Democrats Impress on Key Education Question

08/20/2007 06:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I experienced two almost foreign sensations while watching the Democrat presidential candidates debate in Iowa Sunday morning -- relief and excitement. Serious contenders for the presidency actually spoke to the heart of a crucial domestic issue: education. Resuscitating and improving public education is not only a serious moral commitment to the youth of America, but it's also a quintessential political bellwether issue.

If a candidate understands the real, on-the-ground severity of the education crisis in America and can fight for clear-thinking solutions, then he/she is inherently a champion of social justice. If a candidate abdicates his responsibility to public education by offering superficial band-aids, or even worse, villainous profit-driven proposals like vouchers and privatization, then his true colors are seen.

During the Democrat debate, many candidates displayed a refreshing bit of candor that appeared to signal a party-wide atonement for following the president in lockstep to pass the radically flawed and discriminatory No Child Left Behind Act in the bleary wake of 9/11.

A recent column I wrote titled "The Fallacy of Teacher Merit Pay (By a Teacher)" drew some lively action in the comments section. The exact question of teacher merit pay was put directly to the candidates and each of them (except a rampaging Mike Gravel) rejected the concept of giving teachers bonuses based on their students' standardized test scores.

Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden each spoke in ways that impressed me, as a teacher, that they had spent serious time talking with educators. Each referenced a loved one who teaches, and of the importance of paying teachers higher salaries in order to attract and maintain a corps excellent leaders in American classrooms.

Senator Clinton made a plea for universal pre-kindergarten, a direly needed amendment to our system. Clinton also voiced approval for incentive pay based on schoolwide performance, a potentially dangerous stepsister of teacher merit pay that may continue to foster the culture of high-stakes testmania.

Accountability in schools can no longer be synonymous with nothing but test scores. The Democratic candidates appear to hear the cries of teachers and students for more fair, multidimensional assessments of their performance, and more importantly, for the tools to facilitate real learning. It's a cautious optimism, but as we near the sixth anniversary of the No Child Left Behind quagmire, the fresh air is welcome.

Dan Brown's memoir of his first year teaching, The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle, is now available. Dan will be a guest on NPR's Diane Rehm Show, along with Jonathan Kozol, on Thursday, August 23.