It is well understood that American educational standards are falling behind those of many other developed nations. I have recently discussed this issue from the point of view of giving more public support to community colleges, as recently proposed by President Obama. But the problem is much broader than this. American college students in general score very poorly in basic critical thinking and communication skills. As the above chart shows, even college seniors are only 60% proficient in these skills and college freshmen do much more poorly.
A new book, “The Smart Society: Strengthening America’s Greatest Resource, its People,” by the political scientist, Peter Salins, provides a good description of the basic problem. It starts long before college! America actually has two different K-12 academic achievement gaps. One, the “Megagap” is the huge test score disparity between middle class students and low-income students, who are largely minorities. This achievement gap is best addressed with expanded early childhood education, as we are beginning to do in Omaha NE where I live.
But as Mr. Salins points out there is also a Mainstream Achievement Gap between what most non-disadvantaged American youth are capable of learning and what is actually expected of them in the typical U.S. public school. It is this learning gap which is primarily responsible for America’s mediocre standing on international achievement tests. Mr. Salins argues that the Mainstream gap is closable because there is such an enormous variation in achievement scores among the 50 states, as shown in the above chart. In particular, in Massachusetts, a top state, the Education Reform Act of 1995 included the following reforms:
The requirement for all state school districts to adhere to rigorous curriculum specifications.
A new statewide diagnostic testing protocol.
More rigorous testing of new teacher candidates.
A statewide uniform high school graduation standard.
Reforms such as these are what make up the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Such high standards are working well in the top performing states. Other states need to seriously implement these same standards. America’s competitive edge depends on it!
A story in the World Herald on December 19, “OPS board preparing for charter school bills,” reports that several members of the OPS School Board expect charter school legislation to be introduced into the Nebraska Legislature next year, and want to be in a position to influence it. According to proponents, charter schools provide more choice for families who are dissatisfied with their own neighborhood school.
In debating this issue, it is important to keep in mind that the Learning Community already provides expanded educational choice in the metro Omaha area. In 2013-2014, 6,535 students, of whom 42% were eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch support, participated in the LC’s Open Enrollment program which allows great latitude in transferring into a different school district as long as space is available. FRL eligible students are provided free transportation for these transfers, at a cost of $5.4 million last year. The above charts from the 2012-2013 LC Annual Report demonstrate very clearly the academic benefit provided by the Open Enrollment program. For example, the 237 FRL students who transferred into low FRL elementary schools scored as high in reading proficiency as the resident students. The 248 FRL students who transferred into high FRL elementary schools scored much higher in reading proficiency than the resident students. Similar results are true for mathematics although the proficiency numbers are lower.
The LC staff believes (see the 2013-2014 Annual Report) that the number of FRL students participating in open enrollment is too small to have an appreciable difference on closing the profound socio-economic achievement gap which exists in the Learning Community. However, the Open Enrollment program is still valuable as a safety valve for families who are looking for a different school environment.
Consider all of the educational choice which already exists for OPS students: many magnet programs, the Wilson Focus School in south Omaha, the Seventy-Five North partnership proposed for Howard Kennedy Elementary School, and the new privately funded Nelson Mandela Elementary School opening in Fall 2015.
On top of all this is the LC’s Open Enrollment program for any low-income student to transfer to a different school district with free transportation provided.
Nebraska does not need Charter Schools for the very simple reason that huge educational choice already exists where it is most needed, namely within the high poverty Omaha Public School District.
Racial minorities currently make up 21% of the area’s population, up from 9% in 1980. Under current trends minorities will comprise 39% of the population by 2040.
Minorities are less likely than whites to have high school degrees, associate degrees, or four-year college degrees.
The education gap contributes to a skills gap which in turn contributes to a jobs and income gap. As shown above, black unemployment at 12.2% (in March 2014) is much higher than the unemployment rate for any other racial group.
MAPA has several suggestions for improving job prospects for blacks such as more and better job training, better public transit, and helping minority owned businesses. It also suggests building “cradle to career” pipelines for underprivileged youths.
This last suggestion is precisely what the Omaha area Learning Community is focused on. As I reported several months ago, the superintendents of the 11 school districts in the Learning Community have approved a comprehensive plan for Early Childhood Education whose purpose is to make sure that children from low-income families are well prepared to succeed in school. It will be funded by a ½ cent levy approved by the Learning Community Coordinating Council.
These same 11 superintendents are highly supportive of the overall mission of the LC to close the academic achievement gap between low-income students and middle class students. They have recently submitted a report to the Education Committee of the Nebraska Legislature suggesting ways to make the LC even more effective than it is already.
Achieving improved educational outcomes for minorities has been called America’s big new civil rights challenge of the 21st century. Omaha is making significant strides in addressing this problem thanks to a huge communitywide effort by many different organizations including the Learning Community.