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The achievement gap is more than a symptom of growing inequality in the United States -- it's one of the causes as well. (Night Owl City/flickr)

Inequality is rising on many fronts in the United States. The gap between rich and poor in our income, health and even knowledge is getting bigger and bigger, and these developments threaten to tear at the fabric of our society.

This fall came the news that the income gap between the rich and the poor is at an all-time high, surpassing even the Robber Baron Age. According to Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans grew 34 percent between 2009 and 2012 while those with incomes in the bottom 99 percent saw gains of only 0.4 percent in the same time period.

Those defending this state of affairs argue that it’s a price worth paying, since, on average, all Americans are richer. But this is like saying if Bill Gates walks into a bar, and the average wealth of the customers goes through the roof, everyone is better off.

These United States are one nation, indivisible. But we need to take aim at the forces that are keeping our nation from being its best and correct them.

An arguably more pernicious, devastating form of disparity is also rising: educational inequality. We can now add adult work skills to the growing number of domains, such as income and health status, that divide the haves and the have-nots. In a recent international report on adult skills conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Americans (between age 16 and 65) ranked below average out of 24 industrialized countries in the three tested domains of literacy, numeracy and “problem solving in technology-rich environments.” While some Americans at the very top know more than ever before, most Americans are falling behind.

Americans with the most cognitively demanding jobs performed well against their international peers, which is not surprising given the historic supremacy of elite American universities. However, even this edge appears to be eroding since current American college students also ranked poorly compared to their peers. Equally worrying, low-skilled Americans were more likely to be young: in the United States, 55-65 year-olds scored in the average range on numeracy skills compared to other nations but among 16-24 year-olds, they were dead last. The report cautions against over-interpretation of that finding, but it also suggests that knowledge disparities among Americans might be widening.

While all countries had some low-skilled adults (no country had fewer than 10 percent), results ranged widely by demographics and age and, in fact, there was more variation within individual countries than between them. In the United States, racial disparities were striking: 35 percent of blacks and 43 percent of Hispanics had low literacy skills compared to 10 percent of whites; the results were equally dispiriting for numeracy, with almost 60 percent of blacks and Hispanics in the low category compared to 19 percent whites.

This state of affairs shouldn’t be considered normative. Other countries are doing better; indeed, some states within the U.S. are doing better. (If Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science.) Educational powerhouses like Finland and Japan had the largest percentages of highly skilled adults. To be sure, those countries also have relatively homogeneous populations, with fewer foreign language-speaking immigrants.

All of the highest performing countries had low levels of income inequality and the countries with the fewest skilled adults, such as France, the U.K. and the U.S., had the greatest socio-economic disparities.

The causal relationship between income and skills is not clear, but it seems likely that poor performance and being poor are mutually reinforcing: ability gaps between poor and wealthy children open up very early and gain momentum over time as the richer children use their greater skill proficiency (such as a bigger vocabulary) to acquire yet more skills, thus magnifying the unequal outcomes. Children lagging behind in school become adults left behind in the workforce.

As the OECD reported noted, poor early education combined with limited opportunity to improve skills can create a “vicious cycle in which poor proficiency leads to fewer opportunities to further develop proficiency and vice versa.”

Children lagging behind in school become adults left behind in the workforce.

Americans above the upper quintile of income (roughly $100,000 or more) can insulate themselves to some extent from the discouraging experiences of those left behind. Their children can attend private schools, they can buy homes in cordoned communities, they can apply their communication and technology skills to find good jobs. But a low-skilled American workforce will eventually undermine our economy and national security within a generation, tearing at the fabric our society and unraveling our collective will.

We need to reassert that will through our commitment to institutions, like our public schools, that promote, not hinder, a civil society. We know there are financial dividends to society when disadvantaged children attend quality preschool programs. Why not save downstream social costs and enroll more kids? These United States are one nation, indivisible. But we need to take aim at the forces that are keeping our nation from being its best and correct them.

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson understood the pernicious force of inequality on democracy and saw public education as a way to redress it. As he explained to James Madison in 1787, “Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be attended to.”

We’re waiting.

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The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • brettearle

    I don’t get it.

    This article is great at pointing out trends.

    I do not see 1–not one–recommendation, suggestion, or idea for what to DO about it!

    • Lawrence

      What to do about it? The last paragraph summed it up. Please re-read.

      Kids should learn to read a book instead of spending time in front of the TV or Facebook watching cat videos. Less time playing video games and more time learning history, math and basic writing skills.

      Same old thing we heard since Thomas Jefferson and continue to hear during each campaign for presidency. There’s nothing new about it. What is new is the lack of will-power and discipline our “rich” country has for education.

      Even with limited resources learning can take place. School is free. Reading and books at the library are free. It’s the willingness to learn and get out of the rut that matters.

      Oh, and don’t forget parents have to instill the value of learning, be support systems.

  • Ralph850

    Oh I think I see a very blatant inference of what to do. Rather than find the root cause of these problems, our author here would have us throw more money down the public education rathole. Open your eyes, for 60 years we as a nation have spent, spent, spent. Where did it get us? De-centralize education. Get the government out of education. Break the teacher unions, then fire the hacks and hire good teachers.

    • carrots

      Your attitude captures precisely the reason our education system is failing our children. Let’s throw money at tax breaks for the oil corporations, in fact ALL corporations. Let’s invest public funds in sports stadiums that make huge money for owners and overpaid athletes. Oh and why don’t we invest public funds in designing, ordering and then not using fighter jets for a kind of warfare that is obsolete. We haven’t “thrown” money at our education since long before you were born and that’s maybe why you can’t see the problem clearly here.

  • gossipy

    Politics and unions need to go away in order to improve our educational system.

    • massappeal

      Your response doesn’t explain how Massachusetts can have public schools that perform so well at the same time that all (most?) of its public school teachers are union members.

  • guest

    Teachers are no longer the teachers we had in the 50s and 60s because those women can now take any job for which they train. We have a totally dysfunctional system that cannot handle the large class sizes or the students who are no longer matched according to skills. This hurts everyone.

    • massappeal

      For what it’s worth, public schools today are—by many measures—educating students better than two generations ago: lower dropout rates, higher graduation rates, higher test scores, more AP test takers, more AP test high achievers, higher college attendance and graduation rates.

  • keltcrusader

    Everyone here saying teachers are
    the problem, you need to open your eyes. The amount of Administrators, and their
    support staff, in schools have gone through the roof as well as their salaries.
    Teachers are the ones dealing daily with children from all walks of life, with
    parents who don’t care or have to spend so much time away from home trying to
    make ends meet that the kids don’t get the support at home. Combine that with
    kids hearing constantly that teachers are the bad guys or useless and that
    learning, in general, is overrated and disparaged daily on news shows. Is it
    any wonder, children go into classroom thinking they run the show and can treat
    teachers with contempt. You make teachers the scapegoats by problems caused by
    administrators, who have little to no experience in a classroom and who dictate
    what, where, when, and how things are taught. And this can change yearly
    depending upon if there is some “new way” of teaching that they have
    come up with to justify their jobs. And, god forbid, we hold kids accountable
    for their actions, or lack thereof, when parents go and complain and the
    administrators take their side instead of their own teachers. I would
    like to see you try doing your job without
    the proper tools or support from management and see how well it goes for you.

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