Former federal official addresses issues with US education system
Former Director of the Domestic Policy Council for the United States, Melody Barnes believes one of the nation’s major challenges is connecting the youth with the ability to get a comprehensive education.
Barnes, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, spoke last night at the Kirkpatrick Chapel on the College Avenue campus.
Barnes’ speech was a tribute to Wynona Lipman, who was New Jersey’s first African-American woman state senator.
“For many of her years in senate, she was the only woman there … and she was always speaking up for those with least access to the political process,” said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics.
Barnes said Lipman deeply believed in the right to a quality education. She became committed to improving the lives of women, children and the poor.
“She became an indomitable force for change, for change that was so desperately needed across the state of New Jersey and across the entire country,” Barnes said.
Women received fewer than half of all undergraduate degrees in 1970 and fewer than 10 percent of all professional and doctoral degrees. Though these numbers have greatly improved since then, Barnes said the United States continues to face challenging education-related reforms that need to be made.
“Those postsecondary credentials are so critical to economic security and to the jobs of the future,” Barnes said.
Barnes tied in the importance of obtaining postsecondary and professional degrees with the fact that 42 million Americans are currently living below the poverty line.
“We have got the get the policy right, because as these demographic shifts take place in our country, we can’t have a growing population that is also undereducated and economically insecure,” Barnes said.
Barnes talked about the policies that must be implemented so the vast majority of high-school graduates are either prepared for college or for careers. She said it starts earlier than high school, with the most important age group being zero to 3-year-olds.
“We have complex, multifaceted challenges sitting in front of us … if we start focusing on this when folks are in middle school, we are far too late — we have to start at the beginning,” Barnes said.
Barnes spoke of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that passed when she working for Obama, which gave a $2.1 billion grant to the Head Start program, which gives comprehensive support for education and health for low-income families.
This opened spots for more children to attend preschool and helped ensure that Head Start programs were quality programs ensuring underprivileged children could enter kindergarten and not be left behind, she said.
“Right now, we see about a 70-point achievement gap between low-income children going into kindergarten and their peers,” Barnes said.
She said it is the nation’s duty to make sure that Head Start and similar programs are not glorified babysitting services. Studies have shown by third grade, these children are so far behind that it is almost impossible for them to catch up to their peers.
Barnes also addressed the changes that need to be implemented with high school students who, as of now, are not graduating prepared to enter the world of higher education or the world of employment.
“What the goal must be is that when someone finishes high school, they are ready for college or they are ready for a career,” she said. “Right now, too many of our young people are not ready for either. That is a national tragedy. Telling our young people that they are is a national lie.”
Barnes said the country needs to work closely with governors to raise the standards, making sure students are getting the analytic and communication skills they are currently lacking after high school graduation.
Barnes is not afraid to set large goals. She informed the audience the United States is ninth in the world regarding the proportion of college students who graduate, but said by 2020, we must be first.
“We have to set those big goals,” she said. “We have to measure and make sure that we are moving forward, not standing still or moving backward.”
Sara West, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, thought that Barnes’ speech was amazing and inspiring.
“As a woman, to hear another woman speak about why issues that I’m concerned with are important … that’s really neat to hear,” she said. “It was more inspiring than I was expecting.”