Embodied in our founding documents is the promise of unparalleled “Opportunity For All”. This is what makes America unique. In no other country can children of poor immigrants rise to the pinnacle of wealth and power. Talent, education and hard work are building blocks of the American success story, not birthright or ethnicity.
Have we done enough to preserve our special heritage – Have we been good custodians of our patrimony? As the son of bootblack I know firsthand the opportunities that can arise when you mix education and hard work. The American system has certainly worked well for this boy from the Bronx as well as for a half African-American lawyer who recently became President of the United States and countless tens of millions of others who have risen from poverty.
In our good intentioned attempt to right injustice we seem more often to fail than succeed and I fear that in subtle ways we erode the very foundation of the American experience. Freedom to stand and fall on our own has been the hallmark of American culture. It is what foreigners admire about us and what we admire in ourselves.
We are ethically obligated to provide a safety net for the less fortunate but must do so in a way that preserves unlimited opportunity for all. Despite all our efforts to right societal wrongs we still have a bifurcated class structure in the United States but it is not rich vs. poor but rather educated vs. uneducated. For example, the current 9.5% unemployment rate is not equally distributed: the unemployment rate for college graduates is 4.7%, for those who have not graduated high school 15.5%, African American men 16.4% and for African American men and women under 20 it is a whopping 37.9%. The high unemployment rate among African Americans is correlated with the disproportionately low levels of educational achievement.
We must find a way to ensure that every American has access to the education that will ensure prosperity the 21st century global economy. We can’t go backward to the “good old days” of unskilled factory jobs for the masses; we must educate our entire population to take advantage of the opportunities of the future. All other social programs are doomed to failure if we don’t educate our children.
The United States is the single greatest investor in education in the world. For the latest year in which we have comparative data, 2004, expenditures per student for the United States were $9,368 at the combined elementary and secondary level, which was 42 percent higher than the average of $6,604 for the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). At the postsecondary level, U.S. expenditures per student were $22,476, which was nearly twice as high as the OECD average of $11,418.
Despite this expenditure, the 2006 Program for International Assessment, which measured the applied learning and problem-solving skills of 15-year-olds in 30 industrialized countries, found the U.S. ranked 25th out of 30 in math and 24th in Science. Maybe it is time to deal with root causes rather than continue to delude ourselves into to believing that by just spending a little more money we will fix a failed system. I don’t mean to imply that all school districts have all the resources they need; only that in the aggregate we already spend the money and do not reap the appropriate value for our education dollar.
First, we have to admit we have systemic disease in our education system and two aspirin won’t cure it. Second, you can only improve your average by bringing up the lower 50% not by dragging the top 50% down to the least common denominator. Our children are bright and our goal must be to must maximize their talents and stoke their ambitions. Seems simple, but it runs counter to most of our education policies.
Our inner city public school systems are a disaster. The simplistic conclusion reached by policymakers is that if we simply spend more money the gap between whites, African-Americans, Latinos and lower income students will simply disappear.
A recent report found that only about half (53%) of all young people in the nation’s 50 largest cities are graduating from high school on time. Cities in Crisis 2009: Closing the Graduation Gap, prepared for America’s Promise Alliance by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, shows that despite some progress made by several of these cities between 1995-2005, the average graduation rate of the 50 largest cities is well below the national average of 71 percent, and there remains an 18 percentage point urban- suburban gap.
Let’s address head-on the greatest challenge facing our education system: incorporating the African-American community into it. The data clearly shows that all policies to date have been a colossal failure. If I were asked whom to put in charge of solving the problem my answer would be Bill Cosby. Doctor Cosby has a firm grasp of the sociological problems within the community, the need to involve the whole family, to make doctors and lawyers as cool as athletes and rock stars and not to disadvantage our children with an illiterate and incomprehensible dialect that separates African-Americans from the rest of American society. We also need to redistribute some of our education dollars into the inner cities, but money alone will do little unless we take on the bigger issues and get the dedication of parents, teachers and the community.
On this 4th of July lets dedicate ourselves to one objective, educating all of our children so that we can truly say America is the land of unlimited “Opportunity For All”.