Obama’s Education Reforms Disappoint

Is Obama the education president?  How many children will his proposals leave behind?  I hope not as many as the previous administration.  He has made education a budget priority, and proposes to spend considerably more than Bush the younger did.  But I’m not convinced that the Obama administration is on the right track.   Let’s take a closer look.

  • 7.6% increase in education spending, 49.7 billion total – a good sign.
  • 34.9 billion for Pell Grants – helps make college more affordable for students without means.  Sounds like a good idea, but where will this money come from?  Obama wants the government to take over the student loan industry, but this will not happen without a fight from private lenders and student loan guarantors.
  • 1.35 billion Race to the Top grants and 4.35 from the stimulus package for similar grants.  Wait a minute, what’s this?  The top of what?  Not doubt top refers to a high test score, as if you could reduce education to a number.  And sounds like education as a competition. States can bid on these grants to improve their schools by submitting plans that include the Obama administration’s proposals on education reform.  One such plan is for states to increase the number of charter schools.  There are some reasons though to be skeptical of charter schools:
    1. They drain resources away from public schools.  You can’t turn around failing schools by sucking away their resources and their top students.
    2. They fail at an alarmingly high rate.  According to the Los Angeles Times in the state of California alone, 64 charter schools have had their charters revoked, and 200 more have simply closed down.
    3. They cream from the top, attracting the easiest to serve or the most academically prepared, giving charters an unfair advantage when comparing test scores to traditional public schools.
    4. They invite corporate meddling.  How about a coupon for perfect attendance for a Happy Meal from McDonald’s.  Do you want your kid to learn how to think obediently, to serve the interests of corporate America?
    5. Would you like your child’s principal to be schooled in business, not educational theory – to have an MBA rather than a Ed.D.?  Or would you prefer to leave the academic fate of your children in the hands of a retired Marine Corps major? It could happen in a Charter.  In fact, your child’s teachers might not be certified to teach anything.  And the young talented idealistic teacher may quickly burn out or leave because she may not have a union contract to guarantee fair working conditions and pay commensurate to her counterparts in public schools.
    6. Should education reform be about raising test scores, when most  standardized tests are inherently biased and meaningless in measuring a child’s ability?  Increasingly, forward thinking colleges think no and recognize that SATs are not the only measure for determining academic aptitude or readiness.  Schools need to have high standards and expectations. To that end, school administrations need to foster leadership and responsibility to create a climate for success. Teach kids basic skills but also to think critically. Promote democratic practices, civic responsibility and global awareness. Invest in the arts including music programs, theater and debate. Reward academic curiosity; accept nothing less. This is the recipe for success.

Let’s look at some other components of  Obama’s education reform plans:

  • 900 million to turn around failing schools – 65% increase.  Great, as long as the test score is not an ingredient in the recipe.
  • 950 million to incentivize the best teachers to teach in the worst schools.  Sounds good, but the “best teachers” should have to make at least a 5 year commitment to the school, or they lose the incentive; for example, they would have to pay back any signing bonus they received if they break their contract.
  • 1 billion for teacher training.  I’m all for more teacher training as are most good teachers, but I believe that a large chunk of this money should be reserved for teacher education programs at public universities and for teacher service programs like Teach for America.

Whether Obama can make a name for himself as the education president remains to be seen.  He deserves praise for making education a budget priority, but he will earn a large part of the blame if his reforms continue to leave more kids behind.


3 Responses

  1. It is a little weird that you are pro-Teach for America, but worry about Charter Schools, teachers not being certified, and want a 5 year commitment for teachers.

    TFA teachers aren’t certified. I majored in Political Science. We’re typically placed at charter schools, and almost nobody stays in the classroom for more than 5 years.

    Private schools have allowed non-certified people to teach there for years, and nobody seems to be complaining. I don’t think there is much in the way of evidence to suggest that majoring in education is actually a good predictor of teacher success.

  2. I am pro-Teach for America. I know that TFA teachers are not certified, but they are selectively admitted to the service program, and intensively prepared to teach in urban or rural schools where the needs are greatest. If it is true that TFA grads are typically placed in Charter Schools, that is troubling. I suspect this has something to do with teacher unions, but in my opinion the needs are far greater in struggling schools than in Charters, though Charters have a history of struggles all their own. And as you know, TFA teachers can get a Master’s degree in education, paid for by TFA during their service period and can quite easily become certified to teach in their subject areas if they so chose, as I would guess some do, particularly if they stay in the teaching profession.

    That teachers don’t stay at a school for more than 5 years is part of the problem in our public school system. The best leave or burn out and this turnover causes instability. New recruits – those who did not follow the traditional path to becoming a teacher, whether they be TFA grads or Poly Sci majors like you – should be incentivized not only to teach in a needy school, but to stay at the school. Working conditions are of course a big part of this and why I mentioned the Unions, which promote collective bargaining for contracts that guarantee decent salaries and reward professional development.

    I agree with you that certification doesn’t mean a teacher can teach – that is why I would like Obama’s team to learn from the success of the TFA model and invest in undergraduate and graduate teacher preparation programs.

  3. Whether you can work towards a Masters degree actually depends on your region. I teach in Greater New Orleans, and a Masters is *not* part of my program (although certification is).

    We’re placed in a lot of charter schools for lots of reasons, both ideological (several TFA alumni have started successful charter school networks like KIPP, and they recruit TFAers), and practical (political concerns, and the fact that we’re often more likely to be successful in a charter).

    A charter is a value-neutral designation. Some are awful and fail. Some have excellent leadership and succeed with the same population of kids that the failing public schools have. One is not inherently better than the other (well, unless that charter is for-profit. Then its bad).

    The burn-out problem is across the board, even at great charter schools. I think it is 100% working conditions. Where I teach, I get paid more as a 1st year than many midwestern teachers get after 6, but one in 5 of us still quit after 1 year, and after 5, nearly everybody is gone. Thats true at KIPP too.

    I don’t either TFA or our current system have it “right” when it comes to teacher prep. I think the best model would be letting anybody with a degree be an “apprentice:” teacher, where they work as a paraprofessional or assit teacher for 2 years at half salary, like a hospital intern, and then graduate to full teaching.

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