The Opportunity Challenge | Pennsylvania Avenue

Posted April 15, 2015 at 10:00am

Scottsdale, Ariz. — Last October, a conspiracy got hatched in Beaver Creek, Colo., to change the future of America — for the better. Its goals got unveiled at an education innovation conference I attend here every year co-sponsored by Arizona State University and the high-tech investment banking firm GSV.  

The Beaver Creek gathering was attended by 140 educators, entrepreneurs, foundation executives and investors and moderated by “Good to Great” business strategy luminary Jim Collins. The group came up with the ambitious and idealistic goal insuring that every American child has an equal opportunity to participate in the future, regardless of income or ZIP code.  

That’s obviously not the case today; 75 percent of children born in the top quarter of the income spectrum graduate college, but only 8 percent in the bottom quartile. Seventy percent of those kids never make it into the middle class.  

The Beaver Creek conspirators agreed that tackling the lack of equal opportunity is essential to undo what you could call “the Great Stall” in the life prospects for most Americans. Gross domestic product per capita doubled from 1950 to 1975, but it’s been flat ever since. Median household income is below what it was in 1999. The baby boom generation ranked first in the world in high-school completion and third in college completion; millennials rank 10th and 13th, respectively. And income inequality has tripled since 1975.  

How to reignite opportunity in America? The Beaver Creek group settled on 10 pillars of action, of which I think the most important are:  

1. Give every child access to quality early learning. Neuroscience has established that 85 percent of human brain development occurs during the first five years of life, but the U.S. devotes 98 percent of education spending to the years after age 5. Children who are regularly read and talked to by adults — mostly middle class and above — have heard 30 million more words by the time they reach kindergarten than kids who aren’t. Fifty-two percent of poor kids are not ready for school. Quality pre-school can be done better and cheaper than Head Start does it. Congress ought to block-grant Head Start money to the states and let them figure out how to spend it better.  

2. Improve leadership training for public school principals and show them how to match the top-performing schools in the nation, public, private and charter. America needs a West Point for principals.  

3. Give kids mentors. The national ratio of students to counselors in 500 to 1, and having a mentor doubles the chance that a child will go to college.  

4. Accelerate the use of technology in classrooms. U.S. schools still operate on the “industrial model” of the early 20th century — a teacher talking to students sitting at desks. New technology (on display in abundance in Scottsdale every year) makes it possible to tailor lessons to individual students, track their progress, connect with their parents, make learning fun and help teachers share ideas. Log onto to see.  

5. Make it possible for people to keep learning their whole lives. It’s not true that “college isn’t worth it.” A majority of jobs in the new American economy requires post-secondary education. Most young people will change jobs 15 times over their lifetimes. And innovative institutions such as Arizona State have developed programs to offer credentials and degrees almost entirely online.  

6. Invest much more in brain research — the last frontier of science — to match teaching methods to learning differences.  

Hillary Rodham Clinton is making it a pillar of her 2016 presidential campaign that every child should have the opportunities her granddaughter will have. Republicans ought to accept the goal and compete with her to reach it — undoubtedly using different methods. The Beaver Creek group has shown the way.  

Morton Kondracke was executive editor of Roll Call and wrote Pennsylvania Avenue from 1991 to 2011. He is co-authoring a biography of Jack Kemp due out in September.

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