McCain's education plan: interesting ideas and tired rhetoric

BlogHer Original Post

Have you seen presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain's education plan? McCain presented his plan in a speech to the NAACP last week. What's most interesting to me about the plan is that it combines federal and very local oversight of schools--and in so doing presents a number of conundrums and possibilities.

As presented to the NAACP, McCain's plan centers on getting more kids into safe K-12 schools staffed with savvy principals and competent teachers. To achieve this goal, McCain proposes school vouchers, school choice, local oversight, and alternative methods of teacher certification.

School vouchers

School vouchers shift government funding to private schools--even religious schools. I find that problematic. If nonprofit organizations want to fund scholarships for students to attend private schools, that's fine with me. But I'm not convinced the government should be funding these nonprofits. The problem with every voucher program I've seen is that these programs don't provide enough money for parents to cover private school tuition and fees. For example, the Washington (D.C.) Scholarship Fund McCain held up as a model provides only $7,500 per student per year--and a family must be quite poor in order to qualify. Under this program, a family of four must have an adjusted gross income of $39,220 per year or less. (The federal poverty guidelines peg a D.C. family of four below the poverty line if the family brings in more than $21,200 per year--a ridiculously low number.) How can a family of four living in DC on less than $40,000 per year scrape together the additional money to pay for private school tuition--especially when the best private schools in the area (the ones that best meet the standards McCain champions) cost more than $25,000 per year? Financial aid from the schools themselves can only stretch so far.

In addition, there's only so much government money for education, and every bit of money funneled to private institutions means fewer dollars for the public schools. In most states, teachers are terribly underpaid (I was raised by schoolteacher parents in California, and I can tell you that keeping up with the neighbors was difficult) and pupils underfunded. I'm not saying the solution is to throw a bunch of money randomly at the public schools--but we need to infuse many of our schools with sufficient funds to, say, provide each student with her own book for each class. In the 1990s, I assisted in public high school classrooms where there weren't even class sets of literature books--which meant students had to spend class time reading instead of learning from their teachers and from one another. This remains the case in many public school classrooms today.

School choice

School choice is controversial, even when it means simply allowing parents to transfer their students from lower- to higher-performing public schools. EdWeek (free registration required) provides a nice round-up of the issues surrounding school choice. As EdWeek reports, school choice benefits some low-income and special-education students, but it does not necessarily benefit the majority of low- or lower-middle-income students, who are more likely to live in neighborhoods with failing schools. An excerpt from the EdWeek overview:

While promoters of school choice herald the autonomy it affords parents, and the potential it has to increase parents' involvement in their children's education, opponents question which families will be in the position to make informed decisions about their children’s educations. Some researchers are concerned that certain types of parents are more likely to exercise choice and leave their neighborhood schools, reinforcing social-class inequality (Fuller, Elmore, and Orfield, 1996).

While proponents tout increased school accountability as a byproduct of school choice reform, opponents find the economic-based free-market theory to be problematic in the public education realm (Henig, 1997). Essentially, they do not believe that allowing schools to fail will help the system overall.

As one critic of school choice argues, choice will cause the system to fail the children who are not lucky enough to remove themselves from a low-performing school and will therefore “pit student against student and family against family in the struggle for educational survival” (Cookson, 1992).

Local oversight

McCain supports the standards enforced by the high-stakes testing environment of No Child Left Behind, but wants to place more control in the hands of school principals. McCain told the NAACP,

Under my reforms, we will entrust both the funds and the responsibilities where they belong in the office of the school principal. One reason that charter schools are so successful, and so sought-after by parents, is that principals have spending discretion. And I intend to give that same discretion to public school principals. No longer will money be spent in service to rigid and often meaningless formulas. Relying on the good judgment and first-hand knowledge of school principals, education money will be spent in service to public school students.

In some aspects, this is terrific. I do think that principals need more autonomy in helping their schools to succeed. That said, not all principals are created equal, so I'd like to see a series of checks and balances put in place that keep principals responsible for student learning at their schools without letting principals completely rule the roost, constraining teachers' creativity and achievement. A colleague of mine wrote her Ed.D. dissertation on "star teachers" who achieved high levels of student learning without necessarily being "highly qualified" under NCLB regulations. These teachers, who had particular success with low-income students and students of color in urban Southern California, succeeded in large part because they had the support of principals who sometimes looked the other way when it came to NCLB rules and requirements. Principals must be thoughtful and flexible; they must be willing to let teachers cater to the students in each classroom, rather than succumbing to an all-encompassing bureaucratic standardization of education.

Teacher certification

McCain also proposes creating alternative methods of teacher certification:

We should also offer more choices to those who wish to become teachers. Many thousands of highly qualified men and women have great knowledge, wisdom, and experience to offer public school students. But a monopoly on teacher certification prevents them from getting that chance. You can be a Nobel Laureate and not qualify to teach in most public schools today. They don't have all the proper credits in educational "theory" or "methodology" -- all they have is learning and the desire and ability to share it. If we're putting the interests of students first, then those qualifications should be enough.

I wish McCain had clarified a bit what he means by "ability" to teach. I do believe that many teachers have a calling to teach--and have some natural talent for it. That said, these talents are best honed through the master teacher and mentoring programs in place in teacher certification programs across the country. You can't throw a Nobel Laureate into a high school context--where she might be teaching 180 or 200 students a day--and expert her to succeed just because she's bright. There is a skill set that comes with teaching, and it needs to be learned from experts--otherwise these new teachers will burn out, and harm student learning in the process.

Does this mean I think all current teacher certification programs are successful? No. Some of them need reforming. But that doesn't mean veering toward the other extreme and letting anyone who is has some body of knowledge and interest in teaching into the classroom. There is something to the "theory" and "methodology" that McCain seems to be dismissing by putting quotation marks around them. These aren't fictional constructions--they're real concepts that teachers need to understand in order to succeed in today's challenging public school contexts.

Obviously, higher teacher salaries would attract those with a commitment to education to K-12 teaching. I have known many college and university professors, for example, who would excel at middle school or high school teaching, but the starting salaries are too low for people with their years of educational training. A Ph.D. who has classroom experience shouldn't have to start at the average beginning teacher salary of $31,753. Double that amount and you might attract more highly educated people who have honed their classroom skills thanks to graduate school training or years spent as adjunct or assistant professors.

Virtual schools

McCain also proposed expanding federal funding of "virtual learning."

We can also help more children and young adults to study outside of school by expanding support for virtual learning. So I propose to direct 500 million dollars in current federal funds to build new virtual schools, and to support the development of online courses for students. Through competitive grants, we will allocate another 250 million dollars to support state programs expanding online education opportunities, including the creation of new public virtual charter schools. States can use these funds to build virtual math and science academies to help expand the availability of Advanced Placement math, science, and computer science courses, online tutoring, and foreign language courses.

Hoo boy. I'm not even sure where to begin. Obviously, all presidential candidates (and presidents!) have educational advisers who help them construct their policies. But by McCain's own admission he is digitally "illiterate" and does not use the Internet himself. It troubles me that someone who lacks experience online would be recommending virtual schools and tutors. I'm a huge champion of carefully crafted digital learning initiatives as a supplements to K-16 curricula, but I'm not sure virtual schools are the way to go. There's something to be said for face-to-face learning across the disciplines, and I worry that we'll be further diminishing teacher-student interaction if we don't implement virtual learning with extraordinary thoughtfulness. (For one view on virtual learning in high schools, check out this report from Education Sector. Also worth a look: the link round-ups at Virtual High School Meanderings.)

In the blogosphere

Bloggers, of course, have been weighing in on the educational plans of both Democratic and Republican campaigns.

Alyson Klein of the Education Week blog appreciates that advisers of both campaigns are talking about pre-K education. Her fellow Education Week blogger Michele McNeil also noted a particular focus on special education in both campaigns.

The National School Boards Association blog points out that McCain hasn't said much about higher education.

Dana Goldstein provides a brief overview of and response to McCain's NAACP speech, pointing out that

D.C. boasts some of the most successful public charter schools in the nation, and school choice here has generally been a good thing for parents and kids failed by the system. But I've said it before and I'll say it again: There is no evidence that low-income and minority students' academic performance is improved by sending them to urban parochial schools, which tend to be the schools that participate in private voucher programs. No evidence in Milwaukee. No evidence in D.C. Supporting school choice does not require support for this sort of privatization, especially when there has been so much innovation and growth in the public charter sector.

In a larger post on McCain's sexism against women, Kate Sheppard of AlterNet highlights McCain's policies on sex ed.

Mike Petrilli points out that despite McCain's focus on poor students in his NAACP speech, the campaigns are subtly shifting their focus toward what Petrilli terms "middle-class suburban" concerns.

For more coverage of the educational issues being raised (or not raised) in the 2008 presidential campaign, visit Ed in '08.

What are your thoughts?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, museum, and corporate clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

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