Recommendations for an ‘Education President’

June 21, 1989 6 min read

In a speech to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences this spring, Harvard University’s president, Derek Bok, suggested some steps George Bush might take in his quest to become the “education President.”

Though he argued that “it would be hard to describe any large-scale federal program for the public schools that ... has a reasonable probability of making a difference in student achievement,” Mr. Bok offered the following recommendations:

For one thing, [Mr. Bush] can use his bully pulpit to encourage action of a useful kind. He can begin by simply proclaiming over and over again how important education is, how serious our problems are, how necessary it is to keep the current wave of reform going for a number of years longer.

He can certainly urge less state regulation, as he apparently did in a New Jersey school [recently].

He can try to spread good ideas, as he has done in speaking for parental choice in schools. ...

What else can the President do? If schools are to compete, if they are going to have more autonomy and less regulation, they will need much better personnel. ...

The federal government could do several things to help, both symbolically and in real terms. The Congress could provide fellowships for new principals to enable them to receive a summer, or better yet a year, of education to prepare for leadership responsibilities very different from those that they had as teachers.

By establishing such fellowships, the federal government could do a lot to get universities and school systems across the United States to take training of school leaders more seriously and to do it better than they have in the past.

The government could also provide more fellowships than we now have for math and science teachers in the summer, or college scholarships for science and math majors who are willing to devote five years to the public schools, or fellowships to help older people with science backgrounds move over in mid-career and spend the later phase of their lives in the public schools.

Finally, ... the President could encourage a process of experimentation and research and evaluation to try to hasten the process of discovering better approaches than we now have to the very difficult educational problems we currently face. ...

Indeed, Washington itself would provide an excellent laboratory to discover what can be done to improve the desperate condition of the inner-city school.

If [Director of Federal Drug-Control Policy William J.] Bennett can use Washington as a laboratory to overcome drugs, surely [Secretary of Education Lauro F.] Cavazos could do the same in an effort to overcome illiteracy and underachievement in Washington’s schools.

Improvements in public-assistance programs whose beneficiaries are primarily minority children are lagging behind those in programs that mainly help whites, writes Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York in the spring issue of Teachers College Record.

Examining the sources of what he labels an “institutional bias against minority children and families,” Mr. Moynihan calls for new approaches to welfare reform:

Welfare has become a stigmatized program, and the children dependent on it (as many as 1 child in 3 before reaching age 18) are stigmatized by association.

I believe we must get rid of that stigma by emphasizing child support, support to families, and the education and training adults need to get off welfare. Such a definition must occur at the federal level first.

There has been a great deal of talk about both increasing child support and enabling adults through education and training, but the federal government has really never backed either.

Once that stigma is gone, or diminished, states will once again feel the moral obligation to maintain and even increase Aid to Families with Dependent Children payments. The states are free to do so now. With but two exceptions, they do not.

We must change this. A.fdc should be a national program, with national benefits that keep pace with inflation, in exactly the same way that Survivors’ Insurance is a national program with national benefits. ...

We can and we must set a new trend in place by creating a new system of child support that, without abandoning ultimate security, puts its first emphasis on earned income, and that, without giving up on the problems of deeply dependent families, extends coverage to all needful ones.

Welfare reform must become the art of the possible, or it will become a diversion of the essentially unserious.

Addressing a National Education Association meeting in March, Lee A. Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler Corporation, considered the lessons a “global economy” can hold for teachers.

In the new competitive environment, he said, they “will be judged coldly, objectively, and purely by the product [they] turn out":

Education has a public-relations problem. Every new headline about how far our kids are falling behind adds to it.

And I’ve got news for you--nobody wants to listen to the reasons why. You’ll take almost all the blame for our educational failures. Sorry, but you can’t duck it.

When the Korean 8th graders whip your 8th graders in math, you flunk. Don’t bother talking about pluralism, or humanism, or one-parent families. Don’t say it’s society’s fault, or that you’re underpaid, or that the tests aren’t fair. Don’t talk about union-management problems. None of them means a damn thing.

There are no excuses. If your students can’t cut it, then you flunk right along with them.

You’re judged only by your end product. That’s the lesson of the new global economy we’ve had to learn at Chrysler. And it’s no different for you--there is just no place to hide.

But remember this. When you turn your product around, just about every other problem you have goes out the window. All the people who are throwing rotten tomatoes suddenly start throwing orchids.

“There is no strong or systematic relationship between school expenditures and student performance,” concludes Eric A. Hanushek from his review of recent research in the May issue of Educational Researcher.

In the following excerpts, the University of Rochester economist describes implications of this finding for education policy:

Two policy conclusions spring immediately from the findings about variations in expenditures.

First, because within the current institutional structure expenditures are not systematically related to performance, policies should not be formulated principally on the basis of expenditures.

Second, because common surrogates for teacher and school quality--class size, teachers’ education, and teachers’ experience, among the most important--are not systematically related to performance within the current institutional structure, policies should not be dictated simply on the basis of such surrogates. ...

Policies are needed that are keyed to student performance directly instead of to the levels of different inputs (that may or may not be related to performance).

[N]ote the caveat that applies throughout these conclusions. All of the results cited reflect generalizations that are based upon the structure and operating procedures of schools today. A changed organizational structure, with different incentives, could produce a new configuration of results.

For example, almost every economist would support the argument that increasing teacher salaries would expand and improve the pool of potential teachers. Whether or not this would improve the quality of teaching, however, would depend on whether or not schools systematically chose and retained the best teachers from the pool. ...

In other words, there seems little question that money could count--it just does not consistently do so within the current organization of schools.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1989 edition of Education Week as Recommendations for an ‘Education President’