Poor Education Is a Large Barrier to Black Progress

 

My last post, “Racism and Black Progress,” pointed out that, despite all of the racial tension in our society, especially bad at the present time, blacks have made much social and economic progress over the past half century.  All Americans of good will want this progress to continue.
I live in Omaha NE and am personally involved in a very promising public initiative to improve educational outcomes in inner city schools.  It is called the Learning Community and is an Omaha metro-wide effort to close the academic achievement gap between children from low-income families and those from the middle class.
Capture6The above chart shows clearly what the problem is.  Already in third grade FRL (free and reduced priced lunch) kids are behind on the NeSA (Nebraska State Assessment) reading test.  The gap persists into middle school and then gets much worse in high school.
Capture23A recent article in the Omaha World Herald reports that while black students make up 25% of Omaha Public Schools enrollment, they are responsible for 55% of disciplinary incidents.  Obviously, disruptive students are not learning what they need to know to succeed in school and in life.
A promising solution to this very difficult problem of improving educational outcomes for inner city students is early childhood education to prepare these kids to succeed in Kindergarten and then stay in school until graduation.  This is in fact the approach being taken by Omaha’s Learning Community.  But it is clearly a long range program which will take many years to show success.
Conclusion. A solid basic education is essential for success in today’s highly complex society.  Blacks will never reach full social and economic equality with whites until they achieve better educational outcomes.  Early childhood education has much promise in closing the academic achievement gap but will take many years to show significant progress.

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Educare and the Academic Achievement Gap

 

My last post, “Why Racism Exists in America,” attempts to explain not only the reason for this huge social problem, but also how to look for a solution. It turns out that the city of Omaha, Nebraska, where I live, is doing exactly this in an amazingly progressive manner.
It is well known and widely deplored that children from low-income families perform more poorly in school than children from middle class families. The Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties was created by the Nebraska Legislature in 2007 to figure out how to close this so-called academic achievement gap in metro Omaha.
The LC has recently contracted with the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska to implement the Superintendent’s Early Childhood Plan which will employ the latest national research findings to provide intensive preschool for three and four year olds at ten different Elementary School sites around the Omaha area. Capture10It turns out that Educare of Omaha has already been doing groundbreaking work in early childhood education for the past decade. A recent longitudinal study, conducted by the Munroe Meyer Institute (available upon request), has shown that children from low-income families, with two or more years of Educare training, perform well above state proficiency standards in both reading and mathematics all the way through the eighth grade (as far as has been measured to date).
As shown in the above chart, just one year in Educare is not enough to achieve this lasting proficiency. It takes two full years to get such a large boost in achievement. This is a hugely significant finding. It shows that early childhood education, if carried out in sufficient depth and for an adequate length of time, will produce long-lasting gains in academic achievement.
It is now up to the Learning Community, working with the Buffett Institute, to implement the Superintendent’s Plan, to show that the results achieved by Educare can be scaled up to a broader and more comprehensive level.

Are Economics and Social Progress Related to Each Other?

 

“Your (last post) is one of the most active and positive that I have read of yours. You do put your time to where your values are. Those of us who see you as too economically focused and ourselves as more humanely concerned need to act as well. Thanks for your focus and attention.”
from a reader of my blog

I am a fiscal conservative and a social moderate. The primary reason I write this blog is because I am so concerned about the fiscal recklessness of our national leaders. Our national debt is much too large and still growing too fast. We need to either cut spending or raise taxes (or do both).
But I am also a social progressive. I voted in favor of Nebraska raising its minimum wage last fall. I support gay marriage as a civil right. I support having Nebraska expand Medicaid in order to cover more low-income people (where Medicaid needs to be fixed is at the federal level).
CaptureThere is in fact a very close connection between having a sound economy and social progress. As the above chart shows, the U.S. ranks very high in both GDP per person and social progress. All of the countries which are most socially progressive also have sound economies. This is not a coincidence.
My last post talks about what society can do to help blacks improve their socio-economic status. This includes improving educational opportunity in the inner city. But improved educational opportunity needs to be closely directed toward improved economic opportunity. This means, for example, having good jobs available for new high school and community college graduates. But this, in turn, means having strong economic growth with intelligent tax and regulatory policies to encourage entrepreneurship and business expansion.
In short, a sound economy is essential for social progress.

Can We Do More to Help Blacks Improve Their Lot?

 

Nebraska is a progressive state in many respects.  Last fall we raised our state minimum wage.   The Nebraska Legislature is now on the verge of eliminating the death penalty.  Seven years ago the Legislature established the Learning Community in metro Omaha, whose purpose is to eliminate the academic achievement gap between children from the middle class and those living in low-income families.
CaptureI am an elected member of the Learning Community Coordinating Council which oversees the work of the LC.  As such I give a lot of thought to the plight of the low-income black community in north Omaha.  My own answer to the question in the title is yes, of course, there is more we can do but it needs to be carefully directed.  I have written several previous posts on this topic. Here and here.
For example, the Hamilton Project has an excellent program, ”Policies to Address Poverty in America,”  which calls for a highly focused effort along the lines of:

  • Promoting Early Childhood Development
  • Supporting Disadvantaged Youth
  • Building Skills
  • Improving the Safety Net and Work Support

Mr. Robert Balfanz, the Director of the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, suggests focusing on the toughest 660 out of 12,600 high schools in the U.S. which fully one-half of non-graduating students attend.  More specifically:

  • Refocus these high poverty high schools in order to identify by the middle of the ninth grade the students most likely to drop out.
  • Set up early warning systems so that adults can step in at the first sign that a student is in trouble.
  • Employ additional adults to support students who need daily nagging to succeed, especially during the key transitional years in the sixth and ninth grades.

These two programs have lots of similarities and are focused on at-risk inner-city youth.  Massive black underachievement is a huge social problem, and ultimately a huge drain on our entire economy as well.  More than just good intentions are necessary for effective intervention.  An intelligent and focused approach as described here would be a good way to proceed.

The Future of American Higher Education

 

President Obama’s proposal, to make community college free of cost for all Americans, is generating a lot of controversy.  Major complaints are that:

  • The projected cost of $6 billion per year is too high and the program is highly duplicative with other scholarship programs such as Pell grants.
  • Education is primarily a state and local responsibility, not federal.
  • The graduation rate at community colleges is only 21%, much lower than at other types of educational institutions.
  • There is a whole new marketplace of non-degree credentials such as competency-based programs and micro-certifications which often provide greater variety, quality and monetary value than community college programs.

These criticisms are largely valid and should largely be incorporated into the guidelines of the President’s proposal as they are drawn up and submitted to Congress.
CaptureBut they miss the larger point.  Today, about 30% of young people in the U.S. graduate from a four year college.  Tuition and fees at public college averages $9,000 per year while the comparable cost at private colleges is $31,000.  Loan debt for college graduates averages $27,000 per year, and is much higher for many.  And, according to the above chart from the New York Times, educational attainment in the U.S. lags behind the rest of the developed world.
Today’s increasingly high-tech and interconnected world puts a huge premium on educational attainment and America’s system of higher education is not meeting the challenge.  It is too expensive and not educating enough people, especially minorities and those with low-incomes.
The best way to address this problem in a cost-efficient manner, which is a necessity in today’s fiscal climate, is to expand opportunities at our 1100 community colleges. Community colleges are not only incredibly low cost operations, they accept all students and start them out at whatever academic level is necessary.  They provide the ideal venue to lift up large numbers of average and previously-failed students and turn them into productive members of society.  Boosting community college enrollments will, in turn, give our economy a big boost.
This is the real reason why President Obama’s free tuition plan should be taken seriously.  It will shine a strong light on an educational sector whose potential is greatly under-appreciated by many Americans.

Is Universally Free Community College a Good Idea?

 

President Obama has just proposed that two years of community college be free for all Americans “willing to work for it.”  Forty percent, or about nine million, of today’s college students are enrolled at one of America’s more than 1100 community colleges which have an average annual tuition of $3800.  First estimates are that such a program would cost about $6 billion per year when fully implemented. The advantages of such a program are:
Capture

  • The biggest advantage is to greatly increase college enrollments especially for the low-income, minority and first generation college students who typically attend community colleges.
  • It will make a contribution toward solving the college affordability issue. With tuition averaging $9,139 at public four-year colleges and universities and $31,231 at private institutions, students unsure of their future plans can start out with much lower expenses before deciding if they really want a four year degree. Equally important, it will put pressure on four-year institutions to do a better job of controlling their costs and focusing more strongly on what they do best.
  • Finally, such a plan will put great pressure on expensive for-profit educational institutions, whose primary source of income is from federal student loans, to demonstrate much more clearly their true educational value. Community colleges are likely to expand their course offerings under a big influx of new students and expand into specialized practical subjects where the for-profit institutions now have a virtual monopoly.

There is, of course, one nitty-gritty little thing to be concerned about with such an ambitious new education program.  How is it going to be paid for in our current era of high federal deficits and exploding debt?
I think there are two ways to approach this question.  First of all, the federal education budget is quite large, $141 billion for FY 2014.  We should be able to trim other education programs in order to pay for this new initiative.  This kind of budget discipline, which is absolutely necessary, might require cutting back the President’s proposal in order to reduce its cost.  This is quite appropriate.
There will always be good ideas for new programs which could prove to be quite valuable.  But they will need to be implemented very efficiently!

Why Nebraska Needs a Learning Community III. High Black Unemployment

 

Omaha’s Metropolitan Area Planning Agency has just released a comprehensive report, “Equitable Growth Profile of the Omaha-Council Bluffs Region,” describing the challenges facing the Omaha area economy in the next 25 years.
CaptureAs also reported in the Omaha World Herald  MAPA says that:

  • 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.

The Learning Community Is Not a “Failed Experiment”!

 

The “Learning Community” represents an experiment being conducted in Omaha, Nebraska, where I live, to determine whether the entire metro area can work together to close, or at least narrow, the academic achievement gap between low-income and middle class students. The extent of the problem is clearly demonstrated by the chart below which shows that starting in elementary school reading proficiency is lower for low-income students and this “gap” continues to get worse in middle school and then gets much worse in high school.  Not surprisingly, the same problem exists throughout the entire state of Nebraska to only a slightly lesser degree.
CaptureNow, six years after the establishment of the Learning Community by the Nebraska Legislature, the superintendents of the 11 LC school districts are putting together a comprehensive report on its operation.  There have been repeated complaints about the fairness of the LC’s common property tax levy because it has created many more losers than winners among the 11 districts.  There have also been questions raised about the costs and efficacy of the “open enrollment” facet of the plan whereby low-income students can transfer to an adjoining district and receive free transportation.  It is useful for the superintendents to address these issues in an organized manner.
What will be difficult, of course, is for all eleven school boards to come together in agreement on a final report to the legislature.  The Omaha World Herald reports today  on how that process is going. The superintendents are actually very positive about a new program for early childhood education as well as other elementary learning center programs housed primarily in North and South Omaha.
One superintendent has suggested to his Board that they might want to tell lawmakers that the Learning Community should be declared a “failed experiment” and dissolved.  But given the enormity of the achievement gap, as discussed above, it is unlikely that a majority of the K-12 educational leadership in Omaha will support such a negative recommendation.
The U.S. must figure out how to do a better job of educating children from low-income families and Omaha’s Learning Community is making significant progress in addressing this very critical national problem.

Let’s Devolve Federal Programs Back to the States!

 

Yesterday’s New York Times has an article “Battles Looming Over Surpluses in Many States”, pointing out that “unexpectedly robust revenues from taxes and other sources are filling most state coffers, creating surpluses not seen in years and prompting statehouse battles over what to do with the money.”  For example, in Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback is calling for full day kindergarten for all students.
CaptureThis raises a larger issue.  The states are recovering from the Great Recession and have lots of money.  We know that states spend money far more efficiently than the federal government, because states have constitutional requirements to balance their budgets.  On the other hand, the federal government is hemorrhaging red ink at a frightening rate which will just keep getting worse indefinitely until strong measures are taken.  It has taken on far too many responsibilities and spends money very inefficiently.
All of this suggests an obvious course of action to turn around a very bad situation.  We should devolve as many federal programs as possible back to the states.  Here are three good ones to start with:

  • Medicaid costs the federal government about $250 billion per year with another $150 billion being paid for by the states.  The problem is that federal support is a fixed percentage of what the states spend.  This makes Medicaid a very expensive program with no limit on the cost to the federal government.  A good way to solve this problem is to “block grant” Medicaid to the states and let each state figure out the best way to spend its own federal allotment.  Annual increases in the size of federal block grants could be tied to the rate of inflation in order to limit their growth.
  • Education spending at the federal level is a $100 billion per year (not counting student loans) item.  Just at the K-12 level alone there are over 100 individual programs to which states and school districts have to apply for funds separately.  Wouldn’t it make far more sense to “block grant” education funds back to the states so that this large sum of money can be spent more effectively and efficiently by targeting it at the biggest needs in each state?
  • Job-Training costs the federal government $18 billion per year for 47 different programs.  Again it would be so much more sensible to block-grant job training funds to the states and measure effectiveness by the number of workers hired.

There really are relatively simple ways for the federal government to operate more effectively and at much lower cost.  We need national leaders who are committed to getting this done.

How To Address Inequality: A Summary

 

I have had many recent posts addressing the problem of income inequality in the United States and what can and should be done about it.  Below is a chart, from the Congressional Budget office, which also appeared in my December 24, 2013 post.  It shows that all income groups have made gains since 1980 but that higher income groups have gained the most.
CaptureThis means that income inequality is increasing.  The question is what to do about it.  My own attitude is to try to provide more economic opportunity for low income people.  How do we do this in the most effective way?

  • First and foremost by stimulating the private economy to grow faster and therefore to create more and higher paying jobs.  This can be done with broad based tax reform (lowering tax rates offset by closing loopholes), fiscal stability achieved by eliminating deficit spending, expanded foreign trade for a more efficient global economy, and finally, immigration reform to give legal status to undocumented workers and allow more high skilled foreigners to immigrate to the U.S.  Such measures as these require action by Congress and the President.
  • Secondly, by improving human capital, meaning fixing underperforming schools, improving rundown neighborhoods, combatting inner city crime more effectively, providing at least part-time jobs to young people and combatting teenage pregnancy. Problems such as these are best addressed at the state and local level.
  • Finally, providing more motivation for the unemployed and underemployed to find jobs and hold onto them.  A very effective way to do this is with the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.  It supplements the salary of working adults with children.  New York City is conducting an experiment to see if a similar program will also motivate childless adults to try harder to find work and stay employed.

Conclusion:  the best way to address inequality is to give people the best possible opportunity to obtain full time employment.  This means 1) creating more jobs, 2) providing better qualified workers for all jobs and 3) motivating the unemployed more strongly to find jobs and hold on to them.
Government at all levels can help people find jobs, in one way or another, and therefore become more productive citizens.  This will lead to a happier, healthier, and therefore a stronger society.  All of us will benefit from this happening!