The Problem with American Public Education System

January 30, 2013
By x_yang BRONZE, Solon, Ohio
x_yang BRONZE, Solon, Ohio
2 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Let’s consider two American children: Matthew and Michael. On each child’s first day of kindergarten, their parents are with them at the bus stop, assuring them that they will be safe and happy at school, communicating that they will make lots of new friends and love their teacher and stressing the importance of school and education for their future successes. In the context of the K-12 education program in the United States, kindergarten really is the stepping stone for both Matthew and Michael to becoming well-rounded, educated individuals with the capacity to impact change in our society and in the global economy. Education is essential to breaking cycles of poverty that too often haunt American families.

However, the difference between these two young boys is that Matthew lives in an affluent suburb of a major city, but Michael lives in a dangerous, economically-struggling neighborhood in the inner city. In American public education, the educational trajectory and life trajectory of Matthew and Michael are drastically different from the very beginning – and they are difficult because Matthew and Michael come from different ZIP codes: one wealthy, suburban ZIP code and one poor, inner city ZIP code. If our country is truly dedicated to equality, we must ensure that we are working to close our national achievement gap in K-12 public education so that the lives and educational trajectory of students are not determined by where they live, but rather by talent and hard work.

According to Education Week, the achievement gap refers to “the disparity in academic performance between groups of students”, often assessed through standardized test scores, graduation rates, college matriculation and graduation rates, course selection and dropout rates. Let’s examine what this means for Matthew and Michael. According to Teachers College, Columbia University, by time they reach age 3, Matthew will have a vocabulary twice as large as Michael’s. As Matthew and Michael enter elementary and middle school, Matthew will be two years ahead of Michael in reading & math by the end of 4th grade and three years ahead of Michael in reading & math by the end of 8th grade. The statistics for Matthew and Michael at the end of high school are extremely severe. In American public schools, Michael is only about half as likely to obtain a high school diploma as Matthew is. When graduation rolls around (assuming Michael is fortunate enough to be in the half of his graduating class to earn a diploma), Michael’s math skills following the completion of 12th grade will be the same as Matthew’s math skills at middle school graduation at the end of 8th grade.
Matthew and Michael may not seem very different from each other, however, due to the ZIP codes of where they live in, the disparity in the quality of their respective school districts and the achievement gap that is only widening in American public schools, they are greatly distanced from one another in terms of their educational attainment, standardized test scores and ultimately life/career trajectory. If Michael does not make it to graduation, he is ineligible for 90% (and growing) of American jobs, more likely to enter prison and will continue the cycle of poverty in his family – making his own children more likely to drop out.
This is an urgent issue that should receive greater focus in the political arena. Across this country, there are many students like Matthew and Michael. Many of Michael’s peers are being short-changed in regards to the quality of education they are receiving. The achievement gap and public education has often been labeled as the “civil rights issue” of our time. Many of Michael’s peers are African-American, Hispanic or Native American, compared to the non-Hispanic white and Asian-American students that are found in Matthew’s school, creating a race difference in the statistics on the achievement gap. Of course, there are some students like Michael who make it on to college, graduate and go into meaningful careers that make a difference in the lives of people and our society. They may receive greater parental push, have higher personal motivation or may have just been the “luck of the draw”. However, what about students who aren’t the “luck of the draw”? Do they not have potential? Why should they be doomed to lower rates of success?
The United States has often been labeled as the land of liberty and equality. Our “American Dream” states that anyone, regardless of race, religion or economic circumstances, can make it in this country and become successful, if they put in the time, dedication and effort. But until we close our achievement gap, we are not making true on our promise. We can’t be truly equal if a child’s educational trajectory is determined by their race and wealth, but not their talent. Let’s spread awareness of the achievement gap and its consequences and take steps to act upon changing the status quo that plagues American public education today.

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