Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Concern with Disadvantaged Students: An Interview with Henry Levin

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A Concern with Disadvantaged Students: An Interview with Henry Levin

Article excerpt

Mr. Levin has been deeply concerned with the welfare of disadvantaged students ever since he criticized the Coleman Report in 1966. In his view, bringing youngsters at the low end into the mainstream is by far the most important effort in education because its outcome has the greatest potential for social impact or for social and economic disruption.

HENRY (Hank) Levin, currently the William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, has had a three-part career in three areas with considerable overlap: finance and education, disadvantaged students, and privatization. From 1978 to 1984, Levin was the director of the Institute for Research on Educational Finance and Governance at Stanford University. In 1986, he became the founding director of the Accelerated Schools Project and remained its director until 1999, when he left Stanford University after 32 years to direct the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College in New York City.

Growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s, Levin was an "indifferent student" whose chief interests were athletics, particularly men's track, and his amateur radio ("ham") station. The athletic interest continued through college, although Levin was quickly drawn into serious academic work in economics, graduating cum laude from New York University in 1960. In 1966, shortly after earning his Ph.D. from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Levin went to work at the Brookings Institution, where he focused on "social economics: education, health, and welfare." That year the Coleman Report, James Coleman's famous study of private schooling, was released. This report by a very senior researcher reached some depressing conclusions about education reform, namely that spending more money on students, teachers, and school facilities has little effect. Levin and another young scholar, Samuel Bowles of Harvard University, took a careful look at the report and concluded that "it was a classic in terms of the sloppy use of methodology." This sharp critique, the first significant challenge to the report, earned Levin a bit of notoriety and led to a position at Stanford University.

Very quickly, Levin began working on the economics of education - the manner in which schools were funded and the uses to which those funds were put - areas in which almost no one was specializing at the time. There was some interest in "human capital" but almost no concentration on "resource allocation and cost-effectiveness." This interest in the economics of education led to the establishment on the Stanford campus of a federally sponsored Institute for Research on Educational Finance and Governance, which Levin directed. The institute examined such matters as the fairness of school finance in the states, the comparison of private and public education, rising poverty rates, an increase in single-parent families, and the arrival of immigrants with little education.

Between 1978 and 1984, the institute had a "very strong influence on the field," publishing about 50 refereed articles each year and supplying the research background for several court cases on school finance. Levin became "the first expert witness in Robinson v. Cahill, the New Jersey case," and eventually became involved in the Serrano case in California and in other school finance cases in which he pointed out that "there were inequalities in the sources of revenue, that these inequalities led to inequalities in education outcomes, and that these outcomes in turn had consequences for the life chances of children."

By 1984 the federal Administration had adopted the view that federally sponsored "educational research subjects and conclusions should support the Administration." The new Administration felt that since the federal government was paying the bill, the research should back up its programs, among them tuition tax credits for private school attendance. …

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