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At Education Nation, Two Visions for Federal Education Policy

Published:  September 27, 2012
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Photo by Flickr user SpecialKRB

Presidential politics made its way into the final day of NBC News’ third annual Education Nation summit Tuesday, with an appearance by Governor Mitt Romney and a taped interview between Today show co-anchor Savannah Guthrie and President Barack Obama. Finally, both candidates got a little wonky and explained their education policy proposals, along with the underlying philosophy that informed them.

After nearly four years of watching President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan in action, the president’s interview offered few revelations to education stakeholders, beyond an interesting and surprisingly detailed exchange on ESEA waivers (which is worth a read, in full). Guthrie asked whether the president was bothered “on a gut level” that some states with flexibility under No Child Left Behind, like Virginia, had set lower performance targets for racial minorities. After replying “of course it bothers me,” Obama explained that his approach would be to emphasize growth and encourage continual improvement toward high standards, rather than set an absolute standard off the bat that schools could not come close to meeting. That’s true, but his answer felt incomplete. He failed to link the growth approach to a strong accountability and improvement system for schools with large achievement gaps. States are encouraged to develop these systems in their waiver proposals, but many are criticizing states’ plans in this area.

The Education Nation appearance offered Governor Romney a chance to go beyond the talking points in his education platform (Cliff’s Notes version: More choice! More transparency!), fill in some of the details and context behind his proposals, and speak to his own ideas on accountability. Romney continues to cling to the naïve idea that soft accountability – like the school report cards with A-F letter grades that Florida uses – will be sufficient to turn around underperforming schools. According to Governor Romney:

“If we had that, then you'd see parents, if they saw their school get a C or a D or worse, those parents are going to be outraged. And they're going to want to gather together, become part of PTA organizations and talk about taking back the school.”

School report cards? That’s so ten years ago. Where are the hordes of parents taking back their schools (other than at the movies)?  And how are these report cards going to be any different than what parents have been getting? In 2012, parents gave their public schools higher marks than they did twenty years ago, according to Gallup’s annual education survey, despite the fact that increasing numbers of schools are labeled as needing improvement on their accountability report cards each year. Transparency needs to be coupled with real accountability and consequences for persistently low-achieving schools.

Governor Romney also answered questions on topics he’s mostly avoided on campaign stops, like Common Core State Standards and early childhood education. In these areas, the Republican nominee shied away from endorsing any significant federal role. When asked by a teacher how he would support schools implementing the new standards, Romney said he wouldn’t. The states chose to adopt them, and so they are “on their own.” Of course, the Common Core is a state-led initiative, but it’s hard to imagine where the effort would be today had the federal government not supported it financially. Between grants to the two assessment consortia and to states through Race to the Top, federal policy built momentum for the initiative. It’s difficult to see how these efforts will be sustained on state budgets alone once the federal grant funding is spent. Even with existing federal funds dedicated to the Common Core efforts, states may need additional flexibility and resources to support educators in their efforts to transform teaching and to build sophisticated testing and data systems that match the standards’ quality.

In early childhood education, Governor Romney’s favored approach isn’t really a policy initiative at all: get parents involved, especially if children can be in two-parent households  with “one parent that stays closely involved with the education of the child and can be at home in those early years of education.”  In this case, Governor Romney isn’t ten years behind federal policy, he’s sixty.

Instead of lamenting the breakdown of the 50’s-era nuclear family, Governor Romney could have elaborated more on specific federal early childhood programs with a parent involvement component but didn’t. While he mentioned Geoffrey Canada’s work in Harlem three times, Romney didn’t say if he would support expanding funding for Promise Neighborhoods, the federal grant competition to replicate efforts like the Harlem Children’s Zone. With limited funding and disputed results, many are skeptical of the program’s sustainability and long-term impact. Governor Romney also offered few details regarding Head Start. While supporting early learning programs that are evaluated and proven to be effective, he did not specify if this extends to Head Start recompetition and other public early childhood programs. And although Romney repeatedly mentioned his unsuccessful effort to offer parent education classes for low-income parents in Massachusetts, he did not relate this to federal policies to improve parenting skills in the early years, like home visiting programs and the parent involvement requirements within Head Start. 

Even with the domestic policy-focused presidential debate fast approaching on October 3, this may prove to be the most we hear about each candidate’s education plans during the election season. Kudos to Education Nation for raising the issue.


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