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Memo to Democrats: Talk More About Education

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Now that the general election battle lines are being clarified, I have a tip for the Democratic candidate: TALK MORE ABOUT EDUCATION.

The struggling economy may be the issue that voters say is most on their minds, but speaking truth about education never fails to stimulate a sea of emphatic head-nodding.

Everyone knows about schools, places that should be sacred, yet in recent years have been strangled by a widely despised law: No Child Left Behind.

The Democrat candidates have regularly included education in their stump speeches. It's time to turn up the volume on this issue where the Dems own a massive advantage over John McCain. The Republican senator did not even have a mention of education on his campaign website until deep in the primary season. McCain's threadbare talking points on education offer prime ammunition for Dems to help define his candidacy as Bush's third term.

There's no magic bullet for solving the hydra-headed challenges facing American schools. Washington cannot -- and should not -- administer all schools by satellite control. However, the president can -- and must -- use the bully pulpit to push for legislation and initiatives that attend to the root, on-the-ground issues in schools. We need our next president to get this one right.

Here are three big ones where the president must jump in the fray:

Strengthening teacher recruitment and retention.
Half of teachers leave the profession within their first five years on the job, and the stats are even worse in urban settings. This rate of turnover is costly in dollars and student achievement. The president can push to make teaching a more attractive and sustainable profession by supporting teacher salary raises, student loan forgiveness, and the establishment of more first-rate teacher preparation programs. When our country values teachers more, we will see the fruits in our students' achievement.

Expanding student assessment beyond high-stakes testing.

Our kids are getting tested to death (or apathy), with many students beginning rigid test prep curricula as early as kindergarten. There are myriad ways to measure student achievement that are far more accurate and far less reductive than one be-all, end-all test. Implementing a range of progressive assessments would involve trusting schools and teachers more, a trust that should be regularly earned via local oversight and independent quality reviews.

Providing for students' needs in order to meet rigorous standards and soar beyond them.

Many students need more from their schools than several hours of daily classes. As budget cuts sweep the country, after-school programs, arts education, and smaller classes are on the chopping block. The president can address the importance of making schools inclusive places by funding a range of extracurricular expenses. This would include early childhood education (taught by certified teachers), school-based healthcare, lower student-to-teacher ratios, athletics, student mentoring, and academic tutoring. Students need these things, and are too often forced to go without them. This investment can stem other problems like the dropout epidemic, teen pregnancy, child obesity, juvenile delinquency, and the cradle-to-prison pipeline.

Make higher education more affordable and student loans less onerous.

Here's a real remedy for the opportunity gap!

Addressing these needs will require a lot of will; the status quo isn't cutting it. The next president needs to face these challenges head-on in order to help make the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a reality -- not a political illusion -- in every American school.

Dan Brown is a teacher in the Bronx and the author of "The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle."

Are you going to be in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, May 15? Come to the Ed in '08 Blogger Summit at the Hotel Palomar! Information is here.