The President’s Education Agenda

Today President Obama delivered his administration’s education agenda, with a goal to make the U.S. education system, once again, the envy of the world.

It includes:

  1. Expanding early childhood initiatives, like Head Start;

  2. Encouraging state standards and assessments that are:
    1. demanding, and
    2. test 21st century skills such as problem solving, creativity, critical thinking and entrepreneurship
  3. Enhancing the quality of the teacher workforce by supporting
    1. incentive pay for teachers who produce more student learning or teach in hard to fill subjects such as math and science
    2. removal of persistently ineffective teachers from the classroom,
    3. nontraditional routes into teaching, and
    4. mentoring programs for new teachers;
  4. Expanding charter schools, and lengthening the school day and school year to allow more time for teaching and learning.

It was mostly a grab bag of policies that cannot be evaluated as a package, except in the general sense that it is good to have a president who is deeply committed to improving education and willing to support reforms that will be challenged by portions of his political base. Consider the last two items in the list. If put into wide use they would, in the words of a reformer who can afford to be more candid than the president, “raze the current system to the ground and build a new one”.

Charter schools are a centerpiece of this radical goal. They are public schools that operate outside the governance structure of traditional public schools. They have considerable flexibility in terms of hiring, firing, and paying teachers, as well as over matters such as curriculum and length of the school day. The president proposes to expand the number of students served by charter schools, and to introduce charter-like features into traditional schools, including pay for performance and longer school days. This type of administrative flexibility in managing schools has been anathema to teacher unions, who cannot be pleased to see the president they helped elect taking positions on charter schools and incentive pay that they oppose.

There is now a body of credible evidence that charter schools in some of our major urban districts provide a better education than traditional schools to students whose parents want to enroll them in a charter school. But it is unclear whether charters would be as successful if they had a larger share of the market. Would they, for example, still be able to attract in sufficient numbers the entrepreneurial school leaders and highly committed new teachers on which they now depend? Or do charters work precisely because they are small in number, hard to get into, and special? It will be important for the administration to pay careful attention to issues of scale as it places its bet on charters.

On early childhood, we should not be satisfied with more programs, “like Head Start.” A rigorous national study of Head Start found positive effects in some performance domains at the end of a year in the program, e.g., naming letters of the alphabet, but not in others, e.g., vocabulary. Most children in the study were still far below average in school preparation skills on exit from Head Start. We can do better, and there is a lot of evidence on effective preschool programs to lead the way.

The president is correct to point to our crazy quilt of state standards and assessments as a serious impediment to our regaining our international lead in education. However, his proposal to provide incentives to states that improve their standards is a far weaker prescription than is desirable or politically possible. What about the states that don’t respond to the incentive or don’t do as well? What about states that upgrade their standards but in directions that still lead to glaring differences across states in expectations for what students should know? The focus should be shifted to the regional level with the aim of moving towards a more uniform set of expectations that will eventually be national. For example, the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind could award a much larger slice of available federal dollars for standards and assessments to consortia of states rather than to individual states. The consortia efforts that are most successful could be models for other consortia.

The president’s call for assessments that measure 21st century skills such as creativity and entrepreneurship is fraught with danger and difficulty. There are serious questions about whether it is possible to teach someone to be creative in a general sense, disconnected from expert knowledge in particular domains. In any case, the definitional and measurement challenges are huge. Instead of chasing abstractions, it would be more productive to construct standards that reflect what the best experts in particular fields agree that students need to know and be able to do to be competent in those fields. That will surely involve problem solving, creativity, and the like, but anchored in content rather than floating free. And please, Mr. President, no more talk about needing to teach students more than how to bubble in answers on tests. Any assessment expert will tell you that very complex skills can be measured with multiple choice test questions. The issue is what we are expecting students to learn, not the structure of the test item that is used to determine whether they’ve learned it.

It is inspiring to have a president who has lofty goals for education, and much to applaud in his agenda. But, there were notable omissions from the president’s education agenda.

What about curriculum? The nations with whom we compare unfavorably in terms of education output almost all have a coherent curriculum for core subjects such as mathematics. We have, instead, confused, fat textbooks that have a little bit of everything for everybody. This needs to change.

What about learning and instruction? We have a wealth of knowledge that has emerged from the cognitive sciences on how to deliver more effective instruction in the classroom, but it is not incorporated into teaching training. Translating this knowledge into classroom practice will get us much further than the teacher mentoring programs you endorsed, which have been shown to be ineffective in a recent federal study.

What about technology? Twenty years from now, a lot of what goes on in traditional classrooms will almost surely be carried out through virtual learning communities and instructional software. How will the nation invest to apply our current international leadership in information technology to education? Why not apply our strength in information technology to leap frog our international education competitors?

What about efficiency and productivity? We spend more on education per student than any other nation. Shouldn’t we be pursuing ways to get more out of our current investments before we double down?