Question: In your view, what are the principal issues affecting U.S. primary and secondary education as we enter the next century?
Usdan: The primary issue is to increase the quality of public education in the United States. The whole movement to institute and enhance standards at the state, local, and national levels is a reflection of this . . . and the interrelated concerns about having an economically competitive work force that will be able to compete in the global economy. The improvement of student achievement is the primary issue as we head towards the millennium.
Q: What are the components of quality public education? You mentioned standards, for example. That might be construed as one element that is going to contribute to this. What are a couple of other elements that you see?
Usdan: This issue is highly politicized because we have a very strong tradition in this country of local control of education, a highly unique, decentralized educational system. In most parts of the world education is much more centralized, run by a central agency, a bureaucracy located in a national capital with a single curriculum.
We have developed this highly decentralized system in which education legally is a state responsibility, and historically until relatively recently there has been a widespread consensus that most operational responsibility for schools should be delegated to these 15,000 local school systems. These systems can range in size from a one-room schoolhouse in a rural area in Nebraska or Kansas to a school system like New York City, which educates a million-plus kids. We have these and everything in-between.
Q: These school systems are actually creatures of the state structure?
Usdan: Exactly, and legally states can create and dissolve school districts at will. But, again, there is a unique tradition of localism that is extraordinarily strong in American public education. What has been so interesting about the evolution of the current standards movement [calling for implementation of national, challenging, curriculum benchmarks to measure the academic achievement of all U.S. students] is that it has been pushed in many ways by corporations and the private sector, which for most of our history were repelled by the notion that the national or federal government should be involved in any way with standards. These groups were worried about national government control. They were worried about what national control would mean to local control and property taxes, to business taxes, and so forth. It’s only within the last decade or two, with the transcendent concern about economic competitiveness in the global economy, that corporate leaders have been as involved as they have been in pushing for national standards. And it is a profound switch, the antithesis of where most private sector leaders have stood for most of our educational history.
Getting back to your original question, if you look at the development of standards, the issue of what kids should know, that is a question which is being pursued in states and localities. The debate about national testing that we had recently in Congress is a reflection of the interest in this issue.
So you have to set the standards. Then you have to decide how you create an assessment system that will basically evaluate whether kids are meeting standards. Then, you have to develop an accountability system that will establish consequences for those who do not meet the standards.
Q: Is that accountability system a special bugaboo [a steady source of concern]?
Usdan: The accountability issue is a bugaboo because despite the fact that it has built up remarkable momentum, it still runs counter in many ways to the whole tradition, history and culture of American education, in which the theology of localism still runs strong. The standards movement has picked up tremendous momentum in the face of this tradition of localism because economic concerns about competitiveness transcend some of the old bugaboos about local control and the theology of localism.
Q: Let’s look at local control, which is so central to the American educational ethos. Where does it come from?
Usdan: Well, it dates back more than 200 years, to when we were largely a country of immigrants, mainly from Europe, people fleeing from religious and political oppression, and establishing local communities [Local control of education is one of the powers reserved to the local and state governments under the U.S. Constitution]. As the nation moved westward, there were emerging concerns about big government and central government and the theocratic focus of state-imposed religious requirements or political requirements which would be reflected in schools. In response to these concerns, local school committees began to develop, originally in New England. These have evolved into local school boards in most parts of the country.
I think that the power of localism in education was based on strong, pioneer and individualistic mentalities as well as on the fear of an all-too-powerful central state imposing its will among people who were trying to escape from religious and political persecution.
Q: You’re talking about, in essence, concerns about content driving this local focus, but didn’t local control have a great deal to do with funding? There was this sense that the community was responsible for arranging for education, however they chose to do that.
Usdan: Absolutely. That’s a very central point, because it really wasn’t until the early 1980s that more than fifty percent of the support for public education was provided by non-local sources. So part of the ethos for local control is the fact that local property taxes provided eighty to ninety percent of the finances for public education through much of our history.
Local control has had wonderful advantages in many ways, in terms of providing schools close to the people, but it also has generated profound inequities as our society has become more diverse in terms of its population and more stratified in its socioeconomic composition. And in many ways we have a school-finance system that perpetuates the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, in which people fight to maintain in local communities the advantages that their kids have. The national government has instituted some targeted programs to try and ameliorate this somewhat, but the problems still persist.
The selection of a school system, for any of us who have had children, is the primary reason why we move to communities. It’s the major consideration. You don’t move to a community because it has a world-class fire department or an internationally prestigious mosquito-abatement district; you move to a community because of the reputation of its schools. And people make all kinds of economic sacrifices. They make sacrifices in terms of long, tedious commutes to enhance the educational opportunities provided to their own children. It’s the most natural and human response of parents. In many cases, this is what makes the problems of equity in school finance and possible redistribution of resources so singularly complex and difficult.
Q: You point out that there is this inequity, derived largely from dependence on the property tax—taxing of local homes or businesses or whatever at a certain rate. That rate varies, and the value of homes in different places in a state or in a region varies. Is that correct?
Usdan: Exactly. And the wealthier people can afford the more expensive homes. They also can generate more property tax revenue, and ipso facto they can invest more in computers and teachers’ salaries and science labs.
Q: How has the U.S. attempted to counter this problem? You mentioned that is was only in the 1980s when the property tax ceased to be the primary basis on which we fund schools. What other resources are we talking about?
Usdan: Well, more broadly-based state taxation, either sales taxes or state income taxes. But in most states, the local resources have remained quite important, although there are still enormous variations from state to state. In New Hampshire, for example, eighty-five to ninety percent of the school bill is still paid from local sources. Nationally, on average, forty to forty-five percent of the school budget would be from local resources, fifty to fifty-five percent from the state, and the national government, which has always been the very junior partner, financially, provides about five percent now.
Q: That’s very much a contrast between the U.S. system and those of other countries.
Usdan: Certainly, I am pleased you raised the finance issue because that is definitely central in driving so much of the politics. And that makes our system extraordinarily unique, and foreign visitors who come over here have a hard time understanding our practices, from both an organizational point of view and an equity point of view. In many ways, if you look at the particular problems faced by the cities and the inner-ring suburbs, you have more fiscal inequities because you have something called the “municipal overburden” factor. In other words, the local property tax not only supports schools, but it must support other local functions: police, fire, recreation and so forth.
Q: Also transportation in some ways.
Usdan: Yes, and obviously in an urban community, police, fire, welfare, etc. are going to be more costly, which compounds the problem because you have fewer and fewer dollars available for schools.
In suburban communities, particularly homogeneous suburban communities—even those close to our urban centers—three-quarters of the property-tax will go to schools because the other municipal functions are less costly.
Q: So what we’ve been saying is that funding and the resolution of funding is very much an issue, and one of the important trends will be the search for alternatives.
Usdan: We have been fighting over this issue for years. The political power in our system is now in the suburban communities. When those interests are in play, the concepts of equity or “redistribution” kind of disappear from our current collective vocabularies.
We have had, since the early 1970s, a whole series of court cases, indeed ongoing court cases in most states of the country, questioning and litigating the inequities of the current school-finance system and the reform-movement in terms of equity and adequate resources. And state legislatures have made adjustments, but by the time the adjustments are made, it’s time to litigate again. So in many states around the country, you have had litigation that has been going on for decades.
Q: Speaking of litigation, probably the best-known for many people is the issue of busing, in which the courts defined a public good, the greater integration of the schools, and then came up with solutions which they imposed on the system. Do you think that is going to continue?
Usdan: What is beginning to happen now, because the demographics of our population have moved a lot faster than the court cases, is that we now have even deeper racial segregation. The issues of diversity are much more complicated in many ways than they were in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the issue of integration was literally a black-and-white issue.
Now you have the dramatic growth in the Latino population, the Asian-American population, so the issues of race and ethnicity have become infinitely more complicated. For example, half the recent population growth in this country has been in just three states—Florida, Texas and California. The majority of the growth in those areas, and in school enrollments particularly, is Latino. So the whole ball game has kind of shifted and become more complicated.
But let’s get back to our discussion about the courts. We have already said that the national government has had relatively little influence over American education financially but people often ignore the profound impact of the federal courts on educational policy. The decision of the Supreme Court in 1954 [Brown v. Board of Education—the landmark decision by the Supreme Court that separate, but equal, educational facilities did not meet the constitutional guarantee of equal opportunity for all students] affecting school segregation is a very good example.
Q: Another area where the Court’s decisions on national laws has had substantial impact is the area of disabled or handicapped students, and students with learning disabilities. A very substantial portion of the increase in school spending over the last fifteen or twenty years has gone to support provision of educational opportunity for these disadvantaged students.
Usdan: Yes. I think this is another excellent example of the national government’s influence, particularly on equity issues. We had the Title I federal programs which helped disadvantaged kids. But the education-of-the-handicapped legislation, which I think was enacted in 1975, compelled school systems throughout the country to provide for the needs of kids who were physically handicapped and handicapped in other ways—students in too many cases whose need had not been met before.
At the same time, these national requirements created a backlash because they required extensive plans and expenditures but never provided the resources to implement the legislation. Originally the goal, I believe, was that the national government would provide forty percent of the special-education costs, but I think the percentage that [it] actually provided has never gone much above eight or nine percent. So these requirements, although wonderfully intended for the noble cause of handicapped kids, helped to generate a backlash against national government intervention, bureaucracy, regulations, and so forth. This demonstrates how complicated our federal intergovernmental system can be.
Q: How does this complex structure shape our educational governance?
Usdan: Let’s talk about that in terms of centralization or decentralization. In our federal governmental system you have national, state, and local governments, each of which has certain responsibilities. Under our constitutional and statutory framework in this country there is, of course, a federal constitution and each of the states have their own constitutions. In terms of educational policy, the federal government has had influence, the states have had the legal responsibility, and the locals basically historically have had the operational responsibility.
So when you are talking about educational policy in this country, you are talking about many different, diverse actors, ranging from teachers, to principals, to school superintendents, to parents, to school board members at the local level. You have in many states intermediate districts which provide some special services between local school districts and states. You have education departments. You have state legislatures. You have governors. You have education aides to governors, who are increasingly influential in the policy-making process. And then you have the influence of the federal establishment we have been talking about.
Q: The charter-school movement [movement to promote public schools whose governance is outside the traditional public school structure, but which receive public funding] is gaining a certain amount of interest regarding its possible impact on our educational structure.
Usdan: I think that the charter-school movement has emerged from several different historical strands. One is a growing distaste for the increasing numbers of bureaucratic and regulatory requirements on schools, the sense that teachers and principals who are at the building level where kids are, where the teaching/learning process takes place, are constrained by an array of bureaucratic requirements that have no relevance to the actual education process. So that is one attraction of the charter-school movement.
There is also the attraction of choice. Wealthy people can select where to send their kids to school, whether they are living in an expensive, suburban community or sending their kids to private or independent schools. The charter-school movement has gained support in areas where the schools have very badly served kids, particularly in the inner cities, where there is growing sentiment that parents and teachers and people at the building level ought to be given more prerogatives and authority.
So greater local responsiveness is one argument for decentralization. An argument for centralization is that what is important about schools is not who governs at the local, state, or national levels, but whether kids are learning, and whether or not kids are coming out trained and are literate and understand science, computers, English, math, etc. What you have in posh suburban communities are schools tailored for people who primarily want their kids to be able to do well on [standardized college admission tests], and to get into Ivy League colleges or prestigious, flagship public institutions.
And so the governance issue in such communities is less relevant. Forty, fifty, or sixty years ago, places like New York City; Chicago; Philadelphia; Detroit; Washington, D.C., had very bureaucratized large school systems, but kids were achieving despite the size of the districts or their centralized governance structures.
Q: Very often when we look at per-capita expenditures for education in the United States and we compare them with per-capita expenditures for students overseas, one of the disparities in those simple comparisons is that a lot of the education money in some districts in the United States goes for some of what are, in fact, social programs, for instance, for school-lunch programs, for remediation kinds of programs, for after-school-care programs, and this isn’t the case in a lot of other countries.
Usdan: I’m sure that’s so. One of the real dilemmas that the schools have is with changes in the family structure in all kinds of communities, not just poor cities or rural areas. We have had profound changes in family structure. Increasingly, both parents are working. There are growing numbers of single-parent households in all kinds of communities. The case can be made that nobody is looking out for kids, and the schools have the dilemma that they are virtually the only institution left in the lives of many kids.
So what does a school do if a kid comes in hungry in the morning, hasn’t had breakfast, or if a kid has a toothache and hasn’t been to a dentist? That kid isn’t going to learn to capacity until such basic needs are met.
And so what is really called for is a reassessment of our existing local school governance system. We have developed in this country, as part of the municipal reform movement at the turn of the century, a separation between schools and general purpose government; we thought the schools were too important to be politicized, so we created totally separate governance systems.
So you have some schools sitting in splendid isolation from the mainstream of society with separate funding streams and so forth. Social services, health services, the employment and training system and so forth are under the aegis of general-purpose government, at a time when more kids are growing up in poverty or in economically marginal circumstances.
So kids are entering the schools with all kinds of social and health problems which confound their ability to learn but the school is divorced from the resources and systems needed to fight such problems.
How do you create new kinds of social service delivery systems that involve and use the school? Education’s primary mission should be academic; I wouldn’t dispute that, but since the schools are the place where the kids are, we have to find new creative ways of establishing community schools that focus upon this primary academic mission, but also have their facilities used for parent education, remedial work, and social services. And we must create a rational funding system to do this so that the schools don’t have the whole burden.
You are beginning to see this happen. In the big cities first, in places like Boston, Chicago and Cleveland, you have mayors becoming increasingly interested in schools because they recognize that however much they rebuild their downtowns and erect beautiful buildings and museums, they are never going to attract the middle class back into the cities unless they do something about the schools. So the mayors are getting more and more involved, and I think that changes in local governance are going to be some of the major issues in the new millennium.
Q: Multiculturalism or multilingualism are issues which have attracted wide popular attention in education, both in terms of how they function in the classroom and in the curriculum. Multicultural sensitivity has been a concern in education in the United States. Is this going to continue?
Usdan: Sure. I think as the population increasingly becomes more diverse, we are going to have to think about what is majority and what is minority in this country in terms of our demographics. This growing diversity is perhaps one of the primary challenges facing the entire society. It is hitting the schools first because of the fact that the new immigrants are basically a very young population.
So these kids are rolling up through the schools. More than thirty percent of the school enrollment is already minority. By the middle of the next century, our current minorities will constitute fifty percent of the overall population. Spanish is the most common spoken language in the Western Hemisphere. Our curriculums, our capabilities for dealing with languages other than English, our cultural sensitivity must meet this challenge.
Q: We talk about the impact of immigrants on the school system, but another issue in terms of the American education system goes in the other direction: the impact of the schools on the immigrant, the socialization, the creation of a citizen of the United States. Can you talk about that for just a little bit and maybe speculate on whether or not that’s still relevant?
Usdan: It is very relevant. I think we have all lost sight of that fact. My father, for example, was an immigrant and was very poor. He grew up on the lower East Side of New York City, and went to Stuyvesant High School [a city-wide, selective institution], and became a dentist. He provided his family with a very comfortable, middle-class background. That’s just one generation ago. I was able to go to an Ivy League college and have a good professional career, etc. If my father had not received a high-quality public education, my chances for success would have been diminished. Public education historically and traditionally has been the engine of our democracy and social mobility. I think that we have lost sight of this vital contribution of public education.
With all of the problems of our school systems and all the inequities, the American public education system is still the world’s grandest mass-education experiment. It has provided a pathway for social and economic mobility for millions of Americans. Most of that history took place in what was a different kind of economic and psychological environment in which our country and its economy were constantly growing. We were always expanding in pursuit of our “manifest destiny.” There was a profound belief that if you got a good education, there was growth and opportunity. I think that what has begun to happen in the last couple of decades, as we worry about our own kids, is that we are not as sure as we once were of achieving the classic American Dream in which you could reasonably aspire to do better than your parents.
Some of us were the beneficiaries of the post-World War II period, when much of the rest of the world was shattered, and the United States was an economic colossus. We were six percent of the population, generating about forty percent of the world’s GNP. That couldn’t go on forever. Europe, and ultimately Asia, rebuilt, and the resulting economic competition and what happened to our manufacturing industry created considerable self-doubt in our culture about economic mobility.
I think in many ways that these economic doubts also curbed the possible renaissance of “liberalism” and any movement towards redistribution of resources. It is a lot easier being a liberal in an expanding economy than in a contracting economy. I think people are increasingly concerned about the futures of their own kids . . . and don’t want their own school systems to have to pay the price for redistributive policies.
The charter-school movement, I think, can be an important movement because it creates alternatives, competition, and perhaps most importantly, it can trigger some changes in some of our more ossified public-school systems. Charter schools service only two-tenths of a percent of the kids. So the challenge is to strengthen the traditional public schools. That is where almost all of the kids are.
Q: What about vouchers [a system under which public funds are used by parents to pay for their choice of public or private, possibly religious, school]?
Usdan: One of the purported reasons the public schools are so unresponsive is that they have a monopoly. But most people, even within public-school systems, now support choice, and the charter-school movement is growing. The major teachers’ unions have their own recently launched charter-school operations. I think there is a growing, albeit grudging acceptance of choice even within the public school sector. The issue, for me, is whether “choice” should include nonpublic as well as public schools?
I do not think that public resources should go to nonpublic schools because such a policy would further erode the public school’s already shrinking political base.
Q: You very eloquently made the point earlier on that basically the educational process happens between the student and the teacher in the classroom. A lot of resources go into preparation of teachers in the United States. How well do you think we do that?
Usdan: I think we do terribly. I think that many, if not most, teacher preparatory institutions are not particularly relevant because they are not connected directly in a clinical way with the schools where the teaching/learning activity takes place. I think many schools of education have emulated the norms of the arts and sciences and have followed the research paradigm, instead of following the more applied clinical model of either the business schools or the medical schools, where you have clinical professors who have ongoing professional practices that are not removed from the reality of the real world.
My own sense is that teacher education drastically needs revision and reshaping. I think school systems themselves have to become more significant in the teacher education process, particularly in how the critically important student-teaching component is handled.
Q: You are associated with what we in the government world call an “NGO” [non-governmental organization]. How do you see your organization’s responsibility or contribution in addressing these education issues and challenges and opportunities?
Usdan: The Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) is a private, independent, nonprofit organization. We have no constituency in the traditional sense. We have been operating with the political, educational, and business worlds here in Washington and throughout the country. IEL has wonderful independence and an ability to play a catalytic role in surfacing issues. We serve as a connecting mechanism between schools and the larger world, and our programs relate to demographics, employment and training, connecting schools with health and social services, etc. because the problems facing kids and families are going to require new kinds of multi-sector approaches. There is a profound difference between schooling and education, but many in our society, I think, view education as being merely schooling.
One vital part of education surely happens in the school building. But by the time a kid turns eighteen, some ninety-one percent of his or her time will be spent in a nonschool setting, with the family, with friends, sleeping, etc. Kids, as we know, spend infinitely more time watching television than doing homework. And so we have to pay more attention to the profound, nonschooling educational effects of other facets of the society.
Q: Is business’s interest in education going to have a major impact?
Usdan: It already has had a profound impact. It has evolved in the last decade or two. The business and political communities increasingly are calling the shots. They are undergirding the standards movement, which really started in some ways with A Nation at Risk in 1983. In southern states, governors like Clinton in Arkansas, Hunt in North Carolina and Riley in South Carolina provided leadership in connecting schools with economic development. At the same time, we had wrenching economic transformations that were changing our society and our economy. We were losing our manufacturing base. We had to move from an industrial/manufacturing economy into an information economy. Educators and the new business and political leadership recognized that we no longer had jobs for large numbers of unskilled individuals. The schools now had to produce people equipped to handle a high-skill, high-standards economy.
The business community wants national standards. They want kids all over the country to be held to certain academic standards, and I think that is the way the country is moving. Kids know math, or they don’t know math. There isn’t a Virginia math or a South Carolina math or science. Look, for example, at the influence of the Business Roundtable, which has pushed this standards-based reform movement in state capitals all over the country. The Business Roundtable consists of 200 of the largest corporations in the country. They had never before gotten so extensively involved in education, but they now have corporations providing leadership in state capitals to push high educational standards.
So the business community has become very involved, and it has developed a natural alliance with political leadership. In many states this new politics of education has made the governor’s office or the governor’s education aide infinitely more important to education than is the chief state school officer. It is important to look at the demographics of the country. Only about twenty-two or twenty-three percent of the adults have kids in schools. Elected officials are going to respond to where the money and clout is. It is not with the kids! Thus, the business community becomes even more important politically.
New political coalitions must evolve, with the business community joining with parents and educators, in the new millennium. This is something that our organization will attempt to catalyze.
Dr. Michael Usdan is the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, Inc. He has served as Commissioner of Higher Education of the state of Connecticut, and as president of the Merrill-Palmer Institute in Detroit. He has taught at Columbia University, City University of New York, Northwestern and Fordham Universities, and in schools in New York City and White Plains, New York. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Phi Delta Kappan magazine and served as a member and president of the school board in New Rochelle, New York.
This interwiew was conducted by U.S. Society & Values and appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of the ASJ (no. 43).