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April 8, 2014 standard

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a program of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that documents the performance of students in dozens of countries.  PISA has just released the results of the 2012 assessment.  The headline in major media outlets is that “U.S. 15-year-olds Perform Above OECD Average in Problem Solving.”

Twelve percent of U.S. students were “top performers,” scoring at levels 5 and 6, which was similar to the OECD average.  Eighteen percent were “low performers,” scoring at level 1 or below level 1.  This was better than the OECD average of 21 percent “low performers.”

Yet the report highlights the extraordinary lack of equity in the American educational system. For all the debate over whether there is too much focus on all children receiving college preparatory learning, the reality remains that our black, Latino, and low-income children aren’t being provided any of it.

While, on average, 18 percent of U.S. 15-year-olds were “low performers” and 12 percent were “high performers,” students attending schools where the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch was 75 percent or more had much different outcomes. These schools managed to educate their students to the “high performing” level in problem solving only 4 percent of the time, and left their students at the “low performing” level 34 percent of the time.

Because of America’s unusual school funding system, based on local property taxes, schools attended by students living in poverty are less well-funded than those attended by students from better off families.  It is not surprising that student attending poorly- funded schools do less well than those attending well-funded schools.

The PISA report also documents racial and ethnic disparities in student performance.  White students scored at the “high performing” level 16 percent of the time.  Black students scored at the “high performing” level 1 percent of the time.  Hispanic students scored at the “high performing” level 6 percent, while Asian students scored at “high performing” levels 28 percent of the time. At the “low performing” end of the scale for U.S. 15-year-olds we find 10 percent of White students and 44 percent of Black students (along with 23 percent of Hispanic and 5 percent of Asian students).

The problem solving performance of American black 15-year-olds is similar to (but slightly better than) that of 15-year-olds from Middle Eastern (including Israel), Latin American and Balkan countries, worse than those of students in countries that make important investments in education, such as those in the European Union. Black students are much more likely to attend schools in poor neighborhoods than other students.  As a result they are much more likely to attend schools that are poorly-resourced. The lesson is clear:  internationally and within the United States, student performance varies with educational resources.

The consequences are not surprising.  Tragic, but not surprising.


March 21, 2014 standard

Your editor always looks askance whenever anyone declares that providing all children with comprehensive, higher ed-preparatory education is senseless because some kids — namely those who are poor or come from black and Latino backgrounds — are supposedly incapable of learning. So you shouldn’t be surprised that I’m taking Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli to task for his piece in Slate offering another (and not all that novel) version of this argument. The fact that this argument comes from the head of one of the most-prominent reform think tank — and a key proponent of Common Core reading and math standards — is especially unsettling.

Proclaiming that “I have no desire to punish students or deprive them of opportunity” Petrilli proceeds to declare that he wants to do exactly that. Why? From where he sits, providing kids with college-preparatory learning “does them more harm than good”. Why? From where Petrilli sits, poor and minority kids who are struggling in school will “not get that college degree anyway”. According to his narrative, struggling kids taking college-prep courses merely end up “thinking about dropping out” because they have been subjected to years of educational neglect and malpractice; even if they gain any remediation, these kids “probably aren’t going to make it” anyway.

As far as Petrilli is concerned, these students would be better off being placed into vocational tech courses similar to those proposed three years ago by Harvard professors Ronald Ferguson and Robert Schwartz in Pathways to Prosperity, their shoddy tome advocating for subjecting poor and minority children to low expectations. This “honorable path” as Petrilli calls it, is, in his view, the only way to provide “real options” to our children.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of reasons why I would look askance at Petrilli’s argument. For one, there’s the reality that, like so many who argue that some kids don’t deserve college-preparatory learning, Petrilli is unlikely to tell his own two sons not to go to college, even if their academic performance made them unworthy of admission. In fact, like any good parent with means, Petrilli would use all of his resources (including his status as a University of Michigan alum) to help his sons gain seats regardless of academic performance.

The bigger problem with Petrilli’s argument is that is falls apart when you consider actual facts. Simply put, college-preparatory learning is critical for success in both white- and blue-collar professions. Or to use Petrilli’s words, children who are not college material are also not going to be blue collar material, either.

For one, he mistakenly assumes that the high levels of reading, math and science literacy needed to graduate from college aren’t also needed high-paying blue-collar jobs. Welders, for example, need strong trigonometry and geography skills in order to properly fabricate and assemble products. Machine tool and die makers are often times the same kind of top-performing math students that go into the tech sector; the fact that machine tool-and-die work involves understanding computer programming languages such as C also makes them more like their white-collar peers working with Ruby for Web site development. Even elevator installers-repairmen, along with electrical and electronics installers, need strong science skills in order because their work combines electrical, structural and mechanical engineering. When one looks at nearly every middle class-oriented blue collar career (including nursing and other jobs in the healthcare field), the skills needed for success in those fields are the same as those needed to do well in white collar careers.

College-prep learning is critical to gaining success in any white- or blue-collar pursuit.

All these fields, by the way, require some level of higher ed training. Which leads to another point: College prep is key for gaining entry into the post-secondary institutions and programs that are the training grounds and gateways into those high-paying blue-collar jobs. After all, higher ed is more than just traditional colleges. Thirty-seven percent of the 20 million Americans enrolled in higher education attend community colleges, which operate blue-collar training and certification programs (including apprenticeships they operate in cooperation with companies and labor unions), alongside traditional academic offerings. At least 4.4 million Americans (and as many as 12 million) are engaged in some form of post-secondary technical school training for high-paying blue-collar professions, according to the federal agency. And among America’s four-year colleges are the leading for-profit training institutions for blue- and white-collar job training, including Apollo Group’s University of Phoenix and DeVry Education Group’s flagship university.

This matters because economic data shows the importance of higher education in helping poor and minority kids enter the economic and social mainstream. Unemployment levels for blacks age 25 and older with some college education was at between 5.7 percent and 10.5 percent in 2013 (depending on level of higher ed attainment), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; that’s far lower than the 20.4 percent unemployment rate for high school dropouts, and nearly 17 percent lower than the 12.6 percent unemployment rate for high school grads with no higher ed training. In light of that data, it isn’t surprising that the nation’s seven-year-long economic malaise has damaged black and Latino communities more than any other; after all, they are the least likely to attain higher ed training. High school dropouts and high school grads without any college experience account for 49 percent of all African-Americans in the civilian population age 25 and older and a whopping 64 percent of Latinos, while just 42 percent of whites and 30 percent of Asians were dropouts and high school grads without college experience.

Arguing that only some children are worthy of comprehensive college-prep curricula, as Petrilli does, is akin to condemning them to poverty and social despair. This is especially true when you keep in mind that placing kids onto vocational ed (or what we now call career and technical education) tracks while in high school doesn’t work, either in helping kids gain entry into middle class jobs or even in keeping them from dropping out of high school. Why? For one, vocational ed courses provide little either in the way of strong or relevant academic and career content. This isn’t shocking; after all, vocational ed tracks are a legacy of ability tracking and the comprehensive high school model, both of which emerged from the bigoted assumption that poor and minority kids (especially those from immigrant households) were incapable of mastering academic subjects. The second: Because in reality, young adults really don’t know what careers suit them until they enter the workforce; what may be an ideal fit in theory (or based on a brief internship) often turns out not to be in the bright light of day. This is why only 30 percent of kids in vocational courses spend any time working in their chosen fields, according to education policy consultant Richard C. Seder.

Given this reality, along with the fact that job- and career changes is common for young adults under age 25, what children need is strong, comprehensive college-preparatory education that allows them to succeed in any white- or blue-collar career path they select. The last thing they need is to be relegated to vocational tracks that inhibit them from writing their own stories. This isn’t just an economic issue. The reality is that college preparatory education is critical for students so that they can fulfill whatever economic and social destiny they choose. At some point, every young man and woman will have to deal with abstract concepts, think through political issues, and even engage in cocktail conversation involving Chaucer or genetics. Comprehensive college prep education helps prepare our kids for productive lives, to serve as leaders in their communities, even help their own children continue onto the path to success in society. Arguing that they don’t need such an education merely damns them to lives of mediocrity — and in the case of kids in our dropout factories, prison cells and welfare lines.

Meanwhile Petrilli shamefully and conveniently ignores the reality that few poor and minority kids are getting college-preparatory learning in the first place, and thus end up leaving school without the reading, math, and science skills they need for either white-or blue-collar careers. Starting from the moment they enter school, poor and minority kids are denied opportunities to attain comprehensive college-preparatory curricula because of how they are perceived by the teachers and guidance counselors who serve as gatekeepers for such programs (along with the relationships their parents have with these gatekeepers).

Fordham’s Petrilli has forgotten that he is supposed to be a school reformer.

This is especially clear when one looks at the treatment of poor and minority children who by any academic measure would be considered high-achieving. Some 3.4 million children from poor backgrounds — many of which came from homes where parents were either dropouts or merely received high school diplomas — were among the top-performers in their schools, according to a 2007 study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Yet only 56 percent of them remain that way by fifth grade largely because those adults who are supposed to do the best by them are either incapable or unwilling to provide them with the learning they need and deserve. Add in other pernicious practices– including the overlabeling of young black and Latino men as special ed cases — into the mix and it is clear that very few poor and minority kids are provided anything resembling college preparatory learning.

Certainly the efforts of charter school operators such as the Knowledge is Power Program, along with programs such as North Carolina’s Project Bright Idea (which provides at-risk poor and minority kids the same learning opportunities as kids considered gifted in part by changing the way teachers deal with students) are addressing these issues. So are systemic reform efforts such as the implementation of Common Core’s college-preparatory reading and math standards (of which, by the way, Petrilli is one of the staunchest supporters). But the reality remains that American public education is still failing our poor and minority children. Helping these children means doing more to provide them with the college prep learning they deserve — not tossing them into an “alternative path” to social oblivion.

The fact that Petrilli is more-willing to do the latter than the former exposes the biggest problem of all with his argument: That is based on the implicit conceit that providing all children with high-quality teaching and curricula (and ultimately, helping them succeed economically and socially) isn’t worth doing. He is also declaring that we should subject children from the communities that have suffered the worst from the nation’s education crisis — and from the racialism that has been the Original Sin of both American public education and the nation — to low expectations. And in the process, Petrilli is forgotten that he is supposed to be a school reformer, a champion for brighter futures for all children, and a defender of providing every child with high-quality education.

For anyone to embrace such thinking is morally reprehensible. For a school reformer — especially the boss of one of the movement’s leading think tanks — to do so is even more shameful. In fact, it is cowardly. Especially in light of Petrilli’s recent piece, it is particularly hard for anyone to take Petrilli’s defense of Common Core — or his advocacy for reform, in general — seriously.

March 14, 2014 standard

The New York City Department of Education runs eight specialized high schools. These are not vocational schools offering job training. They are the gate keepers for privileged preparation for elite colleges, upper middle class careers, the perpetuation of class status. They have world-class facilities, teachers and curriculum. They have high graduation rates and close to 100 percent college admission success.  The best known of these high schools are the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School. Students are admitted to these schools by their scores on a test taken in grade 8.  The test is basically a mathematics test.

This year, Bronx Science admitted 968 new students. Of them, 557 were Asian/Pacific Islander; 252 were White, non-Hispanic; 89 were “Unknown”; 50 were Latino and 18 were black. Stuyvesant admitted 952 students. Six hundred eighty of the students were Asian, while another 164 were white; of the rest, 79 were “Unknown”, 21 were Latino, and seven were black. Bronx High School of Science admitted two American Indian students and Stuyvesant admitted just one.

Fifth-eight percent of Bronx Science’s admissions were Asian students as were nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of entering Stuyvesant students.  Twenty-six percent of Bronx Science’s admissions were white, as were 17 percent of Stuyvesant’s admitted students. Black enrollments amounted to two percent of Bronx Science’s and one percent of Stuyvesant’s entering class; Latinos made up 5 percent and 2 percent of Bronx Science’s and Stuyvesant’s admitted students

Asians and whites, however, do not make up four-fifth’s of New York City’s school population. They only make up 40 percent of the city’s high school students. Latinos and blacks, on the other hand, make up 30 percent and 27 percent of the Big Apple’s high school students.

Here’s a math test:  What is the likelihood, other things being equal, that a group making up 27 percent of the total high school students in the city would represent only one percent in the city’s best high school? Perhaps other things are not equal.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) measures student achievement for grade 8 Mathematics. Eighteen percent of New York City’s white students scored at the Advanced level in 2013, as did 26 percent of the Asian students. Only one percent of the city’s black and Latino eighth-graders scored at Advanced levels. If 99 percent of black eighth-graders are not performing math at advanced levels, the odds are slim that they will pass the admissions test for Stuyvesant and other selective schools.

The Big Apple is doing poorly in teaching math to black and Latino children.

There is an additional barrier.  It is generally acknowledged, even by the city, that the test virtually requires extra-curricular instruction. Fortunately, private enterprise has risen to the challenge.  Kaplan, Inc., a $2.2 billion company owned by Graham Holdings (the Graham family used to own the Washington Post), offers test preparation for the test. It offers “Premier Tutoring” at three price points: 16 hours, 24 hours and 32 hours.  The 32-hour package costs $5,000 (payable in three installments). For this fee students receive (according to the Kaplan website), “proven, score raising strategies to help maximize . . . points on Test Day.” That might seem like a lot of money to pay for a test taken by an eighth grader, but it is very inexpensive when you consider that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics median earnings for people with professional degrees are nearly four times those of people without high school diplomas and nearly three times those of people with just a high school diploma. Other things being equal.

The median income of white families in New York City is $76,000; that of black families $48,000; that of Latino families $37,000; black households with single mothers only earn $36,000 in median income. While a Kaplan “Premier Tutoring” course would cost the White family seven percent of their annual income, it would cost a black woman raising her children without a husband present 14 percent of her annual income. That’s if she had $5,000 to spare. And how likely is that?

Okay, what can be done? Starting now, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña should offer “Premier”-quality tutoring for the test, free of charge, to all New York City students. The city should then immediately overhaul math instruction in its schools, especially those serving primarily black and Latino children.

But keep this in mind: New York City’s specialized high school problem are a particularly clear example of how gifted-and-talented programs are segregation by another name. What is happening in the Big Apple illustrates how American educational institutions limit opportunities for Black and Latino children by barring them from the commanding heights of the education system and thus from the opportunity for careers that might lead them out of the poverty cycle. How long must this continue before action is taken to bring democracy to America?

Photo courtesy of the Daily News.

January 21, 2014 standard

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has gone on record saying that she would prefer retirement to leading the nation’s largest traditional district. But she has accepted responsibility for running the institution that, along with the criminal justice system and the economic system, one of the Big Apple’s three pillars of inequality. And she has a lot to do.

There isn’t much debate to be had about how de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, and his chancellors, improved achievement for the city’s fourth-graders. Graduation rates have also improved. But the real measure of district and school success lies in how well children are doing by eighth-grade. This is because by then, districts should be provided their students the preparation they need for success in high school, and ultimately, in college and career; eighth-graders reading at or above grade level will be able to do well once they graduate from high school four years later. Eighth grade achievement also matters because the teaching, curricula, and academic services districts provide can (and should) have mitigated any effects that come from as a result of families and socioeconomic background. Children who graduate from high school reading below grade level aren’t likely to succeed after leaving school.

So how well is New York City doing with its eighth-graders, especially for its black and Latino students? Based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal exam of student achievement, not well.

Three-quarters of the Big Apple’s eighth-graders read at and below Basic levels of proficiency in 2013. This means that just 25 percent of Big Apple eighth graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels, the key levels of grade level success. Between 2003 and 2013, the gap between the city’s performance and that of the national average increased by two points (from eight percentage points to 10).

Even worse, 80 percent of New York City poorest eighth-graders read at and below Basic levels in 2013. Only one out of every five impoverished eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels. Between 2003 and 2013, the Big Apple’s rate of progress for its poorest eighth graders fell behind that of the nation as a whole.

Nearly 90 percent of young black men in eighth grade attending New York City’s schools are reading at or below Basic levels of proficiency; in short, just 10 percent of young black men are reading at or above grade level. This is a situation that has not significantly improved within the past decade.

As for young Latino eighth-graders? In 2013, just 18 percent of Latino students read at proficient and advanced levels – three percentage points lower than the national average – while the remaining 82 percent read at or below Basic levels. Even worse, the one percentage point improvement in the percentage of Latinos reading at or above grade level between 2003 and 2013 is worse than the seven percentage point improvement nationwide within the last decade.

It isn’t all bad news. In 2013, 18 percent of black eighth-graders of both genders read at Proficient and Advanced levels. This is a five percentage point improvement over 2003, and better than the four percentage point improvement (from 12 percent to 16 percent) nationwide. But the city still hasn’t improved college and career success for Asian and white non-Latino eighth-graders, who often come from more economically-prosperous households.

Just 44 percent of New York City’s Asian eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels in 2013, six percentage points lower than the 50 percent rate for their peers nationwide. The percentage of Big Apple Asian eighth-graders increased by 10 percentage points between 2003 and 2013, a lower level of improvement than the 12 percentage point improvement nationwide.

Meanwhile 44 percent of white eighth-graders were reading at or above grade level in 2013, matching the national average. But a decade ago, 42 percent of white eighth-graders were reading at Proficient and Advanced levels, three percentage points greater than the 39 percent national average. The city’s two percentage point improvement was less than half the five percentage point improvement nationwide.

The challenges facing the new Chancellor are clear enough. Not enough of New York City’s children are prepared for success in college and career. The city no longer has time for happy talk about reform. We must focus our resources and energies to improve educational outcomes for all students – or else the Big Apple will remain a tale of two cities for another generation.

December 20, 2013 standard

The newly-released National Assessment of Educational Progress data provides us with a yardstick of the quality of education produced by urban school districts. According to the report, the percentage of all students scoring at or above “Proficient” in grade 8 reading (a crucial indicator of education improvement) went from 30 percent to 34 percent between 2009 and 2013. There are various ways of looking at this.  One would be that these are “tidal measures,” as it were, marks of the rising tide that is supposed to raise all boats.

Some of the boats had quite a way to go. Some did not float up all the way with the tide.

The percentage of male Black students that districts teach to read by the time they reach eighth grade is a key indicator of the educational opportunities those districts choose to make available, especially when we look across districts and states and make comparisons with other groups within specific districts. The results of the assessment of the skills of male Black students are the way that we can assess the opportunities to learn offered by districts.

Nationally, in 2009, just nine percent of eighth-grade young black men were reading at grade level – in this case, at Proficient and Advanced levels – in 2009. In 2013 that was up to 12 percent, a three point improvement that was slightly less than the improvement in that period for all students. In other words, looking at the crucial skill of reading at the key grade 8 level, nearly 90 percent of male Black students have been left with skills below grade level.

This is not good. At this rate of improvement, two percentage points every four years, it will take eighty years for half of eighth-grade young black men to read at grade level. Some tide.

Let’s look at some examples from major cities. In Detroit, the percentage of young black men in eighth-grade reading at grade level increased from four percent to five percent between 2009 and 2013.  In Cleveland, the percentage of young black men in eighth grade reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from five percent to six percent in that same period. In Fresno, the percentage of young black men reading at grade level declined from seven percent to six percent, while in Milwaukee, it “improved” from three percent to four percent. On average, then, something like 95 percent of male Black students in these cities are not reading at grade level in eighth grade.

What is to be said about school officials who fail their students 95 percent of the time?

Certain commentators say that the issue is poverty. Put simply, until students’ families are not living in poverty schools cannot be expected to teach them to read.

There is some data about poverty, race and educational achievement.  In Milwaukee, for example, three percent of male Black students eligible for national lunch programs (a measure of poverty) read at Proficient and Advanced levels, as compared to four percent in Mississippi, eight percent nationally, and 11 percent in New York City. If poverty were the decisive factor, why does its influence vary this much by location?  Wouldn’t the correlation of poverty and educational achievement be the same? Why do so many more poor male Black students in New York City read at or above the “Proficient” level than those in Milwaukee?

The percentages of young black and young white men in eighth-grade reading at Proficient and Advanced levels in West Virginia are nearly identical.  And yet in Wisconsin, where 32 percent of young white men in eight grade reach the “Proficient” level, only seven percent of their young black male peers do. How is it that Wisconsin’s young white men are taught to read at a level similar to that of Michigan and North Carolina, while their young black men are only taught to read at levels typical of Mississippi, Arkansas and the District of Columbia? Family income does not seem to be a factor. Black family income is about the same in Wisconsin as in West Virginia.  State wealth cannot be the issue, either. Does one need to point out that Wisconsin is a much wealthier state than West Virginia?

If poverty isn’t the decisive factor, could it be, as some “conservative” commentators, Black and White, claim, something about family attitudes?  But that would mean that Black families are less interested in the education of their children in Wisconsin than in West Virginia, right?  Really? How do those commentators know that?

So if it isn’t poverty or family attitudes, what other possibility is left? Could it be something about the schools? Could it be, to reverse the blame on black families, that those responsible for the schools in Milwaukee and cities like it are less interested in the education of black children than that of white children?

One thing that can be said is that a rate of failure, such as NAEP reports in cities such as Milwaukee, Detroit and Fresno, is not necessary. Fifteen percent of young black eighth-graders in Charlotte’s schools are reading at grade level, as are 26 percent of their black female peers, improvements from 2009 of five points and three points, respectively.  Hillsborough is at 16 percent for young black men in eighth grade and 19 percent for black female peers. And in New York City, 13 percent of young black men in eighth grade are reading at grade level – an increase of three percentage points since 2009 – and 23 percent of their black female peers are at grade level (a nine point increase).

These are not great numbers. But teaching 15 percent of young black men to read is unquestionably better than teaching only five percent of them to do so. All other things being equal, three times as many might graduate from high school, find a job, go to college, stay out of jail, help raise their children without needing national lunch programs, perhaps move somewhere with good schools.

December 16, 2013 standard

There has been much discussion of late concerning the expense involved in the education of disadvantaged children.  The success of the highly praised Harlem Children’s Zone schools is attributed to, and criticized for, that project’s access to hedge fund capital.  Newark’s Abbott funding, at $22,000 per student, is seen as off the charts.  In these discussions, after these criticisms, the question is said to be:  How can the quality of education offered by the Harlem Children’s Zone, by suburban Montgomery County Public Schools, and by private schools be replicated by the average local district, given average funding?

It is the wrong question. The correct question is:  How can we best provide resources, including more money, to children in order for each child to attain high-quality education, without regard to where they live or their family background? This is a question that has to be considered in the light of the education currently provided for four typical students.  Let’s call them Alice, Bill, Catherine and David.

Bill’s family lives in the inner city of a metropolitan area. His mother is a nurse’s aide. Food stamps help her get through the month. His father, who is no longer in prison, has not seen Bill in quite some time.  Bill’s grandmother was from a West Virginia mining town. Her education ended at sixth grade.  Bill’s grandfather had to quit going down the mines when his lungs gave out. He died young from emphysema and alcoholism. Bill’s mother and grandmother want him to have a better life, but they have few resources to help him toward that goal. One quarter of the students in the schools Bill attended graduate from high school on-time and college ready. The annual per student expenditure of the district is $12,000.  Bill went to summer school twice, when he was held back at grade 7 and then again at grade 9. He has stopped going to school. He tells me he is working on his GED.

David lives in Bill’s neighborhood. His mother and father are both school teachers and have access to knowledge and resources not afforded to Bill’s family. They worked hard to get him into one of the few good schools nearby, a public school that is open from eight in the morning to nine at night, on weekends and in the summer and uses money raised from foundations to supplement the district’s funding. The expenditure per student from all sources is about $21,000 a year. David’s parents were able to contribute about $6,000 per year to his education for tutoring, Saturday language classes, and some educational travel. David has been accepted to the public university’s honors program.

Alice’s family lives in a suburb in the same metropolitan area as Bill.  Her father is a surgeon; her mother, although trained as a scientist, has decided to remain at home.  Alice’s father makes between $150,000 and $200,000 a year, which is far above the median, but not considered wealthy by many Washington decision-makers. The annual per student expenditure of her school district is $28,000.  All of Alice’s grandparents have advanced degrees:  two in the sciences, two in the humanities.  They have been deeply involved in her informal education.  She went to summer school nearly every year, except when her parents or grandparents had taken her to Europe for a few weeks.  She is trying to decide whether to go to Princeton or to the University of California, San Diego.  Her parents estimate that their family contributed, on average, $15,000 per year to her education in the form of language and music lessons, educational travel and the like.

Catherine’s family lives about forty miles from Bill’s neighborhood.  Her father used to work on Wall Street, but now he works from a building owned by his investments firm in a small city near where they live.  Her mother sells real estate—mostly houses, but some horse ranches.  Catherine’s mother’s parents live on investments made by their parents.  Her father’s parents had founded a company that had something to do with cars, she is not sure what exactly.  Catherine goes to a private school in New England, for which her parents pay $40,000 a year, but as it actually spends much more than that on each student, her father has become chairman of the school’s annual appeal and makes significant leadership gifts.  Catherine has taken some college-level courses in mathematics.  Given that and her fluent French and Spanish, she is considering a career in international trade and is deciding now between spending her freshman year in either Paris or London.

Let’s do the sums. Bill’s education costs $12,000 a year, but averaged less over twelve years, as he dropped out in grade 11. David’s education costs $27,000 per year. Alice’s education costs $43,000 per year.  Catherine’s education costs about $60,000 per year, when the school’s endowment funds and her educational travel are factored in. Just as importantly, Alice, Catherine, and David have access to opportunities and resources beyond money – from field trips to Saturday and summer school classes – that Bill never had.

Why is Bill’s future worth less than David’s or Alice’s or Catherine’s? Why do we, alone in the world, fund education from property taxes, which both guarantees that the children of the well to do will have more spent on their education than children living in poverty, and keeps some kids from accessing high-quality learning? If we believe that all children deserve high quality education, then why do we not provide it to all of them?

The question is not how to improve the education of the disadvantaged without spending more money. The question is how can we have a future worthy of our past without providing all the resources necessary, including and beyond money, for excellent education for all our children?

Photo courtesy of