2020, the percentage of adults with college degrees will be less than it was in 2000.  The only category to increase in percentage will be high school dropouts.

Ironically, U.S. students trail their European and Asian counterparts in achievement on international tests.  So, we also have an international achievement gap.  According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), when compared with students in 30 OECD countries, 15 year-old American students ranked 18th in science, 24th in math and problem solving, and fifteenth in reading.

President Obama has set a target that "America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates..." The National Governors Association, the Education Trust, Lumina Foundation, the College Board have all joined efforts to help reach that target by 2025.  However, if we do not close the achievement gap, America cannot regain its leadership position in the proportion of adults with college education and degrees.

China already leads the United States in the number of college graduates it produces (as does India).  But, we are also falling behind economic growth rates and in some other measures of economic performance.  By June 2011, China is projected to pass the U.S. in manufacturing output and value.  By 2050, unless we do something about it, China will pass the U.S. in total GDP.

America clearly faces a crisis.  We must make it a priority to improve the quality and performance of schools and students and to increase the number of young adults who earn college certificates and degrees.  To ignore the looming crisis risks America's economic and social well-being.  It also diminishes our ability to compete internationally.  While it may cost us to address this problem, it will cost us more to ignore it.

View my entire PowerPoint presentation with slides and references here.

1 comment:

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