November 8th, 2011

DISCUSS: Who Was America's Best 'Education President?'




POTUS has a great deal to do with the educational climate in the United States during any given four-to-eight-year stretch. So, which President was the best when viewed through the prism of education? We convened several experts to discuss.


Kenneth Wong, Brown University

A Democrat from Texas and a Republican from California

Kenneth Wong is the Education Chair at Brown University and the Director of the Urban Education Policy Program there, as well.

Presidential leadership is most widely recognized in the areas of national security, foreign policy, territorial expansion, nation building, economic prosperity, and democratization. Among examples of presidential impact include Abraham Lincoln, who kept the union and abolished slavery, and Thomas Jefferson, who inspired a young nation with his belief in the fundamental rights of individuals and entrusted the responsibilities of state government to meet the needs of its citizenry.

Understandably, education is rarely mentioned as an arena of presidential impact. Given our federal system, education is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but is specified as a state responsibility in every state constitution. In the early 1970s, demand for federal involvement in funding equalization was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, and subsequently, school funding reform has been determined state-by-state. Education standards, educator certification, and student assessment remain the responsibility of states. In other words, the scope of presidential engagement in education is structurally limited.

Our decentralized system of education, however, does not preclude federal influence on key challenges. The Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance in 1785 that legitimized the use of land for public schools and enacted the G. I Bills in the 1940s to support millions of WWII veterans to complete post-secondary education and successfully join the civilian work force. The Supreme Court ignited the nation’s conscience on racial desegregation in public schools with its 1954 decision Brown v Board of Education.

For Presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan have each mobilized the nation behind its education vision. As a former teacher that saw poverty in public schools in Texas, Lyndon Johnson passionately promoted federal involvement in equal educational opportunity. Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 not only launched the system of federal grants-in-aid in low-income schools, it was also a central part of the president’s War on Poverty. Johnson’s vision was to address poverty with greater access to schooling opportunities, thereby enabling all students to become participants in the work force and full citizen in our democracy. The 1965 ESEA continues to shape its contemporary configurations, including Improving America’s Schools Act in 1983 and No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Ronald Reagan entered the White House with the intention of abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, introducing school prayer, and tuition tax credits. None of these became reality. Instead, Reagan was remembered as the advocate of the recommendations of his commission that issued the widely cited report, A Nation At Risk. At a time when the federal role in education was largely measured in terms of funding support, Reagan elevated the importance of school performance. Because of Reagan’s support for the NAR’s recommendations, federal education policy has expanded to incorporate both fiscal inputs and outcome-based accountability, including NCLB and the current debate on its reauthorization.

In short, President Johnson crafted a purposeful agenda for federal engagement in education that remains relevant today as poverty continues to hinder our society’s progress. President Reagan further pushed that federal agenda to accommodate to global competition. I would consider Johnson and Reagan as number one and two most important education presidents.


Steven Mintz, Columbia University

We like Ike (and LBJ)

Steven Mintz is the Director of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Center at Columbia University.

Who was the real ‘education President?’

Jimmy Carter, who signed into law the bill establishing the U.S. Department of Education?

Bill Clinton, who devoted millions of dollars to shutting down or redesigning failing schools and expanding public school choice?

George W. Bush, with “No Child Left Behind?”

In fact, the presidents who established a vital federal role in education were Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson.

The first cabinet level office devoted to education — the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare - was established in 1952, shortly after Eisenhower’s election to office. It was during his terms in office that the federal government began to promote increased educational opportunities for students with disabilities and to provide aid for training special education teachers. The launching of the first earth-orbiting satellite Sputnik by the Soviet Union led Congress to pass the National Defense Education Act, to fund programs in science, math, engineering, and foreign languages.

Johnson shifted the focus of federal education efforts to assisting economically disadvantaged children. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provided aid to schools to fund compensatory education programs designed to equalize educational opportunity. In 1968, the Johnson administration began to provide aid for bilingual programs to assist non-English speaking students.

Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, more than any other presidents, established the principle that education was not just a local or state obligation, but a federal responsibility, too.


Christopher Cross, Cross & Joftus, LLC

An unlikely pair emerges

Christopher T. Cross is chairman of Cross & Joftus, LLC, an education policy consulting firm.

I begin with the belief that there is a legitimate federal role in education; a belief not shared today by many of my fellow Republicans. That belief is based upon the fact that we are “United States” and that a key to that unity is a population that need not respect state lines and where an educated population is essential to making us both free and prosperous.

It is only in the modern era, since after WWII, where we have seen any significant attention to education as a national issue. While Lydon Johnson made the most significant break-though by actually getting significant legislation (ESEA) passed in 1965, he did so as a War on Poverty issue, expecting that more dollars would equal better results and, therefore, without any attention to results nor a theory of action that went beyond the need to address poverty.

Moving forward in time, the unlikely duo of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were the driving forces to put education on the national map in a significant way. Bush did it by convening the Charlottesville Summit in September of 1989, Clinton by securing passage of the Improving American’s Schools Act as an amendment to ESEA and the Goals 2000 Educate America Act, both within a few months of each other in 1994. What Bush had begun, with Clinton’s support as then-governor of Arkansas, Clinton saw to fruition.

The significance of these actions is that they did cast the die for accountability in the use of federal funds, made an atttempt at national assessments in math and reading, and did create national goals for education. While many may cite Ronald Reagan for “A Nation at Risk,” he had nothing to do with the report or even naming the commission that wrote it. He did recognize the importance of the report and its rhetoric and did capitalize on that in his 1984 reelection campaign, but never translated that message into action. While Jimmy Carter might be credited with creation of a cabinet-level agency, he accepted only the most anemic of versions and then lost his own reelection six months after the department came into existence, so he never used that vehicle to accomplish anything substantive. George W. Bush in NCLB did push the envelope farther than ever, but it was a combination of the first Bush president and Clinton that made that push possible. In the final analysis, and given my biases, the Bush/Clinton pair would be my pick for best educations president(s) of all time.


Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Bard College

Has there been one yet?

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann is a Levy Institute Research Professor at Bard College and a Distinquished Fellow at the Bard Prison Initiative.

We have had presidents who would like to be considered great “education president,” but I do not think we have yet had one who deserves the title.

From Truman to Obama, presidents have worked hard to open greater access to education, promote equity, and raise student achievement. But none has mobilized a national conversation about all that is necessary to ensure academic achievement for all American youth.

Children who are homeless, hungry, or anxious about problems at home are not likely to learn well, even in good schools. Young people who cannot visualize where high school and college might lead will not be likely to stay in school. Acknowledging that the social situations in which people come of age have a major impact on academic success should not detract from efforts to improve schools. But to be effective educational reform must be combined with efforts to address poverty and family stress. In addition, it is important to recognize the people who do not learn well in school, sometimes flourish and learn outside. Effective educational reform must create options for learning before, after, and outside of school.

A great education president would use the bully pulpit to call us to re-imagine what will be required to ensure high levels of competence and character in all our young. He or she will help us think our way beyond tinkering with repeated cycles of school reform to ask what changes in American society are necessary to make equal educational opportunity a reality. John Dewey once argued that in a utopia there would not be schools. Might he have been right? We need a president who is not afraid to ask that and many other questions.


Jim Guthrie, George W. Bush Institute

Three candidates stand out

Jim Guthrie is Senior Fellow and Director of Education Policy Studies at the George W. Bush Institute.

There have been twelve modern, post-FDR, Chief Executives. Three — LBJ, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush — qualify as legitimate education presidents.

We are a year away from the 2012 elections. If one holds hope of being known as an “Education President,” there are significant lessons from history.

It is a terrific aspiration. Other than fixing the economy, America has no greater need than to render schools more effective. Be aware, however, that the challenge of education improvement as a lasting legacy is large.

There is some good news from the past. In this era of fiscal austerity, you need not obligate a lot of federal money to gain the sobriquet. LBJ and George W. Bush did, but Reagan did not. Nor need you pander unduly to education interest groups.

The principal criterion for fame in the education field is that you shift the paradigm. You change the public and policy perception of and conversation about schools in a significant and lasting manner. You can accomplish this goal through multiple means. You can sponsor and orchestrate enactment of a bill, make speeches, support a movement, start a bandwagon, use the bully pulpit, spotlight a problem, or provide incentives or impose penalties that alter how the public sees schools, how policymakers perceive improvement opportunities, and how professional educators pursue their practice.

LBJ is one of three legitimate education Presidents; the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) redefined and vastly expanded the federal government’s education role. This act made clear that poverty no longer need preclude an individual’s education success.

A Nation at Risk was issued during Ronald Reagan’s first term. It continues today as one of the nations most significant education documents. It triggered a school reform movement that lasted three decades and still has momentum. It is still cited. Ironically, it was Terrell Bell, Reagan’s Education Secretary, that initiated A Nation at Risk. Reagan came belatedly to use his bully pulpit to promote it, only after he saw the enormous acceptance it had with the public.

George Herbert Walker Bush and William Jefferson Clinton are notable for reasons other than education: resisting foreign dictators, promoting free trade, and gaining enactment of welfare reform.

President George H. W. Bush gets credit for convening governors in a rare national summit. This meeting resulted in our nation’s first set of national education goals. This was a bold move, but does not qualify, by itself, to make him an education president. President Clinton deserves credit for welfare reform and international trade, but not education.

It is too early to judge President Obama and Race to the Top, but he already gets credit for sustaining education as a major national issue.


Brandon Rottinghaus, University of Houston

Think about who the Department of Ed DC headquarters is named for

Brandon Rottinghaus is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston.

Several presidents could claim the mantle of being an “education” president. Thomas Jefferson and Millard Fillmore both founded state universities. Jimmy Carter signed the final legislation establishing an independent Department of Education. Yet, one chief executive stands out as the most significant and influential in history. A teacher himself, from a little town in south Texas, President Lyndon B. Johnson made education a national priority more than any other president. Historian and LBJ biographer Robert Dallek noted that he had an “almost mystical faith in the capacity of education to transform people’s lives and improve their standard of living.”

President Johnson’s education agenda was connected to his concerns about poverty and inequality. He created the Head Start program as part of his Great Society initiatives, facilitating early learning for children from low-income families. He signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which allocated funds for language training and remedial reading, audio-visual equipment and specialists to work with preschoolers or those at risk to drop out of high school. The Higher Education Act of 1965, pushed by the President in Congress, increased federal funds given to universities and established a National Teacher Corps, not unlike what Teach for America does today. As part of the President’s agenda stemming from the Higher Education Act of 1965, he signed into law the Pell Grants program, named for Senator Claiborne Pell, which extended federal aid to students from low-income families.

President Johnson carried the lessons he learned about education from the dusty, little schoolroom in which he taught in Cotulla, Texas to the White House. Returning to San Marcos, Texas (where a young LBJ attended Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College) to sign the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law, President Johnson said, “I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.” Education was his ticket out of poverty and he would make sure it would be for others as well.

By his estimation in his presidential memoir Vantage Point, President Johnson passed sixty education bills. Perhaps it is little wonder that the Department of Education’s headquarters in Washington, DC is named in his honor.


Thomas Alsbury, Seattle Pacific University

Consider ‘most influential,’ not ‘best,’ and you’ll find a candidate

Thomas Alsbury is a professor of Educational Administration and Supervision at Seattle Pacific University and Director of the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) Center for Research on the Superintendency and District Governance.

The question of identifying the ‘best’ education president is rife with subjectivity and conjecture. One dilemma is the political reality that one person’s hero can be another person’s villain.

Given these complications, I would (a) prefer to identify the most “influential” president in terms of education as opposed to the “best” and (b) choose presidents who can be more singularly and directly linked to creating an influential educational initiative. For these reasons, I choose a president from the modern era that, I believe, is also the most influential of all time: Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961). Eisenhower laid the foundation for federal involvement in education as we know it today. He created the cabinet-level Department of Health, Education and Welfare from whence came the Department of Education. In addition, he infused a tremendous amount of resources into education, creating the National Defense Education Act of 1958 that added significant funds for science and mathematics education after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The Act provided additional funding for all levels of education and guaranteed that each state would continue to manage its own educational system. President Eisenhower also enforced the desegregation of schools following the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, sending troops to escort black students into their all-white schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Let me explain my issue noted in item (b) above. Few federally-developed programs can authentically be created with singular and direct causality from the executive office to inception. One example is the historical development of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The initial Summit Meetings on Educational Standards with the National Governor’s Association was initiated by Pres. George H. Bush in 1986 on the heel of a shellacking of education by The 1983 Nation At Risk report. The outcome of that discussion led to Goals 2000, characterized by some as the birth of the standards movement in education; Pres. Clinton signed that program. Eventually, Goals 2000 morphed into NCLB, signed by George W. Bush. The question is — who gets credit? Do we assign credit or blame for NCLB to the president who arguably started the conversation, the one who finished and signed the voluntary precursor program, or the one who made it a required and strict accountability measure? One can see from this example how it is difficult to place the entire praise or blame on any one single president for programs that develop over time.


Anne L. Bryant, NBSA

Two contenders, but don’t discount Obama

Anne L. Bryant is the Executive Director of the National School Boards Association (NSBA).

Almost 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation that paved the way for generations of Americans to further their education at colleges and universities. The Morrill Act of 1862 was a land-grant bill that funded the creation of colleges across this nation. At first, the primary focus of these institutions was military tactics, agriculture, and engineering. But once the war ended, these universities and colleges re-imagined their purpose, opening their doors to working-class men and women. For this, Lincoln should be saluted for understanding that the road to building a stronger democracy lay in the education of its citizens.

Who is the best “education President” of the modern era?

There are two presidents’ whose actions changed the course of American education forever.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to send units of the U.S. Army to Little Rock, Ark., to protect the nine African-American students attending the all-white Central High School in 1957, sent a strong message to the entire nation that school desegregation was the law of the land. “The Little Rock Nine,” who were previously denied entry to the school by Arkansas’s governor and the state’s National Guard, attended classes guarded by Army soldiers. Eisenhower once wrote: “There must be no second-class citizens in this country.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act made segregation illegal in public schools, libraries, and businesses including restaurants and hotels. Johnson followed that landmark legislation with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act, both signed in 1965. Together those three pieces of legislation have ensured that all of America’s children — regardless of their racial, ethnic, or economic background — have equal access to a quality education.

And I also believe that we will look back at this time in history and hail President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, for saving the jobs of teachers and building schools as the financial crisis took its toll on the nation’s economy. The economic stimulus package included almost a $54 billion investment in public schools securing the education future of America’s children.


Larry Cuban, School Reformer

Four key facts lead to an answer

Larry Cuban is a former high school history teacher, superintendent, and professor. He blogs twice weekly at his site.

Four facts convinced me to vote for Lyndon Baines Johnson as the “best” education President.

FACT 1: Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the federal role in schooling had expanded dramatically since 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), particularly Title I. No Child Left Behind (2002) is the latest of the federal reauthorizations of ESEA.

FACT 2: ESEA focused national attention and took action for the first time on the connection between poverty and low academic achievement. Education was a key component of LBJ’s “War on Poverty.” His Administration initiated Head Start, Upward Bound, the Job Corps and dozens of other efforts in the late-1960s.

FACT 3: Presidents Ronald Reagan, H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have converted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of the Great Society from a poverty-based federal “entitlement”program (mainly through Title 1) into a standards-based accountability program that expanded testing and established rules for acceptable academic performance touching every one of the 14,000 school districts that received federal dollars. No longer a poverty-reduction effort, ESEA is now a testing and regulatory machine that identifies and punishes failing schools.

FACT 4: As a federal regulatory machine to raise academic achievement and end the gap in test scores between poor and non-poor children, it has failed. That failure is because the expanded federal role had to rely on a state and local infrastructure that was unable to reverse the persistent failure of schools to reduce either poverty or inequality in distribution of wealth. State and local districts lacked a coherent curriculum, a technical capability for assessment, and well-trained teachers. Moreover, the federal government contributed less than a dime out of every dollar spent on schools and states perpetuated a funding scheme that gave fewer resources to the most needy students.

None of the most obvious candidates for “best” education president — H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama — had made any substantial effort to directly attack the societal problem of poverty through political and legislative action to alter socioeconomic structures that manufacture poverty and maintain maldistribution of wealth in the U.S (e.g., progressive income tax policies, raise minimum wage, expand earned income tax credit and child credit, increase housing vouchers). Instead, they indirectly dealt with poverty through helping the next generation of children. That includes LBJ.

But at least Lyndon Johnson made the connection that schools can reduce poverty, albeit indirectly, by helping individual children acquire educational credentials and the social capital that would have personal payoff in the job market. No President before him did so and every President since he served built on the linkage he made. That connection between education and poverty is (and was) crucial since doing very little to directly alter socioeconomic and political structures leaves U.S. schools still largely reproducing socioeconomic inequalities, except for that small fraction of individuals who succeed in school.


Kay Ann Taylor, Kansas State University

In many ways, we’re still waiting

Kay Ann Taylor is Associate Professor, Foundations of Education (College of Education) & American Ethnic Studies (College of Arts & Sciences), Kansas State University.

“One best” education president of any era conjures up a vacuum. Some might argue Thomas Jefferson was “best”. His vision is unrealized and was elitist in a racist and sexist era that continues into the present. Those who were not white property holding males had no opportunities — not all that dissimilar from today. Kennedy and Johnson rise momentarily with the educational Title Acts granting access and attempting equity to many excluded previously. Reagan’s devastating 1983 Nation At Risk Report set the tone for education since that time. Bush, Jr. cemented it with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to annihilate and end public education completely through privatization.

Obama brought brief hope when observing his daughters attended the Dewey School at the University of Chicago. Although he seems to attempt to undo some of the NCLB damage, he has not. Candidates for 2012 offer no promise. We remain mired in a draconian and outdated factory, assembly-line model of education although some public schools and teachers provide a creative and outstanding education for their students. For the most part, public education does not mirror the democratic ideal. (If schools mirror society, democracy becomes more elusive every day.) Public education continues to perpetuate social control, social reproduction, social efficiency, and produces more duty-bound than engaged citizens. Local control has eroded, as has the Land Grant mission to offer affordable access to the many (i.e., a new road to debt).

Politicians, philanthropists, and corporations know little of what a true education is other than they went to school, yet they continue to dictate its fate. Too many kids are turned off as evidenced by soaring dropout rates, unless they have affluent parents who provide an outrageously priced private education (where the “true future leaders” are groomed). The marginalized become more so. Critical thinking, creativity, and innovation are memories with the testing frenzy, which pads testing companies’ coffers and produces students who ask, “What do you want me to do?” “What’s the “right” way/answer?” Mechanistic standardization undermines learning. Instead of blaming teachers, any President should listen not only to them, but to the students when it comes to what constitutes a safe, caring, respectful, engaging environment where true learning can and will happen. Children are human and our greatest resource for our future. I continue to wait for the “best education President.”

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America’s Best Education President… has yet to happen. While some presidents (or their cabinet secretary or their advisors on education) have risen to the task of educating an increasingly diverse populace, our best is always yet to come. Truman’s GI bill was a huge catalyst for education that reached well beyond the signing of a single education bill. Our current push for STEM offerings seems to have powerful parentage from that bill as well as from JFK’s challenge to get to the moon by the end of the 1960s. What we have had in our modern era seems to create deeper division and less actual educating, depending on the test results or other measures you take seriously. So, America’s Best Education President is one that has yet to be elected.

It’s kind of odd that none of these comments addressed the most critical issue of public education in the 20th century - racism, and the civil rights struggle to even conceive of equality in, through, by, which or for public education. That role is probably shared by Eisenhower (who, after all, appointed Earl Warren in the first place, and thus catapulted Brown v. Bd of Ed into cultural change), and Kennedy (actually both John and Bobby) who were challenged to enforce that decision with passion and impact.

Odd how soon how much is relegated to oblique and tangential history.

An interesting group of comments, but I must say I agree with Ellen Lagemann above all the other commenters you have gathered. Our presidents have not seen fit to address the broader questions that only their position gives them a serious chance of addressing. Most have misunderstood their role as something like that of the nation’s superintendent of schools or, at best, the chair of the nation’s school board. But all that said, I would put in a word for Old Tom Jefferson.

Yes, he did write to Nathaniel Burwell, “”A plan of female education has never been a subject of systematic contemplation with me,” though he did include both boys and girls in his plan for primary schools. And yes, he didn’t include slaves at all, either — though he recognized the inconsistencies of his own conflicted views on all the questions surrounding that vexed institution.

So TJ doesn’t rise to the standards of equity we’ve set for ourselves, though we, too, have failed to fully meet them. However, he did address the kind of questions of purpose that are — and remain — important to this day. And they are the kind of matters that a president could use to begin a national conversation about what our schools are for. Here are TJ’s goals for a system of general schooling. Mentally include females, minorities of all sorts, and people with disabilities as you read his proposals from the Rockfish Gap Report, and then decide whether anyone who has held the nation’s highest elected office has done any better in the nearly two centuries that have passed since TJ worked to set up a university system and a system of feeder schools.
Bruce Smith

Here are TJ”s goals for a general system of schools:

• To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business;
• To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts in writing;
• To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties;
• To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either;
• To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains, to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and judgment;
• And in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed. (Report for University of Virginia, Rockfish Gap, 1818)

I don’t want a best education president. I want education and law to devolve back to the states and localities where the parents have more influence. After all, it is the parents who are responsible for the children.

The more we rely on distant experts, the more the parents will be seen as obstacles to the latest educational craze. The more we see education as a specialty run by experts, the less parents will see and bear their responsibility toward their children.

Education is more than filling children’s heads with knowledge, it is also the formation of their characters. That is the parents’ job and they are in the best position to accomplish it.

I agree with Ken Wong. Johnson and Reagan have had the largest impact. Reagan’s impact is ironic because he wanted to remove the federal government from education but the report of the commission he appointed set major parts of the agenda for the next three decades, Since the reforms have been ineffectual and taken attention from the underlying issues and punished the most vulnerable schools and their teachers, the influence has been largely harmful. Lyndon Johnson set the basic issues of civil rights, preschool, college aid and support for those normally excluded, and he found the first politically viable formula for large scale aid to public schools. It is no accident that nearly a half century later the current direct descendants of those programs still provide the institutional structure and some of the most important issues for education. He saw education as part of a much broader set of reforms that had to deal with underlying issues of race and poverty.

There is a remarkable lack of diversity in those chosen to answer this question.




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