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State Departments of Education


William H. Roe
Carolyn D. Herrington

Joanna Kister


In the United States, education has been established as a state function. Each state exercises this function completely or in part through a state department of education, within which there are varying degrees of responsibility. The state educational authority (usually known as the state department of education and personified by the state board of education and the chief state school officer and his or her staff) gains its powers and responsibilities specifically from the state's constitution and statutes. Much of its influence and authority, however, has developed as local school units, state governments, the federal government, and the courts have progressively looked to the state educational office as a source of professional advice and information.

In general, the growth and the specific roles of state departments of education have resulted from the state legislatures' responsibility to provide an adequate educational system; state education departments serve not only to interpret and facilitate the development of educational legislation, but also to observe its effect and to implement legislative mandates relating to education. The departments observe the school systems in operation and advise the legislatures of desirable changes and regulations. Moreover, there is a need for a central agent sufficiently knowledgeable about education to serve in a judicial capacity in controversies arising between school districts and local or regional educational agents and agencies of the state. State departments of education are needed to provide both voluntary services and services mandated by the legislatures to educational agents and state agencies. In general, the departments developed from the need to exercise leadership through both local government and the legislative and executive branches of state government and from the need to encourage positive improvement by uniting the educational forces within each state.


The concept of education as a state function is firmly rooted in the past, particularly in colonial laws that foreshadowed state laws and in ordinances regulating the territories that later became states. After the United States was formed, the concept of education as a state function was expanded through the general reservation of power to the states in the federal Constitution, through state constitutions, and through state statutory practice and judicial law.

1812–1890. State departments of education emerged and became firmly established during the period from 1812 to 1890. Although the first responsibilities of these departments during this period were advisory, statistical, and exhortatory, state departments of education began to come into their own with the swift expansion of public education following the Civil War. In these early days the extent of positive leadership exerted by the state agency depended a great deal on the quality of leadership exerted by the chief school officer. Some of the first state superintendents, such as Horace Mann of Massachusetts, Henry Barnard of Connecticut, John D. Pierce of Michigan, Calvin Wiley of North Carolina, Caleb Mills of Indiana, John Swett of California, Gideon Hawley of New York, and Robert Breckenridge of Kentucky, set the pattern for the development of modern state educational systems. In their respective states they consolidated the forces for education into movements that did not stop until free common school education became a reality.

These superintendents exerted a broad influence through dynamic leadership. They studied the weaknesses and strengths of the schools and interpreted the social forces that influenced education, and they kept the people and the legislators informed about education, becoming spokespersons not only for the teachers, but for all educational forces. These pioneering state superintendents, however, were aided by both social and economic movements and a growing democracy. Most important, there were individuals, groups, and organizations eager for a crusading leader who could present their ideas on education to the public.

1890–1932. The regulatory function of the state departments of education was expanded with the general acceptance of compulsory education, for it became apparent that only a state department of education could determine that compulsory attendance requirements were being enforced. The maintenance and operational functions of the state department of education were strengthened during the period from 1918 to 1932. Although compulsory attendance laws became universal and local school units stronger, it was apparent that local units varied greatly in their ability to provide education, in their educational burdens, and in their leadership–all of which resulted in startling inequities in educational offerings. This development demonstrated the need for a stronger state educational agency that could determine that minimum standards were being met. In some cases, it was the state that actively operated certain schools (e.g., schools for the blind, deaf, and similarly handicapped individuals; vocational technical schools; and teacher-training institutions) as well as programs for the entire state.

1932–1953. The years from 1932 to 1953 saw the expansion of the service and support functions of the state department of education and the emergence of its leadership role. The rapid expansion of public education as a result of compulsory attendance and the demand for equal education for all students increased the demands upon the states to provide greater support. Whereas city schools could supply and service a great variety of educational programs, rural schools could not. Therefore, numerous divisions and subunits within state departments of education were developed to provide instructional and professional assistance to rural schools. As states attempted to offset inequalities, it became apparent that a solution lay in the reorganization of rural schools into districts large enough to provide services. In fact, in most states the first significant leadership activities, which were aimed essentially at rural America, can be traced to statewide reorganization efforts. To a certain extent this rural emphasis precipitated the statewide neglect in urban education that became so apparent in the 1960s. During this period there was also an accelerating demand for new patterns of state financing that would provide a guaranteed minimum educational program to all children in all districts. The percentage of state support for public elementary and secondary education doubled from slightly more than 20 percent in 1930 to approximately 40 percent in 1950.

The influence of the federal government increased during this period, as World War II forced it to rapidly supply people trained in various fields. As a result of the national need, state departments of education directed, and in many cases operated, technical training programs during the war. After the war, when industrial expansion and the rapid increase, relocation, and migration of the population created massive school building problems, the federal government joined with state governments in stimulating long-range planning to provide adequate school buildings. It was also during the postwar period that the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), founded in 1928, achieved national influence and recognition. The council established the Study Commission of the Chief State School Officers, which took a leadership role in studying the major problems that were facing state departments of education.

1953–1983. Between 1953 and 1983 the federal influence on education increased, and state departments of education were strengthened through the federal-state partnership concept. This phase marked the beginning of the modern federal aid program for education. Social, economic, and demographic changes after World War II placed excessive demands on local school districts. In too many cases, states were unable to provide the help needed. Because there was such variation in the competency of the state departments of education, many people advocated abandoning the idea that the state department of education should maintain the balance of power between local and federal government, suggesting that the federal government assume leadership and control. In many ways federal involvement was encouraged by the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958, through which the federal government dealt directly with local school districts, colleges, and universities.

The NDEA, enacted after the launching of Sputnik I in 1957, actually resulted in an upheaval in the structure of state departments of education rather than in stability. An infusion of federal funds enabled a few states to move out of their former passive roles, but the most notable effect was an imbalance within the organization of the departments. By 1950 half of the professional staff members of state departments of education were assigned to federally subsidized programs. By 1960 that percentage had risen to more than 56 percent and in thirteen states to more than 70 percent. It was inevitable that personnel growth would take place in areas supported by federal funds. For example, in 1958 there were only fifteen state supervisors in mathematics, the sciences, and foreign languages in all the states combined. For English and social studies, there were twenty state supervisors in all the states. Title III of the NDEA offered financial assistance for strengthening science, mathematics, and modern foreign-language instruction. Thus, by 1963, five years after the act was passed, the number of state supervisors in those subjects had risen to 173, an increase of more than 1,100 percent. Because there was no federal support for English or social studies, the number of state supervisors in these subjects rose only slightly, to thirty-two for all states. In 1958 there were only three specialists in preschool education in all the states, and in 1963 there were still only three.

In spite of the massive increase in federal aid under the NDEA, state departments of education actually began to lose some of their strength and prestige. In 1963 the Advisory Council on State Departments of Education pointed out that most departments could not fully perform the duties expressly delegated to them by state legislation because of personnel shortages. Thus, when state education agencies were most needed, they were least prepared to give the kind of statewide leadership necessary for improvement.

At the continued and insistent demands of educational, social, and political leaders, Title V of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 included a five-year program of grants calculated to strengthen the capacity of state departments of education to meet their growing responsibilities. Three programs were established for this purpose. Section 503 provided basic grants to state educational agencies to develop, improve, or expand professional leadership activities. Section 505 supplied special project grants to support experimental programs and to develop special services to help solve problems common to several states. Section 507 provided for an interchange of professional personnel to develop and share leadership skills in both federal and state educational agencies. Though the percentage of the full-time staff in state departments of education paid entirely or in part by federal funds continued to rise, there was, nevertheless, greater balance in department staffs because general strength had been developed, rather than strength in specific subject areas.

1983–2000. The 1983 release of the landmark report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, entitled A Nation at Risk, ushered in a period of sustained and intensive scrutiny of the quality of public schooling in the United States. The release of this federal document coincided with similar reports and commissions in many states. State departments, for the most part, were not the source of the thrust for reform. However, the renewed focus on academic achievement has had an extremely important impact on state departments. For example, state departments have been assigned much of the policy and program development work related to school reform. They have been charged by federal and state policymakers with responsibility for articulating the rationale, implementing the policies, and developing, overseeing, and monitoring state programs for school reform. These responsibilities have strengthened the importance of state departments while significantly challenging their capacity for overseeing school reform.

The implications of these responsibilities for the structure, personnel, and organizational behavior of state departments of education have been profound. Departmental units of testing and public information have increased in number and in size, and many departments have established offices of policy analysis and research. However, as pointed out by Susan Lusi in her 1997 study of the state departments of Vermont and Kentucky, state departments were not traditionally structured or staffed to engage in the complex work of instructional improvement, nor in the policy analysis or program development that has characterized school reform. Almost every state has developed statewide curricular standards, most states have developed tests for them, and a number of states have attached consequences to varying performance.

Such tasks, assigned to state departments by state legislatures, the courts, and the federal government, have drawn state departments into technically challenging and politically controversial roles. The state court in Kentucky abolished the state education department, requiring the legislature to re-establish it. In the early 1990s, the California Department of Education was the target of heated criticism for how it developed and informed the public about its state assessments. The governor subsequently vetoed the assessment program. Even more recently, state assumption of responsibility when local systems fail has put state departments in highly problematic relations with the local school districts: they are called up to implement sanctions; enforce school choice programs among local districts–and between local districts and private schools; take over failing schools or school districts; and interpret judicial pronouncements about what constitutes adequate and inadequate schooling. Nineteen states mandate that low-performing schools receive state assistance and thirteen of those states specify the assignment of a state staff person.

State education departments have also seen their roles challenged and their budgets vulnerable to other governmental reforms. Their authority and competence have been challenged by state oversight offices, which often have closer ties to governors and legislatures. State departments have suffered from attempts to downsize government and from budget-reduction exercises as proponents of smaller government have had success in legislative and gubernatorial races. A survey by Education Week found that at least 27 state education agencies had fewer employees in 1998 than they did in 1980. State departments have also been responsible for developing management information systems to support the new accountability systems, which has placed a large technical demand on the agencies. State departments are trying to respond to these new demands by incorporating new management styles and processes. For example, the Texas Department of Education increasingly has turned to privately contracted regional assistance centers for technical assistance duties.

The Situation in the Early Twenty-First Century

Although there is still a great variation in the organization, operation, structure, staff, and influence of state departments of education, enough basic similarities exist so that one can generalize about their accepted roles and functions. In general, each state department of education has four major roles: regulation, operation, administration of special services, and leadership of the state program.

Regulation. The regulatory role consists of: (1) determining that basic administrative duties have been performed by local schools in compliance with state and local laws; (2) ascertaining that public school funds are employed properly; (3) enforcing health and safety rules for construction and maintenance of buildings; (4) enforcing and determining the proper qualifications and licensing of teachers and educational personnel; (5) ensuring that minimum educational opportunities are provided for all children through enforcement of compulsory school laws and child labor laws, and through pupil personnel services; (6) ensuring and monitoring the development of state educational standards and student performance measures and ascertaining that required procedures are used; and (7) ensuring that schools are organized according to the law. The regulatory function of all state departments of education is based on the acceptance of the fact that education is a state function and that local school districts have limited authority to act, except as state laws permit.

Operation. Operational roles of state education departments vary greatly from state to state. There is a general trend away from having the state department of education conduct direct operational functions.

Historically, states have accepted responsibility for the operation of educational agencies and services when no other agency could provide the necessary statewide direction, especially during the developmental stages of a particular program or enterprise. A state education department may operate teachers colleges, schools and services for students with disabilities, trade and correspondence schools, and agencies or institutions of a cultural nature (e.g., state libraries, museums, archives, historical agencies). It may also offer programs that other institutions are unwilling to offer, such as trade classes and programs for migrant workers.

Administration of special services. The state's role in the administration of special services developed in response to a need for statewide uniformity and efficiency in educational services. The state offers centralized services that improve education in general (e.g., teacher placement and retirement programs), and it provides services that, because of their scope, technical nature, or expense, can better be offered on a statewide basis (e.g., library services, centralized insurance, financial services, control of interscholastic athletics, statewide testing). The state also provides local school districts, the legislature, the executive office, and the general public with basic information about the status of education, such as comparative studies and statistical information and clarification of all statutes, rules, and regulations on education. As in the case of operational services, the state maintains administrative services only if they are not available through another institution or agency.

Leadership. According to the Council of Chief State School Officers, the important leadership functions of a state department of education include conducting long-range studies for planning the state program of education, studying ways of improving education, providing consultant services and advice in all areas of education, encouraging cooperation and promoting the proper balance among all units of the educational system, informing the public of educational needs and progress and encouraging public support and participation, and providing in-service education for all persons in the state engaged in educational work.

While all states have state departments of education, these departments differ in structure, organization, function, and size. All states have some type of state board of education, but there is a great variation in the amount of control exerted by the board on the department and on the overall state educational system. All states have a state school officer responsible for the department, but, again, the responsibilities of this officer vary among the states: some are political leaders and others are educational leaders; some are appointed and others are elected; some are regarded as the chief educational officer of the state; and others are one of many in the educational hierarchy who have state educational responsibilities.

At first, the chief state school officer discharged routine educational functions, sometimes with the help of a secretary. General office workers could easily carry out such tasks as compiling information pertaining to education, making annual and biennial reports, publishing school laws, and apportioning state financial aid.

In the early twenty-first century, the leadership function of the staff is not so easily determined, and there are a great variety of opinions as to how much leadership should be exerted by the state department of education. Compliance and regulatory functions remain important and substantial. The main objective remains to ensure that local school districts attain the minimum level of achievement required by the state. However, the goals of leadership and public aspirations for ever-increasing student achievement go above and beyond. The role of state department has expanded to incorporate increasing performance for all students and their function has evolved from monitoring compliance with state and federal laws and regulations to supporting school districts in pursuing this goal. As the new century begins, state departments face the daunting task of inspiring and stimulating local school systems to strive for the highest educational quality.


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LUSI, SUSAN FOLLETT. 1997. The Role of State Departments of Education in Complex School Reform. New York: Teachers College Press.

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LEMAHIEU, PAUL G., and LESLEY, BONNIE A. 1994. "State Education Agencies: Partners in Reform." In Transforming State Education Agencies to Support Education Reform, ed. Jane L. David. Washington, DC: National Governors' Association.

LARSON, CARL A. 1963 "The State Legislature, the State Department of Education, and Expertness." Journal of Secondary Education 38 (4):248–252.

MASTERS, NICHOLAS A.; SALISBURY, ROBERT H.; and ELIOT, THOMAS H. 1964. State Politics and the Public Schools. New York: Knopf.

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SANFORD, TERRY. 1968. "The States: The Revitalized Senior Partners in Education." National Association of Secondary-School Principals Bulletin 50 (309):41–44.

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Revised by


Vocational education is a field in transition, undergoing changes prompted by an upward shift in the skill requirements for the workforce and by the call for increased standards and accountability in the education reform movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Vocational education programs are offered in comprehensive high schools, vocational schools or career centers, adult education centers, community and technical colleges, and proprietary schools.

In 1999 the national organization that represents vocational educators, the American Vocational Association, changed its name to the American Association for Career and Technical Education. Most states have also renamed their divisions and programs to career and technical education, or in some states, career and technology education.


Although the mission of vocational education remains to prepare people to prepare for work, historically the focus was on preparation for entry-level jobs in occupations requiring less than a baccalaureate degree. That mission has changed to a broadened purpose of preparing for work and continued education. Educational reformers and vocational education legislation both called for vocational education programs to maintain college entry as a viable option for students enrolled in career and technical education. The 1998 vocational education legislation explicitly stated that vocational education should contribute to students' academic and technical achievement.

The National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium defined five key principles of career technical education.

  1. To draw its curricula, standards, and organizing principles from the workplace.
  2. To be a critical and integral component of the total educational system, offering career-oriented benefits for all students.
  3. To be a critical and integral component of the workforce development system, providing the essential foundation for a thriving economy.
  4. To maintain high levels of excellence supported through identification of academic and workplace standards, measurement of performance (accountability), and high expectations for participant success.
  5. To remain robust and flexible enough to respond to the needs of the multiple educational environments, customers, and levels of specialization.


Issues that are debated in vocational education include: (1) its role in secondary education; (2) the degree of specificity versus generality of occupational focus, that is, whether its focus should be education or training; and (3) whether it is intended for all students, as in career education, or for a subset of students who do not intend to pursue further education.

Legislative Authority

The federal government has supported vocational education programs since 1917 when the Smith-Hughes Act was passed to help schools train workers for the country's rapidly growing economy. The Vocational Education Act of 1963 expanded the role of vocational education and funding was substantially increased. The Vocational Amendments in 1968 addressed the nation's social and economic problems and continued funding for students who were at risk or with disabilities.

The Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984 continued a focus on access for special populations, including women, minorities, and special needs, and added a focus on program improvement. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990 (Perkins II) called for the integration of academic and technical instruction and introduced Tech Prep. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998 (Perkins III) continued the emphasis on academics in career and technical education and added a strong accountability requirement. The purpose of the act is to "develop more fully the academic, vocational, and technical skills of secondary students and postsecondary students who elect to enroll in vocational and technical education programs." Perkins III reflects major policy shifts from the set-asides and line items in earlier legislation that were prescriptive of how funds were to be spent, particularly for special populations and students at risk, to flexibility with increased accountability for results.

Two other legislative acts in the 1990s that influenced vocational education were the School-to-Work Opportunities Act in 1994 (STWOA) and the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998. The STWOA supplied funding to states to connect education and careers for all students. States could apply for five-year grants. The WIA provided a framework for a national workforce preparation and employment system designed to meet the needs of employers, first-time job seekers, and those looking to further their careers.

Performance Standards

Historically, the primary measure of a program's performance was employment. The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998 required states to meet four core indicators of performance: (1) student attainment of challenging state-established academic and vocational/technical skill proficiencies; (2) student attainment of a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent, a proficiency credential in conjunction with a secondary school diploma, or a postsecondary degree or credential; (3) placement in, retention in, and completion of postsecondary education or advanced training, placement in military service, or placement or retention in employment; and (4) student participation in and completion of vocational and technical education programs that lead to nontraditional training and employment. The act required each state to identify levels of performance for each indicator and report annually on its progress. States also develop additional state measures of performance.

Magnitude of Vocational Education

Almost all high school graduates still complete at least one vocational course. More than half (58%) of public high school graduates take at least three vocational education courses, and virtually all (97%) take at least one vocational education course, according to figures obtained by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2000. Sixteen percent of all public high school credits are earned in vocational education. Forty-nine percent of all students seeking sub-baccalaureate degrees major in vocational fields. More than half (55%) of the public high school graduates who take concentrated vocational course-work enroll in a postsecondary institution within two years of high school graduation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2000.

Between 1982 and 1994, there was a nine fold increase in the percentage of students completing both a vocational concentration and a college preparatory curriculum (from 2% to 18%). This trend suggests that students are increasingly integrating vocational and academic learning and that students in the hightech fields of technology/communications and business are particularly likely to follow the broader course of study envisioned by recent federal legislation.

The postsecondary enrollment rates of public high school graduates showed a marked increase between 1982 and 1992. Among all sub-baccalaureate students, about one-half majored in a vocational program area in 1996.

State Role in Vocational Education

State constitutions assign to each state its specific responsibility and legal authority for public education. The state department of education coordinates activities among local school districts and between the federal government and local schools. State departments have shifted from an emphasis on compliance and monitoring of regulations to one of technical assistance to school districts.

Each state has a state board for vocational education. The organization and administration of vocational education varies in states. Thirty-six state directors of career-technical education are located in state departments of education or public instruction. Seven are located with higher education boards, and seven either have their own separate boards or are located with the state's workforce development board, according to Joanna Kister. State directors develop the state plan for vocational education that is approved by the U.S. Department of Education for distribution of federal funds. Local education agencies and postsecondary institutions are eligible recipients for subgrants. In addition, most state directors have responsibility for (1) policy (standards, budget); (2) program design and standards (including labor market data analysis); (3) curriculum frameworks and assessment; (4) professional/staff development and teacher education; (5) evaluation, accountability, and reporting; (6) strategic planning;(7) program and fiscal monitoring; (8) budget and personnel management; and (9) student organizations.


Each year approximately $13 billion (federal, state, and local combined) is spent to support the vocational education system. Federal funding constitutes approximately seven percent of state vocational education spending. The relative cost for vocational education is estimated to be 20 percent to 40 percent greater than that of academic instruction, varying considerably by program area and content level. Most states provide some type of categorical funding for career-technical education. A national survey identified four broad categories for funding vocational education: (1) state foundation grants that are intended to ensure that all students in a state receive a minimum level of basic education services (states in this category do not budget additional supplemental funding for vocational education); (2) unit cost funding in which methods for determining funding formulas are based on unit cost by student participation, instructional unit, or cost reimbursement; (3) weighted funding per student; and (4) performance funding.

Effectiveness of Vocational Education

There is strong evidence that the generic technical skills and occupationally specific skills provided in vocational education increase worker productivity, skill transfer, job access, and job stability when vocational graduates find training-related jobs. Large scale studies show that graduates who took a coherent sequence of vocational courses in high school (and did not enroll in postsecondary education) are likely to obtain more regular employment and higher wages than other non-college-going graduates, provided they are working in the field for which they were trained. Students with both a vocational concentration and a college preparatory curriculum outperformed vocational concentrators only. Performance of students who completed a college preparatory curriculum only was statistically indistinguishable from those with the combined vocational concentration and college preparation.

Contemporary Role and Priorities

The principles for the contemporary careertechnical education called for in legislation and by education reformers are reflected in the educational priorities in states. State directors of career and technical education reported the following as their priorities for change.

  1. Integration of career-technical education in the total mission of education and education reform
  2. Building a strong work force, economic development, and education partnership
  3. Integration of academic and technical education through new delivery strategies, such as career academies, career pathway high schools, magnet schools, and linking of academic with technical curriculum
  4. Development of business/industry certifications for all career-technical programs, at both secondary and postsecondary institutions
  5. Implementation of a reliable and valid accountability system
  6. Expansion of tech prep through secondary/postsecondary articulation
  7. Expansion of career-technical education by providing access to all students
  8. Increase of funding for career-technical education
  9. Increase of use of technology
  10. Addressing issues of teacher and administrator quality
  11. Implementation of quality initiatives
  12. Improvement of the image of career-technical education

State directors of career technical education are responsible for strengthening the relationship between education and work. They connect career and technical education to the larger high school reform movement, participate actively in both policy and practice realms in state workforce development systems, and ultimately contribute to economic development.


BISHOP, JOHN. 1995. Expertise and Excellence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

DELCI, MARIO, and STERN, DAVID. 1999. Who Participates in New Vocational Programs? Berkeley: University of California, National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

KISTER, JOANNA. 2001. State Leadership for Career-Technical Education: Role and Nature of State Leadership; Developing Leaders. Washington DC: National Association of State Directors of Career-Technical Education Consortium.

KLEIN, STEVE. 2001. Financing Vocational Education: A State Policymaker's Guide. Berkeley, CA: MPR Associates.

LEVESQUE, KAREN; LAUEN, DOUG; TEITELBAUM, PETER; ALT, MARTHA; and LIBRERA, SALLY.2000. Vocational Education in the United States: Toward the Year 2000. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF STATE Directors of CAREER TECHNICAL EDUCATION CONSORTIUM.2001. Career Technical Education: An Essential Component of the Total Educational System. Washington DC: National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 1999. Issue Brief: Students Who Prepare for College and a Vocation. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2001. "The Data on Vocational Education (DOVE) System." Education Statistics Quarterly 2:4.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2001. The Condition of Education 2001. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.


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