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Obama's rhetoric-reality gap on schools

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Shortly after the 2000 presidential campaign, Bill Bradley fretted to me that Democrats were endlessly offering "the big rhetoric" followed by "the little mouse." What he meant was that Democrats knew there were issues requiring bold government action, but they didn't trust that Americans would support policies equal to the size of the problem. So Democrats basically pretended their big goals could be met through miniature initiatives; a classic of the genre was President Bill Clinton's $200 million a year school-to-work measure that, according to one wit, "helped dozens, if not hundreds, of people before being killed."

I'm afraid President Obama's education agenda, restated Monday in a speech capping the White House's "education month," shows Democrats are still caught in the same rhetoric-reality gap. (Republicans are worse, but they don't hold the bully pulpit.) What follows is a skeptic's guide to the president's speech, offered not simply as criticism but as a plea for Washington to aim much higher.

The big rhetoric: "We've made enormous progress. . . . THE most significant education reform initiative that we've seen in a generation."

The little mouse: Obama's agenda is a paradox. As I've argued before, it's the most creative federal education reform in decades, yet the outer limits of its ambitions are demonstrably unequal to the education challenges we face. Yes, Race to the Top has sparked positive, significant changes, including the relaxation of state caps on charter schools; a move toward common standards; and new ways to use student achievement data to help assess teacher effectiveness. But even if President Obama serves for eight years, it's a sure bet that America will still be recruiting nearly half its teachers from the bottom of the academic cohort and assigning its least qualified teachers to the poor students who need great teachers the most. What's more, even with the modest increase in Pell grants Obama has achieved, those grants will cover a smaller share of college tuition than they covered 35 years ago. There's more in this vein, but you get the idea.

The big rhetoric: "We need to put outstanding teachers in every classroom, and give those teachers the pay and the support that they deserve . . . we've got to start valuing our great teachers."

The little mouse: And so to ensure that teaching is valued in America, President Obama proposes . . . next to nothing. He gives no indication of the amounts he believes teachers need to earn if we're to attract and retain top talent to the profession, as high-performing school systems do around the world. Recent market research by McKinsey (which I helped lead as an adviser) shows that if average starting salaries went from $39,000 to $65,000, topped out at $150,000, and if we also made other improvements in working conditions and school leadership, we could lift five-fold, from 14 percent to 68 percent, the portion of newly entering teachers in high-poverty schools who come from the top third of their class. The cost would be roughly $30 billion a year at current student-teacher ratios (money that could be reallocated from less effective spending in America's $600 billion-plus K-12 pie, and phased in only for new teachers). That's what the scale of a serious proposal might sound like. The president isn't offering a serious plan to make teaching an attractive career for top talent.

The big rhetoric: "Under the system No Child Left Behind put in place, more than 80 percent of our schools may be labeled as failing. . . . That's an astonishing number . . . skepticism is somewhat justified. . . . We're going to have to fix how schools are labeled and identified. But we've got to do more than that. In recent years, 15 states have actually lowered their standards to make it easier for their kids to meet the targets set by No Child Left Behind . . ."

The little mouse: Huh? Maybe it's crazy and demoralizing to label four in five schools as "failing," but if they're not meeting proficiency goals in an era of global competition, what should we call them instead? And if many states are lowering the bar to make those goals easier to meet, why are so many still failing? The president can't have it both ways. Former Clinton schools adviser Andrew Rotherham says that while the NCLB measures are seriously flawed, our school quality problems remain bigger than our measurement problems.

The big rhetoric: "By the end of the decade we will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. We'll be number one again [up from 9th today]."

The little mouse: On our current trajectory, I'll take anyone's bet that we won't come close to achieving this goal. Just like we didn't become the best in math and science by the year 2000 despite the governors' collective promise in 1989 that we would be. And just as students won't become proficient in core subjects by 2014 - the Bush goal post from 2001 that Obama is now moving.

Obama did an event with Jeb Bush in Florida the other day meant to praise Florida's progress while showing that education reform should be bipartisan. But the depressing subtext was bipartisan inadequacy. Research by Eric Hanushek shows that Florida's math achievement falls behind not only high-performing nations such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, but also Estonia and Latvia - countries we hardly think of as eating America's lunch.

Thus the peril for the president. A de facto education rallying cry of "Four more years and maybe we can eventually catch Estonia!" does not sound like a plan to "win the future."

Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio's "Left, Right & Center," writes a weekly column for The Post. He can be reached at mattino2@gmail.com.


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