Let’s talk education, inequality

After finishing a lecture on U.S. competitiveness, this week my professor turned the question of America’s future to the class. “What do you guys think is the most important issue for the new president?” he asked.

Perhaps surprisingly, the class’s responses quickly focused on K-12 education and racial inequality. Years of neglect have left our K-12 system in shambles, worsening the inequality in opportunities and outcomes between whites and minorities.

As I listened to my peers, I couldn’t help but think of a recent landmark in American history: the election of our first black president. Hours after the election, TV pundits asserted that it could mean the end of affirmative action. If Barack Obama could break the ultimate glass ceiling, then anyone could do it, right?

Wrong.

Without a doubt, Obama’s win spoke volumes about the progress our nation (or at least most of it) has made, mobilized and empowered youth and minority voters like never before, and should serve to inspire a new generation of bright minds of any race or ethnicity. But to think that it is enough to undo decades of inequality is naïve.

Obama is an exceptional individual with an exceptional background, spending the most formative years of his life in Indonesia and later in Hawaii, where he was raised by his white grandparents. His experience hardly seems representative of that of many minority children today.

Rather than just pat ourselves on the back because we elected a half black president, we should engage in a collective conversation on what needs to done to ensure that every American child has equal opportunity to be anything he or she would like to be. Aside from constituting a grave injustice, this issue also threatens our nation’s long-term competitiveness in a globalized economy.

So where to begin? It’s been almost 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, so institutionalized discrimination is no longer the issue. Rather than blame “The Man,” I suggest we take a two-pronged approach in this discussion: K-12 education and culture.

During the years my mother taught at Atlanta Public Schools, a majority black inner-city school system, she shared many sad and shocking stories with me. Sometimes I couldn’t believe how different my high school in Cobb County was from hers.

For weeks, enrollment in her class was so high that some students sat on the floor. She would often spend her own money to buy basic supplies. Arrests during the school day were not unheard of. During one of my visits, I watched a teacher talking on her cell phone in the hallway, periodically yelling at her rowdy class to “shut up.”

School systems like APS suffer from a host of problems with no easy fix. An obvious start is to increase funding to ensure that students can learn in smaller classes, with adequate supplies and well-trained teachers who care. Critics may note that the U.S.’s K-12 education expenditure per student is among the highest in the world at the same time that our performance ranks among the lowest, or that compared to other metro Atlanta school systems, teacher salaries at APS are the highest.

Still, money is an issue. Under the current rates of teacher salaries, there is no incentive for someone who graduates with a major in physics or mathematics to consider teaching as a career, and let’s face it—a B.A. in education is probably not enough to train the high-caliber teachers that our country needs.

Further, the current system places a large burden on professionals with specialized, non-education degrees to become certified. These barriers to entry can be lowered without risking teacher quality; on the contrary, this would increase it. Teachers also need to feel like they have adequate access to supplies and technology, and that their job security does not rest upon a standardized test.

The list of reforms that the K-12 system is in dire need of could go on, but another anecdote from my mother’s years at APS gives me pause. When asked seriously what they wanted to do after graduation, a majority of her students chose careers in sports and entertainment.

Why weren’t they aspiring to something different? An open discussion on culture needs to take place alongside that on education, and this is where I hope Obama’s historic campaign and victory will have the greatest effect.

Let’s start talking.