Excellence Redefined for the 21st Century

This is the concluding article to my co-edited symposium with Allan Ornstein on “21st Century Excellence in Education.” The original article–as well as references to other articles in this symposium–can be accessed in the journal Society.

SocietyCoverSince the Nation at Risk report over thirty years ago, the United States education system has focused on standards and tests that mainly measure academic, and often low-level, knowledge. According to our contributors, such policies will not lead to twenty-first century excellence. International tests do not indicate real-world abilities. Not only do they correlate modestly with work productivity and global skills, they correlate inversely with innovation and entrepreneurialism. Current competency-based systems simply do not match the way we live and work and, therefore, will not likely produce qualified job candidates, innovators, or even “better” adults.

Schools need a broader approach that aligns with 21st century life. However, they must first recognize what defines present and future society. Based on our contributors’ essays, three themes clearly emerged: 1) individuality; 2) connectedness; and 3) non-cognitive attributes. Each one is inextricably linked with the 21st century way we live and work. Understanding and acknowledging them is critical to education reform. Without that, education policy will not align with the innovation goal—a problem we are seeing now.

This wrap-up article examines each theme separately, including its role in the 21st century and its relevance to education. Examples will illustrate how our contributors and others have successfully leveraged these elements to improve success. Combined, these themes build the case for a broader education approach aimed to help all students maximize their potential so they can achieve 21st century excellence.


  1. Individuality

Power resides within the hands of individuals, particularly in the global age. We consume content the way we want, not the way institutions and companies want. We watch on-demand via Hulu, we curate content via Flipboard, and we create and share them through social media. Yager referred to this process as negotiating the “landscape of information, while at the same time becoming a part of it.” A company’s success, therefore, depends on its ability to align with the way individuals operate. By the same token, individuals now also compete with companies—to sell content, products, and services, thanks to globalization and the internet. The primacy of the individual in the 21st century demands we cultivate each child’s individual abilities and interests at an early age.

Yet the current emphasis on high-stakes testing, standards, and accountability do not align with or facilitate this perspective. New programs like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Go Math! and Math in Focus (i.e., “Singapore Math”), for instance, provide tightly scripted lessons aimed more at the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) than at students’ aptitude, despite their sections on guided practice, differentiated instruction, and investigation. Zhao believed such programs prepare mass-produced, employment-minded job seekers, rather than innovators or entrepreneurs.

Yager envisioned a student-centered, journalistic approach. Students would formulate questions in science, investigate multiple sources, evaluate information, and produce value for an end-user—just like a reporter. Imagine extending that approach to other traditional subjects. For example, math students learning perimeter and area could explore the amount of table space needed to fit 125 fifth graders and their place settings for an end-of-the-year field trip. Failure to produce appropriate solutions would have real-world consequences. Compare this with the traditional approach where students measure the length and width of predefined quadrilaterals.

The difference lies not just in the level of concept mastery, but also in the level of ownership. With a journalistic approach, the motivation to learn comes from within—essential when cultivating innovators and change agents. Policymakers appear to acknowledge the benefits of this approach, since they recently funded personalized learning in certain rural districts of Kentucky and Mississippi, but it needs to reach critical mass to empower a generation of graduates. Likewise, students favor practices that emphasize autonomy and relevance.

Teachers will undoubtedly play a primary role in shaping student-centered classrooms. Tomlinson’s differentiated instruction model recognizes and addresses the varied levels, interests, and approaches to learning. Here, teachers seek (and appreciate) differences, cultivate the right attitudes and habits, and link experiences to learning, among other principles of “teaching up.” In the end, this mentality fosters a sense of agency and responsibility that a one-size-fits-all, competency-based approach does not.

None of this is possible, unless teacher education recognizes the primacy of individuality. Monk cautions us to consider the current tumultuous state of teacher reform. There is still lack of consensus on best practices, cost-effectiveness, and the benefits of value-added measures, despite the new CAEP standards. These challenges compel us to harness our research more effectively.


  1. Connectedness

Like individuality, being “connected” is a part of the way we live and work. However, it is more than just accessibility and integrated technology. Three components—caring, networks, and interdisciplinarity—define the “new connectedness” in the 21st century. Cultivating global citizens requires schools to recognize each of them.

Caring provides the ethical basis of connectedness. It matters even in “quid pro quo” relationships, because it profoundly shapes the character of a group (i.e., families, communities, ethnic or religious groups, society). Without caring, there is no reason to build formal or informal relationships. Noddings realized this thirty years ago when she boldly proposed an “ethic of care” education approach centered on happiness.

Extending her idea to the global level takes on profound importance when individuals have more power than ever, even in collectivist societies. Protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries fomented change during the Arab Spring uprising that began in 2010. President Xi Jinping of China recently vowed to relax the one-child policy, eliminate repressive “re-education through labor” camps, improve the rights of farmers and migrant workers, and encourage individuals and enterprises to invest overseas. Despite ongoing instability, these examples demonstrate mankind’s tendency toward progress and humanity.

Moreover, they suggest efforts to promote an ethic of caring would augment progress and produce better adults. Noddings maintains there is no better goal in education. Without an ethic of caring, we lose the ability to empathize and gain trust. Ornstein, in fact, believes this very intolerance is responsible for American decline, not the loss of Christian values, faith and ideals. Schools need to help children navigate and cultivate relationships better in an increasingly polarized and complicated climate. We can no longer isolate them from the global village.

Networks—the system of interconnected people—have always been essential, yet the adage “who you know is more important than what you know” has never rang truer in a social and global economy. Policymakers and educators underestimate their role in education. It is much more than fostering a collaborative or community-centered environment.

Research on social networks suggests that those we know through friends (also referred to as “second-” or “third-degree connections”) can help us more than our direct connections. Since they “occupy” the same world as we do, our friends tend to possess similar knowledge and experiences. Indirect connections, however, broaden our resources exponentially. Assuming we each have forty friends, third degree connections would yield us 64,000 introductions (40 x 40 x 40), and infinitely more social capital. Successful networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook are based on this principle.

Networks can also help high potential, low-income students get into selective colleges. Frequently, they lack the social capital to apply, as Comer indicated, because they are either unaware of the financial assistance offered or they underestimate their qualifications. As a result, they are “undermatched.” These students would particularly benefit from one form of networking, mentorship—perhaps the most powerful form of social capital. Mentors would not only provide valuable insight, they could open the door to vast resources that would be otherwise inaccessible. Supervised internships would provide similar value.

Principles behind social networks also seem to apply to other networks. Research suggests that ethnic and gender preferences, as well as obesity, can spread through networks based on the strength of social ties. There is a higher risk of obesity, for example, if one has obese friends, but lower if his or her second-degree connections were obese. Understanding the science of networks can help us detect epidemics earlier, as well as understand the spread of ideas and initiatives.

According to a Pew research study in 2013, almost 90% of young adults in the U.S. use social networking sites. The potential is staggering. People—not just the advantaged—can harness their network to uncover atrocities and confront problems like disasters, terrorism, inequality, environmental pollution, and climate change faster and more effectively than they have ever done. They just need to know how to cultivate and harness it.

Schools must recognize their role in this. As currently constructed, however, the system is simply not designed to facilitate networks. School and classroom culture is still rather closed, shutting out parents, the community, and businesses—all of which can provide further support, perspective, mentorship, and training. Families and students—particularly those from disadvantaged areas—should not have to cultivate them on their own.

Interdisciplinarity is the capacity to integrate knowledge and thinking in two or more disciplines to produce cognitive or technical advancement—such as solving a problem or creating a product or service. Because life is increasingly complex and fluid, it has become the quintessential 21st century mode of thinking and doing. Interdisciplinary, like caring and networks, define the “new connectedness.”

To maximize this, teachers must allow students to take the lead. Under Zhao’s “entrepreneur-oriented” approach, students’ interests and passions—not a prescribed curriculum—determine what they learn and produce. Teachers respond to and support their pursuits, which will often require tapping into nontraditional areas of study like business, art, and psychology. They are equally as relevant as science, math, history, and language arts.

Interdisciplinarity plays a significant role in any innovation. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs leveraged his love of design, his business acumen, and his technological acuity to create highly valued, innovative products. His ability to hold different elements in his mind simultaneously and play obsessively with them until it all comes together in a moment of simplicity and clarity allowed him to revolutionize four industries—music, cell phones, PCs, and tablets. Right now, schools simply do not prioritize or integrate many real-world disciplines.

Those that do, like Bennington College, have shown promise. In the mid-1990s, it radically reorganized the program structure under its president, Elizabeth Coleman. She eliminated the subject-based curriculum and organized it by political-social challenges such as equity, the uses of force, and health. She treated them not as topics of study, but as frameworks of action to help students think across disciplines and solve real-world issues.

To update Socrates’ popular quote for the 21st century, the “unconnected” life is not worth living. If we cannot cultivate the ability to connect in multidimensional ways, we will engender a learned helplessness in students. They will not be able to solve long-standing conflicts without the ability to care, or at least respect others’ perspectives. They will not be able to affect change if they cannot cultivate global networks. And finally, students will not be able to innovate without the ability to think in broad, multi-disciplinary ways. In short, the “new connectedness” has more to do with a blurring of lines among countries, groups, institutions, and disciplines, than accessibility. The 21st century is about relationships.


  1. Non-cognitive attributes

Thousands of people can now take free online courses (known as Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs) at Harvard, Yale, or MIT, yet only seven percent of enrollees complete them. What do these few have that the others don’t? Carney & Rothstein and Levin believe persistence, focus, and other non-cognitive attributes make the difference. They separate successful people from the rest. They allow achievers to persist in learning a difficult language, persuade clients on a new idea, and follow through on a commitment.

Sheer conviction, for example, allowed Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk—an innovator perhaps only second to Jobs—to push his idea for a streamlined, retractable door handle past the skeptics and into production. There were numerous engineering challenges, including the lack of panel space for a mechanism to work tens of thousands of times in all temperatures, and the balance between durability (so the mechanism could break through ice) and sensitivity (to stop instantly if a child’s finger gets in the way). Musk received tremendous pushback from his engineers—who even told him the idea was “stupid.” His conviction and belief, however, prevailed.

The South African-born Musk typifies the kind of entrepreneurs Zhao and Ornstein believe we need to cultivate and retain, respectively. Work ethic may partly explain why immigrants make up a majority of STEM workers and why China and India, according to Ornstein, graduates four times the number of scientists and engineers as the U.S. It also suggests that immigration policies must complement education policies. If innovation is the ultimate goal, education is one important part of it.

Levin argued that the ability to adapt is perhaps the one attribute that matters in the 21st century. It influences worker productivity both in the short run (through efficient allocation of resources) and the long run (in accommodating new technologies). Evidence suggests that managers can maintain productivity by substituting less educated, but adaptable workers for their more expensive, educated counterparts. Apparently, adaptability matters even more than experience and content skills. In fact, the survival of individuals, companies, and societies is positively Darwinian.

Comer’s work with inner city children proves that we can cultivate socio-emotional skills. His Social Skills Project involved planning and hosting a dance-drama program, where students learned skills like helping those who had difficulty presenting (rather than ridiculing them), as well as raising challenging questions in a respectful way. As a result, academic achievement jumped, student attendance improved, and teacher turnover decreased. Most important, the project had a galvanizing effect on the students, the school culture, and the community. Imagine the impact on graduates if states scaled up social skills efforts at an early age.


Redefining Excellence: Ownership

At no other time has individuality, connectedness, and non-cognitive attributes played such a critical role in the way we live and work. They suggest that knowledge and skill are not enough, and that a broader, more self-directed approach is necessary. We believe the education system needs to move toward an ownership-based model. Ownership drives people to pursue knowledge and skills, because they feel as though what they are working on is “theirs.” It is different from related constructs like commitment and involvement; it is much more active and intrinsic. In fact, it would more effectively develop potential than accountability.

Perhaps no organization epitomizes ownership better than Google, named the top company to work for by Fortune magazine. They empower their staff by taking care of individual needs. Not only do employees have comprehensive on-site perks (e.g., medical and dental facilities, oil change and bike repair, free gourmet food and laundry), they also have unique freedoms. Googlers, as they are known, can take courses in stress management and advanced negotiation, as well as sabbaticals to pursue a reimbursed education. Software engineers have the flexibility to work away from the office, design their own workstations, and even scribble ideas on walls.

On top of individuality, Google also cultivates connectedness and interpersonal relationships. Their open space, for example, fosters collaboration. “Everything we [do is] geared toward making it easy to talk,” according to an engineering director. Open spaces enable ideas to cross-fertilize and stimulate serendipitous interaction. “20 percent time”—the freedom to work on any project one full day per week—also exemplifies the ownership mindset. Popular products like Gmail and Adsense emerged from 20 percent time. So do other more creative endeavors, like engineer Chade-Meng Tan’s course on mindfulness. His desire for world peace led him to design this course with the help of psychologists, professors, and other business luminaries. Not only is it one of the most popular classes taught in the company, it has propelled Tan to write the New York Times best seller Search Inside Yourself.

The quality of the end product, as well as spiritual fulfillment, ultimately separates “owners” like Tan from regular employees. The latter adopts a “hey-I-just-work-here” attitude that undermines performance and company success. Unfortunately, that same apathy characterizes the attitudes of most high school students, which in turn undermines the quality of learning and work. Noddings believed that students should choose their own track, rather than be assigned to one. That simple shift would alleviate apathy, increase quality, nourish the soul, and cultivate ownership in a way accountability could never do. Teachers would merely facilitate the process.

Emerging research demonstrates that ownership can be effectively developed and implemented. In 2013, the National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools sought to identify programs, policies, and practices of high schools that “beat the odds.” They discovered that increasing student ownership made a distinct difference. Teachers developed this capacity by changing beliefs and mindsets of students to increase self-efficacy (i.e., individual beliefs about his or her ability to perform well) and by engaging students to do challenging academic work. They also scaffolded students’ learning of both academic and social behaviors and put structures in place to guide them in taking ownership and responsibility for their academic success.

The ownership model was particularly effective because it enacted what researchers called “school-wide facilitating conditions.” This included:


  1. Developing a shared school mission;
  2. Aligning school-wide structures and practices to the mission;
  3. Cultivating a culture of trust and faculty and student stability;
  4. Building positive relationships between students and teachers; and
  5. Ensuring efficacy, accountability, and a safe and orderly school environment.


Incidentally, “ownership” is one of the top attributes Google looks for when hiring candidates, according to its senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock.



Reflecting on the Nation at Risk report, two things are clear: 1) we have been asking the wrong types of questions; and 2) our existing approach does not align with our goal to produce innovators. Policymakers appear to ask questions like, how do we ensure graduates have the right knowledge and skills? Or how do we close the achievement gap? Invariably, the answer requires some measure of students’ competency, which is a poor proxy for innovation, accomplishment, or success any kind. Competency is neither the goal nor the answer to 21st century excellence.

Our contributors’ arguments suggest that more appropriate types of questions ask: How do we maximize students’ potential? And how do we ensure graduates will flourish? A rapidly changing and complex society suggests that mindsets are highly relevant. The right mindset acts as the spark to unlock potential. With ownership, accountability comes from within—not from tests. That difference is significant, especially when most students routinely feel disengaged by schooling. If we want our graduates to maximize their potential and flourish, we must recognize the themes our contributors believe define our times—individuality, connectedness, and non-cognitive attributes—and find an education approach that matches it. A model based on ownership would be a good place to start, since it motivates students to learn, invest in, and fulfill their potential no matter if they go into STEM or the arts. Education has no more a nobler goal than to produce such excellence in the 21st century.


K-12 MOOCs Must Address Equity

Is MOOCs going into the K-12 arena a good thing? 

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, the new wave of distance education offered by elite institutions like Harvard and MIT, are moving into high schools, and—contrary to what many think—that could be a problem.

v34-20-op4_copyright-istockLast September, the MOOC provider EdX released 26 free courses covering Advanced Placement, high school, and college-level material.

In theory, disseminating such free or low-cost instruction will democratize high-quality education in much the same way public schools are meant to democratize general education. In practice, however, MOOCs’ lecture-based format, their inability to reach the most-vulnerable populations, and their low passing rates could broaden K-12 learning gaps rather than shrink them.

Politically and pedagogically, K-12 schooling is very different from higher education. There is a greater focus on inequality in the former, due in part to the compulsory nature of attendance. As such, teacher quality and instruction are critical. Elementary and secondary school teachers, especially those in public schools, are expected to motivate the most-disadvantaged and disengaged students.

The didactic, lecture-based nature of MOOC instruction, however, is narrow and may not engage traditionally marginalized students, including ethnic and racial minorities, low-income students, children with disabilities, and English-language learners—the very groups policymakers and researchers have focused on in K-12 education policy reform.

In addition, these groups tend to have less access than their better-off peers to high-speed Internet.

Only 64 percent of African-Americans, 53 percent of Hispanics, and 54 percent of lower-income Americans overall (meaning those making less than $30,000 a year) have broadband access at home, compared with nearly three-quarters of white Americans generally, based on 2013 research from the Pew Research Internet Project.

Without universal access, MOOCs are pointless. On the good-news front: This situation is beginning to improve, as the Federal Communications Commission increased funding in December to prioritize support for broadband and wireless connectivity.

As it is, the nature of MOOCs attracts advantaged learners. A 2013 analysis of the University of Pennsylvania’s 32 massive open online courses found that participants tended to come from developed countries and were employed, with 80 percent already in possession of a postsecondary degree of some kind. Most students took classes to advance professionally or to satisfy their curiosity. Such findings suggest academically oriented students and those with developed habits of the mind, like the gifted and talented, would thrive in an online learning system. Without such advantages, however, at-risk and even working-class students will require intervening support and oversight to have an equal chance to succeed.

Perhaps most disconcertingly, online courses have yet to demonstrate they can close the performance gap.

In a highly publicized San Jose State University experiment, minority high school students in an Oakland, Calif., charter school performed worse in online pilot classes than those who took the same classes on campus. The result reinforced research highlighting the struggles of at-risk groups in an online context, compared with advantaged students.

On a related note, African-American students, as well as males, younger students, and those with lower grade point averages, had difficulty adapting to, or persisting in, online courses compared with face-to-face classes, according to researchers Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars of Teachers College, Columbia University.

For online courses to have any chance to succeed, developers and e-learning companies must understand the K-12 landscape. Ambitious rollouts have fared poorly, as the iPads-for-all project in the Los Angeles Unified School District demonstrated.

The previously mentioned San Jose State effort, which involved a partnership with the company Udacity, ended its MOOC experiment in 2013 because only 12 percent of high school students earned a passing grade in algebra, among other disappointing findings. These failed examples reinforce two well-worn lessons: Venture philanthropy cannot work unless students’ needs come first, and how you use technology is more important than the technology itself.

Developers also need to address teacher buy-in and professional development in new ways. The novel nature of MOOCs will undoubtedly require overhauling how developers support teachers, a consideration that should make them think twice about jumping into the K-12 market.

If only certain types of learners can thrive under MOOCs, the innovation will have failed as a 21st-century technology and education platform. Its success, therefore, depends on the developers’ ability to address inequality; specifically, to reach a critical mass of students that includes learners from diverse socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. Only then will MOOC providers be perceived as offering legitimate platforms for K-12 schools. Without such attention, the MOOC foray into K-12 will be doomed to repeat, and even exacerbate, inequalities in American education.

Article originally published in Education Week.

Should U.S. Panic Over Latest International Creative Problem Solving Test Scores?

The gap in problem solving test scores between U.S. and Asian countries reflects the reality that the way students operate in school often has little to do with how they operate in real life. 

CreativeProblemSolvingU.S. educators may be surprised to see that students in Asian countries scored significantly higher on creative problem-solving tests than American students, but they shouldn’t be. It merely reinforces what most of us have long known: School and work often have nothing to do with one another.

The results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 Creative Problem-Solving exam found that U.S. 15-year-olds scored above the international average, but at 18th place, still lag behind the top seven education systems (Singapore, Korea, Japan, Macao, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei, respectively), all of which are in Asia. Educators and analysts may wonder how a nation like the U.S., which prides itself on creativity, innovation, and individuality, could possibly fall below collectivist systems that emphasize traditional instruction and conformity.

The truth is more complex. First, unlike in the U.S., students in Japan, Korea, and Singapore actually spend extended periods of time learning fewer topics, an approach that Common Core State Standards developers have recognized and attempted to duplicate. Instead, Asian systems focus on the depth—rather than breadth—of topics, which allows them to manipulate information beyond memorization. A typical seventh-grade textbook in Japan, in fact, has less than half the amount of pages (200) as one in the U.S. (475).

Second, lower U.S. scores do not necessarily mean East Asian students are more creative. In fact, their high scores, especially those in Shanghai, may not even reflect the norm in China, as OECD Deputy Director of Education Andreas Schleicher has admitted. The gap reflects the sad reality that the way students operate in school often has little to do with how they operate in real life. This is true in U.S. as well as in many top-performing education systems abroad. Learning in school is largely characterized by narrow, detached, and contrived experiences, whereas work— especially the highly skilled jobs that drive the economy—incorporates more active, cross- disciplinary, and out-of-the box thinking.

Such mental processes characterize the work of entrepreneurs like former Apple chief executive Steve Jobs and SpaceX chief product architect Elon Musk, according to a Fortune magazine article. They leverage their “deep understanding of technological possibility, strong design instincts, a clear grasp of the economic ecosystem surrounding a potential product, and an uncanny ability to enter the head of a future customer” to produce innovations like the iPod or launch vehicles for the International Space Station.

Students rarely experience this sense of possibility and ownership while at school—even less so in a high-stakes accountability system. The thousands of families who opted out of the recent Common Core state tests highlight the growing disenchantment with the U.S. education system. Is it any wonder so many creative-types, including Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg decided to bypass college to do something different?

Third, Asia’s market demand may also explain their relatively lower rate of innovation, despite their students’ higher test scores. China’s economy remains driven by manual labor and low-cost and low-margin manufacturing, so firms tend to seek many more workers than managers or thinkers. These “top-light” firms, as MIT Sloan School of Management professor Yasheng Huang calls them, are more akin to factories than startups. Moreover, government agencies hire a significant portion of Chinese college graduates, who compete fiercely for civil service positions. The reality is that firms rarely leverage students’ creative problem solving potential.

Fourth, the cultural emphasis on hierarchical authority, social relations, and group harmony (over frankness and honesty) can also inhibit graduates’ creativity and individuality. Age-based seniority runs deep in most Asian institutions. In fact, many Koreans, when meeting strangers or new colleagues, will quickly establish each other’s age to work out how they should behave and speak to each other, according to a 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal. In Japan, subordinates may make decisions only if they reflect what their bosses would have done. This hierarchical structure also contributes to the stifling of talent, particularly among those who have just graduated.

Finally, research suggests tests like PISA’s creative problem-solving exam have little predictive value to workplace productivity; in fact, they predict only about 6 percent. More important is the drive to create something that solves a real problem. These characteristics, which include both cognitive and non-cognitive skills, must combine with the right external conditions such as culture, market demand, organizational environment, and policies.

Right now, the U.S. still leads the world in that regard. Its free market policies, individualistic culture, and entrepreneurial spirit have been compensating what it lacks in public education for a long time. Adequate creative problem-solving test results merely reinforce the need to shore the gap between school and work. High schools, for instance, rarely partner with local businesses— including laboratories, offices, and factories—to provide glimpses into work life. Internships only help students enrolled in higher education. We need alternatives.

Perhaps some good news is coming. President Obama has recently announced grants intended to update school curriculums to better integrate work experiences and real-life opportunities. It will finance partnerships with local education agencies and employers, which would enhance job shadowing and mentor opportunities. Six-year high school programs focused on career and technical education and partnered with corporations like IBM are giving many students alternatives to four-year colleges. Yet, they are at the experimental stage and not yet the norm.

Equally important, we need an education approach that syncs with the fluid way we live and work in the 21st century. This includes more inquiry, student-driven projects, and cross-disciplinary experiences apart of the current accountability and Common Core focus. They prepare our students more productively than a performance- and outcome-based approach ever will. China, ironically, has been trying to adopt a more western approach to educating its students, despite their high test scores. We would do well to remember that when considering policy implications to improve U.S. students’ creative problem-solving abilities.

Article originally posted in the American School Board Journal.

Expanding the Six-Year High School Model

524086919Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the six-year high school model, where four years of high school are combined with two years of college for an equivalent of an associate’s degree. Known as the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (or P-Tech for short)—made famous by the high achieving P-Tech school in Brooklyn, New York, and by President Obama in his State of the Union speeches, this approach allows students to learn in-demand 21st century workforce skills—with the help of industry partners like IBM. Time magazine  recently profiled another P-Tech school, the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy in Chicago.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, “middle skills” jobs (like technical support, medical technicians, and high-tech manufacturing workers) are increasingly in high demand. In fact, they are as much in demand as high-skilled STEM jobs, which only account for 5% of all U.S. jobs. Not everyone needs a four-year degree, but they need more than a high school diploma. Workers with an associate’s degree will earn 74% more than those with only a high school diploma, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

A six-year program would be more in line with a career and technical education (CTE) model, where students learn real world skills from tech firms and would graduate with concrete job skills. Corporate partners, in turn, are eager to hire those they have trained. Connecticut and upstate New York are also rolling out this approach. The question is, can this model be expanded at the national level?

A few issues to consider. One, how will the teacher’s union react to this? So far, the P-Tech approach has operated within the public school system, rather than outside it (like charter schools), so unions don’t seem to be opposed to the idea. Problems might arise, however, during teacher training. Who trains the teachers–education schools or corporations? Traditional teacher preparation programs will not have the expertise, which can open the door to corporate influence. Issues of power and politics will certainly play a factor. This will be the most significant obstacle to expanding the six-year high school model.

Two, how do we expand funding? President Obama has been pushing for more CTEs and alternative models of education that involve public-private partnerships, and as such, has earmarked $100 million in new grant funds for schools like P-Tech. Funds can also come from the Perkins Act of 2006, which seeks to provide more focus on the academic achievement of CTE students. It is up for congressional reauthorization this year.

Finally, we will need the help of more local leaders and industries. P-Tech programs are easier to implement in large cities where Fortune 500 companies are located, but what about rural and depressed areas? Local leaders, like governors, mayors, and school superintendents must push for these programs.

The benefits of a six-year high school or CTE model are obvious. It would drastically improve the inequality issue as we improve the majority of students—i.e., those that are struggling and those that are average performers (i.e., B or C level students) by giving them opportunities. Not every student needs to learn algebra II or trigonometry, and they need multiple pathways to succeed. Four-year colleges would be reserved for academically talented and/or motivated students. Furthermore, six-year programs would reduce student apathy and the dropout rate – a significant problem in the U.S.

The key, however, is to allow students and their families to decide which track they wish to go, rather than be assigned. Schools can provide counsel. That simple move will minimize problems associated with tracking (the practice of separating children according to ability), such as apathy and mobility.

European countries like Germany have long understood the importance of providing alternatives for students who are not academically inclined. But can we institutionalize them at a larger, and perhaps national, level? It seems we are starting to understand that accountability is not enough to prepare our students for the 21st century. The move to CTE and six-year high school models suggest we are beginning to understand the balance between individuality and the national economic wellbeing.

Common Core: The Conservative Dilemma

Common Core State StandardsThe Common Core State Standards is furthering a rift within the already embattled conservative party. For pro-business groups—who tend to lean toward de-regulation and other conservative, laissez-faire measures—the standards are essential to their interests and the long-term economic viability of their states. They believe high school students are not college- or career-ready, and that they need improve their reading, writing, STEM, and other business skills to compete in the 21st century. A national standard like the Common Core would begin to address this problem. For political and fiscal conservatives, on the other hand, the Common Core represents federal overreach into state matters. They also believe its quality is lacking, and that developers of these standards have not thought this through.

Both sides are jockeying for position. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is providing state chambers of commerce with tools to address opposition in their state, funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With their long-standing relationships, networks, and well-established resources, state chambers have the influence to sway state government leaders, state legislators, and state school chiefs to address what they consider a vital economic matter. Pro-business groups also have momentum, since 46 states (along with the District of Columbia) have adopted the Common Core. On the other end, Republican leaders are voicing some opposition. Many feel the pressure to roll back the Common Core or face repercussions from Tea Party activists. As such, the conservative base is facing a sensitive dilemma that could affect their party’s standing in the next election.

Right now, it appears the pro-business community’s arguments make more sense. The issue is consistency. Students who performs well in, say Mississippi, ought to do the same in Massachusetts—which has not been the case under No Child Left Behind. Their scores ought to reliably indicate the performance of U.S. students when compared with those in other countries. This foundation—or baseline—is critical to informing policy and instruction. Without it, we cannot know if policies and instruction are effective or if students are improving. The fact that the new Common Core is imperfect is not a reason to scrap it.

The bigger problem appears to be the politics. Despite the state-led, bipartisan collaboration among teachers, researchers, and other educators, the Common Core has become a toxic brand in the eyes of many Republicans. They associate it with the Obama’s administration and feel that any attempts to centralize control is un-American. “If we removed the ‘common core’ branding, it would defuse some of the issues,” according to a GOP candidate for state superintendent in Georgia. This “soft” protest suggests that political conservatives are not necessarily opposed to the Common Core principles, and that they are trying to move past the divisive elements undermining their recent support.

The Educated Society strives to evaluate issues based on a holistic perspective. As an educator who faces ongoing pressures from students, colleagues, administrators, and other interests, I continually ask myself: What is in the best interest of the students? The answer becomes obvious. In this case, we ought to streamline standards and allow states to pursue them in ways they feel is most appropriate. Students will know where they stand regardless of location. States keep their autonomy while the United States remains, well, united. Despite my mixed feelings about the Common Core, the principle behind it—that all children have clear, consistent learning expectations (no matter what part of the country)—is sound. We should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

What Can We Learn From the “One-Percent”?

gty_one_percent_rich_jp_111021_wgInstead of deriding the one percent as being out of touch with the rest of us, maybe we can learn something from them–like how to improve our children’s educational success. Dr. Sean Reardon, a Stanford professor of education and sociology, believes that high-income parents are enriching their children’s educational opportunities, from the day they are born, in ways that no school or teacher can duplicate. And he’s right. Improving teachers and schools are undoubtedly essential, but what really seems to make a difference is improving the quality of parenting, because they affect children’s earliest environments.

What brought about this conclusion? The widening income gap. Dr. Reardon believes that this troubling trend reflects a deeper issue. He points to the increasing gap in SAT scores between the rich (90th percentile of income distribution) and the poor (10th percentile) — from 90 points in 1980 to 125 points today, which is almost twice as large as the 70 point test score gap between black and white children.

Overall, schools actually do their part to help. Math scores on the NAEP tests (“the nation’s report card”), for example, have trended upwards over the past few decades (even though reading scores are much less impressive). In fact, schools generally narrow the rich-poor achievement gap during the nine months that students are in attendance. During the summer, however, the gap is magnified. Wealthy students engage in stimulating experiences like volunteering, camping, and traveling that are significantly better than those even in middle class! Those in poverty, of course, have almost none.

Because affluence has grown rapidly over the last few decades, “the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor,” according to Reardon. This includes not just in academics, but also in extracurricular activities like sports, volunteer work, and church attendance. All because high-income families focus their resources on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. Social scientists often refer to this phenomenon as the “Matthew effect” or the “multiplier effect,” where certain advantages are leveraged to gain even more advantages. The result is an insurmountable gap.

So in the end, the readiness of poor (and middle class) children, or the lack of opportunities, is the real issue. The implications? Policymakers should focus more on what high-income families are doing and duplicate these efforts for disadvantaged children. Reardon specifically recommends investing in parents and helping them be better teachers themselves, a theme The Educated Society has long embraced. Only when parents understand the importance of reading to their children, cooking healthier meals, and giving children diverse experiences can we even the playing field. This, of course, is a societal issue.

The problem arises when an individualistic society becomes reluctant to part with resources to help the less fortunate. The fortunate can sometimes forget that the less fortunate are partly victims of circumstances. For instance, how can poor parents know the benefits of reading to their kids if they’ve  never been read to? An individualistic society founded on the the Protestant work ethic and the Horatio Algiers story can afford to rely on individual gumption because they’ve been blessed with an environment that fosters it. Willpower is overrated. Losing weight or reducing crime, for the most part, is not due to higher levels of determination; but rather to the systems and supports in place that foster progress. In other words, we need to create the right culture. That’s why creating a culture of education should be be our highest priority.

In the absence of this culture, “pockets of excellence” exists that are unsustainable. Duplicating what the “one-percent” do (e.g., focusing resources on child’s development and educational success) by creating systems that build parental capacity  will lead to lasting change. I’m curious to see what will become of President Obama’s early childhood initiatives.

The Impact of Demographics on 21st Century Education

This article was originally published in Society (May/June 2013, Vol. 50, Issue 3). The final publication is available at link.springer.comSocietyCover-MayJune2013

The National Academy of Sciences’ (2007) report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, called for more scientific and technical innovation to maintain America’s economic growth and vitality. Countless other reports over the past few decades have all called for more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, culminating in President Obama’s “this is our generation’s sputnik moment” speech at the 2011 State of the Union. The more STEM knowledge students gain, the more prepared they will be for the 21st century knowledge-based economy, the thinking goes.

STEM jobs, however, account for a mere 5 % of all U.S. jobs, which suggest that prudent allocation of resources is a principle consideration. Do all students need STEM education or should it be focused primarily on the mathematically and scientifically inclined? Here, demographics may hold the key to such questions from which a 21st century education model should be based on.

The Importance of Demographics

Simply, demographics tell us what issues we are dealing with and what kind of society we are becoming. For instance, a higher population of immigrants suggests the need to increase bilingual education. A shrinking middle class precipitates growing inequality and radicalism. Graying baby boomers spurs higher government spending in Medicare. Thus, a better understanding of demographics helps us address employment opportunities and problems by matching supply with demand.

In the case of STEM education, policymakers can logically consider one of two strategies: The “quantitative” approach seeks just to expand the number of scientists and engineers by requiring compulsory STEM education for all students (i.e., providing some STEM for all); whereas the “qualitative” approach strives to optimize STEM development for only the mathematically and scientifically-inclined student segment. Researchers from The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (2010) believed that this “all STEM for some” approach is more feasible, efficient and equitable. Although education needs to produce certain skills to work in the information society, most students will not need calculus or physics knowledge for their work. Again, it’s a question of matching the supply and demand of skills.

Educators should to take a cue from other industries and learn to respect the inherent differences in their markets. Industries such as entertainment, food, and apparel develop targeted communications plans to consider the diverse inclinations, mindset, and values of specific demographics (such as ethnicity, gender, and age) in order to increase patronage. Advertisers in particular are widely known to cater to their “target audience,” oftentimes by collecting demographic and financial information from product warranties, banks, and credit card agencies.

Politicians likewise craft distinct messages that might target by geography (swing states), religion (the Christian vote), political view (Tea Party), lobbies (meat industry), and of course, ethnicity (the Hispanic vote) when running for public office. In this way, many industries recognize that groups are more receptive when you respect their distinctiveness and address their particular needs. It’s actually the most democratic approach.

However, this differentiated model has curiously eluded the education industry. Though it adjusts services for certain groups (e.g., special education students, bilingual students), education still primarily follows an outdated “one-size-fits-all” approach, ignoring vast differences, abilities, and interests. Forcing all students to take abstract subjects such as algebra may do more harm than good if they lead to sustained apathy and dropout; contextualizing mathematical reasoning would be a better solution. In the highly specialized world of the information society, educators must get to know their “target audience” and how to accommodate students’ varying abilities in order to optimize receptivity and potential. Only through this recognition will educators be able to develop students whose skills match employers’ demands.

Two interrelated demographic segments in particular illuminate the importance of the differentiated model and have critical implications for the 21st century knowledge-based economy: 1) The cognitive class; and 2) highly skilled immigrants, particularly those from Asia. In light of emerging research, the analysis of both groups reveals the folly of a standardized and homogenized education model, and attempts to shed light on a new educational paradigm.

The Cognitive Class

The cognitive class, also known as the intellectual class, the smart fraction, the creative class or the gifted & talented, is not a traditionally recognized demographic segment such as immigrants, Latinos, or women. In education for the 21st century knowledge economy, however, recognizing this group is critically important.

Research has shown that a person’s mental ability has a significant and positive relationship with income and educational attainment (Heckman et al. 2006; Ng et al. 2005; Scullin et al. 2000). On an individual level, it functions to open the doors of opportunity and to solve problems by increasing insight, foresight and rationality that result in proximal consequences like higher quality work and better health (Rindermann 2008; Rindermann and Thompson 2011) as well as social skills and emotional intelligence.

On an aggregate level, cognitive ability has an enor- mous impact on economic growth, according to an emerging class of economists and cognitive science re- searchers. Lynn and Vanhanen (2002) revealed three major insights in a seminal study that collected data from 81 countries: 1) national IQ correlated significantly with per capita gross domestic product (GDP) (r = .62); 2) IQ was similarly correlated with economic growth (r = .64); and 3) nations’ IQs differed widely, with East Asian countries like Japan (IQ = 105) and South Korea (106) scoring high, and sub-Saharan African countries like South Africa (72) and Ghana (71) scoring low.

Although Lynn and Vanhanen’s data drew wide scru- tiny for its methodological limitations and racial impli- cations, numerous studies have since confirmed the overall IQ-productivity relationship (e.g., Jones and Schneider 2010; Hunt and Wittman 2008; Hanushek and Woessmann 2009). Lynn and Vanhanen (2006) and Rindermann (2007) further reinforced the validity of national IQ by associating it with international tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), with an r ranging from .80 to .90. Apparently, mathematical, scientific, and verbal abilities are suitable proxies for IQ.

However, rather than focus on the average cognitive ability of a nation, several contemporaries have centered on the academic elite known as the cognitive class. Studies demonstrate that the IQ and test scores of those within the top ten percentile had a decisive effect on GDP and STEM achievement compared with national IQ (Gelade 2008; Rindermann and Thompson 2011). STEM achievement was determined by four indicators: 1) The number of patents per million; 2) Nobel Prizes in science related to population size; 3) the number of scientists and engineers per million; and 4) the rate of high-technology exports as a percentage of manufacturing exports.

In concrete terms, Rindermann and Thompson (2011) discovered that an increase of one IQ point per person in the intellectual class raises average per capita GDP by US $468 compared with only $229 by those from the mean group. Assuming that 5 % of the 55 million pubic school students are considered gifted and talented (G&T), then each additional increase in IQ points for the G&T students would add almost $1.3 billion to the GDP. From another perspective, Hanushek and Woessmann’s (2009) calculations suggested that the top 5 % of students who increased their international scores by ten percentage points would have over four times greater impact on a nation’s annual economic growth compared with those at the basic literacy level (1.3 vs. 0.3 percentage point annual growth, respectively).

Taken together, these studies suggest that the current lack of investment in academically high-potential students, particularly in the STEM fields, will have consequences for the U.S. economy. NCLB’s current focus on low-achievers is admirable but outdated in a global and technological world. More resources are needed to accurately identify and rigorously develop academically high potential students, especially those who may have certain disadvantages such as a language barrier.

Highly Skilled Immigrants: H-1B Visa Program, Patent Rates, and Start-ups

Immigrants who have shown high cognitive abilities, particularly those with technical STEM skills, can significantly im- pact America’s knowledge-based economy. No program in the U.S. is more indicative of the federal push for 21st century STEM skills than the H-1B visa program, authorized under the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1990 to increase the inflow of highly skilled “guest workers” from abroad.

The questionable design of the program, however, frus- trates private employers who need far more skilled workers than the program supplies. Firms are limited to 85,000 visas per year despite the fact that they comprise 90 % of all requests in 2010–2011 (universities, which comprise only 10 %, remain uncapped). The annual supply of visas is usually exhausted in months or even weeks; in pre- recession 2007, it took only 2 days (see Table 1). Jilted employers have no choice but to wait until the following year to reapply. As a result, researchers at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute (2012) have urged policymakers to create a nonpartisan H-1B advisory panel that can recommend annual adjustments to the cap level based on: 1) labor market conditions to identify skills short- ages; and 2) demographic needs that address local demand.


Patenting rates are another economic indicator of STEM innovation. Highly skilled foreign inventors are increasingly playing crucial roles in cutting-edge research (particularly those in American universities) by developing groundbreaking products and services that create jobs for American workers. A revealing report by the Partnership for a New American Economy (2012) found that over three-quarters of STEM-related patents awarded to the top ten patent-producing universities in 2011 had foreign-born inventors. Among all institutions, foreign-created patents increased 337 % from 1998 to 2006 (7.6 % to 26 %, respectively) (Wadhwa et al. 2007a). Most of them originated from California by far, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Texas. No doubt economically vibrant metropolitan areas and renowned universities both play a large role.

Hand in hand with immigrants’ patent contribution in America is their entrepreneurial presence. From 1995 to 2005, foreigners founded one-quarter of all U.S. engineering and technology companies; in Silicon Valley, it was over half (Wadhwa et al. 2007b). When counting all senior man- agement, the proportion was even higher. The largest percentage of these immigrant-founded start-ups was specifically in semiconductors (35 %), followed by computers/communications (32 %), software (28 %), innovation/manufacturing-related services (which included electronics, computer and hardware design and engineering services) (26 %), and bioscience (20 %); see Fig. 1. Based on these figures, it is clear that immigrants’ entrepreneurial involvement in the STEM fields is likely to trend upward in the foreseeable future.

Fig. 1 Immigrant Breakdown of Immigrant Founded Companies. Note: Key Founder refers to President/Chief Executive Officer or the head of development/Chief Technology Officer. Source: Wadhwa et al. (2007b)

Fig. 1 Immigrant Breakdown of Immigrant Founded Companies. Note: Key Founder refers to President/Chief Executive Officer or the head of development/Chief Technology Officer. Source: Wadhwa et al. (2007b)

The biggest obstacle, apparently, is that current immigration policies make it difficult for highly skilled knowledge workers to secure work in the U.S. after they get degrees. One such policy is the aforementioned restriction on the H-1B visas, influenced largely by critics who fear the loss of American jobs to foreigners. Yet emerging research confirms that highly skilled foreigners actually support American jobs. For example, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Partnership for a New American Economy (2011) found that every additional foreign-born worker in STEM fields with advanced degrees from a U.S. institution is associated with an additional 2.62 American jobs. Kerr and Lincoln (2010) discovered that growth in H-1B employment was associated with increased total employment in science and engineering. Additionally, other researchers claimed that immigrant-founded companies actually created 450,000 jobs from 1995 to 2005 (Wadhwa et al. 2007b).

Another barrier for immigrant workers and students is the lack of opportunities once their visas expire. In fact, obtaining work visas was the largest concern expressed by 85 % of Indians and Chinese and 72 % of European nationals currently studying in U.S. higher education institutions (Wadhwa et al. 2009). The stay rate of foreign doctoral recipients has generally been high (though varying widely among countries), but it has also declined among those with temporary visas (Finn 2007). This burdensome process is precisely why only 6 % of Indian, 10 % of Chinese, and 15 % of European students would like to stay permanently. Along with a sizable undecided population, this group is rapidly turning to alternative options. Vivek Wadhwa, the director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, describes how other countries are attracting these students:

If a tech start-up wants to launch in Chile, the government rolls out the red carpet. Entrepreneurs get $40,000 grants, free office space, and expedited visa clearance. There are no strings attached—provided the entrepreneur relocates to Chile and spends at least 6 months launching his or her idea. Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, and Singapore all offer variations on this theme as part of aggressive efforts to recruit entrepre- neurs. For its part, the Chinese government has pursued a particularly aggressive effort that includes awarding coveted city residency passes, free ownership of apartments, prestigious university posts, and outright cash grants to highly skilled returnees. Contrast this with Silicon Valley, where many foreign-born entrepreneurs spend a considerable amount of time, energy, and money worrying about their immigrant status and the whims of the Department of Homeland Security. (Wadhwa 2012)

Clearly, U.S. policies must not only welcome foreign talent, but also find ways to keep them in order to prevent a reverse brain drain. This includes: 1) loosening (or removing) H-1B visa cap restrictions for highly skilled workers; 2) supplying more grants, living residences, and research- or university-based positions; and 3) providing incentives, such as a fast-track residency program for both immigrants who graduate with an advanced degree in science and engineering and those who launch technology companies. Solutions as these would be similar to the DREAM Act, but for skilled—as opposed to undocumented—immigrants; yet implementation is predicated on the nation’s ability to recognize its uniquely diverse demographic advantages. If it cannot, America would be committing what New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has called a form of “national suicide.”

The 2012 Pew Study: The Rise of the Asian-American Immigrant Demographic

Unsurprisingly, a significant portion of highly skilled immigrants comes from Asia. They are granted three-quarters of all H-1B visas, for instance, with China and India alone accounting for 64 %. Even so, such findings tell only a fraction of an emerging trend, according to the Pew Research Center’s (2012) newest study, The Rise of Asian Americans. Asian Americans, the bulk of whom trace their roots to six countries—China, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam, are standing out as a select group, leading all other racial groups in population growth, income, and education in the United States.

Representing 6.2 % of the total U.S. population (as of 2011), the Asian population (including mixed race Asians) grew 46 % over the past decade and surpassed Hispanics as the fastest growing immigrant group in 2010. Although the Latino immigration rate has slowed significantly since the middle of last decade, those from Asia have continued to gain—quintupling from 1980 (3.6 million) to 2011 (18.2 million). Asian immigrants also accounted for 36 % (430,000) of new immigrants—those coming between 2007 and 2010—compared with 31 % who were Hispanic (370,000). Based on the most recent U.S. Census Bureau’s (2008a, b) population projections, growth (or percentage change) for both groups will far outpace Blacks and whites by 2050; see Table 2. By then, it is estimated that Asians will number over 43 million and make up almost 10 % of the total U.S. population. The growth rate of whites will decline in comparison, going from 81 % of the population in 2010 to just about 77 % in 2050. If excluding mixed-race whites, they represented 64.7 % in 2010 and will steadily decline over the next four decades to 46.3 %. By 2050, whites in the U.S. will be the minority population.


The Asians’ level of growth is compounded by certain economic advantages. For one, Asian immigrants have a much lower undocumented rate compared to Latinos (approximately 15 % vs. 45 %, respectively). Also, Asian immigrants are notably more likely than other groups to be admitted with employment visas (27 % received green cards based on employer sponsorship, compared with 8 % of other immigrants). Most importantly, their median household income ($66,000) exceeds other groups, including whites ($54,000), even when adjusted for household size differences; see Fig. 2. Their median household wealth, or sum of assets, also eclipses the median U.S. population ($83,500 vs. $68,529), although they still lag far behind whites ($112,000). Despite outperforming whites in income, Asians have a lower net worth as a result of immigration restrictions prior to 1965 that hindered long-term asset accumulation. No doubt that gap will shrink significantly by 2050.

Fig. 2 Median Household Income, 2010. Note: Asians include mixed-race Asian population, regardless of Hispanic origin. Whites and Blacks include only non-Hispanics. Hispanics are of any race. House-hold income is based on householders ages 18 and older; race and ethnicity are based on those of household head. Source: Pew Research Center analysis of 2010 American Community Survey, Integrated Public Use Microdata Sample (IPUMS) files, Pew Research Center (2012)

Fig.2 Median Household Income, 2010. Note: Asians include mixed-race Asian population, regardless of Hispanic origin. Whites and Blacks include only non-Hispanics. Hispanics are of any race. House-hold income is based on householders ages 18 and older; race and ethnicity are based on those of household head. Source: Pew Research Center analysis of 2010 American Community Survey, Integrated Public Use Microdata Sample (IPUMS) files, Pew Research Center (2012)

Such economic advantages are, in turn, due to the high overall level of education; almost half of Asians in the U.S. have at least a bachelor’s degree compared with 28 % of the general population. Among recent Asian immigrant adults, the percent is even higher: practically two-thirds who im- migrated between 2007 and 2010 were enrolled in college or graduate school, or held a college degree (see Fig. 3). Based on this trend, the education gap between Asians and other minorities will likely remain or widen unless current reforms are reimagined.

For now, overrepresentation is probably the most fitting description characterizing this ambitious demographic, especially within higher education. Asian Americans constitute 60 % of all foreign students in U.S. educational institutions. Within STEM fields, both foreign- and native- born Asian students disproportionately hold advanced U.S. degrees in 2010: A quarter of the 48,069 research doctorates granted at U.S. institutions; almost half of all engineering Ph.D.s, 38 % of math and computer science doctorates; one-third of physical sciences doctorates; one-quarter of life science Ph.D.s; and almost one in five social sciences doctorates. Predictably, two-thirds of the Intel Science high school finalists in 2011 were of Asian heritage. Many finalists and winners of this talent search have subsequently won Nobel Prizes, MacArthur and Sloan research fellowships, or been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. They have been the key to keeping the United States competitive with China and India.

Fig. 3 Education Characteristics of Recent Immigrants, by Race and Ethnicity, 2010. Source: Pew Research Center analysis of 2010 Amer- ican Community Survey, Integrated Public Use of Microdata Sample (IPUMS) files, Pew Research Center (2012)

Fig. 3 Education Characteristics of Recent Immigrants, by Race and Ethnicity, 2010. Source: Pew Research Center analysis of 2010 Amer- ican Community Survey, Integrated Public Use of Microdata Sample (IPUMS) files, Pew Research Center (2012)

Undergirding their economic and educational edge is a distinctive culture that strongly values marriage, parent-hood, hard work, and career success. The Pew survey reveals that Asians do in fact place the highest priorities on: 1) being a good parent (three-quarters of Asian-Americans vs. 50 % of the general public); and 2) marriage (54 % say that having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in life, compared with only 34 % of all American adults); see Fig. 4. As a result, they are more likely to be married (59 % vs. 51 % U.S. total), less likely to be an unmarried mother (16 % vs. 41 %), and their children are more likely than all American children to be raised in a household with two married parents (80 % vs. 63 %). Along with a larger than average household, this stability coincides with middle class values and creates a strong network of support for children’s growth and learning.

Hard work and success also rate highly among Asian Americans: 93 % believed that “[Asian] Americans from my country of origin group are very hardworking,” compared with only 57 % who thought that Americans are very hardworking. Perhaps no other book captured the stereotype of strict parenting more popularly than Yale law professor Amy Chua’s (2011) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she unapologetically opined why “Chinese mothers are superior.” In it, Chua extolled the virtues of authoritarian parenting where overriding children’s preferences was crucial in getting them to practice harder and longer to become better at what they are doing. Asian parents are more demanding because they “assume strength, not fragility” in their child, unlike American parents who constantly agonize over their child’s psyche, according to Chua. Results from the Pew survey appear to support her parenting model, with six-in-ten Asian Americans finding American parents put too little pressure on their children to succeed in school (only 9 % said the same about Asian-American parents). Interestingly, nearly four-in-ten Asian Americans also agree that Asian parents put too much pressure on their children.

Fig. 4 Life Goals and Priorities: Asian Americans vs. General Public. Source: Pew Research Center (2012): Asi-American Survey. Q19 a- g. General public results from January 2010 survey by the Pew Re- search Center. The question wording varied slightly from one survey to the other

Fig4aAsians’ Academic Proficiency

Educators and policymakers are well aware of Asian’s over-all academic proficiency at the school level. Out of all ethnic groups, Asians had the highest percentage of students who were proficient (a score of 3 or 4) on state tests in 2008: 83 % of 4th and 8th graders were proficient in reading; whereas for math, 88 % in 4th Grade, 86 % in 8th grade, and 81 % in high school were deemed at least competent (Center for Education Policy, 2010); see Table 3. Only in high school reading did the same portion of whites score proficiently (78 %). Asians even outperformed whites in 29 out of 34 states in math state tests at the advanced level, representing a median of 46 % in the advanced category, compared with whites at 36 %. A significant gap between Asian/Whites and African American/Latinos exists across all levels, widening particularly in 8th grade and high school math. This plight has troubling implications for the 21st century economy if America’s education model rests on a one-size-fits-all approach.

Table3In addition, Asian students are overrepresented among the gifted and talented (G&T). Asians make up only 5 % of the total primary and secondary public school population but comprise 9.4 % of the G&T population (Office of Civil Rights 2006). Representation can be measured by comparing the percent of students in programs for G&T relative to their proportion in the overall student population, with 1.0 a perfect proportionate representation. Asian students are overrepresented compared to white students in G&T programs (see Fig. 5), despite being outnumbered in total. It is possible that the percentage would be even higher if gifted and talented English language learners (i.e., limited in understanding English) were also included.

Fig5Asians’ STEM Contributions

High growth, income, and education certainly suggest significant potential, but do not necessarily reveal impact. The Pew study showed that Asians earned a disproportionate number of degrees in science, technology, engineering and math as well as of H-1B visas, but actual economic and intellectual contributions are needed to prove the value of demographic characteristics as the basis for a reimagined education model. Within the engineering and technology fields, for example, Asians—especially Chinese and Indian—are a driving force behind entrepreneurship and intellectual property that directly impact America’s GDP.

In terms of immigrant-founded businesses, the four largest immigrant groups came from India, the U.K., China, and Taiwan (Wadhwa et al. 2007b). However, Asian nations comprised half of the top ten nations whose immigrants founded engineering and technology (E&T) companies. In particular, Indians were key founders of 26 % of E&T start-ups from 1995 to 2005. In fact, they dominated the entrepreneurial arena among immigrant-founded businesses—more than those from the next four nationalities combined (see Fig. 6). Their growth, as illustrated in Silicon Valley, outpaced every other immigrant group over the past twenty years: Indian-led businesses in Silicon Valley more than doubled (from 7 % to 15.5 %) between 1995 and 2005, whereas Chinese-led tech companies declined from 17 % in 1998 (Saxenian 1999) to 12.8 % in 2005.

Fig. 6 Birthplace of Engineering and Technology Immigrant Founders. Source: Wadhwa et al. (2007b)

Fig. 6 Birthplace of Engineering and Technology Immigrant Founders. Source: Wadhwa et al. (2007b)

Aside from founding engineering and technology companies, Asians also played a significant role in other STEM fields. Whereas Fig. 1 displayed the contributions of immigrants as a whole in each industry, Table 4 compares the influence between Asia and Europe.

Workers from Asia represent the largest portion in four out of the five immigrant-founded STEM industries listed above. Those from India, in particular, stand out significantly, founding more companies in the innovation/manufacturing-related services sector (24 %) than those from all of the European nations combined (19 %). Indian immigrants also dwarf those from other Asian nations, including Japan (7 %) and China (6 %). As a reference point, the next highest non-Asian nation was the U.K. (6 %).

Table4The biosciences field was more evenly distributed. Indians, Germans, and Koreans each accounted for 10 % of immigrant-founded start-ups, and British, French, and Israeli immigrants each contributing 6 %. In total, those from Asia and Europe represented 32 % and 37 %, respectively.

Within both the computers/communications and the semiconductors industry, workers from China, Taiwan, and India were overrepresented. They accounted for over half of all immigrant start-ups in the former and 40 % in the latter. Overall, the percentage of Asian immigrant-founders in the computer industry (63 %) and semiconductors industry (55 %) was more than triple that of Europeans (20 % and 15 %, respectively).

Finally, in the software industry, Indians alone dom- inated immigrants from all other nations, founding 34 % of all new businesses. Their rate was almost four times the next highest group, the British (9 %). Asians overall founded twice as many start-ups as those from Europe (48 % vs. 24 %).

Intellectual property, in the form of patents, is another concrete measure of STEM innovation. Data from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), which measures domestic patenting activity, revealed a steadily increasing rate among Asian residents over a thirty- year period (Foley and Kerr 2012). Chinese and Indian patenting activity, for example, accounted for merely 5.3 % from 1975 to 1982, but by the 2000 to 2004 period, their share increased three-fold to almost 17 %. In contrast, patenting among ethnic whites has declined over the same period. Those of white Americans, who own the lion’s share of patents in the U.S., fell 16 % (from 81 % to 68 %). Innovators from Europe saw patenting activity fall even more sharply at 25 % (from 8.3 % to 6.2 %); see Fig. 7.

Fig7Though the number of patents filed through the USPTO is crucial to many corporations, international patenting rates filed through the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) have become the standard measure of global relevance. Out of the 130,000 international patent cooperation treaty (PCT) applications filed in the U.S. in 2006, almost one-third was by either Chinese/Taiwanese (16.8 %) or Indian (13.7 %) inventors, followed by Canadians and British (Wadhwa et al. 2007b). The three-fold increase from 1998 (when Chinese and Indian immigrants combined had only 10.8 % of PCT applications) practically mirrors the growth recorded by the USPTO over three decades. However, their larger presence in the international stage of intellectual property suggests that Asians play a real and significant role in America’s global economy. When combined with their entrepreneurial growth in STEM industries, the Asian emergence underscores the important role of demographics in education reform.

The Call for Genuine Equity and Excellence Based on Differentiated Abilities

Acknowledging the rise of Asian immigrants or the impact of the smart fraction is in no way meant to suggest any inherent abilities that other groups lack; in fact, many immigrants from Southeast Asian countries face much of the same poverty and low achievement as American minorities. However, with all the data on the economic contribution of highly skilled immigrants and the intellectual class, it is nonetheless easy to dismiss these findings as elitist or even racist. In fact, it is merely acknowledging what parents, teachers, and others have long known to be true: that individuals have wide ranging abilities, inclinations, and interests, and that various factors—fairly or unfairly—contribute to these gaps.

Progressive thinkers are understandably reluctant, however, to promulgate any kind of differentiated development in light of historical oppression and man’s imperfect nature. As a result, modern policies become captive to the unwavering push for “equality” at the expense of bona fide excellence, as demonstrated by the declining proficiency standards in public school tests and in higher education. Marketers and politicians, in this way, have it easier; they aren’t held to the same equity imperatives that educators are. Certain groups—like big donors—simply matter more to political candidates than others. For advertisers, addressing the different wants and needs of suburban moms or the millennial generation is fairly straightforward; yet with education, coming to grips with differences in mental abilities is far more difficult to accept.

Curiously, some interpretations about abilities and outcomes are widely embraced. Cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner’s (1983) research, for example, suggests that people have differing abilities and should play to their strengths; yet, because they are couched in progressive terms like “multiple intelligences,” his message is celebrat- ed. Scientist Jared Diamond (1997) used geographic features—a country’s latitude, its proximity to the sea, and its agricultural hospitality—to explain the political and economic preeminence of Eurasian countries like the U.K. or Japan, compared to Tanzania, for instance. His book became a popular bestseller. Social psychologist Richard Nisbett (2003) credited the intertwining of differing geographies with ecology, social structure, philosophy, and educational systems to explain profound cognitive differences between westerners and East Asians. On the whole, Nisbett’s conclusions are widely accepted.

Regardless of America’s wide discomfort to recognize differing abilities, inequality in the outcomes of schooling is a function of the natural inequality of talent among people (Ornstein 1977), due to the different mental patterns and thinking processes that are shaped by both genetics and environmental forces. Demographic patterns, as research has shown, illustrate and sometimes magnify these differences. They should thus be considered when reimagining a more equitable education paradigm. The answer is not to try to equalize math or verbal or artistic abilities as characterized by the “Education For All” initiative (UNESCO 2005); rather, the solution lies in differentiating the curriculum to meet different individual and group interests and abilities, as other industries have already recognized.

First, a reframed education paradigm should embrace the differentiated model that can optimize students’ talents and interests in different areas. Developing one’s athletic, cognitive, or artistic capabilities will not only lead to personal self-fulfillment, but also to significant contributions for so- ciety. For example, policies need to de-emphasize the current “STEM coursework for all” approach, which allocates limited resources to the vast majority of students who will never go into STEM jobs. Instead, the emphasis should be on promoting an “all STEM for some” approach—recruiting and developing STEM skills of only interested and capable students, including high-potential immigrants. Allocating resources to those with artistic or athletic talent has long been accepted, so why not for the cognitively gifted and talented?

Next, identification and development must start early. As much as 50 % of potential learning is developed by age four, another 25 % by age nine, and the remaining 25 % by age seventeen, according to Bloom (1964). This suggests that allocation of resources must be mainly focused in early childhood and primary grades. It also suggests that G&T students be homogeneously grouped, which some critics might question as elitist or discriminatory.

Third, there must be honest recognition that mathematical, verbal, and spatial skills are more prized in a knowledge-based economy. The problem is the “misbegotten, pernicious, wrong-headed idea that not going to college means you’re a failure” (Murray 2008, p. 150). This does not mean that those with limited cognitive abilities cannot contribute, merely that the academic track may not be an appropriate or desirable use of one’s time and resources. Instead, policymakers should expand niche secondary education services to meet employer demand.

For example, a knowledge-based economy also needs employees with basic and middle skills to implement the innovation strategies developed by scientists in a mutually enforcing way (Hanushek and Woessmann 2009; Autor et al. 2006). These positions have been called “middle-skill jobs”—those such as computer support, back office work in financial and healthcare companies, auto repair using computer diagnostic equipment—many of which requires more than a high school degree but not necessarily a traditional college degree. High school students who pursue the vocational track or 21st century career and technical education (CTE) programs like SkillsUSA, YearUp, and ITT will have the sought-after middle skills that have separate but complementary effects on economic growth.

The Road Ahead

The current school reform model, based on equality, is well intentioned and politically correct, but an antiquated solu- tion for unleashing innovation since it ignores inherent demographic differences. In fact, Gardner (1995) suggests that: “Extreme egalitarianism…which ignores differences in native capacity and achievement, has not served democracy well. Carried far enough, it means…the end of striving for excellence which has produced mankind’s greatest achievement.” The implication is to develop capabilities at all levels, otherwise we will be left with mismatched skills that result in what Uchitelle (2006) calls “disposable Americans,” those caught in the cycle of unemployment and underemployment. However, developing the differing abilities of individuals, whether it is cognitive or physical, is the ultimate realization of Gardner’s theme and the only ethical way to allow for true human dignity.

Further Reading

American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Partnership for a New American Economy. 2011. Immigration and American Jobs. Washington DC: Madeline Zavodny. Re- trieved from http://www.renewoureconomy.org/sites/all/themes/ pnae/img/NAE_Im-AmerJobs.pdf.

Autor, D., Katz, L., & Kearney, M. 2006. The polarization of the U.S. labor market. American Economic Review, 96(2), 189–194.

Bloom, B. 1964. Stability and change in human characteristics. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Center on Education Policy (CEP). 2010. Policy implications of trends for Asian American students. Washington, DC: Nancy Kober.

Chua, A. 2011. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin Press.

Diamond, J. 1997. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Finn, M. 2007. Stay rates of foreign doctorate recipients From U.S. Universities, 2005. Oak Ridge: Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Retrieved from http://orise.orau.gov/files/sep/ stay-rates-foreign-doctorate-recipients-2005.pdf.

Foley, C., & Kerr, W. 2012. Ethnic innovation and U.S. multinational firm activity (HBS Working Paper 12-006). Cambridge: Harvard Business School. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/ papers.cfm?abstract_id=1911295.

Gardner, H. 1983. Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, J. 1995. Excellence: Can we be equal and excellent too? (Revised ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Gelade, G. 2008. IQ, cultural values, and the technological achievement of nations. Intelligence, 36, 711–718.

Hanushek, E., and Woessmann, L. 2009. Do better schools lead to more growth? Cognitive skills, economic outcomes, and causa- tion (Discussion Paper No. 4575). Retrieved from Institute for the Study of Labor Web site: http://ftp.iza.org/dp4575.pdf.

Heckman, J., Stixrud, J., & Urzua, S. 2006. The effects of cognitive and non-cognitive abilities on labor market outcomes and social behavior. Journal of Labor Economics, 24, 411–482.

Hunt, E., & Wittman, W. 2008. National intelligence and national prosperity. Intelligence, 36, 1–9.

Jones, G., & Schneider, W. 2010. IQ in the production function: Evidence from immigrant earnings. Economic Inquiry, 48(3), 743–755.

Kerr, W., & Lincoln, W. 2010. The supply side of innovation: H-1B visa reforms and US ethnic innovation (Revised version of HBS Working Paper 09-005). Cambridge: Harvard Business School. Retrieved from http://www.people.hbs.edu/wkerr/Kerr_Lincoln_ JOLE3_H1B_Paper.pdf.

Lynn, R., & Vanhanen, T. 2002. IQ and wealth of nations. Westport: Praeger Publishers.

Lynn, R., & Vanhanen, T. 2006. IQ and global inequality. Augusta: Washington Summit Publishers.

Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. 2012. The search for skills: Demand for H1-B immigrant workers in U.S. metropolitan areas. Washington, DC: Neil G. Ruiz, Jill H. Wilson, and Shyamali Choudhury.

Murray, C. 2008. Real education: Four simple truths for bringing America’s schools back to reality. New York: Three Rivers Press.

National Academy of Sciences. 2007. Rising above the gathering storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu.

Ng, T. W. H., Eby, L. T., Sorensen, K. L., & Feldman, D. C. 2005. Predictors of objective and subjective career success: A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 58, 367–408.

Nisbett, R. 2003. The geography of thought: How Asians and westerners think differently…and why. New York: Free Press.

Office for Civil Rights. 2006. Civil rights data collection. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http:// ocrdata.ed.gov/StateNationalEstimations/projections_2006.

Ornstein, A. 1977. An introduction to the foundations of education. Chicago: Rand McNally College Publishing Company.

Partnership for a New American Economy. 2012. Patent pending: How immigrants are reinventing the American economy. Washington DC. Retrieved from http://www.renewoureconomy.org/index.php? q=patent-pending

Pew Research Center. 2012. The rise of Asian Americans. Washington, DC: Paul Taylor (Ed.).

Rindermann, H. 2007. The g-factor of international cognitive ability comparisons: The homogeneity of results in PISA, TIMMSS, PIRLS and IQ-tests across nations. European Journal of Personality, 21(5), 667–706.

Rindermann, H. 2008. Relevance of education and intelligence at the national level for the economic welfare of people. Intelligence, 36, 127–142.

Rindermann, H., & Thompson, J. 2011. Cognitive capitalism: The effect of cognitive ability on wealth, as mediated through scien- tific achievement and economic freedom. Psychological Science, 22(6), 754–763.

Rindermann, H., Sailer, M., & Thompson, J. 2009. The impact of smart fractions, cognitive ability of politicians and average competence of peoples on social development. Talent Development & Excellence, 1(1), 3–25.

Saxenian, A. 1999. Silicon Valley’s new immigrant entrepreneurs. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California. Retrieved from http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_699ASR.pdf.

Scullin, M. H., Peters, E., Williams, W. W., & Ceci, S. J. 2000. The role of IQ and education in predicting later labor market outcomes. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 6, 63–89.

The Innovation Technology and Innovation Foundation. 2010. Refueling the U.S. innovation economy: Fresh approaches to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Washington, DC: Robert D. Atkinson and Merrilea Mayo.

U.S. Census Bureau (Population Division). 2008a. Table 4. Projections of the Population by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin for the United States: 2010 to 2050 (NP2008-T4). Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/population/www/projections/summarytables.html

U.S. Census Bureau (Population Division). 2008b. Table 6. Percent of the Projected Population by Race and Hispanic Origin for the United States: 2010 to 2050 (NP2008-T6). Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/population/www/projections/summarytables.html

Uchitelle, L. 2006. The disposable American: Layoffs and their consequences. New York: Knopf.

UNESCO. 2005. Education for all: The quality imperative, EFA global monitoring report. Paris: UNESCO.

Wadhwa, V. 2012. Insourcing. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/07/10/insourcing

Wadhwa, V., Jasso, G., Rissing, B., Gereffi, G., and Freeman, R. 2007a. Intellectual property, the immigration backlog, and a re- verse brain drain: America’s new immigrant entrepreneurs, Part III. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1008366 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1008366

Wadhwa, V., Saxenian, A., Rissing, B., and Gereffi, G., 2007b. America’s new Immigrant entrepreneurs: Part I. Duke Science, Technology & Innovation Paper No. 23. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=990152 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ ssrn.990152

Wadhwa, V., Saxenian, A., Freeman, R., and Salkever, A. 2009. Losing the world’s best and brightest: America’s new immigrant entre- preneurs, Part V. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract= 1362012

Book Review. The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City.


This article was originally published in Education and Urban Society (Jan. 2013, Vol 45, Number 1, pp. 163-165). 

Who owns public goods? Conventional wisdom supposes that tax-paying citizens do, via the stewardship of elected officials. Education, housing, and transportation all fall into this category and are thus considered nonexcludable (no one can be effectively excluded from use) and nonrivalrous (use by one does not reduce availability to others). As such, ownership demands equal right and access to such goods, regardless of wealth and status.

The answer becomes less clear, however, when private companies step in to help cash-strapped municipalities maintain the quality of public goods. In theory, these public–private partnerships get the best of both worlds: local officials secure much needed financing or management expertise, and private firms gain status and goodwill in helping students academically achieve. Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately managed, epitomize this relationship and have proliferated immensely over the past decade, espe- cially in failing urban districts and natural disaster zones like New Orleans. If their goal is to prepare all students for college, shouldn’t we do all that we can to increase private intervention?

According to Pauline Lipman, professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois–Chicago, the answer is an unequivocal no. She asserts in her book, The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City, that when you orient society toward economic goals, then urban development is seen as a private good that will add value to better compete in the labor market, as opposed to a social good that actualizes individual potential. Consequently, these goods become subject to market forces and managerial governance. The goal is no less than the accumulation of capital and power by the middle and upper class, which, needless to say, comes at the expense of the underclass who most rely on public goods.

Lipman examines these critical issues through the lens of neoliberalism, a political movement advocating economic liberalization, free trade, and open markets. By supporting the privatization of social goods and social enter- prises, the deregulation of markets, and the promotion of private sector’s role in society, neoliberal policies aim to make institutions and services more effective and efficient—usually resulting in the withdrawal of government from provision of social welfare. Lipman uses Chicago—the “zone of experimentation”—as the case study, similar to what she had done in her 2004 book, High Stakes Education. Though her new book neglects certain key supports and actionable solutions, Lipman incisively analyzes the dynamic interplay of neoliberal urban policy, gentrification, and racial dis- placement of the African American and Latino underclass.

For instance, Lipman cites the local government use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and public–private partnerships to facilitate market-driven urban development (the US$1.6 billion Plan for Transformation to overhaul public housing) under the Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE IV) Act. It called for revitalizing distressed units, relocating public housing residents in site housing, giving them vouchers in the private hous- ing market, and financing mixed-income development as public–private partnerships. The problem, according to Lipman, was that low-income families—most of whom were African American and Latino—were consis- tently displaced when a key revision in 1995 eliminated the requirement of one-to-one replacement that would have guaranteed return to the new or rehabbed units. As a public good, HOPE IV fails the nonexcludable and non- rivalrous consideration.

Mixed-income development similarly displaced low-income residents. Based on the theory that middle-class presence would disrupt the culture of poverty and raise the overall standard of living, mixed-income communities called for one-third of the units to be used as public housing, one-third to be affordable units, and one-third to be market rate units (or sometimes a 60/40 ratio of middle-income/low-income families). Again, Lipman contends that such development distorts government priorities from providing for people’s basic needs to a profit-driven agenda that utilizes competition to attract mar- ket rate renters. Further studies indicated little social interaction across class, which would invalidate the “rising tide lifts all boats” rationale.

Mixed income schools faced the same problem. Under the market-driven Renaissance 2010 initiative to turn around failing schools in mixed-income communities, former Chicago Mayor Daley and School Chancellor Arne Duncan closed 60 public schools and opened 100 new schools—one-third charter, one-third contract (privately run schools that operate much like charter schools), and one-third “Performance Schools” (public schools with 5-year performance contracts and subject to Ren2010 policies). Lipman suggested that Ren2010 was a Trojan horse created to dismantle public schools in low-income areas and to furtively “gentrify” the replacement schools with a mixed population that would ultimately boost the urban economy. It was beset with problems, such as inadequate resources that negated school repair and insufficient staff/professional development that set students up for failure. Such market-driven practices also hindered low-income families with potentially exclusionary stipulations (e.g., limited enrollment, informal selection mechanisms such as lotteries, not reserving seats for displaced students, not offering programs or grades as the closed schools did, complex admissions processes). The author effectively tied this together with the scathing admonition from the Kenwood Oakland Local School Council Alliance:

Over 90% of the students who attend Mid-South schools are from low-income, African-American families. The Mid-South plan says that the schools will serve 1/3 middle-income, 1/3 moderate-income, and 1/3 low-income students. What happens to the other 2/3 low-income students? DISPLACEMENT. (p. 82)

Though Lipman is not against the idea of mixed-income communities and schools, current neoliberal proposals hurt the underclass and marginalize existing racial discrimination and the historical struggle for excellence by African Americans in the face of such inequities.

The rapid development of corporate venture philanthropy over the past decade was the most compelling example where Lipman demonstrated the neoliberal restructuring of urban education. By treating schooling as a pri- vate consumable service that promotes entrepreneurial remedies in school reform in the name of economic competitiveness, private donors like the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation have spent billions in restructuring schools, resetting education agendas, and organizing parents and youths. The Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a major recipi- ent of Gates funding, has emerged as the national model for urban school takeover operators. She compared their development to the fortunes amassed by the robber barons and industrialists of the 19th century, leveraging their enormous wealth to shape urban social policy in areas such as health, education, and the environment. Such influence highlights a quintessentially neoliberal practice of “governance” by private sector management experts, as opposed to government by an elected and publicly accountable body. As responsibility of crucial social service provisions shift to private hands, public accountability and help for the needy disappear, further contributing to racial and class marginalization.

Yet venture philanthropists strategically leverage these marginalized groups to support neoliberal initiatives. The Gates Foundation, for instance, capitalized on parents’ dissatisfaction of the Chicago public school system and urged them to support charter school expansion as their best option. Through funded workshops, literature, and summit speakers, grassroots organizations like Parents for School Choice add political legitimacy to neoliberal reforms and further undermine opposition and counterhegemonic solutions. Policy makers cannot afford to dismiss such powerful political allies. Yet Lipman believes that parents, in fact, do not claim ideological allegiance to school markets or privatization; rather, they seek to make pragmatic choices in the face of difficult circumstances.

However, her cogent criticism of market-driven reforms could have been bolstered further had she included two other pieces of evidence. One is the role of merit pay in the rapidly growing call for performance-based teacher evaluations. Critics contend that such schemes (a) create a competitive, rather than cooperative, atmosphere among teachers; and (b) pervert the teaching and learning process, leading to self-preservationist tactics and “gamesman- ship” (e.g., moving to higher income districts where students are likelier to perform well) that ultimately marginalize the underclass. In this respect, one could imagine the relevance of merit pay (and to some extent, performance-based teacher evaluations) in neoliberal reform, a point that Lipman appears to have neglected.

She also seems to have overlooked the mounting evidence that found little differences in achievement between charter schools/voucher programs and traditional public schools. These included the well-known 2009 report on Charter School Performance in 16 States by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) out of Stanford University, the 2010 Evaluation of Charter School Impacts by the National Center for Education Evaluation (NCEE), and the 2010 evaluation of the Milwaukee school voucher program—all of which would add empirical credibility to her analysis. What is the value of these reforms if they demonstrate no measurable improvement in student achievement?

Lipman concludes that a radical transformation of capitalism is needed; yet solutions that require such paradigmatic shifts are typically broad and consequently leave the reader unsatisfied. For example, she calls for a new 21st century humanist and socialist alternative to capitalism that better represent the “dispossessed, exploited, and alienated” but provide little practical guidance as to how to get there. References to emerging movements rooted in economic cooperation and participatory democracy (e.g., Bamako Appeal, the Declaration of the Assembly of Social Movements, Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism, and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas) are illuminating but difficult to reify in a U.S. context without further details.

Solutions for education involve reframing the neoliberal discourse to one based on inputs (equitable resources) rather than outputs (tests), and using it as a tool for liberation (i.e., developing critical consciousness a la Grassroots Education Movement and Rethinking Schools). No doubt the idea of equity initiatives is appealing but highly polarizing, given that certain groups (e.g., the gifted population) will garner fewer resources than others. More conceivable is Lipman’s call for more collaboration among proactive education movements that will link “islands of excellence” into networks capable of reframing the neoliberal education discourse.

Lipman’s call to action, captured in the concept of “right to the city” (the demand for a transformed and renewed access to urban life), is the real strength of this book. It is timely, not just within urban school reform but also within the larger social and political context where overall public education reform has been marked by increased market-driven reforms. Unlike the critics who bemoan the growing privatization of public education, Lipman situ- ates it as part of a larger neoliberal movement that affects urban development toward a global market economy, which ultimately makes her case utterly potent and a natural follow-up of her 2004 book. If this book serves as the manifesto for reimagined 21st-century socialism, then perhaps her third book will be the blueprint for action to corral the islands of excellence.

This book is ideal for educators, sociology students, and change agents.

Reprinted from Education and Urban Society, January 2013, 45(1), 163-165. 

A Socially-Conscious Orientation in Education

No matter our ideology, education will always be closely linked with a nation’s economy. We saw a ramping up of science and math education during the Sputnik era in the 1950s-1960s, another call for rigorous standards when fears emerged about international competition from Japan (and Germany) in the 1980s. Of course, the past decade has been all about meeting the demands of the global 21st century knowledge-based economy under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the call for more STEM education.

Too bad. The “excellence” march will always trump the “equity” one when a nation’s economy is at stake. Such initiatives might make us economically and militarily powerful, but not necessarily a better nation. Once countries reach “maturity,” (i.e., industrialization or advanced development stage), they need a more post-modern approach that considers its people and its responsibility to the world. And that requires a socially-conscious approach to education.

Countries that are rapidly developing in order to catch up the the U.S., such as China, India, and Brazil, will generally forgo social/environmental progress in order to reach economic ones, which is exactly what we did in the middle of the 20th century. Environmental concerns and civil rights didn’t come about until after World War II, when the world recognized this period as “the American Century.” We can afford to be more socially and ecologically aware when we’re at the top, while other countries will probably follow our footsteps as they progress. Yet the gini coefficient indicates an economic inequality not seen since the Great Depression (not to mention social and political polarity). Nothing exemplifies this zeitgist more than Occupy Wall Street.

Do other countries want to follow this American Dream? Maybe not.

As nation’s are seeking to define their place in the world, they may not necessarily want what we have; some in fact resent it. Thomas Friedman’s recent article in the New York Times, entitled China Needs Its Own Dream, pointed to the conscious change that many Chinese citizens are making in shaping their 21st century identity. Peggy Liu, the founder of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, argues that the Chinese today are yearning to create a new national identity, one that merges traditional Chinese values like balance, respect, and flow, with its new modern urban reality.

China’s latest five-year plan is based on sustainability for its burgeoning middle class that seeks to counter the growing conspicuous consumerism. The younger generation does not necessarily want to follow the typical growth path–the rising consumption, “now it’s our turn” kind of mentality–that Americans went through.

Instead, the creation of a “Chinese Dream” that redefines personal prosperity by merging the unique traditional Chinese values with the burgeoning urbanization to create more access to better products and servicesnot necessarily owning them–so everyone gets a piece of the pie. This includes better public transportation, spaces, housing, e-learning, and e-commerce. For a society, isn’t “better access for all” preferable to “exclusive ownership”? It’s certainly greener and infinitely more egalitarian.

This socially conscious mindset amongst its students appears to be more prevalent as well. One student Friedman interviewed, Zhou Lin, said that it was in China’s best interest to find a “cleaner” growth path.

Part of this change, I believe is that they spend a lot of time reflecting on what other nations have done as a blueprint for success (such as America’s innovation and higher education) and on what dangers to avoid (e.g., American social values). No doubt they want to define their own path to trumpet as a 21st model to emulate. A lot will be riding on the new leadership’s ability to address increasing prosperity and inequality.

For the U.S., the current education culture is exclusively focused on maintaining economic hegemony and STEM competitiveness. Where is the socially conscious models that George Counts and Nel Noddings advocated for? Despite the calls to close the achievement gap, it seems far too much is placed on standards and testing in the interest of economic expediency. Perhaps excellence in education for the 21st century should consider more of the socially-conscious and heterogeneous model that values individual growth and global collaboration.

A Divided Public: 2012 PDK Poll on Public Education


Uncertainty and disagreement characterized a large portion of the general public’s attitudes toward education issues, according to the recent 2012 Phi Delta Kappan’s annual Gallup poll. Among the major highlights, the public is divided about whether:

  • Teachers should be evaluated based on student standardized test scores (52% favor; 47% opposed)
  • Parents should receive vouchers to help pay for their children to attend private schools
  • Children of undocumented immigrants should receive a free public education
  • Common Core standards will improve the quality of education (50% yes; 40% not much effect)
  • High school graduates are college-ready
  • Our local schools are better than the nation’s school as a whole
  • Obama or Romney can positively influence public education in America (49% Obama; Romney 44%)

President Obama has a slight edge in terms of being perceived as positively influencing public education, but the public seems to believe that the Democratic Party is more interested in improving public education (50%) compared to the GOP (38%).

Though a majority of Americans (51%) oppose providing free public education for children of undocumented immigrants, the opposition has declined since 1995, when 67% were opposed. It also fell along party lines, with Democrats supporting free education more.

In terms of support for local public schools, 77% of parents give their local schools  gave an A or B grade, while almost half gave a C to the nation’s public schools as a whole.

A significant portion of Americans are not sure that high school students are ready for college (43% said neither agree or disagree), and only one-quarter think they are. 29% were similarly unsure about college students’ readiness for work (40% said they were).

Interesting Trends and Side Notes

Out of the random adult samples who participated in the poll, 67% did not have children in school, 27% were public school parents, and 62% had at least a college education. Two thirds were over the age of 40, and were split pretty evenly among political parties (28% GOP; 36% Democrat; 35% Independent).

Charter school support has steadily increased over the decade (70% in favor in 2011), no surprise due to media attention like the documentary Waiting for Superman; however, it has declined for the first time, dropping to 66% this year. With the increasing scrutiny of charter school effectiveness, perhaps the novelty effect has worn off.  Overall, more people oppose using public funds, or vouchers, to finance private schools (55%) than favor (44%), though support increased ten percentage points from last year (34%).

Despite the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) decade, education as a priority has curiously dropped. In 1996, a large majority (64%) believed that improving its quality was more important than balancing the federal budget. However, with the economic recession and the resulting bipartisan dispute in Congress recently, the priorities have switched, with only 38% of Americans in 2012 believing education is more important than balancing the budget (60%).

With so much focus on teacher effectiveness, one poll question asked about teacher qualities that had the most positive influence in people’s lives. Two new characteristics popped up that was not present in 2010: “Strict/tough/discipline” and “challenging/demanding.” This appears to coincide with the steady march towards the “no excuses” accountability, even though accountability has been spotlighted for the past few decades. Regardless, “caring” and “encouraging” remained the top two qualities people value in the best teachers–something for policymakers to keep in mind as they refine education reform.


However, there is still some consensus on certain issues:

  • 97% believe it’s important to improve the nation’s urban schools, and would be willing to pay more taxes to make that happen (though falling along party lines; GOP 41% in favor, Democrats 80%.
  • 89% also support closing the recognized achievement gap between white/Asian students and Black/Hispanic students.
  • Bullying prevention should be part of the school curriculum (78% in favor).

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln once said. The uncertainty that the poll reveals mirrors a growing polarity in American politics over the economy, healthcare, education and other social issues–a reason to be wary about America’s future, and perhaps a chance for our leaders to take collaboration seriously.

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