The Region

Blueprint for Tomorrow's Education

Former Minneapolis Fed director John B. Davis Jr. spoke to a group of teachers attending a seminar at the bank earlier this year on the subject, "A Blueprint for Tomorrow's Education."

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 subject—a blueprint for tomorrow's education—did 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 within—poverty, 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:

  • 61 percent of 17-year-old students do not demonstrate reading ability necessary to find, understand and explain relatively simple information concerning materials taught in schools.
  • More than 25 percent of 13-year-old students fail to demonstrate adequate understanding of the content and procedures emphasized in elementary school mathematics.
  • In science 41 percent of the 11th grade students and 60 percent of the seventh grade students never performed a laboratory science experiment.
  • In 1987/88, only 58 percent of U.S. students attended a college where a foreign language was required. That figure was 89 percent 12 years ago.

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 priority—new 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.

Davis' Prescription For Change

Here follow some specific suggestions which if adopted could improve our public school education.

  • The length of the school day and year should be increased and subject content adjusted accordingly.
  • Many adults capable of teaching and/or assisting in the classroom regardless of their academic background should be encouraged to participate on a regular basis after orientation and thereafter for a trial period under the supervision of a regular classroom teacher. Let performance be the test of adequacy in the teaching role.
  • Study halls should be established with tutorial help available—advanced students could be used for this purpose. A less-congested school day would facilitate this proposal as well as the use of adults in certain teaching situations.
  • Teachers should be encouraged to coordinate their teaching areas with colleagues whose subjects are similar—that is, English literature and history, economics and social studies, math and science.
  • Teams of teachers should be organized to oversee curriculum and teaching in both elementary and secondary schools. A team leader should be designated and appropriately compensated.
  • Students should be grouped by ability in each subject area—not by age.
  • Teachers should prepare course outlines, reading lists and objectives for each subject so that students and parents know what to expect.
  • The significance of the Constitution and Bill of Rights should be taught.
  • Students should be required to write short essays at least once a week in each class or as homework, and each paper should be carefully corrected and returned.
  • Students should be called upon to write a "contract" with their teacher identifying work to be accomplished.
  • Time should be allotted for student conferences with the teacher to clarify assignments, evaluate reading and homework and encourage positive attitudes.
  • Multiple texts should be used, permitting a range of opinion from different authors.
  • Students should be permitted time for argument and debate to encourage thinking and reasoning.
  • Students should be directed to use the dictionary and reference material.
  • Emphasis should be placed on mathematics and the English language at all levels. Progression grade to grade should be dependent on achievement in these areas.
  • Coordination with social service agencies should be improved. Work experience and community service opportunities for junior and senior high school students should be provided.
  • Each graduating senior should have a plastic card showing courses passed which prospective employers should be expected to examine.
  • Parents should be allowed choice in selecting schools and programs within the public system.
  • Local schools within the system should have increased responsibility for faculty selection, career and instructional development programs, and the determination of appropriate teaching materials and books.
  • Each local school of the system should have an advisory committee of faculty, parents and citizens as consultants to the principal. A regular schedule of meetings should be established for the exchange of information.
  • Every effort should be made to reduce the hierarchical bureaucracy. As many school system employees as possible should be assigned classroom responsibility. This proposal would be more likely to be implemented if federal and state reporting requirements were reduced.

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.