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A Few Questions for Obama and Romney on Education Policy

Last week's education blog by Jay Mathews in the Washington Post takes note of the release of Mitt Romney's education platform, compares it to that of the President and pronounces them "twins."  The two parties, he says, largely agree on education policy and are about to compete in this arena by making small differences look like major ones.

Mathews quotes Romney as saying, "Dramatically expanding parental choice, making schools responsible for results by giving parents access to clear and instructive information, and attracting and rewarding our best teachers—these changes can help ensure that every parent has a choice and every child has a chance."  And then he says that is a pretty good summary of the President's position, too.  Romney, he says, emphasizes transparency more than accountability, which Obama emphasizes, but this, he suggests, is a rather esoteric difference for most voters.  Romney and the Republicans talk about vouchers, which the Democrats hate, but this difference is without consequence, because vouchers have never gotten to the take-off point with voters and aren't likely to.  Romney tried to stick Obama with—God forbid—being friendly to the teachers unions, but in fact Obama, too, has distanced himself from the unions in highly visible ways.

That about sums it up.  Mathews opines that it would be a good thing if neither candidate said much more about education, because that would take education out of the rough and tumble political mayhem that will be our lot for the next several months, leaving the parties to pursue their mutual agreed agenda in peace after the election.  He seems to be happy with that prospect, but I am not.  I have a few questions for both candidates.  Below, I present some of those questions and the answers the "twins" might give to them.

Q: Sir, does it bother you that American students do not perform as well as students in many other industrialized countries and at least one large developing country?

A: Oh yes, there is no doubt that education and skills will be the key to economic success all over the world in the years to come.  I am very concerned about the poor performance of our students relative to those of a growing number of other countries.

Q: Sir, What is your plan for dealing with this challenge?

A: Well, as you know, I think we have to take the caps off charter schools, create many more choices for parents and students, provide parents with better information about school performance that will enable them to make more informed choices, link the performance of our students to the teachers who taught them, reward the best teachers and get rid of our worst, and, of course we need get to get tough with the teachers unions, which are protecting the worst teachers.

Q: Sir, so that is your plan for making sure that we catch up with the countries whose schools are greatly outperforming ours.  Do you think that it is important to base our strategies for catching up with the top performers on the evidence provided by competent researchers or should we be going with our hunches?

A: Oh, sure, of course we should be doing what the best research says works best, but my advisors have assured me that we are doing that.

Q: Sir, Hmm.  Would it surprise you to know that none of the top-performing countries have used any of the education reform strategies you advocate to surpass the performance of American students?

A: Well, that is hard to believe.  After all, it is obvious on the face of it that we should let parents and students have as many choices among schools as possible, that schools will improve if they have competition, that teaching will improve if we hold teachers accountable for their performance and student performance will improve if it is no longer possible for unions to protect the worst teachers.  I don't think we really need researchers to tell us what is obviously true.

Q: Sir, those things may be obvious to you, but there is no research evidence for any of those propositions, and there is plenty of evidence that other strategies work much better than those strategies if your aim is to match or improve on the performance of the top-performing countries.  The evidence shows that, on balance, choice does not improve the average performance of a nation's students; when parents in the United States make choices of schools, there are other things that are more important to them than student performance differences among schools; the statistical techniques used to identify good teachers and bad ones are terribly unreliable; getting rid of bad teachers does not do much to improve student performance unless the country works very hard to increase the supply of good teachers; the world's top-performing country does not use standardized tests at all, never mind create elaborate school reporting systems based on them; and there is no relationship at all between the strength of teachers unions from country to country and how well the students in those countries do on comparative measures of student performance.

A: Oh, really! Well, maybe this country doesn't run by the same rules that apply in those countries.  America has always been an exceptional country.  I am quite certain that if we empower American parents to make the decisions about where their children go to school and give them the information they need to make good decisions, then they will choose the best schools and they will expand and there will be no market for bad schools and the performance of the whole system will improve.

Q: Sir, the reality is that, all over the country, it has been extremely difficult—often impossible—for public officials to close regular public and charter schools that produce horrendous results.  Parents and community members will fight closure with their dying breath.  And it is also true that when a community creates a significant number of charters, the better educated parents and most intact families select the better options, leaving the other schools to the children of less educated parents with less time to make these choices, so these schools get steadily worse, in part because teachers who have choices elect not to teach in them. Tell me, how is this going to lead to world-class performance in our schools?

A: Your questions are getting rather irritating.  So what are these other countries doing that you think the United States should be doing?

Of course, this is where the exchange gets to be pure fantasy, because no candidate would ask such a question of an interviewer.  But it is about time that these questions are put to the candidates and it is about time that they turn to their own advisors and ask them how the top-performing countries got to the top and what the implications are for the United States.  

It may be that Jay Mathews prefers that education will not become a major campaign issue, but I beg to differ.  Someone needs to press the candidates hard on the logic of their policy choices in this arena.

Postscript:  By the way, there is another point on which I don't agree with Jay Mathews.  While the President and Mr. Romney appear to be in very much the same place with respect to the primacy of school choice in their education policies, there are differences on education policy that Mathews failed to mention that might turn out to be very important.  But that is a subject for another blog, so stay tuned.
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