Obama’s Annenberg Stint Informs White House Bid

By David J. Hoff — March 06, 2007 6 min read
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In one paragraph of his current best-selling book, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama outlines the ideas that could define the K-12 education platform in his quest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

The “hard evidence of reforms that work,” the Illinois Democrat writes in The Audacity of Hope, include: a rigorous curriculum; early-childhood education; extending the school day and school year; “meaningful, performance-based assessments” that can accurately measure what children know; and “the recruitment and training of transformative principals and more effective teachers.”

Of all those, he adds, the last item is perhaps the most important.

Sen. Obama, 45, entered the race in January amid a torrent of national media attention. With just two years’ experience in the U.S. Senate, he has inspired skepticism as well as enthusiasm, and widespread interest in learning more about his record.

Education is a policy area he hasn’t aggressively pursued either as an Illinois state senator or in his federal office.

But Sen. Obama may have a unique perspective among the candidates seeking the presidency in 2008. As a private citizen, he led Chicago’s portion of the Annenberg Challenge school reform initiative financed by the late philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg—an experience that shaped Mr. Obama’s perspective on the critical importance of principals and teachers.

The Chicago Annenberg Challenge spread $49.2 million across the city’s schools in an effort to support emerging community-based public school reforms in the nation’s third-largest district. It was ultimately unsuccessful in raising student achievement, according to evaluations of the project. But its leaders and participants agreed that high-quality teachers were the key ingredient the school system was missing.

“All of the networks [of Chicago schools] we were funding came to that same conclusion after about three years,” said Ken Rolling, the former executive director of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. To improve urban schools, said Mr. Rolling, “we have to increase and improve the pool of qualified teachers.”

Mr. Obama led the Chicago group’s board from the start in 1995 and for about the next three years, Mr. Rolling said. He stayed on the board until the project closed in 2001.

Marathon Campaign

With the first presidential caucuses and primaries still almost a year off, but vigorous campaigning and fundraising already under way, the Democratic contenders have yet to set out comprehensive K-12 policy proposals. Prominent issues to be addressed include improving teacher quality and principal leadership, raising student achievement and reducing dropout rates, and revising the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

What distinguishes Sen. Obama, a spokeswoman for his campaign argued, is his grassroots experience with the Annenberg project and as a community organizer in Chicago starting in the late 1980s.

“Clearly, he is somebody who comes to the table with substantial experience in education reform,” said Jen Psaki, the spokeswoman. “He will use the experience in his campaign.”

Such experiences for Sen. Obama and other candidates will eventually inform the policies they propose on the campaign trail and eventually might sign into law from the Oval Office. For example, President Bush’s steadfast support for annual testing-based accountability grows out of his experience as Texas governor in the 1990s and earlier community-service work in low-income schools, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank.

Election 2008: Democrats and Education

Leading candidates for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination haven’t proposed detailed K-12 policies.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois says high quality teachers and principals are the most important tool for improving schools.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York was actively involved in designing a statewide plan to improve Arkansas public schools while she was the first lady of the state.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut has been active in supporting Head Start and other early-childhood education programs.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina proposed a detailed plan to improve the quality of teachers during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware says that schools need an influx of money to modernize facilities, increase teacher salaries, reduce class sizes, and open smaller schools.

Gov. Bill Richardson is touting his record leading New Mexico, which has increased teacher pay, added rigor to its academic standards, and increased funding for public schools.

SOURCE: Education Week

“That shapes these guys,” said Mr. Rotherham, who was the education adviser to President Clinton during his second term. “That’s one reason why Bush is so hard-core on education.”

In addition to Sen. Obama, the current Democratic field of at least eight announced or likely candidates includes several who have staked claims in education over the years.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York led a task force that recommended changes to the Arkansas education system while she was the state’s first lady.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut has championed the federal Head Start program and other early-childhood initiatives in his 32 years in the House and Senate.

Sen. Clinton and Sen. Dodd are both members of the Senate education committee, as is Sen. Obama.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,082 adults released last week, Sen. Obama was second, with 24 percent of Democratic-leaning respondents saying they would likely vote for him. Since mid-January, he has gained on Sen. Clinton, who has 36 percent in the latest poll.

Challenging Experience

Sen. Obama’s experience in Chicago may be the most instructive for understanding how a candidate’s background might one day influence policy.

The future senator got involved in the Chicago Annenberg project before he entered politics and stayed involved after his election to the Illinois Senate in 1996. When he joined the Annenberg Challenge, he was working as a civil rights lawyer and had continued to be involved in community organizing in the city’s poor and minority neighborhoods.

That work got him involved in the city’s public schools in the late 1980s. During that time, the city’s school system was decentralizing control over schools and giving power to locally elected school councils under a state law.

“Almost all good community organizers were getting their feet wet” in schools, said Anne C. Hallett, who helped write the city’s Annenberg proposal and is now the director of Grow Your Own Illinois, a Chicago-based teacher-recruitment project.

Chicago was one of nine cities that received a total of $285 million during the Radnor, Pa.-based Annenberg Foundation’s efforts to revitalize urban schools around the country.

In his eight years in the state Senate and two years in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Obama hasn’t made a significant mark on education policy. In Illinois, his biggest accomplishments were in reforming state ethics rules and capital punishment. He did promote early-childhood initiatives that advocates considered “innovative and progressive,” said Betsy D. Mitchell, a lobbyist for the Illinois Association for the Education of Young Children.

His biggest accomplishment in the field was the creation of a state board to oversee the expansion of early-childhood education in the state, Ms. Mitchell said.

The evaluation of the Chicago project found that the Annenberg money did not produce improved student achievement in the 250 schools it financed.

But the lessons about teacher quality laid the groundwork for the district’s efforts to improve schools since the project closed in 2001, said Mr. Rolling, the former director of the project. He is now the executive director of Parents for Public Schools, a national group based in Chicago.

“School districts across America face systemic barriers to attracting and putting the best teachers in schools where they are needed the most,” the candidate’s campaign Web site says under the headline “Innovating Teacher Pay.”

The site highlights a bill sponsored by the senator that would establish 20 school-district-based projects to create new ways of compensating teachers, using financial rewards for teachers whose students’ achievement outpaced the rest of the district and offering higher pay for teachers in the neediest schools.

Sen. Obama introduced the bill in 2005, but it didn’t progress through the legislative process under the Republican majority. Now that the Democrats control Congress, Sen. Obama has reintroduced the measure, and it may end up combined with other Democratic efforts to improve teacher quality, Washington observers said.

But the proposal, like the first education ideas floated by the other Democratic contenders, isn’t as comprehensive or as bold as they will need to be once the campaign kicks into high gear, said Mr. Rotherham of Education Sector.

“All the candidates have small initiatives they’ve championed at one time or another, but the way to pick the lock nationally and distinguish yourself from the field is through big, challenging ideas,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Obama’s Annenberg Stint Informs White House Bid


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