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Olympic gold an educational mediocrity: returns on Investment


The Olympic games are a celebration of excellence and athleticism. Whether we are cheering the Williams sisters in their gold medal-winning doubles match, Serena with her gold, the graceful Gabby Douglas in flight, or some of the many others, we are cheering their excellence, their indomitable spirits, and their drive.

We are also acknowledging the tens of thousands of hours that they must have put into practice.

Even as we cheer, there are lessons for each of us, both individually and in a social policy context.

We’ve all heard, time and time again, “get out there and do it” or “just do it” or “I worked hard for this.” Often the difference between a gold and silver winner is, the one was hungrier, wanted the gold more intensely, and worked harder than the other. To be sure, some Olympians have good days, and others have days that are less than good. But there is no such thing as “luck” in the Olympics. Luck is the collision of preparation and opportunity.

Was Gabby Douglas lucky to have been taken on by Liang Chow, the coach who trained her to earn the gold?  No, she was prepared to shine in a way that made Chow see her potential. And she sacrificed, moving from Virginia to Iowa, missing her family and moving in with a generous White family who, for all their goodwill, were culturally out of synch with Gabby’s Black experience. She worked hard; she sacrificed; and she won the gold medal.

There is a parallel between Olympics wins and the state of United States education. Even as the Congress considers sequestration when they come back from their month-long break, educators are concerned that education dollars may be cut. Douglas worked hard, she sacrificed. For all the effort on education, sometimes it seems as if we are spinning our wheels. We know what some of the problems are, but we won’t act on these problems. The achievement gap can be addressed, and it is in some school systems. In others, little is being done.

Gabby Douglas made sacrifices, so much so that the redundant use of the word in this column does not even begin to speak to her investment in herself. Our nation has made few contemporary sacrifices, and an insufficient investment, for the cause of education. Instead, teachers are being laid off, school hours are being cut, and essentials like civics, art and sports are being cut or augmented by parents who contribute so that their sons and daughters can have these classes. Meanwhile, the children of those who don’t have the dollars to contribute to public education find their achievement gap growing each year.

As a nation, we will get that in which we invest. If we invest in the Department of Defense, we will get war. If we invest in the Department of Education, along with state and local school systems, we will end up with a better-educated population. If we choose, instead, to invest in correctional facilities, we’ll end up with incarcerated people. If past trends are any indication, most often these folks will be African American. If we invest in inner city schools, we close the achievement gap. If we behave as if the world is race-neutral (or post-racial), when the data say differently, then we end up broadening, not narrowing, the achievement gap.

Our Olympians, especially the medalists, are dedicated, hard-working athletes who have committed themselves to achieving excellence. While we give a lot of lip service to educational excellence, the fact is that we are not as dedicated and hard working to that end as we might be.

Who feels so passionately about education that they will flood board of education meetings and insist on necessary changes? How many are willing to fight for after-school and summer programs, or tutoring.

More importantly, how many are willing to change the policy lens through which we view educational issues, insisting that our legislators address (the needs) issues of education.

There is an anti-tax lobby, led by Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform, that will not endorse candidates unless they pledge not to raise taxes, and the Tea Party that is so effective that they are unseating Republican stalwarts.

Might a group of education advocates come together to develop power as formidable as that of the Tea Party?  Might that group decide that any legislator that cannot support a robust educational agenda is unworthy of reelection. Might we have the will to assert that all children can learn, and then make their learning a priority?  We will get what we invest in and, unfortunately, we aren’t investing enough in education.

Julianne Malveaux is a D.C.-based economist and author.

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