As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, it is vitally important that the updated law address the significant achievement gaps that plague the nation’s most underserved populations: students of color and low-income students. Providing these students with a high-quality education that prepares them for college and a career is a moral and economic imperative. Today, students of color comprise the majority of children in U.S. public schools. And as the demographic makeup of the United States continues to shift, the percentage of children of color in public schools is set to rise. By 2044, people of color will make up the majority of the country. Simply put, people of color will be the fuel that drives the engine of America’s future. That being the reality, the United States cannot afford to have a significant portion of its population unprepared for tomorrow’s job market.
As the reauthorization process comes to a close, lawmakers must keep in mind that a strong education system is vital to America’s global competitiveness—both now and in the future. Furthermore, the benefits of closing academic achievement gaps are not just exclusive to communities of color but also to the country as a whole. A Center for American Progress analysis shows that closing educational achievement gaps for people of color, particularly black and Latino students, would result in greater gross domestic product, or GDP, growth and increased state and federal revenues. The analysis also concluded that closing academic achievement gaps would add $20.4 trillion in GDP between 2014 and 2050, $4.1 trillion in federal revenues during the same time period, and $3.3 trillion in state and local revenues during those same years.
Strong statewide accountability systems are critical to ensuring that states, districts, and schools provide all students with the resources and supports they need to graduate ready for college and a career. Yet, the plans put forth by the House and Senate significantly rollback accountability. In fact, the House version of the ESEA reauthorization does not require states to do anything to support their struggling schools. The Senate bill at least requires state intervention for underperforming schools, but in its current form the proposal ignores achievement gaps between groups of students. As the reauthorization process continues to move forward after the House-Senate conference committee decided on a proposal yesterday, it is vital that states are held accountable when students are underperforming.
A recent CAP analysis uncovered significant achievement gaps throughout the nation affecting millions of underserved students who would go unnoticed under the proposed accountability systems. These gaps will have a long lasting negative impact, particularly as communities of color become a larger percentage of the U.S. population. CAP’s analysis of schools across the nation finds that millions of low-income students and students of color attend schools with substantial achievement gaps. These gaps could be potentially masked by state accountability systems if either the House or Senate bills becomes law. This would leave a considerable portion of students lagging well behind their peers.
CAP’s analysis found that during the 2012-13 school year, nearly 1.2 million black students and 1 million Hispanic students attended schools where their performance is at least 10 percentage points below the schools’ overall performance. Additionally when examining schools with high- and low-proficiency rates, CAP found that high-performing schools—which are defined as schools with the highest overall proficiency rates in the country—have larger achievement gaps than schools that posted some of the lowest proficiency rates. These findings suggest that policymakers need to rethink the indicators with which they determine school performance in order to ensure that students of color do not slip through the cracks.
Increasing educational attainment and achievement for all Americans is key to reducing the country’s growing inequality, even more so for communities of color that on the whole have less educational achievement, earn lower wages, are less likely to own a home, and have significantly lower levels of wealth than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. While various factors contribute to these unfortunate outcomes, policymakers must do everything possible to increase the educational attainment and achievement for communities of color in order to greatly improve these circumstances. Moreover, as members of the baby-boom generation continue to retire it is increasingly up to people of color to replace them in the U.S. work force. The 21st century global economy needs workers with the high tech and advanced skills to compete. Ensuring that all students in U.S. schools have a proper and rigorous education is essential to eliminating the skills gap that looms on the horizon.
Ensuring that the ESEA reauthorization includes the appropriate safeguards to address the needs of all students is a critical step toward a securing a strong future not only for them and their families but the entire country. Policymakers must find the proper balance of local, state, and federal involvement to ensure that investments are targeted to close achievement gaps and students are not left behind.
When it comes to increasing educational attainment there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It is imperative that school districts, states, and the federal government effectively collaborate to ensure that schools properly serve the nation’s children.
Over the past several decades, communities of color have made impressive strides in terms of education, wages, employment, and many other indicators of success. Unfortunately, even after these gains, communities of color continue to lag behind the non-Hispanic white population on most of those indicators. Education, however, is one pathway toward closing these disparities. Legislators must mandate resource allocation in a manner that gives every student the opportunity to succeed.
Jamal Hagler is the Research Assistant for Progress 2050.