Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Obama's speech on education

I'm not exactly liveblogging this, because the speech happened hours ago. But I'm typing as I watch the video replay-at least the edited version on CNN. I'll try to slap some coherence on at the end.

1.) "Show me a plan to improve early childhood education to prepare students for grade school, get grant money (pending Congress approval)." Probably there's no systemic change that would help education more than a high-quality pre-K education program. All in favor of it. Education spending in the US (and probably everywhere else) is backwards--we should be spending huge amounts on pre-K--2 education. It would push the standards of the rest of the grades forward to sprint off the line.

2.) Encourage better standards and assessments. "Children can, and they must, and they will meet higher standards in our time." For a second, it sounded like he was talking about national education standards. But no, he just meant that states need to be doing a better job about setting their own. (Did he say something about an interstate education consortium? An organization for planning standards across state lines?) Not sure entrepreneurship is a 21st-century skill. High expectations across the board--no excuses--along with teachers equipped to teach them, would go a long way towards effective instruction. If everyone buys into it.

"...by not only making sure that schools and principals are getting the money they need, but that the money is tied to results." This sounds EXACTLY like the original intent of NCLB--do well, get money. Don't do well, don't get money. It was precisely this aspect of NCLB that got it in such trouble with teachers in the first place. The only way this isn't a return to the worst aspect of NCLB is if he means that some sort of federal "blueprint for success" or some such comes free with every million dollars' grant money. Money to invest in innovation in the school district.

"Provide teachers and prinicpals the information they need...." I thought this was going to talk about a "blueprint for success," again. But it seems to be a call for a central database for keeping track of students' progress. It sounds like a pretty good idea, and sheds some light on my "information-gathering" post from weeks ago (or is that the one that Blogger ate?) (He cites Huston and Long Beach; Florida's state tracking) "Major investment to cultivate a new culture of accountability."

3.) Democrats are guilty of opposing "rewarding excellence"; Republicans are guilty of opposing "investments in early education". So, we're going to throw money at both. "Time to start rewarding good students." "New pathways to teaching and new incentives" to get teachers where we need them. Teacher pay; more supports to teachers; "move bad teachers out of the classroom."

"I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."--The unions are going to have a field day with this. This sort of sounds like a head-on assault on teachers' unions; it sounds like a right-wing talking point against teachers' unions. I don't work in a big school district, where an administrator can shuffle an underperforming teacher from school to school for years before anything bad happens.

4.) Changing the calendar: I am entirely in favor of increasing the length of the school calendar. In my particular school district, it would be expensive. Teachers cannot and should not increase their calendar time without due increases in compensation--indeed, it's the only thing we have to bargain with. There's no money for raises, so student-contact time (to the extent admissible by state law) is the only thing left to talk about. However, we clearly need the modifications he calls for here. More school time, after-school programs, longer school days into the summer, etc. All good. Now, and I say this in the least petty way possible, show me the money. I truly can't afford to do it for free. And if it's worth doing, certainly it's worth paying for. (This is going to lead to a discussion of education finance reform, very quickly. So I'll back away from the precipice slowly.)

And for sheep's sake, can we please disconnect sports from schools? Can we please stop acting like a 2-hour-long basketball practice is more important than getting homework done? (More about homework some other time. Baaack awaaaaay slooooooowly....)

According to the White House Blog, this is where he talked about charter schools. But I didn't hear anything about them. I know Obama supports them, though, so here's my piece. I agree that schools need major reform. But I reject the premise that charter schools are anything but a short-term fix. Nobody's ever explained to me what charter schools are supposed to do that public schools aren't already doing. If someone can do that, maybe I'll stop believing that they're union-busting techniques in the guise of improving student achievement. Let me put it this way--if you're in a sinking ship, you'll hop onto any dinghy, sailboat, inflatable life raft, or chunk of flotsam that passes by. But you don't want to sail across the sea in it, you want another ship that isn't going to sink. The way I see this, public schools are the ships. Charter schools are the life rafts. Probably better than nothing, but not much, and not for long.

5.) Student responsibility--I'm reminded of a quote from the director of New Teacher Academy, quiting from somebody else. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. But you can salt the oats." I think if schools were doing a better job, students would be more likely to stay in. If education were perceived as more valuable, students would be less likely to drop out. This is one of those "rising sea raises all ships" things for me. Better schools make for better students, etc. It ties into the "higher standards" thing he was talking about, too. On the other hand, I can't get my students out of bed on time to catch the bus for them. So he has a point here, too.

All in all, it sounds like Obama's listing pretty hard to what is traditionally the right side of this argument, except he's talking about throwing a lot of (or at least some) federal dollars behind it. I worry about what would happen to all of these great ideas the next time we elect a deficit hawk, anti-federal-government-spending president. I can only hope that the reforms prove so valuable that cutting their funding would be laughable, and there would be no political will for it.

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