11/03/2014 04:10 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

Headed Down the Up Escalator: Why Education is Failing Our Students

In his Sunday Op-Ed last week, Nicolas Kristof observed that Americans are not riding up the education escalator, a useful image he has deployed for years. Instead, we are falling behind a host of other nations in terms of the percentage of our population earning a college degree, most recently evidenced by new O.E.C.D data. That's discouraging news.

We most assuredly need more Americans to hop on the education escalator to fill the workforce needs of the future and to enable a Democracy to thrive. But, our national problem involves not just getting on and then up the escalator; it is about the variance in the quality of the education provided to those who actually ride the escalator. Indeed, we know that from birth onward, those in the lowest income quartile receive fewer and poorer quality educational opportunities. And, data show that intergenerational education attainment and earnings correlate to paternal income and education levels based on a recent Brookings study. Our nation's inequality gap is growing.

In short, the escalator is broken for many students.

Let's start by changing the imagery right now. Education's promise only works if those living in poverty can actually get to the top. At present, access is a limited part of the problem. Misalignments across the pre-K - 20 pipeline, weak college advising, rising student debt loads, stopping-out of college without a degree leading to debt without a diploma, sizable loan defaults and programs that do not lead to quality employment are just some of the hurdles confronting low-income individuals. Poverty makes it tough to even get on the "up" escalator.

Instead of an escalator, let's try different imagery. Ponder a high-speed pneumatic tube system (also known as vacuum air tubes or VATs) that literally transports whoever enters the tube to an endpoint--something like an educational pipeline with power. Here's what is key: the transportation system is of high quality for everyone, and everyone is entered into the VATs. Think about the DC Metro map with its multi-colored primary color routes where people move along the routes to their chosen destinations; everyone can ride--rich or poor, educated or not.

Our job now is to provide the travelers whatever they need to progress through the VATs. That is no small task to be sure. But unlike escalators going nowhere fast, we could commit the time, resources, creativity and will to provide quality education to all Americans now. Innovation rests at the heart of this effort.

To be clear: I am not saying all students should obtain a bachelors degree. I am not saying that schools have to adopt identical curricula and identical pedagogies. I am not eliminating parental voice. I am not saying tenure should be abolished across the educational system. What I am saying is that all infants and children deserve the opportunity to travel along education's pipeline and while traveling, they are entitled to a quality education--quality program and quality pedagogy. Making that happen requires more than our commitment to student success. Deeds need to outpace words.

We all know that money and time put into quality infant and early childhood programming pays dividends; such opportunities need to be accessible for children and parents, whether they are living in a home, an apartment building, a homeless shelter or on the street. The data are clear: the gaps among children commence early. We need to put both dollars and human capital into these efforts to alert prospective parents to these opportunities. We need to identify "entry points" where the importance of these programs can be instilled, whether that is through pre-natal counseling or birthing centers or mid-wives or churches. Otherwise, we will be forever behind the proverbial 8-ball.

Here are several concrete suggestions to consider, suggestions that primarily describe how, working in tandem, the higher education community and the Federal Student loan system can contribute in fiscally sound and meaningful ways toward improvements in our educational pipeline. They are, I hope, examples of how we can leverage existing systems to ameliorate problems while providing collateral and perhaps previously disconnected or untapped benefits. These suggestions do require that we innovate, using college students and federal aid in new ways --ways that increase societal good, lower student debt and decrease loan defaults.

1. Those engaged in higher education can reflect on their crucial role in assisting in early childhood development through the use of college students to provide playtime stimulation, speech development and care-giving to infants and toddlers. Students could be trained to provide these services. For some students, these opportunities will have a carry-forward benefit when they raise their own children.

Colleges could enhance or provide certificate programs that train early childhood educators. Healthcare students--whether in nursing or radiologic sciences or pre-medicine--could work in the communities where they are studying as part of their curriculum, particularly in academic units involving maternity and community health.

Why not then offer a lower federal student loan interest rate to students engaged in these activities for a prescribed number of hours served? Given the relatively high interest rate on Stafford loans, the reduction of the interest rate by one or two percentage points would be meaningful. Or, one could extend the point in time when interest begins to accrue, based on length and quality of service performed by students. Rather than interest commencing immediately upon loan disbursement (and accruing) or within 6 months of graduation, what if compounding interest accruals were abated for a year or more? If any of these "concessions" curb default rates, the government is gaining dollars and society as a whole benefits.

2. We have focused too much attention on whether schools are public or private, charter or religious. Instead, we should be focusing on what happens within all these schools, regardless of their organizational format. Encouraging new teachers and working to support existing teachers with a commitment to child growth and development is key. We might consider further enhancing the debt forgiveness options for graduates pursuing teaching as a career. What if we offered different and more beneficial loan packages to students entering the education field--something that will provide benefits while they are in school as well as upon graduation (with a mechanism for changed terms if there is a change of heart.) This is an expansion of what is currently available through some programs offered by the federal government.

Consider also the possibility of student debt reduction for any college student who provides a designated amount for part-time tutoring for or mentoring of vulnerable youth. For colleges located in low-income communities, the benefits of an "army" of college students who could work would be incalculable. This approach would ameliorate the size of student debt loads while benefiting the community - and the cost to the federal government would not be enormous, particularly if this approach deterred stopping-out and defaults. And, this approach would lessen (not eliminate) the immediate need for more work-study money and a change in the work-study formula, ideas that are currently on the table.

3. Connect leaders across the educational spectrum so they develop respect for and can work and learn from each other. At Southern Vermont College, we did this recently - three school leaders swapped places and the learning was remarkable for each individual and their institution. The commitment to a "kink-free" education pipeline holds real promise. And, by working together, leaders do not blame the school level down the pipeline for the ills of the students; we are collectively responsible for smooth transitions.

Consider the benefits of college professors understanding how students in the K -6 environment are using technology so these professors are better prepared to teach the students of tomorrow. Ponder the value of high school teachers working with college professors to improve the alignment between high school and college.

And the cost of this approach is time. True, time is a precious commodity. But, if we spend the time working across the educational continuum, we stand a better chance of enabling more students to persist and achieve.

We can no longer tinker at the margins. That resembles "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." Narrowing the equity gap requires that we change up how we are doing things. We can be scared but the truth is that, from a national perspective, the perpetuation of poverty is vastly scarier than innovations that hold the promise--albeit not the guarantee--of meaningful improvements in educational access and opportunity. Let's take the risk and innovate; to use the lyrics from a well-known Country & Western song, Time's a-Wastin'.