347. "Investing in People." Education Week (January 10, 2001), p 54.


Promoted as "an agenda-setting book for the next administration," Amitai Etzioni's Next: The Road to the Good Society will arrive in bookstores this month, offering an outline for connection the nation's social, cultural, and spiritual values to the task of public-policy formulation. In the excerpt below, Mr. Etzioni, director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University in Washington, advances the provocative notion that reforming education in this country may mean reversing the system's long-standing bias toward higher education.

Currently, American educational resources are incorrectly allocated. The American educational "system" is very top heavy, compared to European and Japanese educational institutions (and to those in the United States before World War II). American primary and secondary schools leave too much of the responsibility for educating and training students to colleges. In many cases, American students' first two years of college are devoted to either remedial or "catch-up" learning. Japanese and many European high school graduates have about the same preparation that our youngsters have after two years of college.

And the United States sends roughly 60 percent of its high school graduates to college, compared to less than half of this percentage in many other industrial countries. The result is an irrational, wasteful system, in which hundreds of thousands of pupils each year are poorly trained and highly alienated from learning. They drop out and require later retraining at great expense.

Over the next decade we should undertake a massive shift in the proportion of new resources dedicated to the "lower" parts of the American educational structure as compared to "higher" ones. Specifically, we need to slow down the expansion of colleges as much as is politically possible, while dedicating more resources to primary and secondary schools. Such changes in the allocation of resources are of course much easier (although far from easy!) when dealing with public universities and colleges rather than private ones. However, the latter also benefit from student loans, work-study funding, and many other programs drawing on public funds. These should not be extended until the other educational sectors catch up. The same holds for tax exemptions or credits now provided for higher education.

As teachers' salaries improve, schools will be able to attract teachers with more extensive preparation, such as those who now teach in junior colleges. And as the stigma of teaching secondary education is reduced (which should follow from better salaries and an increased influx of talent), American secondary schools will be able to carry out a higher proportion of the overall educational mission.

A greater proportion of educational resources needs to be directed to primary schools, although both primary and secondary schools should benefit as compared to colleges. The elementary reason for this reallocation is the much overlooked fact that to acquire skills and knowledge pupils must first have certain personality traits such as self-discipline, the ability to concentrate, and the ability to control their impulses.

Recent reforms have focused on pumping more math, science, and foreign languages into students. But adding science teachers, labs, computers, and so on will achieve little if students are psychologically unable or unwilling to learn. Social science research shows that the required basic personality traits are developed early in life. These include the capacity to defer gratification and to control impulses. Aside from being important in their own right--and as conditions for making people members of a good society--these characteristics are essential for turning children into accomplished pupils. Focusing significantly more educational resources on early childhood development will thus be especially beneficial to the total educational effort. This will hold as long as early school years focus on character development along the lines just indicated, rather than on the indoctrination of obsolete values or pumping the "three Rs" into unformed personalities.

From Next: The Road to the Good Society by Amitai Etzioni. Copyright © 2001, Amitai Etzioni. Reprinted with permission of Basic Books.

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