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Equity by the Numbers

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A two-day symposium at TC documented the costs of educational inequity--economic and otherwise. Did you know that:
  • A high school dropout earns about $260,000 less over a lifetime than a high school graduate and pays about $60,000 less in taxes? And that annual losses exceed $50 billion in federal and state income taxes for all 23 million U. S. high school dropouts, ages 18 to 67?
  • Increasing the high school completion rate by just one percent for all men ages 20 to 60 would save the U. S. up to $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime? And that a one-year increase in average years of schooling for dropouts would reduce murder and assault by almost 30 percent, motor vehicle thefts by about 20 percent, arson by 13 percent and burglary and larceny by about six percent?
Those were just a few of the compelling findings presented as part of "The Social Costs of Inadequate Education," the inaugural research symposium of TC's Campaign for Education Equity, held in late October at Columbia University's Alfred Lerner Hall.

Of course, statistics were only a part of the story.

"One thing you can never measure is a kid without a dream," keynote speaker Congressman Charles Rangel told the audience, revealing that he himself had dropped out of high school in the 1940s. "I know what it's like not to have an education."

Michael A. Rebell, Executive Director of The Campaign for Educational Equity, called for new and more comprehensive approaches to promoting educational equity. "We need to look into each social policy area that directly impinges on children's ability to learn," Rebell said. "And we need to ask, -'How can current resources best be directed to improve student functioning? Where are additional resources necessary?' "

One place to begin may well be early childhood education. "It seems as if preschooling is one of the few things on which economists agree," said researcher Clive Belfield of Queens Community College. "The two promises of preschool are that it will enhance equity by improving outcomes for disadvantaged children and that it will greatly reduce social costs of inadequate education. Education economists like to say that no other intervention can promise what preschool does, because other interventions are either too expensive or too late."

But several speakers stressed that members of disadvantaged groups must also improve their strategies for success. "I know kids whose social activities consist of talking about reading," said Ronald Ferguson of Harvard's Kennedy Center. "Among black kids, that's not seen as -'black.' We've got to change that."

That sentiment was echoed in 10 break-out sessions in which audience members proposed action responses to the new data. "We should talk about parental training, not parental education," said Rosa Agosta, a former president of the New York State Girl Scouts Council and the mother of a teenaged daughter. "A parent from the Dominican Republic or elsewhere may be highly educated, but still not trained in the ways of public schools in the U. S. That's why I wish there had been more discussion of Ron Ferguson's work. The room gets real quiet when someone starts talking about real differences in how people live and behave."

The consensus at the end of the two-day symposium was that a problem with causes as diverse as educational inequity calls for an equivalently comprehensive solution. "We should be talking about -' No Family Left Behind' and 'No Community Left Behind,' " said symposium chair Henry M. Levin, William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College.

Will Americans truly be persuaded to see educational equity as a moral imperative? Can the economic and moral arguments be linked in their minds? "Americans value the quality of opportunity," said Irwin Garfinkel of Columbia's School of Social Work. "This country may be stingy with other social services, but for much of the 20th century we were the leading welfare state in terms of education. That's because education is about looking forward."

Rangel took it a step further. "You can't be hopeless and patriotic. Half of our youth are unable to volunteer and serve because of a lack of a high school education," he said. "Poverty is an issue this country cannot afford. It's not just a social issue; it's common sense. I hope all of this makes this the day when TC made up your mind you weren't going to take it anymore."

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