by David Safier
This is my first post about the candidates’ positions and proposals on education.
The federal government’s role in public education is less in the U.S. than in lots of other countries, where there is often a nationwide curriculum and lots of national control. We have decided that the states and local communities should have the largest say. So federal programs tend to play around on the edges of education, not at its center.
(As an aside, it’s more than a little ironic that the Bush administration has created one of the most intrusive federal education programs in our history with No Child Left Behind. Aren’t conservatives shrink-federal-government folks?)
I’m starting with Barack Obama because – full disclosure –I’m an Obama supporter. However, I’ll do my best to analyze the candidate’s positions based on my own feelings about what makes for good education, not on my candidate preference.
Obama proposes a “Zero to Five” plan that will help states offer pre-school to everyone who wants it. He wants to increase the quality and availability of Early Head Start and Head Start. All good ideas.
Obama doesn’t oppose No Child Left Behind, but he thinks it leans too heavily on standardized testing, is poorly designed and is not fully funded. He’s not very specific about the changes he would make, except to say that we should support schools that need improvement, not punish them. He’s purposely vague here, I think, to avoid offending anyone.
He wants to lower the dropout rate by starting intervention strategies in middle schools and involving parents in the process. Good idea. It’s often too late by high school.
For ELL, Obama favors a combination of “transitional bilingual education” and ELL classes. “Transitional” means that students are taught subject matter in their own languages while they learn English and are phased into classes in English as soon as possible. ELL classes would continue to work with these students after they leave the bilingual classes. I wouldn’t advocate this approach. I like a combination of ELL classes with enrollment in the regular school courses. But this is a very tough subject, and the experts, even those on the same side of the political spectrum, disagree on the best approaches to use for ELL.
Obama thinks we do far too little research on the best educational practices and he would fund it at twice the current level.
Obama’s ideas for recruiting and retaining teachers are excellent. He wants to use financial incentives, a very free enterprise approach. Teacher Service Scholarships would take care of the cost of 4 years of undergraduate education and 2 years of grad school teacher ed in exchange for teaching at least 4 years in a high-need field or location. (He doesn’t give exact figures here. I don’t know if he’s willing to cover Harvard tuition or public university tuition.) Too many potential teachers are in debt to their ears when they finish college and literally can’t afford to teach. This would be a wonderful incentive. Notice that the teachers who benefit would be in the fields we most need, and/or in the schools where we have the greatest trouble attracting teachers.
Obama’s college plan revolves around affordability. He wants to make the first $4,000 of college free to most people, cover two-thirds of tuition at the average public college or university and make community college tuition free to most students. Lowering the cost of a college education is important for a number of reasons, so I like this.
The cost of all these proposals? Obama says they will cost $18 billion per year, and he will pay for them by making cuts or creating efficiencies in other parts of the government. I’m skeptical, both of the figure and the method of payment. But until people can be convinced that quality education is an investment, and like all investments it takes money up front, candidates will have to pretend they can keep the costs down and stay revenue neutral.
This is a summary of Obama’s proposals, and it leaves out some of his ideas completely. Generally, I give him high marks. If we did what he wants to do, our education would improve significantly, and people would leave college less burdened with loans that force them to make career decisions pulling them away from public service professions like teaching.