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American Education: Why not our own Marshall Plan?

  • Date: 04/08/2002
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Akron Press Club
  • Thank you, Abe, for your thoughtful introduction. And thank you, members of the Akron Press Club, for inviting me back.

    When I last spoke with you in January of 1999, it was my first public presentation as president of The University of Akron, and I spoke on the topic of "Education as Infrastructure."

    It is with a sense of great urgency that I do so again today.

    "I need not tell you, [ladies and] gentlemen, that the world situation is very serious. That must be apparent to all intelligent people."

    So began Secretary of State George C. Marshall's sober warning and urgent appeal in 1947 for an American initiative that would rebuild Europe from the rubble of World War II.

    Less than a year later, on April 3, 1948, Congress responded with the passage of what has since been known as the Marshall Plan.

    That historic legislation not only recognized the plan's potential contribution to world peace but also its benefit to the national interest, adding that it was consistent with the maintenance of the strength and stability of the United States.

    We now know that the dramatic commitment to Western Europe's survival has also helped gird America's strength and stability in the succeeding decades.

    The Marshall Plan, by directing 1% of the U.S. gross domestic product over four years to restore the infrastructure of Western Europe, served to ensure a productive global economy and paved the way for the remarkable progress of the West.

    Half a century later, we face today a different kind of crisis that - like high blood pressure - threatens our national interest with symptoms that are largely silent and incremental.

    This is not a crisis born of missile gaps, or military readiness, or sophisticated defense systems -- the sort that draws large audiences.

    Rather, it is one in which the internal strength of our society is slowly being eroded by our reluctance to act as boldly as those who championed the Marshall Plan.

    One child at a time, our educational system is falling behind those of our economic competitors on the international scene.

    I recall that in 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned that for the first time in its history, America could perhaps graduate a generation that was less well prepared than that of its parents.

    And in even more powerful language, it asserted: "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war."

    And indeed we should!

    Because today's crisis is about rebuilding the productive infrastructure of America just as much as the Marshall Plan was about the recovery of war-torn Europe.

    And just as much, today's crisis is about our national security.

    The highly respected journal Foreign Affairs puts it this way: "In poor nations, as in rich countries, education creates the foundation for economic growth, higher standards of living, better health, and a more informed citizenry." . . . (and) "Given the synergies between education, health and economic growth, tackling the crisis in education should be recognized as a key to unlocking other development goals." (Gene B. Sperling, Towards Universal Education: Making a Promise, and Keeping It, Foreign Affairs, September/October, 2001, p. 13)

    Still, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), itself a legacy of the Marshall Plan, America's educational standings have worsened.

    The U.S., which was the first nation to have compulsory secondary education, now trails 22 other countries in the percentage of students that completes a secondary education.

    Even in higher education, the dramatic increase in college graduates that was stimulated by the G.I. Bill, and which transformed America into an economic powerhouse, has now been overshadowed.

    Three other countries (Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands) now have a higher college graduation rate than the U.S., and several countries have a higher participation rate in tertiary education than we do, with more surely on the way.

    Indeed, educational progress in other countries is being made at such a fast rate that more and more countries are now surpassing America's rates of educational participation and attainment.

    And we have entered the 21st Century with a world situation that is just as serious as that which led Secretary Marshall to call for the bold actions that resulted in the plan that bears his name.

    Across the world, hundreds of millions children do not have access to even a primary education. Is it any wonder, thus, that ignorance breeds poverty, disease and terrorism? Is it any wonder that our national security is threatened?

    If America, as a nation, is falling behind, then Ohio, as a state, is heading for Third World status.

    The indicators are daunting.

    For example, our high school completion rates in urban settings are abysmally low. Right here in Akron, only 72% of our high school students graduated in the year 2000, a rate that is below the U.S. national average of 74%.

    But that is the good news!

    The bad news is that graduation rates are even lower in Toledo, where only 67% graduated; in Columbus, 62% graduated; Youngstown, 59%; Cincinnati, 51%; and in Cleveland, only 34% of the students who start high school actually finish.

    That is right, in Cleveland, "Only one-third of the students . . . in public schools graduated - two-thirds didn't."
    (Statistics and quote from U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, in "Saving Our Schools: Education Reform in America," speech to the Akron Roundtable, April 19, 2001)

    By contrast, the secondary school graduation rates in Norway and Belgium are virtually at 100%, and in six other countries, graduation rates exceed 90%.

    At a 74% high school graduation rate, the U.S. lags 22 other countries. What is worse, as a result of our lower graduation rates, the expected educational attainment for the children of America is now projected to drop behind that of no less than 13 other countries.

    And right here in Ohio, America's lag in higher education is expressed as a 250,000 person "educational deficit," because, according to the Ohio Board of Regents, that is how many additional college graduates our state must add just to come up to the national average!

    Ohio now ranks 40th among the states in college graduates.

    Is it any wonder, thus, that Ohio's per capita income has been falling further and further behind that of other states?

    As an educator, I can only wonder how we have allowed this to happen.

    Since antiquity, education has been the gauge of progress for any civilization:

    Aristotle said that the "fate of empires depends on the education of youth."

    Jefferson wrote that the "preservation of freedom and happiness" depends on the "diffusion of knowledge."

    President Lyndon Johnson once declared: "At the desk where I sit, I have learned one great truth. The answer for all our national problems - the answer for all the problems of the world - comes down to a single word. That word is ‘education'."

    Indeed, I cannot find a time in modern history when education has not been a priority.

    And yet, the crisis worsens.

    Could it be that education has been a priority for so long that it has become all too familiar, thereby receding from thoughtful action?

    In the daily routines of government, long-term priorities fade into a background of certain indifference. Immediate and short-term preoccupations prevail.

    Year in and year out, it is no longer enough simply to proclaim that education is a priority.

    Something is wrong when some school systems graduate only one third of their students.
    (U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, "Saving Our Schools: Education Reform in America," speech to the Akron Roundtable, April 19, 2001)

    Something is wrong when nearly 40% of American 4th graders basically cannot read.
    (U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, "Saving Our Schools: Education Reform in America," speech to the Akron Roundtable, April 19, 2001)

    Something is wrong when our colleges and universities must offer remedial courses to as many as one-third of high school graduates.

    Something is wrong when the societal value of public higher education is systematically and progressively eroded.

    No wonder the crisis worsens!

    So, how do we make it right?

    It is time to make education the priority of action, rather than of rhetoric.

    The noted economist, Paul Romer, suggests that if America is to build a better tomorrow for generations to come, our nation must ensure a growing supply of educated people, particularly scientists and engineers - those who make the discoveries that fuel economic growth.
    (Paul Wessel, "Professor Romer Goes to Washington," The Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2001, p. A1)

    Romer tells us that, "If you believe that ideas drive prosperity, you ask where do ideas come from? The answer is skilled people," he says. "The more people you have prospecting, the more you will be stumbling on rich veins of gold."

    "What could we do," he asks, "if we thought very big about doing something that is going to have an impact on economic growth in the 21st Century?" . . .
    (Quoted by Paul Wessel, in Ibid.)

    "What would rival the 1862 Morrill Act, which funded land-grant universities?" (Wessel, Ibid.)

    What would rival "The GI Bill of Rights, which drew World War II veterans to college?"
    (Wessel, Ibid.)

    Indeed, why not a 21st Century Marshall Plan?

    If the whole international community, the IMF, the World Bank and the United Nations, as well as 180 nations, can commit to universal primary education by the year 2015, as they did last year in the Dakar Declaration, why can't America set ambitious targets for high school and college education?

    As President Bush has called on us to do, let us make the commitment to "Leave no Child Behind."

    Let us make the commitment, as a nation, to 100% graduation rates from high school.

    Let us make the commitment, once again, to be the leader in the percentage of our population that completes a college education.

    After all, as Deborah Wince-Smith, the president of the Council on Competitiveness, told us last month here in Akron, differential rates of learning are what distinguish our ability to compete in a global economy.

    Today, human capital is business capital. A nation's differential ability to educate and utilize its human resources is what makes the difference economically, socially and culturally.

    Norway's Minister of International Development and Human Rights, Hilde Johnson, agrees. She says that, "Human capital is the engine of economic development." (Quoted by George Melloan in The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 1999, p. A23)

    Please notice Ms. Johnson's title: it is Minister of International Development and Human Rights. In other words, Norway recognizes in a ministerial level position the inextricable relationship between economic development and the condition of its own and the world's human resources.

    What a statement!

    Perhaps if we in America had a similar understanding of these fundamentals, or even half of Norway's commitment, then perhaps we might have designated Governor Ridge not as a defensive Director of Homeland Security, but as the proactive Director of American and World Prosperity.

    Certainly, his record as Governor of Pennsylvania suggests that he understands the relationship between human talent, economic prosperity and national and personal security in a global society.

    Shouldn't our national policy, as reflected in the title of this important office, communicate that we as a nation understand the fundamentals as well as the intricacies and complexities of true national security?

    And for Ohio, let us recall Governor Taft's inaugural address in January of 1999 when he said: " . . . our frontier is knowledge and technology - a place where Ohio must be a leader among states and nations."

    When he said: " . . . we must make sure all of our citizens are prepared to succeed in the high-tech, global economy of the 21st Century."

    And we can do so, he said, if " . . . we invest in people."

    And in his State of the State address earlier this year, Governor Taft called for an ambitious and bold plan - the Third Frontier Project - a $1.6 billion plan to stimulate Ohio's economic growth through science and technology.

    Yet, as important as the Third Frontier Project will be, it is only the first step because there is much more that we must do if we are to be the "leader among states and nations" that Governor Taft would have us be.

    Therefore, we also must call upon the Ohio Board of Regents, the leaders of Ohio's higher education community, and our State Legislature to:

    First, develop a comprehensive vision for Ohio - a vision that asserts the strengths of our state as well as its aspirations for national and international leadership.

    Second, we must structure a state system of higher education that includes:
    * A group of two-year, four-year, and graduate- colleges and universities, appropriate in size, number and location, to move our state forward from an educational deficit to an educational surplus and also to meet regional research needs; and it should include

    *A group of no less than four major research universities of national and international stature.

    Third, we must create a legitimate and rational basis for fully funding each of the component missions of public higher education - teaching, service and extension, continuing education, professional education, research and technology development - each in the amount necessary to redress 30 years of neglect, and to promote Ohio as a leader.

    Fourth, we must create a legitimate and rational pricing structure among our colleges and universities.

    In short, Ohio must restructure and fund its State System of Higher Education to new standards of excellence.

    All this we must do, as Cleveland's Ned Hill tells us, because "There is a relationship between the level of wages and educational attainment. People who are better educated are more productive."
    (as quoted by Brent Larkin in The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer on March 10, 2002)

    Indeed, wage differentials for persons with varying levels of educational attainment have grown further apart, to the point that a college graduate will earn twice as much as a person with only a high school education. And the earning differential is even higher for those with advanced degrees.
    (Michael Milken, "Amid Plenty, the wage Gap Widens," The Wall Street Journal, September 5, 2000)

    And we must do so also because the changing demographics of the U.S. create an even more obvious economic imperative.

    Because just when our aging population most depends on the earning power of future generations, not only is America's overall educational attainment lagging, but the most rapidly growing segments of our population, minorities, also have the lowest levels of educational attainment.

    We are becoming a nation of minorities without the commensurate increase in the educational levels needed even to sustain the current tax base or promote economic growth.
    (United Nations, Second World Assembly on Aging, Madrid, 2002; and report of the Business-Higher Education Forum, "Investing in People," 2002)

    Today, I have reviewed the daunting conditions of America's declining educational status in the world. I have suggested that these conditions are no less urgent than those that precipitated U.S. actions in Europe following World War II.

    Clearly, a bold and unified Marshall-style educational commitment is needed if we are to remain competitive with our economic rivals.

    However, while America is not lacking in either plans or rhetoric for educational reform, there is nothing to compare with the lofty goals of the Marshall Plan.

    And neither has Ohio, as a state, gone beyond rhetoric or the now noticeable consequences of its progressive neglect of higher education.

    Educational reform is not just about funding. It is about the actual doing of the serious and hard work that it takes to make a difference.

    It is about the continuous development and judicious application of research-based methods of instruction to the many different types of students that attend schools, colleges and universities, because we can no longer hide behind the quality of our students.

    And it is about the discipline and accountability needed to ensure real educational gains, not social promotion or grade inflation.

    After all, this is about building "the foundation of our future incomes."
    (Ned Hill, as quoted by Brent Larkin in The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer, March 10, 2002; emphasis added)

    It is about the prosperity and security of America.

    Although peace and prosperity are goals of every government, they are fragile commodities because it is not easy for governments to deliver on ideals.


    Societies, it seems, are slow to learn that prosperity is often a prerequisite to peace and that knowledge and its dissemination are the common elements that drive economic and societal progress.

    History has taught us that advancing the creative progress of society depends on the ability to enhance and use the combined knowledge of our citizenry.

    And if we have come to know that the survival of a productive society is increasingly dependent on science and technology, then perhaps we will also come to know that the quality of that survival depends on the arts and the humanities -- and that both require the progressive and universal education of our people.

    America deserves no less, . . . and we should expect more.

    "That must be apparent to all intelligent people." (George C. Marshall)

     

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