3

Obama’s simple, sensible, impossible education plan

He wants higher standards, tougher tests, merit pay for teachers — excellent ideas all. And in Canada, they would get him labeled as a right wing nut.


 

The US President gave a speech last week that reminds us why it can sometimes be a good idea to put highly educated people into positions of political responsibility. Obama unveiled his plans for American education, laying out a framework for improving educational performance by means of steps that are logical, sensible, evidence-based—and, oh yes, unacceptable to large parts of his own party.

The first clue that the Obama plan makes sense? It’s written in plain English. He did not invoke weasel words or marketing-speak or the “vague, cloudy euphemisms” that Orwell warned against in Politics and the English Language. You may disagree with what Obama said, but you can at least understand it. It is clearly worded because it is based on clear thinking.

And the reason many in his party will disagree with it? Because Obama wants to improve America’s disappointing educational results by raising standards; imposing new and better tests to measure where education is improving and where it is not; rewarding teachers who succeed in improving educational outcomes; and transforming the public school monopoly by allowing the creation of more charter schools, which are basically private-ish magnet schools funded by public money. The whole focus of the plan is on outcomes, namely more students getting more/better educations, with those outcomes objectively measured by tests.

The President also wants to spend more on education—okay, so at least there’s something in there to antagonize Republicans—but the goal is about “ensuring not only that teachers and principals get the funding that they need, but that the money is tied to results.”
“... we will end what has become a race to the bottom in our schools and instead spur a race to the top by encouraging better standards and assessments. Now, this is an area where we are being outpaced by other nations. It’s not that their kids are any smarter than ours — it’s that they are being smarter about how to educate their children. They’re spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do. They’re preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career. We are not. Our curriculum for 8th graders is two full years behind top performing countries. That’s a prescription for economic decline. And I refuse to accept that America’s children cannot rise to this challenge. They can, and they must, and they will meet higher standards in our time.

So let’s challenge our states — let’s challenge our states to adopt world-class standards that will bring our curriculums to the 21st century. Today’s system of 50 different sets of benchmarks for academic success means 4th grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming — and they’re getting the same grade. Eight of our states are setting their standards so low that their students may end up on par with roughly the bottom 40 percent of the world.
That’s inexcusable. That’s why I’m calling on states that are setting their standards far below where they ought to be to stop low-balling expectations for our kids. The solution to low test scores is not lowering standards — it’s tougher, clearer standards.

Living as I do in a province that has no standardized high school leaving exams; where we have no idea what our public education system’s real “outcomes” are or whether they are improving; where an 80% grade at one school is not comparable to an 80% at another; where students enrolled at a public school and receiving unsatisfactory marks can go to private degree mill for a course or two, and pay to get the mark they need; AND have those marks appear on their regular high school transcript; AND apply to university or college using those marks… well, let’s just say that the Obama speech gave me a little frisson of…. hey, what was that? Ah yes: the man calls it “hope.”


 

Obama’s simple, sensible, impossible education plan

  1. Without any sort of standardized testing, students are less likely to succeed. They all just coast along because there’s no threat of failure.

    We need standardized tests so that teachers can be held accountable in their profession and so that poor students don’t get too far behind. Standardized tests are an objective way of assessing how well education is working. Standardized tests would encourage students and teachers to work harder.

    While the clear majority of teachers should be praised for their hard work, the lax standards in Ontario allow the bad apples to get away with working part-time jobs at full-time pay.

    But you can’t promote testing without enduring the wrath of the Ontario Teacher’s Federation. Mike Harris tried to introduce more standards in ’97, and look what happened to him? He was re-elected.

    Last month, BC’s Teacher’s Federation tried to stop standardized tests (FSAs) from being administered, saying it takes away “valuable teaching time.” In reality, these tests are necessary for tax-payers (ie: parents) to assess how well teachers and schools are doing.

    If teachers are scared to take these tests, it probably means they haven’t been doing their homework. The good teachers would surely pass.

  2. I agree in the main, and think charter schools are generally an excellent idea, but standardized testing gives me pause. An objective measure of value added through various teaching techniques is potentially very difficult to construct.

    While I am generally skeptical of the common complaint from teacher’s unions who argue that standardized testing encourages educators to focus on the tests and not the material, there is a kernel of truth in the objection.

    There is also the possibility that such testing would measure the quality of students and not necessarily the quality of instruction.

    If a test, or a performance indicator, can uniquely measure for the value added from instruction, while controlling for other factors, than my skepticism would be placated.

    And, if the state didn’t have such a monopoly on education, teachers themselves might be more enthusiastic about devising their own quality measures.

    Nearly 30 years ago Milton Friedman mused on the fact that education is special. That is, while with respect to nearly every other area of human endeavour it is at least possible to have a discussion about privatization, it is not so with education.

    In Canada even the private delivery of health care is part of our general political discussion, while the privatization of education is rarely (if ever) raised.

Sign in to comment.