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Dan Brown

Dan Brown

Posted: October 22, 2008 06:38 AM

Obama Gets It on Education


Barack Obama's education plan must be enacted. Throughout the presidential campaign, Senator Obama has spoken candidly and laid out workable plans to address many facets of our education crisis -- parental responsibility, early childhood education, affordability for college -- but perhaps nowhere is his aim more dead-on than his campaign for recruiting and retaining good teachers.

America's teacher attrition rate is a knife in the heart of positive reform. Despite an ongoing push for increased standardization in schools, classrooms remain fundamentally places of human interaction, places which are dependent on quality, dedicated teachers. In a system that chews up and spits out more than 50% of its recruits within their first five years on the job, something is horribly wrong.

"Alternative certification" programs like Teach for America, which drop high-achieving college grads into high-needs schools for two years are a useful band-aid, and they inject many brilliant, passionate people into the country's teaching corps.

However, idealism and energy burn out if the infrastructure to support teachers is lacking. The induction process into teaching is crucial for the long term sustainability of each teacher. A rookie year as a teacher is a grueling experience of a flavor different than any other. When I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows in 2003, I received seven weeks of summer crash course training before being dropped into chronically underserved school in the Bronx. With similarly overwhelmed colleagues and an antagonistic (obsessed with statistics) school administration, I found myself fighting the idealistic-teacher-burnout nightmare, documented in The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle. I finished the school year and resigned from teaching. (After a year away, I came back to the classroom and I'm now a high school English teacher in Washington, D.C.)

The Teach for America model is too much of a trial by fire. Too many excellent would-be teachers stay away or are turned off by the brutal initiation. Barack Obama has embraced
more supportive teacher residency programs, like the Boston Teacher Residency, which provides recruits with a 13-month (rather than 7-week) course of preparation, partnered with a university and subsidized with a living stipend. Under this model, mentored recruits will have a crucial year of in-school training under their belts before stepping up as full-fledged teachers. Reducing the learning curve and sparing new teachers the scarring crucible that so many rookies face will dramatically improve teacher quality and teacher retention. This, of course, leads to greater consistency in the classroom and higher student achievement.

Senator McCain has offered up an ideological mantra of school choice, vouchers, and a tweaking of No Child Left Behind. His education platform -- taking into account his proposed "spending freeze" -- is a joke compared to the desperately needed insight and innovation of Barack Obama's plan.

Considering our common interest in the future generations of America, Senator Obama has my vote for president.

Dan Brown is a teacher in Washington, D.C., and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.

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