The United States is the only country in the industrialized world where children are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were, according to a new study by the Education Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington.
The most effective anti-poverty program we could devise for the long run would have less to do with income redistribution than with ensuring that poor kids get a first-rate education, from preschool on. One recent study found that if American students did as well as those in several Asian countries in math and science, our economy would grow 20 percent faster.
So let’s break for a quiz: Quick, what’s the source of America’s greatness? Is it a tradition of market-friendly capitalism? The diligence of its people? The cornucopia of natural resources? Great presidents? No, a fair amount of evidence suggests that the crucial factor is our school system — which, for most of our history, was the best in the world but has foundered over the last few decades. The message for Mr. Obama is that improving schools must be on the front burner.
One of the most important books of the year is “The Race Between Education and Technology,” by two Harvard economists, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. They argue that the distinguishing feature of America for most of our history has been our global lead in education. By the mid-1800s, most American states provided a free grade-school education to the vast majority of white children. In contrast, only 2 percent of British 14-year-olds were enrolled in school in 1870.
At the beginning of the 1900s, Americans embraced high schools, and by the 1930s, a majority of American children attended high school. In contrast, as late as 1957, only 9 percent of British 17-year-olds were enrolled in school. Then the United States — with help from President Franklin Roosevelt — pushed for mass education at the college level, and by 1970, half of American students were attending a university, at least briefly. We were far ahead of the rest of the world.
Professors Goldin and Katz crunch the data and conclude that America’s edge in mass education was the crucial competitive advantage that allowed the United States to build wealth while reducing income inequality. For most of the 20th century, America prospered at the same time that the gap between the rich and poor diminished. Then in the 1970s, the United States education system began to stagnate, with high-school graduation rates stuck at about three-quarters of all students. Probably as a result, income inequality increased again.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world invested heavily in education and caught up with, and in some cases surpassed, us. As Fareed Zakaria notes in his terrific book, “The Post-American World,” the problem with American education is not the good schools. White suburban schools still offer an excellent education, comparable to those in Singapore, which may have the best education system in the world. Rather, the central problem is our bad schools. “Lots of kids are being left behind,” Professor Goldin said, adding: “Investing in human capital is still a very good deal. Returns are very high.”
There’s still a vigorous debate about how to improve education, but recent empirical research is giving us a much better sense of what works. A study by the Hamilton Project, a public policy group at the Brookings Institution, outlines several steps to boost weak schools: end rigid requirements for teacher certification that impede hiring, make tenure more difficult to get so that ineffective teachers can be weeded out after three years on the job and award hefty bonuses to good teachers willing to teach in low-income areas. If we want outstanding, inspiring teachers in difficult classrooms, we’re going to have to pay much more — and it would be a bargain.
No family underscores the power of education more than Mr. Obama’s. His father began as a goat-herd in a remote village in Kenya, but his studies carried him to the University of Hawaii. And Mr. Obama himself has ridden the education escalator to the White House. So Mr. Obama, let’s give others the chance to board the escalator that you and your father enjoyed. Let’s pick up where we left off in the 1970s and mount a national campaign to make high-school graduation truly universal, and to make a college education routine.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
In a recent column, Nick Kristof discusses “Obama and Our Schools” and “why we can’t meaningfully address poverty or grow the economy as long as urban schools are failing.”