The Skinny on Obama's Education Reform: Will IT Work?

Published Apr 06, 2009

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Obama has proposed immediate reform on education. He wants to see rigorous standards, innovation, and accountability among both students and teachers. Will his five-pillar plan work?


Since becoming president, Barack Obama has echoed the education ideas used in his campaign platform last year. In a recent speech on education, he proposed five pillars of education reform:

1. Invest in Early Childhood Initiatives

Investing in early childhood initiatives, such as Early Head Start, Head Start, and affordable child care is the cornerstone of Obama's plan for education reform. The president has proposed a comprehensive 'Zero to Five' plan that emphasizes early care and education for children under the age of five. The ultimate goal of the Zero to Five plan is to help states move toward universal voluntary pre-school.

There is compelling evidence that early childhood education is essential for children to be ready to enter kindergarten. However, there are a number of people, particularly the Republican Party, who oppose additional investment in early childhood education. The opposition argues that some of the responsibility for early childhood education lays with parents not the government. They also insist that investing in K-12 education should be the priority.

It is hard to say whether or not this part of Obama's plan will work. However, there is no doubt money will be spent. The president has budgeted $5 billion to be invested in Early Head Start and Head Start programs. He insists that every dollar invested equals a potential return of $10 as reading scores improve, delinquency rates are reduced and welfare rolls are lowered.

2. Encourage Better Standards and Assessments

Obama is calling on states to create better standards and assessment methods. States that are notorious for setting low standards to address low test scores are being asked to create tougher, clearer standards. To encourage states to comply, the Obama administration has promised to improve progress assessments as well as the No Child Left Behind accountability system. This will ensure support--not punishment--for the schools that need improvement.

Reforming Bush's faulty No Child Left Behind system is probably one of the best things Obama could do for education at this point. Since NCLB was introduced, teachers have spent enormous chunks of time preparing students to fill in standardized test bubbles. And nothing good has come out of it. In fact, studies show that students subjected to the NCLB system are less prepared for higher education and further behind than ever before.

NCLB has also created an enormous gap in standards from state to state. Improving and equalizing testing and assessment practices may not be the only fix the NCLB system needs, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

3. Recruit, Prepare and Reward Outstanding Teachers

To address the decline in teacher quality and teacher pay, Obama has developed a four-part plan for recruiting, preparing, retaining and rewarding outstanding teachers. The plan starts with the creation of new Teacher Service Scholarships that will pay for undergraduate and graduate level teacher education. Schools of education will also be reformed with new accreditation standards and teacher residency programs. To retain and reward teachers, Obama will promote and encourage merit pay and other incentives.

This is undoubtedly the most controversial part of Obama's education reform plan. Although most people do not have a problem with the recruiting and preparation portion, there are a number of people (including educators) who oppose the idea of merit pay for teachers. They argue that this will not retain the best teachers but will instead attract venal and greedy educators who care more about monetary rewards than education. There is also a concern than merit pay will inhibit collaboration among educators and creativity in the classroom.

However, not everyone is against financial rewards for teachers. Some feel that merit pay, assessments and other incentive programs are not only necessary but long overdue. If Obama can create a merit plan that assesses every teacher fairly, treats every teacher the same, and considers other factors besides test scores, he may be on to something. If not, this plan could do more harm than good.

4. Support Charter Schools and Promote Innovation

The fourth pillar of Obama's plan for education reform involves promoting innovation and excellence in America's schools. The president wants to support the creation of more successful charter schools and close down chronically underperforming schools. He also wants to change the way the school calendar is structured by lengthening both the school day and school year. Other plans include addressing the drop-out crisis and making math and science education a priority in all schools.

Although this part of Obama's plan for education reform has been met with criticism from people who oppose charter schools, it could lead to more and better education choices for students. More than half of all states have a cap on the number of charter schools that can be opened. Lifting this cap could lead to the creation of quality education programs for more children. Creating a system that allows for the intervention in schools that have not and cannot perform to state standards will also help to improve accountability and the potential for charter school success.

5. Make Higher Education Affordable and Available

Making higher education--be it college or technical training--available to every American is the final, and possibly the most ambitious, pillar of Obama's plan for education reform. The president wants to see the U.S. lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020. This would be a huge leap for our nation, which is currently ranked at number 10. Obama has proposed several ideas to make this happen, including increasing limits on Pell grants and streamlining the financial aid process.

Although Obama's ideas are good, and again a step in the right direction, they don't address the root of the problem. College costs have risen by 40 percent over the last five years. Student debt has grown considerably as well. Handing out an additional $100 here and there and eliminating financial aid paperwork does very little to directly address these issues. If college costs continue to rise at the same pace, it is highly unlikely that students--even those who qualify for Pell grants--will be able to afford anything more expensive than a cheap community college.

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