University students and faculty gathered over the past few days to discuss the current state of America’s public schools as part of the two-day Annual Jack L. Walker Conference.

The event, called “Educational Inequality in Michigan – An Inequality of Opportunities,” began with a panel discussion featuring guest speakers and University professors on Wednesday, and Democratic Lt. Gov. John Cherry gave a speech on the state’s education system yesterday.

Named in honor of the late University professor Jack L. Walker, who was instrumental in creating the annual forum on campus to discuss issues regarding education, the event touched on a wide variety of topics, from adolescent literacy to higher education financing.

Presentations and discussions extended beyond issues within the state to those at the national level as well.

Cherry spoke on the second day of the conference in the Business School’s Blau Auditorium about changing the state’s funding structure to increase the possibility of post-secondary education for Michigan residents. He stressed the value of preparing students at a young age to embark on a post-secondary education.

“It’s not good enough that every child has access to a free and public education, a K-12 education,” Cherry said. “A K-12 education must assure that every graduate is prepared and ready for a post-secondary experience.”

Cherry also repeatedly stressed adjusting the state’s education system to help make innovations that will change the state’s economy.

“For our economy to flourish, our wealth must be based on manufacturing processes that are fed in part by sophisticated technology that we excel in creating and operating,” Cherry said. “Our economic success will be directly proportional to the extent that we can shift from leveraging our muscles to leveraging our minds.”

The state’s current educational funding is not only too minimal, but outdated as well, Cherry said. State officials are seeing the same results from the funding they would’ve expected to see years ago, instead of the product they would expect in the 21st century, Cherry said.

In 2004, at Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s request, the Cherry Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth was launched. The commission has laid out “recommendations” for educational improvement ranging from professional development for teachers to incorporating entrepreneurial skills into the K-12 curriculum.

Cherry said officials may need to make changes on the current public school post-secondary curriculum, which places an emphasis on obtaining a college education because it raises the question of how that education applies to students who wish to transition straight from high school to full-time work.

He added that the vastly different skill sets that used to be required to pursue these pathways are now becoming increasingly similar.

“The clear division between vocational and college prep is quickly disappearing,” Cherry said.

On the first day of the conference, University professors Maris Vinovskis, Elizabeth Moje, Brian McCall and Greg Markus spoke in the School of Public Policy’s Annenberg Auditorium.

Vinovskis, a Public Policy and history professor, spoke about national education policies, saying that many of the programs dedicated to improving education in the country don’t receive the attention they require to be successful.

He added that in recent years, the government has tended to exaggerate the efficacy of these policies.

“We have a long history of promises unfulfilled in American development,” he said.

Moje, an Arthur F. Thurnau professor in the School of Education, discussed some of the findings of her ongoing research project, which is devoted to studying adolescent literacy in the United States.

Moje said she has found that too much focus has been put on improving test scores and academic achievement at the individual level, and that a greater emphasis should be placed on seeking to enhance the environment in which students learn.

“What we really need to be attending to, and what isn’t attended to in these policies, is that we’re not thinking about the structures, the systems, and the culture in which education is enacted, in which we attempt to teach people and provide opportunity for all,” Moje said.

Moje’s research presentation was followed by McCall, professor of education, economics and public policy, who discussed the issue of higher educational financing from a student’s perspective. He talked about the debilitating effect that debt can have in not only affecting a student’s ability to attend graduate school, but also in making future decisions.

“Debt also affects the type of job you choose, because with the loans that you have to repay, you may look for a job that has high wages but isn’t quite as interesting or not something that you really want to do,” McCall said.

In concordance with McCall’s arguments, Markus, a professor of political science and a research professor at the University’s Center for Political Studies and Institute for Social Research, spoke of the moral and ethical reasons for providing equal educational opportunities to all students, regardless of their financial status.

Markus addressed the students in attendance and encouraged them to continue to pursue initiatives that will improve the state’s educational system.

“I urge you to not be paralyzed waiting for the final research to come in as to the one best thing you should do,” Markus said. “Don’t wait for that research; we know that there are things that can be done.”

After Cherry’s speech yesterday, America Reads Director Whitney Begeman, and student representatives from the Detroit Partnership and Students for Educational Equality spoke about proposed solutions for improving educational systems both in Michigan and throughout the country.

The speakers placed an emphasis on elementary-level and post-secondary education and highlighted the importance of these developmental periods in helping students thrive in educational settings and later on in the workplace.

Student representatives from the University’s Detroit Partnership spoke about the importance of encouraging young children to pursue a college education.

“We are trying to motivate these kids to be excited about obtaining a post-secondary education,” Business senior Neil Thanedar, executive director of the Detroit Partnership, said.

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