The Renewing America Initiative is publishing today a new Progress Report and Infographic Scorecard on federal education policy entitled “Remedial Education.” There is no single issue that is more important to America’s future, and probably none where the challenges are greater.
The report starts with a simple assertion that is truer today than at any other time in American history: “Human capital is the single most important long-term driver of an economy.” In their seminal study The Race Between Education and Technology, Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin argue that U.S. investments in education in the early 20th century were the most important contributor to the country’s rise to global leadership. The United States was a pioneer in free and accessible public education, such that by the late 1930s nearly 70 percent of 14 to 17-year-olds were enrolled in school, more than twice as many as in the United Kingdom. The result was the creation a vast reservoir of human talent that allowed the United States to build the strongest economy and the strongest military forces the world has ever seen.
But that lead is long gone, partly because other countries came along and made the same or greater investments in public education, and partly because the United States has done far too little to protect the lead it had built. The report and scorecard are filled with examples of this slippage. Among 55-64 year olds, the leading edge of the baby boomers, a higher proportion of Americans has at least a high school education than any other country in the world; among those a generation behind however, American 25-34 year olds rank just 10th in the world in high school completion. Compared with other advanced countries, too few U.S. children are enrolled in pre-school education, and too many drop out of college before getting a degree.
One of the striking conclusions of the report is that the failure of federal education policy has been greatest in its core mission of reducing disparities in public education. While states still play a primary role in public schools, the federal government has long used its funding power to try to bring up the performance of children from poorer, under-served neighborhoods. While the report charts some progress in reducing racial disparities in education achievement, the gap in achievement by income is growing. In short, children from well off families are vastly more likely to succeed in school than children from poorer families. According to the report: "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.”
There seems little question about the federal commitment to improving education. President George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” was among the signature initiatives of his eight years in office, and federal funding for education had increased sharply under President Obama before the recent belt-tightening. College students in particular have been beneficiaries of growing federal aid. And Obama continues to be ambitious – in his January State of the Union address he called for a big expansion in pre-school education, which has shown some promise in closing the achievement gaps.
The stakes are unquestionably high. In an advanced economy like the United States where economic growth is largely the result of innovation in products and processes, human talent is by far the most important ingredient. Immigration helps us import some of it, but the vast majority must be homegrown. If the United States can’t maintain its leadership in education, in the long run it will not remain a leader in anything else.