January 2009 Up Front

News Analysis
Obama and education: 
The task ahead
Barack Obama has an immense list of tasks for his first 100 days in office: dealing with a nation at war in two countries, fractious foreign relations in others, a deficit approaching $10 trillion, and the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

So where does public education, talked about in a limited way on the campaign trail and during the two-month transition of power, factor in the big picture?

It could be higher than one might think, especially if you take the optimist’s view. Obama’s plans to inject some life into our flagging economy include a “two-year nationwide effort to jump-start job creation in America.” Part of that stimulus plan, the president-elect said in a pre-Thanksgiving speech, includes “modernizing schools that are failing our children.”

Another promising sign: Linda Darling-Hammond, the head of Obama’s transition team on education policy, said the new president’s agenda is “more bold and ambitious than anything we've seen” since the 1960s and 70s, when Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and what now is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Darling-Hammond, one of several rumored candidates for the secretary of education position, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Obama’s $18 billion plan for K-12 education is “decimal dust in the federal budget.” The plan includes $10 billion for universal preschool programs and $8 billion to address achievement gaps, with another $11 billion slated for improving students’ access to college.

The Stanford University education professor, who founded and serves as co-director of the School Redesign Network, said the funding “is less than 10 percent of the weapons cost-overrun announced last summer [and] less than 1 percent of what the bailout is anticipated to cost."

There is no question that the hoped-for infusion of money into the federal budget would signal a return to government fulfilling its promises to properly fund education. But funding is not the only education-related issue for the Obama administration, which must also select an education secretary who will lead the department through the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.

In the seven years since NCLB was passed, Congress and the Bush administration have come under strong criticism from education advocacy groups for being too rigid and not funding the legislation to adequate levels. Obama has been vague about NCLB’s future, although changes are expected on how students are tested and how adequate yearly progress is calculated.

Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, said she has been “encouraged by the conversations we’ve had” with Obama’s team. In late November, NSBA released “A New Era for Education,” a policy paper on its website that includes steps for redefining the federal role and encourages Obama to form a “national vision for why education must be a sustained priority.”

 “What we’d like to see is for the federal government to facilitate, not dictate, the necessary actions and innovations that are needed in order to guarantee that all of our public schools thrive,” Bryant said.

The person tasked with carrying out that vision will be the education secretary, a position that still had not been filled at press time. Even though Obama’s selection was not anticipated until late December or early January, a list of possible candidates was circulating within days of the election.

In addition to Darling-Hammond, who advised the new president during the campaign, the list includes at least three big-city superintendents (Arne Duncan of Chicago, Paul Vallas of New Orleans, and Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C.), two governors (Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Tim Kaine of Virginia), and officials who lead a number of education-related think tanks.

Over the past two decades, the education secretary has had ties either to states, such as former Govs. Lamar Alexander and Richard Riley or former Bush education adviser Margaret Spellings, or to large city school districts, such as Houston’s Rod Paige. But Shirley M. Hufstedler, who was the first education secretary under President Carter, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that a person with a college or university background could be a more effective choice for the post.

"You need to have somebody who understands how youngsters learn and how teachers teach," said Hufstedler, now senior counsel at the Los Angeles law firm Morrison & Foerster. “Not simply teaching to the test, but teaching to the substance of whatever the course may be.”

Don’t rule out a surprise. Among those mentioned by the Chronicle: Michael Johnston, director of Colorado’s Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts; Caroline Kennedy; and Colin Powell, retired general and former secretary of state.

Without question, the person Obama chooses will have huge obstacles and opportunities and, hopefully, the resources that are necessary. At a critical juncture in U.S. history, education cannot afford to take a backseat on the nation’s list of top priorities.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Gates funding
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent more than $4 billion on education scholarships and efforts to improve high schools, is switching its strategy. The foundation now says it will refocus its giving around four core issues: doubling the number of low-income students who complete a college or post-high school degree, identifying and paying higher salaries for good teaching, helping average teachers get better, and creating more accurate tests, and a national set of learning standards for high schools. Do you think this will work?

Gay-friendly school
Should Chicago Public Schools create a high school that is designed to provide a “safe, supportive haven” for all students, especially lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth? A proposal to create the school in time for the 2009 school year was pulled after Mayor Richard Daley failed to support it and local clergy protested. A revised proposal will be presented to the Chicago school board in time for the 2010 school year.

High school reform
Three states --  Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Utah --  are taking on a comprehensive and controversial set of education reforms supported by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. Among them: New Hampshire is considering whether to allow students to leave high school as early as age 16 to pursue college or career training; and Massachusetts has created a Child and Youth Readiness Cabinet that will share health, social services, and education information in a student-data system.

Male teachers
The number of male teachers is at a 40-year low, causing concerns among educators that the continuing decline could hinder boys’ success in school. Why are men staying away from the classroom? Low pay, lack of respect, and the perception that “something must be wrong with the guy who likes working with children,” according to the Boston Globe.

Reading First
The troubled Reading First program took another hit in mid-November when a U.S. Department of Education study said the $6 billion federal effort has not had an impact on reading comprehension among students in grades one to three. The study found that the additional time spent on instruction and professional development helped students to identify letters and words, but did not help them to become more proficient readers.

Searching students’ cars
A New Jersey state appellate court has ruled that schools have the legal authority to search students’ cars without a warrant because of the “duty to maintain a safe learning environment.” All officials must have is reasonable suspicion to search students’ vehicles that are parked on school grounds.

Stopping dropouts
A student-led pilot project in Chicago is aimed at reducing the city’s dropout rate at 12 partner schools and increasing college readiness. The Voices of Youth in Chicago Education project includes personalized, four-year graduation plans for struggling freshmen at eight high schools; the creation of student-led leadership teams; and community orientations for teachers, among other efforts.

Teacher  retirement protest
A proposal by Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to eliminate automatic cost-of-living increases for retired educators was voted down by the state’s Teacher Retirement System Board after howls of protest from teachers and retirees. Perdue had proposed to eliminate the automatic pension COLAs, which have provided twice-annual 1.5 percent pay increases since 1969. Teachers and retired educators lobbied for two months to defeat the change, which would have required the state board to vote each year.