How we all pay for failing schools

The literacy crisis engulfing American schools in low-income areas can appear to be an isolated problem – something bad that happens to other people. But its effects are far-reaching and impact all our lives.

Just how badly off are students in low-income schools? Let’s start with a couple of facts:

1. An overwhelming 83% of low income 4th grade students* currently score below proficiency in reading. That’s a full 30% higher than their middle and high income peers.

2. In 2011, there were more than 22 million low-income children in the United States, aged 11 and under. If you take the point above and do the math, that means almost 19 million low-income children face a very real risk of failing to graduate from high school.

School basketball

Nineteen million children: That’s twice the entire population of Switzerland, failing in our schools. And before we get too bogged down in huge numbers and statistics, let’s remember that each single number represents a real child, with hopes and aspirations.

Real consequences

However, there can be a tendency among the broader population to see our creaking education system as something of a side issue.

Of course, everyone agrees it’s sad that things have deteriorated so badly. But most people already have enough concerns of their own to worry about: family, mortgage, car, career, failing football team. To put it bluntly, schools are someone else’s problem.

Hispanic reader E

Except they’re not, really. The cold, hard fact is that failing schools and huge drop-out rates result in real social and financial consequences that affect all of us.

Social cost

Take this one example: Every student who does not complete high school costs our nation approximately $260,000 in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity. That’s every student.

Or how about this? High school drop-outs are more likely to be incarcerated or become teenage parents, both of which bring extra costs that have to be met by the taxpayer (i.e. you).

And, it goes without saying, dropping out of high school has a sharp effect on a person’s earning potential. (It’s no coincidence that unemployment rates for those without a high school degree are twice as high as for those who have one.)

Even if they get work, former high school drop-outs tend to earn only half the annual income of those who graduate. So that’s their potential tax contribution halved. Whichever way you cut it, the failings of our school system ultimately hit everyone’s pocket.

Falling behind

But it’s hard to know what can be done to change things. The cards are stacked so heavily against under-privileged children from the outset, that they have a mountain to climb. And it all starts with learning (or rather, not being able to learn) basic literacy skills.

For example: middle income families have, on average, 13 books for every child – as opposed to low income areas, where there is only 1 book for every 300 children.

Hispanic sad girl E

And by the time they are just 3 years old, children from low income families will already have heard roughly 30 million less words than their middle-class counterparts. How do you even begin to catch up from that kind of stopping start?

The situation is compounded by the fact that impoverished schools often have badly-equipped libraries and a shortage of general reading materials – never mind the kind of books a child would actually want to read.

Building blocks

Make no mistake: In this scenario, books are a big part of the answer – and lack of access to them a major part of the problem. Providing children with books that they’re interested in is absolutely critical in supporting the healthy growth of young minds.

That’s because reading and literacy skills are the first building blocks of educational knowledge, the foundations upon which everything else is built. Kids need to learn these skills in their early years to even stand a chance of progressing in the future.

Incidentally, that’s where Book Trust comes in. We empower kids in low income schools to both choose and buy their own books. That means they do better at school. And by building home libraries and reading with their families, our children learn to fall in love with reading. In short, they get a chance.

Paying the cost

Today, many low income schools are tucked away out of sight, in a part of town people wouldn’t visit without good reason. And most of the time, they have no good reason.

Failing schools and students have become an invisible blight; something that crops up occasionally on news programs and in opinion pieces, then disappears again.

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But apart from representing a colossal injustice (every child deserves an opportunity to learn to read), the flaws of our education system have also led to an expensive drain on public finances.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, when eight out of ten 9-year-olds in our poorest schools can’t read at a level appropriate for their age, that’s a huge failure. And farther down the line, such failings will inevitably bring social and financial costs – ones that we all have to pay.

We never realized, but it turns out that run-down school in the poor part of town is actually a lot closer than we thought.

*Most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.

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