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Candidates' Performance at NEA Fails the Test

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The report card is in. All of the major Democrats and one Republican presidential candidate auditioned in front of the National Education Association (NEA) at their annual conference in Philadelphia last week. While there, both the candidates and educators were given a spotlight to draw attention and focus to the substantial problems facing education reform in this country. However, at the end of the week, the overall performance rated an F.

Last week was a lost opportunity. For the most part, candidates showed up in Philly reciting back the position papers their policy analysts had gathered off the NEA website, instead of offering innovative and bold plans to challenge the status quo. It was also a lost opportunity for the NEA to raise the bar, as delegates let candidates get away with speeches that sounded empty and designed to appease with applause lines and slogans, instead of confronting the real problems in our schools.

Instead of seizing the moment, too many candidates spent too much time seeking the gratification of the delegates. But by doing so, most failed miserably. Just consider: In Philadelphia, where nearly half the students don't graduate from high school and about two-thirds of African American and Latino students aren't proficient in reading and math, a speech that ignores the crisis in K-12 education is like a history textbook that skips WWII: it's incomplete.

At a convention attended by educators from all fifty states, where was the outrage that the national high school graduation rate is only 70%? Where was the concern that American math students rank 24th out of 29 countries, or that nine out of ten black 8th graders don't read above a proficient level?

If you listened to the candidates -- Republicans and Democrats -- NCLB is the cause for all that is wrong with K-12 education, but that simply not the case. Whether you support NCLB or not, the problems we face in providing a quality education for all students are too big to be solved a small-minded blame game.

You have to give the candidates credit for recommending the financial incentives needed to keep strong teachers in hard to staff schools, but that's a mere down payment towards a solution for a larger problem. Our leaders need to go beyond that and propose a more comprehensive solution to the problem of placing effective teachers in every classroom.

While the jury is still out on the NEA's role, I believe they missed the opportunity by not pressing the candidates more to provide specific and definitive ideas on support for troubled schools. The delegates at the NEA convention should have been given the chance to stand up and applaud for real reform, not slogans or pandering. We need greater courage and more leadership, and that's what Roy Romer and I are working for at Strong American Schools. You can read Roy's take on the NEA convention on his ED in 08 blog, but I'm still shaking my head over the disappointing performance in Philadelphia.

At the Democratic debate earlier this month, candidates insisted that there was no issue more important than education. It's time for them to start acting like they mean it.