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Demographer calls for country to recommit to education
May 4, 2012Tweet
Maris Vinovskis, a demographer who has worked extensively in government, including for Bush and Clinton administrations, is the Bentley Professor of History and ISR Research Professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He brought his expertise to bear for the 20th Annual Edgar W. Couper Lecture on April 27, in FA-Casadesus when he spoke about “Federal Involvement in Education Since World War II.” The Couper Lecture and related events are funded by the Edgar W. Couper Endowment Fund for Educational Excellence.
“This is a particular honor because Couper was a leader in education in New York and elsewhere, and in sponsoring education for the next generation,” Vinovskis said.
“It’s appropriate to take a look back at what and how we have accomplished over a period of time when federal influence greatly expanded,” he said. “The educational challenges for the future are very great and when we put education into a historical context, there is a better sense of what we can expect from the next set of leaders in Washington.”
Since World War II, the population of the United States has more than doubled, there is more diversity, and the proportion of low-income households is smaller. Yet, Vinovskis said, one out of five children still live below the poverty level.
He then delved into a few programs that were created to support the disadvantaged: Head Start and Title I, Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged.
With Head Start, he said, there was an immense expansion of nursery school and kindergarten programs which expanded opportunities to work with students longer as they started school earlier and remained in school longer. Yet, significant numbers of students still drop out of high school and Hispanics continue to trail both blacks and whites in graduation rates.
While numbers of students have increased, so has spending on K-12 education, he said. “Total federal, state and local expenditures rose by more than 150 percent from $1,700 per student in 1945 to $4,200 per student in 1965 − a huge increase in real dollars spent.”
But where are those dollars coming from? Back in 1945, almost all support for public schools came from local or state revenues, with the federal government kicking in only 1 percent, Vinovskis said. “In 2008, federal expenditures have risen to 8 percent, state to 48 percent and local to 44 percent. The take-away lesson is that throughout this entire period, more than 90 percent of the monies for K-12 education have come from local communities and states and the federal government contribution has been relatively modest, but guidelines have consistently expanded Washington’s role.”
Along with more students and dollars have come more teachers, and a decrease in the student/teacher ratio. Smaller classes equal a better job, he said. “Critics often question the additional cost of small class sizes as really worth it, but I wonder if we took the money and increased teacher salaries instead, would it attract better teachers overall? Getting high-quality teachers today is a much bigger problem than in the 1960s.
“It’s not clear whether traditional teaching certification or advanced degrees actually lead to improved education,” he said. “If a history teacher gets a master’s degree in English, he/she may not be as effective as if he/she got a master’s in American history or in pedagogy.”
Immigration has impacted our educational system as well, Vinovskis said. “Since World War II, immigration started increasing steadily and about one eighth of the population is now foreign-born and rising at a birth rate higher than our native population, so we have a different set of students in our classrooms than at the end of World War II. Many Hispanics, many poor, relatively unskilled and with poor English, so we face special challenges in school for job preparation and for civic education.
“We’ve neglected civic education and will be called on to prepare for reform,” he added. “Policy makers will have strong views on that.”
The changing nature of the global economy is also part of the educational picture. The United States thrived during the ’50s and ’60s relative to Europe and Asia. “One reason we did so well was nobody invaded us in World War II. Now, many former enemies and allies are recovered and compete successfully with us and our position is difficult to maintain. With higher paying jobs increasing and requiring an educated labor force, we’re competing in a much larger market and not as prepared as we should be.”
Overall, the United States has remained stable when measuring student achievement, Vinovskis said, but we need to improve. There’s a large achievement gap between minority and white students, and between rich and poor.
“We were going to be No. 1 in math and science by the year 2000, but not many are talking about that now,” he said.
Admitting his personal bias to help disadvantaged Americans, Vinovskis called Head Start one of the most innovative and important societal efforts to help disadvantaged children. With bipartisan support, the program grew rapidly, but advocates and experts built up expectations that the program could be inexpensive. The strides made at young ages quickly eroded when students moved beyond the early grades. “Good Head Start programs can work, but we have to fund them.”
From 1967 to 1992, the U.S. spent $3 billion on Head Start, but follow-through projects were neither well designed nor properly evaluated, so “it’s an important program we’ve failed to do well,” Vinovskis said. “There was a Brookings panel on social experimentation that developed a report for developing and testing new education programs. It’s a great framework that is being ignored.”
Title 1, which was specifically designed to help the disadvantaged, has had little impact, Vinovskis said. “Money is spread out so broadly that there is no way the program can make much of a difference. Congress mandated evaluation, but it’s not rigorous and most programs are an embarrassment.”
According to Vinovskis, success in Title I schools now is measured only in part by measuring student academic outcomes. “That’s a big step to look at outcomes, not how much money we spending. But what’s it doing for the students? Money is essential, but it’s not enough by itself to ensure high quality education. It’s important that we invest in what is working for us.”
NCLB suffers from overambitious goals, inadequate funding and failing to reach agreed upon objectives, Vinovskis said. “It’s disappointing to see how little we’ve gained in terms of achievements and in terms of assembling these packages (Head Start, Title I and NCLB) that aren’t the way to go. They’re loosely relatable programs but they aren’t even consistent with each other and we’ll do it again. That’s the one thing I do have confidence in.”
Vinovskis believes poverty would be eliminated if we educated the disadvantaged, it hasn’t happened and indeed economic equality has become worse. “This is not a record to run on in politics, it is a record that is hugely ignored,” he said. “Family income has a substantial impact on student success and we need special programs, summer learning opportunities and longer school years to help disadvantaged students.”
One thing Vinovskis said everyone can agree on is that the U.S. needs federally funded education research and development. “Is what we fund reliable or helpful? We don’t look at that,” he said. We have had fragmentary, short-term projects rather than rigorous, large-scale ones.
Americans care about education more than ever, according to Vinovskis, but the federal government doesn’t have resources, nor do local communities and states. As a result, American interest in education is long lived but hasn’t been able to stay the course.
So what will happen in this election year? “This is a different paradigm,” he said. “How do you figure out a world that is different from what we’ve had? History doesn’t tell us what will happen, but some people will have to think outside of the traditional box.”
Past election years have come and gone with no changes and nobody holding anyone accountable, he said. “There’s not outrage. No candidates said they made a mistake. The year 2000 came and not a single goal was met, but the news media didn’t even notice it. We promised by 2014 everybody will be proficient, but nobody is.
“But by 2020 we’re going to be No. 1 in education again? We need to think about how we will go about this. We need to resurrect a new type of educational practice,” he said, of becoming realistic and setting standards the country can live up to and enforce.
“The past isn’t exactly a joy ride, but one sense of history we’ve lost and can regain is the ideals of the 1960s when we were really, sincerely dedicated to improving things and that disadvantaged people matter. We have to recommit ourselves to helping the disadvantaged and to help those who need the most help,” he said.