Obama’s Education Plan

September 30, 2009 | | Comments Off on Obama’s Education Plan

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”- Malcolm X

No matter where individuals may fall on the political ideology spectrum,all can agree with Malcolm X’s statement. A child without a quality education is a child with little hope for a prosperous future, which is why President Obama plans to make changes in three major areas of education. He intends to expand early childhood education programs such as head start, so that all kids are more prepared for kindergarten. As far as post-secondary education, the President aims to ensure that all high school graduates receive at least one year of higher education or job training. The most challenging area to improve will probably be K-12 education. Merit pay, expansion of charter schools, lengthening schools hours of operation, and revamping No Child Left Behind(NCLB) are just some of the ways President Obama plans to tackle this area of education.

Increasing teacher salary based on student performance is one the more controversial Obama administration initiatives, particularly among teachers unions. There are two major problems with merit based pay. First, is the difficulty in determining an accurate measure of student success and the amount of success necessary to trigger a salary increase. Every teacher faces unique challenges depending on the type of students they work with and the environment they work in. If success is measured by standardized test scores, then a teacher who works with gifted students has an advantage. He or she is naturally going to have more high scoring students than a teacher who works with students who are ESL, behind in reading, or have learning disabilities. The disparity in test scores does not indicate superior teaching talent of the teacher with gifted students over other teachers. For example, a 4th grade teacher, who has students reading on a 1st grade level has done a commendable job if by the end of the year, those students are reading on a 3rd grade level. This increase in reading ability may not translate into high scores on a standardized assessment.The dilemma is that it is obviously unfair to measure student achievement solely based on standardized tests, yet impractical to create measuring tools unique to each teachers student demographic and teaching environment.

Second, merit based pay may cause teachers to manipulate test scores and other measures. A teacher who feels pressured to produce results has an incentive to inflate grades or test scores in order to earn the extra money. The upside of merit pay is that it may incentivize teachers to work harder. Most teachers have altruistic motives, and would not be any more motivated by financial gain than they already are by their desire to make a difference.

Expansion of charter schools is another source of controversy because traditional public schools fear their enrollment will suffer. Fear of losing students may be a great motivator for traditional public schools to make improvements.A 2001 study by the Department of Education revealed that half of public school districts created new educational programs in response to charter schools. This result is not surprising since it is well known that competition is a huge motivator in all industries, and education is not immune to the pressure.

The effectiveness of charter schools is inconclusive. Charter school students were found to do worse on standardized test than their traditional public school counterparts. This difference, however, may be explained by the fact that more academically challenged students are enrolled in charter schools than in traditional public schools. A Harvard study found that charter school students were 4 percent more likely to be proficient in reading and 2 percent more likely to be proficient in math on statewide assessments than traditional public school students. No matter what the statistics show, it cannot be denied that charter schools serve an important role in the education of minority youth in urban areas such as D.C. , where the local traditional public schools are more likely to be deficient. D.C. currently has ninety-three charter schools, so they must have some value.

Obama plans to keep the school doors open more days of the week and longer hours of the day in order to accommodate the needs of the modern family. He plans to provide positive extracurricular activities for parents and kids, such as GED and artistic programs. Organizations such as the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club will be instrumental in the facilitation of these programs. Today, if kids are going home after school, many of them are going to an empty house. There are tons of single parent homes and homes where both parents work. Having schools open longer for an array of activities will likely get more parents involved, keep kids out of trouble, and most importantly, expose kids to activities they do not experience during the regular school day.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a gift from the Bush Administration, will not be abandoned by President Obama. The law in theory is actually quite admirable. It seeks to ensure that all children gain basic reading and math skills (Wright, 2006). It also strives to reduce the disparity in achievement between low income, minority, and ESL students, and other children. President Obama recognizes that this legislation is in need of a major makeover. The law constantly draw negative attention because of its harsh sanctions for schools that do not have enough students passing standardized tests. Standardized tests do not always accurately measure student ability because some kids are just not good test takers. The pressure to pass statewide assessments forces teachers to teach to the test, which really takes all the fun out of leaning and teaching. The President does not agree with using standardized tests as the sole indicator of scholastic achievement, but recognizes that presently, standardized testing is all we have to work with.

Coming up with theoretically commendable legislation is the easy part, as evidenced by NCLB. The real challenge is coming up with solutions that are practical and not too financially burdensome. Overall, the President has a lot of great ideas for improving education in America, and positive change is always welcome.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user dave_mcmt.

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