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Closing the achievement gap would bolster U.S. economy

As an American, I am proud that our country leads the world in innovation and job creation. I am also aware that our success is leveraged on decisions we made more than a half century ago to invest in high-quality public education for all our children.

Like most people, I am also well aware that our competitive edge in the global economy has begun to dull and rust in recent years. That is why I worry that our nation now trails behind small nations like Singapore in the academic preparation of our young people. According to one source, the United States ranks 17th, while Singapore ranks 5th.

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Earlier this month, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released a critical report on this subject that has important implications for the future of our nation. The report highlights the racial and ethnic achievement gaps in education that continue to plague our nation. It shows that closing these gaps by 2050 would boost our economy by $2.3 trillion. More importantly, closing these gaps — or even making significant progress in shrinking them — would put our nation back on track to leading the world in education, a position we have not held for a long time.

The CAP report is fundamentally about race. However, we live in a nation where blacks and Latinos are disproportionately poor and where much of the achievement gap can be accounted for by the unfair distribution of educational resources. Therefore, the race conversation both stands on its own and is a proxy for a broader and important conversation about class and the deepening divide between the haves and have-nots when it comes to access to education.

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When we look more closely at Singapore, the secret to their success is pretty simple. Singapore schools prepare their privileged children for academic success abut as well as we prepare ours, but the educational gap between privileged and underprivileged children in Singapore is four times smaller than the gap in America. For that reason, it is worth looking at what they and other countries with a smaller achievement gap do well.

When we look at what defines the approach of the best counties in any state, the best states in our country and the best countries in the world, there are four strategies they are likely to use. First, they strive to put a high-quality teacher in every classroom. So much of the achievement gap is really a resource gap, and the most important resource in schools is teachers. Students with the most effective teachers learn a year and half of material in a single calendar year.

Second, they extend their school day and school year and in so doing create more time and ways for their children to learn. It is worth noting that while the school year in Maryland is a minimum of 180 days long, the minimum school year in Japan is 201 days, and in South Korea it is 220 days.

Third, countries that succeed make sure their children show up to the first day of kindergarten ready to learn. In most places, this is accomplished by providing universal pre-K. Early childhood programs are crucial for low-income students who need extra help to ensure they are not falling behind before they even reach the starting line.

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Finally, successful countries take the same approach to public education that we expect doctors to take in public hospitals. When somebody shows up needing more help, they make sure they get more help and usually from the best-trained practitioners. We absolutely need to invest more resources in the kids who need it most.

Through 2013, Maryland ranked first in the nation in education for five years running, according to a respected annual ranking by Education Week. But we consistentlyfall near the bottom of the pack when it comes to the achievement gap between students who qualify for a free lunch and those who do not.

We need to do better, and America needs to do better. The lesson from our history is clear: If we want to lead the world in innovation and job creation tomorrow, we must lead the world in education today. The lesson from Singapore is also clear: Leading the world in education begins with not just teaching the Golden Rule but also practicing it in our classrooms.

Ben Jealous is partner at Kapor Capital and former president and CEO of the Baltimore-based NAACP. He currently serves as chairman of the Southern Elections Fund and as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His email is benjealous@kaporcenter.org.

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