This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

GSE dean urges action in urban education crisis

Published: June 15, 2006

Reporter Staff Writer

The consequences of a failure to solve America's urban education crisis are too frightening to contemplate, the dean of the Graduate School of the Education told those attending the June 8 UBThisSummer lecture, "Urban Education: Why Should We Care and What Should We Do About It?"

Mary H. Gresham explained that the development of a modern international marketplace means that education is more important than ever to the survival of the United States as the premier source of global innovation.

The fact that Japan holds 20 percent of all U.S. patents is just one sign that American's leadership is in danger, she said.

"Our world is based on a knowledge economy," said Gresham. "Agriculture and industry were our past, but intellectual governance is what is needed to maintain our competitive edge today."

She noted that the educational level required to perform even traditional jobs has risen to record highs. Statistics from the Education Testing Service show the number of American factory workers who have attended at least some college classes increased about 25 percent between 1973 and 2000.

But she said these changes come at a time when the two fastest-growing student populations in the United States—Hispanics and African Americans, respectively—are those whose schools fail to reach them in the greatest numbers.

In fact, New York State has the nation's lowest graduation rates for both Hispanics—at 31.9 percent—and African Americans—at 35.1 percent. Gresham pointed out that almost one in three students nationwide who enter ninth grade do not graduate from high school with a traditional diploma.

Once dropout rates for each grade are considered, "it begins to look like survival of the fittest," she added. "If you can make it to high school, fewer of those left will fail."

She said dropout rates have remained all but unchanged for two decades, according to a recent study.

In the Buffalo Public Schools, Gresham noted that 87 percent of students are minorities, of which the families of 86 percent fall at or below the poverty line. Based on statistics on the number of schools designated as failing or in need of improvement, she concluded that more than 25,000 students in Buffalo do not receive an adequate education each year.

According to Gresham, numbers nationwide on urban education reflect economic and educational disparities rooted in unfair and restrictive policies, including the remnants of segregation. "There are exceptions who escape," she said, "but then there are the rest who constitute an uncomfortably large reminder of all that has been our history."

The United States must capitalize on its diverse population—not marginalize it—in order to take on the challenges of a global marketplace, said Gresham. But the situation is mired in "self-serving political pandering," she said, "much of which still has ethnic and racial prejudice at its root."

Gresham cited Singapore as an example of a diverse nation that has made great strides in education. Students there are ranked at the top worldwide in math and science, she said, and their achievement should act as a model to countries in similar situations.

"We can learn much from Singapore and other nations who are working to catch up with the standards—so called—we established long ago," she said.

Gresham said human capital in the form of an educated workforce is essential if the United States wants to retain its position in the global economy.

Moreover, education is the greatest single factor in determining salaries, she said, outweighing even the negative influence of unfair wage discrepancies based on race, gender or ethnicity.

To find solutions to the problems in urban schools Gresham said universities and other public entities must engage with the K-12 sector to ensure all students receive a successful education.

"[GSE] has more than 25 active research projects in the Buffalo public school district alone," she said. "Our overarching theme is 'transforming lives through education' because that describes our curriculum and the goals of our research."

Gresham said early learning is an important research area for GSE faculty because the most critical period of human development occurs between birth and age 3. Also central to academic achievement are math education, which teaches logic and reasoning, and literacy.

One example she cited of GSE's impact on the local community is the adoption of the Building Blocks pre-K mathematics curriculum by the Buffalo Public Schools. The curriculum, developed by Douglas Clements and Julie Sarama, professor and associate professor, respectively, of learning and instruction, enables children to meet new pre-K-2 standards through the use of print, interactive and computer materials.

Other active GSE research areas cited by Gresham were counseling and school psychology—which, she said, can make a particularly substantial difference in the lives of adolescents—and the role of intelligent leadership on student progress.

Gresham said researchers and educators should work to accommodate innovation within the current system. She urged universities and industry to treat the issue of urban education as their own and asked leaders to set aside politics to meet the realities of the problem head on.

"These problems are complex and multidimensional. School districts can't do it alone and universities can't either," she said.