Friday, April 24, 2009

The Cost of Weak Public Education

In Wednesday's New York Times, Thomas Friedman cites a new study by a respected global consulting firm that actually attempts to quantify the impact of our under-performing public education system on the national GDP.

The numbers are pretty striking:

If America had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and had raised its performance to the level of such nations as Finland and South Korea, United States G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher.

If we had closed the racial achievement gap and black and Latino student performance had caught up with that of white students by 1998, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher.

If the gap between low-income students and the rest had been narrowed, G.D.P. in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher. What strikes me most about these numbers - and the value they attempt to convey - is what they do NOT include.

Friedman (and the study he cites) is basically saying that improving public education will make the economy more productive - presumably paying for some (or all?) of the expenditures it would take to accomplish. This seems straightforward enough and easy to accept - but in my opinion, it doesn't go far enough.

Improving education would do more than simply grow GDP - it could also shrink the need for certain government expenditures (further offsetting education costs). For example, it seems logical that reducing the number of poorly educated Americans would result in decreased spending for law enforcement, welfare and Medicaid (which incidentally averages about 20% of states' budgets).

So to summarize- better education leads to a more productive economy and a reduction in demand for some of our government’s more expensive services. Fine.

So the important question becomes - how do you improve education?

I’m not going to lay out my personal opinion in this post – but I will say that I firmly believe that one of the keys is to get our best citizens teaching in our classrooms. This probably seems obvious to the point of being uninteresting – the question is how do you do it? Hopefully someday soon I can make the time to write more on this – but in the meantime – the end of Friedman’s article provides some evidence that substantial progress towards this goal is already being made:

Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, called the other day with these statistics about college graduates signing up to join her organization to teach in some of our neediest schools next year: “Our total applications are up 40 percent. Eleven percent of all Ivy League seniors applied, 16 percent of Yale’s senior class, 15 percent of Princeton’s, 25 percent of Spellman’s and 35 percent of the African-American seniors at Harvard. In 130 colleges, between 5 and 15 percent of the senior class applied.”

Very, very exciting.