The United States only earns a C- in education, according to America’s Report Card 2012: Children in the U.S. While we grade children in school all the time – from homework and quizzes to report cards and high stakes testing, this report by First Focus and Save the Children takes a comprehensive look at the state of American children and assigns grades to the nation as a whole on how children are faring. The education grade is based on math/reading/science levels, school resources, at-risk and disconnected youth, and educational attainment in the United States. This grade, which would barely pass for a child in school, also barely passes for America.

Enacted in 1965 as a part of the War on Poverty, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was created to eradicate inequalities in K-12 public schools. Its original purpose was to provide children with a strong foundation to grow into successful, productive members of society. However, while public education has shown promising trends in student achievement and learning, there are still achievement gaps in education outcomes and gaps in access to education resources that disproportionately affect students of color and low-income students. Many of these gaps start as the result of barriers to learning and development that are present before a child even enters kindergarten. These gaps, if not addressed early, can present challenges to a student for the rest of their academic and professional lives.

Factors outside of school, such as early childhood education, poverty, and permanency and stability, also impact education. These factors further increase educational disparities and lead to disparities in later employment. This negatively impacts the workforce and could lead to later economic consequences. Students who drop out of high school earn an estimated $400,000 less in lifetime income, and experience unemployment at nearly twice the rate of high school graduates. America needs to address the dropout crisis not only to improve our students’ futures, but to improve our economic prospects.

These educational disparities are worsened by inequalities in school funding and resources present at the federal, state, and local levels. To address inequalities in school funding, the Department of Education manages Title I, Part A of the ESEA. This program’s purpose is to promote academic achievement and educational equity by targeting resources and funding to students living in poverty. School districts receive funding from Title I, Part A of the ESEA by demonstrating that schools within their district are allocated funds at comparable levels. However, even in these districts, over 40 percent of schools receiving Title I funds are funded at rates lower than their district average. This program’s goal is to support struggling schools and students who need extra help by ensuring that they get the resources they need to succeed. To do this, funds and resources need to be distributed in such a way that all students have the resources necessary to achieve, such as rigorous course work, libraries, and modern science labs.

What can America do to raise its grade in education? First Focus Campaign for Children has put forth suggestions on how to improve the United States education system. To start, we need to expand and improve early education programs, with a special focus on pre-K through third grade. This critical learning period greatly impacts a student’s future success. By adding improvements such as full-day pre-K and kindergarten and aligning instruction techniques across grade levels, we can promote a positive start to a child’s education. In addition, we need to work to make sure students have access to fully prepared and effective teachers. Ineffective teachers, especially in low-income areas, can hurt student learning. To address this, the ESEA needs to strengthen its comparability provisions to ensure that all students have access to high quality teachers and should require that information on all teacher qualifications is available to parents and students. To further combat the achievement gap between students, we also need to ensure equitable funding for all schools so resources are made available to all students.

To stop the dropout crisis, a reauthorized ESEA needs to reconnect disconnected youth by implementing a system that identifies students at risk for dropping out or who have already dropped out and then connects them to resources and supports to successfully complete school. To help with this, Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) should receive school dropout prevention grants and subgrants, at least 30% of which should be focused on bringing dropouts back. Getting children to complete their education will help not only these students, but also America’s future workforce and economic prospects, which benefits everyone.

Lastly, we need to work to make sure that schools are at the center of our communities. A reauthorized ESEA should look to Communities in Schools, Harlem Children’s Zone, and other successful programs that work to engage students, families, and communities. The Secretary of Education should be authorized to award 5-year renewable grants to local groups and community partners that assist in assessing the needs and promoting achievement for students. These small steps will help create equality across the education system for all children. If we can work to improve K-12 education, America’s grades can rise along with the grades of our students.