For the nation’s 50 million public school students, another school year is about to begin. Are they ready? Even if they get new backpacks, notebooks, and pencils, most of our students are not prepared to do the schoolwork expected of them.
Two out of three American eighth graders can neither read nor do math at grade level. Schools serving low-income communities perform particularly poorly on a whole range of measurable outcomes including language, reading, and mathematics — critical skills for performing well and succeeding in society.
If these struggling students were in South Korea or Finland, they would be sent to summer school and given extra help to catch up. In the United States, rich kids who struggle academically may get extra help through tutors and enrichment programs. But many kids from low-income families not only do not get the tutoring they need to excel academically, they also go hungry. Six out of seven kids who rely on free lunches during the school year do not get a free meal during the summer. When children don’t have enough food, their brains don’t fully develop, leaving them even farther behind when they return to school in the fall.
Our failure to adequately educate so many of our children comes with a heavy price tag. Economists estimate that allowing one in five American children to grow up in poverty results in lost earnings and extra costs of nearly $500 billion per year.
Substandard education is not the only cause of poverty, but it plays a major role. As undereducated kids enter the work force, businesses struggle to hire qualified workers. And without appropriate work options, some youth drift into crime and wind up in our prison system. Expenditures for police and prisons are much higher than they would be if we provided a quality education to all our students.
Solving the problem of education inequity should be at the top of the national agenda. A child’s zip code should not be her destiny.
Parents can help by reading and talking with their children regularly, and making sure they are getting the help they need to succeed in school. Many churches have tutoring programs, and most schools welcome volunteers. If more Americans knew how many children are struggling, more of us would be advocating for the needed reforms.
It’s encouraging to see public figures like Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals tutoring kids after school at J.O. Wilson, a Washington, D.C., elementary school where only about 25 percent of kids are meeting reading and math benchmarks. Garland also encourages other lawyers and clerks to volunteer.
Let’s resolve to do better by our kids. There is no magic formula that will solve all our education problems. But a good starting place for Christians is the Hope for Students Pledge, in which Americans promise “to pray for our nation’s students, learn more about how education inequality is crippling our future and explore ways to make a difference offering Hope for Students.”
There is reason for hope. As more Americans pray for students and their teachers, educate themselves on the issues and get involved, more of our children will grow up to reach their full God-given potential. That will be good news for all of us.