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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Will President Obama's School Reform Bring the Change Kids Need?

IP-10-2008 (December 2008)
Author: Robert Maranto, Gary Ritter, and Sandra Stotsky

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Executive Summary

Barack Obama aspires to be an education president, but what kind of education president will he be? As a candidate, Obama has taken conflicting positions. Both the antireform National Education Association and the reformist Democrats for Education Reform claim him as their own. An analysis of candidate Obama’s education platform reveals elements of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good

Obama provides praiseworthy symbolic leadership in urging parents to “turn off the television set, and put the video games away, and instill a sense of excellence in our children.” The following Obama education promises also give hope:

  • Offering greater compensation to teachers who demonstrate greater effectiveness, or who serve in high-needs areas such as inner cities.
  • Seeking ways to expand the supply of teachers.
  • Replicating successful charter schools, while closing unsuccessful ones.

The Bad

There are disturbing indications that an Obama administration will water down No Child Left Behind, the law that forces schools to test their students and report results to the public. Without the objective measures of student learning that NCLB mandates, we cannot tell what works. Ignorance may be bliss, but it also makes it impossible to copy what works, and equally impossible to offer greater compensation to more effective teachers. Without NCLB, schools will be reduced to sort of accountability that Enron made famous: if administrators say their schools are working well, the rest of us will just have to take their word for it.

The Ugly

Certain Obama promises seem designed not to help children, but rather to provide pork barrel spending for education insiders. These include the following:

  • Forcing schools of education to seek accreditation, even though there is no evidence it leads to better preparation of teachers.
  • Paying teachers more for increased training, whether or not it actually makes them better teachers.
  • Expanding transitional bilingual education rather than more effective English immersion approaches.

In short, President Obama should appoint a Democratic reformer who embraces the good, opposes the bad, and avoids the ugly, to serve as the nation’s next Secretary of Education.