Thesis Christ: Education and Opportunity

Name: Lydia Lutsenko

Pronouns: she/her

Major: History 

Closing out the 2021-2022 academic year, the Quest’s Thesis Christ invites the reader to investigate bigger questions about their education, and how it came to be. History major Lydia Lutsenko (she/her) does just that in her thesis on the origins of modern K-12 education.

Lutsenko’s research addresses the issue of why and how the United States federal government became involved in what is supposed to be state-organized education. Originally interested in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Lutsenko eventually had to look further back. To more fully understand the answer to her question, she needed to investigate the policies that motivated NCLB. 

The final version of Lutsenko’s thesis draws upon two acts: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and The Department of Education Organization Act. She argues that these two policies shaped the modern public education system, and both were politically motivated by foreign and domestic issues not directly related to classroom success. 

Firstly, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 allowed the federal government to fund state-run schools (this was a direct precursor to NCLB’s funding structure). It was primarily motivated by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, the thought process being that increased education would decrease poverty. While some lawmakers saw this policy as too centralized (and too similar to the Soviet model), others argued that increased funding for education would ultimately result in a more sophisticated next generation capable of creating advanced technology. Under the pressure of the Cold War, the possibility of attaining superior weaponry and more effective national defense strategies was invaluable. Thus, the Act that caused a significant cultural shift was a direct result of the Cold War.  

Secondly, The Department of Education Organization Act was passed during the administration of President Jimmy Carter in an attempt to streamline the federal government. In the late 1970s, the United States was dealing with a recession that forced Carter to make significant budget cuts. This resulted in the consolidation and elimination of many of the education organizations that existed at the time. The Act formally created the modern Department of Education.  

Lutsenko organized this large body of research and government documents and came to the conclusion that the way Congress presented and passed these policies was largely dependent on the political priorities of the time. These politically motivated acts were the building blocks of modern education, and more directly NCLB. 

Lutsenko became interested in understanding the origins of modern education in her underclassman years at Reed. Coming from an underfunded high school in northern Idaho, Lutsenko felt an intense academic shock when she arrived in Portland. Problems with the course load and workaholic mindset are not unique at Reed, but Lutsenko felt that she was particularly affected because of her lack of preparation in high school. She frequently heard stories about other students’ frustration with course material that they had “already done in high school” while she was struggling to keep up with material that was all new to her. She became frustrated with her high school education and endeavored to understand why it was that she was behind while others weren’t. 

Lutsenko had high praise for her thesis advisor, Professor Margot Minardi, saying “I am so impressed by her and thankful for her help and reliability. She is a great professor – very hardworking.” Professor Minardi encouraged Lutsenko to read as much as she could and outline her thesis early. Lutsenko hopes to pass on both pieces of advice to rising history seniors and juniors. 

Post-Reed graduation, Lutsenko intends to return to her home state of Idaho and invest her time in the institution that spurred her thesis research: the public education system. She hopes to work in education in some capacity, either as an advocate or in the educational policy realm. She aims to utilize her understanding of the system to better her community, and perhaps prevent other students from feeling as helpless as she once did. 

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