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Barack to school

Campaign 2008 | Obama offers more of what hasn't worked in education policy

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

Barack Obama's speeches ooze inspiration but little substance about what he actually plans to do once in office: What can we expect from an Obama presidency? With so much to say about the candidate's charm and dazzle and effortless way with a suit, his education policy hasn't received much notice. But America's poor-performing schools remain among the top 10 public concerns. Obama has a plan for "Lifetime Success Through Education" that inquiring minds can look up on his campaign website.

Since Congress passed the first Elementary and Secondary Schools Act in 1965, every president has offered his signature education proposal. Carter promised to establish a federal Department of Education (and did); Reagan threatened to abolish the same (and didn't). Bush I had his Goals 2000, Clinton his Improving America's Schools act, Bush II his No Child Left Behind. Education reform has become such a fixture of the campaign season no one seems to wonder why education still needs reforming-didn't we already do that? In government bureaucracies, "reform" usually means something other than reform. Obama's plan is no exception.

Most of the emphasis of his "Lifetime Success" model-$10 billion worth per year-goes to "zero to five" education. Obama proposes to expand Head Start and Early Head Start, mentor new mothers, encourage universal voluntary preschool, and provide additional child care.

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The plan also emphasizes teacher training and teacher rewards (without using the dreadful words "merit pay"). A "Career Ladder Initiative" will allow experienced teachers to be compensated for serving as mentors and curriculum developers while remaining in the classroom.

The plan proposes to reform No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by addressing the two major complaints against it: its over-reliance on standardized testing and its provision for allowing students to transfer out of failing schools. Obama promises to develop better student assessments and work to "improve failing schools rather than punish them."

There's more, but rather than a revolutionary re--structuring, the plan tinkers with structures that already exist. Much of it sounds good and some of it may even do good, here and there. It will cost, of course; the document is heavily seeded with "provide," "invest in," and "encourage," which translate as "money," "money," and "money." From previous experience, it's safe to say that the investment will not generate a satisfactory return. Why? Because the plan relies on the very strategies that exacerbated the problem in the first place.

First, Obama's solution for outdated bureaucracies is to add another layer of bureaucracy. For example, his early learning proposal includes a Presidential Early Learning Council to coordinate "developmental systems such as Head Start, Child Care, Education, Early Childhood Special Education, Early Intervention, Maternal and Child Health, Child Welfare and Child Abuse Prevention and Health." Each of those represents not one program, but several; instead of eliminating or combining some, we'll devise another program to "coordinate" them all, ensuring another entrenched bureaucracy.

Second, the plan subtly removes accountability by promising to "improve" the accountability established by NCLB. The promise of help instead of punishment for failing schools is a clear signal to the education establishment that poor performance will be rewarded with more money. NCLB has actually brought up test scores in the majority of schools evaluated by holding this one wavering club over their heads. "Lifetime Success" will remove even that, and take us back to business as usual.

Third, teacher training remains firmly in control of university departments of education, which tend to put process ("critical thinking") ahead of content (actual subject matter) and favor trends over the tried and true.

In the last section of the plan, "Barack Obama will call on parents, families, and schools to work together and take responsibility for instilling in young people our best shared values like honesty, hard work and preparation for good citizenship." That's what it's all about, of course. But how Obama will do this, aside from the mere radiance of his presence, is unclear.

Perhaps parents had better do it themselves.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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