Despite massive social and political overhauls through previous decades, the nation's education system has yet to reach the levels of prosperity and fairness that policymakers have hoped to achieve. The debate on how to reform education is increasingly critical as accountability standards continue to unmask clear disparities in an already broken system.
For the 2012 Garnet Weekend McCabe Lecture, Christopher Edley, Jr. '73 addressed a crowded concert hall in the Lang Music Building to speak on "Creating the K-16 Education System America Needs." Edley, an educational policymaker who has served under Presidents Carter and Clinton, discussed the problems with the current system and how those problems could be creatively addressed.
Edley noted that only one in four of America's 52 million K-12 students are performing on a level that equals students in the best five global education systems - Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, Korea, and China. He said America has been an "outlier nation" in the way it funds, governs, and administers K-12 schools.
"We do too much stupid stuff and not enough smart stuff," Edley said. "That's the technical term for it. So, what does the Promised Land look like and how do we get there?"
According to Edley, the direction of guidance for the next decade or two should focus on three things: implementation of a financial system for education in which each school site is given a "fair shot" at resources and an equitable distribution of resources; services and reform that directly address complications resulting from poverty; and adequate training and support of teachers.
Edley also spoke briefly on higher education reform and answered audience questions regarding implications of the Affordable Care Act and the effectiveness and usefulness of charter schools.
"Charter schools are great, but they're not the solution," Edley said. "They affect only a tiny fraction of kids (and) they have not fulfilled their promise of being a test bed for policies that affect the greater population." He concluded that in the current K-12 education system, "opportunity is defined by zip code, and that's not the right kind of America."
He also recognized Swarthmore as being "the place where I learned intellectual fearlessness and intellectual humility."
Edley became dean of UC-Berkeley Boalt School of Law in 2004 after 23 years as a Harvard Law professor. He has held senior positions in five presidential campaigns, including his service as a senior policy adviser for President Obama, whom he taught at Harvard. In February 2011, Edley was appointed co-chair of the National Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education.
The Thomas B. McCabe Lecture is an annual event that brings individuals with distinguished careers in fields such as public service, business, government, education, and medicine to speak on campus. Recent speakers include Nobel laureate John Mather '68, editor in chief of Glamour magazine Cindi Lieve '88, Comcast executive vice president David Cohen '77, and Assistant Surgeon General, U.S. Public Health Service, Anne Schuchat '80.