Monday, March 17, 2008

Presidential platforms on math, science, and schools

OILF studiously avoids war, environmental regulation, healthcare, and economic policy. Its focus on left-brainers and right-brain biases should give you no inkling of my opinions on these other issues--however important they are in general, and in the presidential election.

Here the political issue that matters most is math and science education. As Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science asks in the opinion page of today's Philadelphia Inquirer, what do Clinton, McCain, and Obama propose to do about the abysmal rankings of American 15-year-olds with respect to their peers in 29 other wealthy nations: 17th in science and 24th in math?

The AAAS website has Clinton advocating new NSF fellowships for math and science professionals interested in public school teaching. The education page of Clinton's own website makes no mention of math and science education; as for education in general, her only proposal is that thousands more "outstanding" teachers and principals be recruited.

The AAAs website has McCain advocating improving school performance through accountability, standards-based assessments, and competition for students. The education page of McCain's own website has him highlighting school choice as key. Nowhere does he mention math and science in particular.

The AAAS website has Obama calling for an increase in the number of students pursuing degrees in math, science, and technology, and a Teacher Service Scholarship program to recruit such graduates. He also wants to expand access in the public schools to computers and broadband connections. Finally, he wants to invest in science education r&d to determine which curricula and instruction work best. The education page of Obama's own website specifically lists math and science education as a national priority.

OILF's assessment
Computers and broadband are icing on the cake.  Science education r&d postpones improvements that must occur yesterday (and, if it involves curriculum consultants and education professors, may not lead anywhere good). The key questions are how to recruit good teachers, and how to hold schools accountable, now.

Recruiting good teachers
Here, McCain makes no proposals, and Obama and Clinton make just one: fellowships/scholarships for math and science teachers. 

As this blog discusses earlier, however, international comparisons question whether money makes the difference. Far more effective may be freeing applicants from education coursework and allowing them greater autonomy in the classroom.  But no candidate espouses a position this radical. 

Holding schools accountable 
Topping Clinton's education proposals is scrapping No Child Left Behind. She offers no alternatives for school accountability.  

Obama's education proposals include funding NCLB, improving how it assesses student performance, and making it support rather than punish failing schools. He remains vague on how he would alter assessments, and on how he would support failing schools in ways that prompt improvement. Whether NCLB has improved classroom instruction is highly uncertain; no less uncertain are the consequences of Obama's proposed tweaks.

Much more radical, and promising, are McCain's proposals for competition and school choice. Failing schools that hemorrhage students are much more motivated to improve--or shut down and make room for ones that can--than those that continue to receive our support. Parents who can choose their public schools are less likely to abandon them--as many politicians do, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Once public schools compete like private schools, they're more likely to behave as such, hiring teachers more for their talents than for their paper credentials and seniority, showing them respect, and deferring to their judgment in picking their materials, planning their lessons, and teaching their students. All this, as we've noted, is essential to attracting and retaining the best teachers, including the most elusive ones:  those qualified in math and science.

Unfortunately, only McCain can propose this most promising of reform strategies. However Clinton and Obama may privately feel about school choice, publicly supporting it is political suicide. For, as Democrats, they are accountable to one of the largest blocks of reliably Democratic voters: the education establishment, whose most powerful opinion-makers oppose school choice more resolutely than almost any other education reform.


Catherine Johnson said...

way off-topic -- I can't believe I've just met you!

I am, NOW (at this very moment), trying to figure out how to teach grammar to one of my two autistic sons: Andrew.

Do you have recommendations??


cijohn @

lefty said...

Wow-- I didn't realize you have two kids with autism. My software is described, with demos, at:

nb: this site will also betray my true identity!

There's other grammar software out there, but it's all very passive, click-on-the-correct-answer type of stuff. (Laureate Learning, NoGlamourGrammar)