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Campaign Watch: Barack Obama Links Early Ed to America's Economic Well-Being

In a major economic speech this Sunday, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama made clear that improving America's education system is one of his top economic priorities. The speech is noteworthy for the direct connection Obama drew between education and economic progress. Equally noteworthy, Obama laid out an education agenda that combines significant new investments--including a proposed $10 billion investment in early education programs--with reforms like charter schools and teacher pay for performance. Last week David Brooks criticized Obama for being "all carrot, no stick," talking in greater detail about the education investments than the reforms he'd support, and challenged Obama to support "real reform." In reality, as we discussed last week, improving education takes both investment and reform. We'd like to see more details about some of the reforms Obama discusses--particularly his proposals to hold education schools accountable and streamline certification, as well as how he would ensure quality and accountability for early educaiton programs he proposes investing in. But by spotlighting education reforms, along with investment, at the center of a major economic speech, Obama appears to be answering Brooks' challenge.

Senator McCain, the ball is in your court.

Here's what Obama said about education on Sunday:

This agenda starts with education. Whether you're conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, practically every economist agrees that in this digital age, a highly-educated and skilled workforce will be the key not only to individual opportunity, but to the overall success of our economy as well. We cannot be satisfied until every child in America – and I mean every child – has the same chances for a good education that we want for our own children.

And yet, despite this consensus, we continually fail to deliver. A few years ago, I visited a high school outside Chicago. The number one concern I heard from those students was that the school district couldn't afford to keep teachers for a full day, so school let out at 1:30 every afternoon. That cut out critical classes like science and labs. Imagine that – these kids wanted more school. They knew they were being short-changed. Unfortunately, stories like this can be found across America. Only 20 percent of students are prepared to take college classes in English, math and science. We have one of the highest dropout rates of any industrialized nation, and barely one tenth of our low-income students will graduate from college. That will cripple their ability to keep pace in this global economy, and compromise our ability to compete as a nation.

Senator McCain doesn't talk about education much. But I don't accept the status quo. It is morally unacceptable and economically untenable. It's time to make an historic commitment to education– a real commitment that will require new resources and new reforms.

We can start by investing $10 billion to guarantee access to quality, affordable, early childhood education for every child in America. Every dollar that we spend on these programs puts our children on a path to success, while saving us as much as $10 in reduced health care costs, crime, and welfare later on.

We can fix the failures of No Child Left Behind, while focusing on accountability. That means providing the funding that was promised. More importantly, it means reaching high standards, but not by relying on a single, high stakes standardized test that distorts how teachers teach. Instead, we need to work with governors, educators and especially teachers to develop better assessment tools that effectively measure student achievement, and encourage the kinds of research, scientific investigation, and problem-solving that our children will need to compete.

And we need to recruit an army of new teachers. I'll make this pledge as President – if you commit your life to teaching, America will pay for your college education. We'll recruit teachers in math and science, and deploy them to under-staffed school districts in our inner cities and rural America. We'll expand mentoring programs that pair experienced teachers with new recruits. And when our teachers succeed, I won't just talk about how great they are – I'll reward their greatness with better pay and more support.

But research shows that resources alone won't create the schools that we need to help our children succeed. We also need to encourage innovation – by adopting curricula and the school calendar to the needs of the 21st century; by updating the schools of education that produce most of our teachers; by welcoming charter schools within the public schools system, and streamlining the certification process for engineers or businesspeople who want to shift careers and teach.

We must also challenge the system that prevents us from promoting and rewarding excellence in teaching. We cannot ask our teachers to perform the impossible – to teach poorly prepared children with inadequate resources, and then punish them when children perform poorly on a standardized test. But if we give teachers the resources they need; if we pay them more, and give them time for professional development; if they are given ownership over the design of better assessment tools and a creative curricula; if we shape reforms with teachers rather than imposing changes on teachers, then it is fair to expect better results. Where there are teachers who are still struggling and underperforming, we should provide them with individual help and support. And if they're still underperforming after that, we should find a quick and fair way to put another teacher in that classroom. Our children deserve no less.

Finally, our commitment cannot end with a high school degree. The chance to get a college education must not be a privilege of the few – it should be a birthright of every single American. Senator McCain is campaigning on a plan to give more tax breaks to corporations. I want to give tax breaks to young people, in the form of an annual $4,000 tax credit that will cover two-thirds of the tuition at an average public college, and make community college completely free. In return, I will ask students to serve, whether it's by teaching, joining the Peace Corps, or working in your community. And for those who serve in our military, we'll cover all of your tuition with an even more generous 21st Century GI Bill. The idea is simple - America invests in you, and you invest in America. That's how we're going to ensure that America succeeds in this century.

Reforming our education system will require sustained effort from all of us – parents and teachers; federal, state and local governments. The same is true for the second leg of our competitiveness agenda – a bold and sustainable energy policy.

(emphasis added)






Key Lens - Accountability for what goes on in classrooms

Accountability happens to be one of those concepts that everybody is for until it's actually implemented. This is an area where early education has a lot to contribute to the educational enterprise from PreK through Grade 12: there are instruments that have been tested in research to measure classroom quality, and not just what kids know (or don't know) at the end of the year.

Robert Pianta and his colleagues at the University of Virginia have been working for over a decade on the CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System). Everybody knows that what teachers do in classrooms matters the most in terms of what kids learn, but never before has there been a nationally validated instrument that actually focuses on exactly that: teacher-student interaction. By observing how teachers interact with students by providing emotional support, instructional support, and classroom organization, Pianta and colleagues have devised a tool that helps teachers and other educators know exactly what they can do to improve classroom instruction, from PreK through Fifth Grade.

Best of all, attaining high scores on the CLASS correlates with student achievement, so that the higher the teacher's score, the more students learn. What an improvement this is over the ubiquitous "principal's checklist"--which, while convenient, didn't help teachers know what they should do to improve.

Both Obama and McCain should latch on to this tool. In terms of accountability, it's one of the few instruments that can serve both a diagnostic and professional development purposes; it focuses on what teachers do in classrooms, and highlights exactly what they need to do improve their teaching practice.

How Obama made it through

How Obama made it through this entire speech without once mentioning the already in-place and functioning early childhood education Head Start program is a mystery. The Federal Government has flat-funded the program over the past six years and still they provide the best services to families and children living in poverty. Obama and his cohorts, including McCain, need not put billions of taxpayer dollars to reinvent a program that works and works well.

Personal political gain

Barack Obama and other high profile politicians are attempting to limit the right to use on-demand, short term financial assistance. A number of cities and towns are also attempting bans on the industry, with several more attempting to follow suit. American citizens from all across the nation are fighting the legislation hoping to have their voices heard to prevent the abolishment of the payday loan industry. Regardless of the hundreds of thousands of potential jobs lost, these politicians are encouraging the elimination of this matter generally for personal political gain.

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