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A General Election Education Debate. Sort Of.

By Alyson Klein — June 06, 2008 3 min read
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From contributing blogger Alyson Klein:

So this morning I attended the Association of Educational Publishers election forum in Washington. Lisa Graham Keegan, former Arizona schools chief turned adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., squared off with Jeanne Century, director of science education and the director of research and evaluation at the University of Chicago’s Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education, who represented the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

They managed to cover a lot of ground without getting into a lot of specificity, in very campaign-like fashion.

They both seem to agree that there needs to be some form of federal accountability for education, although I left the forum not really feeling like I had a clear idea of what they would keep in the No Child Left Behind Act and what they would ditch. They’re both for growth models (big surprise) and like the idea of “rich, rigorous standards” but didn’t seem inclined towards supporting national standards. Keegan did say she’d like to see states voluntarily “benchmark” standards against each other, though. And McCain is apparently going to put forth a more comprehensive education policy in a few weeks ... so ... be as specific as you can, senator.

Here are some of the areas where I saw the most defined positions, and the starkest contrasts:

Reading First: There was definitely a major difference in the way the two campaign representatives viewed “scientifically based reading research,” an important, but little talked about, part of NCLB and a cornerstone of the reading program. Keegan, for the most part, embraced the concept. And she made it clear where she stands in the reading wars, saying that whole-language programs have left some children “illiterate.” Century appears to think that the principles behind scientifically based reading research are too limiting, in terms of the types of studies that can be considered.

Merit Pay: Obama got into hot water with some folks when he talked about this at the National Education Association’s convention last year. But Century basically clarified his stance, saying that Obama favors merit-pay programs that support “classroom excellence” as defined by, I believe, districts, schools, and teachers. So it sounded like that means individual districts could do merit pay tied to achievement, if they worked that out with educators. McCain on the other hand, supports pay increases tied to student achievement, Keegan said. And he doesn’t seem to think teachers’ unions need to be at the negotiating table for merit-pay plans.

Funding: Keegan gave a standard GOP-line on funding for NCLB, noting that appropriations for Title I and other federal programs has increased dramatically since its enactment in 2002. She said the federal government needs to make sure it targets its resources towards practices that work. (I couldn’t help thinking that she was borrowing a page from Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ standard budget-day speech, in which she refers to some of the programs in the Education Department as “a thousand flowers blooming.”) Century didn’t explicitly call for more money. But she did say that schools need more qualified teachers, a richer curriculum, and better assessments, and that an Obama administration would decide whether schools were getting enough money to do that. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that probably means spending increases ... if the federal government can afford them.

Thanks to all of you who submitted questions for us. Keep them coming. I have a feeling that this forum may have been the first of many on education.

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