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Renew the American Commitment to Opportunity

A current debate raging among policy makers is whether America’s dysfunctional education system has created our sick economy – or whether the country’s sick economy has created widespread poverty with disadvantages that our education system can’t possibly overcome.

In the former camp, there’s vast outrage about a so-called “skills gap” that’s been created by American public schools with accusations that there are too many liberal arts degrees being pumped out by American universities.

In the latter camp, public education defenders point to the strong correlation of education outcomes to poverty levels, and they call for more investments in early childhood education, wrap-around services and learning interventions – especially for children with learning disabilities or who do not speak English well.

It’s hard to believe that this argument will ever be resolved. But a much bigger subject has gone completely unaddressed.

Regardless of how you feel about the effect that education has on the economy and vice versa, what seems indisputable is that both systems should be optimized to provide the same thing: Opportunity.

Few would disagree that we want an economic system that creates opportunity in the form of jobs, entrepreneurship, career advancement, and upward mobility. And certainly what every parent wants from an education system is the opportunity for their children to learn as much as they can – to be able to get a job for sure, but also to grow and develop personally, have strong interests and values, and be actively engaged with others and their community.

Yet despite this widespread agreement about the needs for economic and education systems to focus on opportunity, America finds itself engaged in a full-on assault on the very idea of opportunity.

What Happened To Economic Opportunity?

On Wednesday, Main Street America woke up to trudge to a job that barely pays the bills, or they hit the help-wanted ads, while headlines blared that Wall Street was doing better than ever.

Right before the stock market hit its record high, The New York Times reported that our economy is producing “a golden age” of profits for companies that have decided not to hire more American workers.

Even signs of “a healthier housing sector and growth in orders for machinery and some other durable goods” are not producing more jobs. And the sequestration passed in Washington, which “could cost the country about 700,000 jobs,” will likely not “reduce corporate profits – or seriously threaten the recent rally in the stock markets.”

Many more Americans who have found work or remained employed are not employed full time. The polling firm Gallup recently found, “The proportion of part-time jobs in the U.S. workforce hit 20.6 percent in February, a multiyear high. This continues a trend in part-time jobs that has steadily increased since July, when that figure was 17.6 percent.”

Former Secretary of Labor for the Clinton administration Robert Reich explained “why there’s a bull market for stocks and a bear market for workers.” He cited four reasons:

  • “Productivity gains” spurred by “tax credits and deductions” for investing in tech rather than workers.
  • “High unemployment itself” that allows corporations to keep wages low.
  • “Globalization” encouraged by more profitable markets outside the U.S. and “tax policies and trade policies” that reward expansion abroad.
  • “Easy-money policies” that keep bond yields so low that investors flock to the stock market.

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute pointed to another source of this prolonged lack of jobs: government cutbacks in spending.

Konczal looked at the data and wrote, “Instead of expanding the economy, or even having little or no short-term effect, economists generally agree that this austerity (e.g. the sequestration) is cutting growth and reducing the number of jobs created.”

You can debate whether any one, all, or none of the above, are the real causes of declining economic opportunity. But what seems irrefutable is that expanding profit and declining government spending have not produced any growth in economic opportunity.

Furthermore, because both expanding profits and declining government spending are the result of deliberate policy measures, it’s self-evident that our economic system has been purposefully calibrated to the wrong measures – that is, if we really care about an economy that expands opportunity.

While the nation appears to be earnestly engaged in doing everything it can to constrict economic opportunity, the same constriction has been taking place in our educational system as well.

What Happened To Educational Opportunity?

Just as government cuts have correlated with low job creation, those cuts have also correlated with lower education opportunity.

Government cutbacks to education funding, particularly at the state level, have led to severely diminished education services at all levels.

At the earliest years of their lives, children have seen declining opportunity for education due to state cutbacks on pre-kindergarten schools. The most recent report on access and quality of early childhood education by the National Institute for Early Education Research found that state budget cuts have taken a steep toll on pre-K programs.

Spending on education for three- and four-year-olds declined by $60 million in 2010-2011 (the most recent year available) despite federal stimulus funds that were still available that year. And those expenditures were forecast to drop in the next two fiscal years as well.

Twenty-six of 39 states – 11 states have no program at all! – reported they cut the amount of money spent per child, despite the fact that enrollments nationwide increased by over 30,000 children.

Astonishingly, only 32 percent of four-year-olds and a mere 8 percent of three-year-olds are served by state pre-K. Only 12 states – representing just 20 percent of student enrolled nationwide – spend enough money on their pre-K programs to pass all key quality benchmarks.

The diminishing opportunities to learn don’t stop when students enter K-12 schools. A new survey from a national association of science teachers found that the per-day average of science instruction in elementary schools is only 19 minutes for grades K-3 and 24 minutes at grades 4-6 – taking into account the many days when no science instruction is offered at all. These figures represent a significant decline from 2000, when this national survey was last conducted.

Another recent report on student participation in art education conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found a similar decline, especially in high-needs school communities. This analysis found that although the national trend of providing music and visual arts classes is “neutral,” those classes are still “out of reach for many in high-need, high-poverty, and urban school districts.” The report notes, “In 1999, 100 percent of school districts with a majority of ‘free or reduced lunch’ students had music programs. Today, the figure stands at just 81 percent.” Regardless of their location, “most districts claim that while many of these programs still exist, most have been cut back either in time or staffing.”

Outside of music, other art education programs are taking a beating just about everywhere – especially at the elementary level where far fewer schools are offering visual arts, dance, and drama classes than a decade ago. “The drop was most prominent in drama, from 20 percent of schools offering drama in 1999 to just 4 percent in 2009.”

Vocational education is declining as well. Forbes posted a review of “disappearing middle-class jobs,” which noted vocational education middle school teachers had experienced a five-year decline of 14.4 percent “due to budget cuts in the public system.”

The decline in education opportunity has hit the most disadvantaged children the hardest.

Recently in The New Republic, Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg looked at results from a recent book, Whither Opportunity, and found that at the same time that “overall inequality between economic groups has skyrocketed, a parallel trend had taken place in education.”

“The gaps between rich and poor are roughly twice as large as 50 years ago,” he observed

Plus, the opportunity gap extends from pre-K through college.

“Inequality in college outcomes by family income increased dramatically in recent decades,” Kahlenberg found, “Children of wealthy families have increased their college graduation rates by 18 percentage points, while those from poor families have increased just 4 percentage points, so that the students of wealthy families are now six times as likely to graduate (54 percent versus 9 percent.)”

Our current leadership in Washington and in state capitals has determined that the best way to deal with diminishing education opportunity in our country is to enforce new and more difficult-to-attain standards.

But standardization alone is no silver bullet for higher education attainment – especially when it is enforced during a widespread campaign to constrict opportunity.

Long-time education observer Jay Mathews of The Washington Post looked at the call for new more rigorous standards with some skepticism and turned to a researcher, Tom Loveless at The Brookings Institute, to get an opinion.

Here’s what Mathews heard:

As Loveless notes, there are three main arguments for having all public schools teach the same subjects at the same level of rigor and complexity. First, students will learn more if their learning targets are set higher. Second, students will learn more if the passing grade for state tests are set higher. Third, students will learn more if lesson plans and textbooks are all made more complex and rigorous through required high standards. Loveless analyzed all available research and found that none of those arguments holds enough validity to risk all that money and effort.

The fact is, standards are nothing new, as many states have been enforcing them for many years. Mathews examined results of those states and found, “The idea that common standards might create efficiencies and motivations that raise achievement is disproved by what has happened in the many states that created their own standards. Those states still have some schools scoring very well and others scoring miserably. That variation has not declined.”

There’s also ample evidence that standardization of education outcomes has a tendency to narrow opportunity to learn, not increase it.

Education researcher David Berliner has made note of standards-related narrowing several times. One of his articles, posted at the blog site of retired English teacher Susan Ohanian, quoted from several studies that looked at the effects that mandates from the No Child Left Behind policies have had on curriculum. He argued that because NCLB enforced standardization related to just two subjects – math and reading – schools responded by limiting the teaching of other subjects.

For example:

Survey research by the Center on Education Policy . . . looked at 350 school districts and learned that about 62 percent of those districts had increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English language arts or math and that 44 percent of the districts cut time on science, social studies, art and music, physical education, lunch, or recess. The group discovered, however, something more frightening: 97 percent of the high-poverty districts (where more than 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) had policies that restricted the curriculum offered to their students.

So learning opportunities are taking a one-two punch from both declining funds and enforcement of standards that narrow what students can learn.

This is not to say that standards, per se, are bad for education. But much in the same way that economic policies calibrated for increased corporate profits produce low job creation, education policies calibrated for increased standardization constrict learning opportunity.

Both policy routes are obviously not working for the average American, especially during a time of declining government investment.

In Berliner’s words, this is “a U.S. calamity in the making.”

What About An Opportunity Agenda?

Regardless of what you feel is more dysfunctional – the economy or education – it’s all too apparent that neither is providing the increased opportunity that Americans desire.

In fact, if there were a purposeful effort to design an economic and educational system that restricted opportunity, it could not be doing a better job than what is taking place right now.

The simplest way to turn around reduced opportunity in the economy and in education is to put money back into our schools, and on a massive scale.

Passing the Obama administration’s proposal for early childhood education would relieve unsustainable financial burdens for young families, provide jobs for Pre-K teachers, and help address our growing economic inequality and diminishing rates of upward mobility.

Unleashing new funds for school buildings and refurbishment and modernization of existing structures would generate jobs in the construction industry while providing the nation’s children with facilities that enhance their learning experiences. California’s idea to close tax loopholes and fund clean energy and energy efficiency projects in public schools is a something that should be considered nationwide.

Investing in school wraparound services would create better conditions for students to learn by addressing their health, mental and family backgrounds as well as foster local job creation.

And most important, plowing more money into efforts to train highly qualified teachers, ensuring they have jobs, and paying them well would stimulate commerce in the communities where those teachers work – generating income and more jobs for businesses on Main Street rather than Wall Street – and offer expanded opportunities for students of all ages to learn art, music, science,  vocational skills, and other subjects.

Along with these new investments, systemic measures of success in our economy and in education need to change. Just as economic policies need to move away from designing a system that maximizes profit and wealth accumulation, our education policies need to change from emphasizing standards alone to expanding opportunities to learn.

It’s time for America – a place supposedly imbued with the branding of a “land of opportunity” – to renew that promise to its people.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. He is the chief correspondent for Our Schools, a part of the Independent Media Institute.


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