Like most Americans, I've made up my mind on which presidential candidate I plan to vote for. However, I would be hard-pressed to determine which candidate has the better plan for improving public education. I suspect that I'm not alone.
President Obama selected his neighbor and basketball buddy to be Secretary of Education. Arne Duncan was the superintendent of schools in Chicago, where the five-year high school graduation rate stood at 58% in 2011. Other than a teachers' strike at the start of this year, there isn't much education news coming out of the Windy City, where the new schools superintendent began his tenure by mandating recess.
To be fair, as education secretary, Duncan did use the power of the purse to push a charter-friendly federal agenda, and to promote teacher evaluations based on student performance. But the monies used to leverage this support were often not well spent.
Take New York City, which received approximately $300 million in Race-to-the-Top federal funding. The central office squandered this windfall on two initiatives: trying to mandate top down innovation and imposing the Common Core in all schools. The last place in the school system capable of innovation is the central office, and when 70,000 teachers close their classroom doors each morning to begin the school day, the last thing they're thinking about are central office mandates. These badly needed resources would have been better spent by the schools in support of students and teachers in their classrooms.
As we look forward to an increasingly likely second term for Obama, what has the administration learned from its first term educational efforts that will make them more successful in raising student achievement in a second term? I can't think of anything they have said or done to address this question. Is the U.S. Department of Education a functional learning organization, or like most educational bureaucracies, will it once again demonstrate that those who work at educational agencies are incapable of learning from experience?
On the other hand, the campaign of Republican Mitt Romney began with the most promising suggestion to close the achievement gap I've heard in years. He wants every student below grade level or with special needs to be able to select to attend any public school in their home state. What a great idea! The only problem in implementing it is that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled against forced inter-district busing. Another problem is that Romney never followed up with anything as compelling with which to reform a public education system that is not getting the job done; namely, educating all of our young people to high school completion and beyond.
My late father had one standard he used to judge political candidates. Will he be good for Israel? Like him I care about the Jewish state and Middle East peace, but that would not be the sole criterion I would choose for supporting a candidate. Were I to base my vote on only one issue, it would have to be who would most like improve education in our country. On the basis of that standard, I would probably stay home on Election Day.