In late July, both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke to the National Urban League’s Centennial Conference about what the President called “an issue that I believe will largely determine not only African American success, but the success of our nation in the 21st century — and that is whether we are offering our children the very best education possible.” Right now, of course, the answer is no so President Obama and Secretary Duncan were there to speak about the Administration’s plans for education reform.
American education, which used to be the envy of the world, is in dire straits. The U.S. ranks 21st among 25 developed countries on overall educational achievement for 15-year-olds. Many public school students are struggling; minority children and poor children are struggling most. Too often they fall behind in school and drop out, increasing their risk of entering the cradle to prison pipeline. Staying in school and receiving a quality education are the best deterrents to juvenile delinquency and the surest route towards responsible, productive adulthood. But 46 percent of Black high school students, 39 percent of Hispanic, and 11 percent of White students attend the 2,000 “dropout factories” across our country, where less than 60 percent of the freshman class will graduate in four years with a regular diploma. The U.S. spends almost three times as much per prisoner as per public school pupil every year. When it comes to preparing our children to compete and succeed in a rapidly globalizing world, we are falling behind.
As President Obama said, “I know some argue that as we emerge from a recession, my administration should focus solely on economic issues…But education is an economic issue — if not ‘the’ economic issue of our time. It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college. It’s an economic issue when eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. It’s an economic issue when countries that out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow.”
President Obama continued, “Now, for years, we’ve recognized that education is a prerequisite for prosperity. And yet, we’ve tolerated a status quo where America lags behind other nations. Just last week, we learned that in a single generation, America went from number one to 12th in college completion rates for young adults. [We] used to be number one, now we’re number 12. At the same time, our 8th graders trail about eight [to] 10 other nations in science and math. Meanwhile, when it comes to black students, African American students trail not only almost every other developed nation abroad, but they badly trail their white classmates here at home — an achievement gap that is widening the income gap between black and white, between rich and poor. We’ve talked about it, we know about it, but we haven’t done enough about it. And this status quo is morally inexcusable, it is economically indefensible, and all of us are going to have to roll up our sleeves to change it.”
Secretary Duncan explained that the Department of Education is creating an Equity and Excellence Commission to address the critical problem of fiscal inequities in K-12 schools and how these inequities lead to the achievement gap. He also made similar observations about the need to change the current status quo as he spoke about the reform measures the Administration is putting into place as part of the Race to the Top initiative. He correctly argues that they are bold and ambitious, as they need to be: “Our children are at risk. Their future—and ours—is at risk. We must prepare them to compete in a global economy, and that requires all of us to move outside of our comfort zones. We have to challenge the status quo, because the status quo in public education is not nearly good enough—not with a quarter of all students and, almost half, 50% of African American and Latino young men and women dropping out of high school. How many good jobs are out there today for high school dropouts? What chance do they have to build positive futures? Our nation’s young people deserve dramatically better than we are giving them today—they deserve a real chance in life. This issue is even bigger than education—it is an issue of social justice and economic security. We have a moral obligation to change these outcomes and it won’t happen unless we start doing things differently. Not just talking about it, but actually doing it.”
The President and Secretary are absolutely right on that the current state of American education is “morally inexcusable” and “economically indefensible”—and that the time is now for our nation to stop talking about doing things differently, and actually do it. Millions of child lives are at stake. It’s time for every parent, educator, community and political leader to put children first.