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Richard Whitmire

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To the Presidential Contenders: Why Not Agree on Education?

Posted: 07/05/2012 1:51 pm

Tourists making their way to the Washington Monument last month may have came across 857 neatly arranged student desks -- a symbol of the number of American students who drop out of school every hour of every school day.

The startling array was courtesy of the College Board, which wants President Obama and Mitt Romney to start debating fixes to the nation's beleaguered public school system.

Yes, education needs discussing. But guess what? These two candidates are already on the same page.

When Romney was governor of Massachusetts, that state distinguished itself by dramatically raising standards and making sure more students moved to a richer curriculum. Romney didn't launch those reforms, but he made sure they enjoyed a steady tailwind. Credit due to Romney.

Obama tacked right with Race to the Top, which offered financial carrots to states that designed real teacher evaluations and opened their doors for innovative charter schools. Defying the wishes of the unions is not easy for a Democratic president. Credit due to Obama.

Both candidates believe a high school diploma is not enough. Romney, in fact, chided his primary opponent Rick Santorum after Santorum suggested that Obama was a "snob" for believing more students should get college degrees.

I'm not seeing a lot of disagreement here. Okay, maybe vouchers, which Romney now touts, but that's a sideshow issue for professional arguers who spend far too much time in think tank cubicles. In the real world, vouchers are minor players.

Here's an alternative path the campaigns could take: Build a shared list of what needs to happen to improve education. Drawing on research from a just-published book on what's working in American public education, here's a starter list:

1. Increase coursework rigor and spread it around.

I was struck by school visits where educators almost overnight shifted gears and began moving far more students into college-preparation courses such as Advanced Placement.

Ask those same educators why they waited so long and you get a puzzling answer: Tradition. Top students post top scores, which reflect well on the teachers.

There are compelling reasons to challenge that tradition. The nation needs to prepare more students for post-high school study, especially students who come from parents who lack college experience. Like it not, college -- or at least some college -- has become the new high school.

2. Create more high-performing charter schools.

Hundreds of charter schools now educate roughly two million students. High-performing charters have finally emerged in the role of school innovators, passing their lessons along to traditional schools.

Just one example: Rocketship charter schools in San Jose, which pioneered "blended learning" -- where education software plays a significant role in handling basic skills, freeing up teachers to focus on higher order learning skills.

3. Dramatically improve teacher quality.

Last week, Teach for America unveiled its newest list of corps members headed out for two-year teaching obligations at some of the nation's most challenged schools. Here's what you won't see in that press release: Roughly 48,000 aspiring teachers applied for the 5,800 first-year jobs, nearly all of them seniors at some of the nation's best colleges.

Inspiring, yes, but here's the rub. Few of those who didn't make the TFA cut will apply directly to school districts for jobs.

Why not? Talented young people just don't trust school districts to nurture their careers and recognize and reward good work. That has got to change -- now.

4. Reduce college remediation rates.

On average, six of every 10 students entering community colleges need to take non-credit remedial courses. The same holds true for about a fifth of the students entering four-year colleges.

All across the country, we need to build far stronger partnerships between high schools and community colleges so that students can catch up before they arrive in college.

5. Finally, get parents genuinely involved in public schools.

There's nothing wrong with serving as class parent or helping plant shrubbery around the local school building. But they don't help kids learn science or read better.

Mothers and fathers want to be more involved. We found a program in Phoenix, Ariz., that reinvented parent-teacher conferences. Using parent-friendly data, teachers explain how each child is doing and pass along strategies for parents to help teach their kids at home. The result: increased student achievement.

There they are, five big points of consensus. True, that leaves no mud to throw, but let's be real here. On this issue, parents would prefer a mud-less consensus.

Whitmire is co-author, with Gaston Caperton, of the just-released "The Achievable Dream: College Board Lessons on Creating Great Schools."

 
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