Federal Campaign Notebook

A College Debate on K-12

By Michele McNeil — October 28, 2008 2 min read
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The Teachers College debate last week between Ms. Darling-Hammond and Ms. Keegan, which was webcast live by edweek.org, resulted in a vigorous, and at times pointed, discussion about merit pay, early-childhood education, and other issues under the title “Education and the Next President.”

Calling performance-based pay for teachers a “key part” of Sen. McCain’s education program, Ms. Keegan described a plan in which school principals would be in charge of evaluating their own staff members. Sen. McCain, she said, would like to have federal money go directly to schools so principals could reward teachers primarily on the basis of student achievement.

But, she added, inevitably, the teachers’ unions just won’t come on board.

“We have so many constraints around being able to pay teachers for their own performance, mostly in the bargained agreements, that there is no way to do it now,” Ms. Keegan said.

Ms. Darling-Hammond touted an approach that the unions endorse, in which new teachers get professional development and support from expert mentors who also help make decisions about tenure.

Teachers who were to be rewarded, said Ms. Darling-Hammond, would “need to demonstrate excellence in the classroom and evidence of contributions to student learning and achievement.”

After the debate, four education experts provided a reality check on the campaign advisers’ comments at a panel discussion moderated by Education Week. They picked apart the candidates’ views on early education—and particularly Sen. Obama’s plan to put $10 billion into an expansion of prekindergarten programs.

The panel participants seemed to agree that early-childhood education is a good place for an investment of federal funds, although all made the point that it’s unlikely that an Obama administration—or a McCain administration, for that matter—would have that much money available.

Lucy Caulkins, a Teachers College professor, supports ramping up federal spending on pre-K programs, saying they can help children who are at risk of academic failure get on the right track before they even start school.

Eugene W. Hickok, who served deputy secretary in the federal Department of Education earlier in President Bush’s tenure, said the government should track whether federal dollars improve outcomes for students. He said that was more important than targeting the money to specific policies.

Also on the panel were Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, and Joseph P. Viteritti, a public-policy professor at New York City’s Hunter College.

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week

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