Presidential candidates take centrist approaches to education reform

    In a heartening sign that this year’s electioneering may avoid being completely dominated by talk of outsourcing and nation-building, both President George W. Bush and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry have been addressing the all-important issue of education recently. Their proposals merit examination, as they each have elements of promise, but also troubling flaws.

    Bush’s record on education includes the conception and passage of the landmark No Child Left Behind Act, which is the first comprehensive federal program we’ve seen in years that targets at eliminating the achievement gap, or the appalling divide between the education received by well-off students from affluent school districts and that afforded to low-income students, specifically targeting improvement in achievement for blacks, Latinos and American Indians.

    No Child Left Behind is ambitious, discomfiting and controversial. It asks schools to raise the achievement of all groups of students, including special education students and English language learners, and threatens schools with student transfers and state takeovers if success is not realized.

    Many have issued cries of dismay over No Child Left Behind, complaining that it labels underperforming schools “failures” and orders teachers around as if they were automatons. Well, wake up: Many of America’s schools are failures. They’re failing to educate a significant portion of their students, dooming them to poor job opportunities and poverty.

    The legitimate objections to the No Child Left Behind Act liesin differing conceptions of what constitutes a useful education. Supporters are those who would have all students demonstrate mastery of core subjects such as basic math and reading comprehension. They see the usefulness in bubbled-in exams and argue that these tests are the only way to make sure all students get the same crucial skills.

    On the other hand are those who believe, like William Butler Yeats, that “education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” In other words, it is more important that schools inspire students with a love of learning and critical thinking skills, than train them to regurgitate rote formulas and facts on standardized tests. They complain that creative, thought-provoking assignments are ditched in favor of test preparation.

    The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, given enough resources and money. Amazing results are being realized at schools whose programs use common-sense tactics like increased instructional time and smaller class sizes. These programs, like the Knowledge is Power Program, have time to teach their students the basics they need to ace standardized tests, and the inspiring, creative exercises we all fondly remember from school: science labs, field trips, research projects.

    This is where No Child Left Behind is lacking. Schools cannot be expected to improve through threats alone. There must be money for improved facilities, sufficient school supplies, qualified teachers, more teachers, teachers’ aides, extracurricular activities, community-building exercises — you get the idea. Excellence doesn’t come cheap. But if America’s economy is to stay afloat, we’re going to have to keep the information economy grinding forward with a highly educated workforce, and we’re going to have to make sure we’re not missing out on potentially great students whose ability and intelligence are wasted in terrible inner-city and rural schools. We can accept nothing less than excellence from our public schools and have to be willing to make the investment.

    So Bush succeeds in demanding rigorous standards and accountability, but fails to provide the monetary support to make these standards reachable for all schools and students. What about Kerry?

    Kerry has had moments of brilliance and unparalleled idiocy in addressing the education issue. On the moronic side, he’s stated his support for legislation that would deny driver’s licenses to high school dropouts. Kerry is right to focus voters’ attention on the high school dropout rate, which is unacceptably high — in some districts, as high as 50 percent, according to Kerry’s numbers. But not only will this do nothing to prevent students from dropping out (as well as fill the roads with unlicensed, uninsured drivers); it’s also downright silly. What’s next? Is Kerry going to take away their TV-watching privileges and say, “No dessert for a week”? This is exactly the kind of paternalistic, big-government mentality that’s going to hurt Kerry in the general election.

    In a Clinton-esque appeal to the center, however, Kerry has not shied away from offending teachers’ unions like the National Education Association. While they applaud the federal bonuses he’s proposed for teachers who serve in needy schools, they cautiously object to his call for performance-based pay and more flexible processes for removing unsuccessful teachers.

    The fact is, American public education is only as good as its teachers. Until every classroom is staffed with a teacher who genuinely cares about his or her students’ achievements and has the training and the resources to provide them the best education possible, we won’t make any gains. We’ve got to attract and retain sharper teachers. This could start with the kind of pay increases Kerry’s proposing. It will also take a massive public relations campaign, aimed at changing the public vision of teaching and teachers; teaching must be seen as an exciting, innovative field in which brilliant people can be recognized for their success, not a stagnant job for those who can’t do anything else.

    It’s wonderful that education has not been drowned out amid the sexier issues of economic recovery and conflict abroad. Those concerned about maintaining America’s position at the vanguard of the world’s economy and giving all students the chance to succeed regardless of income level or skin color should demand that it remain in the electoral spotlight. If this is going to happen, it requires the rigor and accountability that conservatives demand, and the extra funding the liberals want. Let’s hope this centrist approach will emerge from this year’s ugly presidential race.

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