Monday, February 18, 2008

Issue One: Education

Education hasn't been discussed much during this campaign, but it must come to the forefront in the general election. There are distinct differences between Democrats' approach to education and that of Republicans, and this is an incredibly urgent issue, with millions of students being left behind every year. But more on that in coming posts. First, what should national education policy look like?

It's important to ground the discussion in the current system's failings. As John will likely point out, our system actually only fails those from low-income backgrounds -- upper-income Americans who avail themselves of their local public schools actually get a quite good education. But as Democrats, we cannot see that as just. Two years in the classroom in the Bronx has given both of us some perspective on the current system's failings. In my view, they are these:
  1. Poor leadership: New York City is rife with unqualified school leaders who see their posts as opportunities to impose their wills, regardless of the merits of their opinions. This is the principal (ha) failure of our current system. Any education reform should start with training principals in management basics (how to make the most of human capital). If principals in urban schools knew how to hire and cultivate talented teachers, how to set up cultures of excellence by investing staff members in decisions, and how to set a high bar and hold staff members accountable, failing public schools would be a memory.
  2. Poor, unmotivated teachers: In my view, this is a failure by school leaders and by the teachers' unions, who are put in the unfortunate position of having to protect and defend the jobs of incompetent people. There are, of course, many incredible teachers (and they should be rewarded for their success), but there are many unqualified, damaging ones as well, and they happen to populate urban systems in much higher numbers than is acceptable. Principals should have the power to fire under-performers, education schools and districts must make teaching a more attractive profession in which to work (an elite profession -- certain programs are doing just that), and teacher training must emphasize service to the neediest schools.

There are, of course, many other issues, but those are the most important, in my view. So what should the federal government's role be? It does not run local districts -- that's a power that, like it or not, will be left to the states. So it must set national standards and use its resources to cultivate leadership and strong teaching.
  1. Keep accountability strong, but broaden it: John and I had a first-hand view of how damaging the current accountability system can be to genuine, broad learning. No Child Left Behind should require that students be assessed in all major subjects -- reading, writing, math, social studies, and science -- and that assessments not be limited to multiple-choice/short-answer tests that often assess students' ability to understand the questions instead of the their actual skills. Performance-based assessments, though more difficult to administer and standardize, must be included in students' assessments to broaden the data samples we gather and give a more realistic idea of how students are performing. The federal government should continue to leave it to states to develop their own accountability systems, but it should more stringently audit those systems (to ensure authenticity) and should broaden the sample national assessments it already does (the nation's report card).
  2. Develop national leadership and teaching academies: Use the federal government's superior resources to create national school leadership and teaching academies that make the profession aspirational and elite. These should be not only incubators of strong administrators and instructors, but they should be national incubators of ideas and best practices, drawing the best researchers from the education community. Participants would be required to teach or lead a school in a low-income community and continue in a life-long commitment to the academies by testing new ideas and allowing national scrutiny.
  3. Develop a charter school incubation agency: Again, use the federal government's resources to create charter schools -- schools that can serve as testing grounds for new school-management ideas that would, when successful, be pushed out into the broader world of public schools.
  4. Fund universal pre-K: Students in low-income communities are behind before they enter their local schools' doors for Kindergarten. Fund an effort run by the states to guarantee pre-K, allowing every student to spend time in an enriching environment before public education starts.
Again, there are a number of other steps I might take if I were in charge of education policy, but those are the four most important, and the top three answer to those two failings I saw so clearly during my time in the classroom.

Later this week: an analysis of each candidate's education platform.

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