December 7, 2009

The Gathering Storm: The Sorrowful State of Education in America

by Harold Gershowitz

Comments Below

Let’s not kid ourselves. Public education in America is a growing disgrace, breathtakingly so in our major urban areas. It is a disgrace that is going to cost us dearly. In a world rushing toward technological and scientific innovation at warp speed, America has, according to the Council on Competitiveness, declined to 17th place globally in the proportion of its college-age population earning science and engineering degrees. The well-respected Broad Foundation says that our kids rank 25th in math and 21st in science compared to students in thirty industrialized countries and that seventy percent of eighth graders can’t read at their grade level. On average, they are two full years behind in math compared to their peers in other countries. Well over a million high-school students drop out of school every year. That is about 6,000 a day. Barely half of our African-American and Latino students graduate on time, if they graduate at all, and the worst kept secret in the world of education is that a high percentage of those that do finally graduate are not performing at twelfth grade levels. What becomes of them…and what will become of us as a result?

What happens in communities with high dropout rates or vastly undereducated youth? The answer stares us in the face every day –- high unemployment, high crime, and high gang infestation. Sixty-five percent of all convicts are high-school dropouts. High-school dropouts are eight times more likely to wind up in prison than those who finish high school and twenty times more likely to be incarcerated than kids who go on to college. We have, day-by-day, constructed an enormous sub-culture that is unskilled and untrained for anything other than the most menial labor, paying the lowest wages for which few will settle. Instead many of these untrained and unskilled kids are drawn to the big money that can be made illegally on the streets of America. Sadly, of course, that “work” is not only illegal, but also dangerous and almost invariably leads to early and violent death or a life behind bars. But that is exactly the subculture that continues to grow in our nation.

The crisis in education is not just confined to the inner cities. This is a transformative disaster in the making affecting the entire country. We are standing by as spectators to the “duncification” of American youth. We are producing students, at all socio-economic levels, who are woefully behind in virtually every area critical to our competitive standing in the world – language, science, engineering, math, chemistry, physics — all fields of declining American influence. The ramifications for a nation producing a vastly undereducated population will be a nation with a vastly underperforming society, toiling in a vastly underperforming economy. This, we believe, will prove to be a far greater threat to the future of our country than, say; global warming is to the future of our planet.

We are, as Peter Drucker predicted a generation ago, now living in the age of the knowledge worker. That is why unemployment is higher among men than among women in America today. The contest between brawn and brain has long since been decided. The jobs shortage we are facing in America is eclipsed by the skills shortage we are facing. We can create jobs for unskilled or poorly skilled workers, and, perhaps, we have to do that to provide a safety net under those with virtually no earning power. But that, ultimately, is a short-term investment that does little to address the larger and far more critical problem facing the country. We are investing in our own decline.

Google the key words “drug” or “gang” cultures in Rio de Janeiro or in Mexico. The groups that are described are pervasive, terrifying and deadly. Thugs control their own particular enclaves. Five thousand murders take place in Rio every year. What these mostly teenage criminals have in common with our teenage gangs is that they consist almost entirely of school dropouts. That is the way things are there…and the way they are becoming in many of our major cities faster than we want to admit. Washington, DC and Los Angeles are examples of urban centers where the dangers posed by teenage gangs are growing. These gangs are not the singing and dancing Sharks and Jets of the musical West Side Story. Rather, they are dangerous, highly armed and more pervasive.

We Americans like to think that any child can grow up in this country to be whatever he or she wants to be. We say things like that all the time. But what about the youngsters who are already damaged goods by the time they arrive at kindergarten. Kids brought up, perhaps, in loving households, but in households where parents are terribly undereducated or dropouts themselves…households where parents are products of the very broken system about which we are writing…households where children see a mom or dad only on visiting day at the state penitentiary.

A report published just last week by the Education Trust, a Washington nonprofit group, revealed that only 45 percent of low-income and minority students entering college as freshman in 1999 had graduated within the following six years, and only seven percent of minority students who entered community colleges earned bachelor’s degrees within ten years. These data are startling not only because they are indicative of educational inadequacies, but also because they point to the evolution of a growing underclass in America.

How did we get here? It is well beyond the scope of this essay to discuss all of the social factors involved. Suffice it to say, that it is almost entirely a crisis of our own making. There is, as the saying goes, plenty of blame to go around.

We are, to a great extent, reaping a sad harvest from what we ourselves have sown. We continue to pay a terrible price for the years of job, housing and social discrimination, Jim Crow laws, school segregation and systematic political and social marginalization of African Americans. We built a second-class citizenry, which we made little effort to rectify before finally enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1968, more than 100 years following the Civil War and the end of slavery in the United States.

Public education, in our republican form of government, is a state and local responsibility and it is largely funded throughout most of the country through local property taxes, which assure that communities with high-value housing enjoy a much higher largess than communities with low-value housing. Under such a system, the wealthy communities get lavish funding and the poorer communities go begging.

Teachers’ unions have become extremely powerful political forces, and have successfully instituted work rules, seniority protection and tenure provisions that serve their members’ interests, often to the extreme detriment of the students they are there to serve. These unions have systematically fought merit-pay initiatives for teachers, the establishment of charter schools and the provision of vouchers designed to enable low-income families to send their children to higher-performing private schools. School choice and competition are anathema to the unions.

Finally, education has become terribly politicized in America. Throwing dollars at problems, the politician’s panacea for every dilemma has not produced great improvement in the state of education in America. In fact, there is surprisingly little correlation between what states spend per student and quality education. Some school systems that have the highest expenditures per student are among the poorest achievers (Washington, D.C.) while other school systems that spend the least per student have the highest achieving students (Utah). Clearly, we are doing something terribly wrong.

What to do? To start with, we have to take account of the fact that this is a national problem but it is not solvable by the federal government. Public education is a local responsibility here. Reform must be accomplished in the thousands of counties, cities and school districts that make up our geography. Some guidance, national standards and block and demonstration grants directly to local, county and city school districts would have to be provided by Washington, but implementation should be local.

Here are a few modest ideas.

• First, let’s stop pouring money into systems that are failures and begin seriously funding alternatives that are full of promise. Providing vouchers to enable low-income families to send their children to better schools has been a spectacular success in most areas where it has been tried. Washington, D.C. is a good example. In its annual evaluation of the D.C. program, the Department of Education found that the voucher program’s earliest participants are 19 months ahead of public school peers in reading after only three years.

Nationwide, black 12th graders as a group score lower on reading tests than white 8th graders. The D.C. voucher program has proven that we can close or greatly narrow this achievement gap. But, since the teachers’ unions are vehemently opposed to vouchers, Congress, turning a deaf ear to the parents of Washington’s inner-city students who are great supporters of the program has, disgracefully, taken steps to kill the very promising voucher program in our nation’s capital even for those students already enrolled.

• Second, we need to centralize local control of the public schools in qualified administrators appointed by the executive branch of local government as has been done in New York and Washington and give these administrative professionals the authority, free from meddling, grandstanding politicians, to hire and fire principals and teachers.

• Third, let us also fund a concerted effort to provide community-based development centers for children in which youngsters are exposed to regular, positive stimulation from infancy. The Israeli Kibbutz system, through which an illiterate generation of immigrants was transformed into a citizenry that went on to produce one of the best educated, most innovative and productive societies in the world, cannot be transposed into our inner cities for a whole host of reasons. Nonetheless, there are valuable lessons to be learned from what they were able to accomplish. Severely, undereducated youngsters can, over time, be brought up to grade level in educational environments that are geared to deal with socially, culturally and economically disadvantaged student populations.

• Fourth, we also need to establish, on a crash basis, specialized magnet school academies for students who show special promise in mathematics, science and language skills. One size does not fit all and some young people simply have aptitudes others do not possess. It is far past time that we focus on those core studies and begin to de-emphasize (albeit not eliminate) touchy-feely subjects that concentrate on matters such as racial, gender, sexual orientation and other divisive societal differences that have crept into almost every aspect of our national consciousness.

• Last, but surely not least, we should end tenure and seniority provisions for public-school teachers and instead pay teachers on a merit basis for better performance. There are many thousands of hard working, dedicated, high-performing teachers in America. They should be rewarded accordingly. As Candidate Obama, much to his credit, stated in the run-up to his presidency, teachers who do not serve the best interests of their students should seek work in some other field.

The socio-economic level of the ultimate beneficiaries cannot determine the level of funding to be provided. Investment per student should not be a function of the value of the homes in which students live.

In previous essays, we have concentrated our focus on certain issues of immediate consequence such as health care, the struggling economy or Afghanistan. Not only are those issues important but also they are very controversial. Education, however, is a stealth issue. It isn’t a headline maker and the problems with the system have evolved slowly over time. But the quality of our educational system, while often overlooked, also very much affects our national security.

No matter their political persuasion most Americans agree that our nation is being economically challenged, not only by traditional competitors (Western Europe, Japan), but also by newly emerging economic powerhouses (China, India, Indonesia) whose economies have moved in a short span of years from agrarian to highly industrial and high tech. As newly developed powers, their plant and equipment is often newer and more modern than our own. Moreover, because of more centralized (statist) governments, these nations can channel their education and training programs toward the industries they favor. A well-educated workforce will be required if we are to maintain our position in the world and continue to enhance our productivity and grow both our traditional industries and the new high-tech industries that continue to emerge and grow. Unfortunately, we are not producing the caliber of public-school graduates that will compete well with their European and Asian counterparts, and certainly not in the numbers that will be necessary to provide strong wages for a workforce of our size.

Too many politicians at all levels, Democrat and Republican, talk during their election campaigns of the critical importance of providing every youngster with a reasonable chance of success. But their talk is cheap. Once in office, campaign rhetoric must be translated into concrete action. If that means funding early childhood intervention programs in which parents can enroll their children or some of the other ideas mentioned above (and there is no shortage of other ideas as well), then money should be redirected to that purpose. In short, our educational system needs an overhaul. If we, as a nation, forfeit (to the growing number of countries whose children outperform ours) our ability to provide the highest quality of education to our children we will forfeit America’s leadership position in the world.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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8 responses to “The Gathering Storm: The Sorrowful State of Education in America”

  1. […] facing in America is eclipsed by the skills shortage we are facing … View original here: The Gathering Storm: The Sorrowful State of Education in America Share and […]

  2. Alesha Reilly says:

    When you use the phrase “labor shortage” or “skills shortage” you’re speaking in a sentence fragment. What you actually mean to say is: “There is a labor shortage at the salary level I’m willing to pay.” That statement is the correct phrase; the complete sentence and the intellectually honest statement.

    Some people speak about shortages as though they represent some absolute, readily identifiable lack of desirable services. Price is rarely accorded its proper importance in their discussion.

    If you start raising wages and improving working conditions, and continue doing so, you’ll solve your shortage and will have people lining up around the block to work for you even if you need to have huge piles of steaming manure hand-scooped on a blazing summer afternoon.

    If you think there’s going to be a shortage caused by employees retiring out of the workforce: Guess again: With the majority of retirement accounts down about 50% or more, most people entering retirement age are working well into their sunset years. So, you won’t be getting a worker shortage anytime soon due to retirees exiting the workforce.

    Okay, fine. Some specialized jobs require training and/or certification, again, the solution is higher wages and improved benefits. People will self-fund their re-education so that they can enter the industry in a work-ready state. The attractive wages, working conditions and career prospects of technology during the 1980’s and 1990’s was a prime example of people’s willingness to self-fund their own career re-education.

    There is never enough of any good or service to satisfy all wants or desires. A buyer, or employer, must give up something to get something. They must pay the market price and forego whatever else he could have for the same price. The forces of supply and demand determine these prices — and the price of a skilled workman is no exception. The buyer can take it or leave it. However, those who choose to leave it (because of lack of funds or personal preference) must not cry shortage. The good is available at the market price. All goods and services are scarce, but scarcity and shortages are by no means synonymous. Scarcity is a regrettable and unavoidable fact.

    Shortages are purely a function of price. The only way in which a shortage has existed, or ever will exist, is in cases where the “going price” has been held below the market-clearing price.

    • Fair enough. Our concern, however, is not whether we will have “people lining up around the block to work…even if you need to have huge piles of steaming manure hand-scooped on a blazing summer afternoon.” Our concern is that we are producing a growing work force whose only capability will be to hand-scoop steaming manure on a blazing summer afternoon. Not withstanding the soundness of the commenter’s observations regarding basic labor economics, we stand by our column and the concerns it addresses.

  3. John Jensen says:

    While I applaud your interest in reforming education, you need to understand why “nothing seems to work.” The reason is that basic human psychology is violated nearly everywhere. After twenty years working with classroom programming, I had an insight into how students are motivated–that was 17 years ago–it’s taken near-disaster in education to get people willing to take a different viewpoint
    I can email a book that explains it (cf. below) and copy here a blog (published currently in Educationnews.org) that summarizes the contents. If you want to discuss this, call me at 480-588-6200.
    John Jensen, Ph.D
    Two Weeks to Transformation:
    A Roadmap
    by John Jensen Ph.D.
    If you’ll stay with me for a few paragraphs, I want to lay out a roadmap for transforming your classroom in a couple weeks. Along the way, you’ll note many familiar elements yet details that at first may be off-putting. Maybe you’ve been burnt by classroom interventions that over-controlled and ended up wearing out both you and your students. So I first want to discuss the kinds of details we need and why.
    What’s the difference between a Model T Ford and a 2009 Mercedes Benz? A Second World War V2 rocket and one carrying a Mars lander? The Wright brothers first successful plane and a modern Stealth jet? Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone and the modern cell phone?
    Each pair have in common travel in a particular environment. A common basic concept binds each pair yet the difference between old and new lies in this. In the new version, more details are integrated to serve the purpose of the whole. Details come “on line” to make the concept work better–different materials, the mechanics and physics of their operation, and the energy applied. As each ingredient is improved, its integration into the whole produces better results. Inventors constantly push the edge of design for better results: “If we try it this way, could we extend its range?’ In each pair, we should note, the more advanced does not replace the more primitive. The Model T can stand in the parking space next to the Mercedes, and a driver can say, “Today, I’ll take the Model T” and be satisfied with 25 m.p.h. so as not to stress it.
    With education we’re somewhat in that position. We can (and often do) choose to go with the 25 m.p.h. vehicle and the Alexander Graham Bell telephone. In all of human history, from plain to jungle, some have taught others. We innately know how. Although we add printing and writing so we can go farther, we can still choose the model employed in the jungle for thousands of years. We can revert.
    If we want to improve education, we do it essentially the same way as with automobiles, planes, rockets, and phones. We bring details on line to serve the purpose. Realizing many years ago that this could be extraordinarily easy was the start of my Silver Bullet approach to learning. It presumes that certain conditions (instructions, directions, arrangements, etc.) completely under a teacher’s control can dramatically spur students’ motivation and mastery. Many readers of Ednews.org have accepted my offer of a free ebook copy of my method, and I‘ve often sent along a brief orientation to it also. Here, I’d like to expand on it and narrate a kind of roadmap to the book.
    In it, you’ll note strategies divided into steps 1-2-3 etc., but these are not intended to confine a teacher. Usually the principle is clear and teachers may want to apply it their own way to save time or integrate it into their existing instruction. Having steps spelled out gives them an option to engage students and present ideas in their own way and then conclude with activities that increase long term learning. There’s typically much that could be said about why to employ the methods, but my focus instead is intensively on how–how teachers can obtain particular results if they want to.
    The easiest way to get a sense for the approach is probably by reading Chapter 9. It describes my pilot program that transformed fractious, hostile fourth graders into an ideal class in six weeks with the watershed occurring about midway. While each of the 54 sections in the book serves a need, some are as foundational as a rocket’s tensile strength and the fuel propelling it. The numbers in parentheses designate sections in the book.
    The first nine sections applied together generate a quick start, getting learning and good feelings underway. You may need nothing else, fulfilling one reader’s comment that we need to “do a lot of a few things” instead of “a lot of things not enough.” These are the few to do a lot.
    (1-2) Students must first understand and organize new material. This is familiar ground but often done incompletely. The later steps become possible only after the material is organized. (3) Hard copy is an unfamiliar increment for many, having an efficient summary of key points in one’s own handwriting or duplicated in a form students can keep. Developing the hard copy consolidates their understanding, winning half the battle. The remaining aim then is installing in mind what they already possess in writing. Too many teachers are satisfied just to get it in writing. As students expand their understanding, the same process applies to the new increment–get it formed so you at least “have it” and then assimilate it permanently. (4) Referring to this summary as a learning feat presents it to students as something they will perform. (5) Partner practice–telling the hard copy back and forth–roots their learning in peer relationships, and is a safe setting in which to practice expressing it until they are sure they maintain it (6). A major motive comes into play as they perform it daily (7), standing up in a game-like format. They also draw on the brain’s natural retentive powers with a few minutes daily of mental movie (8). The most powerful means of improving their behavior toward each other is appreciation time (9), telling others how they generated good feelings. These nine methods can be instituted on day one. Used steadily, they ensure learning and good feelings, and can change your class in two weeks.
    An array of other ways to help students, however, are ready to install as needed. Improving communications is done by providing students criteria for conducting a discussion, and then having them rate themselves on their use of the specific skills (10-11). Developing their ability to listen and give total attention to each other can be done in pairs (12-13), and a variety of topics, conflict resolution skills, and group structures can stimulate whole class discussions (14-16). The use of ratings is valuable for many purposes–students scoring themselves or others on specific measures in the direction a teacher wishes to channel development (17), and the formal division of the class into captain-led organization groups can serve many purposes (18).
    Several sections (19-28) help facilitate students’ self-awareness, management of feelings, changing unproductive thought processes, gaining greater use of their own latent traits, incorporating life wisdom, and gaining class order and cooperation. For classes that have been allowed to disintegrate into disorder, a judicious use of consequences (28) may need to be employed from the start to enable the other methods to work.
    Student learning can be deepened, more readily absorbed, and more permanently retained (29-36). Peg list (29) explains how to “peg” ideas as they arrive in sequence so they can be quickly reinforced, and the practice element (30) explains how to tell the degree to which a learning method deepens learning by how directly it calls on a prior impression in the mind. A way to involve parents regularly and valuably yet briefly is by a designated listener agreement (31) with them. Some ways to help even kindergarteners master knowledge are noted (32), but my belief is that nearly all the methods work K-12 if scaled back to students’ frame of reference and taken in sequence. Memory hooks (33) contain suggestions of a familiar type. A way for students to plot their degree of concentration (34) stimulates them to get better at it. Walk Away (35) and Time Capsule (36) methods are ways to achieve perfect mastery of difficult material, such as in math and foreign languages, by using qualities of the brain efficiently.
    Using maps (37), understanding degrees of precision (38), and saving the basics (39) address specific learning needs, while learning everything (40) is proposed and explained as a major purpose of education. Students can stimulate each other and save learning time by dividing subjects (41) and focusing on progress (42).
    Scoring is distinguished from grading (43-50). I explain why the former encourages students more (it’s how they personally view their own effort), and how scoring by points-of-knowledge and time-explaining are objective measures of actual learning that make sense to students. Various configurations of scoreboards are offered, and suggestions for how to score language, math, reading, and writing.
    Demonstrating learning occupies the last four sections (51-54). I apply the title of Academic Mastery Report (51) to a way to synthesize on one page all the scores a student masters in all subjects to present a more refined picture of his/her actual learning than do customary means. Curriculum performance (52) is the big brother of impromptu performance (8), a design for students to show off their learning in public in front of an audience. In checkpoint morning (53) they spend a half-day in a series of learning tasks and partner collaboration to master specific knowledge they choose for themselves. Team competitions (54) may be comprehensive involving several schools at once or confined to a few days in a single classroom.
    A description of my pilot program and suggestions for implementation end the text, followed by ten appendices containing discussion topics, scoreboard designs, communication skills check sheet, progress ladder, and team competition worksheet.
    Since math is a concern in so many localities, I’ll summarize a few points about it in terms of the sections above. Math lends itself well to my methods because of the specificity of its details and its cumulative nature, new sections building on prior understanding. What‘s correct or incorrect is typically clear concerning formulas, steps, sequences, and relationships. With math you can form very specific learning feats (4). A solid math task at any grade level is to master every term in the glossary of the textbook, usually 200-300 items, plotting each student’s progress visibly on a scoreboard reserved for this (47 and appendix 6).
    An all-senses recording of summary, word-by-word explanations of math processes with hand-written hard copy (3) is, I believe, an overlooked, valuable increment. Asking “What are you doing?“ of students working long division can return a word salad of vague procedures. Any material that becomes easier as it becomes clearer should be put into a form that makes it extremely clear. Writing down their understanding adds precision and ownership. Explaining their understanding to a partner (5) can be especially helpful in math because in facing a peer we are congenitally driven to want to make sense, so we tax the limit of our understanding to do that. Presenting their understanding to another extricates them from stressful isolation and engages the linear, orderly part of their mind to resolve vagueness. Their needs for attention rise and are satisfied as they stand up to present answers successfully to questions they’ve practiced (7) and are applauded for them. Keeping visible track of their progress on a public scoreboard (47-48) increases their ownership of the results of their effort.
    Two weeks to transformation. Try it.

    John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Silver Bullet Easy Learning System: How to Change Classrooms Fast and Energize Students for Success (Xlibris, 2008). He will email a free ebook copy of it to anyone requesting it, and welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.

  4. Bill_H says:

    I believe the root of the problem lies with our system of higher education, a system that has undergone major transformations over the last 40 years in two areas:
    1) Many faculties have become explicit and/or implicit propagators of left wing Marxist ideology, inculcating the benefits of Marxism and Marxist philosophy on impressionable minds (minds that later land in our state schools teaching even more impressionable ones). The MO of Marxism is the fomentation of societal fractionalization by highlighting class, racial and/or ethnic differences in the “target” society, while simultaneously offering a Marxist alternative to the system that has caused them. Sadly, historical experience has revealed that Marxism is really not a solution at all, other than its remarkable ability of self propagation.
    2) The faculties of our leading institutions of higher learning are selling out American prosperity, by opening up shop in the homelands of our global competitors.

  5. Sheila says:

    This is a great article that really poinpoints the way we are failing our country by producing generations of public school graduates that can’t compete in the global economy/workforce. To your ideas for reform of the system, I would add one more item that I think is crucial –somehow we need to monitor the elementary through high school faculties to focus rewards on the teachers who are able to inspire the students to learn, to find and build their own areas of academic strength, to insist on excellence as a core requirement for their own future and to make it a family affiar — to fully engage the parents/guardians/siblings in the process of learning…the teachers unions, as you pointed out, have a stranglehold on the business of education, and have created an enviornment that doesn’t reward excellence as much as longevity — and we all suffer for this road taken.

    It clearly isn’t that public school students can’t learn –I highly recommend the film Stand And Deliver, a true story based on the life of east Los Angeles high school math teacher Jaime Escalante, to anyone who has harbored doubts that lower income students can’t excel beyond all expectations under the right tutelage (roger ebert review: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19880415/REVIEWS/804150303/1023) –this film makes a case for hiring the RIGHT teachers. Unfortunately, too many of the “right” teachers are disuaded from considering a career in teaching or driven into other professions from their teaching positions because of the low pay scale and frustration with the inflexibilitly of the educational bureaucracy.

    So how to create an environment in which the “right” teachers flock to teach: –to your comment re the teachers unions, I would add, increase the pay scale so that teachers’ salaries are commensurate with those of other professionals on whom we depend for our very health and well being. My guess (and I agree with Alisha, here) is that if public school teachers were paid like first year MDs or attorneys, with similar incentives and career/salary potential, there would be plenty of talent from which to choose the creme de la creme. To this end, I’d love to see the government and communities engage in a partnership of some type, to make this happen – and/or grant large endowments from independent federal agencies, as we do with the arts . Or figure out how to make the whole system private, supported by communities, with corporate and government support/recognition for high performing schools. All this requires a reversal of mindset for the masses as to what education in this country is about and what it can get you, i.e, a complete rethink of the priority and the dollars which we are willing we are willing to attach to this endeavor.

  6. Ronald Cherry says:

    * Sixth:

    We should cease un-Constitutional Federal education matching grants to the states, reducing Federal income taxes by the same amount while simultaneously increasing state taxes in tandem – with corresponding State tax breaks for families opting who choose private schools or home schooling.

    Federal financial control of our children’s education is un-Constitutional and moreover is immoral as it becomes a tool for Statist indoctrination of children. Federal involvement in education should be limited to research and recommendations to the States, local communities, and to individual families.

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