CFR Presents

Renewing America

Ideas and initiatives for rebuilding American economic strength.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Progress Report and Scorecard: Remedial Education

by Edward Alden
June 17, 2013

The CFR Renewing America Education Scorecard The CFR Renewing America Education Scorecard


The Renewing America Initiative is publishing today a new Progress Report and Infographic Scorecard on federal education policy entitled “Remedial Education.” There is no single issue that is more important to America’s future, and probably none where the challenges are greater.

The report starts with a simple assertion that is truer today than at any other time in American history: “Human capital is the single most important long-term driver of an economy.” In their seminal study The Race Between Education and Technology, Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin argue that U.S. investments in education in the early 20th century were the most important contributor to the country’s rise to global leadership. The United States was a pioneer in free and accessible public education, such that by the late 1930s nearly 70 percent of 14 to 17-year-olds were enrolled in school, more than twice as many as in the United Kingdom. The result was the creation a vast reservoir of human talent that allowed the United States to build the strongest economy and the strongest military forces the world has ever seen.

But that lead is long gone, partly because other countries came along and made the same or greater investments in public education, and partly because the United States has done far too little to protect the lead it had built. The report and scorecard are filled with examples of this slippage. Among 55-64 year olds, the leading edge of the baby boomers, a higher proportion of Americans has at least a high school education than any other country in the world; among those a generation behind however, American 25-34 year olds rank just 10th in the world in high school completion. Compared with other advanced countries, too few U.S. children are enrolled in pre-school education, and too many drop out of college before getting a degree.

One of the striking conclusions of the report is that the failure of federal education policy has been greatest in its core mission of reducing disparities in public education. While states still play a primary role in public schools, the federal government has long used its funding power to try to bring up the performance of children from poorer, under-served neighborhoods. While the report charts some progress in reducing racial disparities in education achievement, the gap in achievement by income is growing. In short, children from well off families are vastly more likely to succeed in school than children from poorer families. According to the report: “The real scourge of the U.S. education system—and its greatest competitive weakness—is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student’s academic career.”

There seems little question about the federal commitment to improving education. President George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” was among the signature initiatives of his eight years in office, and federal funding for education had increased sharply under President Obama before the recent belt-tightening. College students in particular have been beneficiaries of growing federal aid. And Obama continues to be ambitious – in his January State of the Union address he called for a big expansion in pre-school education, which has shown some promise in closing the achievement gaps.

The stakes are unquestionably high. In an advanced economy like the United States where economic growth is largely the result of innovation in products and processes, human talent is by far the most important ingredient. Immigration helps us import some of it, but the vast majority must be homegrown. If the United States can’t maintain its leadership in education, in the long run it will not remain a leader in anything else.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Jim Tavegia

    As an educator I can tell you that a lack of work ethic is what is hurting American public schools. Students in high school today care more about their cell phones than paying attention in class. They just can’t seem to put their cell phones away as it has to be in their hand every minute. And, then what do we do, we put free wifi in the school which only makes things worse. Cell phones are what is killing HS public ed.

    Students at the lower end lack the desire to achieve in school and have the lowest attention spans I’ve ever seen. Having little if any support system at home does not help either. Spelling and penmanship are also out the window.

    At the beginning of last year 70% of my incoming 6th graders could not do 100 single-digit multiplication problems, 2’s through 9’s in under 5 minutes. Yet, nearly 80% of them pasted their 5th grade mastery test. How can this be? My few A students could do them in under 4 minutes. How are you supposed to start Common Core multi-digit long division and multiplication with such deficiencies.

    Sometimes the patient is their own worst enemy. You can only lead the horse to the water, but you can’t make them drink. Those at the bottom of the academic ladder are receiving more resource help than ever before. More effort and attention in class from them is needed.

  • Posted by Doug Terry

    I am re-posting this comment here that was originally made on the NY Times online in the hope that some of the people involved in these reports might read it.

    Doug Terry
    Maryland, DC Metro area

    This is overall an excellent bit of reporting. Yet, there was at least one phrase that made me choke: “…despite the few who may slip in on family legacy…” First, it implies that there is no problem because it involved “the few”. The use of the word “may” is typical academic softspeak. Using the word “may” implies that, well, maybe it is happening, maybe not. We really don’t know, so let’s not worry about it.

    Garbage. Legacy admissions are nothing more than affirmative action programs for rich kids (mainly rich white kids). They perpetuate the advantages of an economic and social class. They are a scandal, hiding in plain sight.

    As for the idea of “academic merit” as the deciding point on who gets in to a better or elite, college, think for a moment. If someone grows up in a rural, barely performing school district and emerges with an active, alert, curious mind, the “academic achievement” that person might have demonstrated was just surviving the environment. That student, in fact, might have accomplished far more in doing so than someone from a rich suburb. The standards are set to accommodate the kids from the rich suburbs and anyone else who gets in is just a bonus. Achievement is relative.

    One reason for the lack of completion of college is the goal line keeps moving. Students from lower economic groupings are smart enough to know that the grand rewards of our society are NOT waiting for them if they get degrees from “off brand” colleges. The students jump for an immediate job opportunity over the potential to leverage a degree during their careers. Experience trumps academics, in their minds, and in many cases this is reflected in the labor market, at least until the highest positions of management are under consideration.

  • Posted by Juan Ruiz

    I definitely agree with Doug Terry; in my opinion the lack of motivation is due to the students’ perception of their chances of success. This is exactly how I would have thought and acted, had I been in school today. If I felt that all I would be able to reach regardless of my talent were a laborer’s job in some shop, I certainly would just chill in school and college.
    The truth is that more needs to be done to create a more equitable and just labor market where someone’s talent would be welcomed and valued regardless of the zip-code where the individual might come from.
    Unfortunately, this is not an area the government can exercise substantial influence over since companies are free to choose whoever they want. Given this reality, it is really up to private companies to find ways to promote a more cooperative and cohesive work environment between “minority” and “majority” workers and improve on their recruiting practices in a way that they display a true commitment to progress and opportunity.

  • Posted by Michael Shafer

    This report is to be commended for its focus on the macro-policy issues that largely define the quality of education different Americans receive and the different access they have to higher education. What at least this out-take from it does not note are the equally important issues of what is actually taught and how. I am now 60 and have spent not only 24 years in school, but 30 years teaching at university. In that time American education dramatically reduced its emphasis on math and science, and shifted increasingly toward either the “soft sciences” (as a political scientist I am qualified to use the term) and the truly liberal arts. More generally, American education has reduced its emphasis on teaching the logic of problem solving and systematic inquiry, the essential tools by which we innovate.

    The resulting system has obviously served us well in important ways; in many others we are living on the accumulated – and dying – human and intellectual capital of an older generation. For almost twenty years most American graduate programs in math, applied math, the hard sciences and engineering have been dominated by graduate students from abroad, largely because there are no American students qualified to fill those places. While a robust H1-B visa program was in place, American higher education trained the next generation of new American innovators. Today American graduate programs and scientific research support funds are training the next generation of the international competition’s innovators.

    There is no inherent reason for which American students cannot learn math, science or engineering. Evolution notwithstanding, it is unlikely that our young people have become notably stupider in the past twenty five years. On the other hand, it is clear that school curricula, university graduation requirements and the national expectations we hold and nurture in our young people have changed dramatically. In a world in which our children learn that success is personal celebrity, that technology just happens, and if it’s hard work, you’re not “gifted” for it and should try something else, the unpleasant fact of only practice makes perfect has no place. (The role of such attitudes is no place so start than in the auditorium of an advanced science course at any major public university in America. Almost without exception the students will all be Asian-American or South Asian-American, because their families insist on hard work and a science degree. Non-Asian students deliberately avoid such classes because they are “too hard” and “too competitive,” and besides, “what for?”)

    Getting back on track will require two fundamental changes in Americans’ attitudes. The first, suggested by the report, is a recognition of the public good nature of education. Quality education, especially quality higher education, are not private goods solely for the purchase of the rich; they are essential to the growth of the national wealth – upon which the wealth of the rich depends even more than the “wealth” of the poor. The second, suggested here, is a recognition that wealth does not just happen. Wealth is made, not merely passed on by a few who scored in the market.. In the end, the success of narrow financial markets cannot carry the United States; long-term success requires that Americans, all Americans, be globally competitive, that they possess the intellectual capital necessary to generate the far-above average returns to labor that they expect and that make us a rich nation together. Americans have to re-learn the old fashion notion that hard work in school is important for success and they have to begin to demand an educational system that demands that they work to learn what they need to know.

  • Posted by Curtis Valentine

    Once again, CFR has taken the lead on highlighting the relationship between education/workforce development and American economic competitiveness. The Report Card is an unbiased look at what America needs to do to compete with and surpass our competitors around the world. Thanks again!

  • Posted by Dale Satre

    As a high school senior, I definitely agree with Tavegia. The students of today are suffering from a symptom called “Dutch disease” in economics; they live in such a land of abundance, their intellectual capabilities suffer greatly. When I go into a class, the students are more interested in their phones than the teacher. And who can blame them? The content in high school very rarely satisfies the student, being just a regurgitation of stuff they already (or should) know. Most students are not active participants, they are passive, and let the work just flow over them.

    Many students are in a daze created by their digital matrix. They really care more about their artificial world of celebrities, crushes, and superficial trivialities than their world, its systems, and its situations. They have little incentive to learn; all my classmates believe Fate will make them millionaires, and/or they will effortlessly inherit their parent’s success.

    The school system’s content is formulaic, unhelpful, and inhibitive to learning. Quite frankly, the students who excel in their studies are very ignorant of the real world and what is going on. They can perfectly write 5 paragraph essays, complete with cliche analyses and trite phrases, but often cannot write prose for themselves. They can ace the SAT, but not tell you what is going on outside their high school. And the routines of school itself is also a factor. To learn, students need to be held accountable, but they must also have a degree of freedom to learn on their own, which is not provided.

    As for funding, sadly, poor schools are likely to stay poor. Schools are funded locally, and rich parents are unlikely to sympathize the plight of lower income schools. Unless there is a more equal distribution of funding (good luck with that!), poor kids will be likely to stay poor, if they rely on school to bring themselves.

  • Posted by Helena Williams

    As a former Texas Elementary Teacher, I am aware of the poor USA Public Education curriculum. There are several reasons why the system is failing.
    However, I would rather mention my experiences with an informal teaching tool I used when I was a teacher.
    When I was in the classroom with my pupils, during breaks I would give them a few National Geography Magazines . I was impressed by the motivation and curiosity several themes in the magazine would inspired the pupils. All of the sudden the attitude and the behaviour of most pupils had a positive reinforcement to ask and investigate questions on what, where , why, how, when over “x” topic. I feel very strongly that if in some school districts where most of the students come from poor economical and social backgrounds, with very poor motivation to learn, the NGM could be use as a curriculum teaching tool to motivate the learning atmosphere of these particular group of pupils.
    NGM is an encyclopedia in a light text. It is amazing the incredible selection of world knowledge that yellow rectangular magazine cover publishes each month. Just the photography alone, is inspiring to everyone. It would be worth to compose a learning curriculum to an elementary school program and train the teachers and parents . NGM covers the ‘3 R’s’ . It is a text that inspires language development, reading abilities, geography, all types of history from millenniums to the present and future, economics, mathematics and graphing, agriculture, sciences etc. I would love to participate in developing a curriculum using the NGM. Now days NGM is also published in the internet. Most schools have computers and iPads.
    It is appalling the percentage of poor knowledge among several segments of society among the USA population. I would blame it in the educational system. However, great emphasis on evaluating school district programs through testing has a priority.
    Why not inspire the youth thru an economical text and enrich their knowledge? It could benefit some politicians as well. it is a simple, cheap and fascinating teaching tool just at our ‘finger tips.’ The National Geography Magazine is my “BIBLE.” I am sure it could improve the American educational System before the World. It could be to many their UNIVERSITY TEXT!!! Let us give it a try…

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required