The Word That Was Glaring in Its Absence: Education

Published September 24, 2015

By David Levin

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Why investing in the future of education deserves to have a bigger voice in the current electoral conversation

This article was originally published on September 22, 2015 for Huffington Post. The complete article can be accessed here.

Seven.

That's the number of times the word "education" came up in Wednesday night's Republican debate. I don't think seven is a very lucky number when it only represents 0.0002 percent of the roughly 35,000 words spoken over the course of three hours.

I'm a pragmatic person and realize that we have many important issues to tackle. Taxes received a huge number of mentions (59 times), as did Iran (43 mentions) and immigration (23 mentions). However, when the mere seven mentions of education are dwarfed by marijuana (22 mentions) and even the word "face" (15 mentions), I start to wonder where our priorities lie.

Fixing the U.S. education system is a vital issue. The numbers are staggering. Let's start with student debt, which currently stands at $1.2 trillion. To put this number in perspective, $1.2 trillion could pay for the salaries of over 21 million teachers for a year (or cover the salary of LeBron James for the next 50,000 years).

It would be one thing if all the students who were paying such sums were actually earning the degrees they need to boost their earnings. But far too many students who enroll in higher education don't graduate. Fewer than 60 percent of students at four-year colleges or universities graduate within six years, and at two-year colleges, fewer than 30 percent of students graduate within three years.

Combine these two factors and it's a toxic mix. When I moved to New York from my home in London to lead McGraw-Hill Education, I thought the debt problem was a student graduating from a four-year school with $100,000 or more in debt. That's not it. Rather, it's the student who doesn't graduate from school, has to take an underpaying job, and is saddled with $10,000 in debt but without a high paying job that comes from having a degree to help pay it back.

This problem traces its roots to our challenges in K-12 education. In the most recent results compiled from the Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. placed 35th out of 64 countries in math and 27th in science. However, there is one category in which we lead the world: spending per pupil. The U.S. spends more than $11,000 per elementary student and more than $12,000 per high school student. This is more than any developed country in the world. Clearly, we're not getting enough bang for our buck.

And while we believe technology is indispensable in our daily lives, we are not making the investments to get technology into the classroom. Ninety-seven percent of low-income students rely on school for Internet access, but 40 million students do not have high-speed Internet in their classes. What can we do to bring the power of technology built on learning science to all students?

These are the issues we should be tackling today, tomorrow and in the next election. So why weren't we talking about them Wednesday night? There's still plenty of time before the election, but every day we wait, another 7,000 kids drop out of school.

We owe those kids real solutions, borne out of considered debate.