In trudging through the education policies proposed by Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, significant differences emerge, but they are muddied by the ambiguity laden within their sweeping promises. This issue hits particularly close to home for me given my experiences as a classroom teacher and my continued outreach through the Freedom Museum to educators and students, but I will attempt to cast my biases aside, yet offer nuance and skepticism where appropriate in reviewing the plans forwarded by the two candidates.
In diving into the details of the educational plans offered by Obama and McCain, the largest difference between the two is just that, details. Senator Obama offers specific recipes for our nation's students from pre-school to college, while Senator McCain speaks in generalities, offering broad brush strokes of his plans to lead in this capacity should he win in November. This difference established, I will offer contrasts when available, but issue a caveat that this piece will be more about Obama than McCain for this reason.
Senator Obama begins with a critique of NCLB. He claims that it is underfunded (a so-called unfunded mandate), poorly implemented (little detail about how), and flawed in its basic construction (few remedies offered here, either). Obama also laments about low literacy levels, deplorable math and science scores, and persistently high drop-out rates. Moreover, he points to the failure to provide high quality teachers for our students as promised by NCLB, plus the failure to retain those who are trained in the profession.
Obama's specific remedies for NCLB include fully funding the legislation, revising assessment vehicles (no specifics other than a shift away from students "filling out bubbles on standardized tests), and altering accountability mechanisms from punitive to constructive. He pledges to recruit teachers from the math and science professions and establish a national science curriculum. Obama tackles the drop-out crisis with a series of early interventions for struggling students while in middle school, but also hopes to ramp up existing after school programs.
McCain is more vague in his assessment of NCLB. He points to the data it has provided, most pointedly the dismally low test scores, thus my conclusion that he is a fan of its renewal. He is critical of those who accept high standards for some students and lower ones for others, opening the door for competition among schools for students, teachers, even funding. He is an unabashed advocate of school choice, pointing to the hypocrisy of those in Congress who oppose school vouchers but at the same time send their children to private schools due to the dismal state of their public counterparts.
McCain would make the availability of federal dollars dependent upon the ability of parents to remove their children from failing schools. Such choice would certainly involve both public and private schools, including charter schools and also religious ones. McCain even mentions the ever-growing phenomenon of home schooling, issuing a strong statement of support if they indeed embody "excellence" (no word from Obama on the latter).
Obama, by comparison, is a "skeptic" of school vouchers, as is the National Education Association (the nation's largest teacher's union) who endorsed him last week. However, in an interview with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Obama said, "I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn" should research prove their effectiveness. Milwaukee is home to the first and largest school voucher system in the country, and early research does show that students enrolled in the program have lower drop-out rates and higher standardized test scores.
An issue of agreement between the two candidates, and a position anathema to most teachers unions, is merit pay. Without using the term directly, Obama does promise financial incentives to those teachers who serve as mentors, work in underserved rural and inner city communities, and perhaps most controversially, excel in the classroom. McCain offers fewer details, but does advocate for the recruitment, hiring, and rewarding of "character-building" educators.
Obama offers a more comprehensive approach toward McCain's aforementioned goal. He would make available Teacher Service Scholarship for those who pledge to teach at least four years in a "high need area," paying four years of undergraduate and two years of graduate tuition. He addresses teacher quality by insuring that all preparatory schools are accredited, while also developing voluntary national standards. In addition to preparation and pay, Obama hopes to retain teachers through mentoring and the coordination of common planning time.
As mentioned at the outset, Obama's plan also touches upon early and post-secondary education. McCain, to date, has been silent on these issues. Obama's early childhood education plan is called Zero to Five, and is premised on reform and increased funding for Early Head Start and Head Start, two government programs that have been largely effective since their inception as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Obama doesn't address the specifics of these reforms, nor does he elaborate on his promise to provide affordable, high quality child care for pre-kindergarten students.
Obama is also concerned about rising college costs and the debt associated with them, not to mention the fact that an estimated 2 million qualified high school graduates shun college on account of the steep price tag attached. His American Opportunity Tax Credit would apply to the first $4,000 of college tuition, and he pledges to simplify the process by which students apply for federal loans, thereby making them more accessible.
These approaches viewed side-by-side, a voter cannot help but jump to the conclusion that Obama relies on the traditional cookbook of government solutions to the problems that plague our nation's educational system, while McCain hopes to work outside the system itself, using market mechanisms to improve the internal structure of the machinery. In order to offer an enlightened assessment, both candidates owe us more details. McCain hints at a major departure from the status quo, and we need to know exactly what this might entail. Obama pledges to mettle at strategic points from pre-K to college, and we should see the ingredients in his recipes, not to mention how he plans to pay for all of this ramped up federal involvement.
As a former teacher, I can speak to the frustration rampant throughout the K-12 community specific to NCLB. Its one-size-fits-all model fails to account for diversity amongst our student bodies. Its diagnoses most often tell us what we already know: students in underserved populations perform more poorly than their affluent peers. Its unfunded mandates place yet another burden on our cash-strapped schools that are already asked to save us from society's ills. Its complete abandonment of social studies and civics as a criteria for testing takes us away from the original purpose of public schools in this country: to prepare students for their role as citizens in this democracy.
Unfortunately, neither candidate speaks to these specific defects, although Obama at least acknowledges the overall imperfections of the law. McCain, to his credit, flashes his reform credentials by embracing school vouchers and merit pay. Though neither is a panacea for problems that are larger than the nation's education system itself, it is this "bold" and "persistent" experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt once embraced that may lead us on a path to salvation of our schools. Obama embraces merit pay himself as he walks a difficult line between a "new kind of politics" and his allegiance to his party's old guard, namely the teachers unions. Both candidates would seemingly shake up a system in great need of a makeover.