I've always viewed education as a moral imperative, and devoted my 20s (and early 30s) to promoting equity in education. I approached this work with passion and probably a bit of self-righteousness; and I suspect many folks outside of the education field with whom I've come in contact would categorize my work as that of a "do-gooder" of sorts, and give me a good pat on the back (with maybe just a hint of benign patronization).
However, the Alliance for Excellent Education released a report today detailing the inseparable link between equity in education and the future of the American economy, an argument that in today's economy just can't be ignored -- and perhaps the one I should have been waging all along.
The report argues that to equitably provide all students with a quality education is a critical factor in maintaining the United States' national economic strength and that failing to close gaps in educational achievement in light of the nation's changing demographics will have dire consequences for the American economy.
Half a century after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, we are still faced with drastic discrepancies in the number of students of color who are graduating college -- and as Jim Applegate of Lumina Foundation has posed, we need to ask ourselves why we are so comfortable with the numbers of students of color who are not going to school -- let alone graduating. We need to have "courageous" conversations about why, in the U.S., African Americans and Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic, yet have the lowest college attainment and college attendance rates.
This gap in education is reflected in rates of unemployment where in October 2012 unemployment for African Americans was double that of Whites, and double for those without an associate's degree or at least some college.
The Alliance for Excellent Education report states that these differential rates of unemployment are both an economic and a civil rights issue. As more African American and Hispanic students are failed by America's education system and drop out of school, they are also missing out on the opportunity to be full participants in society and the workforce. The economic benefits from a strong workforce have significant impact for not only the individual, but the country as a whole.
Research consistently shows that in addition to economic benefits gained from increased educational attainment, individual outcomes multiply to generate enormous benefits to communities, states, and the nation. Research released on the Talent Dividend by CEOs for Cities in fall 2012 found that if 51 of the largest metropolitan areas each increased their college attainment rates by just one percentage point, it would be worth $856 in annual per capita income and a whopping $143 billion in additional personal income for the nation.
We must begin to tap into the talent we know is present in every community in our nation. To close the achievement gap, we must design programs and policies that create clear pathways for ALL students to complete a college education and enter the workforce.
To close the educational achievement and attainment gaps it is essential that we:
• Advocate for a change in the distribution of state grants based on need
• Have more nuanced thinking about who receives grant aid
• Pull together and share promising practices that work
• Collaborate for collective impact
• Scale effective practice when feasible
• Engage in public, building around the importance of equity
• Drill down data, disaggregate by gender, race, and ethnicity, so we can have the right conversations
• Focus post-secondary institutions on student completion; enrollment is not enough
Regardless of our perspective on education as a moral or economic imperative, we can no longer afford to let education be a periphery concern in the United States.
As the Alliance for Excellent Education report states, equity and the economy are now (more than ever) inextricably linked. We must move forward as a united nation with a common commitment to closing the education and skills gap. And yes, it may mean confronting some ugly realities of our past (and present), and engaging in difficult and uncomfortable conversations, but we have an opportunity right now to lay the groundwork for future generations to grow and thrive in an equitable and economically strong nation.