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Dollars and Sense

Beyond the numbers presented by researchers at the College's first Symposium on Educational Equity, the two-day event was a free-ranging debate on economics, morality, race and - to a very large degree - messaging.

Beyond the numbers presented by researchers at the College's first Symposium on Educational Equity, the two-day event was a free-ranging debate on economics, morality, race and - to a very large degree - messaging.  No one disagreed with TC
President Arthur Levine's opening statement that "there is no more important issue [than educational equity] facing the education arena and no greater threat to the future of our nation."  But in a conference dominated by numbers, many speakers emphasized that America also has a moral imperative to fix the problem.  "There is both a moral dimension and an economic dimension to the costs of inadequate education,"  said Symposium chair Henry Levin. "But in a democratic society,  the moral justice argument remains paramount."

 "We've got to make the moral argument as well as the economic one, because Americans still believe in equal opportunity, in Brown v.  Board of Education," added Michael Rebell, Executive Director of The Campaign for Educational Equity.  "Yet we're going in the wrong direction."

Certainly the economic case was strongly put - by Rebell himself, among others.  "As [author and New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman has put it, globalization in the flat world that the computer has created is going to be a bonanza for knowledge workers," Rebell said.  "Those who are properly educated will do well. It will be a disaster for those who are not, and a disaster for the economy. And this is the picture we're painting here today, in bolder colors than anyone has ever painted before."

President Bush's education program, No Child Left Behind,  is conceptually the right policy for the nation, Rebell said, but implementation is alarmingly off course - particularly for the program's mandated goal of all children being proficient in state standards by 2014. Rebell cited the standardized test score results recently released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP),  which showed modest gains in reading and math for fourth graders,  but only minimal gains inmath and a decline in reading foreighth graders. "The Times said that if we continue to progress at the fourth grade rate, we'll hit the NCLB proficiency goals in 2030, 20 years behind schedule," he said."If we continue to progress at the eighth grade rate, it will take us 200 years to reach proficiency. By that time the U.S. won't be competingwith China - it will probably be a Chinese colony."

Speaker after speaker urged society to think in terms of strategic investments - particularly around the issue of early childhood education.

 "It seems as if pre-schooling is one of the few things on which economists almost all seem to agree," said Clive Belfield of Queens Community College. "The two promises of pre-school are that it will enhance equity by improving outcomes for disadvantaged children, and that it will greatly reduce social costs of inadequate education. Education economists like to say that no other intervention can promise what pre-school does, because other interventions are either too expensive or too late." Belfield said that right now, about one quarter of New York City's school budget is devoted to special education-'"a categorization that begins in the first grade, lumps together children with a wide variety of issues and needs, and provides a dubious return. In contrast, he said, "pre-schooling if effects are obtained, would more than pay for itself." But Belfield said that current funding for pre-K is far short of what's necessary to ensure the quality to influence the kind of behaviors often evidenced by children who end up in special ed. Even generous state programs fund pre-schooling at levels 36 percent below what they spend on first grade and 42 percent below the most effective, targeted model pre-school programs.

Yet even as the presenters quantified the dimensions of inadequate education and potential solutions, they took pains to document the degree of injustice and unfairness that underlies the issue. "There is a wealth of data about the gap in opportunities and outcomes between whites and all minorities, but we chose to focus on educational disparities between whites and blacks because of the historic roots of this gap in slavery," said Richard Rothstein, Tisch Professor, who along with graduate student Tamara Wilder discussed a range of factors in and outside of the classroom that stack the odds against black students. These include "glass ceilings and other labor market issues." State policies that effectively segregate black communities, families and students are also major contributors to the black-white gap, Rothstein said, as are inferior housing and housing stability, less substantial family assets, and poor health and health care.

Health discrepancies are especially pronounced - and shocking. Peter Muennig of Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health reported that a 65-year-old person with a high school diploma enjoys better health status than a 45- year-old who dropped out in 10th grade. Overall, high school dropouts live an average of nine fewer years than graduates. Yet only 12 percent of this increase in mortality is due to diet and exercise, Muennig said.

"People with less education are more stressed out," he said.  "There's the stereotype of educated people having more things to do, and the stresses associated with that. But it turns out that there's more stress associated with not having enough money. In addition, wealth enables people to afford good health insurance, which makes a difference in survival rates, especially with all the new treatments now available."

Of course, all these inequities also limit the chances of new immigrants, who have historically looked to America as a place to begin again on a level playing field. The obstacles they face - a dearth of well-paying blue-collar jobs; the growing demands of an information economy; a widening gulf between rich and poor (the average corporate CEO is now paid at a rate 185 times higher than the average employee in his or her industry, a six-fold ratio increase since the mid-1960s) - are not the same as the ones that confronted immigrants in the past,  said Princeton University's Marta Tienda, who reported on the nation's changing demographics.

"When my father came to America in 1950, he had a sixth grade education and spoke little English, but it was possible for him to find a job and support his family," she said. "Today's that's no longer possible."  

Jane Junn of Rutgers University put the issue more bluntly: "We cannot have full educational equity in a grossly inequitable society." Education remains the best hope for changing that picture, she said-'"but it also reflects society's current values,  reinforcing, through its emphasis on merit, the current hierarchy.

At the same time, members of minority groups need to improve their strategies for success, several researchers agreed.

 "Ultimately, this is a problem black folks are going to have solve for themselves," said TC Professor Emeritus Edmund Gordon, who participated in a discussion panel at the symposium. Gordon urged the black community to revisit its history of supporting schools and universities for black students.

In a similar vein, Ronald Ferguson, of Harvard's Kennedy Center, devoted much of his presentation to ethnic and cultural differences in parenting practices. One example: While black parents are as hands-on as whites - and more so than Asians - in asking their children what went on in school, they are more permissive about television.

"I know kids whose social activities consist of talking about what they're reading," Ferguson said. "Among black kids, that's not as seen as 'black.' We've got to change that."

Ferguson, who is African American, added that he wouldn't be surprised if "many blacks and Latinos are going to come up to me after wards and say, 'Why did you have to talk about that stuff here?' But we can't have this discussion with just us in the room."

The consensus at the end of the two-day Symposium was that a problem with causes as diffuse as educational equity calls for an equally comprehensive solution.

"We should be talking about No Family Left Behind, and No Community Left Behind," Levin said.

But will Americans truly see educational equity as a moral imperative? Can the economic and moral arguments be linked in their minds?

Discussant Timothy Smeeding of Syracuse University was pessimistic. "Children are private goods in America," he said. "In Nor way,  if a father walks out on a mother and five children, the state steps in and gives the mother insurance.  Here, she's on her own."

But presenter Ir win Garfinkel of Columbia's School of Social work disagreed. "Americans value the quality of opportunity," he said. "And that does connect closely to the moral argument. This country may be stingy with other social ser vices, but for much of the 20th century we were the leading welfare state in terms of education.  That's because education is about looking for ward."

Published Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2005