Several big names in ed reform, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and New York City School Chancellor Joel I. Klein gathered today to discuss a new McKinsey & Company report about the achievement gap’s impact on the economy.
Although much of what was said about low-income and minority students lagging behind in achievement was old hat, the report did back up the cost of the gaps with estimated dollar signs.
The researchers spoke of racial, income, and system-wide gaps, but emphasized that the international gap, which places the U.S. behind 24 other nations in math and 23 in science, affects all students and is most detrimental to the country. According to the research, if the U.S. had closed the international achievement gap by 1998, the GDP would be between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher than it is today. “Between $3- and $5 billion a day is being lost because of the achievement gap,” noted researcher Byron Auguste.
With the economic crisis still unfolding, it’s clear that the researchers and reform advocates hope such numbers will get people’s heads turning. Secretary Duncan weighed in that the report “calls for radical and fundamental change with a huge sense of urgency. . . If we don’t do this now, I don’t know if we’re ever going to do it.”
Rev. Al Sharpton, who works with Klein on ed-reform issues, spoke of achievement gaps as a civil rights issue and warned of people “standing in the doorways” to change, an idea Chancellor Klein echoed in a later interview when he mentioned traditional interests blocking systemic progress. Though neither would point to the unions specifically, Chancellor Klein faulted “a system that protects tenure and the way we compensate people. ... We’ve got to challenge those alignments.”
While all the panelists were in agreement about the necessity of change, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said that a damaged education system—not teachers—should be being blamed for the data presented. He likened the teaching profession to the legal one, saying that even the best attorneys have a 50 percent chance of losing their cases and that a loss is not always the reflection of skill level. But in a later interview, Chancellor Klein expanded on the metaphor, saying, “I tell you, if you’re on trial for your life, you want the lawyer to win cases.”