The New York Times has posted a transcript
of last night's debate between the major party presidential candidates, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)
and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
Because the Commission On Presidential Debates
is controlled by the Democratic and Republican Parties the following candidates who have qualified for the ballot in Illinois were excluded: Charles Baldwin
(Constitution), Bob Barr
(Libertarian), Cynthia McKinney
(Green) and Ralph Nader
Having a ringside seat to one of the most screwed-up school districts in the country, I thought I'd comment on the portion of the presidential debates that had to do with education.
I categorize District 209 (Proviso Township High Schools)
has one of the most screwed-up in the country for a couple reasons. Test scores are abyssmal. Last ranking I heard was 90th of 90 districts in northeast Illinois.
But, getting lousy test scores is even more shameful in D209's case because it's not serving students that exclusively come from impoverished families or immigrant families. In the aggregate the families the students come from are not poorly educated. Proviso doesn't have the highest level of students walk through the door, but it's a long way from the lowest too. District 209 takes students who should be doing at least so-so and turns them into low test score machines.
Obama said a couple things that made sense in his initial response. Getting better results is going to require we invest money. People who claim there are money-for-nothing solutions are usually fudging or outright lying. Obama also emphasized getting children on-track early, “early childhood education”.
Then Obama talked about higher pay for teachers, especially in math and sciences. I don't agree that raising pay by itself will improve the situation. I would reduce barriers to people with math and science skills getting into education. Also, the quality of life for teachers is an issue.
I read somewhere, perhaps The Tipping Point
by Malcolm Gladwell
, that to get good teachers to work at challenging schools it helped to bring a cohort of good teachers together and also bring in good administrators at the same time.
It's hard to convince people who have the math and science skills that they should go into teaching if they are going to be supervised by people who are mediocre and worse managers.
What management training do education administrators receive? The career path seems to be that they get certified as teachers and then get an additional degree and shazam! the people are now managers.
So, if schools want to retain teachers who are talented enough to get other forms of employment the schools need to treat teachers better in the workplace.
Obama scolding parents rubbed me the wrong way.
But there's one last ingredient that I just want to mention, and that's parents. We can't do it just in the schools. Parents are going to have to show more responsibility. They've got to turn off the TV set, put away the video games, and, finally, start instilling that thirst for knowledge that our students need.
It's not that there's not some truth there, but it's not a prescription to do anything useful. Does Obama want to create a program to prepare parents to do something? Does he want to issue a checklist of things parents should be doing? Or does he judge want to encroach on Joe Lieberman's turf of being the national scold.
McCain started off completely full of shit.
There's no doubt that we have achieved equal access to schools in America after a long and difficult and terrible struggle.
But what is the advantage in a low income area of sending a child to a failed school and that being your only choice?
Which is it, Senator? Have we achieved “equal access to schools” or do we have large swaths of the country with “failed schools”? If we have families who are forced to use “failed schools”, how is this equal? Or are all schools failing equally?
Both McCain and Obama seemed to buy into the notion that there are people who good teachers and bad teachers and that the bad teachers should be identified early and transitioned to something else.
Here's what I suspect is a more accurate model.
Most teachers start as middling teachers. They haven't become skilled yet, but they bring the energy of a newbie. All of them get at least a little better; some get significantly better. Eventually, almost all of them become less effective than they were at their peak. This is called "burn-out".
The problem is partially the salary structure. By the time teachers lose effectiveness they have enough seniority that it's very difficult for them to transition to something else and get paid as much money. The teachers feel they have to stay for the retirement benefits.
The problem isn't teachers who were bad from the beginning, but teachers who have significantly declined in effectiveness.
Neither Obama nor McCain seemed to understand the problem of ineffective teachers.
McCain touted the idea of rewarding good teachers. How would this work at District 209? Would the teachers with the best students (PMSA) get most of the rewards? Aren't they already getting the easiest students to educate? Let's say someone did come up with a formula that took into account where the students were at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. There were no questions about fairness. (This assumption is completely unrealistic, but ignore that.)
How does rewarding good teachers fix a dysfunctional and corrupt school board? How does it fix incompetent administrators? How does it get better prepared students to start at the district? How does it get families to be a more constructive part of the process?
McCain's idea about rewarding good teachers won't accomplish much in the real world except to cause teachers to spend time and energy criticizing the formula for determining who is a good teacher.No Child Left Behind
. Two of the most useful insights I've gotten on NCLB have been at the local level.
Randy Tinder, the former superintendent of District 91 (Forest Park elementary schools)
said that NCLB is a rigged evaluation system that will label every public school in the United States a “failing school” in a few years.
I will add to Tinder's thought process (and perhaps he already thought of this, but declined to say it publicly), that the Republican Party wants to cut money going to public schools and send it to private schools, especially religious schools. Labelling public schools as “failing” is part of a strategy to shift public money from public schools to private schools.
Barbara Cole is a local voice that defends NCLB. Cole reasons that by testing and including categories and subcategories that there's no way for schools to overlook when they are providing lousy education to minority groups and special needs students.
Obama criticized NCLB as an unfunded mandate. McCain wanted to renew it, but was reluctant to spend more.
McCain and Obama differed on vouchers. Rachel Cooper
discusses the definitions of "vouchers
" and "charter schools
". Ryan Grim (CBS/The Politico)
sorta criticizes Obama on the details of the DC schools
. And Steve Benen (Washington Monthly)
rips McCain's explanation of the DC program and cites research that says vouchers are ineffective.
Here are the links I found for the minor party candidates' education policies.Charles Baldwin
(Constitution) wants to disband the Department of Education
(Libertarian) wants to privatize education and speaks favorably of homeschooling
(Green) calls education a right and decries the disparities in U.S. education
(independent) begins his statement about education by say,
Education is primarily the responsibility of state and local governments. The federal government has a critical supporting role to play in ensuring that all children -- irrespective of the income of their parents, or their race -- are provided with rich learning environments, equal educational opportunities, and upgraded and repaired school buildings.
Nader sees the two greatest threats to education as being commercialism and vouchers.
Labels: Barack Obama, Bob Barr, Charles Baldwin, Cynthia McKinney, District 209, education, John McCain, NCLB, New York Times Magazine, Ralph Nader, Washington Montly