Friday, September 12, 2008

Education: McCain and Obama Compared

Two days ago I printed out both the McCain and Obama information on education. I really do not like reading computer screens so I printed out all the info from both campaigns. McCain's required seven pages and Obama's required two pages.

McCain writes extensively about he calls his “vision,” his “principles,” and his “policies” on education. He does not write about a “plan.” Overall, McCain's information is characterized by an overabundance of pretty words, with very little in the way of specifics. Generally, each educational entity is responsible for figuring out for itself how to deliver quality education.

After a brief introduction to what Obama sees as five of the biggest problems, the rest of Obama's two pages is devoted to what he entitles, “Barack Obama's Plan.” Throughout Obama stresses that he will increase funding for each of his initiatives. Seven points out of his fifteen-point plan mention the source of funding. His plan is somewhat more specific than McCain's and does not ask education to fix itself.

Democrats will likely consider McCain's policies another example of the “you're on your own “ society and Republicans will likely consider Obama's policies another example of the “nanny” state.

McCain's Positions

Choice should drive excellence. Public education means the taxpayer pays for education in whatever educational setting the parent chooses. McCain is especially excited about the idea of virtual schools.

Competition should drive excellence. Schools must compete to attract the most effective teachers. Schools must compete to be the highest quality schools, as determined by parents. Furthermore, “every child in America is destined to compete with his or her peers around the world.” McCain would coordinate the many federal and state child care and preschool programs.

The closest thing to a plan revolves around Head Start.

1.Who is eligible? Head Start centers operating in the state with a demonstrated record of success in improving the school readiness of children are eligible to be nominated by the Governor for recognition as a Center of Excellence.
2.How does it work? The Secretary of HHS will pick at least one Head Start Center in each state based on the qualifications and experience of the Head Start Center
3.Each Head Start Center identified by the Secretary as a Center of Excellence will use their funds to expand their programs to serve more children, disseminate their best practices to other Head Start agencies (similar to a charter school dissemination grant), and improve coordination of early childhood education in their city or state.
4.How will the funding be distributed? The Secretary will provide at least $200,000 per year to each Center of Excellence, depending on availability of funding. The Secretary has discretion to increase awards if more funds become available.

Basically, any Head Start facility that has demonstrated success has a chance at $200,000 per year from the federal coffers IF the money is there. The McCain plan says that if you fix yourself in a way we find acceptable, maybe we will reward you monetarily (and maybe not). Schools do not need an extrinsic reward to motivate them. Schools want to be successful. If schools could fix themselves, they would have done so already. The systemic problems with education are more than any one school can fix on their own.

It is possible to cite a wonderful school here and there, just like once in a while a basketball player becomes a star. America needs all of its schools to be stars. America needs to become as obsessed with winning the “education” race as it once was with winning the space race.

Education reforms must address the “underlying cultural problems in our education system.”
I am guessing that what Republicans consider the underlying cultural problems and what Democrats consider the underlying cultural problems would be substantially different. It is a phrase that seeks to establish a meaningless and deceptive common ground.

All of America's children must be healthy McCain says he will “ensure there are no federal prohibitions against preschool programs offering basic health care screenings to children...” Getting rid of prohibitions is a far cry from actually paying for health care screenings. It is another example of a toothless “plan.” Japan has a regular program of health care screening for children in all the preschools. Local private practice doctors and dentists regularly visit each preschool and kindergarten at no charge to parents.

Parents must be educated to prepare their children for school. McCain would add the mission of instructing parents “in reading and numbers skills, as well as nutrition and general health” to current federal programs. There is no mention of additional funding.

In conclusion, I found that McCain did not have an education plan as much as an unfunded wish list.

Obama's Positions

Out-of-School Programs
Zero to Five Plan: Obama's comprehensive "Zero to Five" plan will provide critical support to young children and their parents. Unlike other early childhood education plans, Obama's plan places key emphasis at early care and education for infants, which is essential for children to be ready to enter kindergarten. Obama will create Early Learning Challenge Grants to promote state "zero to five" efforts and help states move toward voluntary, universal pre-school.

Obama will also expand Early Head Start, Head Start and other child care options. Obama will improve after-school options and summer school programs. Successful in-school and out-of-school programs together will encourage kids to stay in school. College outreach programs must show students a future. If American society decides that all children need college to compete in the world, the societal benefit of relegating less accomplished students to lower level jobs needs to be addressed. Obama's plan resembles McCain's in the sense it lacks specific directives, but at least Obama does not expect education to fix itself and ask for federal money later.

Reform No Child Left Behind Obama supports the intention of NCLB but plans to reform the design, implementation and funding. It is not clear how he will address the testing and punitive aspects of the program. Testing takes care of itself when children enjoy a quality education. Punishment adds stress and people do not do their best work under stress. Although autonomy is a primary trait of satisfactory professional experiences, it is also clear that schools are unable to autonomously fix themselves without serious guidance.

Make Math and Science Education a National Priority Obama hopes to recruit math and science degree graduates to the teaching profession. In many states, secondary teachers must have a degree in their field as well as a teaching credential. It is not clear if Obama would like to recruit math and science graduates to elementary teaching.

Recruit, Prepare, Retain, and Reward America's Teachers
Recruit Teachers: Obama will create new Teacher Service Scholarships that will cover four years of undergraduate or two years of graduate teacher education, including high-quality alternative programs for mid-career recruits in exchange for teaching for at least four years in a high-need field or location.

Prepare Teachers: Obama will require all schools of education to be accredited. He will also create a voluntary national performance assessment so we can be sure that every new educator is trained and ready to walk into the classroom and start teaching effectively. Obama will also create Teacher Residency Programs that will supply 30,000 exceptionally well-prepared recruits to high-need schools.

Retain Teachers: To support our teachers, Obama's plan will expand mentoring programs that pair experienced teachers with new recruits. He will also provide incentives to give teachers paid common planning time so they can collaborate to share best practices.

Reward Teachers: Obama will promote new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them. Districts will be able to design programs that reward accomplished educators who serve as a mentor to new teachers with a salary increase. Districts can reward teachers who work in underserved places like rural areas and inner cities. And if teachers consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.

I would add it's about time America actively welcomed its proven veteran teachers back to the classroom. It's a crime that school districts all over America have a policy of turning away their most experienced applicants.

We tend to ask what are the problems and what can we do to get a quick, short-term positive appearance of improvement. When the problem is framed in such a way, regulatory answers seem obvious. Regulation tends to highlight and punish the negatives. We need to ask different questions.

The analysis should begin with examining and analyzing first the strengths of the American education system, then designing plans that build on those strengths to proceed to a well-defined goal. In the 1960's, America had a well-defined goal; to land a man on the moon. Regarding education, America has no well-defined goals. There is not even a consensus that education is an important issue.

It seems apparent that both the McCain and the Obama education advisors recognize the same issues and recommends the same basic approaches, each policy set is consistent with the ideological orientation of the respective parties. When it comes to education, everything needs to be on the table. For Republicans this might mean, for example, actually funding proposals; for Democrats this might mean, for example, confronting the teachers unions.

Although autonomy is a primary trait of satisfactory professional experiences, it is also clear that schools are unable to autonomously reform themselves without serious guidance. Both sets of policies are incoherent and piecemeal. American society needs to demand a systemic overhaul.

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