Why the Next Education President Will Be Like Bush

By Jay Mathews
Friday, October 31, 2008; 6:18 AM

My unassailable election prediction: The guy who wins Tuesday will be an education president. There is no way to avoid it. They all grab that title, whether they deserve it or not.

My similarly brilliant but more provocative prediction: If you like the education policies (JUST the education policies) of the current president, you will like the education policies of his successor, no matter which man is chosen. If you don't, you won't.

How can that be? Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) seem to be very different people, with contrasting views of President Bush. But if you examine carefully what they say they want to do about schools, it is just more of the same.

To me, that's good. I am among the majority of Americans who support the thrust of the No Child Left Behind law. I might have problems with parts of it, but it is a useful bipartisan law and mostly makes sense. The leaders of both parties, and most Americans, want schools to be accountable to parents and voters. That cannot happen without the No Child Left Behind mandate to test students regularly, make results public and motivate lagging schools to get better.

Opinion polls indicate at least half of teachers don't like the law, but its political strength is obvious. Its political strength is obvious. I know of no major politician who has won an election campaigning against No Child Left Behind. Anyone who tries is going to hear this from every opponent: "Oh, so you DON'T want our schools to be accountable? We have to show progress at our jobs. Why shouldn't our kids' teachers do the same?"

The two candidates do differ on vouchers. McCain supports these tax-funded scholarships for students who want to attend private school. Obama does not. But that issue is going nowhere. Voters may someday embrace the idea, but so far it usually loses on state ballots. Both candidates know that.

That is not to say that the two candidates, and their education advisers, don't have interesting ideas about improving schools. The Education Week Web site edweek.org (bias alert: I am on their board) has the webcast and transcript of a recent debate at Columbia University Teachers College between Obama adviser Linda Darling-Hammond and McCain adviser Lisa Graham Keegan. Darling-Hammond, an influential Stanford professor who has been creating new schools, talked of expanding preschools, developing better tests and studying what has worked for teachers in other developed countries. Keegan, a former Arizona superintendent of public instruction and a national policy expert, emphasized new ways to keep states from diluting standards, to raise teacher recruitment to a new level and to change school cultures.

But their similarities in the debate outweighed their differences. Both favored shifting our state tests to what is called a value-added model. That means instead of reporting how average test scores for this year's fifth grade compared with last year's fifth grade, tests would track how much each individual student improved from one year to the next. This makes sense, because everyone agrees we should focus on the progress of each child. I only wish the two advisers had been asked about a farsighted story by Edweek reporter Stephen Sawchuk revealing that, in some states, legislators supported by teacher unions have barred any use of those individual progress reports in assessing teachers.

The campaigns seem to be adopting each other's ideas. Darling-Hammond was for years the most prominent national critic of the Teach for America program, which places bright college graduates in urban and rural classrooms after just a summer of training. She argued that the TFA corps members were not prepared to teach children already struggling with their lessons. She pointed out that corps members committed to serve only two years and on average did little better than non-TFA teachers in that short period of time. And, of course, the program became popular with Republicans.

But in the 18 years since it was born, Teach for America has recruited some exceptional teaching talents who have become successful school leaders and caught Obama's eye. At the debate, Darling-Hammond was at least partly transformed into a TFA fan. She said her candidate "is in favor of recruiting academically able people. He appreciates the Teach for America recruits that come in and teach where needed."

Keegan similarly leaned in the Democrats' direction by putting more emphasis on the importance of charter schools -- independent public schools run with taxpayer money -- than the vouchers that the GOP loves. Both parties now like charter schools, and Keegan was instrumental in Arizona's becoming one of the most charter-friendly states in the country.

Many people do not like charters. Many people do not like No Child Left Behind. Many people do not like the idea of the federal government setting higher school standards for everybody. Many people do not like Bush's education program. They would prefer that states and localities make all important school decisions, that children be assessed by well-chosen and well-paid teachers rather than test scores and that tax dollars be spent just on regular public schools.

They make good arguments for their side in this debate, but the next education president is not listening to them. In future campaigns, they are going to have to work very hard to find any national leader who will.

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