Will The New President Support New Educators?

August 21, 2008 | Blog

In yesterday’s lukewarm editorial about the presidential candidates’ education policy platforms, the Washington Post clearly sided with Barack Obama as the preferable option over John McCain. Not exactly a strong endorsement.

One thing is clear. Obama’s presidential platform specifically focuses on developing excellent teachers–recognizing educators as the #1 school-based impact on student achievement. As a U.S. Senator, Obama has sponsored and co-sponsored legislation that would fund teacher residency programs and high-quality teacher induction programs. He’s not a Johnny-come-lately to this issue.

Other than the fact that the charter-and-voucher-happy Lisa Graham Keegan (Matthew Yglesias/The Atlantic blog) (Arizona Republic article) is his chief education advisor, why is McCain clinging primarily to the tired, old right-wing focus on school structure, market-based reforms, and demonizing teachers at the exclusion of everything else? What too many conservatives don’t seem willing to admit is that teachers drive results. Whether it’s a public school, a charter school, a voucher school, a religious school or a home school, if a child has a good teacher he will be more likely to succeed. If teacher quality is lacking, learning is much less likely to occur. Teachers are not the enemy – they will lead us where we need to go if we support them and, yes, challenge them when appropriate to do better. But It can’t be all sticks and no carrots. And It can’t be done to teachers, it must be done with them.

The ‘It’ is what is in question in this campaign.

There is some hope in McCain’s education platform. Buried within it is an interesting idea:

Provide Funding For Needed Professional Teacher Development. Where federal funds are involved, teacher development money should be used to enhance the ability of teachers to perform in today’s technology driven environment. We need to provide teachers with high quality professional development opportunities with a primary focus on instructional strategies that address the academic needs of their students. The first 35 percent of Title II funding would be directed to the school level so principals and teachers could focus these resources on the specific needs of their schools.

I agree that Title II monies should be better directed at high-quality, high-impact professional development. About half of these funds currently go to class size reduction which is not necessarily the biggest bang for the buck, particularly outside the early grades. Certainly, some professional development monies are directed at low-quality, pray-and-spray, one-size-fits-all PD seminars. And some teachers are allowed to self-select PD offerings that really aren’t focused on improving their teaching. I’m not saying that enrollment in Underwater Basket Weaving is rampant, but simply that districts and school leaders should have more say in — and a better understanding about — helping teachers improve through purposeful PD.

As McCain so often discusses, it is also appropriate to focus on weeding out ineffective teachers. But even more important is identifying the effective ones through meaningful evaluation systems [Ed Sector] [NGA] [NCCTQ], figuring out what makes them effective, and using that knowledge to transform the practice of the vast majority of mediocre-to-average-to very good teachers by improving preparation [ECS] [Edutopia] [SREB] [TNE], instituting high-quality induction programs [NTC] [AASCU] [AEE], and and designing career-long professional development opportunities [CCSR] [CCSSO] [PEN] [VA DOE] that support individualized teaching contexts.

The main problem with McCain’s proposal is that he has proposed ratcheting down increases in domestic spending. That means little money to implement No Child Left Behind-related programs and fund needed teacher quality reforms. (Remember, we’ve got to fund those tax cuts for the rich that sickened McCain just a few years ago; oh yes, and pay for the 100-year war in Iraq.)

Obama, on the other hand, has signaled a willingness to reform teacher compensation and strengthen professional development systems and ante up federal resources and target them at high-need, hard-to-staff schools and districts across the country. His focus clearly is on making teachers better with a focus on student outcomes. That’s a more comprehensive approach that makes a lot more sense. I agree with the Post that he needs to go further in fleshing out his views on issues such as teacher assignment and teacher tenure, but Obama’s reform-minded, student-focused teacher policy proposals are a refreshing change from the “status quo or bust” and “more money is the only answer” ethos of many recent Democratic presidential contenders.

With regard to McCain, I wish he would spend less time talking about bad teachers and more time talking about how we can learn from good ones. And enough with this voucher obsession! Let’s focus on making our public schools as good as they can be. That starts with strengthening America’s teaching force.

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