10 Principles Driving Obama’s Education Plan

The future of our nation and the long-term health of our economy is tied to what actions we take across this nation to drive educational opportunity and achievement for all. This week, we’ll lay out (in our capacity as private citizens) specific descriptions of Barack Obama’s education plan, policies, and investments along with straightforward comparisons to what John McCain has proposed.

The starting point is Senator Obama’s deep, personal commitment to student achievement and educational equity that we have personally seen in his educational policymaking and speeches, in school visits, and in candid conversations with young people, educators, business leaders, and parents. Barack Obama’s own words best describe his commitment and his assessment of current results in American education. After describing the consequences of several disturbing educational statistics Obama says, “This kind of America is morally unacceptable for our children. It’s economically untenable for our future. And it’s not who we are as a country. We know there are great American schools that are beating these odds and proving that the color of your skin or the size of your parents’ bank account shouldn’t determine your educational achievement. Now it is our responsibility to make sure that every American school ensures all kids can reach the American dream.”

Barack Obama’s deep personal commitment to children and education has led him to offer a comprehensive and specific education reform plan including an $18 billion annual investment to be described in postings later this week. His plan and approach to education is guided by the following 10 underlying principles — i.e., the guiding stars of his education plan.


1) Ensure school readiness by ensuring that every child has access to affordable quality preschool and early childhood education.

2) Drive excellence and professionalism in the education profession with an effective teacher in every classroom – transforming teaching into a profession that is consistently focused on results, offers meaningful and regular opportunities for learning and growth, and offers increased responsibility and more pay in exchange for teaching excellence and gains in student achievement.

3) Ensure equity in our investments — including incentives to help attract our best teachers and principals to the schools that need them most and extended learning time after school and in the summers for our students who need it most.

4) Make a national commitment to turn around our lowest-performing schools including by investing in what works.

5) Support meaningful public school choice including access to quality public charter schools.

6) Close the achievement gap and preserve and improve the measures of accountability that keep us focused on and progressing toward that goal. This includes working with our nation’s governors, states, educators, and others to ensure high quality assessment systems that measure growth, critical thinking, college readiness and give real-time feedback.

7) Leverage an expanded commitment to national service and AmeriCorps to improve our schools — including volunteers, corps members, educators, former military personnel, and social entrepreneurs of every age and background.

8) Ensure that all children have health care coverage and promote our children’s physical heath and nutrition.

9) Ensure that no high school graduate is prohibited from attending college due to financial hardship including covering the first $4,000 of tuition and fees for most students in exchange for their service to community or our nation.

10) Call on parents to take greater responsibility in their children’s education – to be partners in helping our young people become disciplined students and committed citizens.

Guestbloggers – Jon Schnur and Mike Johnston

16 thoughts on “10 Principles Driving Obama’s Education Plan

  1. Erin Johnson

    More feel good programs without any leadership nor any real plans to improve our schools. Not one of your campaigns’ stated intatives will ever do anything to improve our children’s education.

    It seems as if you took the blandest, most palatable to the voters positions possible.

    Our schools are doing very poorly when compared to schools around the world. Our acheivement gap is larger than most other comparison countries. And even our top students do not compare well with other countries. And you offer these weak, guaranteed to be ineffective reforms?

    Where is Mr. Obama’s change? Where is his leadership on this critical issue?

    Specifically in response to each of your 10 proposals:

    1) There is no evidence to suggest that school readiness has any lasting effect on students’ education. Preschool can be great but why are you promoting this as an “education” reform? Why are you not focused on improving what goes on inside the classroom? That is where children learn.

    2)This would be nice. But how in the world do you propose doing this? Just wanting will not make it so. Real leadership would chart the course forward and explain how your proposals would be any different than ones put forward to doing this for the past 100+ years. Additionally, you are opening a huge can of worms with the pay for performance issue. What “performance” would the pay be tied to? If it is the student tests, what happens when the tests are wrong or counter to quality teaching? Who fixes that?

    3) Again, almost worthless windowdressing. Our children learn in a classroom. Improvements *must* start there. Trying to make up hours and hours of poor instruction by using after school or tutoring services ignores the biggest bang for the buck: improving classroom instruction.

    4)And that would be….

    5)Choice might be nice for a few people, but it doesn’t address the quality improvements that need to be made in all our schools. But at least some people might like to have a choice.

    6) Again, fluff that will do nothing to improve schools.

    7)Nice feel good plan. Still no improvements in student learning.

    8)Possibly a great social program but linking this to education? Feeble at best and certainly not anything close to the improvements in *student learning* that need to be focused on in an “education” proposal.

    9)At least this one has some relavance to education, if not to K-12 education.

    10)Feels like the punch line of a David Letterman top ten list.

    These proposals are only designed to fill in the “I have an educational package” check box while doing *nothing* to improve our schools.

    Where is the leadership? Where is the change?

  2. Paul

    Wow, you whine a lot.

    I actually agree that classroom instruction does need to change. That’s why I work at the school where I work. A huge percentage of our time is focused on making sure that we are improving instruction.

    Tell us about your plan to improve classroom instruction. And then tell me how you expect *any* administration to actually make that happen.

    Here are some of the problems that I see in trying to administer that from the top down, divorced from a focus on results:

    1) Many current principals are not trained as instructional leaders. My mom is a teacher in a formerly decent school on Long Island, NY, but her principal’s top credential was that he was a successful wrestling coach and PE teacher. Oops, sorry it’s that he is credentialed as a principal. He knows squat about instruction. And that’s in a good district. THe two principals at my charter school wouldn’t be allowed to administer a district public school but are amazing.

    2) The worst unionized teachers (and I know that’s only a small group) have no incentive to improve instruction, since they get job security for life if they do an ok job for 3 years.

    3) Most state systems give incentives to teachers for taking classes, but not for having them apply what they’ve learned. Most non-site-based PD is a joke.

  3. rory @ parentalcation

    4) Make a national commitment to turn around our lowest-performing schools including by investing in what works.

    Question – what happens if what works is breaking up teachers Unions?

    7) Leverage an expanded commitment to national service and AmeriCorps to improve our schools — including volunteers, corps members, educators, former military personnel, and social entrepreneurs of every age and background.

    Question – If paid teachers aren’t succeeding, what makes you think that volunteers would improve things? Wouldn’t it make more sense to target reform of the institutions that train teachers?

    8) Ensure that all children have health care coverage and promote our children’s physical heath and nutrition.

    Question – Is this EDUwonk or HEALTHwonk blog? Nice thought, wrong venue.

    9) Ensure that no high school graduate is prohibited from attending college due to financial hardship including covering the first $4,000 of tuition and fees for most students in exchange for their service to community or our nation.

    Question – $4000 won’t even make a dent. Soon after any plan, colleges will raise their tuition by $5000.

    10) Call on parents to take greater responsibility in their children’s education – to be partners in helping our young people become disciplined students and committed citizens.

    - Oh original. Ask parents to do the teachers job. Why hasn’t anyone ever thought of that one before.

    Still, I admit that many of your proposals are on the right track, even if they seem to be at odds with teacher union talking points.

  4. Erin Johnson

    Technically, the feds don’t run our schools even though NCLB and many of the proposed reforms act seem to think so. Consequently, the influence of the feds is rather limited.

    But there are 3 things that a federal administration could do:

    1) Articulate the appropriate role of the federal government. Currently, we have a compliance nightmare. With fed requirements and state requirements for schools oftentimes at odds with each other. How can any school system actually improve when compliance issues dominate the discussion.

    An example: California has ambitious plans for all their 8th graders to take Algebra I and they currently offer 2 math tests in 8th grade: Alg I and 8th grade math. California knows that they are not at the point where all their students can succeed at Alg. I but they are trying to move in that direction.

    But the Fed requirement is that all students in 8th grade take the same test. The Feds have stated that they don’t care what test as long as it is the same for all students.

    Should California “dumb down” their tests and have them take the 8th grade math or force all their students (no matter how poorly prepared) to take Alg. I? How is this good for the students of California?

    Because the feds are not responsible for ensuring a quality education and do not run the schools, there should be no federal mandates on how states/schools run their schools.

    2) Sunshine: That is the federal government could do a great job in auditing the states and letting all of us know how well the states are (or are not) educating their students, how states compare to each other and how they compare to the best school systems around the world. This might require an expansion of the NAEP to include more subjects. It might be structured as an accedidation that many colleges go through. But what the feds can do is keep the states honest. The type of system set up under NCLB did the opposite, it rewarded states for being dishonest and trying to game the system by lowering test cut scores. No one benefits when the student data is misleading.

    3) Direct classroom improvements: Use federal funds for direct translational research into improving classroom instruction. The feds are great at administering and monitoring research grants. Why have they not applied this system towards direct improvements in the classroom?

    This could work something like: Fund 5-year competitive grants to improve one specific area of instruction (say middle school math). The requirements of the grant would be that schools/districts/states would need to partner with curricula developers, teaching consultants, test developers and research analysts, goals would be pre-set as well as the specific measures on how to determine if those goals were met. Additionally, all materials would need to be published, teachers would need to write what changed/or didn’t change regarding their teaching and a report on the implementation successes/failures would be generated and the feds could maintain a database for other schools to use. These grants would need to be over and above normal operating costs to allow for the intensive effort that it takes for anyone (schools included) to improve.

    The president has a powerful voice in our country, even if he/she has direct control of our schools. Bringing a sense of realism and urgency to this matter is greatly needed. Offering these poor excuses for reforms does not qualify as great leardership.

  5. john thompson

    I’m very supportive of Obama’s plan, and I’m equally pleased by your positive approach.

    Please consider this “thought experiement.” If we could measure how much better the Bolder Broader Approach, is as opposed to the EEP, or if we could measure how much better the EEP is, in comparison to the Broader Bolder challenge, how big would that gap be? How much good can we do for school children by selecting the very best policy? How much harm do we do by continuing to fight each other?

    If we hope to use something like the medical model, then we need to remember the maxim of “first, do no harm.”

    I am opposed to NCLB-type accountability, even though I can understand it may have done some good in some schools, because I personally see the harm that the panic prompted by the law has done to my inner city high school students. But under the leadership of President Obama, even the same accountability system would not do so much damage. The damage was done by “true believers” who will not listen to veteran educators.

    On the other hand, think of the great potential of the Obama plan. If we in the Bolder Broader school of thought could have a working relationship with the EEP, then could do so much good for children.

    Besides, I hate having to fight with other liberals, civil rights groups, and accountability advocates who I know are good-hearted.

    I am willing to believe that many in the EEP are sincere. They are just frustrated. And I’m also willing to believe that we who oppose their form of accountability were too slow to embrace reform. If we could just discuss the educational evidence, I doubt anyone would really defend the primitive, overarching, test-driven accountability systems that are available for NCLB II. We in the unions, however, need to push ourselves harder to reorganize schools for the welfare of students as opposed to the conventience of adults. Fortunately, Barack Obama is the type of leaders that can encourage greater collaboration.

  6. Erin Johnson

    John, Of the two reforms BBC or EEP, certainly the BBC would qualify more as being part of the “first do no harm” school of thought.

    But neither type of reform will help students to learn better because there are no provisions/initatives for improving classroom instruction, curricula or improving the types of checks and balances that we have in our school system so that the tail(tests) is not wagging the dog (education).

    Mr. Obama may be the type of leader that we need, but so far in the education field, his stated “education plan” has not shown the type of leadership that we need to actually improve our schools.

  7. Peak

    [...]Mr. Obama may be the type of leader that we need, but so far in the education field, his stated “education plan” has not shown the type of leadership that we need to actually improve our schools.[...]

  8. Sam Rosaldo

    Erin, I want to respond to a few of your points. First, it seems to me that it’s worth witholding judgement on the Obama camp’s principles until they outline a plan. And they have all week, right? They didn’t purport to outline “initiatives” or “programs,” only principles. I’m hoping and expecting that the next entry will have something on HOW they’ll do these things. If they don’t, then I will be critical, too. (I also am witholding judgement because I have some respect for the authors of that entry–both of them have far more expertise in real education reform and action than I do.)

    Second–and this is for Rory, too–I hear what you’re saying about the BBA and the principles not dealing directly with instruction. But I’ve also taught six years, and I know from experience that my students learn better when they don’t have a toothache, when substance abuse isn’t wreaking havoc in their families, when the weekend’s violence is replaying in their heads, when it doesn’t take them all day to attend a doctor’s appointment because of long lines. Rory, why the myopic insistence on sticking to one discipline at a time? Erin, can’t we acknowledge that there are other factors besides instruction that lead kids to learn better?

    That said, I do like your suggestions for things the federal government can do. They are sensible and potentially effective, though I doubt we’ll hear anything in a campaign about them because they’re not politically sexy. And that’s another thing–in this blog, with reps from the campaigns, I’m not surprised at the lofty rhetoric. Though it would be a nice surprise if we could get beyond that.

    One more thing–haven’t the feds created education research labs in the past? I had mentors who talked about this type of research taking off in the 70′s.

  9. Erin Johnson


    If the Obama campaign came out with a detailed plan that offered detailed concrete solutions to the problems in our schools then of course I would be very willing to change my mind. And yes, children learn better if they are not hungry or have a toothache.

    But even if we fixed all of these problems our children would still be learning very little when compared to our peer nations around the world.

    Even if you take the issue of deprivation off the table and look at our “best” suburban schools, they compare very poorly with other school systems both in average acheivement and in the acheivement gap between low SES and high SES students.

    What we have is a dysfunctional, chaotic school system where everybody has a mandate (feds, state, district etc…) but nobody is actually responsible for ensuring that each and every child receives a quality education.

    And these so called reforms that that Mr. Obama’s campaign is promoting don’t even have a chance of improving student learning because there is not one intitiative that even hints at the school system changes that are necessary to promote quality student learning.

    The translational research efforts that I mentioned have not been done before by the Feds. (There was one partial attempt in the early ’70s but the results had no impact on schools.) The research that is being funded today would be considered more basic science and not translational science. But education is particularly a practical endeavor. If it doesn’t work in schools, then it really means very little.

  10. Sam Rosaldo

    Thanks for the explanation, I appreciate it. I know that I am asking you to get into something you’ve posted on before, but can you point me to the studies you refer to above?

  11. Erin Johnson


    For the effects of SES: PISA indicates that the best school systems have the smallest achievement gap (<10%) unlike the US which has a larger than average achievement gap. For examining how well our best suburban school districts do relative to the top countries in the world look at math in TIMSS 1999 Benchmarking. Our top suburban school districts were still significantly lower than the *average* school in Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

  12. Lou

    Erin–You might love your charter school, but one day you are going to get a little more practical and about that time, you will start appreciating your pension just a little more–a pension that your charter school never worked to protect and ensure. Be careful about how much union busting you want to see.

    Obama Bloggers–The best thing Obama could do would be to eliminate the Department of Education and get the federal government out of the education business. The real experts aren’t policy wonks who talk education shop on blogs by day and whoop it up in Adams Morgan by night. The real experts are out in the classrooms. Leave this site before its too late.

  13. Erica Sun

    How would you define preschool? When does it start? What is it? How does one make sure it is more than a glorified day care center?

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