3 Steps to Reform the U.S. Education System: Listen Up Obama and Romney

With the 2012 presidential election in full swing, the topic of education reform has remained almost completely off the radar of the candidates. Sure, Rick Perry could remember he wanted to eliminate the Department of Education ... but that was months ago, and even then, that was about as much detail as we got on the subject. Now that Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, it is time to take a closer look at some of the issues facing the nation’s education system, and what the candidates can do to ensure that the primary and secondary educational systems in the U.S. are capable of competing with those of other developed countries.

1. Overhaul 'No Child Left Behind':

The once popular education reform of the Bush administration, the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2002 with relatively little opposition; it passed the Senate in a vote of 87-10. Since its passage, the bill has been criticized in many ways including limiting creativity in the classroom, and setting incredibly unrealistic goals, such as all students (without serious handicaps) achieving grade level every year starting in the 2013-2014 school year. This certainly isn’t a bad idea, however the result of placing so much importance on the results of the annual state achievement tests is that the entire educational process begins to revolve around being able to score well on the exam.

A 2010 survey of California teachers found that 84% of them had unfavorable views of No Child Left Behind, and a 2007 report found that the general public is in line with teachers -- 41% support the reauthorization with minor changes, and another 35% support the reauthorization but only with major changes, compared to 17% and 58% of teachers respectively. Barack Obama, in his 2008 campaign, came out against No Child Left Behind in its present form saying he would only reauthorize it with significant changes to the way adequate yearly progress is used. Obama also said he and would eliminate the goal of all children being grade level and instead would support schools whose students show advancements from where they currently are. 

Obama took the firststeps towards this goal in February of this year when he gave ten states waivers from the 2014 proficiency requirement. Mitt Romney is much less clear on the issue, supporting No Child Left Behind in the 2008 race, and saying in a debate that his support of the bill was an example of an issue that he had supported even thought it was less popular with the republican base.  However, during the primaries Romney attacked Santorum for voting for the bill during his time in the Senate.

 Without a doubt, the $21.5 billion in funding that No Child Left Behind grants to districts represents the potential to do much good across the country. Reforming Title 1 to eliminate the adequate yearly progress requirements, is a key step to ensuring that the purpose of education is learning, and not testing.

2. Establish a National Achievement Test

Having said that, being able to measure the progress, and instructional ability of districts and teachers is an important part of an educational system, and is an area that the United States is seriously lacking in. The adequate yearly progress requirement in No Child Left Behind highlighted the fact that states design and administer their own standardized test, and if it looks like too many of their students won’t meet grade level, one solution is to simply lower the standard for what that grade level is. Obviously, that does not serve students in states like Mississippi, where on the state test 86% of students score at grade level, however when they took the National Assessments of Educational Progress, the closest thing to a national standardized test, they scored the worst scores in the country.

Parents, administrators, and students deserve to know how their education stacks up against others on a national level. That is why we need a rigorous standardized test administered to all students uniformly, and the results of that test need to be broken down to a classroom-by-classroom level, and available to everyone in the country. That way teachers and administrators can see what teaching methods are most effective, and parents can make the decisions of where to enroll their children.

3. Establish a Fund to Provide for the Maintenance and Construction of Schools

 Schools in this country have been in need of attention for decades now. The National Education Association estimates that we need $322 billion in order to bring schools into a state of good repair, although this is probably an overestimate considering the last report done by the Department of Education in 1999 estimated that $127 billion was needed. However, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently projected the five-year need at $160 billion, with a $35 billion shortfall; because of the lack of solid data on the topic, and a need for $200 billion or more, and a shortfall of $40 to 50 billion is certainly within the realm of possibility.

 Public education is a right that everyone shares. That said, the most affluent districts have outspent the least fortunate districts by nearly 2:1 on per pupil construction projects, resulting in an imbalance in the quality of education that can be obtained by these students. Of course, the difference in facilities is not the only problem facing underprivileged school districts, but it is one that is relatively easy to solve. Shockingly despite nearly doubling the Department of Education’s budget for the year, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act only spent about $850 million on “improvements and infrastructure”. This fund, managed by the Department of Education, would provide funds for submitted school improvement plans based on cost effectiveness, and providing much needed aid for the suffering districts, many of which faced major budget crunches during the economic downturn.

President Obama and Mitt Romney have both remained largely quiet when it comes to schools so far this electionseason, despite the prominent place that both of them placed on education during the last election. With each passing year that schools struggle to work with the inhibitive effects of No Child Left Behind, and aging and diminished facilities,the only people that are losing are the children. Since they don't have a political voice, their desires often get put on the back burner. If half as much time was spent talking about education reform as was spent on mandating contraceptive coverage by health insurance companies, or Ron Paul’s delegate count, this problem wouldn’t exist.