Tackling inequality in US educational opportunity

While politicians bounce economic statistics around like beach balls, America is not in a playful mood. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the exceptional nature of the American dream. I believe Horatio Alger, who wrote of plucky protagonists who always seem to make it in America, still deserves more than a disgusted eye-roll. As a conservative, I maintain that the springboard to American success is equal opportunity, yet I am forced to admit that, after researching public education prospects in this country, I’m rather uneasy.

American children born after the 1950s are met with lower prospects of educational mobility than other Western nations. Economic status in the U.S. tends to be a more accurate forecast for education outcomes than in, say, Sweden. Since the 1980s, public school reform has become a political preoccupation and a justification for unfathomable Department of Education spending, yet most of that funding has been absorbed into the number of teachers and teachers’ salaries, with scant improvements.

A half-century ago, bright, motivated women escaped society’s otherwise stifling career options by becoming school teachers. Certainly there are still many wonderful teachers, but as other career options have blossomed for women, the general quality of teacher-forces lags. I don’t regret women’s broader options for a moment, but I do yearn for quality. At the same time as many women have strayed from the classroom, complicated home environments and disadvantaged demographics have ticked upward. Inspiring teachers are needed more than ever, yet are less plentiful and less welcomed.

For this reason, I am a proponent of programs like Teach for America, which floods needy school districts with phenomenal young teaching talent and generates 70 percent of its funding from outside of the federal government. Incredibly, almost a fifth of last year’s graduating class at Harvard applied to TFA. Unfortunately, many in politics chat about the bright-eyed idealism of TFA-styled programs, yet maintain an unflinching loyalty to teacher’s unions. Most of the Obama Administration’s reform-minded “Race to the Top” efforts were swiftly blockaded thanks to this pesky bureaucracy. Now, in order to apply for state-level “Race to the Top” funds, there must come a “buy-in” from teachers, essentially negating the spirit of innovation. In today’s economy, job prospects are particularly terrible for recent teaching certificate earners. With an eye on protecting existing teachers, their salaries and their pensions, unions keep engaged 20-somethings far away from the chalkboard.

This year’s hubbub in Wisconsin brought teachers’ unions to the forefront, prompting Paul Krugman to comment that kids in union-hot Wisconsin significantly outperformed those in the rough-and-tumble Texas K-12 system, implying that teachers’ unions really do deliver the educational goods. Curiously though, black students in Texas score better than blacks from the Badger State. In summary, Wisconsin holds a superior statistical average, but is failing minority groups on a grander scale.

The education gap between groups is nothing new, nor is it shocking given the disadvantages particular minorities have faced over U.S. history. Yes, gaps close over generations, but a child of Upper East Side attorneys presumably receives greater support and resources than a child of a poor, single parent immigrant in Detroit. Disturbingly, the per capita income for whites is 76 percent higher than blacks and 101 percent higher than Hispanics. The National Review reports that the income disparity between whites and Hispanics is greater than the financial difference between New York and West Virginia.

Quite often, the left places these numbers at the foot of structural racism. Yet if we control for race and compare white and black college graduates with the same test scores and credentials, the difference all but vaporizes. Conservatives tend to focus on individuals’ upbringings, meaning the importance of family life and early school quality in cultivating success. A sleek charter school for 16-year-olds is most likely too little too late. The rise of teachers’ unions has been closely aligned with skyrocketing education budgets, but more money has done nothing but lubricate our educational drain. In my home state of Connecticut, where teachers are the highest compensated in the country, we pay $200,000 for the average K-12 experience of a Hartford Public School graduate. All this, and only 30 percent of students meet basic goals in math. That’s far more than is spent in Greenwich, despite that town’s notorious reputation for having some of the highest property taxes in the world.

Solutions are debatable, but I’m a fan of the work of James Heckman, who suggests that school intervention should place a premium on behavioral skills, not just cognitive ones. Students from difficult neighborhoods may not enter the classroom with the best reading aptitude, but step one is fostering basic cooperation and respect. There is evidence to suggest that students can learn social bonds much faster than cognitive skills, and proper social behavior is just as vital in the labor market as intellect. Furthermore, Heckman says government must target students who are truly on the educational margins. That means the Feds should get out of the universal preschool market for suburban tykes and actually zero-in on the disadvantaged. I, like many conservatives, advocate for school choice. The American dream that conservatives are always harping on about may be a broad, umbrella-like topic, but it is also painstakingly specific. Outcomes will differ in a free society, but the romantic pursuit of happiness clearly calls, at the very least, for equality of educational opportunity.

Danielle is a sophomore. You can reach her at dcharette1@swarthmore.edu.

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