Last week in Colorado, Barack Obama gave a truly incisive speech on improving education in America. Here are some highlights (I have added the underlined emphasis to certain passages):
On No Child Left Behind:
"This starts with fixing the broken promises of No Child Left Behind. Now, I believe that the goals of this law were the right ones. Making a promise to educate every child with an excellent teacher is right. Closing the achievement gap that exists in too many cities and rural areas is right. More accountability is right. Higher standards are right.
"But I'll tell you what's wrong with No Child Left Behind. Forcing our teachers, our principals and our schools to accomplish all of this without the resources they need is wrong. Promising high-quality teachers in every classroom and then leaving the support and the pay for those teachers behind is wrong. Labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them the next is wrong.
"We must fix the failures of No Child Left Behind. We must provide the funding we were promised, give our states the resources they need and finally meet our commitment to special education. We also need to realize that we can meet high standards without forcing teachers and students to spend most of the year preparing for a single, high-stakes test. Recently, 87 percent of Colorado teachers said that testing was crowding out subjects like music and art. But we need to look no further than MESA to see that accountability does not need to come at the expense of a well-rounded education. It can help complete it -- and it should.
No Child Left Behind does not explicitly mandate one single high-stakes test, but it measures accountability entirely through testing and thus pushes districts to deify the Test. That's certainly the case in New York. Obama's comments about using assessment to nurture rather than stifle innovation are a breath of fresh air.
On recruiting and retaining quality teachers:
"I'll create a new Service Scholarship program to recruit top talent into the profession and begin by placing these new teachers in overcrowded districts and struggling rural towns, or hard-to-staff subjects like math and science in schools all across the nation. And I will make this pledge as president to all who sign up: If you commit your life to teaching, America will commit to paying for your college education.
"To prepare our teachers, I will create more Teacher Residency Programs to train 30,000 high-quality teachers a year. We know these programs work, and they especially help attract talented individuals who decide to become teachers midway through their careers...
"To support our teachers, we will expand mentoring programs that pair experienced, successful teachers with new recruits -- one of the most effective ways to retain teachers. We'll also make sure that teachers work in conditions which help them and our children succeed. For example, here at MESA [Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts], teachers have scheduled common planning time each week and an extra hour every Tuesday and Thursday for mentoring and tutoring students that need additional help.
"And when our teachers do succeed in making a real difference in our children's lives, I believe it's time we rewarded them for it. I realize that the teachers in Denver are in the middle of tough negotiations right now, but what they've already proven is that it's possible to find new ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them.
"My plan would provide resources to try these innovative programs in school districts all across America. Under my Career Ladder Initiative, these districts will be able to design programs that reward accomplished educators who serve as mentors to new teachers with the salary increase they deserve. They can reward those who teach in underserved areas or teachers who take on added responsibilities, like you do right here at MESA. And if teachers acquire additional knowledge and skills to serve students better -- if they consistently excel in the classroom -- that work can be valued and rewarded as well."
These ideas--some of which can be credited to the John Edwards campaign-- are good ones. Quality teachers need money, support, and time. Senator Obama addresses all three areas without stepping on the merit-pay-for-test-scores landmine. That's a local issue. I'd like to see Obama embrace Edwards's idea of a national teacher university, a "West Point for teachers," to train educators to work in underserved schools. The popularity of Teach For America among Ivy Leaguers proves that bright people will sign up in droves to teach if it's competitive and prestigious.
On parental responsibility:
"Yes, it takes new resources, but we also know that there is no program and no policy that can substitute for a parent who is involved in their child's education from day one. There is no substitute for a parent who will make sure their children are in school on time and help them with their homework after dinner and attend those parent-teacher conferences, like so many parents here at MESA do. And I have no doubt that we will still be talking about these problems in the next century if we do not have parents who are willing to turn off the TV once in awhile and put away the video games and read to their child. Responsibility for our children's education has to start at home. We have to set high standards for them and spend time with them and love them. We have to hold ourselves accountable."
This is crucial; he went there.
Obama also goes into specifics on making higher education affordable, working to stem the dropout crisis before the high school years, and expanding summer opportunities for at-risk children.
You can read the full text of Senator Obama's smart, comprehensive speech here.
Dan Brown is a teacher and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.