WASHINGTON – “A” is for apple. “B” is for bat. “R” is for … reform.
Beyond the ABC song,presidential candidates are offering suggestions to modify classrooms and tackle issues plaguing schools.
“While the president can't solve education problems,the president has the ability to influence public debate,” said Marc Lampkin,executive director of Strong American Schools ED in ‘08,which encourages education debate among presidential candidates.
President Bush's signature education bill,No Child Left Behind,which expired Sept. 30,and is up for reauthorization,made federal funding for schools dependent on mandatory tests. The law has generated heated debate among legislators and education experts,who note the need for reform to legislation they say teaches to a test.
While No Child Left Behind isn't perfect,it has “smoked out” many schools' dirty secrets,Lampkin said.
Sen. Hillary Clinton,D-N.Y.,calls to “end the unfunded mandate otherwise known as No Child Left Behind,” despite backing the bill in 2001. She said the law isn't flexible enough to assess students. Clinton supports a broader assessment of schools.
“I do think there is a place for testing,but I don't think we should look at our children as walking tests,” Clinton said in a video interview on Yahoo! News. “We've gone way overboard.”
Amy Wilkins,vice president for government affairs and communications for the Education Trust,which works for high academic achievement and closing the achievement gap,discussed the candidates' education stances from her home when an ice storm closed most Washington-area schools.
“She blames No Child Left Behind for everything,” Wilkins said. “She'd blame this ice storm on No Child Left Behind. Unless she has a better idea,that's great. But she hasn't put one forward.”
Clinton's campaign did not respond to several calls and e-mails requesting information on her education stances.
Sen. Barack Obama,D-Ill.,says No Child Left Behind needs to go beyond standardized tests. The law emphasizes a narrow definition of proficiency,and ignores both high and low achievers,said Jonathan Crane,an education representative for Obama at a recent education conference in Washington.
Obama and Sen. John McCain,R-Ariz.,sent representatives to speak on their behalf at the Education Industry Days conference. Clinton and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did not.
“The shortcomings of NCLB shouldn't end the conversation. They should be the start of a conversation about how we can do better,” Obama said during a speech at the National Education Association's annual meeting in July.
Crane said Obama wants to track annual student improvement,measure attendance and progress to graduation and emphasize science,history and higher-order thinking skills.
Crane said it is important to devote more attention to science and history so students can compete for jobs against Asian countries. He said these skills have been ignored due to No Child Left Behind's focus on reading and math.
But ED ‘08's Lampkin countered,”I agree that we've got to worry about art and social studies. But at the end of the day,if poor kids can't read or count,they can't get a job. We can't lose sight of that bottom-line fact.”
Huckabee says there is value in No Child Left Behind but that education problems are best handled by state and local governments with the federal government serving as a clearinghouse. He says states must be allowed to set their own standards.
But David Crane,a representative for McCain at the education conference (he is not related to Jonathan Crane),said federal and state governments need to strike a balance. He said states need move beyond the notion that the federal government is imposing education standards.
After voting for the bill in 2001,McCain remains supportive,but calls for tweaks to set standards and hold schools accountable. David Crane said No Child Left Behind is a “catalyst” and “nucleus for change” when it is followed with choice and innovation. But he said without accountability,the law is “empty rhetoric.”
“We now know which students are failing,” David Crane said.
McCain supports a free-market approach of “choice and competition” to revamp the school system,David Crane said. This would allow schools to compete for the best teachers and parents to choose where they want their kids to go to school.
“The choice should be that of the parent,and the dollar should follow the student,” David Crane said.
Regardless of No Child Left Behind's fate,it is vital for policymakers to continue to discuss education reform,said Reg Weaver,NEA president. He said for the U.S. to maintain its superpower status,it must continue to improve achievement for minority and low-income students,increase school funding and decrease the dropout rate.
Clinton and Huckabee also advocate strengthening the arts in schools. Clinton said schools have eliminated art,music and drama programs because of No Child Left Behind's focus on math and reading. “Our children are getting good at filling in those little bubbles. But how much creativity is being left behind? How much passion for learning is being left behind?” Clinton said on Yahoo! News.
Wilkins said art and music education was shrinking before No Child Left Behind.
Huckabee has dubbed art and music as “weapons of mass instruction.” He said these skills will teach children to develop creative ideas fundamental to enriching the U.S. economy.
“It leads to a more fulfilled life,and it also reaches kids in other ways,” said George Wood,director of the Forum for Education and Democracy.
Wilkins said she is unsure any president could be a significant force in advocating additional art and music instruction because local government sets school budgets. But Wood argues that,as the leader of the national agenda,the president could push for art and music education.
Wood said the country needs to retrieve the notion of “equitable opportunities.”
“We have left the important issues of equity to the local district,and the federal government has handled curriculum. That is upside down,” Wood said.