The following introductory paragraphs are from an article that was originally printed in the March 2010 edition of the journal for the National Association of State Boards of Education. The fully downloadable version comes courtesy of the National Association of State Boards of Education and The State Education Standard.
In an arresting report released last spring, McKinsey & Company, the noted management consulting firm, issued a stark assessment of the severe price America pays for various achievement gaps, namely those between America and better-performing nations, between black and Latino students and white students, between low-income and other youngsters, and between low-performing students and the rest. According to McKinsey:
“…(T)he persistence of these educational achievement gaps imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession. The recurring annual economic cost of the international achievement gap is substantially larger than the deep recession the United States is currently experiencing.”
Compounding the challenge facing our schools is the reality that basic academic skills are necessary but not sufficient prerequisites for productive workers who are coveted by employers. An illuminating survey conducted by the Conference Board found that the most important skills in the opinion of employers are professionalism, teamwork, oral communications, ethics and social responsibility, and reading comprehension. Looking to the future, the employers surveyed project that the portfolio of necessary skills over the next five years will expand to include foreign language, critical thinking, creativity/innovation, and appropriate choices about their health and wellness.
Academic data tells us that meeting these employers’— and the country’s—needs will be a huge challenge: Minority students, principally Latino and black youngsters, have surged to 42 percent of public school enrollment nationally, up from 22 percent merely three decades ago. Despite heartening gains in some school districts, these economically indispensable young people, along with low-income students generally, consistently lag farthest behind academically. As recently as 2007, roughly half of all 4th graders who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches read “below basic” as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Nationally, about one-third of students drop out of school, with the rate for black and Latino youngsters considerably higher at roughly one-half. Many students repeat grades. Less documented, but no less ominous, are the large numbers of students who lose interest in school and give up trying to achieve. Some schools are failing so miserably that they have been labeled “dropout factories.”