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Education Week and Teachers College, Columbia University, co-hosted a debate last week between F. Philip Handy, an education adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and Jon Schnur, an education adviser to President Barack Obama’s campaign. Moderated by Teachers College President Susan H. Fuhrman, the 90-minute session covered a range of topics on which Mr. Handy and Mr. Schnur squared off, including the No Child Left Behind Act, the Common Core State Standards, federal formula-grant programs, school choice, the teaching profession, early-childhood education, and college and career readiness.
The following edited excerpts from the Oct. 15 event reflect the candidates’ positions on four of the key issues of the debate.
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND
“We think that these waivers that are being given in lieu of reauthorization—if anybody hasn’t seen a waiver, it’s not about flexibility. They’re very prescriptive, and we think that they have led to a very unfortunate result, which is just starting to play out right now, where we’ve given states the ability to set their own accountability standards. ... We would reauthorize No Child Left Behind. And, by the way, as it relates to waivers, they’re presidential orders or executive orders, essentially. I think in a Romney administration we’d review all executive orders and determine whether they made sense or not.”
“ ... [W]hat happened under No Child Left Behind, again there was some real good done by No Child Left Behind; there was some real damage, too. One damage was that there were very prescriptive requirements for how states had to carry out their accountability systems and carry out the implementation of No Child Left Behind. ... [T]he president’s approach, which has been [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan’s approach, ... [is to] be tight on the goals—and have really high, rigorous goals with standards reflecting readiness for college and careers. ... There’s got to be a focus on accountability, too, but I think what you’re describing could get us back to the prescription and then states’ lowering their standards, instead of requiring the standards and giving more flexibility to get there.”
“The president was clear—this is a perfect example of his philosophy about the federal role in education—that when there are state efforts to move an important innovation, in this case higher standards, the president really wanted to see that he could support that and incented the adoption of those standards in Race to the Top, ... [and he] set aside over $400 million of stimulus funding in order to support willing states to design the new common-core assessments.”
“Standards make a lot of sense when put together with assessments. Very simply put, from our standpoint, it’s an opt-in program. It’s a governor-led program. ... [T]he common core should be opted in by the governors, enacted by the states if they want to; so far, 46 have. ... It feels like it has plenty of momentum to move forward.”
“[I]mproved achievement of kids should be one among multiple measures in the teacher-evaluation system, and [President Obama and Secretary Duncan] think that an evaluation system that doesn’t include a look at whether kids are improving isn’t really serious about helping people understand what kids are learning. ... [T]here has to be a blend around multiple measures, and that has been the president and the secretary’s policy and it will continue to be.”
“We agree obviously on the importance of the teachers—the most significant characteristics in the classroom. We don’t think it’s the role of the federal government to be mandating these kinds of evaluations of teachers; we happen to agree with them, but we don’t think that they should be mandated by either waivers or federal prescriptions.”
“The primary federal role in early-childhood education is Head Start. And we think ... that Head Start should have different criteria and different elements of success. It has been allowed to go on for decades not as an academic experience, unfortunately, but much more as a social experience, not preparing children for school. ... We think [prekindergarten is] an important part, but not an important part for federal participation unless there’s real criteria associated with it.”
“When the [economic-stimulus package] came along, [President Obama] insisted on making sure that there was in fact investments in expanded Head Start programs. ... The president’s approach has been how do you both invest and make dramatic changes in the way the programs are working. ... I just think you would continue to see in a second Obama term a major focus on how do we expand not just the quantity, but the quality, of access to early learning. ... [Mr. Obama is] very focused on the needs [of] kids from zero to [age] 5.”
To watch the debate and a postdebate analysis, click here.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as The Election: Debating Education