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The Very Brief Educational Debate

I missed the debate last night and also what seems like the only national discussion of education in this entire marathon of a campaign.

Five minutes, at the very end, out of thousands of hours of talk (hundreds of thousands if you count beyond the candidates) hardly seems like enough for an issue most everyone declares to be vital to our future.

Even worse is that a chunk of the discussion centered around vouchers.

McCain: Well, sure. I’m sure you’re aware, Sen. Obama, of the program in the Washington, D.C., school system where vouchers are provided and there’s a certain number, I think it’s a thousand and some and some 9,000 parents asked to be eligible for that.

Because they wanted to have the same choice that you and I and Cindy and your wife have had. And that is because they wanted to choose the school that they thought was best for their children.

And we all know the state of the Washington, D.C., school system. That was vouchers. That was voucher, Sen. Obama. And I’m frankly surprised you didn’t pay more attention to that example.

McCain unjustifiably praises the voucher program forced on the District of Columbia schools almost five years ago.

Studies have shown little if any improvement among DC students in the holy grail of American education in the 21st century, the standardized tests in reading and math.

In fact, most of the kids who used the federal money to move from public schools to private were not failing those tests in the first place.

In any case, it’s likely that the small differences in student achievement could be attributed to the novelty factor and that the kids’ parents were move involved with their education than others who didn’t go through the hassle of moving them.

Even worse, all the money spent on vouchers, in DC and elsewhere, has not done a thing to improve public schools, something which supporters of those programs claim will be a primary benefit.

Fortunately, some voucher fans are now beginning to realize they just don’t work.

However, although the concept is appealing to politicians needed an easy education sound byte, the major problem with vouchers is that for the students who use them, nothing fundamentally changes.

With rare exceptions, they move from one traditional classroom to another, from one situation when the primary goal is passing standardized tests to another with the same objectives.

Students are still lumped into learning groups based on their chronological age and expected to progress at the same rate as others in the same lump.

In the price range of the private schools in which DC kids (and those in voucher programs elsewhere) are using their money, the learning structure is pretty much the same, using the same teaching methods and materials.

If we are going to make any substantial improvement in American education, we need to rip apart the entire system and create something which addresses the fact that not every child learns the same way.

An educational program which takes into consideration that not every student will – or should – be going to college after high school graduation.

Voucher programs, like most charter schools, only recycle an instructional format mimicking an assembly line from 60+ years ago and try to make it mesh with a very different world.

Unfortunately, from reading what was said in this debate as well as the policy statements on their web sites, Obama and McCain don’t seem to differ much in their understanding of what is needed to reform our schools.

I can only hope that Obama is as good a listener as he seems and will pay attention to some forward thinking advisors, people who will help create something far better than the train wreck of a national education policy we currently have.

Maybe even some teachers?

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1 Comment

  1. Dave

    I don’t think it matters that the voucher-accepting schools use the same curriculum and materials, because it’s the teachers that matter. The bet that voucher schools should be making is that, by controlling their growth, they can hire as many exceptionally great teachers as they can get, and not be forced to hire anyone less than stellar to fill in the gaps. If we assume that everyone is generally altruistic and no one is trying to sabotage anything, that’s the ONLY advantage that voucher schools should be able to have.

    But I don’t think that’s what they’re doing, because that’s not what I’m hearing that they’re doing…so the whole program seems like an experiment in comparing apples and apples — it doesn’t teach us anything about what impact self-growth-limiting voucher schools could have. All we know is that people tend not to do it, and that stands as an example of an implementation of vouchers that doesn’t really do anything for anyone. Kind of a waste.

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