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Education – American Democracy can do Better

  • brendagiven
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This discussion on Education is the last in a 5-part series that reviews potential solutions to change the course of our Democracy, toward high national alignment and contentment that also drives economic growth. The series reviews ideas for a unifying national vision to address our most pressing problems; Washington, income inequality (including healthcare and immigration), national disasters, physical infrastructure and education.

America’s primary education system was once the envy of the world; but, today U.S. K-12 students significantly underperform their global peers. A Pew Research report on the latest PISA study shows U.S. students rank a disappointing 19th in science, 20th in reading and 30th in math among the 36 OECD member countries (China, Japan and Korea lead the pack). Note that U.S. universities still rank among the world’s finest – 8 of the top 10 universities in the world are in the U.S. (although 6 of the 8 are private schools), and 60% of the top 50 are American.

These results probably aren’t surprising to most – we know our education system needs work. Improving education ranked #2 in the public’s policy priorities (just behind fighting terrorism), in a 2018 Pew Research study. Another Pew report shows only 29% of Americans rate their country’s K-12 education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as above average or the best in the world, while 29% rate K-12 STEM as below average. Scientists were even more critical: just 16% called U.S. K-12 STEM education the best or above average; a whopping 46% said K-12 STEM in the U.S. was below average.

We all know education is important; but, let’s take a moment to review why it’s so important. Numerous studies have established that a country’s wealth (defined as GDP per capita) is positively associated with its education expenditures per student at the elementary, secondary and postsecondary levels. No other governmental program offers the economic and social value of education – reducing unemployment, crime and public assistance, improving family stability, health and mortality and political and civic participation, and increasing tax revenue and economic competitiveness. A world-class economy requires world-class education.

So how do we improve our education system? Is simply spending more money the answer?

The U.S. will spend over $1.1 trillion, on K-12 and college education in 2019, mostly funded at the local and state level.

In 2015, the U.S. spent just over $16,000 per student, 51% more than the average of all 36 OECD countries. We spend 30% more on K-12 education and 75% more on college.


In 2015, the OECD estimated the U.S. spent 5.8% of GDP on education, almost 30% more than the 4.5% average of other OECD countries.

Unfortunately, our higher spending does not translate into higherSTEM performance. Income inequality seems to play a large part in poor U.S. performance – the U.S. does a particularly poor job with education in lower income areas, esp. among people of color.

Even if spending in low- and higher-income schools were comparable (they’re not), results can’t possibly be the same without first addressing poverty and the resulting poor prenatal care, food and housing insecurity and more limited parental and community support (less family stability, lower home literacy, higher incarceration rates, longer working hours, etc.).

Poverty, combined with historical injustice, the marginalization of minority communities, classroom inequalities and lower expectations, result in a very different starting point for children of color. The lower SAT scores aren’t surprising – 23% lower for reading and 25% lower for math. Nor are the 50% higher high school drop-out rates or 43% lower college graduation rates.

  1. The most important thing we can do to improve education in the U.S. is to address poverty, esp. among people of color, who are twice as likely to be poor. One third of Hispanic children and 27% of black children live in poverty (as do 10% of white children). These children are the future of America. Pew Research reports that while 37% of students were non-white in 1997, today almost 54% are non-white. By 2043, the nation as a whole is projected to become majority-minority. What will our education scores look like then?
  2. The second most important thing we can do is to invest in teachers, respecting and encouraging them. We should modernize the teacher’s job to be less isolating and more of a team effort, where the best teachers are empowered to train and help others. We should learn more about how to make good teachers that get results and adjust training accordingly. Teacher residencies and national service programs should be expanded to share best practices and recruit more diverse talent. We should also pay teachers enough to attract the best and brightest – U.S. teachers earn 68% of what other university-educated workers make.
  3. We also need to invest more in early childhood development and family involvement. Research suggests early childhood education may be key to long-term achievement. The U.S. invests less in children under the age of 5 than most other developed countries and has a low level of enrollment in early education programs, known to have great impact. Family outreach, to get parents and relatives contributing to kids learning, has also been successful in starting kids on the path to success.
  4. Lastly, we need to adapt teaching to kids, not the other way around. Adaptive learning programs can tailor instruction to each student, allowing them to work at their own pace, and enabling teachers to give more focused needs-based attention to smaller groups. This would allow more emphasis on intensive programs and early warning systems to help minority and at-risk students.
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Author: brendagiven

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