Thursday, March 12, 2009

Obama to educators; be good or be gone.

In a recent speech to the National Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; President Obama held nothing back in his criticism of the public school system in the United States. It seemed only appropriate that this speech was made to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce considering that as of 2006; the dropout rate among Hispanics stood at an incredible 22.1%. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the national average was 9.3%. The dropout rate for Whites stood at 5.8% and 10.7% for Blacks. His criticism was aimed at both the Democratic and the Republican members of Congress.

According to Scott Wilson of the Washington Post; Obama accused Congress of paralyzing progress and being directly responsible for the eroding system. He stated that Democrats had long avoided the rewarding of successful teachers while the Republicans had consistently blocked funding for Early Childhood programs. He called for merit increases for teachers who were deemed responsible for the success of students while calling for the dismissal of those who hadn’t. During his campaign, he walked a tightrope on the issue; afraid of alienating the National Teacher’s Association. Now in office, he shows no sign of being intimidated by the union. Among his proposals was a uniformed national set of academic standards, replacing the power of individual states to determine criteria and curriculum.

With the allocation of $100 billion provided for the public school in the new stimulus package; Obama and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, positioned themselves to have more influence in the development of a more effective public school system. Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahn Emanuel, went on to say: “Our basic premise is that the status quo and political constituencies can no longer proceed on public education reform in this country.” This will undoubtedly provoke the ire of the union as well as many politicians in several states.

President Obama had no problem providing statistics that support his contention that the public school system is simply not working. While addressing the issue of a uniformed standard; he pointed out that under the current system, a 4th grader in Mississippi reads at a pace estimated to be 70 points lower than that of a 4th grader in Wyoming-yet receives the same grade! The article in the Post went on to say that 2,000 high schools in such urban cities as Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia are responsible for over 50% of America’s dropouts. In order to combat this problem, Obama has set aside $5 billion for Early Head Start Programs while at the same time making it feasible for an additional 7 million graduates to attend college as an incentive to complete their high school education.

Among the opponents, and there are several of them, are members of the District of Columbia school district. They have implemented a voucher program that provides for 1,700 low income students to attend private schools by providing them with an annual scholarship of $7.500. Under the President’s plan; this voucher system will be eradicated though he did say that those already in the program will be allowed to continue until they graduate high school. One apparent flaw in this program is the fact that 6,800 students apply for this scholarship while only 1,700 (25%) are granted it. While other states have the same program in place; only D.C. uses federal money to subsidize their program. The District of Columbia invests more money per student than any other area of the country yet still is plagued with low test scores and high dropout rates.

Wendi Weingarten, President of the American Teacher’s Association, claims “as with any public policy, the devil is in the details. And it’s important that teachers’ voices are heard as we implement the President’s vision.” As part of the President’s plan; restrictions in place regarding the number of charter schools would be erased. A test being conducted by the Department of Education is underway to determine if the voucher system and the charter schools are showing significantly better results than the public school system. Members of Congress, including Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) are awaiting these results before they decide which way to vote on the President’s proposals.

While it is clear that the present system is not working; it’s unclear to me what steps are required to improve it. I am afraid that this is another case of the federal government assuming responsibility for something that has long been under the control of the individual states. What type of barometer is going to be used to determine which teachers are reaching their students and which aren’t? My mother-in-law retired from teaching in 1987 and still has former students approach her to tell her what a difference she made in their lives. But let’s be fair: How can you possibly reach students when teaching Algebra. If memory serves me correctly; that was a snoozer no matter who was teaching it. We need to be wary of this increased involvement by the federal government in yet another arena before it is too late.

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