Will Barack Obama leave children behind?

Published 6:18 am Monday, December 8, 2008

By By Tray Smith
With Barack Obama’s national security and economic policy teams already in place, the President-elect has selected most of his cabinet. He has not, however, named an education secretary- surely the most important position still unfilled.
As a result of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal government now has a larger role in education policy than it has ever had before. Obama’s top educational aide will decide whether or not the federal government will use that role to push for even more ambitious reforms like performance pay, charter schools and retooled career tech programs, or traditional liberal goals like smaller class sizes, expanded pre-K programs and more funding. Either option is likely to generate intense debate within the Democratic Party, in Congress and throughout the general public as teachers’ unions continue to resist accountability and lobby heavily for a partial repeal of the measures adopted by the Bush administration.
The antagonists in this debate are the educators and policymakers who object to holding public schools accountable for student achievement on the grounds that teachers cannot overcome obstacles caused by dismal parenting, poverty,and other household circumstances. While this reasoning is often used as an argument in favor of public education; it is actually the opposite. Students with parents who are well off, motivated and capable of helping their kids learn are likely going to be taken care of with or without government funded classrooms. Our public schools exist to equalize the opportunity given to children of good and bad circumstances. If they cannot succeed in that effort, they should be eliminated.
Ensuring students are able to score proficiently in reading and math is therefore not an unrealistic expectation. Such goals simply require schools do the job they were created to do.
Valuing the effect holding teachers accountable has had on student achievement, the protagonists in the education reform debate are pushing for reforms that will compliment, not weaken, NCLB by strengthening the reward for teachers who succeed and strengthening the consequences for teachers who fail. This is the group that originally pushed the Republican and Democratic Parties to come together on bipartisan reform legislation in 2001, and it is the group currently working across party lines to implement major reforms.
Key members of this group include Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system, Joel Klein, the highly successful chancellor of the New York school system and Arne Ducan, the reform-minded leader of Chicago’s school system who is also a close friend of Obama. Will Obama side with the reformers and choose Klein or Ducan to lead his education department? Or will he side with the teachers’ unions, a major influence in the Democratic Party, and weaken recent reforms and return to the status quo?
The signs so far are mixed, but Obama did choose Linda Darling-Hammond to lead his education transition team. Darling-Hammond is a Stanford professor who has been a frequent defender of the unions and a critic of innovative groups like Teach for America. Although she has no real authority, Darling-Hammond could steer Obama towards selecting an education czar with a more traditional outlook. Such an outcome means our kids will receive a more traditional education just as modern initiatives are beginning to have a positive affect.
That’s the bottom line.
Tray Smith is a political columnist for the Atmore Advance. He is a student at Escambia County High School and can be reached at tsmith_90@ hotmail.com

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