On education, Obama could go either way - The Explorer: Editorials

On education, Obama could go either way

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Posted: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:26 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

The jury is still out on Obama’s education policy. He could go in liberal directions — more early childhood education and financial aid for college students — and he could make some conservative moves as well — more charter schools and merit pay for teachers. My guess is, he’ll do a little of both, and if he does it carefully, we’ll all benefit.

Conservatives should like much of what Obama says about charter schools. As a supporter of charter schools myself, I like it as well. People on the left who oppose charters need to realize two things: first, they’re not going away, and second, we benefit from the variety of creative educational possibilities they offer students and parents.

But those on the right who oppose greater accountability for charters need to wake up as well. Arizona’s laws, for instance, make it too easy to open a charter and too hard to shut one down.

Obama proposes a sensible balance. He wants to get rid of arbitrary caps on the number of charters a state allows while creating “a rigorous selection and review process.”

I have more trouble with another of Obama’s proposals that will be applauded by conservatives: merit pay. He should tread carefully here. We’re asking for trouble if we rely too heavily on test scores to determine teacher pay. Our emphasis on high stakes tests is already taking its toll on schools. If they’re used to determine teacher salaries, test stress will get much worse. Also, if the budget for teacher salaries remains constant, raises for “meritorious” teachers will come from the paychecks of the others. Merit pay is ripe for misuse and abuse.

However, I’ve come around to an idea I resisted for years — that math and science teachers should get extra pay simply because they’re a scarce commodity. All teachers deserve higher salaries, but if it takes a bonus to attract more math and science teachers as Obama and others suggest, so be it.

I subscribe wholeheartedly to most of the President’s other ideas, like:

• More money for quality early education. It’s the best dollar-for-dollar educational investment we can make.

• Increasing Pell grants for college students, along with other ways to help students and families afford higher education. That’s another great investment.

• Extending the time students spend in class by increasing the length of the school day and / or the school year. This could run into serious money since we’d have to pay staff for the extra hours they put in, but our children would definitely benefit from more classroom time.

• Getting parents more involved in their children’s educations. The problem is, many parents, especially those who did poorly in school themselves, don’t know how to help their children succeed in school. We need to offer free evening classes for parents. We need to set up a system where parents can request home visits from teachers or other educators. This is a pressing need that requires thought, money and creative solutions.

Obama has a few other ideas that are sensible but very tricky to execute.

He wants to move away from fill-in-the-bubble standardized testing and toward evaluating “21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity.” I wish him luck. I have yet to see an objective measure of those important intangibles.

He wants to get rid of bad teachers. This, like merit pay, is an area where he should tread carefully. Administrators can’t be given absolute authority to fire teachers they think are “bad,” since administrators’ agendas are not always trustworthy. Obama is right to say teachers must be given an honest chance to improve before being fired.

The Obama administration is pouring more federal money into education than ever before, which increases its influence over decisions made at the state and district levels. I’ll keep my eyes open to see if Obama and Arne Duncan, his secretary of education, use their power wisely.

David Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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