My Take on Obama’s Education PlanDecember 30th, 2008 at 21:57
The incoming Obama administration’s transition team has published a position paper with a fairly high-level breakdown of their plan for addressing early childhood, K through 12, and higher education. For the purpose of this post I want to focus and comment on the K through 12 plan components including my comments.
Though I supported Clinton in the primary, I am really thrilled that Obama was elected and think he will be a transformational leader for our country. But the education policies of most any liberal democrat – Clinton, Obama, or most anyone else – I’m generally just not comfortable with. There is way to much bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all social engineering in most of my progressive comrades’ approach to education. Maybe I am overly jaded and need to give them the benefit of the doubt, or maybe I am naïve in my analysis… you be the judge.
BTW… you can post your own thoughts to the Obama-Biden transition team at http://change.gov/page/s/yourstory . I strongly urge you to click on that link and post some of your thoughts. Even if they are just crunched into statistical counts, the act of speaking out is a powerful one for the speaker, even if the speech is barely heard.
Here goes my take on Obama’s education plan…
Reform No Child Left Behind: Obama and Biden will reform NCLB, which starts by funding the law. Obama and Biden believe teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests. They will improve the assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college and the workplace and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner. Obama and Biden will also improve NCLB’s accountability system so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them.
My Comment: I think the whole concept of “No Child Left Behind” is profoundly flawed. In my mind it creates the image of one train leaving the station on a single track to a single destination. In a massive one-size-fits-all effort, all kids have to be on that one train or they are lost. I would rather see an education policy called something like “A Path to Success for Every Youth” that featured many metaphorical trains going in different directions at different times to many diverse destinations. That said, I am hoping that they really mean what they say about changing how student progress (and by aggregation, school effectiveness) is assessed. That would be a transformational change.
Support High-Quality Schools and Close Low-Performing Charter Schools: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will double funding for the Federal Charter School Program to support the creation of more successful charter schools. The Obama-Biden administration will provide this expanded charter school funding only to states that improve accountability for charter schools, allow for interventions in struggling charter schools and have a clear process for closing down chronically underperforming charter schools. Obama and Biden will also prioritize supporting states that help the most successful charter schools to expand to serve more students.
My Comment: I am uncomfortable with this one for many reasons. First of all there is an implication that only Charter schools are currently less accountable than regular public schools, which I don’t think is accurate. My personal experience with a Charter school (Valley Community Charter School), launched and run by people we know, is that they were required to be much more accountable than any non-Charter school. VCCS was in fact forced to close and re-charter after its fourth year because it wasn’t meeting the accountability metrics (but that’s another story). In my mind, the problem that VCCS and other more alternative Charter schools face is that the accountability standards favor conventional instructional schools (that basically teach to the test) and discriminate against alternative schools (that do not).
Make Math and Science Education a National Priority: Obama and Biden will recruit math and science degree graduates to the teaching profession and will support efforts to help these teachers learn from professionals in the field. They will also work to ensure that all children have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels.
My Comment: The challenge in my mind is to give all kids access to a strong science and math curriculum without forcing all kids to follow it. But it seems that in bureaucratically run school systems – where the decision-makers almost never meet the students, parents or teachers – the only sure fire way to ensure that access to a strong science and math curriculum is not denied to any student, is to force every student to follow that full curriculum, even if they have no aptitude or interest in it. I understand the history, that poorly resourced schools in poor neighborhoods have not made full access to programs available to their students, but it seems to me as a parent that there has to be a better way to ensure universal access.
Address the Dropout Crisis: Obama and Biden will address the dropout crisis by passing legislation to provide funding to school districts to invest in intervention strategies in middle school – strategies such as personal academic plans, teaching teams, parent involvement, mentoring, intensive reading and math instruction, and extended learning time.
My Comment: First of all encouraging personalized education, parent involvement and mentoring all sound like good things, focusing more on relationships than rules. Secondly, I have to believe that in many cases, a dropout is a kid (or their family in our case) “voting with their feet” that there is (or at least appears to be) no appropriate educational path available within the public school system. But if the current reading and math instruction isn’t working for some kids right now, intensifying and extending it sounds like something akin to the definition of insanity… doing more of the same and expecting a different result.
Expand High-Quality Afterschool Opportunities: Obama and Biden will double funding for the main federal support for afterschool programs, the 21st Century Learning Centers program, to serve one million more children.
My Comment: I tend to like afterschool programs better because they are not mandatory. Kids (or at least their parents) choose to be in them, which in my mind makes all the difference. Who wants to be in a place full of kids if many of them don’t want to be there?
Support College Outreach Programs: Obama and Biden support outreach programs like GEAR UP, TRIO and Upward Bound to encourage more young people from low-income families to consider and prepare for college.
My Comment: Again, these are optional programs that kids (and families) can choose. I believe in personal responsibility for personal choices.
Support College Credit Initiatives: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will create a national “Make College A Reality” initiative that has a bold goal to increase students taking AP or college-level classes nationwide 50 percent by 2016, and will build on Obama’s bipartisan proposal in the U.S. Senate to provide grants for students seeking college level credit at community colleges if their school does not provide those resources.
My Comment: I am uncomfortable with any of these big bureaucratic initiatives, because again the decision-makers executing the program have little or no contact with the students and their families impacted by the program. That said, anything that gives high school students more access to community college classes is a good thing.
Support English Language Learners: Obama and Biden support transitional bilingual education and will help Limited English Proficient students get ahead by holding schools accountable for making sure these students complete school.
My Comment: I am glad they are talking bilingual education again rather than that immersion idea that was in vogue several years ago in California. But beyond the issue of bilingual education, I am uncomfortable with holding schools accountable for any student completing that school if the student does not belong there. This sounds more like incarceration than education and is one of the uglier features of a one-size-fits-all education system.
Recruit Teachers: Obama and Biden will create new Teacher Service Scholarships that will cover four years of undergraduate or two years of graduate teacher education, including high-quality alternative programs for mid-career recruits in exchange for teaching for at least four years in a high-need field or location.
My Comment: I’m a great believer in encouraging more people to be teachers, increasing the financial incentives to attract people to the profession, and then deferring to them as true professionals.
Prepare Teachers: Obama and Biden will require all schools of education to be accredited. Obama and Biden will also create a voluntary national performance assessment so we can be sure that every new educator is trained and ready to walk into the classroom and start teaching effectively. Obama and Biden will also create Teacher Residency Programs that will supply 30,000 exceptionally well-prepared recruits to high-need schools.
My Comment: I am concerned that bureaucratic programs like this fall into a one-size-fits-all mindset and that kids will suffer from further standardization and homogenization of their teachers. I would rather see language here about finding unconventional teachers who can teach “outside the box”.
Retain Teachers: To support our teachers, the Obama-Biden plan will expand mentoring programs that pair experienced teachers with new recruits. They will also provide incentives to give teachers paid common planning time so they can collaborate to share best practices.
My Comment: Anything that promotes mentoring and collaboration among teachers seems like a good thing to me.
Reward Teachers: Obama and Biden will promote new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them. Districts will be able to design programs that reward with a salary increase accomplished educators who serve as a mentors to new teachers. Districts can reward teachers who work in underserved places like rural areas and inner cities. And if teachers consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.
My Comment: Again, I am for anything that increases the compensation for teachers. I just hope that the evaluation of teachers is by a jury of their peers and not based on simplistic metrics like test scores.