In Public Education, U.S. Needs to Pursue Equality

The U.S. education system suffers from an achievement gap — a variance in educational outcomes for groups of students in America’s K-12 education system. The National Education Association identifies racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities and students from low-income families as being at the biggest risk for this gap. Those demographics tend to have higher dropout rates, lower test scores and college enrollment rates below the national average. For example, in 2017, the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) found that nationwide, eighth graders who receive free and reduced-priced lunches perform 44 percent worse on math and English and Language Arts (ELA) exams than students who do not receive free or reduced lunch. The average black student performed 23 percent worse and the average Hispanic student 27 percent worse than the average white student.

To help at-risk students systematically close this gap, educators and policy-makers must acknowledge that student success is largely reliant on an inequitable education system; they must focus on narrowing the opportunity gap to subsequently close the achievement gap. An opportunity gap is defined as a disparity in the access to quality schools and resources necessary for success. An opportunity gap, therefore, leads to an achievement gap. Students get better grades when they are well-fed and have money to spend on books, school supplies, internet access and tutoring. For example, children who receive nutritional assistance, programs that help families purchase food, before age five are more likely to graduate high school, according to the Center for American Progress (CAP).

In some underprivileged areas, students aren’t given the resources and opportunities they deserve, but which are afforded to more affluent students. Despite the poorest school districts having increased student needs, the most impoverished school districts receive $1,000 less per student in state and local funding compared to lowest poverty school districts.

As a nation, the United States spends more than any other country in the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of the world’s most developed countries, on education. Despite its spending, U.S. fourth-graders ranked 11th in the world in math, according to the International Mathematics and Science Study, while eighth graders rank ninth. In terms of math literacy, 15-year-old students ranked 31st in the world. Equity in education is increasingly linked to social cohesion, according to the OECD. For a country where the top-third of the income bracket owns more than 85 percent of the nation’s wealth, equal education should be a right, not a privilege, for every American child.

We can do better. The United States pumps a smaller proportion of its money into public education than the average OECD nation, and allots more into the private sector. While in the average OECD country, 84 cents of every dollar dedicated to education in 2010 came from public spending, in the U.S., only 70 cents originated from similar sources. The remaining 30 cents were covered by parents and private schools. This trend is exacerbated in higher education: in the average OECD country, public spending covered 68 percent of higher education spending and vocational training programs. In the U.S., public spending picked up just 36 percent, leaving the rest to families and private sources.

When we talk about the achievement gap, we put the burden of achievement on schools and students and fail to address the larger systemic issues derailing students’ academic success, such as poverty and discrimination. In the words of the Education Policy Center, schools can’t do it alone. If we really want to close gaps in academic success, we need to urge our representatives to take steps close the opportunity gap, which means providing all students with equal access to education.

Ryan Fan (19C) is from Stony Brook, N.Y.