Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Obama's education plan: a critique


Obama on education - decent, not spectacular
yesterday I crossposted from dailykos a diary on did on the education plan of Bill Richardson, among other things. I had previously crossposted here the diary I did on the plan of John Edwards. To keep balance, I plan over the next few days to cross post the diaries I have done on three other candidates, beginning with this one on the plan of Barack Obama. The text is identical to what was previously posted on dailykos on September 24, the thread of which can be read here, thus some references will be a bit out of date. I will follow this with diaries on the plans of Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd as they appeared on their websites at the time I wrote them. I will also provide links to the original posting, so you can read the comments on the thread. And now for Obama

Yesterday I did a diary entitled A very good Education Plan from John Edwards. Plutonium Page challenged me to write not only about Edwards. Others posted links to the education plans of Obama and Richardson. This diary is a followup to Page and to Adam Bonin who provided a link to Obama’s plan. While I will go through Obama’s plan in detail, let me begin by summarizing. It is good, not as detailed as Edwards, lacks the kind of detail and thematic integration I found from Edwards, but is definitely superior to what we have seen from this administration. And there is one feature in his plan which is important, and which was not addressed by Edwards.

The opening paragraph of Obama’s education policy statement is strong:
Throughout America's history, education has been the vehicle for social and economic mobility, giving hope and opportunity to millions of young people. Our public schools have produced a competitive, productive workforce that has transformed the world economy. Today, our schools must prepare students not only to meet the demands of the global economy, but also help students take their place as committed and engaged citizens. It must ensure that all students have a quality education regardless of race, class, or background
The introduction goes on to make a strong commitment to public education, but then focuses on negative elements
- 6 million secondary students reading below grade level
- 1/3 of graduating students not going on immediately to post secondary education
- exceedingly high drop-out rate

Obama then commits to giving assistance to struggling districts and schools to help disadvantaged students.

But then comes a paragraph which troubles me:
Too often, our leaders present this issue as an either-or debate, divided between giving our schools more funding, or demanding more accountability. Obama believes that we have to do both, and has offered innovative ideas to break through the political stalemate in Washington.


I have to note that as a professional educator my hackles get raised when I hear politicians sign on to the rhetoric about “accountability.” It is not that as teachers we do not accept responsibility for what happens in our classrooms. But the specific term has been being used to beat up on public schools and teachers for the past several decades, and it may serve as a bit of a red flag.

There is some overlap in what I read in Obama’s plan from what I noted in Edwards, although I do not find the proposals as detailed. Nor do I find the use of key themes around which the other ideas are organized. Perhaps it is a stylistic difference, and perhaps I react as I do because as noted I find some of the rhetoric in the introduction troubling. I put this up front so that you can appropriately take it into account as I go through the specifics of Obama’s plan.

Obama recognizes that students from disadvantaged circumstances enter school as much as two years behind their peers in readiness. His answer is in my opinion not as fully developed as it could be:
Barack Obama supports increasing funding for the Head Start program to provide preschool children with critically important learning skills, and supports the necessary role of parental involvement in the success of Head Start.
I do not see here a commitment to universal pre-school for all disadvantaged children, nor do I even see a commitment to fully funding Head Start for all children eligible by family circumstances. A nominal increase in the current levels would fulfill this commitment, but not accomplish much. I know that a long-time friend who is one of the nation’s great experts on early childhood is a strong supporter of Obama, and from that external knowledge I would expect that Obama’s commitment is much greater than this one sentence would imply. But merely from reading the web page I would be troubled.

Obama does have a commitment to teachers. He proposes funding programs in 20 districts to “to develop innovative plans in consultation with their teacher unions.“ These would address things like mentoring and other programs. There are good parts to these ideas - consultation with teachers unions is one example, although I would note that such an approach might not seem to fit in some of the more anti-union parts of our nation: remember, many teachers do not have the right to collective bargaining. There is something to be said for trying a number of approaches before propagating them, and as Obama notes
These innovation districts will implement systemic reforms, and show convincing results that can be replicated in other school districts.
In theory I agree, although given remarks Obama has made elsewhere I worry that the convincing results may be little more than improved test scores. Still, there is verbiage in the section on increasing teacher pay that at least implies that Obama is considering things beyond test scores. Note especially the following:
Obama believes the key is finding new ways to increase pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them and not based on some arbitrary test score. Obama will start treating teachers like the professionals they are.


Obama deals with NCLB only in one paragraph, which reads as follows:
Reform and Fund No Child Left Behind: The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act is the right one - ensuring that all children can meet high standards - but the law has significant flaws that need to be addressed. Unfulfilled funding promises, inadequate implementation by the Department of Education, and shortcomings in the design of law itself have limited its effectiveness and undercut its support among many people who care deeply about our schools and our students. Barack Obama would reform and fund No Child Left Behind.
Even were the law fully funded it is in the opinion of many in education a fundamentally flawed approach. I am disappointed that I do not see that reflected in this paragraph, nor do I see what specific shortcomings Obama sees in the law. Merely saying it needs to be reformed without saying how is frustrating to those who want a sense of how Obama would want to approach the issue of accountability. In fairness, he sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee in the Senate that has responsibility for reauthorization, he and his senatorial staff are involved in trying to make meaningful changes to the law, but if I only look at his website I have no sense of what changes he is seeking to obtain.

Obama does return to the issue of accountability, so I suppose one can say that he is addressing perhaps the most critical issue of NCLB. Yet again, I see a lack of specifics:
Improve Testing and Accountability: Barack Obama believes that, before we can hold our teachers and schools accountable, we need to hold our government, parents, and our communities accountable for giving teachers the support that they need. Obama believes that we should work with teachers, states, and school districts to develop more reliable and more useful measures of student learning.
Let’s look at what is positive in the foregoing blockquote. Obama does set as a precondition for holding teacher accountable that they are given the proper support from the rest of the community, including the parents. That is something with which most teachers would find agreement. When coupled with a commitment to support teachers throughout their careers, such as providing a way to bring teachers into the profession through things like teaching residencies, it shows a real commitment to the teaching profession. Obama can rightly point at things he has gotten through the Senate that address some of these issues. And the idea of including teachers in the development of the measure we use to assess teacher learning is a good one, provided teachers are properly trained to the task. Here it might be useful had Obama pointed at successful examples around the country that demonstrate some of his proposal, and in this context the in-school assessment done by teachers in Nebraska could serve as one useful model. I do caution on the use of the term “reliable” as reliability in psychological measurement (of which educational measurement is a subset) means consistency. The real goal should be validity, for which reliability is a precondition. Let me explain: if I have a scale that consistently measures me as weighing 150 pounds, it is reliable, but wrong, as my current weight is about 190. Were I to draw a conclusion from stepping on that scale that I had lost a lot of weight, that conclusion would not be valid even thought the measurement upon which I base it is reliable - reliably wrong, consistently so. Perhaps a small point, but one of great importance when talking about educational measurement, particularly as we increase the stake placed upon the results of those measurements.

Obama, like many people, has accepted the idea that experiencing more rigorous courses in high school like AP courses is a desirable. We have seen an exponential expansion of AP courses, fueled in part by the Challenge Index as a measure of “good” high schools developed by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post. Back when AP was somewhat rarer, the correlation between having taking an AP exam and going on to and performing successfully in college was fairly clear, even though I have to caution people that correlation does not indicate causation. I think the jury is still out on whether the expansion in recent years is having the intended results, and I note the concern by the College Board that the quality of courses being offered as AP might not be up to the necessary quality, a concern that has led to an audit process before one can list on a transcript a course with the AP designation. Still, the approach is somewhat conventional wisdom at this point, and Obama has moved in the Senate (along with Republican Jim Demint of SC)
a bipartisan plan to allow students who do not have access to college-level courses at their high schools, to apply for need-based grants and seek credit at local colleges or community colleges.
If we are going to see an increase of AP, this plan does address the issue of equity for those students, and thus is something that does seem appropriate.

So far I have been somewhat critical of what I have discussed. The ideas seem good, albeit not as fully developed as I would like to see. But there is one part of Obama’s plan which is outstanding, and for which I would like to provide the appropriate context. One of the proposals that many have made as a part of the reauthorization process for NCLB is to move to measuring the growth of individual students, rather than comparing cohorts (this year’s 4th graders to last years) as a more accurate measure of what is occurring in the classroom. I have expressed concern on this approach, because there is a strong research base that says if you measure Spring to Spring it will show disadvantaged students as not learning as successfully - this is an artifact of your measuring non-school effects. Disadvantaged students lose learning during the summer, while often middle class and above students continue learning, through camps, enrichment, etc. To fairly measure growth would require measuring the knowledge of the students at the beginning as well as the end of the school year. But our current testing schemes under NCLB do not even fully fund that once a year testing.

Obama does not directly address this problem. He actually does something better. Rather than looking at the measurement problem, he attempts to address the underlying inequity. Let me quote the entire section that deals with this, including the quote he provides from someone else:
Expand Summer Learning Opportunities: Differences in learning opportunities during the summer contribute to the achievement gaps that separate struggling poor and minority students from their middle-class peers. Barack Obama's "STEP UP" plan addresses this achievement gap by supporting summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged children through partnerships between local schools and community organizations. One portion of this proposal was included in a comprehensive bill to improve U.S. competitiveness that passed the Senate in April 2007, with a provision for summer programs focused on increasing student math and problem-solving skills.

"Summer is an incredible opportunity to help children who are under-performing in school achieve grade-level proficiency, develop as young leaders, and enter school ready to excel in the fall. The support of Senators Obama and Mikulski demonstrates their commitment to children and education. The STEP UP Act is a tremendous opportunity to deepen and expand our impact on children's lives and help them achieve high academic standards."

- Earl Martin Phalen, CEO of BELL (Building Educational Leaders for Life)


So on balance, how would I assess Obama’s education proposal? There are a number of good points, with the one great point which addresses a key issue of equity. I wish that some of the ideas were more fleshed out. I know from his work in the Senate that Obama has a real commitment to public education, and this campaign material makes reference to some of it. Other than his proposal for expanding summer learning opportunities, I have some concern that he may be still too tied to the current paradigm of accountability, but I see a clear recognition that there needs to be significant change. He has a strong commitment to including teachers in perhaps redesigning how we measure student learning. He is willing to have teachers and their unions play an important role in federally funded model projects. He strongly supports the idea of teachers being paid and treated as professionals.

Overall I view it as a good start, needed more specifics, with the one outstanding proposal that recognizes a key reality that is too often ignored in our discussions about schools and education.

# posted by teacherken @ 3:34 PM 3 comments links to this post
from Education Policy blog
Posted by Duane Campbell

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