Bill Kelvie, April 18th, 2021

Over half of all births to young adults in the United States today occur outside of marriage, and most are unplanned. This trend is driving a growing class divide. At the top are “planners,” who are marrying and having children only after establishing a career. At the bottom – and increasingly in the middle – are “drifters,” who are having unplanned children early, outside of marriage, and without the stable support of a second parent. This divide is contributing to rising inequality and decreased social mobility for both young parents and their children.

            Generation Unbound, Drifting into Parenthood Without Marriage, Isabel V. Sawhill

Overview: While the US Education system has come under severe criticism for being behind other developed countries, there are vast differences in the quality of educational outcomes, and, worse for many, opportunities.  At the upper end of the socio-economic scale, we produce college-ready students who can score at the highest levels of international testing.  At the lowest end we fail to prepare kids for meaningful employment. The problem is at least partially rooted in an unstable family structure that lacks the presence and support of a second parent. Can schools realistically overcome the high degree of difficulties of the low end of the scale?

This paper reviews the large gap between a high performing school and one that serves a low income community. It draws lessons from Finland, a recognized leader in public education, which focuses on supporting families and teachers with practices that dramatically improve outcomes. Ultimately it suggests that two very different systems will be required: one to serve the 30 to 40% of the population that is college bound and another for the majority of students who will more directly enter careers.

The author is writing this paper not as an educator but as a technologist concerned about the velocity in which the United States is shedding its once formidable lead in science and technology. China is producing five times the STEM graduates as the US but also has thoroughly taken the lead in high end manufacturing, the arena which once produced well paid, blue collar jobs for Americans who did not have a college degree. The result is that 44% of workers here make $10.22 an hour or less and, as the COVID virus exposed, we are reliant on other countries for critical goods such as pharmaceuticals, ventilators and semi-conductors.

The challenge for schools is how to educate and motivate children to prepare for employment when technology is going to eliminate or radically redesign half of all existing jobs, creating a lifelong competition to obtain and deploy new skills or suffer relegation to low wages and outright obsolescence.

Schools, particularly Title 1 schools, are not well positioned to catch up. Title 1 is a label describing the level of poverty of students whose schools are eligible to receive federal aid, including free or reduced cost lunches. Typically 40% or more of students are from families at or below low income levels (defined as $21,720 for a family of three in 2020).

Only a little over one third of the children born into low-income households actually live with two parents, as this chart from the Brookings Institute shows:

In the top quintile 95% of kids have two parents at home. Further, in an obvious demonstration of income inequality and wage stagnation, the highest level of annual income for the bottom quintile is $19,277 up by only 3% in forty years, while the bottom level of the top quintile is $212,578, up by 67% since 1980, and essentially making the bottom annual income every month. This does not begin to factor in the income of the elite 1%.

A Tale of Two Schools

To illustrate the gap, consider two high schools in Maryland: Walt Whitman in Bethesda and Dundalk High, just outside of Baltimore. Bethesda is one of America’s wealthiest cities and is the home of the National Institutes of Health as well as very high property values. The median income is triple that of Dundalk, which is really a rust belt town on the Chesapeake that was once home to workers in the world’s largest steel mill. Unfortunately, It has been spiraling downward for decades resulting in a poverty level is 14.6%, more than four times that of Bethesda.

In examining the performance of the two high schools, it should be noted that Dundalk teachers are paid slightly more than Walt Whitman’s and that student/teacher ratios are actually better in Dundalk. This is due to a commendable effort by the state of Maryland to level funding between wealthy and poor towns. But despite this, Whitman is ranked second in the state and 105th nationally while Dundalk is in the bottom quartile. All of Dundalk students receive a free lunch, reflecting the high degree of poverty.  It also should be noted that Dundalk is approximately half white students and one quarter each black and Hispanic.

In terms of education, the most salient fact is that Whitman students nearly tripled the state average math score of 20 while Dundalk scored an average of only three.  Additionally, Whitman graduates 98% of its senior class while Dundalk only 73%. Other attributes are contrasted here:

The goal of parents in towns like Bethesda is to smooth the way for their child to be accepted at an elite university, preferably their alma mater. Preparation can begin prenatally with enhanced nutrition and perhaps by listening to classical music to sooth baby in utero. A principal at a similar elite school in Massachusetts cited the intense pressure kids put themselves under in the grueling “Ivy or Die” race. This is reinforced by parents who accost teachers for giving a grade of an A- rather than an A.

The difference in actual spending by elite parents to advantage their children is staggering. The Meritocracy Trap, arecent book by Daniel Markovits, a professor at Yale, calculates the investment in an elite child’s education versus the median. Starting with pre-kindergarten ($15,000 for very wealthy three year-olds) the gap grows to over the next 16 to 20 years to more than $1,150,000. This includes private schools and colleges as well as an annual enrichment activity expenditure of $9000 for items such as music camp and math tutors.

This huge investment gap essentially overrides the natural aptitude of children, permitting kids from the upper quintile economically to graduate from college at far higher rates than those born into the lowest.  Robert Putnam, in Our Kids, The American Dream in Crisis, notes that family background matters more than eighth grade test scores. The wealthiest quintile graduates 30% of students with low test scores vs only 3% from poor families. Wealthy high scoring students graduate from college at 74% versus only 29% in poor families. This gap belies the notion of “bootstrapism” and puts us at a competitive disadvantage with China, which is already producing five times the number of our STEM graduates from its highly rated universities.

In Loco Parentis

 In place of one of the missing parents and in support of the overworked remaining one, how much can be done to close the huge gap that is evident by age five?  Finland provides an answer in its world leading public education system as well as its focus on policies that support the family. Similar to the US, Finland now has the majority of children born outside of marriage (58% of first born in 2016). It also has the lowest birthrate of the Nordic countries at 1.4 babies born by Finnish women, which is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 and the US rate of 1.77.

Elements of Finnish policies that are child centric include those that begin at birth:

  • Generous paid parental leave, up to 328 days that can be shared between mothers and fathers
  • High quality, subsidized daycare
  • Universal Pre-school (the US is only halfway there)

And those that continue in school:

  • Excellent teacher training and selection, with good but not extravagant pay. In fact, teachers receive salaries slightly below the median for college graduates
  • No standardized testing – principals are trusted to evaluate the performance of teachers and students. Learning is not disrupted by weeks spent teaching to the test
  • Continuity in teachers – students may have the same teacher for up to six years
  • Guidance counselling that prepares students for career paths that do not require college, which is the majority of students
  • Psychological Counselling for children who require it
  • Free lunch for all students to avoid stigmatizing children from financially distressed families
  • Limited Homework, freeing students to enjoy a rich set of after school activities and freeing teachers from the burden of correcting it.

The Finnish philosophy appears to focus on the wellbeing of the whole child, which sounds obvious but contrasts with the pressure put on US schools, such as Dundalk High through multiple choice, high stakes testing in a few subjects and with a strong bias to rote learning – something that is much less needed with the advent of smartphones and Wikipedia. This is particularly so because of the premium placed on innovation and creativity.

Perhaps the most important factor is the availability of the same teacher for multiple years, creating a surrogate parent with a deep understanding of each child and a responsibility to bring out their best.

Application to the US: First we should dispense with the notion that Scandinavian models derived from an homogeneous population do not translate because of our heterogeneous one. Finland has grown its immigrant population to 7% and includes some of the world’s most desperate peoples, such as Somalis and Syrians. This does not approach the US as a nation of immigrants, but with our own declining birthrate (American women are averaging only 1.77 births, slightly above Finland) it is purely logical to invest in the population we have, even if they do not physically resemble the passengers on the Mayflower. This fact is generally recognized in Europe, where similar declining birthrates are stimulating a desire to invest in the relatively few children who are being born.

Secondly, American children thrust into the unstable family situation, described by Isabel Sawhill above, frequently suffer from trauma starting at birth which undermines their readiness and ability to learn by age five.  Contributing factors include: domestic violence, sexual abuse, homelessness, neglect and gunfire in the neighborhood. Aggravating these circumstances are poor nutrition, housing and environmental exposure such as lead poisoning. While these problems are typically associated with inner-city minority populations, it is also apparent in white, rural areas as vividly portrayed in J.D. Vance’s important book, Hillbilly Elegy.

Equally jarring is Coming Apart, a book by Charles Murray that contrasts Belmont, modelled after a town outside of Boston, where everyone appears to follow Sawhill’s suggestion that success emerges from the pattern of:  1). Graduating high school and potentially college, 2). Landing a good job, 3).Getting married and only then, 4).Having a planned for baby. The opposite appears true in Fishtown, drawn from a German and Irish neighborhood in Philadelphia which has lost its industrial base and where white males don’t work, are frequently incarcerated and father their kids accidentally out of wedlock.

The returns to society by investing in children early are substantial in the US because the costs of failure are large and can be measured in terms of expenditures for welfare, incarceration, and permanent disability which will be discussed further below. The elements of a system to better support the education and development of our children begin at birth with the same policies that most advanced countries have adopted:

  • Paid parental leave
  • High quality Day Care
  • Universal pre-kindergarten for three and four year olds    

Once school begins, the following practices could be adopted to compensate for the lack of parental involvement in:

  1. Extend the school day – to provide supervised care for kids from 8 am to 5 pm, knowing that the alternatives away from schools are fraught with perilous options. Note that the US has one of the shortest school days in the world. This time can be used to provide the tutoring and mentoring that wealthy families routinely make available. Two or three meals could also be provided.  (It should also be noted that Finland has a short school day).
  2. Extend the school year – from 180 days to 220 days, similar to fast rising Asian economies such as China and Korea. The majority of our kids will not be indulged in lengthy global travels or enriching summer camps and the extra classroom time can be used to counter the learning loss that typically occurs over the summer. This can also leverage remote learning skills acquired during COVID for families that do travel. And again, this is not done in Finland, which has a relatively short school year.
  3. Greatly reduce or eliminate high stakes testing – which narrows the focus to a few subjects that are obviously important – math, reading and science – but that emphasize rote learning, memorization and “teaching to the test”. This diminishes opportunities for collaborative projects, creative subjects such as music and art and, importantly, our history and civic responsibilities.
  4. Emphasize Extra-curricular Activities – in Our Kids, Putnam documents the large disparity between the activities available to children in wealthier districts which are 50% more than those of poorer ones. Sports and drama clubs are magnets which attract and motivate students and can also instill discipline and teamwork. Putnam also cites that poorer children receive twice the negative messages from their parent versus praise, which can be offset in extra-curricular activity.
  5. Employ more male teachers – Fathers are all too absent in the home life of children who are enrolled in Title 1 schools. By recruiting more male teachers, a father figure could emerge to help kids, particularly boys, develop. This is more crucial because boys typically have more issues adjusting to and completing school. Male teachers could also be part of a student’s life for two, three or more years, as in the Finnish model, to further strengthen the relationship and also reduce the anxiety of dealing with new teachers.
  6. Provide more guidance counsellors to develop opportunities for kids who will not go on to graduate from college. Only 13% of adults in Dundalk have a four year college degree and those who try college and fail to graduate are left with a pile of debt and employment that is not better than those who only graduate high school. In the meantime, high wage jobs in skilled trades go begging. Additionally, provide courses which build life skills, such as parenting, nutrition and personal finance.
  7. Provide psychological counselling for kids who are traumatized or depressed, which may well be the majority in a Title 1 school.
  8. Encourage innovative school models – Finland made a laudable and conscious choice to invest in the highest quality public schools to encourage and support its young democracy, deliberately eschewing private academies. In the United States, the most promising innovations appear to come from magnet and charter schools, which could be accelerated by removing the high stakes testing that forces a one-size-fits-all template. An excellent example of a magnet school that has great utility for Dundalk students is Sollers Point Technical School which is actually co-located with Dundalk High. It provides graduating students with certificates in high wage careers such as cyber-security, automotive systems, and the building trades. Unfortunately, like most magnet schools, it has many more applicants than available seats.
  9. Inject more technology into the classroom – very few kids will go on to be computer or data scientists, but many can develop attractive employment skills in high school by learning the standard tools of business today: spreadsheets, text processing, presentations, network and collaboration tools. Additionally, the gains in remote learning skills by both educators and families should be sustained to supplement the ability to learn outside of school.

How to Pay – A Rough Calculus

 The program described above will obviously cost money. Sadly and ironically, the US is already at the top of per student expenditures at $16,268 vs a global average of $10,759 (2017 data). Also ironically, Finland spends at the global average while getting outstanding results. This disparity echoes the fact that the US has the world’s highest cost healthcare system but one that results in a shorter lifespan compared to other OECD countries. Further, US teachers are paid relatively poorly versus other college graduates, which is in contrast to Finland, where teachers are only slightly below the mean.

So additional investment dollars will, in all likelihood, be required to catch up. However, research indicates that the payoff is substantial. Henry Levin, professor of Economics and Education at Columbia University, has developed a thorough analysis that demonstrates the contribution of more high school graduates far outweighs the costs of their dropping out. In the High Economic and Social Costs of Educational Failure, presented to the OECD in 2010, Levin shows that high school graduate can produce a net present value, economic benefit of $127,000 versus a high school dropout, taking into full account the additional investment of required enhancements such as universal pre-school and smaller classroom sizes.

The gain reflects the present value of the higher average income and therefore higher tax payments made over a working career of a graduate as well as lower costs to society such as incarceration – almost 80% of prisoners lack a high school degree – and welfare including SNAP (Food stamps) and TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). All of these costs are more heavily drawn on by high school dropouts contributing to these national totals:

  • Court and Incarceration costs…………………………………$109 Billion
  • TANF……………………………………………………………………….17 Billion
  • SNAP……………………………………………………………………….57 Billion

                                                    Total Annual Costs Nationally $173 Billion

 Levin’s analysis does not include the even larger return of the 30% to 40% of high school graduates who will go on to achieve either an associates degree or a Bachelors. The gap in lifetime income exceeds $1 million, and is therefore an even larger economic benefit.

Levin also reminds us that beyond the economics there is the issue of social equity in these disparate outcomes that should be addressed because it is the right thing to do.

Final Thoughts

 America has evolved into a meritocracy – but only for some – that emphasizes and rewards education while devaluing those who fail to obtain college degrees or, significantly worse for outcomes, are not born into the declining number of two parent families. Public schools are tasked with bridging this gap but despite massive initiatives such as No Child Left Behind do not appear to be making real progress. It is too much to expect them to overcome.

Recently I wrote a paper describing the burgeoning gap with China in the education of STEM graduates in the race to dominate the most attractive industries such as Artificial Intelligence and Electric Vehicles. Their threat to our economy and national security is truly frightening.

But most American students will not be in the vanguard of scientists, technologists and analysts that will compete with China and other global powers. And unless things change radically, most students will not obtain four year college degrees. In reality they will not live in a home with two parents and 20% will be at or below the poverty line. Getting these kids ready with solid skills in computers, math, reasoning and also softer skills such as teaming, communicating orally and in writing, is crucial. Particularly so if we are to reclaim the economic high ground of actually making advanced products rather than merely designing and marketing them.

Potentially the best outcome for kids of all levels of educational achievement is to become parents who together plan for their own children thereby breaking the cycle. A better educational experience could build this aspiration.

Significant investment will be required to address the needs of students to advance them to the point of being successful in the future economy at anything other than low wage service jobs. The techniques to do so are known but not thoroughly executed such as universal pre-kindergarten, as is done in almost all OECD countries but for less than half here.  Apprenticeships starting in high school have permitted Germany to retain its global leadership in high end manufacturing and are done here but not at a level close to what is required. The payoff, as Professor Levin has calculated is very large for each student who avoids dropping out.

We are the world’s oldest continuous democracy and one that successfully invested in education from revolutionary days, first in free public education, then the extension of required education to high schools which propelled our lead in the industrial era and later, after World War II, in providing free college tuition to our returning veterans. All of these investments paid huge dividends and there is no reason to believe that the future will be any less rewarding.




In Loco Parentis: Adjusting the Starting Line for America’s Students

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