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November 16 2014

Doing the Math on Closing the Achievement Gap

Vicki E. Alger

It’s no secret that there are chronic achievement gaps among students of differing socioeconomic backgrounds in core subjects such as reading and math. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the gaps can be as large as 25 scale score points, a difference that amounts to roughly two and a half grade levels or academic years of learning.

The cost to students is incalculable, but a new study by Robert Lynch and Patrick Oakford of the Center for American Progress calculates the cost to the American economy from diminished academic performance and achievement gaps. Lynch and Oakford find:

If the United States were able to close the educational achievement gaps between native-born white children and black and Hispanic children, the U.S. economy would be 5.8 percent—or nearly $2.3 trillion—larger in 2050. The cumulative increase in GDP from 2014 to 2050 would amount to $20.4 trillion, or an average of $551 billion per year. Thus, even very large public investments that close achievement gaps would pay for themselves in the form of economic growth by 2050.

Closing racial and ethnic achievement gaps—by raising incomes and increasing the size of the economy—would also have significant positive impacts on federal, state, and local tax revenues. From 2014 to 2050, federal revenues would increase by $4.1 trillion, or an average of $110 billion per year. State and local government revenues would increase by another $3.3 trillion, or $88 billion annually. Therefore, government investments in closing educational achievement gaps that cost less than an average of $198 billion annually over the next 37 years would pay for themselves even in strictly budgetary terms. To put this figure in perspective, consider that the annual cost to implement the Obama administration’s high-quality, universal pre-K program averages $7.5 billion per year over the first 10 years.

While the CAP authors' preferred policy solution is more government funding and programs, there is a growing body of evidence too large to ignore that parental choice programs that empower parents to send their children to private and faith-based schools have better academic outcomes—particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds—at a fraction of the cost of government-run programs. Yet Lych and Oakford aren't the first experts to estimate the large scale economic benefit of improved student performance.

Their findings square with previous findings by education economists Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, who found that increasing performance on the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), taken by 15-year-olds in developed and developing countries worldwide, yields significant economic gains.

Specifically, PISA assesses student reading, math, and science literacy on a 0 – 1000 point scale. Hanushek and Woessmann estimated that for every 100-point increase in PISA performance increases annual economic growth by nearly 2 percent (p. 10).

Lynch and Oakford calculated that if there were no achievement gaps among American students, the overall economic gains would result in:

… $765 billion in greater GDP, or more than $1,900 for every man, woman, and child in the United States—$7,600 for every family of four. If blacks and Hispanics fully captured the increase in GDP…then the per-capita GDP of blacks and Hispanics would increase by nearly $4,700 or $18,800 for a family of four. (p. 21)

Next time an elected official recommends advancing more government programs instead of parental choice in education, we should keep figures like these in mind.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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