About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Monday, October 20, 2008

Education and Opportunity: Rosie’s Dream

We’ve received some thoughtful posts on Politics and Knowledge ’08, and I hope to continue the conversation soon.

For the moment, though, I want to send along an opinion piece published on Sunday, 10/19/08, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in which I compare the McCain and Obama education plans. If you find it useful, please feel free to circulate it.

Last week, I did an interview for the Huffington Post on this topic, though it got edited down to a focus on Senator McCain’s proposals for school choice. If you’re interested, here’s the link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erika-szostak/mccains-plan-of-public-sc_b_134525.html

My mother's big dream was that I would go to college, and she worked double-shifts to start me on that journey. When I graduated, Rosie Meraglio Rose was there with her camera.

Education has been pretty much absent from center stage during this year's presidential campaign, but it is a big issue for families having a hard go of it and worrying about their children's future. With my mother in mind, I decided to examine what Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama offer the average family.

I got the candidates' positions from their Web sites, johnmccain.com and barackobama.com. Mr. McCain's education policy runs to four pages; Mr. Obama's, at 33 pages, is far more detailed. For instance, Mr. Obama cites examples from 13 states as evidence that his programs would work. Mr. McCain offers one.

Both candidates cover the same broad topics (early education, teacher recruitment, college) and share some general solutions, such as expanding Head Start or offering incentive pay for teachers who work in difficult schools.

But there are striking differences, too, which make me think Mr. Obama's plan is better for working families and the public schools that most of their children attend.

Consider early childhood.

The McCain plan calls for the neediest children to have access to high-quality programs and he would provide funding to turn exemplary Head Start programs into Centers of Excellence. He also wants to streamline and coordinate existing programs.

Mr. Obama shares these goals, but incorporates them into a broader plan to help children from birth through age five. He would help support low-income, first-time mothers and encourage states to adopt voluntary, universal pre-school. He wants to improve both the quality and accessibility of child care, and expand the tax credit for it.

For education policies to work, policy makers must know the on-the-ground realities of schooling. The Obama plan reflects a deeper understanding of those realities.

When it comes to teachers, for example, both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain propose monetary incentives for difficult assignments or needed expertise, but Mr. Obama also realizes that most teachers crave other types of rewards: to continue their education, to have a meaningful role in improving curriculum, to mentor others, to bring their ideas into the broader reform arena. When teachers are fulfilled, children learn more.

Mr. Obama's underlying philosophy of reform is preferable to that of Mr. McCain, as well.

The twin engines driving Mr. McCain's approach are school choice and No Child Left Behind-style accountability. Accountability is also an element in Mr. Obama's plan, but he does not rely on the marketplace to improve our schools. "Choice" is an appealing notion to Americans, but it's worth considering its limitations as the primary mechanism of school reform.

Experiments have demonstrated that for school choice to work there must be enough good schools from which to choose. They need to be nearby or there must be a reasonable way to get to them. To offer real choice to some students, many charter or private schools would need additional resources for special-needs programs or simply to respond to increased demand. Most private schools also would need to relax admissions requirements.

In short, for a plan like Mr. McCain's to work on a broad scale, he would need to intervene significantly in the market, something that his philosophy of government and voting record suggest he would not do.

As the last few weeks have made clear, markets can be terribly unstable and inequitable. It's easy to claim in the abstract that broad-scale school choice would allow poor schools either to get better or fail as competition drives improvements overall. But failed schools bring turmoil to surrounding communities.

The bottom line is that while charter and private schools in many places succeed and prompt reforms in public schools, many also fail. They are not a wholesale solution to what ails our schools.

Another plus for Mr. Obama's education plan is that it reflects a richer sense of what education can mean to families of limited resources.

In "Reclaiming the American Dream," the speech in which Mr. Obama discussed college affordability, we see families after plant closings trying to make ends meet. We see people worrying about their homes, about health care, about sending their kids to school. I think about my mother in another difficult time, as the railroads failed and the shops closed and she worried about keeping a roof over our heads.

It is in this context that Mr. Obama calls for "putting a college education within the reach of every American." He proposes a $4,000 tax credit, programs to better prepare young people for college and ways to further develop community colleges. By the time we get to these proposals in Mr. Obama's plan, we have met the kinds of people they will help, people whom Mr. Obama encountered while working on the streets of Chicago. He puts a human face on public policy.

I don't agree with all of Mr. Obama's education proposals, and in some cases I wish he had gone further. I see things in Mr. McCain's proposals that are laudable. Furthermore, given the disasters on Wall Street, neither candidate will be able to institute all of his plans, at least in the short term.

Still, when I look at the plans and consider their particulars, their underlying spirit and the degree to which they reflect an understanding of real schools and average families, it is Mr. Obama's that offers the most educational opportunities to kids like Rosie's.

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