10/19/2012 03:24 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

How to Interpret America's Report Card

Last week, First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy organization, released a report on the condition of children in the United States. America's Report Card 2012 presents data about how many, and what percentage of, U.S. children live in poverty, face food insecurity, lack stable housing, and so forth.

Amid many distressing facts, certain statistics jump out. Nearly a quarter of American children under age five live in poverty. More than 8 million children do not have regular access to adequate nutrition. Only 29 percent of eligible children ages 3-5 are enrolled in Head Start. Nearly 7 million youth between ages 16-24 are disconnected, i.e., not working or in school. The report gave America a C-, but that grade needs to be interpreted. Many children in America receive excellent upbringings, but many are raised in failing environments. Statisticians call this a bimodal distribution.

America's Report Card 2012 sets itself the task of educating Americans about the status of its children, and in this respect it is a wake up call. But the report limits itself to the policy recommendation of "we must do better by our children." Here, I'd like to connect dots and draw lessons.

First lesson: communities and not just individuals are responsible for child well-being. On moral grounds, we ought to make sure that everyone in life gets a fair chance. The report shows that 42.4 percent of African-American children live in poverty compared with 14.5 percent of Caucasians. The basic structure of our society is unjust if more than 40 percent of one race starts their lives and educational careers in misery. We ought to ask ourselves what kind of governmental policies we would endorse if we did not know our particular lot in life. Most reflective people, I think, would agree that we would want to make sure that every child has a chance to grow up healthy and happy.

But there also pragmatic reasons for supporting economic redistribution to ensure every American child a decent upbringing. Members of the bottom stratum of our society start off life without adequate nutrition, medicine, or shelter and eventually become "disconnected," which is a polite way of saying that they are likely to join gangs, do drugs, commit crimes, and fill prisons. Unless we want to place rich and poor communities behind barbed wire, thereby destroying any sense of national unity in our country, we ought to determine how to bring as many Americans as possible into the system.

Second lesson: we ought to reconsider evaluating teachers based on how their students do on standardized tests. Politicians and businessmen want a scapegoat for problems in schools. Teachers should be evaluated, but using standardized test stores for up to 45 percent of their evaluation is myopic. There are many factors that determine how children do in school, including many outside of the teacher's control, such as whether the students are trapped in the juvenile justice system or have had their families divided because of immigration policies. Blaming teachers for poorly performing students may allow the rest of us off of the hook too easily.

Third lesson: the Common Core State Standards may distract us from other problems. A hundred things, let us say, have to go right for children to get a good education. Children need full bellies, a good night's sleep, warm clothes, medicine if they're sick, safe neighborhoods, clean air, loving parents, motivated teachers, friendly peers, and so forth. I recently attended a sales pitch by a publishing house on how its program satisfies the Common Core State Standards. The saleswoman explained that if our school district bought her books, tests, study guides, and consultations, then all of our children would get into college. I do not begrudge this woman for making a living. But children in our school district are already getting into good schools, and, as I have argued elsewhere, this kind of commercial program actually demoralizes teachers and drains initiative from the classroom.

Our school district will be fine because we have smart and committed administrators, teachers, parents, and students. But I worry that poorer school districts will waste precious resources trying to satisfy the Common Core State Standards and that politicians will imagine that they've solved the education crisis by endorsing this program.

Fourth lesson: the Republican Party platform on education is fiscally prudent and civically disastrous. The 2012 GOP platform states that parents are responsible for the education of their children, though administrators and teachers must be held accountable. Rather than spend, or waste, so much money on education, our nation should experiment with charter schools, open enrollment requests, virtual schools, technical programs, vouchers, and tax credits. Many of these points are worth pondering and in some cases embracing. But the Republican Party platform on education refuses to look at the broader context in which children are educated. An example of this mentality is Mitt Romney's call for cutting aid to Sesame Street, even though this television program has a proven track record of teaching poor children English, math, and civic skills.

There are other lessons to draw from America's Report Card 2012. For now, I commend First Focus for helping us see the big picture of how the U.S. is failing too many of its kids -- and how this is a problem for all of us.