An Ode to Elementary Schools

Michael Petrilli:

If I had to name the most important institution in American life, and the one with the most potential for changing the course of our country, it would be the humble elementary school. Especially the 20,000 or so high-poverty elementary schools in the nation’s cities and inner-ring suburbs, educating millions of kids growing up in poor or working-class families.

Yes, of course, we also need to dramatically improve the other parts of our education system if we’re to help all young Americans fulfill their God-given potential. That includes making high-quality pre-K more widely accessible to those who need it most, upping the quality of our middle schools, and rethinking and improving our high schools. Not to mention revamping our post-secondary education system and overhauling our workforce training programs.

Still, if I were king for a day, or even just superintendent of a large district, I would spend at least twenty-three of my twenty-four hours in charge obsessing about elementary schools. And that’s for four big reasons.

First, these schools have the greatest potential impact on kids’ academic, social, and emotional progress. Partly that’s just basic math: Most children spend almost half of their K–12 time in elementary schools, usually six out of thirteen years. And those also happen to be the six years when kids tend to learn the most. To wit, the average student achievement gains during elementary school far outpace those seen before or after.