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Volume 17, Number 2
March/April 2001

How to Bring a Campaign Slogan to Life

An open letter to President Bush


Mr. President:

This year—like every other year—America's educational system will leave countless young Americans behind. Substantial numbers of poor and minority young people—as many as half in our major cities and over one-third of all Latinos nationwide—will not make it to high school graduation, condemning them to lives out of the economic mainstream. Among those that do graduate, African Americans, Latinos, and poor white students will have 8th-grade reading and math skills. Though most high school graduates will go on to college, more than a quarter of those in four-year colleges and nearly half of those in two-year colleges will not make it to sophomore year. And young people from high-income families will be seven times more likely to earn that ticket to family-supporting wages—the college degree—than young people from low-income families.

Many argue that the federal government cannot do much about this. "Leave no child behind" is a catchy slogan, they say, but education is primarily a state and local matter, not one readily within the influence of presidents—or, for that matter, Congress. Hogwash. Federal policy has had an enormous impact, for good and for ill, in areas such as special education, desegregation, and standards-based reform, which federal policy and dollars have convinced 49 states to adopt in less than a decade.

Washington's biggest influence has been on the way we think about and educate poor children. For years, policymakers dispensed resources for needy children without asking anyone to account for student learning. That changed in 1992 as incontrovertible evidence emerged that poor children could achieve at much higher levels. The shift to hold schools accountable so that poor children would be educated to the same high standards as everyone else is far from complete.

The key question is what you, Mr. President, can do to complete this shift.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.