Obama lays out vision for 21st century schools

Barack Obama laid out the changes he would bring to the nation’s educational system as president in a forum last month in Dayton, Ohio.

He asked why countries like China, India, South Korea and Japan have advanced their economies by changing their education systems, while America continues to fall behind. Obama noted the United States has the highest rate of high school dropouts of any industrialized country and that a large percentage of our students are not proficient in math and science — skills needed for the new jobs of the 21st century. “Only 1 in 10 low-income students will get a college degree,” he told the Sept. 9 forum. “I find this morally unacceptable for our children and for our country.”

“Two-thirds of all the new jobs will require advanced training or college degrees,” he said, adding that these are the jobs workers need to support their families.

Obama said he wants to give every child in the USA a world class education from birth to college graduation. He intends to greatly increase funding for early childhood education in order to ensure that all students entering kindergarten are ready to learn.

Our country must recruit, prepare and retain 30,000 high quality teachers a year, especially to teach math and science, he said. His Teacher Residency Program would pair new teachers with successful experienced teachers.

Teachers must be held to high standards and be accountable in their students’ teaching/learning process. To accomplish this, they should be given the support and help they need, he said, but if a teacher doesn’t improve after help is given, that teacher must be replaced. Obama said he will implement a $4,000 college tuition tax credit for those willing to serve their communities, so that anyone who wants to attend college can have the opportunity.

Obama stressed innovation in his speech, proposing that Congress establish an education innovation fund. He described Austin Polytech High School in Chicago as an example of what an innovative curriculum can do. Students there are prepared for a career in engineering, receiving two industrial certifications at graduation. Another program Obama pointed to is the Harlem Children’s Zone, encompassing two charter schools with built-in social programs that include parenting classes, a health clinic, after-school tutoring and enrichment and family counseling. He said early intervention and continued intervention is needed for at-risk children to succeed.

He said he would promote quality after-school programs for those that need them as well as summer school and an extended school day.

As president, Obama said, he wants to see classrooms where every student has a laptop, where students can use the Internet to research their reports and can present their reports as PowerPoint presentations, where the teacher becomes the guide and coach rather than the source of all knowledge.

Obama said he wants to fix the No Child Left Behind Law. He supports some of its goals such as an excellent teacher in every classroom, closing the achievement gaps, higher standards and more accountability. But, he said, there is a great deal wrong with No Child Left Behind — forcing schools to accomplish goals without the resources they need, focusing on test-taking skills instead of problem-solving and critical thinking. Even if these flaws are fixed, he noted, it will take more than No Child Left Behind to bring our education system into the 21st century and prepare our children to succeed in the global economy.

He said he wants to double funding for charter schools but qualified that by saying those that are not working should be closed and charter schools must be held accountable just like other public schools.

Obama said he supports plans linking to teacher pay to performance that are designed jointly by teachers and school districts through union negotiations. Outstanding successful teachers should be rewarded, he said. In the past merit pay has been a very controversial issue among teachers. Denver and Prince George’s County, Md., were able to come up with such plans, he noted.

In addition, Obama said, parents need to become accountable and to take more responsibility for their children’s education.

As president, he emphasized, he will hold government accountable. The Department of Education must spend every tax dollar on programs that make a difference in children’s lives he said. He pledged to report on the progress in education each year.

How does Obama think the U.S. can pay for all of these innovations in education? “The money spent on the Iraq war for a few days would go a long way in improving our schools,” he declared. Ending no-bid contracts and eliminating wasteful military spending would cover the costs.

“The leadership of our country has left schools and parents to fend for themselves,” Obama said. “John McCain has not done one thing to improve the quality of education during his 30 years in Congress. Not one proposal or law or initiative. Nothing. He opposed hiring more teachers, expanding Head Start and fully funding No Child Left Behind. John McCain doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand that success as a nation depends on success in education. I do understand.”

McCain, at the Republican National Convention, attacked teachers unions, charging that Obama wants schools to be beholden to “unions and entrenched bureaucracies.”

Fed up with being “beat up” by numerous GOP candidates who have used inflammatory rhetoric against teachers and their unions, the 3.2-million-member National Education Association says Obama is a presidential candidate who “respects our professional expertise, including with bus drivers and support staff.” All these jobs, they note, makes a school district run. The NEA, which had backed Hillary Clinton during the primaries, has strongly endorsed Obama.

Ohio Education Association Vice President Bill Leibensperger said for his members education is the top issue. “For eight years teachers and students have been assaulted by No Child Left Behind, which is really Orwellian double-speak because so many children are being left behind by this law.”

Leibensperger is optimistic about rank and file support for Obama in Ohio, a battleground state. “The election is close in Ohio. Our members are strong for Obama. They are having conversations at worksites about the elections and issues. I think in the end people will do the right thing and vote for Obama.”

Teresa Albano contributed to this article.