Obama's education plan: visionary or delusional?

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Late last month I looked at presumptive Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain's education plan and found it lacking. Now it's time to examine the education plan of his presumptive opponent, Democratic Senator Barack Obama. As always, I encourage you to read the plan yourself; you can see an outline of Obama's plan and download the full versions of his K-12 education and college affordability plans.

First off, I'm impressed by the Obama plan and encouraged by the thoughtfulness of the reforms his campaign is proposing. That said, these reforms are extensive and will require a lot of local oversight from already resource-strapped districts. To move several of Obama's initiatives from pie-in-the-sky plans to reality will require both a substantial influx of money and other resources and additional creative, committed leaders at the school and district levels.

Here are the primary proposals in the Obama plan:

Reform No Child Left Behind

From the plan:

Obama believes we should not be forced to spend the academic year
preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.

Amen. No Child Left Behind has effectively removed opportunities for many teachers to enrich their curriculum with the arts, sciences, history, and quality literature because they must "teach to the test." I like Obama's proposal to perform formative assessment--meaning ongoing evaluation that allows teachers to measure students' individual progress and make adjustments in their education plans as necessary rather than planning for high-stakes tests.

That said, the Obama campaign hasn't yet provided details on exactly what these formative assessments might look like--nor explained how teachers might best learn to apply them. Evaluation--of students or courses--is definitely a learned, and in many cases difficult, skill; it's not something that can be intuited. It's an interesting proposal, but I want more details.

Invest in zero to five early childhood education

This is a huge part of the Obama preK-12 education plan because Obama believes (very) early investment in education will have big payoffs later on. It irks me that the campaign doesn't provide the source for this statistic, but it's an interesting one:

For every one dollar invested in high quality, comprehensive programs
supporting children and families from birth, there is a $7-$10 return to society in decreased need for special education services, higher graduation and employment rates, less crime, less use of the public welfare system, and better health.*

In short, the Obama plan promises to provide challenge grants to states, increase Head Start eligibility and funding, provide universal access to preschool, provide affordable and high-quality childcare for working parents, and create a presidential council to facilitate interaction at local, state, and federal levels. Combined, these programs will cost the country $10 billion a year. That's a lot of money, but it's chump change compared to what we're already spending on military activities abroad. It's important to invest at home, too.

Obama also plans to expand the child-care and dependent tax credit. Republicans could criticize this move as more social welfare spending, but more generously construed it's a reduction in taxes for those who need it most. And in light of studies (see footnote below) indicating that investment in early childhood education (in this case in the form of tax credits for parents of preschoolers) reduces crime later on, it seems this is a plan that red, blue, or purple voters could get behind. Toss in Obama's plan to improve the quality of early childhood education, and voters of all stripes (except perhaps the most militant of the child-free) should have reason to support at least this part of Obama's initiative.

The early childhood initiatives are the most fleshed-out of Obama's plan, so definitely go read the plan for yourself to get more details.

Recruit, prepare, retain, and reward U.S. teachers

The Obama plan provides funding for improved teacher education and certification programs, ongoing professional development opportunities, and service scholarships for teachers who commit to spending four or more years in high-need districts and neighborhoods. He also encourages mentoring of new teachers as well as building in more time for teachers to collaborate with one another.

Already there are programs--such as Teach for America--that train new (albeit frequently uncredentialed) teachers to work in America's toughest schools. Those programs have a mixed record of success. I hope Obama's initiatives will allow these schools, as well as new teachers, to achieve at higher levels. I'd like to see more details of his plan. The last thing I want to see is a lock-step teacher prep program that follows the pattern of No Child Left Behind: standardized teaching to match standardized learning. I would like to see programs that reward creativity, individual teacher initiative, and leadership.

It appears the Obama plan provides for more rewards than punishments, which makes sense to me. Imagine two scenarios: (A) Spending all year teaching to a nationally standardized test only to find your school's students fail to meet their externally mandated improvement goal for the year and your school is sanctioned as a result. (B) Principals and local leaders who encourage teachers to tailor educational plans to individual students and then reward those teachers whose curricula improves student learning in ways that are measurable but make sense within the context of the school and region. Surprise: I'm all about option B.

Support strong school leaders

We have to be careful with this one. There's leadership, and then there's bureaucracy. Innovative, resourceful, and flexible principals and mentor teachers are essential to any K-12 school's success. But politically motivated school board members who are masquerading as "strong school leaders"--but who are advocating for the dismantling of science and health education by promoting intelligent design and abstinence-only sex ed curricula--can do incredible harm.

I have mixed feelings about Obama's proposal for "state leadership academies." In the best-case scenario, such spaces could become hotbeds of innovative, student-centered teaching. In the worst-case scenario, such academies could serve as sites where teachers are trained in state-mandated methods rather than listened to. Academies that draw on teacher experiences and successes and encourage viral professional development (a term I borrow from Jen at Injenuity) are a more promising alternative.

Make science and math education a national priority

As the Obama plan points out, U.S. students rank rather dismally in math and science tests compared to our industrialized peers. The Obama plan focuses on improved science curricula as well as recruitment of talented math and science teachers. It also takes a decidedly different tack from NCLB's bubble-form approach to assessment:

Assessments should reflect the range of knowledge and skills students should acquire. Science assessments need to do more than test
facts and concepts. They need to use a range of measures to test inquiry and higher order thinking skills including inference, logic, data analysis and interpretation, forming questions, and communication. High-performing states like Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, use an assessment that calls for students to design and conduct investigations, analyze and present data, write up and defend results. Barack Obama will work with governors and educators to ensure that state assessments measure these skills.

That's a promising approach: expanding what already works.

I'd also like to see an expanded focus on cultural studies, and history and literature in particular. Too many literacy curricula eschew the rich tradition of American literature in favor of more inexpensively produced texts by publishers' in-house or freelance authors. The college students--and even graduate students--I teach are largely culturally illiterate outside of the pop culture realm. While it can be fun to open these students' eyes to American historical events and cultural patterns, the teaching and learning in my classrooms would be so much enriched if these students came to college with a better understanding of the broad spectrum of American literature and culture.

Help our most at-risk children achieve in school

Obama proposes lengthening the school day and/or school year to bring it in line with the daily and annual patterns of a 21st-century workforce, whereas the current system makes sense in a more agrarian society. He also wants to reduce high-school dropout rate by focusing during middle school on students at risk of dropping out.

Most exciting for me in assisting at-risk students is the Obama plan for redesigning the physical spaces of schools:

Many schools have been redesigning the way the operate so that they are more successful in teaching all students, by rethinking the factory-model that we inherited from reforms a century ago and creating schools that allow teachers to work in teams, personalize instruction for students and collaborate together to create a more rigorous and relevant curriculum. These efforts include the development of small schools and small learning communities in secondary schools. Well-designed models have improved school safety, increased attendance and sharply reduced dropouts. Obama will support federal efforts to continue to encourage schools to organize themselves for greater success by developing stronger relationships among adults and students, a more engaging curriculum, more adaptive teaching, and more opportunities for teachers to plan and learn together.

Again, I'd like more details, but this is a promising approach--far more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Educational researchers are recognizing the huge influence that even subtle changes in learning environments can have on students. It would be terrific if an Obama administration drew heavily on this research in providing schools with templates they might adapt to their local contexts.

Enlist parents and communities to support teaching and learning

Community and parent involvement is essential to student success. It's disappointing, then, that this section of the Obama plan relies on tired rhetoric about turning off the TV, limiting access to video games, and contracts between schools and parents. Yes, such measures will have an effect in many cases, but I'd like to hear some new ideas. How can we get community members involved in the schools, much in the way that Obama proposes that students undertake community service?

Commit to fiscal responsibility

How will an Obama administration find the $18 billion needed annually to fund such measures?

Barack Obama’s early education and K-12 plan package costs about $18 billion per year. Obama will pay for this plan without increasing the deficit with a portion of the savings from his plan to cut wasteful and unnecessary spending. This includes reforming and reducing earmark spending, reforming federal contracting procedures, using purchase cards and the negotiating power of the government to reduce costs of standardized procurement, auctioning surplus federal property, and reducing the erroneous payments identified by the Government Accountability Office, and closing the CEO pay deductibility loophole.

Invest in what works

The Obama plan includes funding not just for education, but for research into and development of educational tools and methods. The campaign points out that

While we spend roughly $400 billion annually in this country on public education, we spend less than seven tenths of one percent of that – $260 million – figuring out what actually works.

As a scholar, I appreciate an emphasis on research and evaluation of educational theory and practice. In my observations--first-hand or through the news--of public school districts, there seems to be--to build on my earlier metaphor--an awful lot of rearranging of deck chairs without asking if we really need to be thinking about chairs when the entire ship is sinking. Making too many dramatic changes in a school--for example, redrawing neighborhood attendance areas, instituting school uniforms, extending the school day, segregating classes by gender--in too short a time period makes it difficult to measure the impacts of any one initiative. And yet I've seen these measures put in rapid-fire place in too many schools. Further research into education--or even a thorough reading of the vast existing literature--is crucial to the success of schools at any level.

Put college within reach

The Obama plan for putting college within reach opens with some unsettling statistics:

• College costs have grown nearly 40 percent in the past five years
• 60 percent of all college graduates leave college with debt.
• The average graduate leaves college with over $19,000 in debt
• Between 2001 and 2010, 2 million academically qualified students will not go to college because they cannot afford it.
• Only 12 percent of Hispanics and 16 percent of African Americans eventually earn a bachelor’s degree – compared with 33 percent of White students. The rising cost of college is a factor in this disparity.

Obama plans to make college more accessible by reforming financial aid systems, expanding the Pell Grant program, ensuring students understand they need to start preparing for college prior to 12th grade, and helping community colleges better prepare their students for the workforce and/or four-year colleges.

In the blogosphere

Here are some thoughts on the Obama plan from around the blogosphere:

Kelly at Generation Cedar worries that there's too much emphasis on infant education. How early is too early?

Sara Jenkins suggests to the Obama campaign that teachers in training should spend a full year, rather than part of a semester, in a classroom with a mentor teacher.

YBJK at Yer Sweet Chimneys points us to a comparison of Obama and McCain on key issues related to education.

What are your thoughts? What would you like to see in the education plan of any presidential candidate?

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*Despite the lack of specific citation in the proposal, other studies, such as this one (PDF) conclude that there can be a significant return on investment in early childhood education.

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

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