Education Must Move Center Stage in the Presidential Election

Joel Klein had a great oped in the Washington Post this morning.  Like Joel, we’re disappointed with the lack of focus on education on the campaign trail, “Until former senator Rick Santorum called President Obama “ a snob ” last month for wanting all Americans to attend college, education had been practically invisible in this presidential campaign.”
Klein outlined the persistent achievement gap, “McKinsey estimates that the cost of this achievement gap vs. other nations is up to $2 trillion a year — the equivalent of a permanent national recession.”
He urges a serious debate focused on three topics:

1. Accelerate common standards. Most of our industrial competitors have rigorous national standards in education. The United States has a patchwork of largely inadequate standards whose expectations for student learning vary wildly depending on whether children live in Albany or Albuquerque. (This because, the joke goes, the right hates “national” and the left hates “standards.”) The accountability regime set up by No Child Left Behind likewise left the design of standards to the states. The result has been what many consider a “race to the bottom,” as states eased requirements to create the illusion of progress. State leaders have recently forged a consensus on a path to Common Core Standards in English language arts and mathematics.  My question: Do candidates support the push for Common Core Standards (as Obama does)? Although adoption is ultimately a state decision, how would the next president speed implementation so we don’t lose another decade without the rigor our competitors insist on for their children?
2. Professionalize teaching. There is almost universal consensus that effective teaching is the most powerful way to improve student performance. But we’re not serious as a nation about making teaching an attractive career. Finland, Singapore and South Korea recruit 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of high school and college students. Their teachers train in prestigious institutions that accept only one of every seven or eight applicants. By contrast, only 23 percent of new U.S. teachers come from the top third (14 percent for high-poverty schools). Our teachers are trained mostly in open-enrollment institutions seen as second-rate; poor pay and working conditions compel the best to leave the classroom within a few years. A trade union mentality makes it hard to reward excellence and promote accountability.  My question: How do candidates propose to professionalize teaching and make it the career of choice for our most talented young people?
3. Promote choice and innovation. Whether a public school performs well or badly, it basically keeps students in that neighborhood, because most families have no other choice. This monopoly leaves no incentive to innovate to improve performance and efficiency — inducements as vital to public schools as they are elsewhere. Families with more means can choose private schools, can move to another town or can otherwise navigate the system. Those families who are least powerful, however, remain trapped. To support choice and innovation, we need to provide real funding equity and ensure that money follows children, not schools. Child-centered funding would give entrepreneurial educators the ability to reimagine how teachers and students do their work, and to compete to serve families with breakthrough pedagogical tools that creatively tap new learning technologies. My question: How will candidates promote choice and innovation to improve teaching and learning, and unleash the power of technologies that have raised quality and lowered costs in every other part of the economy?

In the long run, the economy and our quality of life all about education.  The presidential campaign should reflect that level of importance.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Douglas W. Green, EdD

Why should we want education to take center stage in an election where both sides have it wrong? They tout standardization in an age of mass customization, use of unreliable tests that narrow the curriculum and turn students off for evaluating students and teachers, a system that builds in failure, and basically treating students like crops. Check my summary of "Finish Lessons" at to get started. Many other summaries at my site will help support the folly of current reform.


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Doug. Agree both sides have it wrong and am frustrated by elections that drive reasonable people to weird extremes.

Ed Jones

Tom this kind of follows up on something you said on Digital Learning Day in Columbus. You mentioned your frustration with Congress. And I was puzzled because my to-do list for Congress has almost nothing on it.
Certainly with education, all the action seems in the private, NGA, and state levels. ...And the main thing we need from the states is to unbundle credit accumulation from district schools and seat-time.
As your book and this blog show, the content-delivery and assessment portions of education are about to be radically upended. Britannica stopped printing yesterday. How long can printed textbooks last?
If we take advantage of this to unbundle, the students will be exposed to far more teachers than the typical seven lifers they see in a schoolday.
And, as Deb Meier so often and eloquently says, put them in the company of interesting and caring adults.


Tom Vander Ark

Agree, don't see big congressional role but at the top of my list for congress is reauthorizing ESEA-now 10 years over due. NCLB was a well intentioned frame for school accountability but needed several fixes that never happened. The Title programs are outdated and less effective at promoting equity and excellence than they could be.

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