An I for Incomplete

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

EDUCATION HAS had a cameo role in a campaign dominated by foreign policy and the economy. What little discussion there's been by the two presumptive major-party nominees has fallen along the traditional fault lines of party ideology. Democrat Barack Obama wants more money for public schools while Republican John McCain espouses more choice for parents. But would either be willing to embrace the dramatic changes needed to shake up a system that fails far too many children?

Mr. McCain's July 16 appearance before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in which he provided details about his education plan, sparked the first real exchange, showing clear differences on school issues. Mr. McCain favors expanding school choice through private school vouchers and online education; Sen. Obama opposes vouchers and has called for $18 billion in new spending. But there's a crisis in urban education. To significantly improve achievement levels among poor and minority children, scripted and predictable responses won't do.

Of the two, Mr. Obama has given the issue more attention. His background as a community organizer and state legislator includes work with neighborhoods on school issues. As a candidate for president, he has delivered several major speeches on education and developed a plan that runs the gamut from birth to college. He places a heavy emphasis on early childhood education, recognizing that if the achievement gap is to be narrowed, work must start before a child enters kindergarten. It is hard to quarrel with other programs he endorses -- such as teacher-residency and mentoring initiatives -- but he stops short of advocating solutions that many reformers see as essential to real change but which the powerful teachers unions oppose. These include allowing more flexibility in removing ineffective teachers and overhauling a tenure system that rewards those who stay put, no matter how mediocre their performance.

Mr. Obama deserves credit for going in front of the National Education Association two years in a row to say that the most effective teachers deserve more pay. But his hemming and hawing about using test scores as a measure, and his qualification that nothing should be imposed on teachers, suggests a troubling tendency to try to please everyone: He extols the accountability of the No Child Left Behind Act but then derides preparing children to fill in bubbles on a test.

Mr. McCain has spoken sensibly about giving parents a choice in their children's education, finding another line of work for teachers who have lost their focus on children and giving merit pay to the best teachers. Particularly intriguing is his idea to direct federal money to alternative teacher-certification programs. But his education plan is both late in coming and still a work in progress, and his promise to slow discretionary spending in a bid to balance the budget leaves little money for initiatives or to fully fund No Child Left Behind.

It is encouraging that both candidates would retain the No Child Left Behind law, albeit with revisions yet to be detailed. We hope they'll read the congressional testimony of urban school chiefs who recently argued for tougher standards and even more accountability. Leaders of schools in New York, the District of Columbia, Atlanta and Chicago -- places that, as Education Week noted, have the toughest time meeting NCLB goals -- asked Congress to establish national standards and assessments. It is madness that there are 50 different definitions of what constitutes proficiency in math and reading or of what a high school graduate should know. National standards and tests would provide a yardstick by which the progress of students could be measured, thus eliminating the sham of states dumbing down tests for the illusion of achievement. No doubt, tough national standards would make life even harder for educators. But as New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein told Congress, "It's not about me, it's about my kids."

The Ideas Primary, a series of editorials on the issues of the presidential race, can be found at

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