April 23, 2009
Study Cites Dire Economic Impact of Poor Schools
By JAVIER C. HERNANDEZ
WASHINGTON — The lagging performance of American schoolchildren, particularly among poor and minority students, has had a negative economic impact on the country that exceeds that of the current recession, according to a report released on Wednesday.
The study, conducted by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, pointed to bleak disparities in test scores on four fronts: between black and Hispanic children and white children; between poor and wealthy students; between Americans and students abroad; and between students of similar backgrounds educated in different parts of the country.
The report concluded that if those achievement gaps were closed, the yearly gross domestic product of the United States would be trillions of dollars higher, or $3 billion to $5 billion more per day.
This was the second report on education issues by the firm’s social sector office, which said it was not commissioned by any government, business or other institution. Starting in fall 2008, the researchers reviewed federal and international tests and interviewed education researchers and economists.
In New York City, an analysis of 2007 federal test scores for fourth graders showed strikingly stratified achievement levels: While 6 percent of white students in city schools scored below a base achievement level on math, 31 percent of black students and 26 percent of Hispanic students did. In reading, 48 percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanic students failed to reach that base level, but 19 percent of white students did.
The New York City schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, who introduced the findings at the National Press Club in Washington, said the study vindicated the idea that the root cause of test-score disparities was not poverty or family circumstances, but subpar teachers and principals. He pointed to an analysis in the report showing low-income black fourth graders from the city outperformed students in all other major urban districts on reading (they came in second in math).
“Schools can be the game changer,” he said. “We are able to get very, very different results with the same children.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Klein was in Albany attempting to persuade legislators to leave control of the city’s schools in the hands of the mayor, a governance model adopted by the state in 2002 that is due to expire in June. A crucial measurement of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s seven years at the helm will be Mr. Klein’s progress in narrowing the achievement gap in a city where 32 percent of students are black and 40 percent are Hispanic.
While state test scores have shown improvement since Mr. Klein took office, eighth-grade scores on federal math and reading tests, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have not shown significant increases since 2002.
In an interview after the speech here, Mr. Klein said he would be the first to acknowledge that the city was not where it needed to be in closing the gap, particularly in middle schools. But, he added, there have been signs of progress among younger students, and he believed the city’s four-year graduation rates — 69 percent for white students, 47 percent for black students and 43 percent for Hispanic students — could reach state averages within five or six years.
He said it would require a focus on finding ways to recruit high-quality teachers.
Nationally, the gap in test performance between white and Hispanic students grows by 41 percent from Grade 4 through 12, and between white and black students it grows 22 percent, the report said. Students educated in different regions also showed marked variation in test performance, despite having similar demographic backgrounds. In Texas, for instance, schools are given about $1,000 less per student than California schools, but Texas children are on average one to two years of learning ahead of their counterparts in California.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, Mr. Klein’s partner in leading an alliance that is attempting to electrify the cause of making radical changes in education, criticized those who opposed their efforts.
“There are no sacred cows in this,” Mr. Sharpton said to the audience of 200 education leaders at the press club.
Arne Duncan, the federal secretary of education, told the audience that the report showed the need for robust data systems to track student and teacher performance; for alignment of American standards with those in other countries; and for incentives to keep good teachers and principals.
“In many situations, our schools are perpetuating poverty and are perpetuating social failure,” he said, adding that the federal education bureaucracy had often hindered past efforts.
He expressed support for the idea of radically restructuring the bottom 1 percent of schools in the country, possibly by closing and reconstituting them.
The writers of the study pointed to signs of optimism amid the dreary numbers. Byron G. Auguste, the director of the social sector office at McKinsey, which produced the study, said there was evidence that two dozen countries over the past two decades had significantly overhauled their educational systems and closed achievement gaps. He also pointed to high-performing systems in the United States, like those in Massachusetts and Texas. The trick, he said, would be to share effective strategies.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company