EACH summer, when school ends, education mostly stops short, too.
But it hasn’t always been that way. For the striving youths of 19th-century
America, learning was often a self-driven, year-round process. Devouring books
by candlelight and debating issues by bonfire, the young men and women of the
so-called “go-ahead generation” worked to educate themselves into a better life.
Is this old-fashioned culture of self-improvement making a comeback? The
mainstream school system — with its barrage of tests, Common Core and “excellent
sheep” — encourages learning as a passive, standardized process. But here and
there, with the help of YouTube and thousands of podcasts, a growing group of
students and adults are beginning to supplement their education.
School isn’t going away. But more and more people are realizing what their
19th-century predecessors knew: that the best learning is often self-taught.
Back then, it was a matter of necessity. There were plenty of schoolhouses in
19th-century America, but few young people could attend them regularly. They had
to work. Most pieced together a semester of classes here, three months there.
In 1870, students averaged under 80 days in school each year. Even though
America had incredibly high literacy rates, and admirable schools for those with
free time, most young Americans supplemented formal schooling with their own
This was especially true of many working-class kids, who could never find enough
time. Michael Campbell, an 18-year-old Irish immigrant who spent his days
laboring in a New Haven factory, making $6 a week, wrote in a diary about his
experiences. After work, he attended lectures, joined libraries and read
obsessively, studying bookkeeping, phrenology, child raising and “scientifics.”
It was all part of his mission — which he wrote about in the third person — “to
work hard six (6) days a week and study and read all he can.”
Michael was a recognizable type: the self-improving young American, convinced
that he could study his way into the middle class. This up-by-your-bootstraps
mentality can seem naïve today, but to an 18-year-old with no clear path to
adulthood, it sounded like his best hope.
Kids like these read voraciously, with each book offering a glimpse of the
thrilling world outside their isolated lives. They devoured histories, the Bible
and Shakespeare, but also as many trashy novels as they could find. Many
struggled to decide whether to study the fall of the Roman Empire or amuse
themselves with what one called “obscene, libidinous, loathsome, and lascivious”
These books shimmer in their diaries. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories mesmerized one
awkward boy in Maine. John Roy Lynch, a young ex-slave in Reconstruction
Mississippi, pored over the proceedings of Congress, unaware that one day he
would become a representative himself.
A Boston girl loved the stories in The New York Ledger, a weekly “story
newspaper,” though her disapproving mother burned her copies. Before her mother
found them, however, the crafty 14-year-old always “Devoured my Ledger.”
Self-education went beyond solitary reading. For many, literary societies —
called “the literary” — marked the highlight of intellectual and social life, as
young men and women gathered at night to debate, mingle and flirt. One young
woman surveyed her entertainment options in rural Kansas and concluded: “We just
have the jolliest, best times at the Literary.”
The literary taught countless young people the skills of public speaking,
playing upon the view of America as “a nation of speechifiers.” Orating became a
sign of citizenship: During the Reconstruction young black men eagerly launched
a “speechmaking mania” across the South.
And despite the bookish title, literary societies appealed to rowdy young
people. One young debater in Iowa winced, recalling the “pretty rough company”
at the literary, who could make things “decidedly uncomfortable for me.”
Argument drove these clubs. Young people would kick around a controversial issue
of the day. One common prompt (in the North) was, “Who has more cause for
complaint, Negroes or Indians?” Others debated women’s rights, alcohol or the
value of travel.
Often, the issue was immaterial. What mattered was the sensation of gathering
with a dozen like-minded 16-year-olds, as someone hollered, and lamplight
flickered, and everyone present felt that they were, somehow, preparing to go
ahead in life.
After 1900, public schools proliferated and child labor dwindled, pushing up
graduation rates and making schools truly systematic. This more structured style
reduced individual drive, but offered an accessible, mass system that
impressively bridged class divisions.
Most of all, it provided a clear route from ages 5 to 18. Well over a century
later, we have no sense of how truly pathless life felt before our educational
system — and how that uncertainty often inspired young people to set off on
So how do we reintroduce some of that lost verve today? The short, not
particularly helpful answer is that we don’t: Independent learning must be
arrived at independently. The best we can do is offer young people the tools,
the time and the knowledge that education can take place outside of the system.
There are, of course, hundreds of schools and thousands of teachers working
toward this goal. Past generations of 16-year-olds would approve.
Technology certainly helps. Just as the Internet has opened doors for a
generation of young learners, cheap printing presses allowed 19th-century young
people to start their own newspapers, packed with essays, jokes and articles
assessing the state of “the ’dom” (a common 19th-century slang term for their
world of “amateurdom”).
More than any specific device, what shapes young people’s involvement — for the
boyish newsmen of the 1870s or the armies of young bloggers in 2015 — is the
sense that one’s opinion carries as much weight as a teacher’s or an author’s.
Perhaps the literary offers the best lesson for modern self-educators. For all
its shortcomings, 19th-century self-education taught young Americans to openly
engage with the conflicts of life, to debate and argue, not to rely on adults to
shape their futures. Every step of the modern school system discourages this
Hopefully, we can learn to combine the 19th century’s opinionated go-aheadism
with the 20th century’s structure, to offer young people an independent but
stable path in the 21st century. Maybe it starts during this long, lazy summer
Jon Grinspan is a curator and fellow at the National Museum of American History
and the author of a forthcoming book on young people’s contributions to
19th-century American democracy.
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 12, 2015,
on page SR4 of the
New York edition with the headline:
D.I.Y. Education Before YouTube.
THE best escalator to opportunity in America is education. But a
new study underscores that the escalator is broken.
We expect each generation to do better, but, currently, more young American men
have less education (29 percent) than their parents than have more education (20
Among young Americans whose parents didn’t graduate from high school, only 5
percent make it through college themselves. In other rich countries, the figure
is 23 percent.
The United States is devoting billions of dollars to compete with Russia
militarily, but maybe we should try to compete educationally. Russia now has the
largest percentage of adults with a university education of any industrialized
country — a position once held by the United States, although we’re plunging in
These figures come from the annual survey of education from the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D., and it should be a shock to
A basic element of the American dream is equal access to education as the
lubricant of social and economic mobility. But the American dream seems to have
emigrated because many countries do better than the United States in educational
mobility, according to the O.E.C.D. study.
As recently as 2000, the United States still ranked second in the share of the
population with a college degree. Now we have dropped to fifth. Among
25-to-34-year-olds — a glimpse of how we will rank in the future — we rank 12th,
while once-impoverished South Korea tops the list.
A new Pew survey finds that Americans consider the greatest threat to our
country to be the growing gap between the rich and poor. Yet we have constructed
an education system, dependent on local property taxes, that provides great
schools for the rich kids in the suburbs who need the least help, and broken,
dangerous schools for inner-city children who desperately need a helping hand.
Too often, America’s education system amplifies not opportunity but inequality.
My dad was a World War II refugee who fled Ukraine and Romania and eventually
made his way to France. He spoke perfect French, and Paris would have been a
natural place to settle. But he felt that France was stratified and would offer
little opportunity to a penniless Eastern European refugee, or even to his
children a generation later, so he set out for the United States. He didn’t
speak English, but, on arrival in 1951, he bought a copy of the Sunday edition
of The New York Times and began to teach himself — and then he worked his way
through Reed College and the University of Chicago, earning a Ph.D. and becoming
a university professor.
He rode the American dream to success; so did his only child. But while he was
right in 1951 to bet on opportunity in America rather than Europe, these days he
would perhaps be wrong. Researchers find economic and educational mobility are
now greater in Europe than in America.
That’s particularly sad because, as my Times colleague Eduardo Porter noted last
month, egalitarian education used to be America’s strong suit. European
countries excelled at first-rate education for the elites, but the United States
led the way in mass education.
By the mid-1800s, most American states provided a free elementary education to
the great majority of white children. In contrast, as late as 1870, only 2
percent of British 14-year-olds were in school.
Then the United States was the first major country, in the 1930s,
in which a majority of children attended high school. By contrast, as late as
1957, only 9 percent of 17-year-olds in Britain were in school.
Until the 1970s, we were pre-eminent in mass education, and Claudia Goldin and
Lawrence Katz of Harvard University argue powerfully that this was the secret to
America’s economic rise. Then we blew it, and the latest O.E.C.D. report
underscores how the rest of the world is eclipsing us.
In effect, the United States has become 19th-century Britain: We provide superb
education for elites, but we falter at mass education.
In particular, we fail at early education. Across the O.E.C.D., an average of 70
percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in education programs. In the United States,
it’s 38 percent.
In some quarters, there’s a perception that American teachers are lazy. But the
O.E.C.D. report indicates that American teachers work far longer hours than
their counterparts abroad. Yet American teachers earn 68 percent as much as the
average American college-educated worker, while the O.E.C.D. average is 88
Fixing the education system is the civil rights challenge of our era. A starting
point is to embrace an ethos that was born in America but is now an expatriate:
that we owe all children a fair start in life in the form of access to an
Let’s fix the escalator.
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and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 26, 2014,
on page SR13 of the New York edition with the headline:
The American Dream Is Leaving America.
WASHINGTON — Education was historically considered a great
equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and
improving their chances for success as adults. But a body of recently published
scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is
widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.
It is a well-known fact that children from affluent families tend to do better
in school. Yet the income divide has received far less attention from policy
makers and government officials than gaps in student accomplishment by race.
Now, in analyses of long-term data published in recent months, researchers are
finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has
narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor
students has grown substantially during the same period.
“We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more
consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears
more determinative of educational success than race,” said Sean F. Reardon, a
Stanford University sociologist. Professor Reardon is the author of a study that
found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income
students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the
testing gap between blacks and whites.
In another study, by researchers from the University of Michigan, the imbalance
between rich and poor children in college completion — the single most important
predictor of success in the work force — has grown by about 50 percent since the
The changes are tectonic, a result of social and economic processes unfolding
over many decades. The data from most of these studies end in 2007 and 2008,
before the recession’s full impact was felt. Researchers said that based on
experiences during past recessions, the recent downturn was likely to have
aggravated the trend.
“With income declines more severe in the lower brackets, there’s a good chance
the recession may have widened the gap,” Professor Reardon said. In the study he
led, researchers analyzed 12 sets of standardized test scores starting in 1960
and ending in 2007. He compared children from families in the 90th percentile of
income — the equivalent of around $160,000 in 2008, when the study was conducted
— and children from the 10th percentile, $17,500 in 2008. By the end of that
period, the achievement gap by income had grown by 40 percent, he said, while
the gap between white and black students, regardless of income, had shrunk
Both studies were first published last fall in a book of research, “Whither
Opportunity?” compiled by the Russell Sage Foundation, a research center for
social sciences, and the Spencer Foundation, which focuses on education. Their
conclusions, while familiar to a small core of social sciences scholars, are now
catching the attention of a broader audience, in part because income inequality
has been a central theme this election season.
The connection between income inequality among parents and the social mobility
of their children has been a focus of President Obama as well as some of the
Republican presidential candidates.
One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that
wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children
(in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall
involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are
now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly
stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more
parents try to position their children for college, which has become ever more
essential for success in today’s economy.
A study by Sabino Kornrich, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies at
the Juan March Institute in Madrid, and Frank F. Furstenberg, scheduled to
appear in the journal Demography this year, found that in 1972, Americans at the
upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as
low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by
upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families
grew by 20 percent.
“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Dr.
Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
The gap is also growing in college. The University of Michigan study, by Susan
M. Dynarski and Martha J. Bailey, looked at two generations of students, those
born from 1961 to 1964 and those born from 1979 to 1982. By 1989, about
one-third of the high-income students in the first generation had finished
college; by 2007, more than half of the second generation had done so. By
contrast, only 9 percent of the low-income students in the second generation had
completed college by 2007, up only slightly from a 5 percent college completion
rate by the first generation in 1989.
James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, argues that
parenting matters as much as, if not more than, income in forming a child’s
cognitive ability and personality, particularly in the years before children
“Early life conditions and how children are stimulated play a very important
role,” he said. “The danger is we will revert back to the mindset of the war on
poverty, when poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more
would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that, it’s a
Meredith Phillips, an associate professor of public policy and sociology at the
University of California, Los Angeles, used survey data to show that affluent
children spend 1,300 more hours than low-income children before age 6 in places
other than their homes, their day care centers, or schools (anywhere from
museums to shopping malls). By the time high-income children start school, they
have spent about 400 hours more than poor children in literacy activities, she
Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute whose book,
“Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” was published Jan. 31,
described income inequality as “more of a symptom than a cause.”
The growing gap between the better educated and the less educated, he argued,
has formed a kind of cultural divide that has its roots in natural social
forces, like the tendency of educated people to marry other educated people, as
well as in the social policies of the 1960s, like welfare and other government
programs, which he contended provided incentives for staying single.
“When the economy recovers, you’ll still see all these problems persisting for
reasons that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture,”
There are no easy answers, in part because the problem is so complex, said
Douglas J. Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. Blaming the problem on
the richest of the rich ignores an equally important driver, he said: two-earner
household wealth, which has lifted the upper middle class ever further from less
educated Americans, who tend to be single parents.
The problem is a puzzle, he said. “No one has the slightest idea what will work.
The cupboard is bare.”
Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor,
Street is shining a useful spotlight on one of America’s central challenges, the
inequality that leaves the richest 1 percent of Americans with a greater net
worth than the entire bottom 90 percent.
Most of the proposed remedies involve changes in taxes and regulations, and they
would help. But the single step that would do the most to reduce inequality has
nothing to do with finance at all. It’s an expansion of early childhood
Huh? That will seem naïve and bizarre to many who chafe at inequities and who
think the first step is to throw a few bankers into prison. But although part of
the problem is billionaires being taxed at lower rates than those with more
modest incomes, a bigger source of structural inequity is that many young people
never get the skills to compete. They’re just left behind.
“This is where inequality starts,” said Kathleen McCartney, the dean of the
Harvard Graduate School of Education, as she showed me a chart demonstrating
that even before kindergarten there are significant performance gaps between
rich and poor students. Those gaps then widen further in school.
“The reason early education is important is that you build a foundation for
school success,” she added. “And success breeds success.”
One common thread, whether I’m reporting on poverty in New York City or in
Sierra Leone, is that a good education tends to be the most reliable escalator
out of poverty. Another common thread: whether in America or Africa,
disadvantaged kids often don’t get a chance to board that escalator.
Maybe it seems absurd to propose expansion of early childhood education at a
time when budgets are being slashed. Yet James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning
economist at the University of Chicago, has shown that investments in early
childhood education pay for themselves. Indeed, he argues that they pay a return
of 7 percent or more — better than many investments on Wall Street.
“Schooling after the second grade plays only a minor role in creating or
reducing gaps,” Heckman argues in an important article this year in American
Educator. “It is imperative to change the way we look at education. We should
invest in the foundation of school readiness from birth to age 5.”
One of the most studied initiatives in this area was the Perry Preschool
program, which worked with disadvantaged black children in Michigan in the
1960s. Compared with a control group, children who went through the Perry
program were 22 percent more likely to finish high school and were arrested less
than half as often for felonies. They were half as likely to receive public
assistance and three times as likely to own their own homes.
We don’t want to get too excited with these statistics, or those of the equally
studied Abecedarian Project in North Carolina. The program was tiny, and many
antipoverty initiatives work wonderfully when they’re experiments but founder
when scaled up. Still, new research suggests that early childhood education can
work even in the real world at scale.
Take Head Start, which serves more than 900,000 low-income children a year.
There are flaws in Head Start, and researchers have found that while it improved
test results, those gains were fleeting. As a result, Head Start seemed to
confer no lasting benefits, and it has been widely criticized as a failure.
Not so fast.
One of the Harvard scholars I interviewed, David Deming, compared the outcomes
of children who were in Head Start with their siblings who did not participate.
Professor Deming found that critics were right that the Head Start advantage in
test scores faded quickly. But, in other areas, perhaps more important ones, he
found that Head Start had a significant long-term impact: the former Head Start
participants are significantly less likely than siblings to repeat grades, to be
diagnosed with a learning disability, or to suffer the kind of poor health
associated with poverty. Head Start alumni were more likely than their siblings
to graduate from high school and attend college.
Professor Deming found that in these life outcomes, Head Start had about 80
percent of the impact of the Perry program — a stunning achievement.
Something similar seems to be true of the large-scale prekindergarten program in
Boston. Hirokazu Yoshikawa and Christina Weiland, both of Harvard, found that it
erased the Latino-white testing gap in kindergarten and sharply reduced the
President Obama often talked in his campaign about early childhood education,
and he probably agrees with everything I’ve said. But the issue has slipped away
and off the agenda.
That’s sad because the question isn’t whether we can afford early childhood
education, but whether we can afford not to provide it. We can pay for prisons
or we can pay, less, for early childhood education to help build a fairer and
more equitable nation.
The 2002 No
Child Left Behind Act focused the country’s attention on school reform as never
before, but the law is far from perfect. The Obama administration is wise to
address its flaws, since Congress is four years overdue in updating the law.
The Department of Education’s plan gives states that agree to several reforms —
including stringent teacher evaluation systems and new programs for overhauling
the worst schools — an exemption from many of the law’s requirements. It would
permit the states to change the way they evaluate most schools for the purpose
of compliance, allowing indicators other than just reading and math scores to be
considered. And it would lift the law’s provision that all students be
proficient in math and reading by 2014, which was never going to happen anyway
because there were so many loopholes.
The administration, however, must not allow the new waiver system to become a
way for states to elude the purpose of the act, which is to raise student
achievement across the board.
The waiver plan will cure several obvious shortcomings of the original law. It
would allow schools to be rated partly on achievement-growth measures — how much
students improve on reading and math — instead of just on the percentage of
students who reach “proficiency” on those tests. The current approach has led
many schools to ignore both high-achieving and low-achieving children to focus
on pushing up students who fall just short of the proficiency mark.
It would also put an end to the much despised pass-fail system under which
otherwise high-performing schools are rated as “needing improvement” if one
racial or economic subgroup falls short of yearly achievement targets. And it
would allow districts more flexibility in the use of federal dollars.
To qualify for waivers, states will have to install new tests — and teacher
evaluation systems that take those test results into account — by the 2014-15
school year. The 12 states that received federal grants in the Race to the Top
program last year have a head start. They agreed to put in data-driven teacher
evaluation systems as part of that competition. But even reform-minded states
like Delaware, which was one of the first to win a grant, have been unable to
get their systems up and running and have asked the government for more time.
Part of the problem is that in most states, yearly math and reading tests are
given only in grades three through eight and once in high school and cover less
than half of the teachers. This means that the system must devise other rigorous
rating measures for the remaining staff. Another is that the systems must be
designed not just to show how much children have improved, but also to provide
guidance so that ineffective teachers get better.
It seems imprudent to rush the states into bringing these complex new
evaluations systems and high-quality tests on line by 2014, given that they will
also be expected to adopt new core curriculums.
The Obama administration must insist that states getting waivers demonstrate
that they are making substantial progress, but it should allow flexibility on
the timing. Having states rush to adopt inadequate evaluation systems would
discredit the school reform movement.
EVERYONE knows that today every American’s job is on the line, and that better
schools mean better jobs. Schools and jobs are alike in this sense: Washington
can’t create good jobs, and Washington can’t create good schools. What
Washington can do, though, is shape an environment in which businesses and
entrepreneurs can create jobs. It can do the same thing in education, by
creating an environment in which teachers, parents and communities can build
better schools. Last week President Obama, citing a failure by Congress to act,
announced a procedure for handing out waivers for the federal mandates under the
No Child Left Behind law. Unfortunately, these waivers come with a series of new
federal rules, this time without congressional approval, and would make the
secretary of education the equivalent of a national school board.
However, there is another way. Earlier this month, several senators and I
introduced a set of five bills that would fix the problems with this important
No Child Left Behind, created through a bipartisan effort in 2001, set a goal
that all 50 million students in our nearly 100,000 public schools would be
proficient in reading and math by 2014. There would be state standards and
tests, and requirements that our 3.2 million teachers be “highly qualified.”
Schools failing to meet “adequate yearly progress” standards would receive
federal sanctions. For parents, there would be more school choice, including new
Almost a decade later, however, it is likely that nearly 80 percent of American
schools will soon fail to meet the adequate yearly progress standards.
My colleagues and I agree with the Obama administration that after a decade of
federal rules, more responsibility needs to go back to the states. No Child Left
Behind has made one thing clear: when it comes to education reform, the states
are both highly capable and highly motivated. Since 2002, 44 states and
territories have adopted common core academic standards, two groups of states
are developing common tests for those standards and 44 states are collaborating
on common principles for holding schools accountable for student achievement.
Many states and school districts are also finding ways to reward outstanding
teaching and to include student performance as a part of that evaluation. That
may seem like common sense, but until Tennessee created its master-teacher
program in 1984, not one state paid one teacher one penny more for teaching
Our legislation would scuttle entirely the Washington-imposed
adequate-yearly-progress requirements set by No Child Left Behind, and would
instead require states to set their own high standards to promote college- and
career-readiness for all students. We agree that all states should aim to make
their graduates capable of entering higher education or the workforce. But we
also believe there are many ways to get there, and states should have the
flexibility to find the ones that works best for them.
Our bill would change not only the way students are evaluated, but the way
teachers are as well. The “highly qualified” requirement is usually met through
graduate or professional training. But training doesn’t always translate into
improved performance in the classroom. Instead, we would encourage states to
develop teacher- and principal-evaluation systems related to student
At the same time, we would continue to require the reporting of student progress
— not so Washington could decide whether to sanction a school, but so that
parents, teachers and communities can know whether their students are
succeeding. The data would also help with future reforms: thanks to No Child
Left Behind, we have several years of school-by-school information about student
progress in each school. We can see now what works, and where work needs to be
We would also make it easier for state governments and local school districts to
expand the number of charter schools, which have been shown to improve student
achievement in under-performing districts.
Finally, we would cut through the bureaucratic thicket of federal education
assistance by consolidating programs and making it easier for the states to
receive needed resources. And we would make sure that some of that money went
specifically to help states turn around the bottom 5 percent of their schools.
While all the sponsors of this legislation are Republican senators, many of the
ideas were either first advanced or have been worked on in concert with Mr.
Obama; his excellent education secretary, Arne Duncan; and Democratic colleagues
in both the House and the Senate.
We want to continue to work with our colleagues across the aisle and in the
House. Our purpose in offering our ideas is to spur progress so we can enact a
bill by the end of the year.
Mr. Duncan has warned us that under existing law, most schools will be labeled
as failing schools within a few years, and he is proposing to use his waiver
authority to avoid that. The best way for us to relieve Mr. Duncan of the need
to consider waivers and to help American children learn what they need to know,
and what they need to be able to do, is to fix No Child Left Behind.
Alexander, a Republican senator from Tennessee,
The New York Times
By SAM DILLON
declaration on Friday that he would waive the most contentious provisions of a
federal education law, President Obama effectively rerouted the nation’s
education history after a turbulent decade of overwhelming federal influence.
Mr. Obama invited states to reclaim the power to design their own school
accountability and improvement systems, upending the centerpiece of the Bush-era
No Child Left Behind law, a requirement that all students be proficient in math
and reading by 2014.
“This does not mean that states will be able to lower their standards or escape
accountability,” the president said. “If states want more flexibility, they’re
going to have to set higher standards, more honest standards that prove they’re
serious about meeting them.”
But experts said it was a measure of how profoundly the law had reshaped
America’s public school culture that even in states that accept the
administration’s offer to pursue a new agenda, the law’s legacy will live on in
classrooms, where educators’ work will continue to emphasize its major themes,
like narrowing student achievement gaps, and its tactics, like using
standardized tests to measure educators’ performance.
In a White House speech, Mr. Obama said states that adopted new higher
standards, pledged to overhaul their lowest-performing schools and revamped
their teacher evaluation systems should apply for waivers of 10 central
provisions of the No Child law, including its 2014 proficiency deadline. The
administration was forced to act, Mr. Obama said, because partisan gridlock kept
Congress from updating the law.
“Given that Congress cannot act, I am acting,” Mr. Obama said. “Starting today,
we’ll be giving states more flexibility.”
But while the law itself clearly empowers Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to
waive its provisions, the administration’s decision to make the waivers
conditional on states’ pledges to pursue Mr. Obama’s broad school improvement
agenda has angered Republicans gearing up for the 2012 elections.
On Friday Congressional leaders immediately began characterizing the waivers as
a new administration power grab, in line with their portrayal of the health care
overhaul, financial sector regulation and other administration initiatives.
“In my judgment, he is exercising an authority and power he doesn’t have,” said
Representative John Kline, Republican of Minnesota and chairman of the House
education committee. “We all know the law is broken and needs to be changed. But
this is part and parcel with the whole picture with this administration: they
cannot get their agenda through Congress, so they’re doing it with executive
orders and rewriting rules. This is executive overreach.”
Mr. Obama made his statements to a bipartisan audience that included Gov. Bill
Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican, Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, an
independent, and 24 state superintendents of education.
“I believe this will be a transformative movement in American public education,”
Christopher Cerf, New Jersey’s education commissioner under Gov. Chris Christie,
a Republican, said after the speech.
The No Child law that President George W. Bush signed in 2002 was a bipartisan
rewrite of the basic federal law on public schools, first passed in 1965 to help
the nation’s neediest students. The 2002 law required all schools to administer
reading and math tests every year, and to increase the proportion of students
passing them until reaching 100 percent in 2014. Schools that failed to keep
pace were to be labeled as failing, and eventually their principals fired and
staffs dismantled. That system for holding schools accountable for test scores
has encouraged states to lower standards, teachers to focus on test preparation,
and math and reading to crowd out history, art and foreign languages.
Mr. Obama’s blueprint for rewriting the law, which Congress has never acted on,
urged lawmakers to adopt an approach that would encourage states to raise
standards, focus interventions only on the worst failing schools and use test
scores and other measures to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness. In its current
proposal, the administration requires states to adopt those elements of its
blueprint in exchange for relief from the No Child law.
Mr. Duncan, speaking after Mr. Obama’s speech, said the waivers could bring
significant change to states that apply. “For parents, it means their schools
won’t be labeled failures,” Mr. Duncan said. “It should reduce the pressure to
teach to the test.”
Critics were skeptical, saying that classroom teachers who complain about
unrelenting pressure to prepare for standardized tests were unlikely to feel
“In the system that N.C.L.B. created, standardized tests are the measure of all
that is good, and that has not changed,“ said Monty Neill, executive director of
Fair Test, an antitesting advocacy group. “This policy encourages states to use
test scores as a significant factor in evaluating teachers, and that will add to
the pressure on teachers to teach to the test.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said her
union favored evaluation systems that would help teachers improve their
instruction, whereas the administration was focusing on accountability. “You’re
seeing an extraordinary change of policy, from an accountability system focused
on districts and schools, to accountability based on teacher and principal
evaluations,” Ms. Weingarten said.
For most states, obtaining a waiver could be the easy part of accepting the
administration’s invitation. Actually designing a new school accountability
system, and obtaining statewide acceptance of it, represents a complex
administrative and political challenge for governors and other state leaders,
said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School
Officers, which the White House said played an important role in developing the
Only about five states may be ready to apply immediately, and perhaps 20 others
could follow by next spring, Mr. Wilhoit said. Developing new educator
evaluation systems and other aspects of follow-through could take states three
years or more, he said.
Officials in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and in at least eight other
states — Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Idaho, Minnesota, Virginia and
Wisconsin — said Friday that they would probably seek the waivers.
Re “The Limits of School Reform” (column, April 26):
Hats off to Joe Nocera for saying what has been obvious to teachers and
principals for years. By the time a child starts public school, at age 5 or 6,
he or she has been in an environment since birth that has largely shaped the
outcome of his or her school experience.
There’s no question that can be modified for the good by dedicated teachers
working in well-run schools. But there is serious doubt that school reform alone
will accomplish that.
Children bring all the baggage of their home experiences with them when they
come to school. Couple that with the dismal condition of many of the nation’s
public schools, crumbling neighborhoods and parents who have little to no
contact with the schools, and you have a recipe for failing schools.
Requiring school uniforms, adding hours to the schoolday, providing more
rigorous courses — all may be helpful, but no combination of efforts confined
solely to the schools will provide the magic answer.
Many of America’s schools are failing because for many Americans our society is
failing. Pushing for more charter schools and standardized tests or excoriating
teachers’ unions are only diversions if we fail to broaden our efforts beyond
the schoolhouse door.
Durham, N.C., April 26, 2011
To the Editor:
Joe Nocera’s point that good teaching alone cannot overcome the obstacles posed
by poverty is a common counterpoint to the education reform movement. I, like
Joel I. Klein, former New York City schools chancellor, reject this premise
because it takes the entire problem of failing schools out of one’s control.
Of course poverty is a factor. So is how many parents the students live with. So
is school funding. So is out-of-control school bureaucracy.
But, so what? The entire point of the teacher focus is that it’s the only thing
the school systems really have control over. In the absence of an immediate plan
to fix poverty, family structure and school funding, the only place where we can
influence the fate of these students is in the classroom. That’s where the focus
Memphis, April 26, 2011
The writer is a high school teacher.
To the Editor:
Thank you, Joe Nocera. I teach 11th-grade English and this term I have 60
low-performing students. I vowed to myself that not one would fail my class. I
have worked harder than ever before to make relevant lesson plans, teach basic
grammar and talk one on one with failing students.
And yet, what am I to do with the one who spent two weeks in a mental hospital,
the two who have run away, the one with no ride to school, the three who have
been suspended for drugs and the countless others who attend class only one or
two days a week?
Short of adopting these teenagers myself (something that movies about inspiring
teachers seem to suggest is a viable option), my impact on their lives seems
Bloomington, Ind., April 26, 2011
To the Editor:
Joe Nocera is right: To deal with the impact of poverty on students’ success in
school, we must both improve schools that serve low-income children and provide
the additional resources, services and supports children need to succeed. If we
concentrate on only one of these efforts, we will continue to fail these
Most American children thrive academically because they enjoy the benefits of
preschool, quality K-12 schooling, complementary learning opportunities out of
school, health care and family support. For children from poverty, many of these
vital educational resources are unavailable or inadequate. The result is
dramatic gaps in academic achievement.
Research clearly shows that for disadvantaged children to obtain a meaningful
educational opportunity, they need both important school-based resources like
quality teaching, and critical out-of-school resources like quality early
learning experiences, physical and mental health care, after-school and summer
programs, and family engagement — what we call “comprehensive educational
In spite of all the new money promoting a more simplistic approach, this
“both/and” approach continues to gain strength among researchers, practitioners,
advocates and the courts.
JESSICA R. WOLFF
New York, April 27, 2011
The writer is director of the Comprehensive Educational Opportunity Project of
the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University.
AMERICAN education was once the best in the world. But today, our private and
public universities are losing their competitive edge to foreign institutions,
they are losing the advertising wars to for-profit colleges and they are losing
control over their own admissions because of an ill-conceived ranking system.
With the recession causing big state budget cuts, the situation in higher
education has turned critical. Here are a few radical ideas to improve matters:
Raise the age of compulsory education. Twenty-six states require children to
attend school until age 16, the rest until 17 or 18, but we should ensure that
all children stay in school until age 19. Simply completing high school no
longer provides students with an education sufficient for them to compete in the
21st-century economy. So every child should receive a year of post-secondary
The benefits of an extra year of schooling are beyond question: high school
graduates can earn more than dropouts, have better health, more stable lives and
a longer life expectancy. College graduates do even better. Just as we are
moving toward a longer school day (where is it written that learning should end
at 3 p.m.?) and a longer school year (does anyone really believe pupils need a
three-month summer vacation?), so we should move to a longer school career.
President Obama recently embraced the possibility of extending public education
for a year after high school: “I ask every American to commit to at least one
year or more of higher education or career training.” He suggested that this
compulsory post-secondary education could be in a “community college or a
four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.” (I helped start an
accredited online school of education, and firmly believe that the coursework
could also be delivered to students online.)
If the federal government ultimately pays for the extra year, it would be a
turning point at least as important as the passage of the 1862 Morrill Act that
gave rise to the state universities or the 1944 G.I. Bill that made college
affordable to our returning service personnel after World War II. Every college
trustee should be insisting that we make the president’s dream a reality.
And for those who graduate from high school early: they would receive, each year
until they turn 19, a scholarship equal to their state’s per pupil spending. In
New York, that could be nearly $15,000 per year. This proposal — which already
has been tried in a few states — has the neat side effect of encouraging quick
learners to graduate early and free up seats in our overcrowded high schools.
Use high-pressure sales tactics to curb truancy. Casual truancy is epidemic; in
many cities, including New York, roughly 30 percent of public school students
are absent a total of a month each year. Not surprisingly, truants become
But truant officers can borrow a page from salesmen, who have developed
high-pressure tactics so effective they can overwhelm the consumer’s will.
Making repeated home visits and early morning phone calls, securing written
commitments and eliciting oral commitments in front of witnesses might be
egregious tactics when used by, say, a credit card company. But these could be
valuable ways to compel parents to ensure that their children go to school every
Advertise creatively and aggressively to encourage college enrollment. The
University of Phoenix, a private, for-profit institution, spent $278 million on
advertising, most of it online, in 2007. It was one of the principal sponsors of
Super Bowl XLII, which was held at University of Phoenix Stadium (not bad for an
institution that doesn’t even have a football team). The University of Phoenix’s
enrollment has clearly benefited from its advertising budget: with more than
350,000 students, its enrollment is surpassed by only a few state universities.
The University of Phoenix and other for profits have also established a crucial
niche recruiting and serving older students. Traditional colleges need to do far
better, using advertising to attract paying older students and to recruit the
more than 70 percent of the population who lack a post-secondary degree. They
have a built-in advantage, since attending a for-profit college instead of a
more prestigious, less expensive public college makes no more sense than buying
bottled water when the tap water tastes just as good.
Unseal college accreditation reports so that the Department of Education can
take over the business of ranking colleges and universities. Accreditation
reports — rigorous evaluations, prepared by representatives of peer institutions
— include everything students need to know when making decisions about schools,
yet the specifics of most reports remain secret.
Instead, students and their parents rely on U.S. News & World Report rankings
that are skewed by colleges, which contort their marketing efforts to maximize
the number of applicants whom they already know they will never accept, just to
improve their selectivity rankings. Meanwhile, private counselors charge
thousands of dollars claiming to know the “secret” of admissions. Aspiring
entrants submit far too many applications in the hope of beating the odds.
Everyone loses. Opening the accreditation reports to the public would provide a
The biggest improvement we can make in higher education is to produce more
qualified applicants. Half of the freshmen at community colleges and a third of
freshmen at four-year colleges matriculate with academic skills in at least one
subject too weak to allow them to do college work. Unsurprisingly, the average
college graduation rates even at four-year institutions are less than 60
The story at the graduate level is entirely predictable: in 2007, more than a
third of all research doctorates were awarded to foreigners, and the proportion
is far higher in the hard sciences. The problem goes well beyond the fact that
both our public schools and undergraduate institutions need to do a better job
preparing their students: too many parents are failing to insure that their
children are educated.
President Obama has again led the way: “As fathers and parents, we’ve got to
spend more time with them, and help them with their homework, and replace the
video game or the remote control with a book once in a while.” Better teachers,
smaller classes and more modern schools are all part of the solution. But
improving parenting skills and providing struggling parents with assistance are
part of the solution too.
At a time when it seems we have ever fewer globally competitive industries,
American higher education is a brand worth preserving.
Harold O. Levy,
the New York City schools chancellor from 2000 to 2002,
(Reuters) - Higher education in the United States has been
viewed as recession-proof, but the global financial crisis is already having an
Here are some facts about enrollment, endowments, and finances at the nation's
- An October 16 report from Moody's Investors Service estimated endowment losses
at 5 percent to 7 percent in the year to June 30. Since then, spending and
endowment losses sliced another 30 percent off schools' cash and investments.
- For the nation's public universities, which educate three out of four
students, state subsidies covered a little over half of their budget costs last
year, down from two-thirds in 1998. Tuition has grown to cover more than a third
of their budgets, up from one-fifth 15 years ago.
- Endowments supported around 10 percent of the average school's budget. At
Harvard (endowment $34.6 billion as of June 30), Yale ($22.5 billion), and other
wealthy institutions, earnings from the endowment covered roughly 40 percent of
costs. The average expenditure out of wealthy schools' endowments was 4.4
percent of assets.
- A total of 76 colleges and universities had more than $1 billion in their
endowments as of June 30. The wealthiest 400 schools had more than $400 billion
in assets in 2007. But fewer than 400 schools had at least $100 million in their
endowments, with most having less than $10 million.
- Tuition, room and board at private four-year schools in 2007-2008 averaged
$31,019, up 7 percent from two years ago after adjusting for inflation. The cost
of public schools was $16,758 for in-state students, $24,955 for out-of-state
students, up 5 percent in the last two years after inflation.
- Federal loan aid for higher education increased 60 percent between 1996 and
2005. Students borrowed $77 billion last year to pay expenses to attend colleges
and universities. Two out of three students received grants -- discounts on
tuition -- averaging $9,300 at private schools and $3,600 at public schools.
- College seniors who graduated in 2007 carried 6 percent more student loan debt
that the class of 2006. Starting salaries for graduates rose 3 percent in the
- An online survey found 16 percent of prospective students put college searches
on hold because they couldn't afford it.
Sources: State Higher Education Executive Officers;
The Project on Student Debt;
Center for College Affordability and Productivity;
Why did the
United States become the leading economic power of the 20th century? The best
short answer is that a ferocious belief that people have the power to transform
their own lives gave Americans an unparalleled commitment to education, hard
work and economic freedom.
Between 1870 and 1950, the average American’s level of education rose by 0.8
years per decade. In 1890, the average adult had completed about 8 years of
schooling. By 1900, the average American had 8.8 years. By 1910, it was 9.6
years, and by 1960, it was nearly 14 years.
As Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz describe in their book, “The Race Between
Education and Technology,” America’s educational progress was amazingly steady
over those decades, and the U.S. opened up a gigantic global lead. Educational
levels were rising across the industrialized world, but the U.S. had at least a
35-year advantage on most of Europe. In 1950, no European country enrolled 30
percent of its older teens in full-time secondary school. In the U.S., 70
percent of older teens were in school.
America’s edge boosted productivity and growth. But the happy era ended around
1970 when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl. Between 1975 and
1990, educational attainments stagnated completely. Since then, progress has
been modest. America’s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely
forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment.
This threatens the country’s long-term prospects. It also widens the gap between
rich and poor. Goldin and Katz describe a race between technology and education.
The pace of technological change has been surprisingly steady. In periods when
educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is
flooded with skilled workers, so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the
current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change,
inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices,
while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.
The meticulous research of Goldin and Katz is complemented by a report from
James Heckman of the University of Chicago. Using his own research, Heckman also
concludes that high school graduation rates peaked in the U.S. in the late
1960s, at about 80 percent. Since then they have declined.
In “Schools, Skills and Synapses,” Heckman probes the sources of that decline.
It’s not falling school quality, he argues. Nor is it primarily a shortage of
funding or rising college tuition costs. Instead, Heckman directs attention at
family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years.
Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5.
Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital
development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict,
with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who
I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then
build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability,
self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits
are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental
I point to these two research projects because the skills slowdown is the
biggest issue facing the country. Rising gas prices are bound to dominate the
election because voters are slapped in the face with them every time they visit
the pump. But this slow-moving problem, more than any other, will shape the
destiny of the nation.
Second, there is a big debate under way over the sources of middle-class
economic anxiety. Some populists emphasize the destructive forces of
globalization, outsourcing and predatory capitalism. These people say we need
radical labor market reforms to give the working class a chance. But the
populists are going to have to grapple with the Goldin, Katz and Heckman
research, which powerfully buttresses the arguments of those who emphasize human
capital policies. It’s not globalization or immigration or computers per se that
widen inequality. It’s the skills gap. Boosting educational attainment at the
bottom is more promising than trying to reorganize the global economy.
Third, it’s worth noting that both sides of this debate exist within the
Democratic Party. The G.O.P. is largely irrelevant. If you look at Barack
Obama’s education proposals — especially his emphasis on early childhood — you
see that they flow naturally and persuasively from this research. (It probably
helps that Obama and Heckman are nearly neighbors in Chicago). McCain’s policies
seem largely oblivious to these findings. There’s some vague talk about school
choice, but Republicans are inept when talking about human capital policies.
America rose because it got more out of its own people than other nations. That
stopped in 1970. Now, other issues grab headlines and campaign attention. But
this tectonic plate is still relentlessly and menacingly shifting beneath our
(AP) -- The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected school assignment plans that take
account of students' race in two major public school districts. The decisions
could imperil similar plans nationwide. The Court also blocked the execution of
a Texas killer whose lawyers argued that he should not be put to death because
he is mentally ill.
Today is probably the Court's last session until October.
The school rulings in cases affecting schools in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle
leave public school systems with a limited arsenal to maintain racial diversity.
The court split, 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts announcing the court's
judgment. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent that was joined by the court's
other three liberals.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion in which he said race may be
a component of school district plans designed to achieve diversity.
He agreed with Roberts that the plans in Louisville and Seattle went too far. He
said, however, that to the extent that Roberts' opinion could be interpreted as
foreclosing the use of race in any circumstance, ''I disagree with that
The two school systems in Thursday's decisions employ slightly different methods
of taking students' race into account when determining which school they would
In the case involving the mentally ill killer in Texas, the court ruled 5-4 in
the case of Scott Louis Panetti, who shot his in-laws to death 15 years ago in
front of his wife and young daughter.
The convicted murderer says that he suffers from a severe documented illness
that is the source of gross delusions. ''This argument, we hold, should have
been considered,'' said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion.
Panetti's lawyers wanted the court to determine that people who cannot
understand the connection between their crime and punishment because of mental
illness may not be executed.
The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution bars ''the execution of a person who is
so lacking in rational understanding that he cannot comprehend that he is being
put to death because of the crime he was convicted of committing,'' they said in
In a third case, the Court abandoned a 96-year-old ban on manufacturers and
retailers setting price floors for products.
In a 5-4 decision, the court said that agreements on minimum prices are legal if
they promote competition.
The ruling means that accusations of minimum pricing pacts will be evaluated
case by case.
The Supreme Court declared in 1911 that minimum pricing agreements violate
federal antitrust law.