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Posted at 8:56 PM ET, 01/26/2010

Mr. Obama: Say this on education

By Valerie Strauss

Note to the White House: You haven’t yet called to ask me what President Obama should say about education in the State of the Union speech so I’ll save you time. Here it is.

This comes from Sam Chaltain, national director of the non-profit Forum for Education & Democracy, an organization committed to advancing the democratic role of public education. Chaltain has been involved for years in educating young people to become engaged and democratic citizens.

If President Obama is planning to extol the virtues of his "Race to the Top" program, please reconsider. It is, after all, an extension of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program, which made high-stakes standardized testing the most important achievement measure in education--even though scores from these tests don't accurately measure achievement.

Chaltain offers you a different path. Please take it.

The following imagined remarks occur at the end of the State of the Union

By Sam Chaltain
I've outlined a lot of new ideas tonight. Some of you will agree with my proposals. Others will disagree -- sometimes passionately so. And that's OK. Debate and dissent are vital for a healthy democracy. This is something our nation's Founders clearly understood. Their lasting vision was of a nation that allows all voices to be heard, and engenders a respectful exchange of ideas in order to invite the creative power of “civil” friction.

So while I celebrate our historic commitment to a robust, cacophonous marketplace of ideas – and while I welcome your thoughtful criticism – I also find myself wondering, "How are we preparing our nation’s youngest citizens to engage in future debates with the same spirit of reason and civility?"

The disturbing answer may be, “We're not.” Too often these days, old and young speak with lots of passion about questions of war and peace, but little substance. Angry rhetoric and recycled sound bites may make charlatans rich on talk radio, but we all need more than that to make informed, thoughtful judgments about the world -- and to improve it.

That’s where public education comes in. Where else, if not in our classrooms, are students going to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to meaningfully contribute to our common public world?

And yet unfortunately, as so many Americans already know, most teachers have neither the time nor the support to prepare students for active and informed citizenship. In this era of high-stakes testing, only 3rd and 8th grade reading and math scores are considered acceptable measures of overall school success.

Is it any wonder so many young people have felt alienated from the political process, uninformed about public policy, and uninspired about their capacity to change the world for the better?

We all know standardized test scores offer just one window into the health of a school system. Any businessman also knows it’s foolish to judge a company’s overall health based on a single measure of success. And yet the United States is the only nation with an accountability system based solely on standardized test scores.

We can do better.

As I conclude my remarks tonight, I ask all Americans to join me in making 2010 the year we change the conversation about public schooling, and start investing in a system that prepares all young people for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Such a system won’t occur overnight. But tonight I want to share three things I'm prepared to start doing right away that I hope will start making a difference:

Provide Cover -- Michelle and I chose Sasha's and Malia's new school in Washington because it understands that powerful learning environments are challenging, experiential, supportive, active, well rounded, and relationship-driven. Our girls are thriving because their teachers have the power (and freedom) to infuse enriching activities throughout the daily experiences of their students. Why, then, are so many of today's public school policies hindering educators from providing those same sorts of activities, instead of empowering them to do so? Why do so many educators feel that they need to be "subversive to be successful?" And why do Sasha and Malia get to spend a third of their day on so-called "enrichment" (physical education, art, dance, drama, etc.), while a public school student elsewhere in this city spends less than 3% of her day doing the same?

We can do better.

If we see injustices in our education system, we need to call them out. And if we know public school educators need some cover in the short-term to feel safe to abandon the cycle of endless test prep and return to a more balanced and enriching school day, then we need to say so. I need to say so. You need to say so. And we need to change the conversation – from a culture of testing, which serves special interests and the short-term needs of the political calendar, to a culture of learning, which serves all of us and prepares children to use their minds well for a lifetime.

Provide Incentives -- As much as we would all like to find a single solution that can change the entire system for the better, I believe a more realistic plan for the federal government would be to incentivize promising reforms at the state and local levels first -- and see where the good ideas spread. That’s why tonight I’m pledging $25 billion for states to use in seeding promising new ideas that can advance the field.

A variation of this initiative has been unfolding for a few years now in Massachusetts, where a growing number of schools have offered expanded after-school and summer learning opportunities for children across the Commonwealth.

As part of a statewide initiative, schools interested in expanding the school day first receive year-long planning grants, during which teachers, principals, parents and students decide how they want to use the extra time to create more healthy, holistic and high-functioning learning environments. If their proposal gets accepted, the schools receive an additional $1,300 per student – the cost required to pay for the extra hours. Massachusetts’s success has since prompted other states to follow their lead, and now the mission has grown into one piece of a comprehensive new vision for education across America -- exactly what we need more of.

Provide Supports -- In every state across the country, there are scores of master educators whose insights about everything from school discipline to curriculum development to school leadership could help improve the quality of the overall system – but only if they are free to share those insights with others.

That’s why tonight I’m committing to draw from this rich human resource and invest in the creation of an Educator Advisory Corps, whose members will help improve the quality of professional practice and create a reciprocal flow of expertise that strengthens the nation.

One way this group can help right away is by rethinking the school evaluation and accreditation process. Did you know that only one-fifth of the nation’s elementary and secondary schools are currently accredited?

Worse still, the process is administered by six different regional agencies – some good, some bad. In some parts of the country, this system results in strong accountability, quality feedback, and genuine school improvement. In others, it is little more than excessive paperwork, accreditation fees, and a symbolic feather in the cap. So taking the current system and simply making it mandatory is not a viable solution.

However, most other countries in the world have mandatory accreditation systems and rely on trained professionals to conduct in-depth peer review processes that give educators feedback on how to improve learning conditions.

England relies on a network of professional inspectors – usually retired or active principals and teachers – who are retrained annually and certified prior to employment. Each inspection results in a report that is immediately posted online for all to see. If a school fails inspection, local government assumes control.

A similar system already exists here in the U.S. – in the private schools, via the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). So let’s learn from countries like England and organizations like NAIS by retooling our accreditation system, making it mandatory, and providing another vehicle for ensuring system-wide quality control.

None of this is easy to do in a time of economic crisis at home and war abroad. But we have no choice. If we want to keep pace with the world and maintain our commitment to our founding principles, we must invest deeply in our public schools -- the only institution that reaches 90% of every succeeding generation, is governed by public authority, and was founded with the explicit mission of preparing young people to be thoughtful and active participants in a democratic society.

Thank you. Good night. And God Bless the United States of America.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 26, 2010; 8:56 PM ET
Categories:  No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  | Tags:  president obama, race to the top  
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Chaltain is onto something vitally important here. His new book on this issue, American Schools, is illuminating and entertaining, and I recommend it.

Posted by: JBZee | January 27, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

My concern with Chaltain's idea of inspections is that a school's ultimate "rating" could be based on a huge range of secondary factors besides student learning.

The single most important question is "Are the students learning?"

You can measure that in many ways.....but I fear that an inspection system would place too much weight on
things like adminstration, availability of computers, etc etc etc.
instead of placing the emphasis on quality instruction and student achievement.

Posted by: holzhaacker | January 27, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

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