Every semester, Professor Kay Merseth begins her course “Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education” with a call to action: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” However, most students enter Longfellow Hall for the first lecture excited, not outraged. Merseth’s class is so popular that many students must enter the lottery at least twice before getting the chance to take the course. And for many of these students, myself included, the education system they uncover is nothing like the one they know.
The average American family earns a little over $50,000 and about 90 percent of American students attend public schools. Over half of Harvard’s Class of 2019 reported coming from families with incomes over $125,000. Thirty-five percent of students reported attending a private secondary school. Though some Harvard students come from less-than privileged backgrounds and have confronted overwhelming odds, for the most part, though, Harvard students come from places of privilege.
But what about the millions of young adults produced by the American K-12 education system who didn’t succeed? What about those who did not go to an affluent suburban school or an elite New York private school? What about those who didn’t graduate, let alone make it to Harvard?
This is not to guilt-trip the students who succeeded at a school which had the resources to provide unparalleled opportunities. Creating an equitable education system requires holding underperforming schools to the same standards as top schools. To do that, we must address three shortcomings: physical conditions in schools, inequality in school quality, and the racial achievement gap.
First, our education system suffers from inadequate physical school conditions. Teachers in Detroit’s public schools brought light to the deplorable conditions of schools buildings in their district when they staged a “sick-out” to protest the conditions. Photos and reports of mold, decrepit staircases, and other shortcomings illuminated the financial struggles of a school system that serves nearly 47,000 students. Detroit is not alone.
A 1995 U.S. General Accounting Office report found that 14 million American children—one in four public school students—attended public schools in which at least one building needed extensive repair or complete replacement. Twenty-eight million American children—one in two public school students—attended a school with at least one deteriorating building or with a building that contained an “environmentally unsatisfactory condition,” such as inadequate ventilation, heating, physical security, or energy efficiency. The 1999 U.S. Department of Education Condition of America’s Public School Facilities report estimated that $127 billion were necessary to bring public schools to good operating condition. Today, the U.S. Department of Education’s estimate has risen to $197 billion.
These problems with school infrastructure are directly related to school funding. At least 31 states provided less state funding per student in 2014 than they did before the recession. Moreover, in at least 18 states, local government funding had also fallen since the 2008 recession. Given that state and local revenue are responsible for over 90 percent of a public school’s funding, it shouldn’t come as a shock that schools in districts such as Detroit have fallen into decay.
Second, the quality of education students receive vary dramatically by where they were born. The bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) legislation of 2001 sought to enable schools to “build the mind and character of every child, from every background, in every part of America,” in the words of President George W. Bush. NCLB increased accountability measures and emphasized the use of standardized testing to find and fix underachieving schools.
Unfortunately, the project has fallen short of its goal. For example, a tremendous gap in academic outcomes still exists between the outcomes between schools in Massachusetts and Mississippi. Forty-seven percent of fourth grade students from Massachusetts were proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test, whereas only 22 percent were proficient in Mississippi. On the math section, 57 percent of Massachusetts students were proficient and 22 percent of Mississippi students were proficient. High school graduation rates in Massachusetts were 83 percent. In Mississippi, only 62 percent of secondary school students graduate. This gap exists for eighth grade scores and racial subgroups, as well. Student demographics, income levels, curricula, and other factors surely vary by state, but should we accept this level of differences in outcomes?
The third major bulwark to educational parity in America is a persistent racial achievement gap perpetuated by the public school system. Decades after Brown v. Board of Education, minority students still continue to lag behind white students in academic achievement.
In 2011, 52 percent of white fourth grade students scored proficient in math on the NAEP and 42 percent scored proficient in reading, compared to 17 percent and 16 percent for black students, respectively. Across a sample of 7,590 schools in every state, no school district had NAEP results in which more than 25 percent of black or Hispanic eight grade students were proficient in reading or math. These achievement gaps emerge as early as age two and manifest themselves in reading ability by kindergarten. The gaps also persist through secondary schools. In the 2011-2012 school year, the national graduation rate among white students was 85 percent, compared to 68 percent for black students and 76 percent for Hispanic students. Suspension rates at schools also vary greatly by race and this variation begins as early as pre-school. This apparent school-to-prison pipeline ties to serious consequences down the road—an estimated one out of every three black men will be incarcerated at some time in his life and one out of every six Latino men will face the same fate. If schools are meant to be the “great equalizer”, as Horace Mann dreamed, they are failing students of color.
Even with these problems, education falls on the political back burner. Eloquent rhetoric may sound good in a sound bite, but this lip service has failed to restore crumbling school infrastructure or close the achievement gap. To tackle these problems, policy makers must take a serious look at prior reform attempts’ successes and failures.
Three reforms that have had mixed results are moving children to better neighborhoods, increasing school choice, and giving school vouchers have had little affect on improving education outcomes. The theory of moving children to better neighborhoods, measured by factors like poverty and crime rates, posits that living in these communities will lead to children doing better in school. Data from the Moving to Opportunity experiment and data from the Harlem Children’s Zone show that living in a better community may not cause a positive effect on a child’s educational outcomes. Moving a child to a new neighborhood may have an impact on some health outcomes and behavioral outcomes, but it had no statistically significant effect on academic achievement. Data from Milwaukee shows a limited effect of vouchers on test scores and data from New York show slight increases in college enrollment for black students from vouchers. Results from Chicago and Charlotte show that school choice has a limited impact on graduation results and traditional measures of achievement, but it may lead to reduced crime and improved behavior. These marginal improvements warrant a debate around the cost-effectiveness of these programs.
Two ideas that show more promise are increasing access to Pre-K and adopting best practices from innovative schools. Recent research points to Pre-K as a starting point to reduce the socio-economic and racial achievement gap. As cognitive development begins at an early age and the racial achievement gap appears in reading by age four, equalizing education at a young age seems promising. Future research can also elucidate the long-term impacts of Pre-K. Beside introducing universal Pre-K, another common reform idea is to expand charter schools. Although the most successful charter schools have boosted student test scores, the average charter school still produces the same baseline results as the average public school. The policy discussion should then center on how to scale up the best schools or how to inject best practices from successful charter schools into public schools—a process that has shown to have beneficial results.
An introductory economics course will tell you the theoretical benefits of fixing our education system: higher wages, better health outcomes, lower crime rates, improved human capital. The economic argument for fixing our schools, however, should be unnecessary. Creating an equitable and excellent education system is a moral imperative. We know steps we can take to fix the problems in our education system—we just need the courage to take them. That courage requires mobilizing our voices against injustice in Detroit Public Schools like we would if it happened at Cambridge Public Schools. It requires not only being grateful if our own children have privileged opportunities, but also ensuring every child has those opportunities. It requires putting our money where our mouths are and deciding that nothing—not the zip code of a child’s birth, not the color of her skin, and not her parent’s income—should limit her potential.
If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.