The Solution to America's Economic Future Is Standing Right in Front of Us


America is changing. By 2050, racial minorities are expected to outnumber whites for the first time since the colonial era. 

This news has been met with applause, soul-searching and, in some circles, fear. But while most of the questions we ask about this future focus on how a new era of diversity will change America, perhaps the better question is, "How should America change to prepare?"

The answer is complicated. But undeniably, it centers on fixing our public education system. Because as it stands today, it's a disaster. To explain why reinvigorating America's schools is so important to our social and economic future, the Center for American Progress has produced a report and interactive titled "The Economic Benefits of Closing Educational Achievement Gaps," which it provided exclusively to Mic.

What the report says: Close the gap.

Specifically, closing the educational achievement gap — or, the disparity in academic success between groups of students — is vital to securing our economic future. How? As it turns out, closing this gap between black and Hispanic children and their white peers is not just good for those kids, it would be good for everybody. 

But it would be especially beneficial for America's economy. If the gap closes by the year 2050, for instance, our economy stands to grow an estimated 5.8% faster than current Congressional Budget Office estimates project — resulting in an additional $2.3 trillion in gross domestic product between 2015 and 2050.

Center for American Progress

A better workforce: This growth rate — an average of $551 billion per year over the next 35 years — would be largely due to the increase in worker productivity that would result from a better educated, higher-skilled labor force. "The gains would be quite stunning," report co-author Robert Lynch told Mic. "In fact, the gains are so large that they'd more than pay for the policies required to bring them about."

Center for American Progress
Center for American Progress

So what's standing in the way of these gains? A slew of factors, ranging from political inertia to the far-reaching wages of racial inequality, prevent these changes from becoming an immediate reality. Change is still possible, of course. But the barriers are persistent, not to mention that much of the problem stems from the tender years before a child even sets foot inside a classroom.

"There's no silver bullet here," Vanessa Cárdenas, vice president of CAP's "Progress 2050" initiative, told Mic. "There's no single solution. The only way we're fixing the problem is through a holistic approach."

So while education is just the beginning, fixing the academic achievement gap is a vital step toward maximizing our economic potential as a nation.

America's public schools are a broken mess: Not only do we lag behind an embarrassing chunk of the developed world in math and science proficiency, our schools are marked by such rampant racial inequality that Brown v. Board of Education may as well never have happened.

Racial segregation clearly persists. Because school funding is doled out based on local tax revenues, disparities disproportionately affect students of color. Thus it's not particularly surprising that white kids today score an average of 20 points above the Program for International Student Assessment's baseline for math skills, while Hispanic kids score 30 points below and black kids bottom out at 57 points below.

Center for American Progress

It might just get worse: As America continues to grow more diverse, these disparities will likely persist. Assuming large-scale policy changes are not implemented, the only difference between today and 2050 will be that instead of half of American children being systemically disadvantaged due to their race, significantly more than half will be — because for the first time in history, significantly more than half will be children of color.

"These inequalities that affect the school system are deeply embedded in our society before the schools," says Chris Ryan, a middle school teacher in Brooklyn, New York, whose name has been changed to comply with school guidelines about communicating with the press. "And I think that the public school system, done right, can be the solution to inequality in our country."

But Lynch adds that focusing on K-12 reform misses a crucial part of the achievement gap battle. "Achievement gaps exist before kids enter schools," he told Mic. "We've learned that minuscule differences [in cognitive and behavioral development] exist until around age two, then it starts to split [between white kids and their black and Hispanic peers]. The gap throughout kindergarten through 12th grade remains relatively constant."

Cárdenas attributes this in part to minimal early education program options for poor black and Hispanic families. "These kids are not starting school ready," she said. Many white families, she added, can afford to send their children to pre-school and enroll them in developmentally valuable extracurricular activities. Many black and Hispanic parents lack this option, either because their work schedules won't permit it or they cannot afford it.

Center for American Progress

There are solutions to this problem. An irony of our current political climate is that a very specific set of policy shifts would help narrow this academic gap significantly — from universal Pre-K to immigration reform to better ESL programs allowing non-English speakers to better integrate into the education system — but as we can see, few people are doing anything about it.

"There's not a lot of forward thinking going on here," Cárdenas said. "Right now the emphasis is on cutting. The latest GOP budget proposal is a prime example. They want to cut Head Start programs, Pell grants. I'm not encouraged by the current conversation."

There are other steps, too. Reforming the criminal justice system — which disproportionately targets and incarcerates black and brown people — is important, as is raising the minimum wage and increasing paid sick leave, both of which let families have better access to resources and more time spent with their children, Cárdenas said. All play into a holistic approach to closing the academic achievement gap and improving the economy.

But then there's what happens after graduation. Say the achievement gap is closed by 2050 and test scores for black and Hispanic kids are indistinguishable from whites. There's still the issue of racial wage gaps and hiring discrimination, which indicate black and brown employees and job applicants are routinely discriminated against regardless of educational attainment. Thus, whether people of color fully reap the benefits of this projected economic growth is far from clear.

Nevertheless, something has to be done. If we don't take the education gap seriously today, we risk living in a nation where systemic inequality is not just the norm — as it arguably is now — but is exacerbated by the sheer number of people who suffer from it.