Why I became an educator

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Tuesday, March 04, 2014


I am an educator because I am committed to informed political, policy, production, and consumption decision-making. I graduated from a public high school and earned my B.A., M.B.A., and Ph.D. at public universities.  For those opportunities, I am grateful. I have taught in a major public research institution, a public city university serving primarily first generation college students and two private universities.

Milton Friedman observed that “[a] stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens.” I have often thought about this “common set of values” as the means of the public education enterprise and “literacy and knowledge” as its ends.  Educators are responsible, at least in part, for inculcating in students a common set of values and ensuring a minimal degree of literacy and knowledge.

Large majorities of students, educators, and the public consistently indicate that honesty, tolerance, responsibility, hard work, and the habits of good citizenship are important outcomes of K-12 public education. Many Americans believe it very important for public schools to prepare students to be responsible citizens as well as help people become self-sufficient.

Academic achievements are easier to measure than are honesty, tolerance, responsibility, hard work, and habits of good citizenship.  But the research on one indicator—academic honesty—paints a distressing picture.  In a recent New York Times article, Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says that over the 20 years he has studied professional and academic integrity, “the ethical muscles have atrophied,” in part because of a culture that values ends at the expense of means. Surveys of high school students consistently indicate that about two thirds admit cheating on a test.  Plagiarism is as common.  Ethical shortcuts are an accepted way of public school life.

How can we strengthen the performance of institutions charged with teaching what Francis Fukuyama calls the social virtues (i.e., reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community, and trust) necessary to successful markets and democracy itself?  One important step would be to elevate the importance of means relative to ends in our public school systems. Explicit instruction in what constitutes plagiarism, cheating, theft of academic materials, and other common forms of academic dishonesty, and why it matters, could be part of every high school curriculum. The development, dissemination, and enforcement of student honor codes in high schools would at the very least lodge an institutional objection to dishonesty.  Achievement might be redefined to include integrity.

It is inarguable that the average academic performance of US public school students has declined over the last five decades.  It should surprise no one that over roughly the same period US income inequality has become more pronounced.  Education and wages are highly, positively correlated.

In 2009, 26% of the nation’s high school seniors performed at or above “proficient” on the US Department of Education’s 12th-grade mathematics assessment.  That same year, 38% of the nation’s high school seniors performed at or above “proficient” in reading.  In 2011, 24 percent of high school seniors were deemed at or above “proficient” in writing. For academic year 2010-2011, the U.S. Department of Education four-year high school graduation rate for Oregon was 68%. 

Even this cursory look at Oregon’s graduation rate and national grade 12 achievement scores suggests our public schools are struggling to reverse, or even interrupt, the momentum of an expanding underclass. We know that those without a high school degree are more likely to be unemployed, and if employed to earn much less, than their counterparts who completed high school.  And in increasingly competitive job markets, high school graduates lacking proficiency in math and reading may see their earning power diminished as well.

How can we strengthen the performance of institutions charged with teaching what students must know to participate in our democracy and the global economy? With the passage of Measure 5 in 1990, control of our public schools shifted from local school districts funded by property taxes to our state legislature, department of education, and most recently the Oregon Education Investment Board funded in large part by income taxes. Our once responsive school boards and administrators have steadily lost their ability to deliver a high quality curriculum that reflects the desires of parents. 

In states with local control, student performance is higher. In those states larger shares of children attend public schools.  Public support for public schools is stronger where control is local.  In several of those states, state income taxes augment insufficient property tax bases to ensure that districts otherwise unable to meet state education requirements have the resources to do so.

We are failing to prepare significant numbers of young people for higher education, citizenship, and the world of work. It is time to reverse Measure 5 and restore the responsibility for K-12 public education to local school boards, administrators, and teachers working for children, their parents, and the future of our democratic society.


Debra Ringold is Dean and JELD WEN Professor of Free Enterprise, Atkinson Graduate School of Management, Willamette University.  She is one of three university administrators who will write a quarterly column on higher education for Oregon Business in 2014. The two other contributors are Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College, and Wim Wiewel, president of Portland State University.


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