Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Education Entitlement Imperative

In March of 1867, during battles with ultra-conservative-Democratic President Andrew Johnson over how to re-organize the South following the Civil War, the Republican Congress, controlled by liberals and moderates, managed to pass, and the President subsequently signed, new legislation establishing a national department of education to collect statistics.

Conservatives had long opposed compulsory public education.  Fearing even the collection of statics, the department was soon-after demoted from cabinet level to the status of office.  However, in 1870, under the new act and the new administration of President and Civil War hero U.S. Grant, the government began to conduct statistical surveys.  In 1872, Congress authorized the hiring of the first statistician.

This is how we now know that between 1870, around the time many of my great-grandparents were born and 1952, two years after I was born, “every decade was accompanied by an increase in 0.8 years of education.”

Unfortunately, that annual bump in the level of education stopped thirty years ago.  It probably isn’t coincidental that this was also when the middle-class went into decline and about the time conservatives -- by this time mostly Republicans -- took power as well as aim at government and education policy.Seven distinct youth segments - Mckinsey Survey '12

Ironically, it was conservatives who, in 1642, first put compulsory education into law.  The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were ultra-conservatives, but they believed education was a moral and social imperative.

However, it would be another 210 years before Massachusetts established compulsory attendance, which reminds me of a hotelier-friend of mine in Durham, NC where I live, who found that asking prospective employees if they had a car was insufficient, so added the question, “and does it run?” 

By 1900, pressed by the Progressive Movement, 34 states including four in the South had legislated compulsory schooling if even for as little as a few weeks a year.  This included my native Idaho, first settled by my great-grandparents in 1860, which embedded education in its pre-statehood constitution in 1887. 

By 1907, North Carolina, my adopted home now for nearly 25 years, followed suit and finally, Mississippi became the last state to do so in 1917.  By 1910, 72 percent of American children were attending school.

Back then, half the nation's children attended one-room schools as my father did during the 1920s and 1930s in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho.  By 1918, near the end of the Progressive Era, every state required students to at least complete elementary school.

It isn’t clear why conservatives have so often opposed education.  You almost need a scorecard to keep track of when conservatives have been in control of each of the major political parties in the US.

When I need a break from writing essays such as these, I often pick up a small book entitled The Good Of This Place, a collection published by Dick Brodhead, a friend of mine in Durham, who is currently President of Duke University.

Before ascending to become president of Duke, Dick had been the long-time Dean of Yale College.  One of my favorites in the book, which was published just as I retired, is entitled Taking Democracy to School, a 2001 pre-9/11 lecture he made as part of the De Vane series to mark Yale’s 300th anniversary.

Here, Dick tells the story of an 1778-80 public education legislative proposal made by Thomas Jefferson entitled “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” during the time he was elected Governor of Virginia while the American Revolution was in full swing.

To me, Jefferson and James Madison were the conservative Republicans of their time, resisting change, especially when it came to proposals by other founding fathers to abolish slavery.

The bill was repeatedly submitted by each of these men and a watered-down version was finally passed by the Virginia Commonwealth in 1796, well after formation of the United States of America and a constitutional compromise that would leave slavery in place until the Civil War triggered passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In this speech, Dr. Brodhead points out several “paradoxes of democratic education” contained in Jefferson’s proposal:

  1. “It failed partly because Virginia voters were unwilling to entrust their local schools to a statewide system…largely because they refused to assume the tax burden…”
  2. “Jefferson would make the school the great equalizer, the tool for neutralizing differences of income and family standing [except slaves.]
  3. His whole three-tier apparatus is an elaborate sorting device, a mechanism for separating the persons of superior parts and blessing him with further advancement.”

I can imagine the characteristic twinkle in Dick’s eye as he dryly notes that – “When Jefferson speaks of best geniuses being “raked from rubbish,” the limits of his egalitarianism comes clear.”

Today, education is an entitlement but a sense of “entitlement” is not limited by socio-economic status or level of education or privilege.  In 2011, while summarizing some of his research, Ed O’Brien, phd candidate in psychology at the University of Michigan noted that – “For some, a dull moment can seem like an eternity, whereas for others there is no such thing as a dull moment.

Fortunately, for the most part, I have always been more like the latter but especially now in retirement.  The study found that, unfortunately, for people who feel entitled, time passes oh, so slowly.

According to a 2012 McKinsey Global Institute survey, there are 75 million unemployed youth around the world, one in eight between the ages of 15 and 24.  For them, time is excruciatingly slow. The figure increases to 225 million when counting those who are underemployed.

Yet, paradoxically, only 43% of the employers surveyed in nine countries including the United States could find enough skilled entry-level workers.

Of those of student-age who didn’t attend post-secondary school, 57% are “too cool” (in my opinion, a form of entitlement) and 43% are “too poor.”  Another 18% are “disengaged” and 26% are “struggling.”

The McKinsey report analyzes three “critical intersections” for students, educators and employers: 1) enrolling in post-secondary education, 2) building skills, and 3) finding a job.

“Cost” is the top barrier to enrolling in college, denying nearly a third of high-school graduates access.  Among those who go on, only “46% are convinced they made the right choice as far as selecting institution or field of study.”

For those who do go on, there is a big disconnect at “building skills,” the second intersection, with 60% citing on-the-job training and hands-on learning as the most effective instructional techniques, “but fewer than half of that percentage are enrolled in curricula that prioritize those techniques.”

In my experience, many of the students in the surveys seem to feel “entitled” as do many prospective employers which are as much impediments as any failure by educational institutions to make adjustments.  At the third intersection, a quarter of youth fail to make a smooth transition to work.

The report proposes some improved models and in the United States, a Career Readiness Partner Council coalesced just a few months ago to evolve a new model between employers, policy-makers, educators, students and families.

However, I am more persuaded that a critical part of the answer is to be found by expanding the social and moral imperative for education into pre-school years.

Programs such as Smart Start, which brings together all the people involved in a pre-schooler’s life— “families, teachers, doctors, caregivers, social workers, and many others” as well as the More at Four program, have been proven effective by researchers at Duke University.

A recent Gallup survey of students reveals that student engagement with learning and education is highest during elementary school at 76%, falling to 61% by middle school and 44% in high school.  Fixation on standardized testing is one of the culprits.

I am convinced that even early intervention, well before elementary school is the answer to creating a lifetime enjoyment of learning.

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