Obama’s Education Reforms Offer Opportunities, Say Policy Experts

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President Barack Obama recently unveiled an ambitious agenda for education reform, encompassing not only K-12 but also higher education. Proposed reforms include increasing the number of charter schools, experimenting with merit pay for teachers, and increased funding for early childhood education. The Obama administration’s education plans follow on the heels of the $787 billion stimulus package that will send much-needed money to states to shore up shrinking education budgets.

NYU Today sat down with three faculty members who are experts on education policy to discuss Obama’s plans and the challenges and opportunities that reformers face: Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education; Amy Ellen Schwartz, professor of public policy, economics, and education at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service; and Lawrence Aber, professor of public policy and applied psychology.

NYU Today: What do you think is the most effective use of federal money on education right now?

Noguera: It’s great Obama is putting stimulus money into education. What I think is troubling is the stimulus money is intended to create jobs quickly. The problem is you don’t get reforms quickly. Where I think they should be investing much more heavily is partnerships between universities and cities and schools. Schools can’t solve the big problems by themselves.

Schwartz: We should be thinking long term. Let me put in my plug for money to improve schools buildings. Buildings matter; there are lots of cities where the school buildings need work. And school construction was struck from the bill. I think you could put some good money to use there.

Aber: We would all like the stimulus money to be used for evidence based programs and policies. You just can’t do that that quickly but nonetheless it should be a major theme. Let’s spend it on things that work.

Schwartz: But the list of things for which we have really good credible evidence is extremely small. My sense is that there is promising work for which we have some nice evidence on small scale – but absolutely no evidence about what to do on a systemic level. It’s one thing to ask about what happens if you tinker with class size in a sample of schools, it’s another thing to ask about what happens if you do it on a system level.

NYU Today: Obama has signaled that he is willing to offer merit pay for teachers, something which several districts around the country have experimented with. Does merit pay improve student performance?

Noguera: I think there should be evidence that kids are learning. If the Education Department is committed to merit pay, it would be smart to find a district or two where the union is open to playing and to do it as a pilot program. Come up with a strategy both union and district can live with for evaluating teacher performance.

Aber: To provide merit pay you have to solve the problem of identifying and reliably measuring the important dimensions of what merit is. And we’re not quite there yet. There are the beginning inklings of how to identify teachers who are performing at a higher level. That sounds like a moronic task – the field of education research should be able to do that – but it is so confounded with so many factors.

Schwartz: What’s really interesting about the way merit pay has been implemented in New York City is that it’s at the school level rather than the teacher level. This is an important question for us to ask. Do we want to reward and incentivize schools to be collectively good, or do we want to pick out individual stars at the school? Merit pay could be used to pay people more who are teaching in hard to staff schools. We have a real shortage of math teachers and science teachers. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was a fan of school level bonuses here in New York City.

NYU Today: Obama noted that the drop-out rate for Latino students is rising faster than that of any other student population. Does Obama’s education plans offer enough support to reverse this trend?

Aber: High school is already too late to begin to think about drop-outs. I think Obama sees that and his people see that. Lack of basic reading and math skills at the end of elementary school are directly related to drop out probability. Problem behaviors and the decline of identifying as a student in middle school are probably related to drop out behavior. Falling behind in credits needed to graduate your freshman year of high school is a very strong predictor of dropping out. So way before students begin to drop out, there are programs and policies that can begin to reduce dropout rates.

Schwartz: I want to say that high school can’t be too late [to address drop out behavior]. We have millions of kids in high school. It can’t be too late. While it may be true that we want to think about the next generation, it can’t be too late for this cohort of 14 to 18 year olds.

Noguera: The NYC DOE is very aware that they have a drop out problem and an achievement problem with English language learners (ELLs), who drop out largely to enter the work force. But the DOE figured out that with the very hard to serve populations – immigrant kids who come late into this country and who have very little formal education in their native countries, special international high schools tend to serve these kids very well.

NYU Today: What reforms of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) would you suggest the administration focus on?

Aber: NCLB put all of the focus on education on improving achievement on what happens in the classroom. Over half the variance in children’s educational achievement is explainable by factors outside the school system. To focus exclusively in education reform within the classroom is not to take into account at least half of what influences children’s outcomes—the idea is that antipoverty policy is education policy, health policy is education policy, housing policy is education policy. They all have discernable effects on children’s achievement.

Noguera: It’s important that we have evidence that kids are learning. The only way to do that is to assess. The question is how do you use the assessments? We’ve lost track of the fact that assessment is only a tool. It is not a solution. It gives you information–hopefully if it’s an accurate assessment– on what kids have learned. But, I’m worried in a lot of schools that the balance between assessment and instruction is off. We are assessing way too much.

Schwartz: We just need to own that this focus on tests, and academic achievement, has come at the expense of some other things that kids want. There are a lot of things that middle class people think schools are supposed to do—offer a prom, a football team, art class, music class. Kids ought to do a whole range of things that are extremely important to making happy and healthy individuals. Poor, urban kids deserve those things, too.

NYU Today: A big component of Obama’s plan is investment in early childhood education and in higher education. Is this the right approach?

Aber: We’re spending proportionally less per pupil in the first 4 years of life before kids get into public school and in the period of time from when they drop out of high school or graduate high school and they are in a non-poverty-wage job. We need public investments in children ages birth to four and 18 to 24 as we do in grades K-12! Obama decided in his presidential campaign to create a “zero to five” agenda. It is the right frame for our nation.

Schwartz: Early childhood interventions are a great idea. I think the cost can be frightening particularly because I’m not sure it’s the best use for our money. I actually would be a fan of other things. In the K-12 years we have to think a lot about out-of-school-time activities. What do kids do after school? What do they do during the summer? it is the sharpest difference between middle class kids and poor kids. We’re just not good at it. We have to meet people where they are.

Noguera: The expectations set in higher education have nothing to do with K-12 and there needs to be better articulation. Right now the only part of the university that speaks to schools are schools of education and that’s mostly just in teacher education. We do not have other departments in arts and sciences thinking through how to teach high-level subjects and make them accessible to a broad range of students. There is this wide disconnect between universities and schools and hopefully the Obama administration can create some incentives for universities to get involved in new ways with public education.