President Obama has come out with a “cradle to career” plan to overhaul our public education system. It’s supposed to prepare all Americans to enroll in at least one year of college or job training after high school.
To get there, the President proposes some investments in early childhood education and more generous financial assistance for college students. But the core of the plan is fairly conventional–raise standards, reward good teachers and fire bad ones, support the expansion of charter schools, etc.
No doubt something must be done. Our schools aren’t preparing enough young people for the emerging economy–jobs that call for specialized knowledge, high-level technical skills and the capacity to keep learning over time.
Like the current employment situation, this is not an equal opportunity problem. The large race gaps in employment and earnings are mirrored in measures of student performance. The most telling, I think, are the National Assessment of Education Progress scores because they reflect consistent, impartial assessments across the country and over time.
NAEP scores for black students have improved since the early 70’s. But scores for white students have improved too. So the gaps are still there, though not as wide. And we’re not seeing steady progress. All the gaps were narrower in the late 80’s, except for 4th grade reading scores.
What concerns me more than the gaps are what the scores themselves mean. According to the Children’s Defense Fund’s analysis:
- 86% of black public school 4th graders can’t read at grade level, and 85% can’t do grade-level math.
- By the 12th grade, 2% more black students can read at grade level, but 94% can’t do grade-level math.
By then, says the Economic Policy Institute, a quarter of black students have dropped out. So we’ve got to assume that competency in these most basic skills is even lower for the whole age group.
How will these students successfully complete at least a year of postsecondary education or high-level skills training? Some short-shot remedial work on the side can’t compensate for what they’re supposed to have mastered during twelve years in the classroom.
No Child Left Behind was supposed to address the race/ethnicity gap. It obviously hasn’t. And, frankly, I doubt that tinkering around with standards, incentives and penalties will. Because, as everyone admits (well, just about everyone), there’s only so much the schools can do.
My hunch is that we’ll need an approach that addresses the entwined legacies of race discrimination, poverty and education holistically and begins when children are born–or earlier. Many have mentioned the Harlem Children’s Project as a model.
Scaling this project would be a tall order. And it’s certainly better to go at the issues piecemeal than wait till we’ve got a program that gets at them all. But we do need to focus on the connections–and the sooner the better.