John B. Davis Jr.
Published November 1, 1990 | November 1990 issue
Well-versed on the subject of education, Davis, an educational consultant, has held posts as president of Macalester College and superintendent of the Minneapolis and Worcester and Lincoln, Mass., public schools. He also currently devotes a great deal of time to the Minnesota Literacy Campaign.
Given the subjecta blueprint for tomorrow's educationdid you expect that would start my talk this afternoon with a critique of elementary, secondary and college education, the subject being a blueprint for tomorrow's education? A restatement of what has been said in every newspaper, magazine and significant publication over the past 40 years? If so, you're wrong.
I begin with a focus on you and all who hold positions of responsibility and authority: on you and them, for the issue is American priority. It is not immediately test scores and the competence of teachers and the inadequate supplies of pencils and computers and textbooks or the condition of school buildings or segregated schools or politically oriented boards of education. It is not even inadequate local, state and federal financial support. It is primarily the priorities, the values and ethical standards of America, that I focus on at the outset.
How can schools and teachers be asked to reform when all around is abundant evidence of greed and sloth and avoidance of the hard decisions, which avoided permit the degradation of Mother Earth and the people who inhabit our globe? Here, in this citadel of economic and fiscal strategy, I speak of a $3 trillion federal debt which limits our capacity for capital formation, more jobs, more opportunity for federal allocation for social services and health provisions and education. I speak of a Congress and administration which are allowed to underestimate and avoid addressing the need for a renewed commitment to equal educational opportunity, improved educational opportunity for children and adults at this critical time. I speak of a nation shamed by Japans advisement to us in its response to our trade agreement to improve our educational system. How ironic to be counseled by that nation which, having been assisted by us in its reconstruction, now claims superiority in strategic areas of education.
We must be committed to the enemy withinpoverty, social unrest, inadequate social and health provisions, and a school system acknowledged internationally as outdated and deficient. We must not lose sight of Jefferson's words that we should develop an aristocracy of achievement out of a democracy of opportunity.
We say we believe that educational reform is top priority. Yet, as a nation, we live our daily lives as though more committed to luxury and leisure than to things of good and lasting value. Well intentioned, fearful of change, we walk in the paths of habit. Meanwhile, underfunded and faltering education programs, inadequate health coverage and poverty levels for millions threaten our country. Cultural enclaves that harbor separation foster hostility and social unrest that can disrupt order and reason.
Am I wrong in talking to these issues? Are we really in no fear of losing domestic tranquility? of rationing water? of polluting land and seaside? of decimating forest and creating ecological imbalance? Is it possible that we, accepting the worst as inevitable, will passively transfer the burden of correction and reform to our children? Is deferment a way of life for us? Do we look to our schools merely for a slow evolution toward excellence? Do we commit to them verbally only? Where are the resources necessary to start even a modicum of significant educational change? What should we expect of George Bush who declared himself to be an "Educational" president?
Literacy. One in five U.S. citizens lacks the basic literacy skills necessary to function effectively. An estimated 600,000 Minnesotans need improved reading, writing and math skills. Approximately 250,000 Minnesotans read below the eighth grade level. Industry and business are spending billions of dollars each year for remedial education programs for their workers. This is a tremendous price to pay. So is it a tremendous price for the colleges and the universities and institutes which have to provide tutors and remedial programs for their entering students. Freshmen who were considered "remedial" 35 years ago are viewed as "normal" today.
I do not need to bring to your attention the performance reports of our public schools in detail. Some of you know more than I about the very spotty record city to city and town to town. I will not refer specifically to some of the difficulties that teachers and school staff contend with in the low-performing schools: problems of migrants, problems of language differences, problems of drugs, problems of one-parent families, poverty and poor health; lack of special services and psychiatric attention for children, of too few social workers; lack of supportive parents. But let me give four recent statistics. By estimate:
Our awareness of our plight has been published in magazines, pulpit sermons and by radio and television commentators. We know that the struggle for literacy reaches back to the shadows of history. Without such a struggle, a poor shoemaker's son would never have become the great Cardinal Wolsey. Nor would Booker T. Washington, son of slaves, ever have become the founder of Tuskegee Institute.
The plight that illiteracy presents can be found in the writings of school critics dating back to 1945 when Why Johnny Can't Read was published. It was an irritant. Not much has been done to solve that problem. Illiteracy is rooted in inadequate financial support and lack of concern for educational programs; in the lack of constant surveillance over schools and classroom performance; in adequate moral support for teachers. The problem is rooted in a society that has not demanded the best of its citizens.
The problem is also reflected in our commitment to instant news, digest material, headlines; in the absence of debate, argumentation and the pursuit of information based on fact. The problem is symptomatic of a non- participatory democracy where less than 50 percent of the citizens vote. This blight is assignable in part to an educational system which permits the passing on, the promotion of children without standards of achievement. It is a blight assignable to the irresponsibility of many parents of all levels of income as well as single-parent families, many of which are caught up in the cycle of poverty. It is assignable to the living conditions of ghettos, which encourage antisocial behavior and negative attitudes toward society and negative attitudes toward schools from which so few in those ghetto situations ever received any enhancement of their life's chances. In America today there are approximately 23 million adults who are functionally illiterate. Many are now parenting the next generation of functional illiterates. Another 35-45 million adults are believed to be marginally illiterate, with reading and writing skills below the minimal survival standards of the seventh grade, a base level needed to function well in a society. One million children between ages 12 and 17 are unable to read above the third grade level, and 15 percent of recent graduates from urban high schools read at less than a sixth grade level. Thirteen percent of all 17-year-olds are functionally illiterate.
The story for minorities is even bleaker. Forty-seven percent of all black 17-year-olds are functionally illiterate in the United States. One million students leave school each year without basic literacy skills. The plight of other so-called minority groups is comparable.
The key to resolving our dilemma is good teaching and good monitoring of students. It is to the schools that we have historically looked for preservation of democratic ideals and a literate, caring, participating citizenry. So should we today look to the schoolhouse. But absent any groundswell of support and a coordinated effort of unusual proportion from many segments of society, we shall not, in many ways, prosper in the 21st century. This old planet we call Mother Earth is threatened by ill-advised, short-sighted policies and undereducated humans. Time is limited. A rapid change of course, of value, of prioritynew vision, new pressures for uncommon good sense should be our immediate mission. Absent such effort, we leave a poor inheritance for our children and our children's children. Each of us must carry the burden of this message and persuade others to re-examine America's priorities.
Here follow some specific suggestions which if adopted could improve our public school education.
Many of these suggestions do not require significant additional expenditure. All will call for greater effort on the part of teachers and principals, some of whom are admittedly overburdened. Obviously, the extension of the day and the year will call for increased budgets, as will the reasonable reduction of class size if additional teachers are required.
Greater individual effort and financial support are justified for we have a responsibility to meet the educational needs of a diverse population who will in a few years be the ones to determine our national future.
Region interview with John B. Davis, Jr.