What a child experiences in school over thirteen or fourteen years contributes mightily to the development of that child, and currently American children experience very different things depending on the relative wealth of their neighborhoods.
Curriculum matters. A curriculum rich in the arts, music, and foreign languages strengthens and develops the brain. Wealthy parents, because of what most experienced themselves somewhere along the line in school, understand this, and send their children to schools that offer strong, well-rounded programs, resulting in graduates whose intellect has had the opportunity for healthy growth, and whose desire to learn and energy for continuing to develop is intact. These are the people who will be best-poised to tackle the daunting 21st century problems of the planet – climate instability, resource shortages, mass human migration, poverty, war.
Families whose means do not allow them to cherry-pick a school system or foot the bill for a private education for their children most often have to send their children to schools where the focus is narrow and the curriculum centers on basic academic skills and test-taking. Of course reading and math are key skill sets for all, but they are just parts of a curriculum designed to engage the student and develop healthy intellects. While less-advantaged children start out life with the same potential as their wealthier peers, without the rich curriculum afforded their more fortunate peers, many will graduate without having reached their potential.
We need to prioritize equity of educational opportunity. Children in the United States should all benefit from a curriculum intentionally rich in the many disciplines taught in the wealthiest schools. State by state, leaders should provide school districts the funding needed to equalize opportunity. Currently, a tour of schools in most states – certainly my own, Maine – would reveal shockingly large gaps in the curriculum provided for students, as well as in the training of administrators and school board members as to what constitutes an adequate education, and why providing this is of fundamental importance.
The result of the inequity between schools is an enormous gap in our citizenry in relation to expectations connected to career and life choices. The impact is felt by individuals on a financial and personal satisfaction level, but also by our nation as a whole. We cannot afford the costs connected with a citizenry unprepared for participating in the knowledge economy and unable to take care of themselves: prison costs, health costs, unemployment benefits- all of these costs will continue to rise if we do not close the education gap.
On a state by state basis we need to face the inequities that currently disfigure our school systems and then redress these inequities. This should be the fundamental work of our legislators as they work to care for our states and nation.