Former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spelling often invoked a compelling fact to drive home the importance of education in an increasingly competitive world: “In 1970, half of the people in the world who held science and engineering doctorates were Americans, but by 2010 projections show that figure will have dropped to 15 percent.”
The U.S. education system is not responding effectively to the investments made in countries around the world. A prime example is how it deals with top students. A recent survey shows that one in five high school graduates reported not being challenged by course work. One way to combat this is to expand the offerings of Advanced Placement classes and encourage enrollment.
The annual “AP Report to the Nation” shows that a record number of students are enrolled in accelerated courses. Washington state is among the leaders, with 15 percent of high school seniors earning college credits by passing AP exams. Five years ago, it was 10 percent. That’s certainly good news when comparing this state with others, but it won’t be enough to keep pace in a global competition.
A point of pride for the U.S. educational system is that we try to educate everyone. However, there are times when equity can be a barrier to excellence. The amount of money to educate American children is enormous, and tremendous amounts are spent trying to get underperforming students to achieve at grade level. That doesn’t leave much money for students who are capable of going above and beyond. In relative terms, many competing nations invest more in their top students.
The final report from the Basic Education Task Force exemplifies the American way. Programs for special education, English language learners, students with disabilities and struggling students are considered basic. Programs for highly capable students are still considered “enhancements.”
The report says: “Although access to accelerated and enhanced instruction should not be construed as an individual entitlement for any particular child, funding should be provided for up to 3 percent of each school district’s population.”
In 2005-’06, 5 percent of students were categorized as “highly capable” (and the number has gone up since). Local funding – derived from a patchwork of levies, federal Title V money, grants and endowments – accounted for approximately $30 million in funding, with the state kicking in about $6.7 million. Such local-centric financing raises its own equity issues, because it hurts students from rural and low-income districts. In 2005-’06, 71 of the state’s 296 school districts did not apply for or receive such funding.
The United States will find it increasingly difficult to compete globally, if it continues to treat its programs for the best and brightest students as add-ons and enhancements. The race still goes to the swiftest, but we’ve been holding them back.