Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Obama's education plan

Throughout America's history, education has been the vehicle for social and economic mobility, giving hope and opportunity to millions of young people. Our public schools have produced a competitive, productive workforce that has transformed the world economy. Today, our schools must prepare students not only to meet the demands of the global economy, but also help students take their place as committed and engaged citizens. It must ensure that all students have a quality education regardless of race, class, or background.

Barack Obama is committed to strengthening our public schools to maximize our country's greatest natural resource - the American people. However, right now, six million middle and high school students read at levels significantly below their grade level. A full third of high school graduates do not immediately go on to a community college or university. America now has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world. Obama believes that we must equip poor and struggling districts, both rural and urban, with the support and resources they need to provide disadvantaged students with an opportunity to reach their full potential.

Too often, our leaders present this issue as an either-or debate, divided between giving our schools more funding, or demanding more accountability. Obama believes that we have to do both, and has offered innovative ideas to break through the political stalemate in Washington.

Expand Early Childhood Education: Research shows that many low-income children do not enter kindergarten ready to learn. In fact, half of low-income children start school up to two years behind their peers in preschool skills, and these early achievement gaps continue throughout elementary school. Barack Obama supports increasing funding for the Head Start program to provide preschool children with critically important learning skills, and supports the necessary role of parental involvement in the success of Head Start.

Innovation to Improve Teacher Quality: Barack Obama introduced a plan to support school districts that implement innovative methods to improve student learning, working with local teacher representatives to support and reward successful teachers, instructional teams, and school leaders. Under his initiative, 20 districts across the country will get grants to develop innovative plans in consultation with their teacher unions. Successful teachers, and those who take on new responsibilities, such as mentoring new teachers, will be eligible for pay increases beyond their base salary. Dynamic school leadership and quality teaching can improve both the work environment for teachers and the learning opportunities for students. These innovation districts will implement systemic reforms, and show convincing results that can be replicated in other school districts.

Pay Teachers More: Barack Obama wants to make a promise to educators -- if you're a teacher or a principal doing the hard work of educating our children, we will reward that work with the salary increase that you deserve. If you're willing to take on more responsibilities like mentoring, we'll pay you more. And if you excel at helping your students achieve success, your success will be valued and rewarded as well. Obama believes the key is finding new ways to increase pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them and not based on some arbitrary test score. Obama will start treating teachers like the professionals they are.

Reform and Fund No Child Left Behind: The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act is the right one - ensuring that all children can meet high standards - but the law has significant flaws that need to be addressed. Unfulfilled funding promises, inadequate implementation by the Department of Education, and shortcomings in the design of law itself have limited its effectiveness and undercut its support among many people who care deeply about our schools and our students. Barack Obama would reform and fund No Child Left Behind.

Support Teachers: Barack Obama wants to support teachers at all stages of their careers. This means modifying the certification and teacher preparation process so that, for example, a chemistry major can avoid unnecessary and expensive coursework to become a teacher, and instead learn to teach through proven programs such as teaching residencies that pairs up new recruits with master teachers. Such a program was introduced by Obama and passed by the Senate. It means giving successful teachers more control over what goes on in their classrooms, and more opportunities to advance through career ladders, where teachers may choose to take on additional instructional leadership roles. It also means paying teachers what they're worth, and offering incentives for teachers to enter and remain in the profession.

Improve Testing and Accountability: Barack Obama believes that, before we can hold our teachers and schools accountable, we need to hold our government, parents, and our communities accountable for giving teachers the support that they need. Obama believes that we should work with teachers, states, and school districts to develop more reliable and more useful measures of student learning.

Give More High School Students Access to Rigorous College-level Courses: Students who participate in Advanced Placement (AP) programs, which give students the opportunity to take college-level courses in high school, are much more likely to enroll and be successful in college. While enrollment in AP courses has nearly tripled over the past decade, many students attend schools that do not offer AP classes. Barack Obama, with Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), introduced a bipartisan plan to allow students who do not have access to college-level courses at their high schools, to apply for need-based grants and seek credit at local colleges or community colleges.

Expand Summer Learning Opportunities: Differences in learning opportunities during the summer contribute to the achievement gaps that separate struggling poor and minority students from their middle-class peers. Barack Obama's "STEP UP" plan addresses this achievement gap by supporting summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged children through partnerships between local schools and community organizations. One portion of this proposal was included in a comprehensive bill to improve U.S. competitiveness that passed the Senate in April 2007, with a provision for summer programs focused on increasing student math and problem-solving skills.

"Summer is an incredible opportunity to help children who are under-performing in school achieve grade-level proficiency, develop as young leaders, and enter school ready to excel in the fall. The support of Senators Obama and Mikulski demonstrates their commitment to children and education. The STEP UP Act is a tremendous opportunity to deepen and expand our impact on children's lives and help them achieve high academic standards."

- Earl Martin Phalen, CEO of BELL (Building Educational Leaders for Life)
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