Strategies for Educational Reform

by Eli Ginzberg - 1974

The educational system cannot be a substitute for the family; it cannot cure poverty and racism, assure individuals good jobs and good incomes, control delinquency and crime, or usher in a brave new world. But teachers can make their students more intelligent, more considerate, more sensitive to their own problems and to the problems of others.

Eli Ginzberg is A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Economics and director of the Conservation of Human Resources project at Columbia University. This article is based upon a speech delivered by Dr. Ginzberg at the Distinguished Lecture Series, 1972-1973, sponsored by The Center for Vocational and Technical Education and the Graduate School, The Ohio State University.

The goals and performance of an educational system must be assessed by criteria related to the development of human resources. Among these criteria, the first is freedom of inquiry, and the following personal reminiscence may emphasize its importance.

In 1928-29, I was a student at Heidelberg University, a time when that institution was in the top rank of the world's great universities. Within the next few years Adolf Hitler would destroy this center of learning whose contributions to scholarship, science, and culture spanned more than 500 years. To witness the Nazis rise to power, to live through the tortured years of Hitler's regime, which occurred during the formative period of my life as an academic, made an indelible impression upon me. I learned that no educational institution, not even one firmly protected by a tradition of independence, stands immune from the dominant forces that shape the society of which it is a part. Those who devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and to the instruction of others must have the tolerance, if not the enthusiastic support, of the society which provides the resources to perform these missions.

The teaching profession must always attempt to instill pupils with a respect for truth and free inquiry. If teachers fail in this responsibility, they run the risk of becoming the henchmen of an orthodoxy whose leaders are more concerned with indoctrination than with the pursuit of truth. As we are learning today, free inquiry may be unsettling; hence those who know its worth must not abuse it. If they confuse the classroom with the political arena, they may not long enjoy the freedom society now grants them.

Freedom of inquiry is the first standard for evaluating the educational undertaking from the vantage of a human resources approach; the second is the degree to which educational institutions understand and are responsive to the variety of human potential.

Traditionally our educational system has been concerned almost exclusively with the nurturing of cognitive abilities. But although cognitive abilities are critically important for individual and communal performance, they are not the totality of human capacities. Yet in American schools athletics is the only major exception to the rule of concentration on the development of cognitive skills. At the high school and college levels, a considerable amount of effort and resources is directed toward identifying young people with athletic potential as well as those with academic potential, toward nurturing and training them, and toward assuring that the successful among them are well rewarded. Our schools should have sought long ago to identify, train, and reward young people with potential for superior performance in fields other than the academic or athletic. Examples of these fields are politics, the arts, crafts, and interpersonal relations.

A third criterion with which to assess the performance of an educational system is its contribution to the broadening of opportunities for self-development and career progression. Because income inequality remains a fact of contemporary life, we dare not conclude that educational opportunity makes little or no difference. The tens of thousands of young men and women from families of modest income who have graduated from public and private institutions and who have moved toward the top of the occupational ladder are proof that the role of education is a potent factor in social and economic mobility.

Parental education, occupation, and income continue to be potent determinants of college attendance. Sons and daughters of upper-income parents have a clear and unequivocal advantage. But since more than four of every five young people graduate from high school today, and since there are sufficient places in the higher educational system for all who have the requisite academic preparation, one must exercise caution in downgrading the contribution of education to economic and social mobility. We have had considerably more success than any other nation, including Communist countries, in enabling young people to acquire educational credentials that provide access to better jobs and careers.

The fourth and last criterion is the amount of resources invested in education and the effectiveness with which these resources are utilized. The United States currently spends about $90 billion per year for education; this is about 8 percent of the gross national product (GNP). In 1929, educational expenditures represented only 3 percent of the GNP. An increase of 160 percent in the share of national product directed to education over a period of forty years is noteworthy indeed. Aside from benefits to the individual citizen in terms of personal and career development, what does education contribute to the society at large?

The last three presidents of the United States, taking their cue from economists and educators, stated in turn that any young person who wants a good life should stay in school and acquire a diploma or a degree. The figures never supported this claim, and they still do not. All that they say is that, on the average, the more education a person has, the higher his lifetime earnings. But even if the figures supported the presidents' claim, it would be objectionable if young people were to pursue education solely for its income-raising potential. When David Ben Gurion was prime minister of Israel, he proposed that all who were interested in and capable of profiting from a university education should have the opportunity to pursue advanced studies, even if they planned eventually to follow such mundane occupations as farmer, carpenter, soldier, or chauffeur. He believed that education should be pursued for its own sake, not as an income-enhancing device.

From a human resources vantage we have briefly reviewed four criteria for judging the performance of an educational system. To what extent does it protect free inquiry, nurture a wide range of human potential, expand the opportunity matrix, and utilize scarce resources effectively?


There is widespread unease about the high proportion of students at every level of the system, from elementary to graduate school, who are bored with lectures and other material presented in the classroom and with assignments to be done at home. Boredom occurs when an individual is unable to see the purpose in an assigned task. At best, he will put out minimal effort; more typically, he will avoid performing what he regards as a pointless exercise. We cannot place the blame for boredom on the teaching staff; if a student sees no point to the learning process, even the most skilled teacher may fail to engage his interest and elicit his participation. But teachers aside, when an educational system contains a significant number of students who are bored and act accordingly, some facet of the system must be askew.

A second cause of unease derives from the fact that many high school, college, and graduate students flounder and fail to complete their studies. We cannot easily draw conclusions about dropouts, since sometimes it is the best students who drop out of school. They realize that they are not learning any skill or discipline, and they refuse to remain docile under this circumstance, even if it means leaving without a diploma or degree.

A third source of unease derives from the fact that major gaps continue to exist in the educational opportunities available to different groups in the population. It is the poor, the rural, and the minority-group youth who are most likely to be victimized. The schools they attend, the curricula to which they are exposed, and the teachers who instruct them are often inferior. The outcome can be read in the rejections for military service for reasons of educational inadequacy. Data for 1970 help to illuminate the wide national range in educational opportunity and acceptance for military service. In Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Washington, the rejection rate was between .7 and .9 per 100 men. In South Carolina and Mississippi, the rates per 100 men were 25 and 22, respectively, or nearly 35 times as great. Such regional (and racial) differences are hard to justify in a country which prides itself on its democratic tradition and long-term support for public education.

Other data, however, indicate considerable progress in narrowing the differentials among groups. For instance, in 1940, whites in the age group twenty-five to twenty-nine had completed an average of 10.7 years of schooling in contrast to 7.1 years for nonwhites. In 1970, the percentages were 12.6 and 12.2, respectively. The gap of 3.6 years had narrowed to .4 of a year. During the intervening thirty years, the educational achievement of nonwhites, measured in terms of years of schooling, had increased 9 times as fast as that of whites!

Another cause of public unease is the fact that within a single decade (1960-1970) national expenditures per student in average daily attendance in elementary and secondary schools increased from approximately $500 to $1,000 in stable dollars. Both educators and lay leaders have expressed considerable concern about increasing voter rejection of higher local taxes to finance proposed school budgets. Since the late 1960s, taxpayer resistance has mounted to a point where some large school systems have had to close before the end of the semester because of lack of funds. However, this opposition must be placed in the context of the ten-year doubling in the real dollars expended per pupil. Many citizens are questioning the productivity of this additional money. They are asking for evidence that the average child is receiving a better education.

A fifth source of unease relates to the appropriate role for the school in the transformation of American society. The busing issue will not disappear. It is worth pointing out, however, that whereas 7 percent of all school children were bused in 1929, 43 percent were bused in 1970; and most of this increase reflected increased school consolidation, not desegregation.

Additional sources of unease, relating primarily to the effectiveness of increased public expenditures on behalf of education, warrant some brief comments. We have been pursuing the path of compensatory education. The federal government has been appropriating about $1.5 billion a year to this end. An advisory committee to the President and the Congress has reported that only a-bout one third of this amount initially reached the youngsters for whom it was intended. Moreover, the committee concluded that educators are only beginning to learn what is involved in designing an effective compensatory program.

Many legislators have become disenchanted with educational leaders because, acting on their advice, the law-makers expanded government support for graduate programs only to find that the country now faces a surplus of educated manpower. In seeking funds for expansion, the educators neglected to consider what part of the new output of doctorates would be fed back into the educational system to cope with increased enrollments. They did not realize that the expansion of enrollments would soon level off for a variety of demographic, economic, and intellectual reasons and that, when this happened, new doctorates would be a drag on the market.

There has also been growing restiveness with the economists' theory of human investment, which correlates educational attainment and lifetime earnings, and which was adopted by many educators to strengthen their arguments for increased funding. Long before Jencks, it was noted that about one third of all high school graduates without college experience earn over $10,000 a year, while the same proportion of college graduates earn less. Even more striking is the finding that about two out of every five males with five or more years of education beyond high school earn $15,000 or more per year, while this is the case for only one out of twenty women. Clearly, for many people the payoff from education remains to be proven.


Having set forth some operative criteria for assessing an educational system and having identified some of the sources of unease with the present structure, we will now set forth some directions for new strategies.

First, schools must be adjudged failures unless they accomplish three tasks-nurture curiosity, teach basic skills, and provide guidance in choosing among options.

If learning depends on evoking and directing the curiosity with which all humans are endowed, then the school's task is cut out for it. It must develop curricula and teaching methods which will pique children's native curiosity and must avoid, at all costs, assignments that suppress or eliminate this inborn trait. It is difficult to identify the means by which we can take advantage of youthful curiosity, but surely it is a characteristic that warrants more attention than it has yet received. One major suggestion: A study of how students spend their free time out of school may be a useful clue to whether their assignments in school are stimulating their curiosity. An ominous note: The average American who now has more than twelve years of schooling reads about one book a year! The more effective development and use of curiosity should be high on the agenda of educational research and practice.

A second area which calls for new approaches relates to the critical transition from home to school. In general, the school does a reasonably good job of receiving a youngster from a middle-class home whose parents have prepared him for school. But it is no secret that the school does a poor job with respect to the large numbers of poor and minority children who have fewer family supports. We need a restructuring of kindergarten and grades one through three; we need new curricula and new teaching methods. If the first four years of schooling were treated as a block in which youngsters can move at their own pace to acquire basic skills, where care is taken to avoid stigmatizing any child with premature failure, and where those who encounter difficulties have access to extra supports, the entire experience would be less intimidating and the outcomes more productive. The evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I refuse to accept the thesis that children from disadvantaged homes cannot profit from well-designed and well-executed educational programs.

Thirdly, as the Fleischmann report on educational financing in New York State recommended, it is essential that the states assume more responsibility over schools within their jurisdiction to assure that all pupils acquire a minimum level of competence in basic skills. This recommendation parallels one advanced almost two centuries ago by Adam Smith, who argued that it is the responsibility of the state to provide basic education for all its citizens. Smith suggested that a man's entrance into productive employment be dependent on his prior acquisition of basic knowledge and skills. In Switzerland, the army returns recruits to their cantons for additional instruction if they fail the educational screening test.

We also need to do much more to provide effective links between the school and the world of work, particularly for the nonbookish minority who have little or no intention of going on to college. The recent emphasis on career education is a move in the right direction. This does not necessarily mean that occupations should be a unit of study in elementary, junior, or senior high schools. Nor does it mean that every student should acquire a manual or white-collar skill in school or in a school-sponsored program. Neither does it mean the introduction of the Swedish system whereby all students spend some months at work during their high school years. Rather, it means that a concern for the relation between education and work should permeate the curriculum at all levels; that good educational and occupational guidance services should be available; and that after the ninth grade students with little interest in or aptitude for academic work should be afforded alternative opportunities for development.

Educators made an error when they promised the country to care for all young people in the schoolroom until they were eighteen years old. A significant minority of boys and girls cannot profit from so prolonged an exposure. They need opportunities to work, to earn money, to be associated with adults in purposeful activities for at least part of the time. Such alternative developmental experiences cannot be provided by educators alone within the confines of the school. A much enlarged program of work-study requires the cooperation of employers, trade unions, and the community. This is the single most important challenge facing American education, and it is one that requires action on a broad front.

Finally, we need to make a series of adjustments to ensure that the educational system becomes more accessible to young and mature adults when they see the possibility of profiting from additional education and training. This implies a great many changes: in the policies adopted and funding provided by legislative bodies; in the manner in which schools operate to facilitate re-entry of pupils who have dropped out or have temporarily terminated their education at lower levels; and in the willingness of employers to provide time for workers to continue or return to their studies.


It will require hard work on the part of researchers, administrators, and teachers to determine whether and to what extent these strategies hold the promise of improving the productivity of the American educational system. To nurture curiosity, to improve linkages between school and work, and to provide easier access of adults to continuing education and training are essential steps in enhancing the role that education plays in the development of human potential. And it is this task above all others which educators must continue to address.

The educational system cannot be a substitute for the family; it cannot cure poverty and racism, assure individuals good jobs and good incomes, control delinquency and crime, or usher in a brave new world. But teachers can make their students more intelligent, more considerate, more sensitive to their own problems and to the problems of others.

Years ago John Maynard Keynes expressed the hope that the day would come when economists would be as useful as dentists. I have the same hope for educators.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 76 Number 1, 1974, p. 39-46 ID Number: 1339, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 8:26:52 PM

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