A recently released report by the Council on Foreign Relations looking at the international competitiveness of the U.S. system of education comes to a perhaps unsurprising conclusion: we are slipping. The report—Remedial Education: Federal Education Policy—indicates that we continue to lose ground at every level of education, compared to other developed nations:

  • We are below average in preschool enrollment.
  • Despite intensive national effort to improve test scores, our K–12 students test at or slightly below average compared to their developed-world peers.
  • We have gone from first in high school degree attainment to tenth.
  • We have gone from third in college degree attainment to thirteenth.
  • Our college dropout rate is the highest in the developed world.

While some of the trends identified merely indicate that the rest of the developed world is catching up, others are more troubling. For example, the report underscores our serious failure in educating our workforce: “Unique among developed nations, the generation entering the U.S. labor force is not more educated than the one exiting.” The report indicates this backsliding will have a serious impact on our economy:

Human capital is perhaps the single most important long-term driver of an economy. Smarter workers are more productive and innovative. It is an economist’s rule that an increase of one year in a country’s average schooling level corresponds to an increase of 3 to 4 percent in long-term economic growth. Most of the value added in the modern global economy is now knowledge based. Education, especially at the college level, will therefore likely become even more important for a nation’s economy and an individual’s income. And to the extent that labor markets now transcend national borders, the international competition for those high-value knowledge jobs will only grow fiercer.

It is a simple point, made clearly: dropping the ball on education is going to cost us, now and in the future, in terms of economic growth. Here's the full scorecard:

CFR Education Scorecard

The findings are not all bad. The percentage of U.S. high school students that enter college has gone up, for example, and our rate for college enrollment is higher than the international average. (And while far too many of our students never graduate, we are making modest improvements there, too.)

But there is one finding in the report that is particularly disturbing: while the American system of education has negative trends at every level of schooling, the problems do not occur for all students. In fact, what the report shows is that there is a growing imbalance in academic performance, one that mirrors growing U.S. economic inequality:

But the real scourge of the U.S. education system—and its greatest competitive weakness—is the deep and growing achievement gap between socioeconomic groups that begins early and lasts through a student’s academic career.

Socioeconomic status is now the primary indicator of academic success, which means that educational achievement is increasingly becoming a privilege of class. For example, the report says that K–12 test score achievement gap between students from low- and high-income families has nearly doubled over the past half-century. Likewise, children from high-income families are now more than two-and-a-half times as likely to obtain a college degree, and five times as likely to complete their college degree on time as their less-advantaged counterparts.

American education is splitting in two: a high-performing upper-tier, comprised of wealthier students, who see a promising world ahead of them—and everyone else. And it is this latter, much larger group that is sliding down the educational slope, dragging down our national averages (and eventually, our economy).

Increasing stratification of education by socioeconomic background could have multiple contributing factors, such as geographic segregation. But what the report points out is that there is a troubling correlation: this downward educational slide for the majority of Americans is accompanied by a matching bifurcation in how we as a nation allocate resources toward education.

In other words, our inputs—the choices we make individually and collectively in supporting our schools—are accelerating this trend toward a separate and unequal educational landscape.

As a nation, we spend a lot on education. We rank fourth overall in per-student spending for our K–12 system, and first overall for college spending. But, compared to other developed countries, we spend “less on direct instructional expenses and more on school buildings and grounds, extracurricular activities, and student career and counseling services.” And that spending is not allocated evenly, with college spending in particular asymmetrically ballooning over the years.

The report states that the real per-student spending gap between the least and most selective colleges was $13,500 in 1967; in 2006, the gap had grown to $80,000. At the upper end of the selectivity scale, this rise in spending seems to be part of a de facto arms race to become one of the “best colleges.”

The report also says that public universities have seen state per-pupil spending fall by a quarter in the past decade, so that it is now lower than it was in the 1980s; as a result, individual students are bearing more of the burden in the form of sharply rising tuition and students loan debt. Nothing halts a college education in its tracks like the inability to pay for it.

And then there is this shocker:

Community colleges account for most of the nation’s decline in postsecondary on-time completion rates. According to one estimate, inadequate resources are to blame for up to two-thirds of that decline.

Community colleges currently serve 44 percent of the U.S. college population, and are tasked with educating those students with the greatest needs, using the least funds. As a result, they frequently lack the support system that more selective institutions have for guiding students through the college experience.

So, what can we do? Simply, we can make better choices.

If our system of education is breaking apart, we need to control those things we can—the inputs—to achieve better outcomes. We can implement better policies, allocate resources more evenly and fairly, and, when needed, spend more money.

Perhaps the most straightforward—and most economical—way to address increasing socioeconomic stratification in education is simply to adopt policies that promote economic diversity in our public school systems. Some of the initiatives being pursued to improve outcomes at the pre-K, K–12, and college level that the report describes do indeed take this approach, but they don’t go far enough.

The Century Foundation over the past decade has identified many ways we could improve socioeconomic diversity in our schools. For example, we could craft housing policy to reverse geographic segregation, so that low-income and rich families are no longer isolated in their own districts. We could pursue reform strategies to improve socioeconomic diversity within and across school districts, so that low-income families could have access to the same high-quality education found in more diverse neighborhoods. We could promote diverse charter schools as a model for innovation and change.

To achieve socioeconomic integration at the college level, we could follow efforts already in use at some state universities. We also could eliminate legacy preferences at our more selective colleges. And, for those low-income students already in college, we could reproduce effective models for providing support so that they remain enrolled, and graduate with a degree.

The serious problems our community colleges face that the report identifies cannot be fixed through policy alone; we will need a significant infusion of funds. President Obama has recognized the promise of this sector, and has challenged the nation to produce 5 million additional community college graduates by 2020. But this goal is impossible without significant innovations in the design and financing of community colleges.

The history of American education is one of continuous expansion and improvement. We have placed huge bets on the returns to education—most notably in providing public K–12 schooling, the establishment of land grant colleges, and the GI Bill—that have paid tremendous dividends.

We could have a different education system—one that provided greater access for hard-working students from all backgrounds, rather than concentrating all our resources on the already privileged. But we need to choose that.