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Harvard Economist on Equity in Public Education

His speech was a community call to arms.  “The U.S. is failing to prepare massive numbers of young people to succeed in a twenty-first century economy,” he said.

Dr. Ronald Ferguson, 62, was a teenager in the 1960s, a time when there was a great energy for social change.  Today, he has that feeling again, and this time it’s about education.

Ferguson, an economist from Harvard University, spoke at Amherst Regional High School Wednesday evening as part of the Office of the Superintendent’s efforts to bring the national discussion on education to the local community.

Early in his speech, Ferguson did not hesitate to bombard the audience with sobering statistics about the state of public education in the United States.  White students rank behind 14 other countries in math scores at age 15.  High school completion rates are declining, and apparent increasing rates are mostly due to former students acquiring their GEDs. Of young black men who have not graduated from high school, 25 percent are behind bars.  Unemployment rates among young people are astronomical.

Despite these facts, Ferguson said there are many reasons to be optimistic looking forward.  For one thing, there does not seem to be much difference among infants; we all come from the same starting point.  Racial IQ gaps are smaller than in the past.  White people made up 68 percent of the U.S. population in 2000 and that figure is projected to drop to 46 percent by 2050.  And, perhaps most importantly, exemplary schools are showing the way.

The 2009 Achievement Gap Initiative (AIG) Conference at Harvard featured 15 such extraordinary high schools from a number of states, including Massachusetts.  According to the report, Brockton High School is a demographically diverse school, with a student body of about 56 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, and 27 percent white.  In terms of achievement gains from 8th to 10th grade, these students outperformed 90 percent of other schools in the state on the English Language Arts section of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

In addition to following the lead of excelling schools, we need to target students’ social worlds, Ferguson said.  He has found that when middle and high school students are given confidential surveys about what is considered cool in their schools and what they think should be cool, the two lists are in stark contrast.  High-achieving students tend to hold themselves back as a way to fit in.  “They’re trapped inside their own youth culture.  They’ve already got the right values, but they don’t have the right social opportunities,” Ferguson explained.

Family dynamics also plays a substantial role in a student’s academic achievement. In a paper Ferguson presentenced in June 2011, he concluded that an authoritative parenting style, one that emphasizes high demand and high warmth and responsiveness, is correlated with higher achievement in students.

And it’s never too early to start.  Ferguson discussed studies that have found an association between high academic achievement and early bedtime reading and conversation.  Another study discovered that the amount of free space provided to a 2-year-old child in which to crawl could predict his or her math performance by age 8.  “Who would have thought that sticking your kid on the floor and saying crawl promotes math skills,” Ferguson said.

Above all else, he emphasized the idea that we need to help our kids understand each of us has something to do in the world, and to that end there’s no one ahead of us.  It’s about discovering what our calling is and going after it.

Ferguson has his Doctorate in Economics from MIT.  “I was in the pack but I was not the smartest. None of them are where I am today,” Ferguson said.  “People actually read my stuff!”

Much of Ferguson’s recent work has focused on the racial achievement gap in public education – he is the faculty co-chair and director of the AGI at Harvard, a program that aims to eliminate achievement gaps through research and outreach.  He is a Senior Lecturer in Education and Public Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  He is also an economist at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.  His book “Toward Excellence with Equity: An Emerging Vision for Closing the Achievement Gap,” is available from the Harvard Education Press.

1 comment to Harvard Economist on Equity in Public Education

  • This is good–but you’ve got a “null” lead, i.e. no content in the lead. Find an angle and shape the lead to focus on the singular news point in the talk. Your first para is really a second.


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