The Scouting Report Web Chat: President Obama and Education

Education is among the “winners” in President Obama’s proposed federal budget this year, with a $3 billion boost in funding, and a focus on reforms aimed at increasing student achievement, improving community colleges and making college more affordable through tax credits and Pell Grants.

Brookings senior fellow Russ Whitehurst says Obama’s proposals have been received with a mixture of praise and criticism, and achieving all the suggested reforms will be difficult. Whitehurst argues that President Obama will need to prioritize his ideas and focus on what is most important.

On Wednesday, February 17, Russ Whitehurst answered your questions about President Obama’s plans for the education system in a live web chat moderated by POLITICO’s Fred Barbash.

The transcript of this chat follows.

Fred Barbash-Moderator: Welcome everyone to the weekly Brookings-POLITICO live chat.

Russ Whitehurst is with us today to take your questions. Welcome Russ and welcome everybody.

Let’s get started.

12:28 [Comment From Gary: ] In terms of education reforms, what should President Obama’s priority be in the coming months?

12:28 Russ Whitehurst: Race to the Top is the president’s big $4 billion bet on education reform. Applications are in for the first round and will be due later this year for the second round. Seeing that the awards made to states are defensible in terms of peer review and the application criteria, staying on top of states that are winners to see that they implement what they proposed, and instituting credible evaluations of these efforts have to priorities for the next months.

12:29 [Comment From Rachel: ] What is the most effective way to make college more affordable for students and families?

12:29 Russ Whitehurst: The single most important step would be to give prospective students and their parents reliable and transparent information on which to compare the performance of colleges. Currently no one knows, or no one is telling, whether the return on investment in a degree in a particular field at Western Carolina University exceeds that at Kaplan University. Without that information, customers can’t shop by comparing costs and outcomes.

12:29 [Comment From Fred: ] Does ED have a new literacy initiative?

12:31 Russ Whitehurst: Yes, the president has proposed a new literacy initiative to replace Reading First. It covers a much broader age range and focuses more on reading comprehension. Some would say that it isn’t as grounded in research as Reading First.

12:31 [Comment From K.T.: ] Do you think Obama should make a plan for the forgiveness of student loans?

12:32 Russ Whitehurst: The president has proposed that the repayment on loans would be capped at a percentage of income and that it would be forgiven after 10 years for students who take up public service jobs. I like the first. I worry that the second suggests that serving in the public sector is more important than serving in the private sector.

12:33 [Comment From Danielle: ] You mention that Obama’s proposals have been received with both praise and criticism. What are the critics’ arguments against the Presidents ideas?

12:33 Russ Whitehurst: There are three principal concerns. The first is that the president is signaling a historical shift of authority over local education from communities and states to the federal government by creating a long list of specific reform approaches that states and local school districts will have to follow if they are to compete successfully for federal funds (e.g., lengthening the school day and year, expanding charter schools, national standards, restructuring low performing schools), The second is that many of these reform proposals have a weak evidence base. For example, charter schools on average don’t perform better than regular public schools, and there is little evidence that that national standards will produce higher student academic performance. The third is that important reform approaches on which we have evidence are being ignored or minimized, e.g., curriculum is critical but no where to be found in the president’s agenda. Likewise, accountability works but the president proposes to water it down.

12:33 [Comment From Suzie: ] How do you feel about charter schools? I feel like they’re a bandaid for a broken education system. Shouldn’t all kids receive a quality education?

12:35 Russ Whitehurst: I’m in favor of giving parents as much choice as possible in the schools they attend, coupled with really good information on how those schools perform. Charters have a place in expanding choice. However, the big opportunity is in creating open enrollment plans within traditional public schools. Of course, if more funding doesn’t go to schools that are more popular, choice will be stymied.

12:36 [Comment From KH: ] Dr. Whitehurst – Some have argued that the President has divided up higher education in a way that may be contrary to his goals on college access and completion – e.g. 2 year v 4 year institutions, privates v publics. etc. what are your thoughts? can reform of higher education be accomplished piecemeal?

12:37 Russ Whitehurst: There are dangers in segmenting the provider market and incentivizing students to attend community colleges vs. four year colleges. We have what looks like a free market in higher education but it is constrained by poor information on costs and outcomes. More focus there would pay dividends.

12:37 [Comment From TRJ: ] Should Obama be placing special focused on troubled districts, like DC?

12:38 Russ Whitehurst: The federal government has a historical role in supporting school districts that serve high numbers of children from low-income families. I’m in favor of increased federal intervention for districts that serve such families and are low-performing.

12:39 [Comment From Matthew: ] I think our education system is very poorly structured. Why is it that property taxes fund schools? All that does is increase the gap between rich and poor children. I’m from Chicago and the fact that New Trier High School, in the northern suburbs, spends 5x as much per student than inner-city seems incredibly unfair! Like inner-city kids have to work 5x as hard to overcome that gap!

12:40 Russ Whitehurst: There is no question that our system of school funding produces inequities. Federal funding offsets local funding somewhat, so that the highest and the lowest poverty districts spend more per pupil than middle districts. However, the bigger problem is that we don’t spend our money on what works best.

12:40 [Comment From Terry: ] Schools could really benefit from having teachers that have real-world work experience. Is there a way to make it easier for qualified people from other walks of life to become teachers and contribute practical elements to education?

12:42 Russ Whitehurst: We should lower certification barriers in that we know from research that routes into teaching, e.g., traditional training vs. alternative training, don’t make much difference. We should also make it possible for people to teach part-time., e.g., like an adjunct at a college.

12:42 [Comment From Matthew: ] Which of Arne Duncan’s best-practices do you think show the most promise? Which will give our schools the most bang for the buck?

12:43 Russ Whitehurst: The focus on data systems and linking students to data on their teachers, curriculum, and other aspects of their school experience is at the front of my list of things Arne is committed to that are important.

12:43 [Comment From Wes: ] As a recent college grad, I’m finding that having a college degree is not worth as much as it used to be since it’s becoming so much more common for people to go to university. Is there anything we can do at the high school level that can better prepare students for real jobs? this would help families avoid the outrageous expense of a college degree that doesn’t guarantee graduates anything anyway.

12:45 Russ Whitehurst: Schools, both high school and college, will have to take increasing responsibility for preparing students for the demands of the workplace. As more students obtain college degrees, what they signal to employers will be less.

12:45 [Comment From Ron: ] I was almost a secondary ed major in college. I took the teacher test for my state and it was ridiculously easy. Some of the people I took the test with, though, had taken it like 3 or 4 times. I shudder to think that they eventually passed and became teachers. It seems to me like we should have higher standards (and potentially pay) for teachers. Is this realistic?

12:47 Russ Whitehurst: Teacher certification tests generally have very low standards for passing, and evidence is that they are only weakly predictive of on-the-job performance. The direction of movement is towards greater focus on performance in the classroom. The administration and others, including me, are in favor of paying more to teachers who are persistently excellent in the classroom.

12:47 [Comment From Kenneth: ] How is Arne Duncan doing as Ed Secretary? Do you think he’s doing a good job? What could he do better?

12:49 Russ Whitehurst: He is going an outstanding job in the terms he has defined for himself — being a reformer. There is a question, however, of whether that is the best definition of the job of a secretary of education. That goes to the broader question of what is the federal role in education.

12:49 [Comment From Mark, Greenbelt: ] What do you think the right balance should be between support for traditional four-year liberal arts colleges and technical colleges that teach technical trades and job skills? Where is the market?

12:50 Russ Whitehurst: I would let students decide that, after having armed them with good information on the likely labor market returns to pursuing one or another type of degree at one or another type of institution.

12:50 [Comment From Ron: ]How do you think teacher excellence should be defined? In something like literature and writing, that seems very hard! I was a product of a “5 paragraph essay” movement and I think that it was kind of a bogus, arbitrary structure.

12:52 Russ Whitehurst: School districts or states need to establish systematic methods for evaluating the performance of teachers. Currently most teachers are evaluated rarely, and most evaluation systems produce pass/fail grades in which nearly every teacher passes. Subjects like literature are more difficult than mathematics because what students are expected to learn is less agreed upon, but it can be done.

12:53 [Comment From Ted: ] Will Obama run into partisan troubles trying to get his education reforms passed? It seems like making our kids smarter and making college more affordable are issues that everyone should be able to get behind.

12:53 Russ Whitehurst: The goals will be shared across the political spectrum, but not the proposed solutions.

12:54 [Comment From Franklin: ] Do you think any of Obama’s proposals were especially unrealistic? I find it hard to believe that student loan corps would want to forgive outstanding payments.

12:55 Russ Whitehurst: I’m troubled by the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, which intends to create schools and school districts in which the schools’ responsibilities include social services and health services for the whole family, as in the Harlem Children’s Zone. The evidence for this type of program working to improve student achievement is very weak, and the challenges on schools to take up this new responsibility would be daunting.

12:56 [Comment From Eric: ] Do you think any of President Obama’s proposed changes will be particularly difficult to achieve?

12:56 Russ Whitehurst: The president’s 2011 budget proposal lays out his agenda for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka NCLB. The fundamental shift being proposed is from block grant programs, i.e., funds to states and localities based on the number of poor children served in schools, to competitive grant programs modeled on Race to the Top. Washington will have to dictate the terms of those competitions, i.e., what states and districts have to do to win federal funds. States and districts are not going to willingly give up a guaranteed piece of the pie, the use of which is at their discretion, for a competition in which they have to dance to the federal tune.

12:57 [Comment From Steve: ] It seems clear that Duncan and IES Director Easton are refocusing the role of the IES to use the agency more to evaluate Obama Administration education initiatives — instead of funding grants that go to the heart of how we improve teaching techniques and improve student learning methods. What are your thoughts about this new direction of the IES?

12:59 Russ Whitehurst: There is new funding proposed for IES to cover some of the responsibilities of evaluating Obama’s initiatives, so I’m okay with that. The question for the future will be balance. We need investments that look in the rear view mirror to see how particular federal and state programs have worked, but we should not sacrifice a continued and expanded investment in the fundamental stuff of instruction and learning.

12:59 [Comment From Ray: ] “recruiting” better and more teachers is another one of Obama’s goals. Do you know how he proposes to do this and what kinds of people he’s hoping to find?

1:01 Russ Whitehurst: The administration has proposed funding programs that would increase flexibility for entry into the profession, i.e., you wouldn’t have to get a traditional teaching degree. They’ve also proposed much greater funding for programs that would reward teacher and principal performance. These are to the good from my point of view. However, eventually we’re going to need to figure out what being a good teacher consists of and how to transmit it to nearly all people in the profession.

1:01 [Comment From Sarah: ] When Obama talks about early childhood education, what exactly does he mean? Are we talking about day-care and pre-kindergarten care? This is a big area for improvement as many of these options are overly expensive for families. The expense of childcare of young children often convinces one parent to quit their job to stay home. what can we do to better this situation?

1:03 Russ Whitehurst: The administration’s position is to fund greater coordination of preschool programs at the state level. There may be other initiatives in the Department of Labor budget having to do with unemployment and retraining. I agree that we need more attention to the system of early child education and care. It is currently a confused mess.

1:04 [Comment From Nancy: ] What do you think about programs like Teach for America and The New Teacher Project? Are they successful? Or do they just put untrained teachers in classrooms?

1:06 Russ Whitehurst: The evidence for Teach for America is strong and indicates that TFA members do better than traditionally trained teachers in teaching mathematics and as well in language arts. This however, isn’t to say that they do a great job. We need better ways of training teachers to achieve uniformly good results.

1:06 [Comment From Jay P.: ] What will the $100 billion worth of stimulus money be used for in schools?

1:07 Russ Whitehurst: Nearly all of the stimulus is being used to offset declines in state budgets. Thus what you get is teachers not being let go.

1:07 [Comment From Laurie: ] Given the deteriorating political climate and the fact that this is an election year, what can really be accomplished on Capitol Hill? Are any of the President’s initiatives likely to succeed?

1:08 Russ Whitehurst: ESEA can be reauthorized if the president focuses on strengthening accountability by using growth to measure school performance, providing more funds to support the expansion of schools that are successful, and identifying areas in which he and Congressional conservatives may have similar views, e.g., providing greater choice. It will be important for the president to articulate a conceptual model underlying reforms around which people can rally. Currently the president’s reform agenda is little more than a list of policies that are currently popular. What is the federal role vs. the state and local role? If the federal role is carried out well, what are the anticipated benefits?

1:08 [Comment From Kenneth: ] Doesn’t Race to the Top kind of seem like a game show to you? Like, let’s see how fast states can conform to national standards. Are national standards a good idea? Don’t they kind of kill regional variation and flavor? Shouldn’t kids also learn about their communities?

1:10 Russ Whitehurst: Race to the Top has been a very powerful lever for moving forward the Obama administration’s favored policies. There is a long way to go before the effort to produce national standards could bear fruit, if it does at all. Where are the assessments, the materials to use in the classroom, the professional development for teachers. Unless standards are a piece of a coordinated system, they won’t lead us anywhere.

1:10 [Comment From Nancy: ] What are some of the ways we can better train teachers? Is it something in our university system? Better support and on-the-job training? What do we know that works?

1:12 Russ Whitehurst: Now that we are beginning to have systems in place that can identify persistently effective teachers, we can use that information for the benefit of all teachers. For example, we can have better teachers mentor less effective teachers. We can make the techniques used by most effective teachers part of university training.

1:12 [Comment From Paul: ] I know that many schools in the DC area are drastically cutting budgets, letting teachers go and increasing class sizes. Schools are even getting rid of classes like foreign language. What does Obama propose we do about struggling school budgets?

1:15 Russ Whitehurst: The stimulus bill was designed to do as much as possibly to prevent the circumstances you’ve described. But states are likely to have burned through it before the economy and their budgets recover. Look for efforts to pass Stimulus II and Stimulus III. Also look for school districts to begin to ask questions about how to be more productive. Efficiency and productivity have not had a prominent place in the management of public education. That is likely to change.

1:15 [Comment From Nate: ] There are a lot of countries out there with great school systems – particularly Japan and South Korea. Does Obama think we should take cues from some of these other systems that produce good students? In Asia, schools play a big role in the moral and social education of their students in addition to just academics, which seems like a lesson american schools could learn from them.

1:17 Russ Whitehurst: Part of the rationale for creating common standards and tests is that many nations whose students are doing well on international tests have national standards. However, many nations whose students don’t do well also have national standards. There are always limits on what can be learned from other nations that differ from us in culture as well as organization of schools.

1:17 [Comment From Kenneth: ] Tenure: is it too easy for teachers to obtain? Should it even exist?

1:20 Russ Whitehurst: Yes it is too easy. In much of the nation tenure is obtained after two years, almost everyone gets tenure, and hardly anyone with tenure is ever dismissed. I can think of no other profession that operates under those terms. I would be in favor of a system of contracts with increasing duration, e.g., start with a 3 year contract, then a 5-year, then a 7-year — all of this tied to an evaluation system that meaningfully differentiates performance.

1:20 [Comment From Jen: ] I’m surprised Obama hasn’t said anything about school lunches. With child obesity such a huge problem today, school lunches are ripe for improvement.

1:22 Russ Whitehurst: Michelle Obama has said something about school lunches. School districts are pushing back in terms of it costing more to provide healthier menus. The evidence of school-based programs to reduce childhood obesity is not encouraging. What the family eats and their patterns of exercise are much more determinative.

1:22 [Comment From Susan: ] What do you think President Obama can do to boost student achievement?

1:23 Russ Whitehurst: Focus on what the federal government can do best:

a) get an information infrastructure into place by which the performance of students, teachers, and schools can be meaningfully compared

b) provide funding for the expansion of high poverty schools that are successful in raising academic achievement and are popular with parents

c) invest heavily in research on what works in education, including curriculum, and technical assistance for states and school districts to utilize that research

d) invest heavily in development of new technologies and tools that will increase the effectiveness and efficiency of public education

1:23 [Comment From Amy: ] Have you heard any updates on when the final Investing in Innovation criteria will be made public?

1:23 Russ Whitehurst: No I have not.

1:24 [Comment From Karl Knapstein: ] I fear the black youth of this country will be left behind as the economy fires up. Can Obama offer education programs targeted at this section of the population?

1:25 Russ Whitehurst: Focusing on what works to improve achievement for struggling students in general, including black students, is a critical part of the federal role. We are doing better but not nearly well enough.

1:26 Fred Barbash-Moderator: Russ, thanks so much for taking the time to take all these questions. And thanks to our readers, with apologies to those whose questions we did not get to.