Grading Schools or Grading Ourselves?

We have been increasingly occupied in recent years with giving grades to schools and those who work in them -- from the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers' effectiveness, principals' leadership capacity, or even the characterization of an entire school as "failing," to actual A-through-F grades for schools in Florida and elsewhere. A recent report, however, suggests that this is misguided. We ought to be grading ourselves as a nation and as a society. First Focus and Save the Children have done so, and found us severely lacking.

As The Huffington Post reports, "America's Report Card 2012' Gives U.S. A C-Minus On Ensuring Educational Opportunities, Providing For Children." Specifically, the comprehensive report assesses U.S. treatment of its children in five categories: economic security, early childhood, K-12 education, permanency and stability, and health and safety. The introduction's title, "We can do better," lets us know how bad the rest is going to be. It notes that, "A majority of American voters believe, for the first time in history, the lives of children have become worse over the last ten years. And they expect this generation will be the first to fare worse than their parents." Unfortunately, "They are right."

In terms of economic security for the children who are held up by both presidential candidates as the future of our country, the United States earns a "D." Among the statistics driving this near-failing grade are average 2011 child poverty rates of 21.9 percent for all children, 24.5 percent for children ages five and under, 33.7 percent for Hispanic children, and 38.6 percent of African-American children (42.4 percent for those 5 and under). Almost one of every two young children lived in a low-income household. The Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and expanded SNAP benefits were bright spots, but they are countered by sharp reductions in cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and by severe shortages of support for child care due to insufficient funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), and for housing through the federal Section 8 program.

We earned a slightly better "C-" in early childhood education, but only due to the relatively positive C+ for early learning programs, which offsets the D in access to child care. As might be expected, even the former is far from positive: state funding for preschool programs has fallen by $60 million from its peak, with one state dropping out, nearly half of children in low-quality programs, and only a handful of three-year-olds served in any program or those under three served in Early Head Start. Child care statistics are abysmal: only one in six eligible families received assistance through the CCDF, TANF, and the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) in 2009. As a result, 22 states had waiting lists for child care assistance in 2011, and of those, 12 had seen decreases over the prior year. Again, there are bright spots: the Affordable Care Act, and the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Fund. But the latter is tiny, and presidential candidate Mitt Romney has vowed to repeal the former if elected.

The "C-" in K-12 education is particularly telling, because it highlights the enormous disparities between higher- and lower-income students and between majority and minority students, in both resources and outcomes, over a decade into the standards-and-accountability movement that promised to substantially narrow them. For example, "In 2011, 91 percent of Caucasian 4th graders scored at or above basic level in math, compared to 66 percent of African-American students and 72 percent of Hispanic/Latino students." This section is most critical, however, of disparities in school resources, "at-risk and disconnected youth," and educational attainment, all of which earn "Ds."

We receive a "D," as well, with respect to permanency and stability. We punish and incarcerate minors for minor offenses, fail to prevent and address issues of child abuse and neglect, and deported a record number of parents of immigrant children this past year, many of whom ended up in foster care.

Finally, American children's health and safety gets a "C+," though this is somewhat misleading, with the near-universal health insurance coverage's "A-" skewing the grade upward. With respect to access to health care and preventive services, the "C" grade reflects the trouble many children face who have insurance in obtaining basic care. High rates of low-birthweight births, infant mortality, and childhood obesity and low and disparate breastfeeding rates, among others, spurred a "C-" in public health and safety. And environmental health got a "D," with asthma rates alarmingly high among low-income and minority children.

The report makes unflinchingly clear the lack of opportunity holding back many U.S. children:

"While the state of public education in America has experienced some promising trends in student learning and achievement, there are still persistent achievement gaps in education outcomes and gaps in access to rigorous coursework that disproportionately impact students of color and low-income students. When looking at the entire spectrum of education for children and youth, these gaps are the result of barriers to learning and development that begin before a child enters school and present real challenges to their progress throughout their lives in school and afterwards."

It also makes a strong case for a Broader Bolder Approach to Education -- investing in our youngest children before they reach kindergarten, ensuring that their health and nutritional needs are met, and providing enriching afterschool and summer options to avert learning losses, combined with in-school reforms that equalize the playing field and give low-income children the same enriching experiences as their higher-income counterparts, would result in a much-improved report card for us all.