By Ruth Conniff
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Racial inequality in education may be keeping America back.
Unemployment is high these days, especially among unskilled workers, and it looks as if our nation’s schools are not preparing students for the global economy.
According to a study from the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, U.S. students lag behind many other countries in math and reading skills. African-American and Latino students, in particular, are falling way behind.
America’s 2011 high school graduating class gets a bad report card, and it reflects poorly on everyone. Only 32 percent were proficient in math and 31 percent in reading. A mere 11 percent of black students were proficient in math, as opposed to 50 percent of Asians, 42 percent of whites, 16 percent of Native-Americans and 15 percent of Latino students.
And in reading, only 18 percent of Native-American students, 13 percent of black students and 4 percent of Latino students were proficient, compared to 40 percent of white students and 41 percent of Asian students.
Compared to the rest of the world, the United States ranks 32nd in math. Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan and Korea have a majority or near majority of students performing at the proficient level, unlike in the United States.
Meanwhile in reading, the United States ranks 17th, with 10 countries significantly ahead. In Korea, 47 percent of the students are proficient in reading, with other high-ranking nations including Finland (46 percent), Singapore and New Zealand (42 percent), Japan and Canada (41 percent), Australia (38 percent) and Belgium (37 percent).
The bottom line is that the United States could have both smarter students and a higher GDP growth if it increased its math proficiency levels to that of Canadian and Korean students. In the long term, this could translate into an additional $1 trillion in the economy each year, the study said.
And although white students in the United States are also underperforming when compared to a number of other advanced nations, America will have to seriously grapple with an educational system that produces a large achievement gap based on race and ethnicity, and a pipeline to prison for youth of color.
This is not the blatant racism of hate crimes and racial epithets, but rather a silent, systemic, institutional racism that allows inferior schools to fester in poor, black and brown urban areas.
We need more investments in schools, at a time when tea party governors, state legislators and members of Congress seek to slash billions of dollars in funds to education.
Americans will rise and fall together based on whether all of our children are learning. Right now, they are not. And we can’t tolerate this any longer.
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