NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 18, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama is sending signals that education may be on the back burner of his administration.  However, we can't meaningfully address poverty or grow the economy as long as urban schools are failing.  Therefore, the most effective anti-poverty program we could devise for the long run would have less to do with income redistribution than with ensuring that poor kids get a first-rate education, from preschool on, says Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times. 

According to the authors of "The Race Between Education and Technology," the distinguishing feature of America, for most of our history, has been our global lead in education:

  • By the mid-1800s, most American states provided a free grade-school education to the vast majority of white children, by the beginning of the 1900s, American embraced high schools and by the 1930s, a majority of American children attended high school.
  • With the help of President Franklin Roosevelt, there was a push for mass education at the college level, and by 1970, half of American students were attending university, at least briefly.
  • For most of the 20th century, America prospered and the gap between the rich and poor diminished; thnen in the 1970s, the U.S. education system began to stagnate, with high school graduation rates stuck at about three-quarters of all students.
  • America's edge in mass education was the crucial competitive advantage that allowed the United States to build wealth while reducing income inequality.

So the problem with American education is not the good schools, it's the bad schools, says Kristof.  But there are ways to boost weak schools, including: end rigid requirements for teacher certification, make tenure more difficult to get so that ineffective teachers can be weeded out and award hefty bonuses to good teachers willing to teach in low-income areas.

If we want outstanding, inspiring teachers in difficult classrooms, we're going to have to pay much more, and it would be a bargain, says Kristof.

Source: Nicholas Kristof, "Why education must be at the top of Obama to-do list," Dallas Morning News, November 17, 2008; based upon: Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, "The Race Between Education and Technology," Harvard University Press, June 2008.


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