Our Greatest National Shame
So maybe I was wrong. I used to consider health care our greatest national shame, considering that we spend twice as much on medical care as many European nations, yet American children are twice as likely to die before the age of 5 as Czech children — and American women are 11 times as likely to die in childbirth as Irish women.
On the Ground
Yet I’m coming to think that our No. 1 priority actually must be education. That makes the new fiscal stimulus package a landmark, for it takes a few wobbly steps toward reform and allocates more than $100 billion toward education.
That’s a hefty sum — by comparison, the Education Department’s entire discretionary budget for the year was $59 billion — and it will save America’s schools from the catastrophe that they were facing. A University of Washington study had calculated that the recession would lead to cuts of 574,000 school jobs without a stimulus.
“We dodged a bullet the size of a freight train,” notes Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an advocacy group in Washington.
So for those who oppose education spending in the stimulus, a question: Do you really believe that slashing half a million teaching jobs would be fine for the economy, for our children and for our future?
Education Secretary Arne Duncan describes the stimulus as a “staggering opportunity,” the kind that comes once in a lifetime. He argues: “We have to educate our way to a better economy, that’s the only way long term to get there.”
That’s exactly right, and it’s partly why I shifted my views of the relative importance of education and health. One of last year’s smartest books was “The Race Between Education and Technology,” by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, both Harvard professors. They offer a wealth of evidence to argue that America became the world’s leading nation largely because of its emphasis on mass education at a time when other countries educated only elites (often, only male elites).
They show that America’s educational edge created prosperity and equality alike — but that this edge was eclipsed in about the 1970s, and since then one country after another has surpassed us in education.
Perhaps we should have fought the “war on poverty” with schools — or, as we’ll see in a moment, with teachers.
Some education programs have done remarkably well in overcoming the pathologies of poverty. Children who went through the Perry Preschool program in Michigan, for example, were 25 percent less likely to drop out of high school years later than their peers in a control group, and committed half as many violent felonies. They were one-third less likely to become teenage parents or addicts, and half as likely to get abortions.
Likewise, the KIPP program, the subject of a fine book by Jay Mathews, has attracted rave reviews for schools that turn low-income students’ lives around.
There are legitimate questions about whether such programs are scalable and would succeed if introduced more broadly. But we do know that the existing national school system is broken, and that we’re not trying hard enough to fix it.
“We have a good sense from the data where there are big opportunities,” notes Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth College who studies education.
The hardest nut to crack is high schools — we don’t have a strong sense yet how to rescue them. But there’s a real excitement at what we are learning about K-8 education.
First, good teachers matter more than anything; they are astonishingly important. It turns out that having a great teacher is far more important than being in a small class, or going to a good school with a mediocre teacher. A Los Angeles study suggested that four consecutive years of having a teacher from the top 25 percent of the pool would erase the black-white testing gap.
Second, our methods to screen potential teachers, or determine which ones are good, don’t work. The latest Department of Education study, published this month, showed again that there is no correlation between teacher certification and teacher effectiveness. Particularly in lower grades, it also doesn’t seem to matter if a teacher has a graduate degree or went to a better college or had higher SATs.
The implication is that throwing money at a broken system won’t fix it, but that resources are necessary as part of a package that involves scrapping certification, measuring better through testing which teachers are effective, and then paying them significantly more — with special bonuses to those who teach in “bad” schools.
One of the greatest injustices is that America’s best teachers overwhelmingly teach America’s most privileged students. In contrast, the most disadvantaged students invariably get the least effective teachers, year after year — until they drop out.This stimulus package offers a new hope that we may begin to reform our greatest national shame, education.