Putting Education Reform on the Presidential Debate Agenda

Photo Credit: The petition site

Last week a petition went up, sponsored by The Mandell School in NYC, to demand that the Presidential Debate moderators ask questions about the candidates’ plans and ideas for education reform.  It seems like a pretty simple demand – after all, No Child Left Behind was a signature Bush initiative, and Race to the Top has been a major Obama initiative – both of them taking huge policy steps at the Federal level to shape education in what has traditionally been a very local issue.   If this trend continues then it makes sense that the men running for the top leadership position of the country should define where they stand on education.

It’s no longer easy to divide education ideas and programs along partisan lines.   Things like vouchers, charter schools, breaking down of the teachers’ unions, are now fair game on both sides of the aisle.  And the money is flowing from liberal-minded hedge funders as well as conservative think tanks.  Forget everything you know about public education in the 70s and 80s – those battles have been completely upended, and opposing sides may be voting for the same guy come Election Day.

But, we all know Obama’s thoughts on education reform.  You just have to look at Race to the Top and the horrible spread of standardized testing as the only measure of student progress and teacher effectiveness.  I don’t think this was the intention of  Race to the Top, but it has been the consequence.  And to be honest, I don’t think Romney will have anything interesting to say except platitudes about preparing our students for the 21st Century and how every student deserves a great teacher.  There’s not going to be any substantive talk about education either way.

Here’s what I would like to hear from the candidates – and not in a debate forum where the clock is ticking and the press is eagerly awaiting a zinger.  I would like Obama to talk about why he chose Sidwell Friends for his daughters – a private school free from testing, free to create interesting, project based curriculum, free to limit their class size, but not at all free in terms of tuition.  I would like Romney to talk about the heavily subsidized BYU, where the Mormon belief in a good education is put to work in terms of making the school very affordable thanks to the Church. And, since he  went to a very fancy private school – Cranbrook, where my husband also was lucky enough to attend – I’d like to know what he felt he got out of his education, what he valued from it, other than bullying kids with long hair.

As I usher my daughters through the  NYC Public Middle School application process this fall, I am more and more aware that our system that has too few seats, a crazy admission policy that varies from school to school, an obscene reliance on test scores that puts pressure on kids as young as 8, and no real data showing that any of this is good for kids in the long run or will produce more creative, smarter adults, I have to wonder – what could any politician tell me about education reform that I don’t already know or that I would believe?

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