Why Educational Equity Is Important

By Allan C. Jones

“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” (John Dewey)

Every child deserves an excellent education. This statement is supported by an impressive collection of studies, reports, articles, and comments by national leaders. If you believe that a person’s intellectual capacity is racially, ethnically, or culturally predetermined, you may as well stop reading at this point. If you don’t believe it, then you can’t be in favor of a program that tacitly accepts some schools will be better than others and seeks equity by balancing access instead of raising quality.


If you believe that everyone has the potential for greatness, then you must also want to ensure that every child is nurtured to achieve that greatness. And you should not only want it on moral or ethical grounds; you should also want it on economic grounds. There are many reports on the economic and social benefits of providing equitable access to quality K-12 education. America has some excellent public schools, but that is not enough. America’s future is at risk as long as we continue to allow poor schools to exist.

The news programs and business publications constantly remind us that we are increasingly competing in a global economy. Our ability to compete is directly related to how well we prepare each individual citizen to participate. America’s K-12 public education system is the most important single factor in preparing citizens to compete. The personal costs of a poor education are the first manifestations of the problem of educational inequity. But, as the McKinsey report demonstrates, the issue is much more than a collection of individual, personal costs. The lack of quality education for large numbers of our population has a previously hidden cumulative national cost that is staggering. 

In April of 2009, The McKinsey & Co. published, The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools. The report summarized the issue as follows:

This report finds that the underutilization of human potential in the United States is extremely costly. For individuals, our results show that:

  • Avoidable shortfalls in academic achievement impose heavy and often tragic consequences, via lower earnings, poorer health, and higher rates of incarceration.
  • For many students (but by no means all), lagging achievement evidenced as early as fourth grade appears to be a powerful predictor of rates of high school and college graduation, as well as lifetime earnings.

For the economy as a whole, our results show that:

  • If the United States had in recent years closed the gap between its educational achievement levels and those of better-performing nations such as Finland and Korea, GDP in 2008 could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher. This represents 9 to 16 percent of GDP.
  • If the gap between black and Latino student performance and white student performance had been similarly narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher, or 2 to 4 percent of GDP. The magnitude of this impact will rise in the years ahead as demographic shifts result in blacks and Latinos becoming a larger proportion of the population and workforce.
  • If the gap between low-income students and the rest had been similarly narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been $400 billion to $670 billion higher, or 3 to 5 percent of GDP.
  • If the gap between America’s low-performing states and the rest had been similarly narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been $425 billion to $700 billion higher, or 3 to 5 percent of GDP.

Put differently, the persistence of these educational achievement gaps imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession. The recurring annual economic cost of the international achievement gap is substantially larger than the deep recession the United States is currently experiencing. The annual output cost of the racial, income, and regional or systems achievement gap is larger than the US recession of 1981–82.

The quotes above are a very small sample of the informative material and analyses presented in the report. If you need to make the financial case for investing more heavily in K-12 education, the McKinsey report is a fantastic resource.

3 Responses

  1. Talking about digital equity and social justice is some of what I do all the time. In the last two weeks, all of a sudden, there are tons of article proclaiming that we must do something.

    I am the chair of the Digital Equity and Social Justice SIG of SITE.org and I think at the last meeting we had three participants. Let me say that all of the SIG meetings are at the same time.. so unless it is a passion few people attend.This year was prepared to kill the SIG and then young people with passion found the meeting and protested.

    How do we prepare future professors and educators for the problems? Does your university or college create awareness? Or do we have to wait for some government or foundation report? Just asking.

  2. That first paragraph is one of the best and most succinct statements of our education problem that I have read.

    We should have been well past having to make the economic arguments you have so neatly enunciated. Just compare the cost of an incarcerated citizen with one who is gainfully employed in a job with a real future. Poor education results in higher crime rates and lower employability. Of course, the moral imperative here is obvious and should be enough without having to do accounting.

    If anyone reading this believes that the GDP numbers add, they should know that these categories overlap. That is, you will not get a 17 to 30 per cent increase in GDP from those four effects. Indeed, the first one subsumes the remaining three. The thing that is not obvious is the ripple effect of better educations and the synergy of having more well educated people. The net result could well be more than that sum.

    So, what are we waiting for?

    One radical idea is to pay teacher salaries that include their retirement benefits today. Given that many teachers have retirement at 35 years of service at 80% of salary and live 35 years in retirement, that means that you can give every teacher an 80% raise. (I fudged a bit here because actuarial issues intercede, but the point is valid). To be fair, it would be difficult to do this for existing teachers. Let them keep their salaries and pensions. A $60K salary would become a $108K salary, but the teachers would be responsible for their own savings, e.g. IRA.

    This idea may never work, and I cannot say that I endorse it wholeheartedly. However, we must attract the best teachers possible, teachers who will take risks in the classroom. Higher salaries and fewer benefits will tend to attract that sort of person. With a larger applicant pool, schools can be more selective in hiring. These new teachers will also be more willing to give up tenure, which can be replaced with contracts that extend in length as teachers’ years of service increase, another possibly impossible idea.

    I wish I could just wave the technology wand and make great schools happen. The core of all teaching is the teaching faculty. No amount of technology layered on them will make everything shine. Raise the quality (meaning innate ability, training, and passion) of our teachers, and technology becomes an optional add-on that can boost learning of those who just won’t have enough teacher face time. In other words, we can have excellent education without technology and have great education with it. The proviso here is that not all technology is created equal.

    So it is that we must also have excellent administration and support staff to analyze the surfeit of technologies available in education and reject the poor ones while marketing the chosen ones to the faculty.

    Someday, we may see the full blossoming of educational technology. When that happens, these arguments will be less important because that blossoming will disrupt everything in education as we know it. If we can also develop the societal will to support it, everyone will have equal access to education, which should be a fundamental right similar to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    Come to think of it, a poor education actually may deprive a young person of exactly those three rights and far too frequently does.

  3. […] Why Educational Equity Is Important […]

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