Barack Obama's comprehensive plan to provide a world-class education for all Americans will:
* Reform No Child Left Behind.
* Ensure access to high-quality early childhood education programs and child care opportunities so children enter kindergarten ready to learn.
* Work to place effective teachers in every classroom in America, especially those in high-poverty, high-minority areas.
* Reward effective teachers for taking on challenging assignments and helping children succeed.
* Support highly-effective principals and school leaders.
* Make science and math education a national priority.
* Reduce the high school dropout rate by focusing on proven methods to improve student achievement and enhance graduation and higher education opportunities.
* Close the achievement gap and invest in what works.
* Empower parents to raise healthy and successful children by taking a greater role in their child's education at home and at school.
On the plus side, he eloquently defines the problems -- both the national one and the achievement gap -- and the urgent need to address them:
Education is now the currency of the Information Age. It's no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success -- it's a pre-requisite. There simply aren't as many jobs today that can support a family where only a high school degree is required. And if you don't have that degree, there are even fewer jobs available that can keep you out of poverty.
In this kind of economy, countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Already, China is graduating eight times as many engineers as we are. By twelfth grade, our children score lower on math and science tests than most other kids in the world. And we now have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation in the world.
Well I do not accept this future for America. I do not accept an America where we do nothing about six million students who are reading below their grade level -- an America where sixty percent of African-American fourth graders aren't even reading at the basic level.
I do not accept an America where only twenty percent of our students are prepared to take college-level classes in English, math, and science -- where barely one in ten low-income students will ever graduate from college.
I do not accept an America where we do nothing about the fact that half of all teenagers are unable to understand basic fractions -- where nearly nine in ten African-American and Latino eighth graders are not proficient in math. I do not accept an America where elementary school kids are only getting an average of twenty-five minutes of science each day when we know that over 80% of the fastest-growing jobs require a knowledge base in math and science.
This kind of America is morally unacceptable for our children. It's economically untenable for our future. And it's not who we are as a country.
As noted above, I like his support for merit pay for highly effective teachers, and I also agree with him on expanding early childhood programs and many of the other generalities (make math and science a national priority, reduce the dropout rate, etc.)
I thought the best part of this speech was about the importance of teachers:
We know that from the moment our children step into a classroom, the single most important factor in determining their achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it's not who their parents are or how much money they have. It's who their teacher is.
And the critical need to get more, higher-caliber people into the profession, esp. in the hardest to staff areas:
That starts with recruiting a new generation of teachers and principals to replace the generation that's retiring and to keep up with the record number of students entering our schools. We'll create a new Service Scholarship program to recruit top talent into the profession, and begin by placing these new teachers in areas like the overcrowded districts of Nevada, or struggling rural towns here in New Hampshire, or hard-to-staff subjects like math and science in schools all across the nation.
I liked this a lot as well:
To prepare our new teachers, we'll require that all schools of education are accredited, and we'll evaluate their outcomes so that we know which ones are doing the best job at preparing the best teachers. We'll also create a voluntary national performance assessment that actually looks at how prospective teachers can plan, teach, and support student learning, so we can be sure that every new educator is trained and ready to walk into the classroom and start teaching effectively. New Hampshire is already leading the way here by having designed a performance-based educator preparation system, and the national assessment I'm proposing would help states like this one achieve their goals for state-of-the-art preparation of all teachers .To support our teachers, we will expand mentoring programs that pair experienced, successful teachers with new recruits.
And he even talks about removing bad teachers:
Now, if we do all this and find that there are teachers who are still struggling and underperforming, we should provide them with individual help and support. And if they're still underperforming after that, we should find a quick and fair way to put another teacher in that classroom.
And the point about the importance of parents is spot on:
But there is no program and no policy that can substitute for a parent who is involved in their child's education from day one. There is no substitute for a parent who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, make sure their children are in school on time, and help them with their homework after dinner. And I have no doubt that we will still be talking about these problems in the next century if we do not have parents who are willing to turn off the TV once in awhile, and put away the video games, and read to their child. Responsibility for our children's education has to start at home. We have to set high standards for them, and spend time with them, and love them.
Turning to my critiques, other than his harsh mischaracterization of NCLB, my critiques are more about what he didn't say. Most importantly, at no point does he talk about the broken system -- other than to advocate pouring more money into it in a variety of different ways. Unless the system is changed, we're just tinkering with the deck chairs on the Titanic and all the money in the world won't make a difference.
Big picture, to fix our educational system, we need to both reform it from within (traditionally the Democratic approach) and foster competition/alternatives to it (traditionally the Republican approach) -- neither is sufficient by itself. Regarding the former, I'd give Obama a B- and as for the latter, an F, as he's completely silent on this. I know he'll never support vouchers -- though it does take some chutzpah to say "Empower parents to raise healthy and successful children by taking a greater role in their child's education at home and at school." yet not touch the single greatest way to empower the parents of children trapped in failing schools: giving them the right (and the resources) to move their children to a better school -- but what about charter schools!? He's long said he supports them, yet when it's time to make his definitive statement on education, he doesn't even mention them!
My other main critique is that he attacks NCLB and testing in general, and then elsewhere talks about accountability, but never reconciles this disconnect. How can schools and educators be held accountable for student learning if, among other things, students aren't tested regularly (at least annually) and the results made public? It is so simplistic and wrong-headed when he says:
don't tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend most of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test. Don't tell us that these tests have to come at the expense of music, or art, or phys. ed., or science. These tests shouldn't come at the expense of a well-rounded education -- they should help complete that well-rounded education. The teachers I've met didn't devote their lives to testing, they devoted them to teaching, and teaching our children is what they should be allowed to do. The fact is, No Child Left Behind has done more to stigmatize and demoralize our students and teachers in struggling schools than it has to marshal the talent and the determination and the resources to turn them around. That's what's wrong with No Child Left Behind, and that's what we must change in a fundamental way.
Did Obama copy this word from word from the NEA's website? How can he decry "an America where sixty percent of African-American fourth graders aren't even reading at the basic level" and then question whether a test is a good measure of whether a child can read (I've never seen a study that shows that children testing below basic on any test are, in fact, capable readers) and equate the ability to read with "music, or art, or phys. ed., or science"? To the extent that we're forced to choose, I say that everything should be put aside until children can read! Until reading is mastered, pretty much nothing else matters.
As for stigmatizing and demoralizing, if there's a school in which, say, 60% of African-American or Latino 4th graders can't read -- that's the national average, as Obama pointed out earlier in his speech -- then that school (and the "educators" in it who are failing to educate) deserve to be stigmatized!!! To reform this broken, dysfunctional, unaccountable system, we not only need to reward and celebrate excellence -- which Obama talks about at length -- but also identify and (egads!) punish failure -- which Obama talks about almost not at all.
As for funding, Obama also repeats the tired old canard that NCLB imposes enormous, unfunded costs on schools:
I often say that the problem with No Child Left Behind is that George Bush left the money behind...
Forcing our teachers, our principals, and our schools to accomplish all of this without the resources they need is wrong. Promising high-quality teachers in every classroom and then leaving the support and the pay for those teachers behind is wrong. Labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them the next is wrong.
There's so much mythology about NCLB, so let's be clear: boiled down, all it says is that schools must test every student starting in 3rd grade once (once!) a year and report the results broken down by race. Schools with a high percentage of below-grade-level students in any category don't make AYP (adequate yearly progress) and are subject to various reforms (or sanctions, depending on your point of view). "In any category" is what really drives many people crazy because it exposes the dirty secret of far too many schools: that children who are perceived to be slow learners – disproportionately low-income, minority children – are assigned the least effective teachers and essentially given up on. This is why Steven Adamowski, the new Superintendent of Hartford public schools, said: "I think it [NCLB] represents the greatest piece of civil rights legislation since the passage of the  Voting Rights Act."
As for the total cost of the testing, according to Jay Greene, it's an insignificant $20 per student per year. Of course, once a school is identified (oops, I mean stigmatized) as needing improvement, then there's a need for reform, which usually costs money, but you can't blame NCLB for this. School funding is and always has been primarily a state and local obligation. Does Obama believe the federal government should be responsible for the "support and the pay for those [high-quality] teachers"? If so, say so.
And I don't know where Obama gets this: "Labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them the next is wrong." NCLB doesn't say failing schools should be abandoned -- in fact, precisely the opposite: it mandates reforms. And more broadly speaking, nationwide, the worst-performing schools tend to have higher per-pupil spending (though there's a lot of variation). Exhibit A is Newark, which has the highest per pupil spending -- yet among the very worst schools -- in the country.
In summary, I think Obama has many good ideas (along with a few bad ones), but doesn't really understand the systemic nature of the problem (perhaps not surprisingly, given his background) or maybe for political reasons he's choosing not to speak the truth, so I fear that under President Obama (something I'm hoping for!) we'd have more of the same: more and more spending, baby reform steps (fiddling with the deck chairs on the Titanic), but ultimately nothing that moves the needle in any meaningful way. Worse yet, if he watered down NCLB and other meaningful accountability systems, we could actually go backward.