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← The "opportunity gap" in US public education -- and how to close it

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Showing Revision 11 created 01/03/2020 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. My first job out of college
    was as an academic researcher
  2. at one of the largest juvenile
    detention centers in the country.
  3. And every day I would drive
    to this building
  4. on the West Side of Chicago,
  5. go through the security checkpoint
  6. and walk down these brown, brick hallways
    as I made my way down to the basement
  7. to observe the intake process.
  8. The kids coming in
    were about 10 to 16 years old,

  9. usually always black and brown,
  10. most likely from the same impoverished
    South and West Sides of Chicago.
  11. They should've been
    in fifth to tenth grade,
  12. but instead they were here
    for weeks on end
  13. awaiting trial for various crimes.
  14. Some of them came back to the facility
    14 times before their 15th birthday.
  15. And as I sat there on the other side
    of the glass from them,
  16. idealistic with a college degree,
  17. I wondered to myself:
  18. Why didn't schools do something more
    to prevent this from happening?
  19. It's been about 10 years since then,

  20. and I still think about how some kids
    get tracked towards college
  21. and others towards detention,
  22. but I no longer think about schools'
    abilities to solve these things.
  23. You see, I've learned that so much
    of this problem is systemic
  24. that often our school system
    perpetuates the social divide.
  25. It makes worse what it's supposed to fix.
  26. That's as crazy or controversial
  27. as saying that our health care system
    isn't preventative
  28. but somehow profits
    off of keeping us sick ...
  29. oops.
  30. (Laughter)

  31. I truly do believe though
    that kids can achieve great things

  32. despite the odds against them,
  33. and in fact, my own research shows that.
  34. But if we're serious about helping
    more kids from across the board
  35. to achieve and make it in this world,
  36. we're going to have to realize
    that our gaps in student outcomes
  37. are not so much about achievement
    as much as they are about opportunity.
  38. A 2019 EdBuild report showed

  39. that majority-white districts
    receive about 23 billion dollars more
  40. in annual funding than nonwhite districts,
  41. even though they serve
    about the same number of students.
  42. Lower resource schools are dealing
    with lower quality equipment,
  43. obsolete technology
  44. and paying teachers way less.
  45. Here in New York,
  46. those are also the schools
    most likely to serve
  47. the one in 10 elementary school students
  48. who will most likely have to sleep
    in a homeless shelter tonight.
  49. The student, parent and teacher
    are dealing with a lot.

  50. Sometimes places are misplacing
    the blame back on them.
  51. In Atlanta, we saw that teachers
    felt desperate enough
  52. to have to help their students
    cheat on standardized tests
  53. that would impact their funding.
  54. Eight of them went
    to jail for that in 2015
  55. with some sentences as high as 20 years,
  56. which is more than what many states
    give for second-degree murder.
  57. The thing is though, in places like Tulsa,

  58. teachers' pay has been so bad
  59. that these people have had
    to go to food pantries
  60. or soup kitchens just to feed themselves.
  61. The same system will criminalize a parent
    who will use a relative's address
  62. to send their child to a better school,
  63. but for who knows how long
    authorities have turned a blind eye
  64. to those who can bribe their way
  65. onto the most elite and beautiful
    college campuses.
  66. And a lot of this feels
    pretty heavy to be saying --

  67. and maybe to be hearing --
  68. and since there's nothing quite like
    economics talk to lighten the mood --
  69. that's right, right?
  70. Let me tell you about some of the costs
  71. when we fail to tap
    into our students' potential.
  72. A McKinsey study showed that if in 1998
  73. we could've closed our long-standing
    student achievement gaps
  74. between students
    of different ethnic backgrounds
  75. or students of different income levels,
  76. by 2008, our GDP --
  77. our untapped economic gains --
  78. could have gone up
    by more than 500 billion dollars.
  79. Those same gaps in 2008,
  80. between our students here in the US
    and those across the world,
  81. may have deprived our economy
  82. of up to 2.3 trillion dollars
    of economic output.
  83. But beyond economics, numbers and figures,

  84. I think there's a simpler reason
    that this matters,
  85. a simpler reason for fixing our system.
  86. It's that in a true democracy,
  87. like the one we pride
    ourselves on having --
  88. and sometimes rightfully so --
  89. a child's future
    should not be predetermined
  90. by the circumstances of their birth.
  91. A public education system should not
    create a wider bottom and more narrow top.
  92. Some of us can sometimes think
  93. that these things
    aren't that close to home,
  94. but they are if we broaden our view,
  95. because a leaky faucet in our kitchen,
  96. broken radiator in our hallway,
  97. those parts of the house that we always
    say we're going to get to next week,
  98. they're devaluing our whole property.
  99. Instead of constantly looking away
    to solutions like privatization

  100. or the charter school movement
    to solve our problems,
  101. why don't we take a deeper look
    at public education,
  102. try to take more pride in it
  103. and maybe use it to solve
    some of our social problems.
  104. Why don't we try to reclaim
    the promise of public education
  105. and remember that it's
    our greatest collective responsibility?
  106. Luckily some of our communities
    are doing just that.

  107. The huge teacher strikes
    in the spring of 2019 in Denver and LA --
  108. they were successful
    because of community support
  109. for things like smaller class sizes
  110. and getting things into schools
    like more counselors
  111. in addition to teacher pay.
  112. And sometimes for the student,
  113. innovation is just daring
    to implement common sense.
  114. In Baltimore a few years ago,

  115. they enacted a free breakfast
    and lunch program,
  116. taking away the stigma
    of poverty and hunger
  117. for some students
  118. but increasing achievement
    in attendance for many others.
  119. And in Memphis,

  120. the university is recruiting
    local, passionate high school students
  121. and giving them scholarships
    to go teach in the inner city
  122. without the burden of college debt.
  123. And north of here in The Bronx,

  124. I recently researched
    these partnerships being built
  125. between high schools,
    community colleges and local businesses
  126. who are creating internships
    in finance, health care and technology
  127. for students without
    "silver spoon" connections
  128. to gain important skills
  129. and contribute to the communities
    that they come from.
  130. So today I don't necessarily have
    the same questions about education

  131. that I did when I was an idealistic,
    perhaps naïve college grad
  132. working in a detention center basement.
  133. It's not: Can schools
    save more of our students?
  134. Because I think
    we have the answer to that --
  135. and it's yes they can,
    if we save our schools first.
  136. We can start by caring about the education
    of other people's children ...
  137. And I'm saying that
    as someone who doesn't have kids yet
  138. but wants to worry a little bit less
    about the future when I do.
  139. Cultivating as much talent as possible,

  140. getting as many girls
    as we can from all over
  141. into science and engineering,
  142. as many boys as we can
    into teaching --
  143. those are investments for our future.
  144. Our students are like
    our most valuable resource,
  145. and when you put it that way,
  146. our teachers are like our modern-day
    diamond and gold miners,
  147. hoping to help make them shine.
  148. Let's contribute our voices,
  149. our votes and our support
  150. to giving them the resources
    that they will need
  151. not just to survive
  152. but hopefully thrive,
  153. allowing all of us to do so as well.
  154. Thank you.

  155. (Applause and cheers)