PI Original Adam Doster Friday November 14th, 2008, 11:24am

Will Obama Make Some Quick Education Fixes?

Barack Obama has made his first-term priorities quite clear:
begin by stabilizing the financial system, then move to energy, health
care, taxes, and finally to education. While all of these reforms are incredibly urgent, I share
Dana Goldstein's frustration that education ...

Barack Obama has made his first-term priorities quite clear: begin by stabilizing the financial system, then move to energy, health care, taxes, and finally to education. While all of these reforms are incredibly urgent, I share Dana Goldstein's frustration that education advancements are consistently put on the back-burner by our elected officials.

Yet there is reason to believe that some progress could be made on education reform even if it's buried underneath the nation's other pressing concerns. Indeed, Obama could make some quick administrative decisions that would better equip schools and communities to serve their youth. Education reporter Alexander Russo explained how on Chicago Public Radio's Eight Forty-Eight. Listen:

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RUSSO: It’s very difficult to do. There’s the possibility that he could make some changes to the school rating system that No Child Left Behind has to give schools more credit for progress. That could be done through an administrative order, people seem to think. It’s also possible he could do some work on expanding funding for preschool education without going through the whole rigamarole of new legislation. So we can look, and the people who are advocating can push, but nothing big is going to happen very soon.

While these are only piecemeal changes, both could have moderate to significant effects, depending on the scope of the push.

Let's take early ed first. To start, Obama is well versed in the science that's proven how crucial a role early intervention can play in the life's of underprivileged kids. "Babies raised in poverty get fewer of the early experiences that spur vocabulary growth and good social judgment," the Tribune's Jeffrey Manier wrote in an excellent April piece, "making it harder for them to catch up later on."

As such, Obama favors a new program of "Early Learning Challenge Grants" that would provide states with funding to support quality child care, early education, and other services for pregnant women and children from birth through age five. He also backs the development of "20 promise neighborhoods," an idea borrowed from he the wildly popular Harlem Children's Zone. Sam Stein explains the program:

That unorthodox approach towards tackling poverty is the child of Geoffrey Canada, an urban policy guru who, in 1999, plotted out a unique way to turn around a 24-block zone in the city. Canada created a "safety net" or "conveyor belt" that has helped map approximately 10,000 children through adolescence, relying on a variety of social service programs: a nine-week parenting program; education reforms, such as after-school tutoring and intensive K-12 charter schools (with no union contract); and even improvised techniques - for instance, once handing out cash to kids with perfect attendance.

Despite starting his term as the education president, President Bush has largely ignored these types of investments. In the wake of this legacy, any boost -- even if it's not the $10 billion Obama has proposed -- could make a big difference.

So could reform of the No Child Left Behind's Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) rating system. AYP divides students into subgroups -- all ethnic/racial groups present in the school, low-income students, students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency -- and requires that each subgroup in a school reach state-determined levels of proficiency on standardized tests in math and reading. The problem is, if one subgroup fails, the entire school fails. And that sets off a series of sanctions and remedies that often aren't appropriate remedies for the problem.

Tweaking the way students, and by extension schools, are evaluated would fix a crucial flaw in a bill that could very well be reauthorized sometime in the near future.

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