Marta Tienda Delivers 13th Annual Brown Lecture

October 2016

Marta Tienda, a leading scholar on immigration, population diversification, and poverty and the roles they play in access to education, delivered the 13th annual AERA Brown Lecture in Education Research on October 20 to a packed house of more than 600 attendees at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., and to more than 350 online viewers from around the world.

Tienda’s lecture, “Public Education and the Social Contract: Restoring the Promise in an Age of Diversity and Division,” asked whether it is possible to rewrite the social contract so that equal access to quality education is a fundamental right—a statutory guarantee—that is both uniform across states and federally enforceable.

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At Princeton University, Tienda is the Maurice P. During '22 Professor in Demographic Studies, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, with joint affiliations in the Office of Population Research and the Woodrow Wilson School. From 1998 to 2002, she served as director of the Office of Population Research and in 2002 served as President of the Population Association of America. She previously held appointments at the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

AERA President Vivian L. Gadsden welcomed the audience, noting that the Brown Lecture is an annual reminder of the important role that research can play in advancing equality in education.

Kofi Lomotey (Western Carolina University) 

In introducing Tienda, Kofi Lomotey, chair of AERA’s Brown Lecture Selection Committee and the Social Justice Action Committee, said, “During a contentious election cycle where immigration, poverty, and education are at the forefront of politicized issues facing our nation, it is vital to have a voice like Marta Tienda’s.”

In her opening, Tienda reminded the audience that from 1800 until World War II, the U.S. was the leading nation in literacy as well as a stellar example of how a country should deliver universal high school education. She went on to describe how the U.S. is currently experiencing erosion in its international, postsecondary standing.

“In higher education, the United States still ranks first in college enrollment, but not in completion,” said Tienda. “The U.S. now ranks 12th among 34 industrial peers in college degree attainment.”

She explained that educational inequalities and unequal opportunities are the sources of this educational erosion. Tienda pointed out that the Constitution does not support substantive equality or the notion of a national educational social contract.

Tienda asked, “Why the indifference? Why no call to action? Behind the dismal performance, I believe, is a growing tolerance for segregation and inequality as if both are inevitable.”

She went on to say that “the federal government has been complicit in aggravating educational inequality by not making free, public education a fundamental guarantee.”

Tienda shone a spotlight on the several propitious opportunities to strengthen the federal role in public education so that equal educational opportunity would approximate a fundamental right. These included the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890; the National Defense Education Act of 1958; and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

“Each offers opportunities for renewing the social contract, restoring educational opportunity for the working classes, and reclaiming international prominence in education,” said Tienda.  

Returning to our nation’s present educational situation, Tienda asked, “Given the competitive spirit that drove the nation to economic preeminence, why the complacency among political leaders? Why is there no public outrage that American students are slipping?” 

She went on to say that “youth advocates should consider a functional equivalent of AARP for children—the American Association for Young People—to ensure that the 50 social contracts undergirding unequal educational opportunity are not abrogated.”

Felice J. Levine (AERA Executive Director),
Marta Tienda (Princeton University),
Vivian L. Gadsden (AERA President)

She concluded her lecture by reminding the audience that the “biggest challenge is finding the political will to restore the educational social contract so that it truly broadens equal educational opportunity.”

The lecture was made possible through the generous support of 16 Friends of Brown: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, American Anthropological Association, American Institutes for Research, American Political Science Association, American Sociological Association, American Statistical Association, Association for the Study of Higher Education, Eastern Sociological Society, Educational Testing Service, George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development, RAND, Russell Sage Foundation, SAGE Publications, Inc., Spencer Foundation, University of Maryland College of Education, and the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

The 2017 AERA Brown Lecture will be held on October 19, 2017. The Brown Lecture Selection Committee is currently accepting nominations for next year’s lecture.

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