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Different Schools of Thought

Lisa Graham Keegan and Linda Darling-Hammond, education advisors to John McCain and Barack Obama, clashed early and often in their debate at Teachers College on October 21st, presenting starkly different assessments of American education and its future. TC President Susan Fuhrman moderated, and a post-debate panel included TC faculty members Jeffrey Henig and Lucy Calkins.
McCain and Obama advisors clash early and often in their education debate at TC

In their debate at Teachers College on October 21st, the education advisors to the two presidential candidates presented starkly different assessments of American education and its future.

"Right now, we don't have the capacity to ensure that everyone gets what is really the new civil right-'"access to a high quality education," said Linda Darling-Hammond, Education Advisor to Democratic nominee Barack Obama. "That is going to require equalization of resources, and it is going to require investments. When people-'"particularly rich people-'"say that money doesn't matter, I don't see them trying to give it up."

Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University and previously a long-time TC faculty member, said that the United States has "fallen to 35th in the world in math, to 15th in terms of college access," that "the nation's graduation rate has been stagnant for 40 years," and that those failures "are costing us in many ways-'"in our economy, in our national security."

But Lisa Graham Keegan, Education Advisor to Republican nominee John McCain, said that "there is just not one single credible study now that says what we really need to do in the United States is spend more money." Keegan said that the U.S. "in real current dollars has quadrupled our funding since 1968, and at the same time we have had achievement absolutely flat, slightly negative. If money were the answer, New Jersey and [Washington] D.C. ought to be off the charts, and they are not."

Keegan, a former Superintendent of Public Instruction for Arizona public schools, said McCain wants the country to "sit down, make some tough decisions. Are we in our own way? Do we have barriers that are keeping us from having the best teacher in the most needy classrooms? Why is this not happening in the presence of the resources we do have?"

The debate, titled "Education and the Next President," was moderated by Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman in TC's 600-seat Cowin Conference Center before a full house of faculty, students, staff and trustees, along with invited state and city officials. An additional 9,000 people (including many TC alumni) registered to watch a live Webcast of the event by the newspaper Education Week. Video of the debate has been posted on both the Education Week (www.edweek.org) and Teachers College sites, and will soon be on iTunes University, Apple's site for higher education content.

The debate was followed by a discussion, moderated by Education Week Associate Editor David Hoff, among four panelists: Lucy Calkins, TC's Robinson Professor of Children's Literature; Jeffrey Henig, TC Professor of Political Science and Education; Joseph Viteritti, Blanche D. Blank Professor of Public Policy and Chair of the Department of Urban Affairs & Planning at Hunter College; and Eugene Hickok, Deputy Secretary of Education during the first term of President George W. Bush. Video of the panel discussion can also be seen at www.edweek.org.

The exchanges between Keegan and Darling-Hammond were, on the whole, genteel and at times even collegial. Still, there were moments when sparks flew.

For example, Keegan described McCain as a strong supporter of using merit pay for teachers, saying he would like principals to be able to use federal money "to reward teachers primarily on the basis of student achievement." But she said that constraints, such as "bargained agreements" with teachers unions, typically prevent merit pay arrangements.

Darling-Hammond said Obama prefers to "recognize and reward excellence in teaching as part of a career development program that ensures that beginning teachers get strong mentoring on the way into the profession." She said such "career ladder" initiatives "have lasted much longer than many of the merit pay plans that have come and gone" over the past eight years-'"including Florida's, which the state recently scrapped.

"Even some teachers who received the bonuses felt they were unearned," she said. "They felt that it was creating a competition among teachers instead of teachers working collegially, and that it was disadvantaging teachers who took on neediest students. There were a lot of concerns."

The speakers also clashed over charter schools and vouchers. Keegan said that McCain "would absolutely lift any caps on the ability of states" to create new charters, and that, unlike Obama, he "does not want to get into the business of saying to states what an effective charter school program is."

Darling-Hammond said Obama has "proposed to expand both funding for public school charters and accountability" and that he "wants to see that failing charters are closed while successful charters are enabled to move forward.
"Choice isn't worth much if all it does is move around the deck chairs on the Titanic," she said.

Ultimately, the speakers agreed on little beyond Fuhrman's observation that "too little has been said about education" in the presidential campaign-'"and for that, both blamed the media.

Here's a sampler of what Keegan and Darling-Hammond said on other issues:

"We need to be able to look at measures that, in addition to the kinds of standardized tests we currently have, evaluate 21st century skills. If you look at other countries, their assessments include relatively few multiple-choice items and, in some cases, none. Kids are doing science inquiries, research papers, technology products. Those are part of the examination system. They are part of the accountability system in countries that are top ranked in the world."

"Senator McCain is absolutely adamant that state standards and the assessments for kids that are in place have got to stay in place. The problem with backing off of assessments and turning them into portfolios [compendia of students' work over time] or things that are more subjective is that we can't compare kids."

Early Childhood Education
"The early childhood research base is really clear that high quality preschool has strong and lasting benefits for students throughout school. Obama's plan is to expand access because right now, only about 40 percent of the children eligible for Head Start get access to Head Start. Only 3 percent of the children eligible for Early Head Start get access to Early Head Start."

"If it were true-'"and I wish it were-'"that preschool was resulting in this fabulous effect, then by now we should have a lot more progress in elementary, middle and high school. The vast majority of our four-year-olds have access to a preschool program. The question is whether it is effective access. Are those kids ready? Are they lucky enough to be in the presence of somebody who knows how to get their language going? Senator McCain is saying, look, we have got to talk about the quality of these programs."

Teacher preparation; alternative vs. traditional certification
"Senator McCain believes that Teach for America is a compelling program. Troops to teachers-'"right now it represents the single most prevalent resource for minority men. The alternatives will become mainstream, and I think they should. Senator McCain is saying we have to keep the door open. So we need a high standard and low barrier to entry, lots of ways to come in. Lots of ways for mid career changers, like the American Board for Certification of Teaching Excellence."

"Let's talk statistics. Thirty percent of teachers leave [Teach For America] within five years-'"that's the federal number from the Baccalaureate and Beyond survey-'"and others show that 49 percent of those who come in without training leave within that period of time. Nineteen percent of those who come in fully trained leave in that period of time. So there is a big difference from how long prepared teachers stay in the profession."

"Senator Obama is opposed to vouchers. He believes they drain money from the public schools. What we have found in the voucher programs is quite often a lot of the private schools don't really want high need kids with poor attendance records and low test scores. They don't want to participate in the voucher. For education to get better for those children, they need high quality public schools."

"It's disingenuous to have been the recipient of a scholarship of a private school [as Obama was for some years] and lecture people that going to a private school drains money from the public schools. Countries that have more than 50 percent private schools have better public schools. So Senator McCain, although it's a small portion of his plan, does believe in a desperate situation like D.C. where kids are failing to learn to read, if parents want an option, [vouchers are] probably a good idea."

Access to higher education
"Senator Obama has worked with the Congress to raise the amount of the Pell Grant so that it more closely approximates what people actually have to pay. He has also proposed a $4,000 a year tax credit for young people to go to college. That will pay about two-thirds of the cost of college at a public college or university and will enable virtually all young people who are qualified-'"have made the grades and are ready to advance-'"to be able to go to college."

"There are a number of highly successful projects now that have college work in the high school. And kids can collect credits while in high school and reduce the cost. Senator McCain wants to make sure there is already a connection made around the junior year and certainly by the senior year between a student and what their post secondary work is. So either they are already being connected into high level vocational training for life sustaining skills work, or to the military, if that's where they are headed, or they are already engaged with a community college or university.

"The other thing he would do is to take all of the grant programs-'"unfortunately we had the Congress add 50 new categories to higher ed granting programs-'"and make that a much cleaner project. We could add $3 billion by simply streamlining the project, and Senator McCain is saying all of the grant programs have got to be under one umbrella so that they are easy for families, they are accessible, there is transparent information about schools."

Breadth of Curriculum
"By focusing on the arts in particular, you get a huge academic benefit. One of the things we know about effective schools is that they are mission focused, they are committed to the kids, and many of the schools are organized around the arts.

"Nobody intended for [NCLB] to be a matter of -'don't teach anything but math and reading,' but that was the response. And I think we have to look at ourselves for that. Why did we respond that way? How come we don't know that the best way to improve schools is to come out and organize around a mission and organize around the arts, around math and science? Hopefully more people will go out and look at these highly successful schools and why they are."

"We need to have a rich curriculum. It's one of the things Obama talks about a lot, that we need to have kids engaged in science and history and the arts. There is a funding issue for low income schools in this country. In California, poor schools don't offer the arts because they can't afford to have art teachers, and only affluent schools have music and arts and libraries of any kind.

"Senator Obama has a very, very strong commitment to the notion of service, that we do our best when we are working on behalf of one another. And so his service scholarships for entering not only teaching but public service-'"which will allow kids to get educated in college-'"ask for a hundred hours of community service. He intends to provide resources for community service in high schools so that very early on kids get the opportunity to learn how satisfying it is to do things for one's colleagues, for one's community, to make that commitment to be part of a democratic community."

Education Research
"I think the efforts have been noteworthy over the past few years to try to tie instruction to scientifically-based research, to really hold our feet to the fire on whether what we are doing is having an effect on student achievement gains. But there is room for improvement there."

"Senator McCain says we have got to get out of the process of doing earmarked research projects and get to a place where we can absolutely have a national area of focus. He is proposing putting somebody in the White House whose brief is basic research in the United States-'"primarily in the area of science and technology, but also education K--12."

"The Obama campaign has talked about how to ratchet up substantially both the amount and quality of educational research, so that we are making decisions based on what works. He also proposes a panel of education researchers, practitioners, business people and others who will help us think about how to scale up what works. How do you think about the governance changes? How do you think about the networking that's needed? In doubling the research budget, he looks for more research on learning, learning for special needs students and English language learners, as well as learning in general, so we begin to tackle issues we have in enabling all kids to meet standards. And also research about how to develop more of the D in the R&D, to develop the kinds of curriculum and assessments that will be productive for the full range of learners in our schools."

Published Friday, Oct. 24, 2008