President Barack Obama has certainly taken his Bob-the-Builder philosophy to heart. “Can we fix it? Yes we can!” Unfortunately, while he seems to be trying to attack each problem individually, I’m not convinced that his education policy will make the cut. Obama’s most recent speech discussing education policy took place on Mar. 10. His speech was great, as we can usually expect, and he engaged his audience. In it, he outlined five different “pillars” that he would like to see implemented in his education policy.
As a tutor for America Reads, I am all too aware of the increasing education gap in America’s schools. Not only are American schools falling behind the rest of the world, but inner-city and other under-privileged schools are falling behind the rest of America. One of the best ways to improve this inconsistency is to help students improve the foundation of their education. You can’t teach children algebra without first teaching them addition.
Thankfully, Obama’s first pillar focuses on investing tax money in lower elementary and preschool programs. This is an excellent area on which to concentrate, since our elementary schools and younger children are often neglected. This is partially because of the increasing financial crisis for higher education. As Obama stated, we save $10 for every dollar invested in childhood education programs. This extra money could, in the long run, be put toward higher education.
But saving money and helping younger children is only one-fifth of the plan Obama wants to implement. The other four-fifths attend to other education problems like the financial crisis for higher education. Obama wants to make sure that every kid has the chance to attend college, partially by providing better financial aid. The problem with this plan is that it leaves children at a distinct disadvantage. There is no point in sending everyone to college if they never learned the fundamental skills in elementary school.
The rest of the plan, as outlined by Obama, also sounded a little reminiscent of former President George W. Bush’s policies. Obama decided to set up a system of accountability and fix No Child Left Behind, which is arguably one of the worst plans ever implemented by the government. What Obama doesn’t seem to realize is that we already have a system of accountability that places unbending and misrepresentative academic requirements on schools, teachers and, most importantly, elementary school students. I would be more bolstered by Obama’s plan if he could outline how he plans to change the assessments used to determine who is doing well and who is doing poorly.
Once Obama has changed these regulations, he needs to also recognize that when schools — usually inner-city and under-privileged — cannot make the grade, the worst thing to do is simply cut funding. The current plan has arbitrary rules that cause schools that most need funding to lose it.
This plan aims to change the current system by putting the states in charge of education. But, again, one major problem with the current system is that states all have different standards. Of course, Obama mentioned state accountability with the same breath he also used to talk about inconsistent regulations that need to be changed at a federal level. It is not currently clear at what level the regulations will be implemented, but it should be a federal system of accountability.
Unfortunately, Obama will only give his new Early Learning Challenge Grant to states that have demonstrated a concrete plan to fix the quality of their programs. But what does this mean for Michigan – a state so failing in its economy that it can’t fix its budget, let alone establish programs for early learning? If Obama can talk about inconsistent state regulations, he should also be able to set up a federal plan to help the states and schools who are falling into the cracks.
And most importantly, a working system of accountability can only be realized once all schools have the tools and ability to meet the standards. Teachers can’t keep teaching to tests and hoping that students will be able to perform the same in all areas of the country. This system is cyclical and perpetuates what the Obama calls a “race to the bottom.”
Once we have improved the state of lower education, we can finally focus on allowing everyone to have an opportunity to get higher education. As a college student, I would love to see the cost of tuition go down. But Obama is not necessarily talking about lowering that cost — he just wants to make sure everyone has a chance to pay the bill. That will only happen when all students are taught effectively at the elementary level. You wouldn’t build a house by starting with the roof.