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Four things Obama should do for education in next four years

n this Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 file photo, Barack Obama stops for a photo with members of the Vox Harmonia Visual and Performing Arts Academy Salem High School in Virginia Beach, Va. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) Barack Obama visits with students at Salem High School in Virginia Beach last year. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

President Obama’s first-term education policies disappointed many educators. Below, a superintendent and secondary school principal explains why, and spells out a basic agenda for the second term. The piece was written by George Wood, superintendent and secondary school principal at the Federal Hocking Local School District in Stewart, Ohio.  He is also the executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy and chair of the board for the Coalition of Essential Schools.

By George Wood

About this time four years ago I was on my way to Washington to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama.  I was looking forward to his administration, hoping that having Linda Darling-Hammond as the leader of his education transition team meant good things for public schools.

I have to say I have been disappointed.  While there have been some good things, there has been much to puzzle over.  

I wonder why there has been so much support for Teach For America and so little support for teacher preparation and teachers in the classrooms.  I am not sure why Title 1 has become more of a competitive grant program with mountains of paperwork as opposed to the anti-poverty program it started out to be.  And I cannot figure why the interest in charter and specialty schools, which serve so few of our children, eclipses a focus on supporting traditional public schools to which this nation owes a great debt.

I am not making the trek to D.C. this time.  While I did support the president’s re-election I do not have the same sense of optimism in the next term.  And I have lowered my sights for what I hope he does in the next four years for public schools.  Here is that agenda, though I am not sanguine about the possibilities.

1. Restore Title 1 to its primary purpose as an anti-poverty program.  When Lyndon Johnson added education funding to his War on Poverty, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was designed to support schools that were educating children of poverty.  Today, through its current incarnations as No Child Left Behind and things like Race to the Top, it is a tool for federal bureaucrats to try and reform schools.  This approach has failed.  Test scores, the only thing that matters to Washington apparently, are not up and America is no more satisfied with its public schools than it was when President Bush launched NCLB.  The feds should simply provide schools that serve poor children with additional aid and let the schools report publicly to their local citizens how they spend those funds. The only role of the feds should be to monitor for discriminatory practices and withhold federal dollars when such do exist. I have more faith in local communities and school boards to wisely spend these funds than I do the feds.

2. Invest in teaching.  Every nation that outperforms us on international comparisons invests heavily in teachers.  At the outset of the Obama administration, Stanford University’s Darling-Hammond had proposed A Marshall Plan for Teaching that would have filled all of the nation’s teaching slots with skilled teachers at a cost of $3 billion a year.  Given that we are drawing down troops in Afghanistan that cost $1 million per soldier per year we can easily cover the investment in teachers when just the first 3,000 soldiers return.

3. Invest in innovation.  Just as it does with the Center for Disease Control, NASA, or the National Science Foundation, the federal government should make a serious investment in educational research and innovation.  The Forum for Education and Democracy has published a report outlining the research we need in teaching and learning, assessment, and school climate.  It is time for the feds to quit guessing at what helps young people become active and engaged citizens through public education, and start funding the research that points the way.

4. Change the rhetoric.  One thing the president has is the bully pulpit.  He (or someday she) can focus public attention on the value of public schools, can stop the blame game that faults our schools for every national ill, and point out the amazing contribution the public education system of this nation has made to our social, political, and economic life.  How about a few weekly radio address shout outs, and visits to good public schools for something more than a campaign rally? How about putting public school teachers and administrators on panels, committees, etc., and highlighting their work in such things as the State of the Union address?

There you go, four things.  They are not much, do not reach beyond the pale of what a deeply divided government can do, and surely do not cost more than can be covered by a nation committed to the welfare of its children.  

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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