Debating the Future of U.S. Education | Teachers College Columbia University

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Debating the Future of U.S. Education

Debates on education topics don’t usually attract major attention. But in late October, when Linda Darling-Hammond, education advisor to Barack Obama, and Lisa Graham Keegan, education advisor to John McCain, faced off in TC’s Cowin Conference Center on the eve of the presidential election, the 600-seat auditorium was packed, and more than 9,000 people had tuned in to watch a Webcast produced by Education Week and Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman moderated and the evening closed with a post-debate discussion panel that included two TC faculty members, Lucy Calkins and Jeffrey Henig. They were joined by Joseph Viteritti, Blanche D. Blank Professor of Public Policy and Chair of the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College; and Eugene Hickok, Deputy Secretary of Education during the first term of President George W. Bush.

Darling-Hammond, a former TC faculty member and the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, and Keegan, former Superintendent of Public Instruction for Arizona public schools, 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,” Darling-Hammond said. “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.” She added 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 Keegan 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.” 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,” she said. “If money were the answer, New Jersey and [Washington] D.C. ought to be off the charts, and they are not.”

Keegan 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 teachers in the most needy classrooms? Why is this not happening in the presence of the resources we do have?”

The two speakers disagreed on a range of other issues. Keegan said McCain “would absolutely lift any caps on the ability of states” to create new charter schools, 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 “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.

Darling-Hammond assailed aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, saying, “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.” She said that the assessments of academically top-performing countries “include relatively few multiple-choice items and, in some cases, none. Kids are doing science inquiries, research papers, technology products.”

Keegan said McCain was “absolutely adamant that state standards and the assessments for kids that are in place have got to stay in place,” adding that “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.”

And where Darling-Hammond extolled the value of pre-K education, saying that “the early childhood research base is really clear that high-quality preschool has strong and lasting benefits for students throughout school,” Keegan countered that “if that were true, then by now we should have a lot more progress in elementary, middle and high school. Senator McCain is saying, look, we have got to talk about the quality of these programs.”

Ultimately, about the only thing the speakers agreed on was Fuhrman’s observation that “too little has been said about education in the presidential campaign”—and for that, both blamed the media.

Archived video of the TC debate, “Education and the Next President,” and a full transcript can be viewed at or

Published Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009