Council on Foreign Relations Wades into Education Debates, but Misses the Big Picture

The drumbeat of doom-and-gloom about American education continues. The latest entry is a June report by the Council on Foreign Relations, warning that the “real scourge of the U.S. education system–and its greatest competitive weakness–is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student’s academic career.”

Every industrialized country has an achievement gap between higher and lower-class children. In the United States, we have a similar and overlapping gap between whites and blacks. These gaps have narrowed, but not much, because both races have posted remarkable gains in recent generations.

Consider this: black achievement has improved so much that in elementary school mathematics, blacks now perform better than whites did only a generation ago. Improvements have been less great but still substantial for black elementary and middle schoolers in reading and for black 12th graders in both math and reading. White students have also improved in this time, however, so the gap remains.

The Council on Foreign Relations acknowledges that American student achievement is “higher than ever,” but says gains have been small. In fact, gains have been quite large, and for disadvantaged students, have outpaced gains in comparable industrial countries. One country with which we are typically and unfavorably compared is Finland. Yet although Finland’s scores remain high, achievement of its disadvantaged students has plummeted in the last decade, while that of comparable U.S. students has surged.

American policymakers have ignored these trends. If they spent more time examining policies that produced our successes, we might learn how to produce even more.

Certainly, we should strive to improve further, and the Council on Foreign Relations report makes some constructive recommendations–most important being universal high quality pre-kindergarten classes for disadvantaged students. We know that children with poorly educated parents begin kindergarten already far behind; they are read to less frequently, they have been exposed to less complex language and vocabulary at home, have not been taken to zoos and exploratory museums, and have spent too much time parked before television sets and not engaged in imaginative games to develop spatial and fine motor skills that predict academic success. Gaps with which children enter school are enduring, even with the best of K-12 instruction.

For 50 years we’ve known that although schools vary in quality, the more important predictor of achievement gaps is the socioeconomic conditions from which children come prepared–or unprepared–to take advantage of what even great schools offer. Children living in polluted, dense and poorly maintained neighborhoods have more asthma and lead poisoning that depress achievement. Children without access to good routine and preventive health care are frequently absent; so, too, are those with unstable housing. Children with unemployed parents have greater stress at home and concentrate less well on learning. Children living in more violent neighborhoods are also stressed, with similar consequences.

The Council’s report properly urges more funds for schools serving disadvantaged students, to compensate for students’ relative lack of preparation. But it should seem obvious that if socioeconomic differences— more than school quality—create an academic achievement gap, we should promote policies to narrow those differences. Unfortunately, the Council’s report says nothing about, for example, incentives for primary care physicians to practice in low income neighborhoods, or fully funding rent supplements for families with incomes insufficient to rent decent apartments. Such programs might do more to raise achievement than the popular reforms of testing, accountability and charter schools.

When disadvantaged children are concentrated in schools where all (or most) suffer from similar educational handicaps, schools confront impossible challenges. Remediation—not aspiration—becomes the norm. Instruction slows, discipline steals time from teaching, and children lack role models of academic success. Fulfilling a now-forgotten demand for racial school integration is needed to narrow achievement gaps for the most disadvantaged students.

Racial integration appears nowhere in the Council of Foreign Relations’ reform menu. In this, its report is indistinguishable from programs promoted by most policy institutes. Its report is better than most, calling attention to early childhood gaps and school funding shortfalls, but like so many others, is mostly irrelevant to the most pressing problems of academic achievement we face.