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Whither Education? A Q&A With Michael McPherson, President, Spencer Foundation

July 03, 2014

Differing opinions about how best to educate children have been a feature of polite (and not-so-polite) conversation since the time of Plato, so it’s not surprising that such concerns continue to boil. Indeed, in recent decades it has become common for critics and reports to link the troubled state of public education in America with the decline of the republic and to insist that only a complete overhaul of the system, with a focus on those growing up in disadvantaged situations, can save us.

One of the earliest of those reports, 1983's A Nation at Risk, famously claimed that American schools were failing and called for dramatic action to remedy the situation, including the introduction of a seven-hour school day, a longer school year, and teachers' salaries that were "professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based." More than thirty years after its publication, however, few of the report's recommendations have been adopted, and the public education system in the U.S. remains an archipelago of local school districts that, some would argue, have little in common with each other.

Established in 1962, the Spencer Foundation received the majority of its endowment after the death in 1968 of its founder Lyle M. Spencer, who made his fortune from Science Research Associates, an educational publishing firm. In the years since its establishment, the foundation has continued to champion education research and today is led by Michael McPherson, a nationally known economist who became the foundation's fifth president in 2003 after serving as president of Macalester College in Minnesota for seven years and in a variety of roles at Williams College in Massachusetts for twenty-two years.

PND recently spoke with McPherson about the state of public education in the United States, the Common Core and its critics, and where the U.S. educational system is headed.

Headshot_michael_mcphersonPhilanthropy News Digest: As a college student in the 1980s, I minored in education, and one of the things we discussed a lot was A Nation At Risk, the 1983 report issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. More than thirty years after publication of that report, many people would say nothing has changed, that the education system in the United States continues to fail millions of children. What does the latest research tell us about what works and what doesn't in public education?

Michael McPherson: Well, it's impor­tant to supply some context. It's certainly true that there are large, important, and disturbing problems in American education, especially for students from low-income families or facing other forms of disadvantage. At the same time, our public schools perform better, on average, than they did thirty years ago. High school grad­uation rates are up over that period of time and test scores are higher, though not as high as people would like. I think some of the criticism is grounded in what I call Golden Age thinking. The fact is that people who are complaining about the performance of our public schools are complaining about schools that are producing kids who, on average, score better on tests than they and their peers did, which is rather ironic. It helps when discussing these things to keep a little perspective.

That said, a bigger problem is the fact that we haven't exhibited any persistence or consistency in our reform efforts, which have been sporadic and characterized by a sort of magic-bullet approach. People try things, give up on them, and go on to something else. Nor have we invested in a consistent fashion in the preparation and quality of teachers. It's as if we're hoping for better schools rather than actually coming up with a long-term plan to create better schools.

PND: When you say "long-term," how long do you mean?

MM: It depends on your goals. So far, nobody's been able to avoid the fact that it takes eighteen years or so for a child to become an adult. We haven't managed to speed up the human development process, and so if we want all children to be successful in school, we have to expose them to quality early childhood education by the age of three. The ultimate effects of such a policy, whether you're talking about high school graduation rates or college readiness, aren't going to be noticed for another fifteen years or so. But we should be able to make some judgments about whether a particular reform is working or not. Take Success for All, which is one of the most successful whole-school reform strategies to be introduced in the United States in decades. The program was introduced back in the 1990s, and today there are roughly a thousand Success for All schools in the U.S. These days, the organization attracts a lot of federal money, but it took them well over a decade to establish their bona fides. The point is, Americans are a pretty impatient people, and that doesn't always work to our advantage.

PND: What is the most important element in student success? Is it teachers? Parents? Something else?

MM: In many ways, the most important factor in student success is the consistency of attention paid to the development of the individual student. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that an exceptionally good teacher can produce a jump in test scores in his or her students but that that effect invariably fades after three or four years. That's not to say that every student needs at least one great teacher in every grade. But being able to provide kids with consistently good teachers throughout their school-age years is a lot better than an alternating pattern of spectacular and terrible teachers. Consistency is important, and that applies as well to what parents do and what happens early in kids' lives.

Let me also say that it's one thing to ask how important a factor is and another to ask how much we can influence that factor. It's one thing, for example, for a child to have "chosen" the right parents in terms of their interest in his or her schooling and development as a person, and to appreciate the importance of that "choice" in the bigger scheme of things. But there's not much evidence to suggest that public policy can have much of an effect on who your parents are. Your parents are your parents, and we have yet to identify or develop programs that change that basic equation in a consistent or reliable way. I don't mean to be negative or to dismiss the possibility of success for every child, regardless of circumstance, but I do think it's important, in terms of a policy framework, to ask both what matters and what can we affect?

PND: Well, are we asking the right questions about what works and what doesn't in public education?

MM: I think we spend too much time asking whether something does or doesn't work and not enough time asking how things work and why things work and for whom things work. The "what works" framework is a little binary in its way of operating. We all know from our personal lives that something that works well for one person, whether you're talking about their tennis game or their personal work style, doesn't necessarily work well for another person. Why should we assume that education is so simple that the same thing works for everybody?

You can see the same kind of problem in other areas of life. The pharmaceutical industry spends a lot of time and money on the trial-and-error discovery and development of different compounds, and then they go through a long experimental clinical trial phase to determine whether the compound works as intended and what its negative side effects might be. Increasingly, however, because of advances in our understanding of the human genome, we are developing better ex­plan­ations for how drugs work. And that is opening up the possibility we'll be able to design drugs that work for particular conditions and diseases, instead of marching around the jungle looking for exotic plants that might yield a new compound or two. In other words, trying out stuff with the aim of determining whether it works is not a particularly sophisticated research strategy.

PND: What else should we be questioning about our current approach to education reform?

MM: We should be worrying about the quality of our success measures. By that I mean we have allowed ourselves to slide, somewhat unreflectively, into equating test scores with academic achievement or educational success. But even within the realm of academic achievement, there are a lot of things these tests don't capture very well. The ability to write a good essay, for example, which is difficult to assess through standardized tests; it's not impossible, but it's almost impossible to do it cheaply and at scale. There's also a lot of evidence to suggest that factors ostensibly influenced by one's schooling include things we don't usually think of as "academic," such as perseverance, resilience, conscientiousness, the ability to handle disappointment, et cetera. All these things seem to matter quite a bit, but they tend to disappear from view when the focus is on test performance.

Finally, I'd say we need to spend more time thinking about measures in general and what we're really trying to achieve with the schooling we provide our children. Presumably test scores are a means to an end, right? Well, what is the end? We're not having that conversation, which is too bad, because I believe thinking more about the ends would be a con­structive thing to do.

PND: How good a predictor of future success are grades?

MM: Much better as a predictor of one's likeli­hood of graduating from college than either SAT or ACT scores. And that's true even if you don't adjust for school quality. Good grades tell you that a student is consistent, that they do what is asked of them, and that they aren't afraid to take on challenges. No matter how good or bad a school is, you're not going to get As if you don't go to class, if you don't write your papers, if you don't prepare for tests. Grades reflect a whole host of things that aren't captured when you put someone in a room for three hours and say, "Give us your best stuff." That's a really different proposition than asking someone to perform, day in and day out, for four years. I would never discount the value of grades.

PND: The Common Core effort seems to have attracted as many critics as supporters. Do you support the idea of national K-12 standards in language arts and math? And do you agree with the critics who argue that the way the Common Core standards were developed is undemocratic?

MM: Well, the criticisms of the Common Core are wide-ranging and some of them seem to me to be extreme. Our foundation is devoted to research and evidence, and we don't take advocacy positions on issues like this. But it seems to me that the broad ambition of the Common Core, which is to achieve some common understanding across states about what we aim to accomplish in edu­cation and to establish benchmarks that have meaning in different jurisdictions, seems like a constructive thing to aim at and is responsive to the needs of an increasingly mobile society struggling to adapt to a globalizing economy. It's not at all obvious to me why math taught in Wyoming should be different from math taught in Rhode Island.

But there's much more to the Common Core than that very general statement, and there are a lot of legitimate questions that can be asked about both the implementation of the standards and about the content of the Common Core and whether the right people were consulted as that content was being developed. One important question, I believe, is whether reasonable provisions have been made to prepare schools and teachers to implement the standards effectively? When we do something in the United States, we tend to do it every­where, for everybody, all at once. It's a little odd to ask students to all of a sudden start taking sixth-grade math based on a set of standards that did not apply to their fifth-grade course of instruction. In a country that prided itself on the rationality of its education policies, you would probably implement something like Common Core in the first three grades and then roll it out in the next three grades, a year at a time, as the first cohort entered fourth grade. And let's make sure, while we're implementing the standards in the early grades, to train teachers in grades four through six.

Alas, that's a utopian fantasy. The reality in this country is that you go big or you go home. If you try to do this a step at a time, you'll get eaten alive by politics. So I understand why this is being done the way it's being done, but it's a big mess right now. And our political system is part of the problem.

PND: Are foundations in a position to do something in this area that government can't?

MM: Foundations certainly have the discretion and flexibility to take risks that governments cannot. That's one of the strengths of philanthropy as it is practiced in this country. But when it comes to education — and almost anything else — it's important to appreciate how small philanthropy's resources are relative to government's. Even the Gates Foundation, which I like to say is the only foundation you can see from space, is just a speck on the education landscape in the U.S.

So, if foundations hope to improve education in this country, they have to be very deliberate about how they use their resources. Demonstration projects are one way to do that. Our founder, Lyle Spencer, who made his money in business that involved both educational testing and the development of instructional materials, thought the best way to achieve long-run improvement in education was to invest in research and the creation of new knowledge. I worry that sometimes there's a temptation in the field to skip that step and, without having built up a really strong foundation of knowledge, just go out and try something and see whether it works. And if it does, hope that it scales. But if something works and you don't know why it worked, the odds are low that it will work somewhere else. As Greg Duncan, a noted scholar of education likes to say, "You don't really know what the active ingredients are." Foundations are most effective when they're willing to try things and are also willing to study, in an open-minded way, what it is they tried and why it did or didn't work.

That said, we have an intensely localized public education system that, as David Cohen of the University of Michigan argues, seems designed to frustrate broad-scale reform efforts. Take something like Title I — the original elementary and secondary education act from the 1960s — the aim of which was to free up federal money to help poor and disadvantaged kids, especially African-American kids in the South. Well, it took a decade or more to figure out how to get some of that money directed to where it was supposed to go. While the federal bureaucracy behind Title I was pretty big, even it had a tough time working its will on local governments. Flash forward to today. We have some fifty-five thousand local school boards in the country, and it puzzles me that the federal government, which provides roughly 10 percent of the funding for public education in this country, is willing to assume what seems like a disproportionate responsibility for what happens at the local level. It's just really tough in our federalized system, and tougher still for foundations, which are much smaller in terms of resources than the federal government, to influence developments at the local level.

PND: Are we thinking clearly about how to get more Americans to attend and graduate from college, especially kids from low-income backgrounds?

MM: Let's split that question into two parts. One problem is popularly known as "access," and there actually has been quite a lot of improvement on that front. Today, about two-thirds of all Americans start their postsecondary schooling within a year of finishing high school, which is a lot higher than it used to be. And although there is still a gap between the economically advantaged and disadvantaged, access to higher education is much more widespread than it was a couple of decades ago.

Completion, on the other hand, has proved to be more resistant to improvement. Part of the reason for that — and this goes back to a point I was making earlier — is that early education in this country is often lacking, particularly for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Environmental factors — gang and gun violence, high unemployment, lack of role models — tend to stack the deck against them. Schools in those neighborhoods tend to have the least well-prepared teachers, and families often find it difficult to provide supplemental resources like access to a computer, enriching summer experiences, and so on. As a result, we find that a lot of kids show up for their first semester of college not really ready for college. Developmental or so-called remedial education is offered to a fairly significant percentage of students who arrive on college campuses, but those programs tend not to be very successful, which shouldn't be surprising. If you did poorly in algebra in ninth grade, and you're asked to take it again as a freshman but you don't get credit — well, that tends not to go over so well.

What we really need is some imaginative work aimed at addressing those kinds of challenges in the near term. But in the long term, again, it's important to recognize that, in order to produce successful adults, we need to think in terms of a twenty-year process that starts the day a baby is born. Unfortunately, there's only so much you can do to make up for things that didn't happen earlier.

PND: Are colleges and universities preparing young people for jobs that may not exist by the time they graduate?

MM: Maybe, but you are unambiguously better off in the job market if you go to college than if you don't. The biggest problem with the job market right now is caused by inadequate demand; it's a macroeconomic problem. It's not that college suddenly stopped working for people. Yes, college graduates are worse off today than they were ten years ago, but high school graduates are substantially more worse off than they were ten years ago. In other words, there is no question that it pays to go to college, and we shouldn't lose sight of that fact. Could we be doing more to prepare young people for a world of rapid technological change? I'm sure we could, particularly young people who are on a track that results in something less than a bachelor's degree. It's important we keep them engaged with the labor market and that we tailor the programs offered to them to local labor market conditions.

These are big issues and we need to solve them, but in solving them we need to avoid two mistakes. One is to compare our current employment problems to employment a decade ago and say that that the shortfall is due to the fact we don't educate or train people as well we used to. The other is to believe that if we did a better job on training, everybody would have a job. We will not see full employment and work for everybody who wants a job until we fix the damage caused by the financial crisis.

PND: There was an article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this spring that referred to the class of 2014 as the "most indebted ever." Kids are coming out of school tens and, in the case of graduate school, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Are we penalizing kids for doing exactly what we told them they should do?

MM: We have to keep this stuff in perspective. Tens of thousands of dollars sounds like a lot of money, but most people borrow tens of thousands of dollars to buy a car. The people who are really at a disadvantage in this society are those who don't go to college. It doesn't bother me if people who are going to be doctors borrow a lot of money. They'll be able to pay it back, because they're going to make a lot of money over the course of their careers. That seems reasonable. What is more worrisome is if people borrow tens of thousands of dollars to get a not-very-good degree, or if they borrow a ton of money to get a Ph.D. in Indo-European History and don't have any other resources or prospects for paying back that debt. Normally, you shouldn't go to graduate school unless you've got a fellowship; it just doesn't pay. But if we really want to run a debt-free system, it's not that hard to do: You just raise taxes a lot and have taxpayers foot the bill. I'm just not seeing a lot of people willing to support that idea.

PND: What's the solution to the student debt problem?

MM: We need much better counseling at the high school level, and at the college level, and for adults returning to school for a postsecondary education. The military provides some advice to returning veterans, but in general they have few resources to draw on when making a choice. But, you know, I don't think we're going to stop using debt to finance college in any significant measure, and I don't know that we should. What we need to do is a better job of preventing people from making terrible mistakes. It's not the average experience that you see reported in the New York Times, it's the big mistakes. Everyone who has made a big mistake with respect to student debt is a human being, and they need to be treated better. But that doesn't mean that the system as a whole is destroying a generation.

PND: If you had it in your power to create a public education system for the twenty-first century, what would it look like?

MM: I heard Joe Trippi, the Democratic political operative, tell an audience a story once in response to a similar question. He said that every four years a man shows up with this sealed box and tells people, "This box holds the fate of the world. I would like you to take it in your hands and hold it for four years. And if you drop it, the world ends." Trippi then said any reasonable person runs the other way. But every four years, ten people come running toward this guy saying, "Give me the box!"

The point being that if I were asked to run the educational system, I'd run away. That said, the biggest thing we need to do as a society to fix our education system is to learn how to take a longer view on what is needed to build a truly world-class system. Yes, we need to deal with the emergencies that our current system keeps presenting to us: The emergency of kids coming out of high school not ready to start college, the emergency of kids having terrible experiences in lousy high schools, the emergencies caused by violence and bullying. But we also need to create mindspace for ourselves and in our system to think about the things we need to do right now for two-year-olds and three-year-olds and four-year-olds. We need to really think that through. Quickly. The Obama administration had a slogan, "Built to Last," that it used for a while when it was trying to promote investment in infrastructure and manufacturing. We need an education system that's built to last. Right now, it feels to me like we just stumbled on a crisis and we're scrambling to fix it without much thought. I'd really like to see that change.

PND: Are foundations doing enough to create an environment in which these types of issues can be discussed openly and honestly?

MM: I would like to see the foundations who are most involved in education issues be more energetic about letting us know what they're doing, why they're doing it, and how things are going. The Hewlett Foundation has been exemplary in issuing reports on things it tried that failed. So has the Lumina Foundation, which a few years ago chose to report on one of its big initiatives, Achieving the Dream, that was designed to get community colleges to implement things like learning communities. Well, Lumina got MDRC, a very good policy research organization, to do an evaluation of the work, which turned up some positive results and some disappointing results. And Lumina and MDRC got hammered, by everybody, including the organizations they had funded. At that time my wife and I were writing a blog about higher education issues, and we published a post that reminded people that this is what we want foundations and their grantees to do. We want them to try stuff, and then tell us whether it worked. None of us likes to do that, and I can't hold up the Spencer Foundation as a particularly shining example of that, but it's absolutely critical that we do more of it.

PND: We can't succeed without failing and learning the lessons of failure.

MM: Absolutely not. No one likes to fail, and it's not fun for the people who are courageous enough to admit failure, but if we don't start doing more of it, we'll find ourselves continuing to go nowhere fast.

— Matt Sinclair

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