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Are the President's Education Policies Helping Our Kids?

An end-of-term report card assesses how the Obama administration has performed on five critical education issues.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Walter G Arce / Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

When Barack Obama ran for office in 2008, he did so on an education platform that was “ambitious” to say the least. Then-candidate Obama was clear that he aimed to reform America’s entire education system, from preschool on up through higher education -- and during his first term as president, his administration has indeed made significant changes to educational policy. But have those changes been for the better? Have schools, and their students, benefited from the Obama administration’s educational maneuvers over this first term? As it turns out, the answer is: not necessarily.

Herewith, a look at five critical education issues in America today, and how the president and his team have handled them so far: 

1. Funding for Early Childhood Education

It is well-established that early childhood education is a crucial means of improving school readiness and performance among at-risk children. Studies show that preschool reduces high school dropout rates while increasing the likelihood that students will go on to higher education. Furthermore, early childhood education is a great investment: a 2005 MIT study found that every dollar spent on early childhood education reduces future social services expenditures by $13.

Given all that, Obama’s 2008 campaign promises to invest extensively in early childhood education seemed like a no-brainer. And on the surface, he seems to have delivered: the administration’s 2011 Race to the Top Early-Learning Challenge -- a $500 million grant competition that funds preschool programs like Head Start -- allocates a whopping 71 percent of 2011’s $700 million Race to the Top funds to early education. 

But the devil, as always, is in the details. Of the 37 states that submitted applications for assistance, only nine won funding: California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington. The winning states were required to make a number of corporate-based reforms in order to compete for the preschool funding – including committing to a set of accountability procedures provided by a privately managed preschool assessment agency called Quality Rating and Improvement Systems. QRIS heavily emphasizes things like classroom décor, teacher assessment and parent participation – but even corporate reformer Sarah Mead of Bellwether Education Partners says, “[T]here’s not much evidence that creating QRIS will produce any significant improvements in children’s readiness to learn… The research that does exist is not encouraging: A study…by researchers at the RAND Corporation found little to no evidence of a relationship between childcare programs’….ratings and…outcomes.” 

Ultimately, the states with preschool facilities most in need of money and support – those that could not afford to introduce the new QRIS standards in time – were shut out of the competition. States had just three months to prepare extensive applications, and most did not have the time or resources to introduce comprehensive QRIS accountability measures in that short amount of time. For the states that won, this is clearly a financial boon – but in 41 other states, preschoolers are still wanting.

So has the Obama administration invested in early childhood education? Yes -- but in a way that, as yet, has done little to improve early education in the majority of states.

2. Primary and Secondary Education Reform

There is little doubt that President Obama is a strong supporter of the corporate “reforms” that have crept into American education policy over the past three decades – and he appears to be a particular supporter of charter schools. As Ken Saltman, professor of educational policy studies and research at DePaul University, tells AlterNet:

[Obama] has pushed charter schools and other radical market-based turnarounds, like closing schools and firing all the teachers and staff… In some states, like Michigan, the chartering is heavily for-profit. In other states, like Illinois, chartering is predominantly non-profit, but the non-profits still contract with for-profit corporations. In any case, the key issue is that the model that has won is one of market competition and choice.

 
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