Donna Shalala Presents the Fifth Annual Marx Lecture | Teachers College Columbia University

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Donna Shalala Presents the Fifth Annual Marx Lecture

"It's good to be back." With those words, Donna E. Shalala, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and former TC professor, began the fifth annual Virginia and Leonard Marx Lecture.

"It's good to be back." With those words, Donna E. Shalala, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and former TC professor, began the fifth annual Virginia and Leonard Marx Lecture.

Recruited by former TC President Lawrence Cremin, Shalala taught politics and education at the College in the early 1970s. "A number of world-class scholars made me feel at home from that first day in September, 1972," she recalled. "I'll always be grateful to Larry and the late Harry Passow. The indomitable Maxine Greene broadened my thinking--and Lambros Comitas and Chuck Harrington kept me interdisciplinary."

In his welcoming remarks, TC President Arthur E. Levine noted that the recent death of Virginia Marx lent a "special poignancy" to this year's lecture, which was attended by the Marxes' daughter and granddaughter. "In the work she did for children, Virginia Marx left footprints all over the city and made thousands of lives better," he said.

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, the Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child and Parent Development and Education, introduced Shalala as "an educator and policy-maker with a heart--someone who has spent her life nurturing children's dreams."

During the Carter Administration, Shalala served as Assistant Secretary for Policy Research and Development at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she championed women's rights and launched several initiatives in support of gender equality. In 1988, following an eight-year stint as president of Hunter College, she was named chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the first woman ever to head a Big Ten school. She was appointed by President Clinton to her current cabinet position in 1993.

In her remarks, Shalala noted a "new consensus taking shape about public education today." Notwithstanding the contentiousness that has divided educators over the past 16 years, she cited a recent poll that found two-thirds of Americans to be dissatisfied with the current state of public education. "More importantly," she added, "Americans generally agree on what it will take to make our public schools work better."

While there is no denying the importance of holding teachers and administrators accountable, the poll suggests "that American families understand something that still eludes too many in the education debate," she said. "It's that a school's success isn't simply a question of having staff who are ready to teach, but making sure that every child is ready to learn."

An estimated 12 percent of preschoolers have medically-related learning problems, she noted. Innovative teaching techniques are critical, she said, "but they're of little consequence to a child sick at home because her parents couldn't afford to have her asthma treated." The quality of classroom instruction matters little to the "890,000 young children in this country with enough lead in their blood to harm their ability to learn."

Shalala challenged the school reform movement to commit itself to three principles. "The first is early childhood development--making sure that kids have the health and skills they need to learn before they start kindergarten." It's equally important to safeguard children's health after they start school, she said. "The work of teachers shouldn't be undone through illness, injury or disease." The third principle is community involvement: "Schools and their partners in the community must play a proactive role in preparing young people to lead healthy, productive lives."

In 1993, the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) recruited the nation's leading experts in childhood education to reassess Head Start in light of its current needs and realities. "All agreed that the program needed higher standards and less tolerance of mediocrity," she said. Since then, more than 200 deficient Head Start programs have been upgraded, and an additional 100 terminated. During the same period, total funding for Head Start has been doubled.

Safeguarding the health of children will mean "closing the circle between public health and education," Shalala said. "Across the country, there are four million children who are eligible for Medicaid but haven't been signed up." Uninsured children are demonstrably less likely to receive adequate medical care and thus more likely to have health--and learning--problems, she said.

Shalala's third priority for school reform--preparing children to lead healthy adult lives--is a matter of "helping students understand their responsibilities to others and themselves. It means teaching the value of non-violence_and of avoiding tobacco, alcohol, drug abuse and sexual activity." Serving as Principal for a Day at a New York City high school recently, she asked the students how the school could help them avoid risky behavior. "One girl said, 'Make me strong inside.'"

In a real sense, the central thrust of Shalala's tenure at HHS has been to make children and their families "strong inside." Behind her leadership, the department has raised child immunization rates to their highest levels ever, launched initiatives against childhood tobacco use and violence directed at women, and crusaded for broader access to AIDS medications. Girl Power!, a nationwide public education campaign sponsored by HHS in 1997, was designed to instill self-confidence in pre-adolescent girls and prepare them to lead productive lives. It ranged from "no-use" messages about substance abuse and smoking to programs focused on exercise, nutrition, and mental health, among other issues.

"We're making an impact on many fronts," Shalala said. "Out-of-wedlock birth rates are down. We're even making headway in the fight against teen drug abuse and tobacco use--not because of infusions of federal dollars, but because of grassroots partnerships between schools and communities." What is now needed, she said, are educators who recognize that health education isn't a sidebar to reforming America's schools, but integral to it. "That's something I know each of you understands."

Published Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001