Uneven Excellence

We often compare ourselves to the other 36 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  The US spends the most per capita on healthcare, but achieves much poorer outcomes than most OECD countries.  The US is among the largest spenders on education in terms of costs per student.  Yet, the US achieves much poorer educational outcomes than most OECD countries.  How can we perform so poorly?

We have excellent health systems, e.g., Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser-Permanente, Mayo Clinic, and we have excellent educational institutions, e.g., MIT, Princeton, Stanford.  We know how to deliver health and education very well.  The problem is that this excellence is not available to everybody.  The evidence for this is rather compelling.  For example, here is data from Washington, DC.

Victor Horton reported in the Washington Post (October 26) “Life expectancy in many Ward 7 and 8 communities is 20 to 25 years below those in Ward 2 and 3 communities. Median household income in Ward 8 sits around $38,000 while it’s nearly 3 ½ times higher in Ward 3 at $130,000 — a $92,000 difference.”  I live in Ward 3, so these statistics are compelling.

A rather amazing finding is that your Zip Code is a better predictor of your health and educational attainment than your genetic code.  Where you live is an indicator of your financial well being in terms of the value of your home that determines your property taxes, which establishes school budgets and the K-12 curriculum provided.  If you live in a poor area, schools tend not to offer, for example, the courses needed to be “STEM ready” for college.

Jay Mathews in “Downtrodden parts of Texas lead nation in challenging high school students,” Washington Post, May 26, 2017, reports on the IDEA network of charter schools. IDEA provides an example of the most ambitious schools in low-income areas, in this case the Rio Grande Valley. The portion of children from low-income families in IDEA schools is usually 80 percent or more.  Every student must take 11 Advanced Placement courses and tests to graduate.  IDEA schools are among the top 10 in The Washington Post’s list of America’s Most Challenging High Schools.

Thus, we do know what to do and can be really good at doing it.  However it does seem that often we are not up to the task.  Spending more than other OECD countries should result in the highest rankings in health and education.  Such accomplishments will require committing to excellence for everyone.  This would certainly be a “stretch goal” for the United States.

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