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.

The Candidates on Education

Education has not been a major issue on the campaign trail, but the candidates’ positions should be scrutinized. I’m going to highlight the major differences between McCain and Obama on Education policy and provide links to information on all the presidential candidates’ views on No Child Left Behind (NCLB)- and yes there are more than 2 parties in this country and more than 2 presidential candidates, but unfortunately, the mainstream media largely ignores third parties like the Libertarians, the Green Party, the Independent Ralph Nader, and smaller parties that participate in the Democratic process here in the US of A.

McCain wants to significantly expand school choice, giving parents more opportunities to enroll their kids in Charter schools. He puts the blame for failing schools largely on teachers and administrators and talks about replacing them. Charter schools are not subject to the same governance rules as traditional schools but are funded publicly. At Charters, more decisions are made at the school level or locally; administrators have more authority in hiring decisions and more flexibility with regard to teacher salaries – they can pay a teacher less than the prevailing Union wage. Charters vary enormously in quality, one from another and from state to state. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of Charter schools, the fact is they do drain resources from struggling schools that need more not less support. Charters are subject to business like accountability, like other public schools under NCLB, which puts emphasis on high stakes testing, creating the conditions to require teaching to the test. For schools to succeed in a high stakes testing environment, teachers must focus on information processing, rather than critical thinking. McCain’s chief education adviser is Lisa Graham Keegan, herself a proponent of high stakes testing. In a Charter school, extracurricular activities like art, debate and theater may give way to after school test preparation sessions. Regular schools drained of resources, quickly drop music and art programs. Uniforms are standard issue, partly to promote conformity and obedience – I guess this is what’s meant by skilled workers – workers who are skilled at taking orders from those who do the thinking.

McCain’s plan would move funds out of failing schools and into Charters and I presume also into Pilot schools, fulfilling the choice part of the Excellence, Choice and Competition slogan that can be found on the McCain-Palin website. If you are comfortable with this market model of education – pitting one school against another for resources; and like the idea of schools competing for students; and if you think privatization efforts where schools receive support from businesses in exchange for input on the school curricula and access to captive student consumers, already happening throughout the country, you might like the McCain plan. McCain’s plan offers little more than 4 more years of the last 8 under Bush’s failed No Child Left Behind law- flawed and never adequately funded.

Obama also supports Charter schools and favors experimentation with whatever works. Unlike McCain, he emphasizes more support for failing schools, not punishment. He favors higher pay for teachers (and they deserve it) and tax credits to attract new teachers to teach in needy school districts. Obama proposes alternative forms of testing and assessment to counteract the negative consequences of high stakes testing. In my opinion, these standardized tests are biased and do not measure student capabilities. An increasing number of colleges have reached this same conclusion and no longer require prospective students to submit SAT or ACT scores. Obama’s education adviser is Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond whose views are far more progressive than Keegan’s.

The idea of promoting alternative schools has some appeal but not at the expense of struggling schools, schools that badly need increased resources, not severe penalties. In fact, public education needs increased funding at all levels – from Pre-K to Adult Basic Education (ABE).

Candidates Views on No Child Left Behind

And speaking of adults, none of the candidates have said much about the importance or even the existence of Adult Basic Education (ABE). These are publicly funded programs that provide Literacy, GED, English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and transitions to college education for millions of adults. While the candidates talk about the importance of parental involvement in the education of a child, they fail to understand that an adult left behind cannot provide the kind of academic support the child needs to have the best chance of success in school.

Let’s put people first and leave no child and no adult behind!