Monday, December 1, 2008

Obama and Education

With Barack Obama now only a few weeks away from becoming the 44th President, let’s take a look at what he said during the campaign about education and what his education policy might look like. While education is probably about tenth on his list of things to do; some of Obama’s most interesting policy ideas during the campaign were in education.

First the facts about U.S. education—it ain’t fair and the Federal government has little to do with it. Less than 10% of total spending on schools comes from the Feds. That means the states and local governments come up with over 90% of all school funding. This reduces the Feds roll in education.

However, one of the few major domestic policies that George W. Bush was able to get done was No Child Left Behind. When this was passed at the beginning of Bush’s tenure, it was a bi-partisan effort and when completed everyone patted each other on the back. Sadly, NCLB looks much better on paper than when put into action.

It’s hard to criticize a policy where policymaker’s hearts were in the right place, but NCLB has been a minor disaster. It was poorly thought out, somewhat unjust, and gave the states far too much control for what was supposed to be a national policy. NCLB set national standards that schools had to meet, but the catch was that each state was allowed to design their own means of evaluation—most states crated easy standardized tests. The result is bizarre numbers like this: 90% of Mississippi 4th graders were declared proficient by the state, but only 22% met the national standard.

Can and will Obama bother fixing NCLB? It’s hard to say and nothing in his campaign rhetoric leads me to believe that he will. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, throwing more resources and money at NCLB probably would be a mistake.

So what can we look for Obama to do? Recent academic work has discovered that early intervention of “at risk children” or pre-school aged kids by non-profit services and/or educators has had promising results. Obama has mentioned pre-school programs and other programs that would involve early intervention a number of times on the campaign trail—I would expect this to be his pet project (and this is also a post for another day…)

Obama has suggested a $4,000 tax-credit for college fees noting fears that nearly 2 million Americans will not go to college between 2002 and 2010 because they can’t afford it. I find this somewhat hard to believe. There are plenty of options students have to pay for school—student loans are not that difficult to obtain—and while costly, they’re worth it. The lifetime earnings a college grad are much greater than those of a one with only a high school education. On the flip side college is very expensive for the middle class and there isn't a lot of money for them to help pay for university.

In September Obama announced that he would double federal funding for charter schools. This is exciting news as charter schools have, thus far, gotten great results in urban America.

Obama would also like to create a career ladder for teachers. A policy like this would create a pay structure for teachers based on classroom results and a clearer career path. This is actually ingenious—if it works. How do you measure results in the classroom? And setting out a career path for teachers—which has been ignored—could be a roaring success if done correctly.

All in all, some very interesting ideas coming out of the Obama camp in regard to education. Personally, I’m more than sold on the early childhood intervention and education and I would love to see work done there. Everything else is pretty sound and one would have to nit-pick at these proposals to find any problems with them. Outside of Obama’s rhetoric, his education ideas are probably the most exciting and most sound.

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