Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar: How educational inequality affects American leadership


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Earlier this year U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the appointment of 28 education advocates, civil rights leaders, scholars, and corporate leaders to the Department of Education's Equity and Excellence Commission. Among them: CISAC's Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar. He talked with CISAC about educational inequality, America's standing in the world, and the relationship between education and moral leadership.

CISAC: Can you give a little background about the commission and why it was convened?

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar: Education inequity is growing, and is considered increasingly problematic, and people have different ideas about how to solve that problem. Several members of Congress as well as the administration decided it would be useful to have a group of people come together to think about the problem in the long term, to think hard about what the solutions might be, and to think about what the consequences would be if America fails to address the worsening problem of inequality in schools.

CISAC: You've been to one meeting so far. What were some of the initial thoughts or discussion points about what these problems are and how we might address them?

CUELLAR: It was a lively conversation from people who had very different views and perspectives but who came together around two basic propositions: One was that America cannot afford to ignore the problem of its educational system and how poorly it's performing relative to expectations. And two is that there's a link between equity and education. This is an important point because there are many schools in America in our K through 12 system that are performing quite well, that manage to prepare kids well, that manage to teach them what they need to learn, that manage to instill a sense of creativity and a capacity for learning. But there's an achievement gap that's affecting a huge proportion of the population. So if we think about the goal being our ability to train the next generation, and have a country that has the capacity to lead in the world, that achievement gap is really what's getting in the way.

CISAC: What is the ultimate goal of the commission? You'll make recommendations, ultimately, to Congress, to policymakers, and then what?

CUELLAR: We spent some time discussing exactly how to approach the goal. The challenge is that on the one hand, we all have a desire to affect this issue in the medium to short term because it's so urgent, and because we have the ear of the Department of Education and the administration, and many people in Congress. They want to know what can be done as soon as possible. That leads to the idea that as we prepare this report, which will take a year, that we should think hard about what can be done sooner rather than later. By the same token, the problem is so important and staggering in scope, and has such an historical context, that it's important to also think medium to long term. And in particular, given the constraints the country is facing fiscally, we want to make sure we can think about placing this in the broader arc of history. We want to make sure that part of the focus on the report is on steps that can be taken in the short term and part of it focuses on where we will want to be 20 to 30 years from now, and how we would get there.

: Can you put in context where we are now versus some of the history you mentioned?

: I'll mention three things: First, we can think about the capacity of the country to prepare people to go to college. Certainly for a very long time, America led the world in terms of college graduation rates. Now we're falling behind. Second, you can think about achievement in school districts and kids who are going through elementary school, junior high school and high school. Their achievement levels relative to their counterparts in the OECD have suffered. Third, you can think about the role of the federal government. Clearly the federal government is not the solution to every problem. But if you look at the share of education spending that comes from the federal government, that has declined fairly starkly, from a high of, I believe, 12 or 13 percent to as low as 6 percent. Now it's inching back up. But it's never gotten to the level that it was during the Nixon and Carter administrations.

CISAC: There are a lot of fiscal constraints right now in the state governments. How does what you're trying to do tie in or not tie in with that?

CUELLAR: We want to take a step back and ask the education-focused question: How do you get quality education in this country, and how do you make sure that people are not getting a better or a worse education on the basis of completely arbitrary factors? Obviously, any solution to the problem needs to be put in context of the broader fiscal situation of the country. But it's also helpful to have people who are asking the question based on what works for education, and what works in education. I should add that part of what I would like us to document is not only the cost of doing something, but what the costs of inaction are as well. Certainly money is not the solution to every problem in education, far from it, but it is important to recognize that if we fail to deal with this problem we will face a great deal of tangible and less tangible costs, including, and this is something that did come up several times in the meeting, the effect on America's ability to lead in the world.

CISAC: What is that effect?

CUELLAR: Let me start with the most basic: We have an all-volunteer army and we depend on people who are qualified and talented and willing to serve their country to assure our security. A recent report from the Education Trust documents that fully one-fifth of American high school students who took the exam to join the military are not even eligible to serve because they don't have the academic preparation to do so. It gets even more staggering if you look at the breakdown by race and ethnicity, where almost 40 percent of African Americans would be ineligible and 29 percent of Latinos.

Beyond that, we have an economy and a society that is based on our ability to grow our economy and innovate. It's hard to see how we can do so when the population is growing increasingly unequal in its education levels and its capacity to participate constructively in our economy. There's also the issue of what kind of a stake people feel they have in their country and whether they can share the American dream. This is not only important to give people a sense of ownership of the country, but it is also some of what enhances our soft power around the world. If we can offer a promising place in the American system to people who are part of our society we're better able to hold ourselves out to the world as a promising model. If we lose that, its very hard for us to exercise the kind of moral leadership we've all come to expect of the United States.